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LDS Area Authority: Church teachings on repentance “hurt the rising generation”

by Sharon Lindbloom
1 September 2021

In August (2021) an Area Seventy for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Richard N. Holzapfel, spoke at a Stake Leadership meeting in Utah. Internet personality Thinker of Thoughts posted a 5-and-a-half-minute <a
from Mr. Holzapfel’s talk during which Mr. Holzapfel said some rather controversial things. For example, in addressing the LDS doctrines associated with repentance, Mr. Holzapfel suggested Latter-day Saints reject 12th LDS President Spencer W. Kimball’s landmark book, The Miracle of Forgiveness, because the way repentance is presented seems hurtful. (MRM’s Eric Johnson addresses this aspect of Holzapfel Stake Leadership talk in his article, “Throw away Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness? A response to a Utah area seventy.”)

In the excerpted clip provided by Thinker of Thoughts, Mr. Holzapfel spoke about the language and phrases that LDS youth have been taught regarding chastity and forgiveness. He provided an example in Elizabeth Smart, a Mormon girl who was abducted in 2002 at the age of 14 by a man who believed she was to be his plural wife. During Elizabeth’s 9 months of captivity she was sexually abused repeatedly and came to believe that she could never be “clean” again.

Mr. Holzapfel noted that Elizabeth Smart grew up in a Latter-day Saint community and therefore,

“had some ideas in her brain. And one of them was that she now was like a [sic] old piece of chewed gum. Who wants a piece of chewed gum? She wasn’t [actually] like a piece of wood that the nail was in it, and repentance was to remove the nail but the hole is still there. Some phrases that we’ve used in seminary and young men and young women and Sunday School for decades in this church that have hurt the rising generation. And so we’ve got to get this clear about what repentance is.”

I believe Mr. Holzapfel was mixing his topics when he made these remarks. Surely he wasn’t suggesting that Elizabeth Smart needed to repent for having been raped. Because of the ambiguity of Mr. Holzapfel’s statements, I wanted to see the whole talk to be able to put this part in context, but by August 28th when I went to watch it, the video had been made “private” and was no longer available to casual viewers. Therefore, giving Mr. Holzapfel the benefit of the doubt, I suggest that he was saying that the youth of the LDS church have been taught that even though one repents (specifically in the area of chastity), a scar will always remain: the gum will forevermore be lumpy and flavorless, the wood will still and always have a hole where the nail once had been.

“We’ve got to get this clear about what repentance is,” Mr. Holzapfel said, and after recommending that Latter-day Saints read what some of the current LDS prophets and apostles have to say on the matter, he instructed his audience,

“We should accept the prophetic teachings of today. We don’t want to go back to The Miracle of Forgiveness by President Kimball…let’s drop the dead prophets and embrace the living.”

This raises all sorts of questions in my mind. Assuming that Mr. Holzapfel was suggesting dropping the dead prophets only on the matter of repentance and virtue, was he saying

  • That previous prophets were wrong in their understanding and teaching on the doctrine of repentance?
  • That previous prophets are responsible for hurting the “rising generation”?
  • That previous prophets were correct in what they taught at that point in time, but those things are no longer true?
  • That God has changed the way the gospel principle of repentance works?

Any of these are pretty serious charges to be brought up by an LDS authority.

While Mr. Holzapfel referred to the teaching promoted to the youth in Sunday School and seminary, these ideas came directly from LDS prophets and apostles. I agree that twelfth LDS President Spencer W. Kimball’s teaching sounds rather harsh, but this is what he, one of Mormonism’s prophets, seers, and revelators, believed:

“Also far-reaching is the effect of loss of chastity. Once given or taken or stolen it can never be regained. Even in a forced contact such as rape or incest, the injured one is greatly outraged. If she has not cooperated and contributed to the foul deed, she is of course in a more favorable position. There is no condemnation where there is no voluntary participation. It is better to die in defending one’s virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle” (Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, 196)

Yet President Kimball wasn’t the first to teach such things. In his book he quotes a previous teaching from President David O. McKay who “pleaded,”

“…Your virtue is worth more than your life. Please, young folk, preserve your virtue even if you lose your lives.” (Quoted in The Miracle of Forgiveness, 63)

Furthermore, in the October 1938 General Conference of the church, J. Reuben Clark, then First Counselor in the First Presidency, said,

“Chastity is fundamental to our life and to our civilization… You young people—May I directly entreat you to be chaste. Please believe me when I say that chastity is worth more than life itself. This is the doctrine my parents taught me; it is truth. Better die chaste than live unchaste. The salvation of your very souls is concerned in this.” (Quoted in Marion G. Romney, “We Believe in Being Chaste,” Ensign, September 1981)

Following these words that President Romney included in his Ensign article, he wrote, “Now, my dear friends, I know there is nothing new in what I have said. These things are time-tested; they are true. To this I testify.”

