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  • Writer's pictureShelli Owen

LDS Seminary & Being "Born-Again"

Updated: Sep 9

“You should not be surprised at my saying,

‘You must be born again.’” ~ Jesus (John 3:7)


Something I didn’t realize until later in my life—when I was in my twenties—was that though I was born and raised a member of the LDS Church, my upbringing and experience in it was quite unusual. I’ve mentioned my father served in prominent leadership positions in the LDS Church in the Boulder area during my childhood and teen years.


Early on, my dad was called to serve as a bishop’s counselor. Then for quite a few years, he served as a bishop over the Boulder Second Ward. An LDS Church ward or congregation is led by a “Bishopric” consisting of a bishop and his two counselors—“worthy,” LDS Melchizedek-priesthood-holding men who serve mainly in an administrative role.


Later on, my dad was called and served, first, as a “stake high councilor”; then, as one of the two stake president’s counselors; and finally, for many years as a stake president. “A stake is an administrative unit composed of multiple [wards]”;[1] and “a stake president is assisted by two counselors and a group of 12 [sic] men called a high council.”[2] All these local positions in the LDS Church are unpaid, so, like my dad, these men also have always had outside, full-time jobs to support their families.


For whatever motive or reason, during most of these years as an influential leader in our ward and stake, my dad’s main focus and emphasis was on encouraging members to seek a personal, living relationship with Jesus Christ.


This may not seem like such an unusual thing in a religion that identifies itself as a Christian denomination, but it was not the norm in the LDS Church at that time. Since then, it seems this idea has become more and more acceptable in LDS circles—LDS “doctrine” among LDS people is nothing if not pragmatic and adaptable. That Christians have universally considered the LDS Church a cult has not set well with them and has sometimes had the influence of causing them to put more focus—at least outwardly, if not inwardly—on Jesus Christ.


In actuality, LDS teachings on the “Godhead” are many and varied. LDS theology can sound like it is in accord with the Christian concept of the Trinity of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; all three One God and equally God (and a humanly inconceivable mystery).[3] But it is far from the same.


I was taught and understood that God the Father is the only one of “the Godhead”3 to whom people should pray or whom people should worship. Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit were perceived to be more like God’s two helpers or counselors (similar in LDS conception to an LDS bishopric). God the Father was seen as the head and God. Jesus and the Holy Ghost (as LDS people call the Holy Spirit) were seen as inferior beings, though above all other spirits or angels, they were not equal in Godness to God the Father.


My own conception of God was mainly tied to four aspects of LDS doctrine, all originating with “revelations” given to Joseph Smith. One was the teaching that the fourth LDS prophet Lorenzo Snow simplified in these words: “As man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.”[4] Words that other LDS Church leaders after him reiterated in their own words as well.


Another of my conceptions of God rested on the LDS teaching that in the afterlife there are three kingdoms or degrees of glory and one “kingdom which is not a kingdom of glory” but of perdition (D&C 76:32; 88:24).[5] The highest kingdom to which one might attain is the Celestial Kingdom, where one can dwell in “the fullness of [God] the Father” (D&C 76:71; Bolding here and below is mine).[6] Then next, but lower in glory, is the Terrestrial Kingdom, which is reserved for those “who received not the testimony of Jesus in the flesh, but afterwards [while in spirit prison after death] received it...[These would in the afterlife] receive of the presence of the Son, but not of the fullness of the Father” (D&C 76:74, 77).[5] The lowest kingdom, the Telestial Kingdom, was reserved for those who “received not the gospel of Christ, neither the testimony of Jesus...[and so] receive not of his fullness in the eternal world, but of the Holy Spirit through the ministration of the terrestrial” (D&C 76:82, 86). This conception spoke to me of degrees of Godness (and glory) of God the Father, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit as well.


