Sponsored by BYU Studies—Robert Millet is a professor of ancient scripture and emeritus Dean of Religious Education at Brigham Young University. He is the author or more than 60 books and a recognized leader in interfaith dialogue between Evangelicals and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Welcome! Before we begin, would you tell us a little bit about yourself and what you are up to now?
I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on December 30, 1947. At the time I was born, my parents were not active, participating Latter-day Saints. My paternal grandfather, Anatole Millet, was something of a pioneer in that area. He was baptized near New Orleans in the 1930s, married, and moved north to Baton Rouge. There he literally worked himself to death trying to hold the small flock of Latter-day Saints together. And so my dad, Albert Louis, was raised in the Church. At the time of my birth, my mother, Sarah Louise, was a member of a local Methodist church, but she eventually joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at or near the time of my baptism in 1956. Our family remained very involved in the Church, and my dad was eventually made bishop of a new branch of the Church to the north of Baton Rouge, in a city called Baker, where I graduated from high school in 1965.
I began my studies at Louisiana State University (LSU) in the summer of 1965 and left for a full-time mission to the Eastern States Mission in February 1967. In those days all missionaries came for a week at the Mission Home, as it was called then, located on Main Street in Salt Lake City. There were no missionary training facilities in operation at that time, and so missionaries were expected to learn foreign languages “on the job.” It was the procedure back then for every missionary to be set apart by a general authority. I was set apart by Elder Alma Sonne, as Assistant to the Twelve. He said a number of comforting things and spoke words that proved to be prophetic.
One of the things he said in the blessing was this: “Elder Millet, I bless you that from this time forth, you will never have trouble remembering the scriptures.” It meant a great deal to me then, but in the years since then has been especially gratifying, given what I eventually chose to do for a living.
Well, I’m already beyond telling you a “little bit” about myself, so let me now summarize. I married Shauna Sizemore from Magna, Utah, received both my bachelors and masters degrees from Brigham Young University in Psychology, and had six children. As the family grew, we lived in Idaho Falls (where I worked as a counselor for LDS Social Services [now Family Services] for two years), Salt Lake City (where I taught full-time Seminary for two years), Tallahassee, Florida (where I worked as the director of the Institute of Religion for six years, and also where I earned a PhD from Florida State University in Religious Studies), and then in Orem, Utah (where I joined the BYU Religious Education faculty in 1983 and retired from teaching in 2014). During those 31 years, I served as chair of the department of Ancient Scripture, as dean of Religious Education for ten years, and held the Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding, the one that Truman Madsen held for so many years.
Why did you decide to pursue a doctorate in Religious Studies? As you look back on your time at Florida State, are there one or two memories that stand out?
I had planned to continue my graduate work at Florida State University, either in Psychology or perhaps in Family Science. I attended a class in Family Law for two class periods and dropped out; the professor had just gone through a miserable divorce and was down on marriage and family.
I was one day speaking with Richard Chapple, my stake president and a professor of Russian Literature at FSU. I told him of my frustration at not knowing quite what to do. He became unusually bold in his reply: “Why don’t you just get out of those stupid behavioral sciences and learn something for a change!”
I responded with, “What should I study?”
He quickly came back with, “Why don’t you do your PhD in Religion?”
I had never thought of that, but walked over to the campus and spoke with the head of graduate programs. I explained to him that my concentration had been in Psychology for four years and that I had never even had a course in the academic study of Religion. He paused for an uncomfortable minute, looked me in the eye, and said: “I think your background would bring strength to our program, and we’d enjoy very much having you join us.”
I took his most unexpected warm welcome as a bit of a “sign” and went forward. Five years later the degree was completed. (So that some readers may not be offended with my choice to leave the behavioral sciences, I need to add that I took a number of graduate Psychology courses at FSU and basically gained a minor in that field.)
In what ways has your understanding of and relationship with the Savior changed since you first began teaching at BYU? What has most contributed to these changes?
I essentially had a “born again” experience prior to joining the faculty at BYU. In the summer of 1976 I enrolled in two graduate religion courses taught by Prof. Robert J. Matthews. At 8:00 am we studied the four Gospels, and at 9:00 we engaged the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles of Paul. We did this rather intensively four days a week for eight weeks.
