Daring to Stand: President Monson’s Priesthood Address

President Monson’s address during this October’s Priesthood session at first seems somewhat unremarkable in theme: he bemoans the lack of moral compasses found in folks today, and calls on members of the Priesthood to stand up and be counted as Mormons and to adhere to the laws of God. This is a familiar theme for President Monson, who is a missionary through and through. The talk raises a few questions and takes a novel approach in describing what it means to stand as a Mormon. This post is a brief walking tour of President Monson’s address, going through the themes and issues of his remarks in order. The audio of the talk is available here.

His address begins with a piece from the NY Times, the excerpts of which are pretty hilarious. I believe President Monson is referring to this op-ed (thanks Tim!) (the very notion that President Monson reads the New York Times is revelatory enough!). Respondents to a survey don’t know what a moral dilemma is, let alone how to resolve one, and school, institutions and families are failing to help cultivate our “moral intuitions.” Not so in our Church, says President Monson: “none within the sound of my voice should be in any doubt concerning what is moral and what is not, nor should any be in doubt about what is expected of us as holders of the priesthood of God.” President Monson seems to take the moral instruction of the Church as a given — or, perhaps more accurately, he asserts that the Church is a clear source of moral instruction.

President Monson does not address the issue of whether we are really learning to cultivate our moral intuitions in the Church, whether our manuals and classes are doing an adequate job of giving us not just a rulebook, but in giving the testimony and the wits we need to be moral people regardless of context. This is not the purpose of his talk, which focuses on courage, but the pedagogy of moral instruction is a problematic enterprise. It is a lacuna that should strike each teacher and parent in the Church. It is not extreme to say that raising moral people requires more than just publishing a list of rules and emphasizing obedience to those rules. As such, our approach may need to go beyond the straightforward resources provided by CES or other Church publishing arms. President Monson’s talk contains therefore an implicit call to arms for all those involved in teaching or leadership in the Church to address moral instruction in a serious way.

But back to President Monson’s sermon, which then focuses on courage and testimony, daring to stand alone for your faith: “What a powerful tool of the adversary is ridicule and mockery! Again, brethren, do we have the courage to stand strong and firm in the face of such difficult opposition?” President Monson offers a couple of examples of times when he needed courage in the face of opposition: when serving in the Navy, and when on a bus when someone was inquiring about the Mormons. These are helpful examples because they are not dramatic or extreme (compare Joseph F. Smith’s “true blue, through and through” story). President Monson teaches us that daring to stand for our faith can be a relatively straightforward, simple thing, yet vital to our character as members of the Church.

One potentially problematic bit, which I found unnecessary to President Monson’s purpose yet seemingly running counter to other contemporaneous messages from the Church: the quotation offered from President Ezra Taft Benson. The quotation reads in part, “Make no mistake about it — you are a marked generation. For nearly six thousand years God has held you in reserve to make your appearance in the final days before the second coming…God has saved for the final inning some of His strongest children, who will help bear off the kingdom triumphantly.” I thought we’d finished with some of these messages of how amazing we are, which run a little too close to folk stories for my personal tastes. But by quoting President Benson, President Monson effectively establishes these folk notions as doctrine. So, it turns out that it’s official doctrine that you guys are all awesome! Congrats. Mind you, in this context President Monson uses the quote to serve in equal parts encouragement and guilt trip, so don’t go getting a big head about it or anything.

The guilt sections naturally lead to a sidebar by President Monson about repentance, but even in the midst of the repentance discussion the emphasis is on obedience, dispelling the illusion that members can “have their cake and eat it too”, although what this means precisely is unclear. It most likely refers to the notion that some people don’t live the commandments and seem pretty darned happy — to them, President Monson asserts: “Brethren, I promise you that this will not work in the long run.” This is more nuanced than just ‘wickedness never was happiness'; it is ‘wickedness is not long-term happiness, and it really won’t work out for you, no matter what you might think’. This strikes me as a more down-to-earth and approachable perspective for President Monson to reach out to those members of the Church who might be thinking of giving up.

