We have not one, but three recent senior leaders and Apostles of the church endorsing this imagery (and metaphor) of defending the faith (or the church and its policies) with musket fire. A musket is a gun, and as the story goes, some pioneer Mormon builders once needed to defend themselves (not as much defending the church in the example) when building a temple (either the Kirtland and/or Nauvoo depending on the storyteller). This echoes an older motif from the Old Testament when Jerusalem was being rebuilt.
These leaders are relating this to the church’s stance against marriage rights and forcing their own outdated definition of marriage on the world. How is it okay for leaders of today to promote this imagery with such violence in the world? It is a literal call to arms against any who disagree with the church.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell
In 2004, Elder Neal A. Maxwell addressed the BYU President’s Leadership Council and brought up those who were working to build the temple in Nauvoo, who as the story goes, worked with a “trowel in one hand and a musket in the other”. They worked to build the faith while at the same time being ready to defend the faith. He equates this to the scholars at the university and calls them to build the faith with a trowel but also a musket to defend the faith.
In a way LDS scholars at BYU and elsewhere are a little bit like the builders of the temple in Nauvoo, who worked with a trowel in one hand and a musket in the other. Today scholars building the temple of learning must also pause on occasion to defend the Kingdom. I personally think this is one of the reasons the Lord established and maintains this University. The dual role of builder and defender is unique and ongoing. I am grateful we have scholars today who can handle, as it were, both trowels and muskets.Elder Neal A Maxwell, “Blending Research and Revelation,” 19 March 2004
Elder Dallin H. Oaks
Elder Oaks enjoyed this quote so he referenced it ten years later in a leadership conference message in 2014. He was then so pleased with himself that in a devotional talk at BYU in 2017 he quotes himself quoting Maxwell and further elaborates that “I would like to hear a little more musket fire from this temple of learning” and specifically calls out the need to defend marriage as the church defines it.
In my leadership conference message of August 2014, I encouraged BYU faculty to offer public, unassigned support of Church policies that others were challenging on secular grounds. Note that word unassigned. The Church should not have to ask or assign. The duty is inherent in the position.
In 2014 I quoted what our dear friend and associate Elder Neal A. Maxwell said to the BYU President’s Leadership Council just a few months before his death:
In a way LDS scholars at BYU and elsewhere are a little bit like the builders of the temple in Nauvoo, who worked with a trowel in one hand and a musket in the other. Today scholars building the temple of learning must also pause on occasion to defend the kingdom. I personally think this is one of the reasons the Lord established and maintains this university. The dual role of builder and defender is unique and ongoing. I am grateful we have scholars today who can handle, as it were, both trowels and muskets.
I added then and I add now that
I would like to hear a little more musket fire from this temple of learning, especially on the subject of our fundamental doctrine and policies on the family. Since our members should be defenders of marriage as the union of a man and a woman, as Elder Nelson taught in his  BYU commencement address, we should also expect our teachers to be outspoken on that subject.Elder Dallin H Oaks, “Challenges to the Mission of Brigham Young University,” April 21, 2017
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland
Elder Holland then decided to quote Oaks quoting himself and Elder Maxwell and elaborate further that musket fire is needed. “Musket fire? Yes, we will always need defenders of the faith, but “friendly fire” is a tragedy.” Even though there are tragedies, he still endorses these methods, and emphatically states, “My Brethren have made the case for the metaphor of musket fire, which I have endorsed yet again today.”
In 2017, Elder Dallin H. Oaks, not then but soon to be in the First Presidency, where he would sit only one chair—one heartbeat—away from the same position President Nelson now has, quoted our colleague Elder Neal A. Maxwell, who had said:
In a way [Church of Jesus Christ] scholars at BYU and elsewhere are a little bit like the builders of the temple in Nauvoo, who worked with a trowel in one hand and a musket in the other. Today scholars building the temple of learning must also pause on occasion to defend the kingdom. I personally think this is one of the reasons the Lord established and maintains this university. The dual role of builder and defender is unique and ongoing. I am grateful we have scholars today who can handle, as it were, both trowels and muskets.