Both classes were in every way life changing. Brother Matthews was not particularly dynamic, did not really have a powerful voice, and certainly did not seem to concern himself very much with teaching methods. But he knew the scriptures and the doctrine, more so than any man or woman I had ever encountered. He had a powerful grasp of the teachings of Joseph Smith and knew just where those teachings assisted us most in understanding the life and mission of Jesus Christ, as well as Acts and the letters of Paul.
More important, Bob Matthews knew the Lord, and the power of the Spirit that accompanied his teaching and testimony was both palpable and poignant.
Every time class was over I had two reactions: “What? Where did the time go?’ and “I want to hurry home and read, to search the New Testament in greater detail, to pray.”
Throughout that summer I saw “new writing” on the pages of scripture about the Savior and especially about the final week of his life. In addition, what I learned about the Apostle Paul and the early Christian Church resulted in a quantum leap in understanding. We discovered the world in which Paul ministered; the beliefs and practices of Jews in the first century; Paul’s challenges with both Jews and Gentiles; the growth and spread of the first century Christian Church; and the person and mind of Paul himself.
Most important for me, however, was my discovery of the Pauline epistles, and particularly Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians. Brother Matthews guided us toward a deeper appreciation for the effects of the Fall of Adam and Eve. He especially emphasized Paul’s message that salvation, meaning eternal life, is the greatest of all the gifts of God; that one does not earn but rather receives a gift; that men and women’s works of righteousness are a necessary but insufficient condition for salvation; and that the ever-present debate on whether we are saved by grace or by works is foolish, shortsighted, and distracting.
Bob charged us to take what we had learned from the New Testament about the atoning work of our Savior and return to the Book of Mormon and the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants, looking carefully for familiar language, similar teachings, recurring doctrinal themes.
As I noted earlier, I joined the BYU Religious Education faculty and began teaching in the summer of 1983. Because I was a new faculty member, my course load was set for me by the chair of the department of Ancient Scripture, Kent Brown. I learned that there was only one unassigned class section, and that was Religion 212, the second half of the New Testament, Acts through Revelation.
I soon found that most of the young people were quite nervous about our study, given that they knew so little about this half of the New Testament. I tried to convey to the students the same excitement I had found in this almost undiscovered treasure within the standard works. At the same time, I sought to instill the same love I felt, especially for the Apostle Paul and the remarkable doctrines of salvation set forth in his regulatory correspondence.
Perhaps more important, for the students and for me, was the fact that we focused a great deal on Romans and Galatians, specifically on justification by faith and salvation by grace. It was new stuff to them, but the Spirit that accompanied our learning experience seemed to persuade them that although they did not yet grasp everything Paul had written, they sensed deep down in their soul that what we were discussing was true and worthy of their serious attention.
In summary, I came to BYU with a changed heart and a strong desire to emphasize Jesus Christ, His infinite Atonement, and the power of His mercy and grace. My hope is that at least some of my students caught the vision.
If you felt distant from God and had an entire free day where you could do anything to narrow the gap, what would you do?
I certainly have those kinds of down days, and they seem to come, not so much as a result of some misdeed on my part, but rather (I am persuaded) to allow me to notice the difference between when God feels close at hand, as opposed to when He feels miles away.
For me, what I find most helpful is to head up Provo canyon and find an isolated spot where I can be free from the city’s distractions and where, hopefully, I can have my own quasi-Enos experience. I bring with me my scriptures. For some time I sit and take in the beauty of nature and try to express to my Heavenly Father my deep appreciation for life, for eyes to see and ears to hear, and for the peace and perspective provided by the restored gospel. I usually read favorite chapters from the Book of Mormon, from the Gospel of John, from the epistles of Paul, and from First John (what I believe to be one of the many undiscovered spiritual treasures). My prayers are interspersed with my reading and reflection. I may pray on my knees for a time but find myself taking long hikes and praying during that time.
My other avenue to dispel the darkness is to attend the temple, and sometimes to do something different than an endowment session. My wife Shauna and I have begun alternating between endowments and initiatory ordinances (the latter are especially mind-expanding and spirit-stretching).
How did you first become interested in interfaith dialogue? Did you face any pushback as you worked to facilitate positive relationships and understanding between faiths?
My interfaith endeavors began in January 1991, at the time I was installed as dean of Religious Education at BYU. Elders Packer, Maxwell, and Oaks came down to the campus to make the announcement of the change (Bob Matthews resigned as dean after a little over eight years to devote all of his time to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, where he served as a senior editor).