Finally, President Monson brings his focus to testimony, to the necessity of not just searching things out and obtaining a belief, but in sharing these beliefs with others. Daring to stand as Mormon in President Monson’s view probably boils down to two key concepts: keeping the commandments and acting as a missionary. A testimony is central to each of these. Again, nothing particularly earth-shattering, but a solid reminder that the proper basis for moral action in the Church is a solid testimony in the restored Gospel.

Part of my analysis whenever I listen in Priesthood session is to ask the question, “why is this given in Priesthood session instead of in the general sessions of Conference? What is the Priesthood-specific message?” Often the answer to the question is “beats me.” I think in the case of President Monson’s sermon the answer lies not in the doctrinal content of the message so much as the emphasis of the message and the expectations from the speaker. Because we are holders of the priesthood, President Monson explains, we have special rights and responsibilities that we are expected to fulfill. In other words, we expect more out of the priesthood. This may indeed be the only distinguishing factor in Priesthood session addresses over the past several decades*.

All in all, an interesting talk from a terrific speaker. I love President Monson and I think he has left us with some thought-provoking and challenging ideas, assuming that we take the time to explore them in depth.

————————————–
*It’s just a theory.

Comments

  1. “But by quoting President Benson, President Monson effectively establishes these folk notions as doctrine.” Does that really make it doctrine? I remember reading a great article once, can’t remember what it’s called, about how Doctrine is established in the LDS church. I remember it saying that for something to be doctrine, it not only needs to be repeated multiple times by church leaders in general conference, but also needs to be backed by scripture. Sorry I don’t have the source here.

  2. Also, I’m not sure why I capitalized Doctrine there … I honestly have capitalizing issues.

  3. Steve, aside from the very specifics, everything you say here could be equally applied to President Monson’s Sunday Morning talk as well, particularly the business of the world losing its moral compass. I know some folks will be tempted to think of this as a generational gap, rather than moral dissolution. Do you see a clear way to judge the difference?

  4. John, prophets have decried the moral dissolution of the world since the time of Noah. That doesn’t make them wrong, but it does make them sound repetitive. The temptation is to disregard the message as a broken record, but I think that’s a mistake.

    ingridlola, you’re thinking of J. Reuben Clark’s famous article, “When Are the Writings and Sermons of Church Leaders. Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?”. Suffice it to say that when the Prophet quotes another prophet in General Conference, that’s a pretty clear sign.

  5. You mention the New York Times and not the Wall Street Journal? I think that he reads the WSJ is just as interesting.

  6. That was in the Sunday Morning address, Ivan. Totally throwing a bone to the conservatives there.

  7. Chris Gordon says:

    As a thought about why this message was given in priesthood session versus a general session, it might have to do with one of the goals outlined in the Dec. 15, 2009 letter to local leadership.

    With language now incorporated into the CHI2, 3.4, there’s this vague reference to a leadership purpose of “increasing priesthood activity.” I have no idea what this is referring to specifically, but I suspect there’s a challenge here for the brethren to better teach and be better missionaries in the types of situations President Monson is describing. You know, in addition to being guardians of virtue.

  8. Steve, actually that wasn’t the once I was thinking of … It was called something like “What is Doctrine?” I read it for a New Testament class at BYU. I’m going to look around and see if I can find it.

  9. Steve,
    I guess our morals are always declining somewhere. I’m just trying to find the difference between “I don’t like that because it’s not what I’m used to” and “That is an imminent danger to our moral foundations” in prophetic speech. We could rely on universals (never good to lie, steal, etc), but the specifics make moral claims about the universals that are hard to judge (downloading MP3s isn’t stealing (or it isn’t much like stealing) and so forth).

  10. Chris Gordon says:

    John C., fascinating question. I was thinking a lot about where the line is between that generational disappointment which may or may not need to be taken with a grain of salt, and seeing what many see as progress really being decay. It’s especially problematic because much of what was much labeled “turmoil” and “pernicious” were important social movements in the 60’s and 70’s, all of which was particularly abhorrent to much of the greatest generation.

    I was particularly troubled inwardly about the references to this “time” where much of the world felt the way we do about morality, since there was also a time where much of the world was in harmony about some pretty whacked out views of social justice.