To this, Elder Oaks then challengingly responded, “I would like to hear a little more musket fire from this temple of learning.” He said this in a way that could have applied to a host of topics in various departments, but the one he specifically mentioned was the doctrine of the family and defending marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Little did he know that while many would hear his appeal, especially the School of Family Life, which moved quickly and visibly to assist, some others fired their muskets all right, but unfortunately they didn’t always aim at those hostile to the Church. We thought a couple of stray rounds even went north of the Point of the Mountain!
My beloved brothers and sisters, “a house . . . divided against itself . . . cannot stand,”15 and I will go to my grave pleading that this institution not only stands but stands unquestionably committed to its unique academic mission and to the Church that sponsors it. We hope it isn’t a surprise to you that your trustees are not deaf or blind to the feelings that swirl around marriage and the whole same-sex topic on campus—and a lot of other topics. I and many of my Brethren have spent more time and shed more tears on this subject than we could ever adequately convey to you this morning or any morning. We have spent hours discussing what the doctrine of the Church can and cannot provide the individuals and families struggling over this difficult issue. So it is with a little scar tissue of our own that we are trying to avoid—and hope all will try to avoid—language, symbols, and situations that are more divisive than unifying at the very time we want to show love for all of God’s children.
If a student commandeers a graduation podium intended to represent everyone getting diplomas that day in order to announce his personal sexual orientation, what might another speaker feel free to announce the next year, until eventually anything goes? What might commencement come to mean—or not mean—if we push individual license over institutional dignity for very long? Do we simply end up with more divisiveness in our culture than we already have? And we already have far too much everywhere.
Musket fire? Yes, we will always need defenders of the faith, but “friendly fire” is a tragedy—and from time to time the Church, its leaders, and some of our colleagues within the university community have taken such fire on this campus. And sometimes it isn’t friendly, wounding students and the parents of students—so many who are confused about what so much recent flag-waving and parade-holding on this issue means. My beloved friends, this kind of confusion and conflict ought not to be. Not here. There are better ways to move toward crucially important goals in these very difficult matters—ways that show empathy and understanding for everyone while maintaining loyalty to prophetic leadership and devotion to revealed doctrine.
My Brethren have made the case for the metaphor of musket fire, which I have endorsed yet again today.Elder Jeffrey R Holland, “The Second Half of the Second Century of Brigham Young University,” August 23, 2021
Many folks have spoken out regarding this talk and the violent imagery Holland (and other leaders) choose to use in their “defense” of marriage.
Jeffrey R. Holland, Brigham Young University’s former president and a senior apostle in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, gave an inflammatory speech to BYU faculty and staff. In it, he urged faculty to take up metaphorical muskets to defend the faith. He called on them to be both builders of knowledge and defenders of the institution—the church—that determines whether the university exists and the faculty get funding to do their jobs, a fact he reminded them of multiple times in the speech. His words were unmistakably a call to arms: Holland used the word “fire” 10 times, “musket” eight times, and made multiple references to “friendly fire,” “wounds,” and “scarring.” In particular, he called for “more musket fire” from BYU’s faculty to defend Mormonism’s official position on the inferiority and social dangers of same-sex relationships and marriages.“Crushingly Cruel” A shocking new speech has plunged Mormons into another furious battle over gay rights and the church’s future, By Haley Swenson
The change.org petition criticizes Holland for his call for “‘musket fire’ toward the (LGBTQ+) community.” In an August 2021 talk at Brigham Young University, Holland advised faculty and staff that they should take up their intellectual “muskets” to defend The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its “doctrine of the family and … marriage as the union of a man and a woman.” He also criticized the commencement speech by BYU’s 2019 valedictorian, who declared himself a “gay son of God.”Thousands oppose an LDS Church apostle’s commencement speech at SUU because of his anti-gay statements. An online petition criticizes Jeffrey R. Holland for “openly” opposing “LGBTQ+ individuals.”