After the announcement of the change in the deanery and the Brethren’s charge to the faculty, everyone went back to work. Elder Maxwell came up to me, embraced me, and said: “If you need anything, you call me.”
Anyone who ever knew Elder Maxwell knew him to be a kind, consummate Christian, and so I took his words as a sweet gesture. Within weeks, however, I began to feel overwhelmed with my new job and wondered if I had made a serious mistake in accepting the assignment.
And then a thought came to me: Elder Maxwell said that if I needed anything that I should call him. And so I picked up the phone and was about to call the main operator at the Church Administration Building when it occurred to me that it was Monday and that very often the Brethren take Monday off (after a weekend assignment to some part of the world). But I thought that maybe I could speak with his secretary and make an appointment. I called, and the weirdest thing happened—Elder Maxwell answered! I assure you that such a thing rarely happens. We spoke for a moment and I expressed my frustrations and feelings of inadequacy, after which he invited me to his office the next afternoon.
We chatted together enjoyably for about a half hour and then he came around his desk, laid his hands on my head, and pronounced a blessing upon me like no other blessing I had ever received. He said many things that lifted my spirits and invigorated me. I felt like, with the Lord’s help, I might be able to do this.
But then there came a divine directive, almost out of nowhere.
He said: “Brother Millet, you must find ways to reach out to and become acquainted with persons of other faiths.”
And then the blessing continued. After about a minute he paused and said: “Brother Bob, the Lord needs you to begin to build bridges of understanding with our Father’s children who are not of our faith.”
Just before closing the blessing he once again paused and basically repeated the same message. We embraced, and then I left his office assured that just maybe I could last for five years as dean. But I also left with another kind of burden—I had no idea how to do what he had instructed me to do relative to working with people outside our own faith.
Members of the faculty and I began visiting other church-related schools and meeting faculty and administration—institutions like Notre Dame, Baylor, Wheaton College, Catholic University, etc. These were extremely helpful in making friends. And yet I sensed that while this was very worthwhile, it wasn’t quite what the Lord had in mind.
I tried this and that for the next six years. Then on April 11, 1997, I met and became acquainted with Pastor Gregory Johnson, a Conservative Baptist minister. We struck up a friendship, had lunch and long doctrinal conversations every month, and the friendship grew. What made our relationship and our conversation especially interesting was the fact that Greg had grown up as a Latter-day Saint but had had a “born again” experience as a 14-year old.
Through my association with Greg we came to know and love many Evangelical Christian academics—people like Craig Blomberg (Professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary), Richard Mouw (at the time President of Fuller Theological Seminary), Gerald McDermott (at the time Professor of Theology at Roanoke College), David Neff (at the time, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today), Francis Beckwith (Professor of Philosophy and Church-State Studies at Baylor), Peter Huff (at the time Professor of Theology at Centenary College in Louisiana), Ravi Zacharias (respected Christian apologist), and many, many more.
Greg Johnson and I were invited to almost 70 different locations in this country, Canada, and Great Britain to model what was then called “A Mormon and an Evangelical in Conversation,” a two-hour experience where Greg and I would basically introduce ourselves, explain how we met and how we were able to maintain a close friendship, given all of the theological differences between us.
In those settings we would also take two or three doctrinal topics and dialogue over our differences and our similarities—topics like the Fall, the Savior’s Atonement, grace and works, and the Trinity/Godhead.
Our private conversation was expanded in May of 2000 when we held our first formal Latter-day Saint-Evangelical dialogue at BYU. A group of six-to-seven scholars from each of our respective traditions have met every six months since then, having read some traditional Christian material and some Latter-day Saint material (books, articles) on the doctrinal topic. We have rotated meeting places between Provo and Pasadena (site of Fuller Seminary) since then, except on those wonderful occasions when our Evangelical friends have insisted that we hold our several-day dialogues at such sites as Palmyra, Kirtland, and Nauvoo (we will visit Independence next year). This dialogue will formally end in 2020.
This endeavor has been absolutely life-changing. It has allowed me to see and feel firsthand the fact that God is working through many people of good will throughout the earth. Every time we met we would feel the import of the Savior’s words: “When two or three are gathered in my name, there I will be in the midst of you.” Without question we felt a superintending Presence, a kind of divine approval, an encouragement that this effort would yield fruit that we could not yet understand.
