Nothing else at BYU has surprised me except him. I knew I was gonna meet professors like [Hall, Welch, Parry & Ricks], and I knew I was gonna meet cool, open-minded Mormons like Adam & Nick & Julie & Kristi. I even knew I’d meet professors like Keller. But I never thought I’d meet someone like him.
I had my first class from Eric D. Huntsman when I took Roman History (ClCv 307) from him in Fall Semester 2002, which was also the semester I became the president of the on-campus evangelical Christian club. Huntsman was, at the time, an assistant professor in the classics department and I enjoyed his teaching style immensely. Something about the way he lectured always made me feel like I was listening to a Protestant preacher, and I could tell that I would like to get to know him better, but there were 50-60 students in the class and I didn’t feel like I had much of an excuse to introduce myself to him personally.
On October 30, 2002, Eta Sigma Phi (the classics honor society) held a club event at which Huntsman would be the speaker. Some of the students were going to dress up for it since it was so close to Halloween, so I borrowed an LDS missionary name tag from a friend, donned a black skirted suit, a CTR ring and a “Hold To The Rod” necklace and attended the party dressed as a sister missionary. Most of the club members knew about my non-member status and chuckled as soon as they saw my costume.
Huntsman later asked what was so funny about it, and I explained, “It’s funny because I’m not Mormon.” His eyes kind of lit up as I told him I was an evangelical Christian, and he mentioned that he had gone to high school in Tennessee and attended Baptist youth groups and Young Life as a teenager. He seemed to pick up pretty quickly that I already knew plenty about the LDS church and didn’t try to test my knowledge of the basics. We got to talking about LDS church history and polygamy, and he even mentioned the second 1904 injunction to stop the further practices of polygamy. He recommended that I check out Mormonism in Transition by Thomas G. Alexander to learn more about it. That was the first I had ever heard of the Second Manifesto, and it was rare that I met people who were so open and forward about the patchier parts of LDS history. It was refreshing, to say the least.2
As I got to know Huntsman more, he impressed me often. He had a way of looking at salvation and grace and regeneration which seemed rather Protestant, even though he described it within the LDS framework. I wondered if he was some sort of covert Protestant in the LDS system, but that really did not seem to be the case. He had served as an LDS bishop for his ward for six and a half years and had recently joined the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. His ties to the LDS church were very deep. On one occasion Huntsman mentioned that his ancestors go back to the LDS polygamists, and I said, “I betcha my ancestors used to persecute your ancestors.” He said that was okay, we could still be friends.3 He became part of a group of people at the university I could count on to not slide into “missionary mode” and start trying to testify me into the church, and I appreciated that.
For Winter Semester 2003, I was taking both Johannine Writings (Greek 411R) and Greek History (ClCv 304) from Huntsman. While I adored both classes, Johannine Writings was probably my favorite class ever. Huntsman worked hard to incorporate readings on the text from a variety of viewpoints, both religious and secular. One of the main texts for the class was Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics by evangelical scholar Daniel B. Wallace, and Huntsman was always careful to give time to the evangelical viewpoint on certain passages. It wasn’t the same as taking a class on Johannine writings from an evangelical college, but it was the next best thing for my situation.
On Wednesday, January 22, 2003, I went up to Huntsman’s office to see him because I wanted to know how he had gotten involved with the Baptists as a teenager. We talked about so many things that day, and it became clear to me that Huntsman had made Jesus Christ his Lord and Savior just as evangelicals teach you must do, in part because of the influence of his Baptist friends, and yet he had stayed LDS. I remember I told him this was all “weird,” and in retrospect I feel like that was a terrible reaction, but his relationship to evangelical Christianity had thrown me. When I had walked into that office, I had believed the standard evangelical line about how a Mormon can certainly receive Jesus as his Savior, but that saving conviction and the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit will assuredly lead the Mormon out of the church eventually. Huntsman had been a member of the church for years and years, had been a bishop in the church, was about to switch to teaching in the BYU Religion Department and clearly wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.4 Suddenly I wasn’t so sure anymore.
