Elijah and the Faith of Generations

Elijah and the Faith of Generations

15 min read
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Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. (Malachi 4:5-6)

This passage of scripture is behind much of the impetus for the ritual and covenant work done in behalf of deceased people in LDS temples. This temple work, which extends LDS salvation beyond the grave, is a wonderful realization of this scripture. It creates a connection, forged in faith, across generations. It heals hearts and challenges minds to think bigger as we make room for more and invite all in. I think we can go further, taking a cue from Nephi to “liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning” (1 Nephi 19:23). I think this spirit of Elijah can not only heal hearts and challenge minds across generations separated by the grave, but it can also do so across the generations of the living.

G.K Chesterton, in his 1908 book “Orthodoxy”, describes democracy as the project of reconciling ancient wisdom with modernity and identifies one way in which the hearts and minds of the dead live on today:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones.

Tradition, then, becomes a way in which the dead have their hearts turned towards the living. Our dead cast their vote through the traditions they perpetuated and formed, and that vote mixes with the vote of the living to form our societies today. G.K Chesterton, rightly in my view, sees how these cannot (or at least should not) be separated completely. Total discrimination against the hearts and minds of the dead is tyranny of the living — a kind of social amnesia. But discrimination against the hearts and minds of the living is tyranny of the dead — a kind of comatose stasis. These two extremes must be avoided as we engage in the messy work of syncretizing ideas that include both the dead and living.

Joseph Smith spoke on this passage from Malachi saying of “the fathers—that they without us cannot be made perfect—neither can we without our dead be made perfect” and our dispensation should seek “a whole and complete and perfect union, and welding together of dispensations”. (Doctrine & Covenants 128:15, 18) “Likening” these passages from Joseph Smith and G.K Chesterton, we can see how a part of “salvation” being described here could be the healthy balance and on-going reconciliation of the hearts and minds of the dead with the hearts and minds of the living. And that as we do this, we forge a “welding together of dispensations”.

To do this we must seek out the spirits of the dead. Those spirits live on in the artifacts left by them: their books, songs, poems, buildings, documents, laws, customs, traditions, religions, worship, triumphs, failures, and within us in our memories. Restoring, or resurrecting, our dead from these artifacts takes the whole effort of the human race: literary scholarship breathes life into their words, musicians perform their music, archeologists build in their styles, lawyers uphold their laws, historians chronicle their lives, anthropologists reach them past written words, religious clerics teach their morality, etc. All of these disciplines can provide access to the hearts and minds of the dead. In a very real way, these professors are democratizing the dead.

But this is only one side. Focusing only on our dead can neglect the living, like gerrymandering the districts of time. A key feature necessary for any human institution to carry its traits into the present and future is adaptability. This adaptability need not threaten the dead any more than the traditions of the dead need threaten the living. While the wisdom of the hearts and minds of the dead can endure, interpretations or expressions are a bit like manna: they spoil after time and we have to go back out and gather it up anew.

In forging our own path we can turn to the previous generations for wisdom in how they gathered in their day. What dangers did they face as they gathered their manna? What was the struggle like? How could they tell what they gathered was good? Where are the best spots to gather? What are the best methods? And how have these things changed? Some of what will be gathered today will be familiar to the past but some will be foreign, especially if one’s palate has gotten used to stale and expiring manna. But we must also turn our hearts to the living and to the children of the rising generation.

I see this theme repeated in the Book of Mormon: there’s a religious awakening, the people rally around it (e.g. Nephi & first temple, King Benjamin, Alma the Elder, post-Christ 4th Nephi, etc.), it provides spiritual unity and strength, but then a few generations later the “rising generation” is described as “wicked” (3 Ne. 1:30) or “hardened” (Mosiah 26:1-3). One way to read this (a common way) is that clearly it’s all because these youngsters just don’t get it. They are lazy, wicked sinners. That is not to say that some may not, indeed, be lazy, wicked, or sinners (certainly every generation fits that description in some way), but to accept that as the whole explanation seems too much like the dead tyrannizing the living. I think another side of the story is that the past awakenings were largely oriented towards the problems they faced in their past. As the conditions, needs, challenges, and contexts of later generations change, simply holding on to the framework exactly as it was created around previous awakenings loses its power in some ways. It can become problematic, turning the hearts of the parents away from the present needs of the children and the hearts of the children away from an increasingly foreign awakening of their parents.

Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book “God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism” articulated this problem as it often presents itself today:

It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion–its message becomes meaningless.

So how might the hearts of the mothers and fathers turn to the children to establish faith as a “living fountain” coming from within their children? And how can this lead to a reciprocation of the hearts of the children turning to their parents?

A start is to be aware of the the challenges the rising generation is faced with. A Pew Research Center study finds that while spirituality is no less important to millennials than prior generations, religious affiliation rates (particularly across nearly all Christian affiliations) are declining. Meanwhile, religious non-affiliation is rising. In a separate, independent study 33% of millennials identified as religiously unaffiliated. Anecdotally, I know many millennials or people from my own generation who fit this category. For many of these people, the manna has spoiled.

One temptation, one that many indulge in again, is to simply blame it on millennials (or whomever is the rising generation). They are lazy, entitled, unreliable, naive, and/or sinners. This is not dissimilar from what the Silent Generation said about the rising Boomer Generation who were spoiled, wore long hair, protested war, challenged racial or women’s identity, and/or listened to noisy music. Much of this is the age-old pattern of generation wars. I like this perspective from Ecclesiastes:

Do not say, ‘Why were the former days better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. (Ecclesiastes 7:10)

Generational friction is regular part of humanity and religion is not spared from this. Can we see the contradiction between our own LDS discourse which praises rising generations as being righteously reserved for this age with a culture that can sometimes simultaneously write them off as lazy, spoiled, or weak? Rather than engage in that culture war, I believe that a spirit of Elijah can point us at a better way as we turn our hearts towards one another and see how God is speaking through multiple generations old and new.

