Preparing the Way

Roy A. Prete

“Part 3: Preparing the Way,” in Window of Faith: Latter-day Saint Perspectives on World History, ed. Roy A. Prete (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2005), 257–61.

Part 3 of this volume is largely historical and deals with themes in the period up to the Restoration of the gospel and since then that reflect the guiding influence of the Lord in the unfolding of modern history. Prominent among those themes are the rejuvenation of European thought in the Renaissance at the end of the medieval period, the divinely appointed discovery of America, the spadework of successive European developments such as the Reformation and the development of parliamentary government in Britain, and finally the rise of freedom in America, all in preparation for the Restoration. Equally important have been the providential rise and spread of freedom elsewhere, which has prepared the way for the preaching of the gospel across the world. In complementary fashion, the technological and scientific development of the modern era has provided additional means for the accomplishment of the Church’s mission of taking the gospel to the entire world.

Historians generally agree that the Renaissance—vast change of attitude occasioned by the rebirth of ancient learning, the rise of humanistic studies, and the flowering of art, literature, and architecture—laid the basis for much of later European development. This movement, which spanned two centuries from approximately 1350 to 1550, began in Italy and spread over much of the rest of Europe. The quest for knowledge and the taste for discovery, coupled with technological developments such as the compass and better sailing ships and the rising power of the new nation-state monarchies, laid the foundation for the great oceanic discoveries of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Gutenberg’s invention of movable-type printing in the mid-fifteenth century was a key development of the period, which allowed for the dissemination of knowledge to a wider range of people, making possible the subsequent religious Reformation and the rise of modern science. [1] Modern apostles and prophets have indicated that the Spirit of the Lord had already begun to move on the people at the end of the Middle Ages, and in the Renaissance in particular, to prepare the way for the Restoration of the gospel. [2]

De Lamar Jensen, internationally recognized scholar of the Renaissance and the Reformation, breaks new ground in “Renaissance, The Beginning of Religious Reform,” exploring the reflections of Petrarch and other Italian humanists on such topics as human dignity, freedom of the will and immortality of the soul. Jensen also links the early Rhineland and Dutch “Brethren of the Common Life” and similar movements with important early reformers such as Wycliffe, Hus, and Savanola. He has thus identified underlying concepts and new relationships and interconnections that preceded the Reformation, providing evidence that the hand of God was already preparing the way for the later movement.

In the chapter entitled “Columbus: Man of Destiny,” Arnold K. Garr, drawing on his expertise in religion and history, shows from the spiritual record of scriptural and prophetic statements and from Columbus’s record of his proceedings that the great discoverer was divinely inspired in his first voyage to the Americas. The fortuitous choice of route and changes of course at crucial moments bear witness to the providential nature of his endeavor. His discovery of America laid the basis for later development, and even though the indigenous population, the children of Father Lehi, would be sorely afflicted, they would ultimately be the recipients of divine blessings in fulfilment of ancient covenants.

Latter-day Saint prophets have affirmed that the Reformers were inspired by God in their attempt to regenerate the Christian Church, and as such, served as precursors to the Restoration. [3] De Lamar Jensen, in his second chapter, “Reformation and Pre-Restoration,” shows that Martin Luther, to some degree, and several Reformation thinkers, particularly the later Anabaptists and spiritual reformers, developed ideas that resembled those of the Restoration. Catholic reformers such as Cisneros, Contarini, and Giberti also produced a rejuvenation of Catholic thought. But the fact that the Anabaptists were hunted out by their fellow Protestants and massacred leads Jensen to believe that the Restoration was not possible until the establishment of freedom in America.

The importance of the rise of freedom in Europe and America as part of the divine plan can hardly be overemphasized, especially when one considers that in 1350, at the dawn of the modern era, not a single European state, except those under the rule of Islam, had religious toleration. [4] The American development of freedom hearkens back to its European roots. In the next chapter, “European Origins of Freedom in America,” Robert R. Newell, Carma T. Prete, and Roy A. Prete trace the American concept of freedom from early Greek and Roman foundations through the first intellectual glimmers of the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment. They then detail the British heritage of representative and constitutional government, individual rights and liberties, and the rule of law, to which the American colonist fell heir prior to the Revolution. The American founders were much affected by the concepts of John Locke and his emphasis on the social contract. The legal and constitutional practices of England, coupled with the ancient heritage and the ideas of the Enlightenment, thus provided the foundation for the development of freedom in America.

