What have Church Leaders Taught About Gethsemane?

A couple of years ago a friend asked me why in the church we tend to focus on Gethsemane as the place where Christ atoned for our sins. Of course Gethsemane is not the only place Christ suffered for our sins—his Crucifixion is vital as well.

I was surprised at my friend’s question. “Haven’t we always focused on Gethsemane?” I asked myself. Actually, we haven’t. The scriptures don’t say a lot about Gethsemane, and Joseph Smith only refers Christ in Gethsemane one time in his sermons (he didn’t even mention the Savior’s Atonement in that reference)! So I set out to identify what later church leaders have taught about Gethsemane by examining all of the talks in The Journal of Discourses and General Conference from 1859-2018.

I recently published an article explaining the results. It’s called “The Use of Gethsemane by Church Leaders, 1859–2018” and I was blessed to coauthor it with Joshua Barringer, one of my students from Jerusalem. The article is free and I recommend you download it! Here I’ll give a one-page synopsis, but it’s a 28-page article chock full of goodness, so I recommend you download the article and read the whole thing!

The first thing I learned was that we have talked a lotmore about Gethsemane in recent decades. The median point for the usage ofGethsemane between 1859 and 2018 is 1987. A total of 139 speakers havecollectively referred to the word Gethsemane 396 times between 1859 and 2018.

Figure 1. Church Leaders’ Use of Gethsemane by Decade

A key theme, mentioned as early as 1859, but emphasized primarily between 1982 and the present, is that in Gethsemane Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins. Although two significant scriptural passages link the Savior’s suffering in Gethsemane with his paying the price for our sins, in the early years of the Church, few Church leaders use Gethsemane to discuss the Christ suffering for our sins.

Another important theme, similarly emphasized in recent years, is that in Gethsemane Jesus Christ experienced the pains, infirmities, and sorrows suffered by all humanity. The scriptures are specific that Jesus Christ would take upon him the infirmities of his people (see Alma 7:11–13) and “[suffer] . . . the pains of every living creature, both men, women, and children” (2 Ne. 9:21; see also Isa. 53:3–5 [compare Mosiah 14:3–5]; D&C 18:11). However, the scriptures do not specify where this suffering took place, although some of the passages speak of the Savior suffering our infirmities in connection with his death (e.g., Alma 7:12).

It was not until 1961 that Gethsemane was identified in a conference talk as the specific location of Christ’s suffering our pains. Between 1983 and 2018 the emphasis on Christ’s vicarious suffering of our pains specifically in Gethsemane became much more common, appearing thirty-one times. For example, Elder Neal A. Maxwell said, “We can confidently cast our cares upon the Lord because, through the agonizing events of Gethsemane, . . . Jesus is already familiar with our sins, sicknesses, and sorrows. . . . He can carry them now because He has successfully carried them before!”

In recent years, a key focus has been on the fact that Christ suffered for our sins in Gethsemane and on the cross. For example, Sister Jean B. Bingham, Relief Society General President, declared, “In the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross of Calvary, He felt all of our pains, afflictions, temptations, sicknesses, and infirmities.” President Henry B. Eyring similarly stated, “Jesus Christ bore in Gethsemane and on the cross the weight of all our sins. He experienced all the sorrows, the pains, and the effects of our sins so that He could comfort and strengthen us through every test in life.”

Studying what church leaders have taught about Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane has deepened my understanding of what happened on that sacred evening. I’ve only scratched the surface of my findings in this post. If you haven’t already done so, please read the full article! I think you’ll enjoy it. You might also be interested in my new book about peace—I share some insights on Gethsemane in chapter 1.

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