Even if the musket references are a metaphor, it’s not an appropriate metaphor for discussing “the doctrine of the family and defending marriage as the union of a man and a woman.” There is considerable violence with real weapons such as guns. In fact, just a week before this speech there was a brutal murder of an LGBT couple in Utah by literal gunfire! There are many other incidents which create an atmosphere of fear and violence. Even if the church leaders consider their acts as defending marriage, marriage itself is not a victim, but LGBTQ individuals are receiving the brunt of this musket fire (metaphorically and literally). Using and promoting the violence of gunfire (even if they claim it is a metaphor) is not something that should be preached from church pulpits!
Elder Holland dismissed the work for liberties as mere “flag-waving” and also claimed that the 2019 valedictorian speech was used to commandeer the podium although it was an approved speech!
For Elder Holland to mischaracterize hard-fought LGBTQ+ liberation efforts is both offensive and demeaning — not to mention that this sort of language eerily resembles decades-long conservative Christian sentiments that have sought to hinder and delegitimize lesbian, gay and transgender liberation movements.
Perhaps the most insensitive and hurtful part of the address was his criticism of former Valedictorian Matt Easton and his 2019 graduation speech.
“If a student commandeers a graduation podium intended to represent everyone getting diplomas in order to announce his personal sexual orientation, what might another speaker feel free to announce the next year until eventually anything goes? What might commencement come to mean — or not mean — if we push individual license over institutional dignity for very long? Do we simply end up with more divisiveness in our culture than we already have — and we already have too much everywhere,” Holland said.
After hearing such a scathing critique, we immediately went back to Matt’s 2019 address and listened to every word of it. Far from “commandeering a graduate podium,” Matt’s words (which were pre-approved by BYU itself) were faith affirming, uplifting and filled with gratitude for the wonderful experience that BYU had provided him. For Elder Holland to say that Matt “commandeered” the ceremony to push individual license over institutional dignity was a blatant mischaracterization.
In fact, there were only two lines in the entire speech about Matt’s sexual orientation. Furthermore, Elder Holland went on to imply that Matt’s behaviors could only lead to more divisiveness, when in reality, Matt’s speech was filled with nothing but loving, unifying and encouraging sentiment. For someone in Elder Holland’s position to call out a student to the entire Church, misrepresent that student’s words and put blame on that student for fostering divisiveness is blatantly inappropriate…
With unsettling irony, Elder Holland was the one emitting friendly fire on that day, as he violated and undercut the very principles of love and unity he was so adamantly preaching. Indeed, in order to create a safe and embracing space for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities in the Church, we must make absolutely clear that such divisive and hurtful rhetoric will no longer be tolerated.Wounds from Elder Holland’s musket fire are still being felt, By Keith Burns and John Lindsay, Sep 30, 2021
Finding Source for these stories
Where did these stories come from? There don’t seem to be any first-hand accounts of the temple builders actually working with guns in their hands. Church leaders can repeat a story enough times that it becomes the accepted history. They do it all the time. One statement of hearsay grows into a whole narrative and even a pillar of the faith (see first vision timeline).
Three apostles, Neal Maxwell, Dallin Oaks, and Jeffrey Holland, have together promoted this violent imagery with quotes and endorsements. The apologists remind us it’s only a metaphor for “defending the faith” with musket fire. The metaphor is a stretch because it starts with a literal story of pioneers building the temple with a trowel in one hand and a musket in the other. That was literal, not figurative. And by defending the faith, they really mean defending the church and the church policies. They aren’t out there defending the faith of the faithful, they’re actually closer to destroying the faith by defending the church with violent imagery and metaphors.