Also, my conception of God was strongly influenced by the LDS teaching of pre-existence or “life before earth life” in which “all men and women [including Jesus, were said to have] lived with God [the Father and our ‘Heavenly Mother’] as His spirit children before coming to the earth as mortal beings. This is sometimes called the first estate.”[7] The teaching continued that in a pre-mortal-life council in heaven, “the Father presented His plan [the gospel or plan of salvation] to His spirit children who would come to this earth.”[8] Jesus, God’s first, “eldest,” spirit Son led spirits or angels in agreement with God’s plan and was given the status of Savior or Redeemer; Satan led spirits or angels in rebellion against it and was cast out of heaven with his followers and was denied a physical body.[9] My understanding from these teachings was that Jesus didn’t exist in a glorified form as God with God the Father until after His resurrection. And if we kept our “second estate” or were faithful during our earthly life, we could also have glorified bodies like Jesus’ and God, our Heavenly Father’s (or our Heavenly Mother’s).



painting of Joseph Smith's first vision in the woods with God the Father and Jesus appearing in physical bodies

Finally, my conception of the Godhead, from Joseph Smith’s “First Vision,”[10] was that God the Father and Jesus Christ [after His resurrection] had appeared to Joseph Smith both, together, but as two separate beings in glorified corporeal bodies (of flesh and bone). We were taught that only the Holy Spirit has no material or physical body.


From these and other teachings on the Godhead, I understood that people should only pray directly to God the Father, though we did it in the name of Jesus Christ because of Jesus’ atonement for us. Praying to Jesus or the Holy Spirit seemed like blasphemy to my LDS ears. This wasn’t unwarranted. Some years after I had attended B.Y.U. (in Provo), one of my former professors who was still teaching there was roundly chastised by one of the twelve apostles of the LDS Church for putting too much focus on seeking a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The LDS apostle contended that any relationship should be with the Father, Jesus only being the means to that end.


So, you see, this idea of seeking a personal relationship with Jesus, which my father taught and promoted, was not of LDS doctrinal origins. The time period coincided with the Christian “born-again” movement in the USA. It is very possible this movement had a strong—if indirect—influence on us. Also, around that time, an autobiography/biography was published about our kindly LDS prophet, President Spencer W. Kimball (my favorite prophet all my LDS days), including an encounter, which gave him a sure witness of Christ.[11] My dad and I, of course, read the book as soon as it came out. Whatever motives, influences, and ideas prompted my dad, his teaching certainly wasn’t general within the LDS Church.


As I have mentioned, my father’s influence was significant in my life; and because of his leadership positions in the LDS Church, this was not only true at home but also at church. My life largely revolved around the spheres of our home and our LDS Church community. So, this emphasis on seeking a personal, living relationship with Jesus Christ was a main theme that permeated much of the instruction I received growing up in my home and in the LDS Church. And the place I felt it the most, and where it most affected my life was among my peers in LDS seminary.


Besides the many other church meetings I attended, during my high school years, we had a daily (on weekdays), early-morning LDS religion class, which we called seminary. In the Boulder area, where our schools were not predominantly LDS, it was held before school. In each year of seminary, we were given an overview of the books that are considered and called “The Standard Works” or Scriptures in the L.D.S. Church.


The first year of seminary we did an overview of the Old Testament; the next year, the New Testament; then came the Book of Mormon. Our last year we read and studied selected writings of our “modern-day prophets,” beginning with the “Doctrine and Covenants” and the “The Pearl of Great Price.” We also briefly surveyed LDS Church history, which included summaries of the lives of key LDS prophets after the time of Joseph Smith.


Our first teacher instilled in me a conviction, which has only grown stronger and stronger with time—to this day. It is that the purpose of all the Scriptures is to point to Jesus Christ. Though now, I hold only the Bible to be the sure, inspired word of God, this principle has remained the same.


Another memorable lesson our next teacher explored was concerning honesty (or humility) before God. I remember her creating an illustration of a “Dishonest-Tree.” The ultimate fruits of it were false pride, selfish ambition, denial (of reality), self-justification, blame, arrogance, confusion, broken trust, discord, broken relationships, and such. This lesson ever after helped me to start thinking through to what fruits might or would come of my actions.


