This is part of the General Conference Odyssey.
Friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism.1
So preached Joseph Smith in 1843. Years earlier, when asked how Mormons differed from other Christians, Joseph answered, “We believe the Bible and they do not.”2 Yet, within the same month as the friendship quote above–and after many theological innovations that put more distance between Mormonism and traditional Christianity–Joseph answered the same question with: “In reality & essence we do not differ so far in our religious views but that we could all drink into one principle of love.”3 By the end of his life, Joseph had, in the words of Mormon historian Philip Barlow, found
broken or incomplete virtually every essential dimension of how humans related to one another: their rudderless sectarian religion, their baseless sources of authority, their social classes which no longer cohered, and their politics and economies. He made bold assertions about how people may know what they know, what they in essence are, their connection to God, their means and understanding of “salvation,” and their entrapment by the great barrier of death. It was not merely that the Prophet inhabited a time of “rapid social change” and consequent “social dislocation,” which various historians have used to explain the Smith phenomenon. It was rather that the universe of relations and conceptions itself was splintered, which included but cannot be reduced to social dislocation. All of this required repair, and the worldly philosophers and sectarian preachers, Smith thought, could not put Humpty-Dumpty together again. The prophet aspired to mend a fractured reality.
The year following his declaration of friendship as the essence of Mormonism, Joseph taught in his now famous King Follett Discourse, “You have got to learn how to make yourselves Gods in order to save yourselves and be kings and priests to God the same as all Gods have done–by going from a small capacity to a great capacity from a small degree to another from grace to grace until the resurrection of the dead from exaltation to exaltation–till you are able to sit in everlasting burnings and everlasting power and glory as those who have gone before sit enthroned” (pg. 201). It seems that friendship and progression had become fused in the Prophet’s mind late in life, even to the point of mending intergenerational relations: “And now, my dearly beloved brethren and sisters, let me assure you that these are principles in relation to the dead and the living that cannot be lightly passed over, as pertaining to our salvation. For their salvation is necessary and essential to our salvation, as Paul says concerning the fathers—that they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect” (D&C 128:15).
This fusion of friendship and progression seems to be at the heart of Marvin J. Ashton’s October 1972 talk:
Acts of a friend should result in self-improvement, better attitudes, self-reliance, comfort, consolation, self-respect, and better welfare. Certainly the word friend is misused if it is identified with a person who contributes to our delinquency, misery, and heartaches. When we make a man feel he is wanted, his whole attitude changes. Our friendship will be recognizable if our actions and attitudes result in improvement and independence.
It takes courage to be a real friend. Some of us endanger the valued classification of friend because of our unwillingness to be one under all circumstances. Fear can deprive us of friendship. Some of us identify our closest friends as those with the courage to remain and share themselves with us under all circumstances. A friend is a person who will suggest and render the best for us regardless of the immediate consequences.
He relates this concept to James 1:27 and “pure religion”: “Our responsibility to the widow and the fatherless is to accept them as we find them, but to not leave them without improvement.” A true friend, in Ashton’s mind, “is a person who is willing to take me the way I am but who is willing and able to leave me better than he found me.”
A friend should not just fill a social need. A friend should better us as well.