Efforts at BYU should be driven by ‘a laser-like focus’ to help build faith, said Elder Cook

Brigham Young University “must build faith in Jesus Christ and His Church in a powerful way,” said Elder Quentin L. Cook before challenging BYU faculty and staff — individually and as a university — to “tack against the prevailing winds of disbelief and division.”

“You will know best in your own fields and your own spheres how to apply this counsel and stand as a beacon of belief and unity in a world that often devalues both,” he said in a pre-recorded message streamed during BYU’s annual university conference on Aug. 24. “BYU needs to lift everybody’s vision.” 

Elder Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles drew from Doctrine and Covenants 64:33 for the title of his address: “Be Not Weary in Well Doing, For Ye Are Laying the Foundation of a Great Work.”

Emphasizing that efforts at BYU should be driven by “a laser-like focus on our responsibility to help build faith,” Elder Cook  highlighted three of the adversary’s many strategies for destroying faith. 

“First, the adversary constantly throws up obstacles to faith,” he said. “Second, he creates alluring alternative visions that are based on the wisdom of the world and will be viewed favorably by many who are well educated.  Third, he attempts to confuse faithful and stalwart adherents as to what they should do and what they should say.” 

Throughout history, there always has been challenges to faith, said Elder Cook. 

“Some people are dismissive, highly critical or disparaging of prior leaders whether in government, academia, or religious leaders, including our own,” he said.

BYU President Kevin J. Worthen speaks during BYU’s annual university conference on Aug. 24, 2020.
BYU President Kevin J. Worthen speaks during BYU’s annual university conference on Aug. 24, 2020. Credit: Screenshot from BYU broadcast

Quoting Matt Grow, managing director of Church History, Elder Cook cautioned: “Be careful about sources of information that just seek to tear people down.  Look instead for sources of information that are based on the records left by the people themselves and that seek to be fair to them.”

Elder Cook told the educators they can build faith by being “particularly sensitive in creating unity and being grateful for diversity.”  This can be accomplished by following the counsel of President Russell M. Nelson, who asked us “to build bridges of cooperation rather than walls of segregation,” he said.   

It has always been difficult for institutions and their leaders to know how to deal with criticism, he said.   

Elder Cook, who served a mission in England from 1960 to 1962, used British literature to illustrate the characterization of both critics and defenders of faith. In the fictional cathedral town of Barchester, created by British author Anthony Trollope and featured in six novels, local faith leaders each respond differently to charges from a church critic and a newspaper.  One hires a renowned lawyer who vigorously defends the Church, focusing on technicalities without ruling on the merits. A second “openhanded, just-minded man” — described as having “persistent bouts of Christianity” — examines the case as a true Christian, with the intent to be “moral and right with the Lord.” 

Elder Cook said one of the reasons he likes the second character is because the Christlike approach helps explain why The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints handles criticism the way it does.  “We are certainly among the least aggressive in defending ourselves against obviously untrue and/or unfair criticism,” he said. 

For example, rather than organize a protest or boycott the Book of Mormon Musical for its unfair portrayal of the Latter-day Saint faith and missionaries, the Church bought ads in the production’s playbill that simply said, “You’ve seen the play…Now read the book.”

“Maybe ‘persistent bouts of Christianity,’ a heartfelt desire to be true Christians, and a determination to turn the other cheek are the only plausible answers to my friends who raise this question,” he said.

However, continued Elder Cook, there will be some occasions when Latter-day Saints need to speak publicly to protect faith. 

“A principal purpose for me today is to encourage you in your efforts to bless and guide the rising generation, to correct falsehood and matters taken out of context in a loving and kind way,” he said.

The Trollope account illustrates that these kinds of issues have been apparent for a very long period of time and against every faith, he said.