That’s far more than you asked for. The journey, while intellectually stretching and spiritually stirring, has not proceeded without some resistance or opposition.
My Evangelical friends have taken most of the hits (especially Richard Mouw), but I have also been accused by a few Latter-day Saints of being guilty of “compromising the faith,” assuming I suppose, that there is no way that this kind of a deep relationship could exist unless we have compromised something.
Such critics, high and low, are dead wrong. We agreed at the very start of this larger dialogue that no person should be a part of this exercise who was not deeply committed to and convinced of his or her respective faith. Never once have I or any of my Latter-day Saint dialogists (yes, that is a word) given the slightest indication to our friends that we are anything but faithfully solid, mainline members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We have read and studied and discussed and wrestled respectfully and cordially with our friends of other faiths in our investigation of what could be called saving doctrines, but they’re still Evangelical and we are still proponents and defenders of the restored gospel.
Over the past almost thirty years there have been stretches of time when I have worked with Church Public Affairs in Salt Lake City, but I was never employed by them. It was in many ways much like a consultant role.
What “holy envy” do you have for Evangelicals, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims?
There are in fact some dimensions of the religious life about which I have felt “holy envy” for my colleagues of other faiths.
Regarding the Evangelicals, I deeply admire their powerful devotion to Jesus Christ, the awe with which they speak of and approach God, and their high view of forgiveness.
Respecting Roman Catholics, I am very impressed that their scholars are steeped in Philosophy, deeply immersed in canon law, and thereby in a position to set forth public policy more effectively than any religious group with which I am familiar.
My admiration for the Jews comes with regard to their sense of holiness and, by extension, the beautiful manner that they celebrate the Sabbath Day.
In Islam I see a people who are reverently devoted to their holy book, the Koran, and I admire how that devotion is played out in strong Muslim families.
Joseph Fielding McConkie was one of your frequent collaborators. Are there any memories from your friendship with him that stand out to you? In what ways do you feel he made you a better gospel scholar or a better man?
When I joined the BYU Religion faculty in the summer of 1983, as fate would have it, my office was right across the hall from Joseph Fielding McConkie in the old Joseph Smith Building. He roamed over to my place one day soon after I arrived, introduced himself, and we struck up a conversation.
Before long we began to talk about where we had worked, and in particular our experiences with anti-Mormon propaganda, he having encountered it in full force in Washington state and I in Florida and Georgia. He looked at me and said, “Maybe we ought to do a book together.” Many months later we submitted a manuscript to Bookcraft Publishing Company and some time after that our first co-authored book, Sustaining and Defending the Faith, was released.
It was, as they say, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Over the next eleven years we co-authored ten books and edited one other.
I want to say something more specifically about Joseph as a teacher. I know of no one who could engage a scriptural text as tenaciously and rigorously as Joseph Fielding McConkie.
On several occasions Philosophy majors at BYU shared with me that it had been recommended strongly by their advisers in the department that they enroll in classes taught by Joseph McConkie.
Because he taught from and stayed with the scriptural text. I can remember the two of us speaking to a large group on doctrinal themes of the Pearl of Great Price. One of his topics was the Abrahamic Covenant. I watched him exegete Abraham 2:8-11 for 55 minutes and still didn’t finish all he wanted to say.
He was one of the finest scripture scholars I have ever known. His passing a few years back was a great personal loss to me.
What kind of lasting influence has Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s last talk had on the Church?
In my most recent book, The Atoning One, in the chapter entitled “The Grace Awakening,” I try to go back in time to discover how and in what manner the Latter-day Saints have, in recent decades, become more Christ-centered, Atonement-centered, and Grace-centered.
I believe Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s last address, “The Purifying Power of Gethsemane,” delivered at the April 1985 general conference, was the beginning of that blessed trend. I am persuaded that it is one of those very few public addresses that literally “rocked the Church,” meaning, it so impacted those who then heard or saw the address, as well as millions who have since heard or read it, that we as a people will never be the same.