Though we’ve pointed at Elder Maxwell for bringing this idea to BYU, he’s not the first to have used it. The concept is easily found in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. The story goes that Nehemiah was a leader in Jerusalem in the 5th Century. The Jews were working to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem but their enemies were trying to stop them so Nehemiah sent guards to the builders. The LDS chapter heading states it clearly “The Jews’ enemies seek to prevent them from rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem—Nehemiah arms the laborers and keeps the work progressing.“.
16 And it came to pass from that time forth, that the half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons; and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah.
17 They which builded on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon.
18 For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me.Nehemiah 4:16-18
It seems in verse 16 that half the laborers kept the work moving while the other half guarded them. Though in verse 17 it restates that they each worked with one hand while the other hand held a weapon. No metaphor here, it’s the story of what (allegedly) happened.
Mormon Temple Builders
This story was familiar to the early Mormons and they related when they apparently worked to build the temple while enemies tried to prevent them.
Without revelation, Joseph could not know what was wanting, any more than any other man, and, without commandment, the Church were too few in numbers, too weak in faith and too poor in purse, to attempt such a mighty enterprise. But by means of all these stimulants, a mere handful of men, living on air, and a little hominy and milk, and often salt or no salt when milk could not be had; the great Prophet Joseph, in the stone quarry, quarrying rock with his own hands; and the few then in the Church, following his example of obedience and diligence wherever most needed; with laborers on the walls, holding the sword in one hand to protect themselves from the mob, while they placed the stone and moved the trowel with the other, the Kirtland Temple—the second House of the Lord, that we have any published record of on the earth, was so far completed as to be dedicated. And those first Elders who helped to build it, received a portion of their first endowments, or we might say more clearly, some of the first, or introductory, or initiatory ordinances, preparatory to an endowment.Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Volume 2, Discourse 6: “Necessity of Building Temples” April 6, 1853
There is another later instance from Brigham Young which upgrades the weapon from swords to “the musket and the sword” and changes from a story to a simultaneous metaphorical call to arms and call to build up Zion.
If they will not let us alone, we will take the musket and the sword in one hand, the trowel and the hammer in the other, and build up the Zion of our God; and they cannot prevent it.Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Volume 8, Discourse 2: “True Civilization” March 4, 1860
That foundation stone was laid, and the Saints, as I said, fled into Illinois, and there laid the foundation of a temple at Nauvoo, Illinois, the finest building then in the western country, and the admiration of everybody. The Saints erected it in the midst of poverty, destitution, sickness, death, and, I may say, with the sword or rifle in one hand and the trowel in the other, their enemies surrounding them on every hand. They had slain Joseph and Hyrum, and attempted to destroy others of the servants of God, and they were continually burning and destroying the houses and property of the Saints, and were determined to expel them from the State. But in the midst of these tribulations the Saints continued their labors until that temple was roofed in, and until within its walls they could attend to the ordinances for the living and the dead.George Q Cannon, Journal of Discourses, Volume 14, Discourse 43: “The New Birth—Baptism for the Dead—Temples” December 3rd, 1871
Holland brought this up before, in 2006, in another talk about early saints building the Kirtland temple. Though here he’s merely perpetuating the persecution complex of the early saints relating that they had to sometimes guard the temple. This time he quotes George A. Smith though, there is no source mentioned.
Of course, in addition to the troubles in Missouri, were the threats and harassment by enemies of the Church in and around Kirtland itself. Elder George A. Smith recalled that “sometimes guards attended the temple day and night, working with a trowel in one hand and a gun in the other.”Elder Jeffrey Holland, BYU–Idaho Commencement, “Zion Revisited” December 20, 2006
Holland uses these exact same words (reduce, reuse, recycle) in another talk, a devotional at BYU-Hawaii in 2019, which does include a reference note pointing us to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism of 1992.
Of course, in addition to the troubles in Missouri were the threats and harassment by enemies of the Church in and around Kirtland itself. “Elder George A. Smith recalled that sometimes guards attended the temple day and night, working with a trowel in one hand and a gun in the other.”
 Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Daniel H. Ludlow, et al., eds., (online edition, last modified May 27, 2011; original publication New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992), “Kirtland Temple,” available at https://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Kirtland_Temple.Elder Jeffrey Holland, BYU-Hawaii Devotional, “Zion: Temples of Learning and Temples of Faith” October 23, 2019
Looking at this Encyclopedia, we see it simply states that George A. Smith recalled that sometimes guards attended the temple and worked. No source is included. This doesn’t appear to have any story to go along with it:
Elder George A. Smith recalled that sometimes guards attended the temple day and night and worked with a trowel in one hand and a gun in the other.Kirtland Temple, Encyclopedia of Mormonism
It’s stated simply in this Encyclopedia (written by Mormons) and can also be found succinctly in this expose about Mormons published in 1870:
We appealed to the Governors of the States and were told the law was on our side, but public opinion was against us and we would have to leave. We finished our temple with the trowel in one hand and rifle in the other. Then our city was bombarded for three days and we retreated again.Life in Utah: or the mysteries and crimes of Mormonism, being an expose of the secret rites and ceremonies of the Latter Day Saints, 1870, Beadle, John Hanson, Page 284
The idea of the saints building their temples (either Kirtland and/or Nauvoo) is common, but there aren’t specific stories from the time that states this. No matter the original source material, there is a real thread in Mormondom that the saints and the church receive their undue share of persecution. The story in this mindset goes that these peaceful faithful church members were simply trying to build a temple and had to defend their work from persecution. The mindset continues (albeit figuratively) that today members (and especially teachers at church-owned and operated schools) should continue this effort to simultaneously build the kingdom of God, his church, and Zion while being willing to take up arms in its defense.
The recent talks from leaders even equate this to joining in the political arena and defending the church doctrines, beliefs, and current policies against the onslaught of evil and persecution in the manner of holding fast to the definition of marriage. They want to say that God defines marriage solely as between (one) man and (one) woman. Despite the church’s history of polygamy and polyandry. Despite the fact that Oaks himself (as well as President Nelson) is celestially married to two women. Elder Oaks states that he wants to hear more musket-fire defending “especially … our fundamental doctrine and policies on the family” and “defenders of marriage as the union of a man and a woman.” Ironic that the church and people who historically faced persecution based on their views of marriage are now persecuting others who have another different view. Ideally, they’d be able to see that these concepts need adapting.
Holland calls out the foils of divisiveness we have and states we already have “far too much everywhere.” Then he asks if musket fire is needed and confirms “Yes, we will always need defenders of the faith” or in other words, we will always need the musket-fire. After having just saying there’s too much divisiveness, he endorses defending his views with muskets and violence. Doesn’t this add to the divisiveness of which we already have “far too much”?
How can the church claim persecution and at the same time issue a “call to arms” for members to attack others? This seems to put the church into more of a persecutor role than that of being persecuted. How can he call for less divisiveness and then call for musket fire? These two things don’t go together.
What about the story of another apostle who defended Jesus with gusto? When Jesus is being betrayed and arrested, Peter cuts the ear off a soldier, and what does Jesus do? He rebukes his servant and then heals the soldier. Does Jesus call for defenders and musket fire? No! Still, these alleged apostles who claim they speak for Him today as leaders of his One True Church call for muskets. Is calling members and scholars of the church to arms in defense of the church to attack those who might disagree with them Christlike? They make a call specifically to this musket fire in defense of heterosexual monogamous marriage. This while knowing full well the history of marriage in the church was not monogamy, but polygamous and even polyandrous. This even amid the culture of violence and killings (with gunfire), mere days before in the state of Utah.
How does this speech land for you? What about the thread of swords, guns, and muskets to defend the church and its ideas? Do you find the imagery violent? Tell your story online at wasmormon.org.