We also talked about his style of teaching and preaching, and he acknowledged with a smile that he would have made a “damn good” pastor. I told him I could especially see him as a youth pastor. He talked about his upcoming switch to teaching in the BYU Religion Department and how God had confirmed to him through prayer and other means of communication that it was the right thing to do. I knew I was going to miss having him in the Classics Department, but somehow I almost immediately knew that he was telling the truth about God wanting him in the Religion Department.5
Huntsman became something of a spiritual mentor to me after that, and I affectionately called him my “evangelical Mormon” professor. I would often visit him and talk to him about whatever was troubling me about being an evangelical at BYU. Here is my journal entry on one of our conversations:
We got to talking about miracles, and he told me about one of the healings he’s been involved in, and I told him that I’ve honestly never witnessed a true miracle. Sure, I’ve seen personal miracles, but nothing that a skeptic couldn’t find a logical explanation for. And sometimes I meet these people who speak in tongues and work miracles and are just spiritual phenomena, and they make me feel like a junior varsity Christian, I told him.
Dr. Huntsman was like, “Jack, what’s the more important miracle: that God saved you from suicide and made you Jack and changed your life when you were 16, or that you witness all of these things?” That almost brought me to tears. I’d never thought of it like that. I take so much for granted, Lord. Thank You. I just wanna grow as You see fit.
We walked out toward his car, and as we went he mentioned that he’d prayed about me. He’d asked God if I was going to join the church. And God’s answer was, “If I tell her to.” He takes me seriously. He doesn’t treat me like I don’t know God. He believes that I try to obey You, Lord.6
While he loves the evangelical style of preaching and teaching, and it suits his personality well, Huntsman is also very fond of traditional Protestant high-church liturgies and rituals, and I don’t really blame him. Ritual is the one thing I wish I had a little more of in my own evangelical worship, but it’s difficult to have everything.
People often ask me if I think Mormons can be saved in spite of incorrect theology. Before I knew Huntsman, I think my answer to that question was “probably not.” Now? I definitely believe it’s possible. I even believe that it’s possible that God wants some people in the LDS church. I don’t know why God told Huntsman to stay in the church, but I sure was glad he was there for me at BYU when he was.
If you are a student at BYU, I can’t encourage you enough to seek out Huntsman as a teacher, whether you are evangelical or LDS. His courses are academically rigorous, but you will not regret having him as a teacher. He also co-authored Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament: A Latter-day Saint Perspective along with Richard N. Holzapfel and Thomas A. Wayment, which I think makes a great resource for any LDS family.
————————————————– 1 Some context on this entry: Hall, Welch, Ricks and Parry were all professors I had who were also writers for FARMS and had something of an LDS apologetics bent to their teaching. Adam, Nick, Julie and Kristi were friends and/or members of my ward and/or fellow classics majors who were very close to me and always treated me and my faith well. Keller was my religion teacher and had been a Presbyterian minister for years and years before converting to Mormonism, so he understood evangelical Christianity very well even though he no longer identified with it. I had great relationships with all of these people, and I certainly treasured their friendship, but at that point Huntsman was the first Mormon I had ever met whose evangelical tendencies completely floored me.
2 Recorded in my journal on Thursday, October 31, 2002. The actual date of the Eta Sigma Phi event was Wednesday, October 30, 2002. I made a later mention of how Huntsman had recommended Mormonism in Transition on Saturday, November 9, 2002.
3 Journal entry for Tuesday, December 3, 2002. I don’t actually know whether my ancestors persecuted Mormon polygamists; geneaology isn’t really my thing. I just have a lot of Southern ancestry.
4 I should also note that Huntsman was and has been an ordinance worker serving weekly in the Provo Temple since 2002, so it’s not like he doesn’t participate in the most distinctive parts of the Mormon worship experience.