This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.
Unity was a major theme during the Tuesday afternoon session of the April 1976 General Conference session, including Elder Lee’s “But They Were in One” along with (then) President Hunter’s That We May Be One.
The 1978 Revelation has been looming increasingly large in my mind as we make our way through the General Conference sessions towards it. I really don’t know that much about it—not compared to the folks I know online who are academics and historians—and I haven’t really done a lot of research on it. But I think about it often, especially when I read passages in the General Conference talks that seem to allude to the issue. For me, this is all ancient history1, although it is also family history: my dad was serving as a missionary in Brazil in 1978, and he has shared his own spiritual missionary stories around the Revelation with me.2
But for the folks who listened to this General Conference talk, the Revelation was only a couple of years away. And so it’s hard for me not to see Elder Lee’s comments, like the one I’ll quote in a second, other than as presaging what was to come:
I see brown faces and white faces together, sitting shoulder to shoulder. I see big nations side by side with small nations. I see American faces with Lamanite faces. I see German faces next to French faces. I see Mexicans next to Chinese. I see Japanese faces next to Polynesians. My brothers and sisters, what I am seeing today demonstrates to me the true gospel in action. As I look over the audience today, I do not see Mexicans, or whites, or Japanese, or Chinese. What I see are children of God. To me you are all children of God. In fact, today I see a glimpse of heaven.
Later on in the talk, he issued a challenge:
I challenge you that between now and when you come back next fall to general conference that you love each other as children of God and not as different races and cultures.
It’s been nearly four decades. How are we doing?
President Hunter also talked about unity, but from a different perspective. Instead of unity across cultures, he emphasized unity across time:
Fathers have been leaving memorials for their children, and children have been raising them to their fathers, since time began… The passage of time and the growth of our institutions often tend to separate us not only from each other but also from our common purposes. Down through history we have been commanded to construct memorials, or hold Passover feasts, or convene general conferences to preserve the power of our united faith and to remember the commandments of God in achieving our eternal, unchanging goals.
The need to pass down traditions from generation to generation is a crucial element of the Book of Mormon narrative. More often than not, we think of the phrase “traditions of their fathers” in conjunction with the Lamanites, who inherited corrupted traditions from their fathers. But one of the greatest crises the Nephites ever faced was when the generations led by Alma the Elder—many of whom had undergone the transformative crucible of oppression—failed to pass on their righteous traditions to their children, leading to Alma the Younger and the dissenters of his generation.
There’s a writer I love—despite his faults, which make it impossible for me to recommend him to a general audience—who once described the relationship of parents to their children this way:
I always thought the only truly alien intellect we’d discover would be an artificial one, made by accident. Here’s what’s real: we’re creating alien consciousness all the time, on this planet, which we nurture until they terraform our planet and culture. Again and again.
He goes on to point out that, for now, he enjoys the innovation of his children’s generation but wonders where it will end, and “what unassailable tower I’ll retreat to once they’ve dismantled every blessed signpost and all the language I use to live.”3
It’s interesting to ponder what it means, to get Elder Lee’s and President Hunter’s calls for unity in the same session. For starters, I believe it means that—no matter how the politics of any particular day may fall in relationship to the Gospel—any concordance or discord between human ideology and eternal truth is fleeting. What is right in our politics—whenever something is right—is correct only to the extent and for as long as it borrows guidance from greater truths.
Political and ideological discussions need to be kept prescribed within that perimeter. For many reasons. Among them:
Within this Church there is a constant need for unity, for if we are not one, we are not his.