As a product, on one level, of the early 19th century United States, the Prophet Joseph Smith "shared the idealism and passion for freedom and human rights that were the motivating principles" of the American Revolution, said Daniel C. Peterson Aug. 5 in the closing presentation of the FAIR Conference.
FAIR, the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Apologetics, is a volunteer organization that seeks to counter criticisms against Mormonism, though it is not affiliated with and does not speak for the Church.
A prominent defender of Mormonism and a perennial speaker at the annual conference, Brother Peterson addressed the topic "Mormonism, Islam and the Question of Other Religions."
He is eminently qualified to do so, being a professor of Islamic Studies and Arabic at BYU and the founder of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, a project of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at the university.
His address was rich with quotations from Joseph Smith and other early Church leaders regarding tolerance and appreciation for other religious faiths.
"Very early on, as Joseph's doctrinal understanding grew, his commitment to freedom of religious choice deepened into a theological principle," Brother Peterson observed.
"Joseph was furious at the unjust persecutions to which his followers were subjected in their various settlements, which he viewed as motivated solely by religious prejudice," he said.
"However, he wasn't upset only by injustice against his own people. He was plainly indignant at the 1834 burning of the convent of Ursuline Catholic nuns in Charleston, Mass."
He quoted a statement from the Prophet, which read in part, "If the wicked mob who destroyed the Charleston convent, and the cool, calculating religious lookers on, who inspired their hearts with deeds of infamy, do not arise and redress the wrong, and restore the injured four-fold, they in turn, will receive of the measure they have meted out till the indignation of a just God is satisfied."
Nauvoo, Ill., was founded with an invitation to citizens "of every denomination, and every sentiment of religion" to come and settle there, Brother Peterson noted, quoting another statement from Joseph Smith.
He quoted the Prophet as saying, "If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a 'Mormon,' I am bold to declare before heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves."
Brother Peterson further quoted this from Joseph Smith: "When we see virtuous qualities in men, we should always acknowledge them, let their understanding be what it may in relation to creeds and doctrine; for all men are, or ought to be free, possessing inalienable rights ... to think and act, and say as they please, while they maintain a due respect to the rights and privileges of all other creatures, infringing upon none."
"What I wish to demonstrate, however, more than Joseph Smith's commitment to religious tolerance (which might have been expected of any reasonably ethical American in his day), is the positive appreciation of other faiths that he and his successors have encouraged," Brother Peterson said.
From Joseph Smith, he quoted this statement: "The Lord deals with this people as a tender parent with a child, communicating light and intelligence and the knowledge of his ways as they can bear it."
Brother Peterson spoke of some later Church leaders who showed religious tolerance and friendship to those of other faiths. He cited the Feb. 15, 1978, declaration of the First Presidency under President Spencer W. Kimball which affirmed in part, "The great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato and others received a portion of God's light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals."
Brother Peterson closed with the story about the prominent New Testament scholar Krister Stendahl, who was Lutheran bishop in Stockholm, Sweden, in the early 1980s when construction of an LDS temple was announced in that city. "As commonly happens when Mormons build a temple, there was complaining, puzzlement and some opposition among the local people. The now-deceased Bishop Stendahl, who had Latter-day Saint friends and had visited Brigham Young University, reacted dramatically and quite unexpectedly."
The Lutheran bishop called a press conference and held it in an LDS stake center. There, he outlined for the Swedish press three principles that should govern discussions of the religious beliefs of other people:
1. If you want to know what others believe, ask them. Don't ask their critics or enemies.
2. Compare your best with their best, not their worst with your best.
3. Always leave room for "holy envy."
"Regarding Mormons and their temples, Bishop Stendahl suggested baptism for the dead as an object of 'holy envy,'" Brother Peterson recounted. The Swedish bishop lamented, "We Lutherans do nothing for our dead."
"At a minimum, observing Krister Stendahl's three principles would eliminate much of the religious strife in a world that is growing ever smaller and more interdependent and that can no longer afford such conflict," Brother Peterson remarked.
"Krister Stendahl's advice on dealing with other religious traditions is fully consistent with the teaching and example of Joseph Smith, a truly remarkable figure of the early 19th century."