Two examples in the Book of Mormon are informative here.

The first is to see how Nephi navigated and affected generational change. Nephi seems to have grappled with a balance of how to carry forward the old with the needs of the new:

I, Nephi, have not taught my children after the manner of the Jews; but behold, I, of myself, have dwelt at Jerusalem, wherefore I know concerning the regions round about; and I have made mention unto my children concerning the judgments of God, which hath come to pass among the Jews, unto my children, according to all that which Isaiah hath spoken, and I do not write them. But behold, I proceed with mine own prophecy, according to my plainness… the Lord God promised unto me that these things which I write shall be kept and preserved, and handed down unto my seed, from generation to generationnotwithstanding we believe in Christ, we keep the law of Moses, and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the law shall be fulfilled. (2 Nephi 25:6-7, 21, 24 – emphasis added)

Nephi seems to understand that there was a need to move from some of his inherited traditions towards something new – while also preserving the good he saw in them. This was not an either-or choice. This is especially poignant given Nephi previously risked his life, even fatally so, to obtain an irreplaceable religious artifact from that same culture that Nephi sought to distance him and his posterity from. Surely, Nephi likely would be described as lazy, unfaithful, or wicked by many in that culture.

Nephi points to the enduring foundation he seeks to place the rising generation on in the society he is leading:

And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins. (2 Nephi 25:26 – emphasis added)

While Jesus promises that “whoso buildeth upon [his gospel] buildeth upon my rock” (3 Nephi 11:39) he also then immediately warned that “whoso shall declare more or less than this, and establish it for my doctrine, the same cometh of evil, and is not built upon my rock; but he buildeth upon a sandy foundation” (3 Nephi 11:40). Perhaps each generation needs to return to this foundation or source in order to be ready to repair and renovate what has been built before as well as build anew for the changing needs of generations. And perhaps each generation can carefully distinguish between the foundation of Christ and what they have constructed upon that foundation.

A second example from the Book of Mormon is from Jesus’ ministry to the Nephites. After announcing himself to them and delivering a sermon, Jesus begins healing the sick. After those healings he turned his attention to the people’s children:

And he spake unto the multitude, and said unto them: Behold your little ones. And as they looked to behold they cast their eyes towards heaven, and they saw the heavens open, and they saw angels descending out of heaven as it were in the midst of fire; and they came down and encircled those little ones about, and they were encircled about with fire; and the angels did minister unto them. (3 Nephi 17:23-24 – emphasis added)

The symbolism here asks powerful questions that are relevant to this topic: What does it mean to behold [our] little ones? Do we trust them that they can adapt their faith to the unique issues they face? How did our facing the unique issues in our generation require the trust of prior generations? Do we observe (“behold”) and let them lead their own religious awakenings as they gather fresh manna? Do we support them in the renovations, repairs, and constructions they seek to build on this same foundation of faith in Christ? Do we allow them to be encircled with the yearning and burning witness of the Spirit even if it leads to things we never imagined? And are our attitudes towards and interactions with them worthy of this kind of ministering?

And before Jesus ascended into heaven from the Nephites he gave power to their children:

And it came to pass that he did teach and minister unto the children of the multitude of whom hath been spoken, and he did loose their tongues, and they did speak unto their fathers great and marvelous things, even greater than he had revealed unto the people; and he loosed their tongues that they could utter. (3 Nephi 26:14)

Are we cultivating environments where our children can loose their tongues? Are we willing to listen to what they have to say? What things might we be doing that are binding their words and spirits? Is some of what our children say strange or hard to believe (“marvelous”)? Could God be speaking through our children things which we have been unable to utter?

To be sure, not everything novel in rising generations will be good — neither was it in past generations. Each generation faces, creates, and perpetuates their own demons. But atrophy and disillusion poses a threat too (see studies above). We can learn from Nephi and rather than see our religious duty as being merely about perpetuating doctrine, policies, or culture from the past, perhaps we can see how God is revealing much through new generations in their own awakenings. We may even be able to join in their religious awakenings and experience that fire that encircles the human soul in the midst of a spiritual awakening — a type of fire we might not have felt in many years since our own generation’s awakening. This is challenging work and it is work that can knit and seal hearts together in one another’s revelations. I have hope that we can turn our hearts towards and encircle our children, behold God in their voices and faces, and minister to them in their awakenings. And as we do this I have hope that we will inspire them to reciprocate as they trust and turn their hearts in gratitude towards their own mothers and fathers for their legacy and support they have received.


Adam Miller in his book “Future Mormon” has wonderful language on this topic:

So much of our world deserves to be left. So much of it deserves to be scrapped and recycled. But, too, this scares me. I worry that a lot of what has mattered most to me in this world—Mormonism in particular—may be largely unintelligible to them in theirs. This problem isn’t new, but it is perpetually urgent. Every generation must start again. Every generation must work out their own salvation. Every generation must live its own lives and think its own thoughts and receive its own revelations. And, if Mormonism continues to matter, it will be because they, rather than leaving, were willing to be Mormon all over again. Like our grandparents, like our parents, and like us, they will have to rethink the whole tradition, from top to bottom, right from the beginning, and make it their own in order to embody Christ anew in this passing world. To the degree that we can help, our job is to model that work in love and then offer them the tools, the raw materials, and the room to do it themselves.