Except under very unusual circumstances, debates play no part in the approved system of presenting the message of salvation to the world or of persuading members of the Church to accept a particular doctrine or view. Almost always a debate entrenches each contestant and his sympathizers more firmly in the views already held. — Elder Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, p. 186; Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, pp. 150-51
Quite generally the Lord counsels his servants not to engage in debates and arguments, but to preach in power the fundamental principles of the Gospel. This was a condition that required some action of this kind, and the Spirit of the Lord directed these brethren to go forth and confound their enemies which they proceeded immediately to do, as their enemies were unable to substantiate their falsehoods and were surprised by this sudden challenge so boldly given. Much of the prejudice was allayed and some friends made through this action. — President Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 1:269; Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, p. 151
Some there are who think we are afraid to meet anyone in debate. Not so. It is much harder for our young brethren to keep from debating than it is to engage in it; for they feel that they have the truth, and they are not afraid to meet anyone in defense of principles in which they believe. But we have only one object in view in going out amongst the nations, and that is to follow the Master’s instructions – to go out and teach men. That is our work. We do not go out to win battles as debaters; but we go out to teach men that which we have received, and which we know is true. . . . Those who seek to debate with our Elders and thirst for the honor of beating them in argument, do not want to be taught; they simply want contention. Paul tells us to avoid contention. He said: “But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” (I Cor. 11:16) So we say, contention is not our custom, and we advise our missionaries not to contend, but simply go out and teach the principles of the Gospel. — Elder Anthon H. Lund, Conference Report, October 1902, pp. 80-81; (Daniel H. Ludlow, A Companion to Your Study of the Doctrine and Covenants, Volumes 1 and 2, , p. 146[Excerpt from “The Debate,” in Willard Bean, the Fighting Parson; date: 1893.]
The missionaries in Van Buren County had been challenged by a Campbellite minister to debate the plan of salvation. The Campbellites were persistent, and the college students in that town were especially anxious to have the opposing forces meet.
Willard wrote the details to [Mission] President [J. Golden] Kimball asking for his advice on the matter. “Debate him and may the Lord be with you,” was the president’s reply. The elders in the district overwhelmingly agreed that Willard was the man for the debate. Feeling less than adequate, he reluctantly consented.
When Willard arrived in Spencer at the appointed time, he found that the whole town had the jitters. The impending debate was the subject of discussion wherever two or more people congregated. Willard began to sense the great responsibility resting upon him and passed his concern on to the Lord.
What Willard hoped would be a good night’s sleep turned out to be full of agitation – people calling to ask questions; others informing him that his opponent, Reverend Gillentine, had been a pastor for 19 years and was irrefutably qualified to present their doctrines. Gillentine had engaged in numerous debates with Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists in the past and had an almost flawless record.
The articles of agreement for the debate were drawn up as follows: “Resolved that Mormonism, so called, is not the gospel of Jesus Christ according to King James translation of the scriptures.”
Each debater was to have four hours and twenty minutes for presentation of his case, rebuttal and summary. Each side selected a moderator. Mr. Baldwin, a Methodist, was chosen to be referee.
Because of his youth and inexperience, Willard was naturally the underdog. Now, as never before, he was impressed by the words of Paul to the Corinthians:
“For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: that no flesh shall glory in His presence.” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29)
The next morning people began to flock in from the country until the chapel was filled to capacity. Many were unable to get inside, so the chapel windows were opened for the benefit of spectators sitting on surrounding lawns to listen to the service.
After devotional exercises, Reverend Gillentine entered the pulpit arena and opened up a bombardment which lasted a solid hour. He laid his foundation as follows: “Repent ye and believe the gospel.” (He placed repentance before faith.) “If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest be baptized.” (He failed to place confession before baptism.) The convert is then ready to receive the Spirit – “My word is Spirit.” (He said the New Testament is the word of God, hence His Spirit.) This was the sum total of his Plan of Salvation.
During Willard’s rebuttal, he quoted scripture that had been previously misquoted as well as much relevant scripture which had not been quoted at all. He also placed quotations in their proper order giving some of them a different interpretation.
At the afternoon session, Willard was first up to bat. He took his text from John 17:3: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.”
After quoting ample scripture to prove that the Holy Trinity consisted of three separate personages, he began to weave into the Plan of Salvation. Reverend Gillentine was at a loss to tear down his platform from a Biblical standpoint, so he delved into his satchel and brought out three fiction anti-Mormon books to bolster his argument, adding a little semi-repartee of his own about “Joe Smith” as he called him. His principal stock in trade slanted toward vilification and abuse.
The following morning, Willard gave the opening talk. He first drew the attention of the congregation to the fact that the articles of agreement said they must take King James translation of the scriptures as their sole guide. Reverend Gillentine’s repeated slander of the prophet Joseph Smith didn’t even please his friends. Willard asked the congregation how they would feel if he referred to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as Abe, Ike and Jake; or Peter, James and John as Pete, Jim and Jack. He explained that for 4000 years God had revealed his will to inspired prophets, seers, patriarchs and revelators and that Christ built His church on revelation. He quoted much scripture bearing on that subject.
During the reverend’s rebuttal, he again misquoted much scripture – often by design, not by accident. Willard brought to the attention of the congregation that in practically every chapter of the Bible there are words and sometimes entire sentences printed in italics which are not a part of the original scriptures but were added by uninspired translators as they understood them. He pointed out several scriptures whose meanings were drastically changed when the italicized words were omitted.
When Reverend Gillentine stood to deliver his summary, he had little to say. He had shot his last cartridge, so he resorted to his pet hobby of ridicule and vituperation which got him nowhere. Willard had held strictly to the Bible; the overconfident reverend had not.
The Mormon elders received dozens of requests to call on people and stay overnight as a result of the debate. They attended the Methodist Church the next morning and preached the evening sermon by request that night. The professor at the local college invited the missionaries to school the next day and dismissed some of the class periods to give them time to speak to the students.
The youth were especially enthusiastic. “You beat Gillentine at his own game, and we are proud of you. He wasn’t even respectful. He got mean and lost his head,” was the reaction of one student. Another young observer said, “He had no trouble with beating the Presbyterians and Methodists, but Mormonism is like a porcupine full of quills. You quoted so much scripture that he couldn’t penetrate it without pricking his fingers.”
Willard passed the credit along to the Lord who is able to magnify “even weak things” to accomplish His purposes. — Vicki Bean Topliff, Willard Bean, the Fighting Parson, pp. 28-31