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Mormon Scholars Testify: James M. McLachlan

TitleMormon Scholars Testify: James M. McLachlan
Publication TypeWeb Article
Year of Publication2009
AuthorsMcLachlan, James M.
Access Date28 March 2018
Last Update DateDecember 2009
PublisherMormon Scholars Testify
KeywordsFaith; Genealogy; Philosophy; Service; Testimony

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James M. McLachlan

My testimony of the gospel is bound up with my family and my ancestors. I couldn’t think of how to give or even how to think about my testimony without thinking of them.

I grew up in Utah, in Taylorsville, on what was left of the thirty-acre family farm that was sold to my Great Grandmother Margaret Naismith by my Great Grandfather William McLachlan for $1.00 during the polygamy raids. She had a hard life, losing three of her sons within a just a few days to scarlet fever. My Grandfather John survived, married Janet West, and supported their ten children on that farm through the depression. My Grandmother Janet had a weak heart and died in her forties, but was remembered as a wonderfully empathetic woman who lost two of her children, one to disease and another in a horrible accident. They and their children were committed to the cause of Zion, though some might be what you would call “Jack Mormons.”

My father, James West McLachlan, left on his mission to the Northwestern States on December 7, 1941. He returned in 1944, joined the Merchant Marines, and served out the war in the Pacific. There he had a visionary experience, tied to the death of my uncle Marvin, a Marine on Okinawa. His experience became one important anchor of my testimony. My father didn’t finish high school until he was in his forties. The depression, work, and his mother’s death prevented it. But I became a philosopher because of his love of speculation and of the ideas he engaged through his reading of B. H. Roberts, James Talmage, and John A. Widstoe. My mother was a convert to the church who, as a young girl, discovered the Book of Mormon in a library in Bloomfield, New Jersey, and waited until she was of age to join the church. As a girl she fell in love with the stories of her ancestors and came to be an avid genealogist, writing books on the history of her family and compiling massive amounts of family history. During the war she decided to serve the common good and became a nurse. After it was over she moved to Utah, entered the public health profession, was assigned to Taylorsville, and met my father. The story of her conversion has always been important to me but, most importantly, through her love of genealogy I learned that the dead are not dead and that it is a beautiful thing to say the names of people so long forgotten once more in the Temple and to come to know them as sisters and brothers.

As a child in Taylorsville I was fascinated with the stories, debates, and speculations about the gospel that went on in our house and up and down our street between my father, mother, uncles, and aunts—all who lived in what was for me sacred landscape, rural Salt Lake Valley. This landscape stretched out from our little farms, where the sacred stories of my ancestors had played out, to the Valley that was the image of the holy land with its own Dead Sea, Sea of Galilee, and Jordan River. On the west side of the valley was our sacred ancestral space on the east side, the larger sacred space of the Temple, the prophet David O. McKay, the tabernacle, the Utah Symphony and Maurice Abravanel. At the time, all this fit together for me. But eventually I grew up and, though Temple Square remained, our family sacred space shrank considerably. Rural Taylorsville all but vanished in the development of the West Valley. And though we kept the sacred two room house of our ancestors and a couple of acres, the farm disappeared as we, as well as several of my uncles and aunts, sold and moved. Paradise lost!

I tell this personal story for two reasons. First, my testimony is tied to my ancestors, Mormon, Jack Mormon, and non-Mormon, good and not so good, nice and not so nice. And my feelings towards my ancestors are tied to Moroni’s message to the prophet Joseph Smith, with the gospel’s commitment to the redemption of the dead and forging the great link between the living and the dead. If there is salvation, it cannot be “private” but must be bound to theirs: this seems to me to just obviously be true. Second, I allude to my family history because, early on (after leaving our home in Taylorsville), I became quite suspicious of the sacred and spiritual experience. The great sociologist Emile Durkheim, in his Elementary Forms of Religious Life, reduced religion to the emotional experience that people have in groups. For him this would apply equally to the feelings people have in testimony meetings, rock concerts, pep rallies, tea parties, and even Nuremberg rallies. One is swept away by the emotion of belonging to a group and the “love” that unites the group. But it doesn’t have to be a group: I have been swept away by Maurice Abravanel’s interpretations of Mahler’s 8th Symphony, by Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, and by the beauties of nature. I have been disappointed and even angered when my students, friends, or even loved ones haven’t seen how important these are. But I also came to wonder whether these experiences and perhaps even spiritual experiences might only be subjective, private experiences, or at best group enjoyments. Such feelings can be wonderful but also can do violence to us as persons as we are swallowed up in something we think is not only ourselves but greater than my brother or sister sitting next to me, who I think just doesn’t get it or isn’t “chosen”. And one only has to look briefly on the history of religion and politics to realize how dangerous it can be to get between some jerk and his sacred beliefs. The Epistle of James says “pure religion and undefiled” is to get out and help our brothers and sisters, not just signing on to something that makes us feel complete or good about ourselves when we really haven’t done anything.

