A little more than ten years ago, I compiled a list of what I called “Greatest Talks, Etc.” This is a selection of 25 talks given by General Authorities of the LDS Church that I found particularly inspiring at the time. They are mostly, and possibly all, culled from issues of the Ensign magazine that I found in various apartments while on my mission and from General Conference talks given during the same timeframe. The moniker “Greatest Talks, Etc.” is an homage to Paul Simon’s 1976 album “Greatest Hits, Etc.” Most of the talks are from various General Conferences, with a few being from other speeches given at different times and locations.
I always meant to continue to add to the collection with new discoveries as the years progressed, but I never did. Now ten and more years later, I am revisiting this group of talks with my ten-and-more-years-older eyes and mind, to discover what value and wisdom I still find in them—if they are, indeed, the greatest. I may also offer commentary on the speaker if I have any to give, and the reasons why a particular talk stood out to me, if I can remember them.
The entries in this series will be ordered alphabetically by the last name of the speaker, then chronologically by year where there is more than one discourse for the given person.
First up is “Godly Characteristics of the Master,” given by President Ezra Taft Benson in the Priesthood session of the October 1986 General Conference. Benson was the President of the Church for a good portion of my childhood, but I don’t really remember anything about him, or ever hearing him speak (the only two presidents I really have good memory of are Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson).
Much of this talk is repeated verbatim from a talk that he gave just three years previously in General Conference—though at that time he was not yet President of the Church—specifically the sections about virtue, temperance, patience, and kindness.
After greeting the congregation and expressing gratitude for the priesthood, Benson wonders what kind of men priesthood holders should be. He quotes Christ speaking to the Nephites, “Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am” (3 Nephi 27:27). Benson then asks:
Is it possible for us… to be even as He is? The answer is yes. Not only can we, but that is our charge, our responsibility. He would not give us that commandment if He did not mean for us to do it.
I think back to when God gave two commandments to Adam and Eve:
- Multiply and replenish the earth (Genesis 1:28, Moses 2:28)
- Do not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16-17, Moses 3:16-17)
According to LDS theology, without breaking the second commandment, the accomplishment of the first would be impossible, because until Adam and Eve were made mortal and cast out of the Garden of Eden, there was no possibility for them to have children (2 Nephi 2:22-23). But according to Benson, God intended for both commandments to be kept. Now, many a debate has been, can be, and probably will be made about how these two commandments are not necessarily contradictory, and the breaking of the second was more of a transgression than a sin. The LDS temple endowment also offers insight, but I won’t get into that here. My observation is simply that a basic reading of scripture indicates both statements as commandment, and Moses 3 especially makes it clear that the Lord forbids eating the fruit, despite giving Adam and Eve their own choice.
Theological debate aside, how we are to accomplish the commandment to be like Christ is answered and expounded upon in the form of a passage from 2 Peter 1:5-7:
5 And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;
6 And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;
7 And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.
I think these are all admirable qualities (unless we’re referring to some of the petty gods of Discworld, in which case, while often quite funny, it is probably not the best form of godliness to emulate). Benson expounds on them all somewhat.
When discussing faith, he relates the story of his father being called on a mission, and having to leave his family of seven children and a pregnant wife, for two years, sometime around 1912. I can’t imagine making that kind of sacrifice today. Two years away at 19 years old when I had no real responsibility was enough for me, and that was hard enough (I still have fairly regular dreams about having to go back). Leaving my family now would be something I probably could not do, even assuming I were a faithful adherent to LDS tenets, but I do understand the object lesson of faith in a greater cause, and I think it’s one that is generally looked upon with favor. Military soldiers are deployed regularly, being called away from families they would rather remain with. (That is not something I’d want to do either.)
Next on the list is virtue. I’m not a fan of this part. I have mentioned before that I am not really okay with the Church’s attitude toward sex, and this portion of the talk reinforces my reasoning. I agree with basic assertions like “a young man will honor young women and treat them with respect”; I am at odds with others.
Firstly, in describing a virtuous priesthood holder, he says, “He will not commit adultery ‘nor do anything like unto it.'” Fine, don’t cheat on your spouse. I accept. However, I take issue with his definition of “anything like unto it.”
This means fornication, homosexual behavior, self-abuse, child molestation, or any other sexual perversion.
Setting aside the argument of whether fornication, homosexual behavior or “self-abuse,” aka what normal people call masturbation, are “sexual perversions,” I find it ludicrous that they should be lumped in, almost casually, with child molestation. Benson also mentions indulging in pornography, profanity, or vulgarity as non-virtuous behavior. Then he continues:
Whenever a priesthood holder departs from the path of virtue in any form or expression, he loses the Spirit and comes under Satan’s power. He then receives the wages of him whom he has chosen to serve [emphasis added].
This is fearmongering, without question, and creating a problem where none exists. If I say a swear word, or heaven forbid have lusty thoughts as a teenager, I am under Satan’s power, and ultimately am just like a child molester, what with my self-abusive, adulterous ways. This may seem like somewhat of a stretch, but I can say that the psychological effects of hearing rhetoric like this had a lasting effect on me. I continually struggled with depression over the thought that I just wasn’t good enough because of thoughts I had. (Of course, other factors like my personality were at play, but being told I was in Satan’s power for minor offenses sure didn’t help.)
Next up is knowledge. It is basically an extended plea to learn all one can, but to value and prioritize any spiritual learning over secular learning, with the reasoning that, quoting J. Reuben Clark, Jr., “because in the hereafter I shall have opportunity in the eternities which are to come to get the other [secular learning], and without spiritual learning here my handicaps in the hereafter would be all but overwhelming.” From an LDS standpoint, I can see how this would be true, but even practically speaking, learning how to be saved seems pretty simple when boiled down:
- Have faith in Jesus Christ
- Repent of your sins
- Be baptized
- Receive the gift of the Holy Ghost
- Endure to the end
It’s that last step that is a bit deceptive, because it’s really not that simple; it involves a host of rule following, commandment obeying, ordinance performing, and unquestioningly obeying. But I digress. I agree that seeking and obtaining knowledge, both secular and spiritual is a Good Thing. I do find it… amusing, for lack of a better word… that a mention of tithing was slipped in among all the talk of education:
…but can you see that… the payment of tithing [is] more important than paying tuitions and fees?
The next quality discussed is temperance. I agree with everything said in this section: what boils down to having self-control, and not abusing others, especially spouse and children. After temperance comes patience and kindness, and more sentiments that I agree with. Benson skips over any discussion of godliness, going straight for “final and crowning virtue of the divine character,” charity.
I have a little trouble with his explanation:
The world today speaks a great deal about love, and it is sought for by many. But the pure love of Christ differs greatly from what the world thinks of love. Charity never seeks selfish gratification.
How is “never [seeking] selfish gratification” different from what the word thinks of love? I always thought that real love was just that.
Benson then ties charity back into his father leaving on a mission for two years, and how it blessed their family, and there is, what appears to me to be, some weird bragging about how big his family is and how much missionary work they all did, and what a gift of love that legacy is. He mentions eleven eventual children, seven boys and four girls, and all seven boys served missions and two of the girls did with their husbands, and the other two had lots of children.
He finishes with an exhortation to cultivate all these qualities so that we may be more like Christ.
All in all, I think this talk has some good things to say about temperance and patience, some silly things to say about virtue and, to an extent, knowledge, and some benign things to say about faith and charity. Back when I first read it I expect that I liked it so much because I was a missionary and wanted to cultivate more Christlike attributes in myself. I don’t think that I would consider it a Greatest Talk now, though.