BYU's University Singers perform “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty!” during the annual University Conference on Aug. 24, 2020.
BYU’s University Singers perform “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty!” during the annual University Conference on Aug. 24, 2020. Credit: Screenshot from BYU broadcast

Elder Cook said those who criticize the Church and its leaders often base  criticism on words or actions that are taken out of context. “The big picture is seldom painted,” he said, noting the Church has done much in recent years to foster understanding of potentially difficult topics in the context of the big picture, including the publication of the narrative history “Saints,” the “The Joseph Smith Papers,” and the Gospel Topics Essays.

Elder Cook spoke of some issues where Church history is ignored or misrepresented by critics. “Understanding moments when we have been marginalized and persecuted should give us courage to stand with the marginalized today…,” he said. “In addition, recognizing when we have fallen short should create more desire to do our best today.”

For example, in the early 1830s, as Latter-day Saints moved to Jackson County, Missouri, to establish Zion, opposition arose from other settlers based on numerous issues — including the Saints’ sympathetic views towards Native Americans and the Saints’ disapproval of slavery.

The Saints were violently driven from Jackson County later that year and again from Nauvoo a decade later.

“Brigham Young – the prophet of God for whom this university is named – led the Saints during a tumultuous and difficult period of over three decades. He was a practical and organizational genius ….  But more than that, he was a deeply spiritual leader who testified boldly of the life and mission of Jesus Christ, who cared deeply about the spiritual and physical welfare of Latter-day Saints, and who sent missionaries throughout the world. 

“Brigham Young also said things about race that fall short of our standards today.  Some of his beliefs and words reflected the culture of his time. During this period, Brigham also taught, with respect to race, ‘Of one blood has God made all flesh.’ ‘We don’t care about the color.’”

Elder Cook said Brigham Young also expressed admiration for Native Americans. “He said they had as ‘noble spirits among them as there are upon the earth.’” 

Elder Cook shared his own experiences with race, including a powerful lesson from his mission president, Marion D. Hanks, who asked his missionaries to read and study the Book of Mormon. When they read 2 Nephi 5:21, describing “a skin of blackness,” associated with being cut off from the Lord’s presence approximately 600 years before Christ’s birth, President Hanks was adamant that this phrase, “related solely to that people during that period of time.”

President Hanks had the missionaries immediately turn to 2 Nephi 26:33 — “and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” 

“That was our doctrine then; and that is our doctrine now,” said Elder Cook. “President Hanks made it clear that if anyone had feelings of racial superiority, they needed to repent.”

Having served in local and then general Church leadership since 1975, Elder Cook said he has “never heard a racially derogatory comment from a single leader of the Church. What I have heard is love, kindness, and respect for peoples of all races and all cultures.” 

In a pre-recorded message streamed during BYU’s annual University Conference on Aug. 24, 2020, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles challenges BYU faculty and staff to build faith in Jesus Christ.
In a pre-recorded message streamed during BYU’s annual University Conference on Aug. 24, 2020, Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles challenges BYU faculty and staff to build faith in Jesus Christ. Credit: Screenshot from BYU broadcast

In contrast to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, where leaders were motivated by their devotion to Christianity, various movements today are deeply opposed to religion and people of faith, said Elder Cook. “This does not diminish the religious and secular reasons for equal treatment of all of God’s children which resonates with me to the depths of my soul. However, I am concerned when much of the discussion is an attack on faith and belief, often reframing and distorting our history. ….

“We all support peaceful efforts to overcome racial and social injustice. This needs to be accomplished. My concern is that some are also trying to undermine the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights that has blessed this country and protected people of all faiths. We need to protect religious freedom.”

Elder Cook then challenged the BYU faculty and staff to “lift and bless” the students who attend Brigham Young University.  Paraphrasing and repurposing a Winston Churchill quote, Elder Cook asked the educators to “light spiritual beacon-fires that burn brightly in the lives of the students, and that you will sound doctrinal trumpet calls that will echo in their hearts and minds throughout their lives.

“If you do this for all the young people who attend this great university, there will be a strong foundation of faith and service and righteousness that will bless the Church and bless the world.”