I served a mission in France and Switzerland between 1974-1976. Like many missionaries, my mission was one of the defining moments of my life. As any returned missionary from Europe can tell you, people there are not lining up to become Mormons. We might tract 60 hours a week never entering a door, and only occasionally did we have the opportunity to teach the gospel. Yet I came to love France and the French for their wonderful sense of humor, love of beauty, and love of thinking. I met so many working people who, like my father. loved ideas and loved to talk about them. I served in Beaujolais, Burgundy, and Provence. Wine is a part of the French sacred landscape—it is tied to the land from which the grapes emerge—and when we were invited into someone’s home and they offered us wine, our response usually ended their interest in Mormonism. When I went on my mission I had no testimony of the gospel. I thought the gospel was beautiful and kind, but I was very suspicious of people’s certainty about it. I went on a mission for what is usually said to be the wrong reason: I loved my parents. Shortly before I decided to go, my father, as kind a man as ever lived, came to me and said, “If you don’t want to go on a mission you don’t have to go. That will be fine.” I looked into his eyes and realized I had to go. I loved him so much I couldn’t break his heart. He loved the gospel so much, and my mother had risked so much by challenging her parent’s religion, leaving New Jersey for Utah. Through them I think I had my first inkling of what real transcendence might be. Not simply an idea in my own head or a feeling in my heart but the divine you see in other people; out there, beyond you, different from you, challenging you, and worth loving. I experienced this often in France. I met people who challenged me, who often didn’t believe what I believed, but whom I came to love. Some of them were in the church, some joined the church, most never even came close.

In The Brothers Karamazov Zosima’s brother Markel has an intense religious experience that changes his life. His way of worship involves as much his interaction with the others around him, whom he loves, as an immediate experience of the divine. Markel’s worship reaches beyond an inner experience to others and to God. There is a scene in which he watches a beloved servant lighting an icon. He does not have the same reverence for the icon as does the servant. However, he realizes that they can be united in their worship: “Light it, my dear. What a monster I was to forbid you before! You pray to God as you light the icon lamp, I pray rejoicing at you. So we are praying to the same God.”1 Through his love of the servant, Markel is led to God. This is similar to the discussion of spiritual gifts in the Doctrine and Covenants:

To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful (D&C 46:13-14).

Normally I think we look at this passage with the view that the individuals with the direct revelation of the Holy Ghost and testimony that Jesus Christ is the Son of God have a superior gift to one to whom it is given to believe on their words. But it doesn’t say this in the text. Though it is said that we should seek all the good gifts, we all have different gifts and these diverse gifts are not merely for our own benefit but especially for the benefit of all: the Body of Christ. I have come to believe that I haven’t yet received certain important gifts, but I wouldn’t have the gifts I have had I received the ones I thought I wanted.

As a missionary I repeatedly read the King Follet Discourse and the Sermon on the Mount. For me these texts revealed the heart of the gospel: encountering the divine in my brothers and sisters, each a son or daughter of God. Joseph Smith taught that we are one great Heavenly Family:

God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. He has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences, that they may be exalted with Himself, so that they might have one glory upon another, and all that knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence which is requisite in order to save them in the world of spirits. . . . The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us is to seek after our dead. The Apostle says, “They without us cannot be made perfect” (Hebrews 11: 40). 2

It is not that ideals exist from eternity, but persons and beings exist in relation to others. God is “in the midst of spirits and glory.” God did not create them out of nothing but is related to them from the very beginning and calls them from chaos into the sociality of community. The revelation is that God desires others, us—the kids—to enjoy the same fullness that God does, that we too may be exalted. The freedom or creativity we attain is what determines how fully we enter that community:

When the Savior shall appear we shall see him as he is. We shall see that he is a man like ourselves. And that same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory, which glory we do not now enjoy (D&C 130: 1-2).

