For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (and various fraction branches), The Book of Mormon contains many important themes, primarily the process of coming to Christ. In the early part of the book, there is a story told by one of the prominent characters named Nephi about a dream called The Tree of Life. On October 6th, 2019, Church leader Neil Anderson described the importance of the Tree of Life dream in a conference talk aired to Church members worldwide. In his talk, Anderson spoke critically of distracting voices and portrayed the Tree of Life dream from a church-obedient perspective. I want to offer what I feel is a healthier perspective for believing and nonbelieving Mormons.
The Tree of Life dream describes a path leading to a beautiful tree with highly desirable fruit. For those along the path, arrival at the anticipated destination is ensured by holding firmly to a rod of iron. Grasping the rod is significant since the path is occluded by a mist of darkness. In the dream, some lose hold of the rod by listening to the shaming voices of individuals in a large and spacious building who mock those who travel along the path (1 Nephi 8, Book of Mormon).
In the Book of Mormon, the iron rod is interpreted as “the word of God” (1 Nephi 11:25, Book of Mormon). While not mentioned implicitly, many Church leaders have taught this is the equivalent of following the prophet, because the word of God is found in the scriptures, and the scriptures are superseded by the words of the living Prophet (Nelson, 2009). Not all agree with this interpretation. Some have suggested the rod of iron is best interpreted as personal revelation (Cook, 2018; Pontius, 2002). This uncommon reframing of this symbol yields healthy perspectives in contrast to Anderson’s views.
Elder Neil Anderson accurately describes the symbolic representation of the tree, as interpreted in the Book of Mormon; the tree represents the love of God. Anderson takes creative license and adds the following additional interpretations including the fruit of the tree is synonymous with ordinances of the Church, contemptuous individuals are mocking followers of Christ, holding the iron rod means obedience to commandments, assailants in the building are the construction crews of Satan who operate with “Internet megaphones”, and more.
Anderson’s perspective is not entirely new. An obedience-oriented interpretation is straightforward. It provides a framework for strict adherence to church leaders, creates an othering strategy to dissuade individuals from listening to nonapproved sources, and provides value for an open canon (i.e., living prophets). However, this approach severely minimizes the experience of hundreds of thousands of Mormons whose experiences are not simple. These experiences include sexual orientation and identity differences (LGBTQ+), non-nuclear family formats, differing spiritual beliefs, and a broad diversity of cultural backgrounds.
In contrast, the Book of Mormon defines the fruit of the tree as the love of God (1 Nephi 11:22, Book of Mormon). If the destination of the path doesn’t lead to God’s love, or one’s experience of God’s love is not a part of self-love with the divine, it may not be a path worth celebrating. Isn’t God’s grace and unconditional love the fruit by which we know Him (Matthew 7:16, King James Version).
If, however, the iron rod is epitomized as personal revelation, the application of the dream becomes adaptive for both observing and transitioning Mormons. Instead of Anderson’s description of the rod being strict orthodoxy, individuals create a pathway to the divine (the tree) by establishing a personal relationship to God in a way meaningful to them. This substitutes the buildings naysayers from nefarious anti-Mormons to individuals who openly resist others who claim spiritual sovereignty. This approach creates space for a broad spectrum of spiritual experiences. It reinterprets the relationship with God (and one’s spiritual journey) as a personal experience of growth thwarted by ignorance instead of obstructed by questioning. It replaces being lost from “rebellion to authority” with a traumatic response to shame.
I know this perspective is threatening for some believing Mormons. It suggests there is more than one path to the symbolic tree and proposes the building of detractors could be insiders of the faith. This interpretation wouldn’t be untimely. In the dream, the building is described as ornate, and its occupants are dressed to the nines (1 Nephi 8:29, Book of Mormon). Critics of the Church suggest many presentations of the Church and its members match this description. According to the dream, the outcome of the building’s occupant’s criticism results in path-seekers falling away and becoming lost. There is nothing more lost than disconnecting from one’s own journey to God (or whatever that is for them) whether they are a faithful member or not. If the fruit of the tree is, according to the Book of Mormon, the most precious above all, the product of the journey along the path, with the rod, must be more than church ritual. This path must include the unique diversity of a plan tailored for an individual by way of personal revelation. Wouldn’t a loving Creator want nothing more?
Elder Neil L. Andersen – The Tree of Life [Video file]. (2019, October). Retrieved from https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/general-conference/2019/10/media/6092742593001?lang=eng
Cook, J. (2018, December 5th). Nephi’s iron rod may not be what you think it is. Retrieved from https://bycommonconsent.com/2018/12/05/nephis-iron-rod-may-not-be-what-you-think-it-is/
Pontius, J. M. (2002). Following the Light of Christ Into His Presence. Cedar Fort.
Nelson, Z. (2009). The Rod of Iron in Lehi’s Dream. Religious Educator: Perspectives on the Restored Gospel, 10(3), 5.