The most impactful teaching, which our teacher for our last two years of seminary taught, began a chain of events that was to change my life forever. This teacher, amplifying and detailing what a relationship with Jesus means practically, kindled a powerful yearning that continued to grow and expand within me. It was the sincere desire to be worthy to be “born again.” I understood that being born again required of me that I become worthy enough to have the Holy Ghost (Spirit) as a constant guide and companion. And that by being spiritually reborn in this way, I could receive the “mighty change of heart” spoken of in the Book of Mormon.[12]


Because of the inner joy and thrill that came with my soul’s response to the truly good things that were being introduced to me, I never considered the disparities. I never considered, then, how various doctrines I was taught contradicted each other. I didn’t suspect the depth and breadth of my own pragmatism regarding what I accepted as being true or right. I never anticipated that many of the things I learned in seminary would later come back to mind and affirm why I couldn’t or shouldn’t stay under the teachings, practices, and authority of the LDS Church.


For the time being, seminary was just what I needed. God is not limited by our human bounds or denominations or systems. He obviously can work any and everywhere and does. The impact these teachings in seminary have had on my life has ultimately been life-long and led to my conversion. God stirred up in my mind and heart a desire that began in my Old Testament class and was fanned to a flame by the teachings in my Book of Mormon classes in seminary and burned like a forest fire by my first year of college. This compelling desire to be worthy to be born-again, to have a “mighty change of heart,” to have the Holy Ghost as a constant guide and companion, and in short to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ came out of those years in LDS seminary.


“You are Israel’s teacher, and do you not understand these things?”

~ Jesus (John 3:10)

 

[1] WIKIPEDIA: The Free Encyclopedia, “Stake (Latter Day Saints,” accessed 7/18/2023, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stake_(Latter_Day_Saints) [2] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: Newsroom, Topic, “Stake President,” accessed 7/18/2023, https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/stake-president [3] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: Guide to the Scriptures, “God, Godhead,” accessed 7/18/2023, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/gs/god-godhead?lang=eng [4] McKeever, Bill, Mormonism Research Ministry, “As God Is Man May Be?” accessed 7/18/2023, https://www.mrm.org/lorenzo-snow-couplet [5] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: Library: Topics and Questions, “Kingdoms of Glory,” accessed 7/18/2023, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/gospel-topics/kingdoms-of-glory?lang=eng [6] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: Scriptures, “Doctrine and Covenants, Section 76,” https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/dc-testament/dc/76?lang=eng&id=81-90,98-106,109-112#p81 [7] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: Study Helps, “Premortal Life,” accessed 7/18/2023, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/gs/premortal-life?lang=eng [8] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: Study Helps, “Council in Heaven,” accessed 7/18/2023, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/gs/council-in-heaven?lang=eng [9] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: Scriptures, Pearl of Great Price, “Moses 4:1–4,” accessed 7/18/2023, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/pgp/moses/4?lang=eng&id=1-4#p1 [10] The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints: Scriptures, Pearl of Great Price, “Joseph Smith—History: Extracts..., Chapter 1:5–20, accessed 7/18/2023, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/pgp/js-h/1?lang=eng&id=16-17#p16 [11] I believe (though I’m not certain) this book at this link was the one we read: https://www.amazon.com/Spencer-W-Kimball-Edward-L/dp/0884943305 and I think the book at the following link was a later, revised version (the summary is more descriptive of the book): https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1163860.The_Story_of_Spencer_W_Kimball [12] See “Alma 5–7 (5:14–33)” and “Mosiah 4-5” in The Book of Mormon: Christian teachings on spiritual re-birth, which no doubt—as abundant evidence* suggests—were plagiarized and inserted into the Book of Mormon, giving it, along with plagiarized and rearranged Bible verses, a ring of truth throughout. (*See for example: https://cesletter.org/CES-Letter.pdf, “Book of Mormon” and “Book of Mormon Translation”)

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