The transcript of Elder Holland's talk "Safety for the Soul" has been posted at LDS.org, so it's time to take a closer look at it. By parsing, I don't mean twisting the meaning or presenting the speaker as saying something he did not say or did not intend. I simply mean reading the talk closely: the dictionary definition of "parse" is "to analyze critically." To whom was his talk addressed? What did he say? And what did he not say?
To whom was the talk and its message addressed? To members of the LDS Church. Elder Holland first repeated a warning from Matt. 24:24: "The Savior warned that in the last days even those of the covenant, the very elect, could be deceived by the enemy of truth." He noted that this was "a warning perhaps more applicable inside the Church than outside it." But the term "warning" is misleading. The balance of the talk was not harsh words of warning directed at LDS fencesitters or cultural Mormons. Instead, the body of the talk consisted of passionate words of encouragement and testimony directed to the general membership of the Church, reaffirming that "the Book of Mormon is true, that it came forth the way Joseph said it came forth and was given to bring happiness and hope to the faithful in the travail of the latter days."
What was Elder Holland's message? If he wasn't warning or threatening fencesitters or doubters, what was he saying? First, he was sharing a message of hope and encouragement. You might have missed that part. That was the point of reviewing Lehi's dream and its account of the ministry of Jesus Christ. Elder Holland concluded:
Love. Healing. Help. Hope. The power of Christ to counter all troubles in all times—including the end of times. This is the safe harbor God wants for us in personal or public days of despair. That is the message with which the Book of Mormon begins ....
The second part of his message, the part that has generated all the discussion, was his discussion giving some uncharateristically blunt evidence in support LDS faith claims for the Book of Mormon: (1) Joseph and Hyrum turning to the book for solace in their final hours suggests neither Joseph nor Hyrum viewed it as a fraudulent or fictional work; and (2) the failure of critics, despite considerable effort, to put forth an adequate alternative explanation (one that has "withstood examination") for the Book of Mormon. This failure lends support to Joseph's claim to have brought forth the book by the gift and power of God. Elder Holland referred to alternative explanations as "failed theories" and, more colorfully, as "pathetic answers." Note that he was calling the theories pathetic, not individuals who might have considered or even embraced such alternative theories.
What did Elder Holland not say? He did NOT invite anyone to leave the Church. He did say that IF a member of the Church rejects the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and IF that person decides to exit the Church, they would have to do so "by crawling over or under or around the Book of Mormon to make that exit." Another colorful phrase, perhaps, but not an invitation for anyone to leave the Church. I see no inconsistency between these remarks and Elder Holland's earlier remarks in the interview done for the PBS special "The Mormons" in which he specifically encouraged those struggling with the Book of Mormon to remain in the Church:
[W]e have many people who are members of the church who do not have some burning conviction as to its origins, who have some other feeling about it that is not as committed to foundational statements and the premises of Mormonism. But we're not going to invite somebody out of the church over that any more than we would anything else about degrees of belief or steps of hope or steps of conviction.
What did he say in the Conference talk about those who are "not as committed to foundational statements" (as he referred to them in the PBS interview)? He said, "I testify that one cannot come to full faith in this latter-day work—and thereby find the fullest measure of peace and comfort in these, our times—until he or she embraces the divinity of the Book of Mormon and the Lord Jesus Christ, of whom it testifies."
I'm more worried about local LDS leaders who might take Elder Holland's talk and run with it than I am about the talk itself. It would be unfortunate if some took this talk as a green light to make a burning testimony of the Book of Mormon a requirement for continued membership or full fellowship in the Church. That is not, in my opinion, what the talk was intended to accomplish or communicate.
Let's wind up with a somewhat milder statement that relates to these issues, from a First Presidency message in the Feb. 2004 Ensign, "Four Cornerstones of Faith," authored by President Hinckley [emphasis added].
The evidence for its [the Book of Mormon's] truth, for its validity in a world that is prone to demand evidence, lies not in archaeology or anthropology, though these may be helpful to some. It lies not in word research or historical analysis, though these may be confirmatory. The evidence for its truth and validity lies within the covers of the book itself. The test of its truth lies in reading it. It is a book of God. Reasonable people may sincerely question its origin; but those who have read it prayerfully have come to know by a power beyond their natural senses that it is true, that it contains the word of God, that it outlines saving truths of the everlasting gospel, that it “came forth by the gift and power of God … to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ” (Book of Mormon title page).