A few years after President Clark’s 1938 General Conference address, the church’s April 1942 General Conference included a First Presidency “Message to the Youth.” The First Presidency said,

“Sexual purity is youth’s most precious possession; it is the foundation of all righteousness. Better dead, clean, than alive unclean.” (Conference Report, April 1942, 89)

In an April 1979 General Conference address, Marion Romney recounted something his father had once told him:

“I remember how my father impressed the seriousness of unchastity upon my mind. He and I were standing in the railroad station in Rexburg, Idaho, in the early morning of November 12, 1920. We heard the train whistle and knew that in three minutes I would be on my way to Australia to fill a mission. In that short interval my father said to me, among other things, ‘My son, you are going a long way from home. But your mother and I, your brother and sisters, will be with you constantly in our thoughts and prayers, we shall rejoice with you in your successes, and we shall sorrow with you in your disappointments. When you are released and return, we shall be glad to greet you and welcome you back into the family circle. But remember this, my son, we would rather come to this station and take your body off the train in a casket than to have you come home unclean, having lost your virtue.’” (April 1979 General Conference Priesthood Session, “Trust in the Lord”)

Consider also LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie:

“Loss of virtue is too great a price to pay even for the preservation of one’s life — better dead clean, than alive unclean. Many is the faithful the Latter-day Saint parent who has sent a son or a daughter on a mission or otherwise out into the world with the direction: ‘I would rather have you come back in a pine box with your virtue than return alive without it.’” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 124)

And seventh LDS President Heber J. Grant’s words from his book, Gospel Standards:

“…There is no true Latter-day Saint who would not rather bury a son or daughter than to have him or her lose his or her chastity — realizing that chastity is of more value than anything else in all the world.” (55)

All of these statements are not merely teachings on the essential nature of chastity, but they have implications regarding the nature of the LDS church’s doctrines on repentance: loss of chastity/virtue is demonstrated here to be an unforgivable sin. For if a Latter-day Saint could be forgiven and cleansed from this sin, surely no parent would choose to see their child dead in a casket rather than repentant, forgiven, and alive.

If Elizabeth Smart had been aware of these teachings from her church’s leaders, she would have had good reason to feel worthless and unclean after what happened to her. It’s no wonder that Mr. Holzapfel thinks Latter-day Saints shouldn’t go back to The Miracle of Forgiveness but should instead embrace a more reasonable understanding of what repentance is. But shouldn’t LDS prophets, seers, and revelators, both past and present, understand what LDS repentance is?

Using Mr. Holzapfel’s criteria and looking at just the above limited survey of teachings on the subject of chastity and repentance, the dead prophets, seers, and revelators that should be dropped are Heber J. Grant, J. Reuben Cark, David O. McKay, Spencer W. Kimball, Marion G. Romney, and Bruce R. McConkie. Additionally, Marion G. Romney’s father, George S. Romney–who taught at BYU, served as a mission president, and served as a long-time president of Ricks College–should also be dropped due to the instructions he gave his son as Marion left on his mission.

Did none of these men – LDS prophets, apostles, and teachers — correctly understand the doctrines of repentance in Mormonism? For Latter-day Saints, it’s frightening to think that they didn’t, for what on earth is Mormonism if its spiritual leaders continually misunderstand a foundational and essential doctrine like repentance across more than four decades of leadership?

Yet it’s even more frightening for Mormons if these leaders did correctly understand the LDS doctrines of repentance, for their teachings reflect Mormonism’s harsh, graceless, and hopeless “gospel” that says complete forgiveness for sin is predicated upon perfect obedience — dogma that led to LDS youth being taught that God will not fully remove the stain of sin from a repentant soul. “Better dead clean, than alive unclean.”

How incompatible Mormonism’s gospel is with what God has told us in the Bible. God says that when He forgives, He forgives completely. He “blots out your transgressions” (Isaiah 43:25). He removes them from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). He “cleanse[s] us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Indeed, there is no circumstance in which a person’s sin is beyond the reach and full redemption of Jesus.

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” (Romans 5:6-11)

This is a God Who forgives completely. This is the merciful and gracious God in whom bible-believing Christians center their eternal hope.

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