I sincerely believe it was the beginning of a divinely-planned movement that would make of the Latter-day Saints more deeply devout Christians. It is of interest to me that an Evangelical historian, John Turner, in his fascinating book, The Mormon Jesus: A Biography (Harvard University Press, 2016), begins his last chapter with a consideration of the significance of Elder Bruce R. McConkie’s last general conference address. He too believes it was a formative moment in Latter-day Saint history, one that has propelled the followers of Joseph Smith to a higher reverence for and commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.
I would add here that another dispensationally-significant moment in time was the administration of President Ezra Taft Benson. His emphatic drive to have the members of the Church eat, sleep, and drink the Book of Mormon has also had the effect of transforming our people into more Christ-centered, Atonement-centered, and Grace-centered men and women, girls and boys.
Because the Book of Mormon is absolutely cram-packed with what I would call redemptive theology—the plight of fallen humanity, the infinite Atonement of Jesus Christ, the need to be born again, and the clear affirmation that salvation, meaning eternal life, comes only by and through the merits, mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah. Many, many members of the Church, then more immersed in redemptive theology, turned to the New Testament and engaged the writings of the Apostle Paul with new eyes.
In short, Latter-day Saints are definitely more scripturally literate as a result of those two singular moments in the dispensation of the fullness of times.
What are one or two holy habits that have had a positive influence on your life?
I don’t know that what I am about to describe could be called “holy habits,” but they have certainly changed my life, I think for the good.
First, about ten years ago I began to memorize favorite scriptural passages and statements from the Prophet Joseph Smith—in this case, D&C 4; 11:12; 81:5; 103:36; 108:7; 121:33-46; Joseph Smith’s statement that “It is my meditation all the day, and more than my meat and drink, to know how I shall make the Saints comprehend the visions that roll like an overflowing surge before my mind”; Joseph Smith’s “Standard of Truth” statement; the Articles of Faith (we were not active in the Church during what would have been my Primary years, and so I never learned the Articles of Faith by heart until ten years ago); and, interestingly, 1 Peter 5:6-7.
Once or twice a week, as a part of my daily devotional period, I quote these passages and statements aloud with all the fervor and feeling I have, this in addition to my prayers and scripture study. The 300+ scriptural passages that our mission president insisted that we memorize are still with me, now some fifty years later, and I use them frequently. There is a special spirit that enters the room when people read and/or quote prophetic words.
Second, about a decade ago I discovered a portion of a verse of scripture that really impacted me: Alma 38:14. Here Alma counsels Shiblon to “acknowledge your unworthiness before God at all times.” This phrase has become an important part of my prayers, especially when I am about to speak or teach. It is only when we are poor in spirit—meaning, clearly aware of our spiritual bankruptcy. It is when we know and acknowledge that sobering truth that the powers of God can come to us in greater measure.
A part of this effort is a new resolve regarding how I answer when someone compliments me, perhaps after a speech or a lesson. For years I would almost try to talk the person out of the compliment. My wife Shauna seeing this, suggested that I simply say “thank you.” I still do that, but much more often I feel the need to respond to “O, Brother Millet, that was amazing” or some variation of that praise, with something like “The Lord was good to us tonight, wasn’t He?” or “Yes, the Lord really blessed us with His Spirit, didn’t He? It was a great meeting.”
It’s a little thing, but as President Dallin Oaks reminded us in the April 2018 general conference, it is the little things from which great things come.
If you could select only one of your teachings to be remembered and lived by future generations, what you most want to leave with them?
There are obviously many, many things I would love to say to future generations, but I will confine myself to two.
First, I would testify of the sweet comfort and profound peace that come into our lives when we learn to trust in and truly rely upon the Savior Jesus Christ. I would emphasize that our good works manifest our love and gratitude to the Lord and that through those works our Christian character is formed. I would suggest that we need to worry less about our salvation and trust Him more.
I would testify that the Father and the Son are eager to save all that are willing to be saved, and that if we can just hold on, stay faithful, and remain in the Good Ship Zion, the highest and greatest of eternal rewards will be ours.
“Hang on. We’re going to make it!”
Second, I would bear my witness of the divine calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the marvelous work and a wonder he set in motion. Joseph once said, “I intend to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world.” Well, that’s exactly what he has done, for the Restoration is in every way a revolution.
My final plea would be to “Always be loyal to the Prophet Joseph and to his prophetic successors.” There is a remarkable spiritual power that comes into our lives when we stand up, speak out, and defend the name and reputation of God’s anointed servants.