In his chapter, “The Rise of Freedom in America,” Milton V. Backman, a noted expert on the religious history of America, shows that the progress of religious freedom in America made its greatest strides in the revolutionary era, giving rise to the disestablishment of traditional religions and the development of a new attitude of religious toleration. He also details the recognition by George Washington of divine providence in the success of the revolutionary armies against far stronger forces, and notes that some framers of the Constitution recognized the influence of a kindly providence. Backman identifies as divine preparation for the Restoration not only the rise of freedom in the new republic, but the availability of an unoccupied territory as a potential place of refuge.

But the advance of freedom was not limited to the United States. Indeed, one of the remarkable developments of Western society has been the rise of freedom generally and its extension in a variety of forms to the peoples of many parts of the earth. Drawing on his expertise as a longtime professor of modern European and diplomatic history, Louis B. Cardon traces important aspects of that development in a trilogy of chapters under the title “Champions of Freedom in the Modern World,” which deal with Britain, France, and the United States. In these chapters, he emphasizes the providential role of each of these great democracies in the rise and spread of freedom over the last three centuries. In the chapter on Britain, he discusses the remarkable development of parliamentary government and liberal democracy in Britain and its dissemination in the imperial domains and also the role of Britain in maintaining the European balance of power, preventing any one power from establishing a hegemony on the continent. In the chapter on France, he explains how the French revolutionary tradition has provided an alternate model for the quest of freedom, inspiring many nations who lack long democratic roots. In the final chapter, he focuses on the providential role of the United States, which, through a succession of policies, has evolved from a small isolationist power to a superpower, committed to the defense and spread of freedom. While God has no perfect instrument on earth for the accomplishments of His purpose, these three nations, Cardon argues, have made remarkable strides in the development of freedom and its extension across the earth in the modern era.

The extension of freedom across the world has been a necessary preparation for the preaching of the gospel. The happy result in the modern era, despite all the violence and suffering, is that now approximately two-thirds of the world’s population lives under a system of religious toleration. A comparison of a map of those countries that have meaningful religious freedom with a map of those areas to which the gospel has been taken shows them to be almost identical. [5]

The advance of technology has been a very powerful force in the modern world. Taking up the theme of the divine role in the disbursement of technical knowledge as a preparation for the preaching of the gospel, Thomas L. Erekson, chair of BYU’s School of Technology, has contributed an important chapter, “Preparing the Way: Technology in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.” Defining technology as the practical application of knowledge, including those systems that develop and manage it, he has given as an example of the latter the U.S. Land Grant Colleges, which have made a powerful contribution to the agricultural revolution of America. Erekson then focuses on the development of modern transportation and communication systems, including the current information technology, which have facilitated the Lord’s work of preaching the gospel and administering an ever-expanding church. The role of the computer in hastening the work of redeeming the dead by facilitating family history research has surpassed all expectations. [6]

One of the truly amazing discoveries when we try to identify the hand of God in human activities is that, on occasion, we can observe three different kinds of testimonies related to His interposition. The first is that of the prophetic statements from the scriptures and modern apostles and prophets; the second is that of the person or people involved as to the divine influence which they felt; and the third is that of the events themselves and their impact. Columbus is a impressive example of this phenomenon. Notable examples of this phenomenon in the rise of freedom in America are George Washington and some of the framers of the U.S. Constitution. In the case of scientific and technological advance, in addition to prophets and apostles having identified divine intervention, several key scientist and inventors, including Johannes Kepler, James Watt, and Albert Einstein, have recorded receiving flashes of insight, and even dreams in making their discoveries. There can be little doubt that God is at the helm as events significant to His purposes unfold.


[1] For further reading, see Peter Burke, The Italian Renaissance: Cultural and Society in Renaissance Italy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987) and De Lamar Jensen, Renaissance Europe: Age of Recovery and Reconciliation, 2nd ed. (Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1992). On the debate challenging the traditional concept of the Renaissance in the development of early modern Europe, see The American Historical Review 103 (February 1998): 51–124.

[2] Joseph Fielding Smith, The Progress of Man (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1964), 197–98; Mark E. Peterson, The Great Prologue (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1975); Gordon B. Hinckley, “At the Summit of the Ages,” Ensign, November 1999, 73.

[3] Statement of the First Presidency regarding God’s Love for All Mankind, February 15, 1978.

[4] See John P. McKay and others, A History of World Societies 2, Since 1500, 5th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflen, 2000), 647.

[5] See maps in the chapter by Robert S. Patterson and E. Dale LeBaron, “Preparing the World and the Church for the Preaching of the Gospel since 1945,” in this volume.

[6] See Merrill J. Bateman, “The Dawn of a New Millennium,” BYU Devotional Address, January 11, 2000,–00/MJBatemanW00.html.