The same sociality is the basic truth of our lives. It is the paradise I see each time I look into my wife’s eyes.

When I entered graduate school at the University of Toronto to study religion I thought I might be able to settle some of my questions about my own belief. The questions often deepened but were not settled. I started to realize that, no matter how much I read, I would never be able to find more than a reasonably good interpretation of Sartre and Hegel, much less a convincing proof that the historical Jesus was the Christ or that the risen Christ visited ancient America or that Joseph Smith was more than a clever, charismatic, and somewhat lovable charlatan. I could not find proof. What convinced me of the truth of the gospel was not reading scholarly articles on philosophy of religion or the ancient origins of the Book of Mormon, or the history of the life of the prophet, though I greatly admire much of this work and find it extremely helpful, not to mention inspiring. It was rather associating with people in my inner city Toronto ward and later my ward in Cherokee, North Carolina, helping people move, working for years as a volunteer institute and early morning seminary teacher. It was seeing people’s lives changed by the gospel. I saw my children touched by reading the Book of Mormon. They reminded me of its social teachings of our responsibility for the poor and for each other. For me it’s not the Hebraisms in the Book of Mormon that lead me to believe its true, though I’m glad they’re there, nor the warmth I feel when I read the stories, though I’m thankful for that as well, but the injunction to mourn with those that mourn and to comfort those who stand in need of comfort (Mosiah 18:9). It’s the fact that the book makes me uncomfortable and reminds me that I must do something.

Last summer I had the great opportunity to tour the Humanitarian Center, Welfare Square, and the new Oquirrh Mountain Utah Temple with a group of Latter-day Saint and non-Latter-day Saint scholars. I was there with my good friend Richard Cohen, Professor of Philosophy and head of Jewish Studies at the University of Buffalo. The Humanitarian Center and Welfare Square represent the commitment to living brothers and sisters struggling in this life, as the temple represents our commitment to healing each other’s wounds in the next. This is what James and Brigham Young called pure religion; it is seeing God in the face of another person.

As the turn-of-the-century Mormon philosopher William H. Chamberlin wrote, “The gospel is so beautiful, our story is so beautiful, that even if it wasn’t true there is no reason that we can’t make it true. God needs willing earthly hands to build Zion, it can’t be built by celestial beings alone.” It may not yet be my gift to know how Jesus is the Christ and how Joseph was a prophet, but I know that what they taught is true, not because they are great philosophers who showed us a transcendent and ideal truth, but because they pointed us in the direction of those sitting across from us in the church pews, coming up to us in the street, yelling at us as we try to go to conference, calling us to the crib in the middle of the night, or smiling at us across the pillows before we fall asleep. We are needed by God and by our brothers and sisters in this struggle in the here and now. This is where we love and help each other. Our great hope is that this sociality will be perfected in the world to come.



1 Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, tr. Richard Prevar and Lissa Volokhonsky (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1990) p. 288.
2 Joseph Fielding Smith, ed. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, Deseret, 1989) P. 312.


James M. McLachlan is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Western Carolina University. He received his B.A. in philosophy and history from BYU, then studied philosophy at the Université de Paris, Sorbonne, and Pennsylvania State University. He earned an M. A. in European history at Indiana University and a Ph.D. in Religious Studies at the University of Toronto. He has been a visiting scholar at the Claremont School of Theology, where he studied process theology. He is co-chair of the Mormon Studies Consultation at the American Academy of Religion and president of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology. He is author or editor of three books and many articles on Mormon theology, process theology, Personalism, and the philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre, F.W.J. von Schelling, and Nicholas Berdyaev. He is currently working on a book on the early Mormon philosopher William H. Chamberlin, and a translation of Jacques Rolland’s Dostoevsky and the Question of the Other.

He lives in Sylva, North Carolina, and attends the Cherokee Ward with his wife Carrie. They are parents of three grown children: James, Jonathan, and Elizabeth.

Posted December 2009