    I’m pretty conservative and was still troubled, so that’s saying something. :)

  11. Chris Gordon says:

    RE: Doctrine, this is a pretty good link:

    http://newsroom.lds.org/article/approaching-mormon-doctrine

  12. ingridlola,
    Was it this?

  13. Peter LLC says:

    So, it turns out that it’s official doctrine that you guys are all awesome!

    Does this apply to the members of the popular musical formation otherwise known as Blink-182?

  14. John C. — ??????

    Not everything has to be so partisan. I guess the addresses all just blended together in my mind. Not that big a deal.

    Really, take a step back, a deep breath, and repeat “Not everything needs to be seem through a political prism.” One reason I rarely comment at BCC – naked, ugly partisanship like yours turns me off.

  15. Yes, I remember reading that for this class … I believe there was another one as well that was a little bit longer and had a similar list format like that. I emailed my professor and asked him about it. I remember it was interesting to see how few things we really can consider “doctrine.” I’ll let you know if I find it.

  16. Ivan,
    It was a joke. A stupid one, but it was a joke. (I was mocking that very politicization)

  17. I think President Monson might have been to referring to a recent David Brooks column in the NYT.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/13/opinion/if-it-feels-right.html

    So maybe he just reads Brooks.

  18. Tim, that’s probably it. But my link is a better read! I’ve updated the OP.

  19. Ivan, I think it’s safe to say you missed John C.’s joke. A wee bit sensitive, are we? President Monson didn’t mention the WSJ in this talk, but yes he is known as a voracious reader — an admirable trait.

  20. I think what the NYT showed more than anything else is the decline of liberal arts in our children’s education than some ever-perceived moral decline. It’s not a lack of morals, its a lack of tools to express them.

  21. Here’s that other article on doctrine – http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/study-and-faith-selections-religious-educator/chapter-6-what-our-doctrine

    This part sticks out to me:

    “In determining whether something is a part of the doctrine of the Church, we might ask, Is it found within the four standard works? Within official declarations or proclamations? Is it discussed in general conference or other official gatherings by general Church leaders today? Is it found in the general handbooks or approved curriculum of the Church today? If it meets at least one of these criteria, we can feel secure and appropriate about teaching it.”

    I suppose that quote does techincally qualify as doctrine since it was repeated twice in General Conference, though personally I don’t think that qualifies it as doctrine since it was just a quote and not necessarily “discussed.” I know that could be up for argument, though.

  22. Steve Evans says:

    Ingridlola, really you need to read the Clark article. It is the best exploration of the topic.

  23. Cool. I’ll go read it now.

  24. You could also say that priesthood sessions are blunt, to the point, and more about repenting than the other general sessions.

  25. Steve Evans says:

    Invariably, yes.

  26. As for the “marked generation” quote, I now have to update my last post on “the chosen generation.”

  27. Steve – okay, missed the joke. Apologies John C. if I did.

    As for “he is known as a voracious reader — an admirable trait.” That was the point I was trying to get at.

  28. NP, Ivan. I’ve certainly had sensitive moments myself.

  29. They’ve been saying we are the chosen generation since I was a teenager, at least. I was the generation Saturday’s Warrior was written in. But, seriously, Enoch’s generation needed to be just as strong. I really don’t think the “best” were kept until last. I think that is said just to encourage us; if we think we’re special and spiritual, maybe we’ll act the part. After all, no one could have been more chosen that Jesus, and He was born in the middle generation (relatively speaking).

  30. “than Jesus” not “that Jesus”.

  31. I had a completely different concern about the Benson quote:

    “Make no mistake about it — you are a marked generation. For nearly six thousand years God has held you in reserve to make your appearance in the final days before the second coming…God has saved for the final inning some of His strongest children, who will help bear off the kingdom triumphantly.”

    I have never felt that we have finished with the messages of how amazing we are since I consider this to be tightly meshed LDS culture with ancient Semitic beliefs of the need for God to have a “chosen” people, whether due to the chronology of their births, their nationality/ethnic background (lineage), etc etc etc .

    But I did think we were over the millenialist “nearly six thousand years” ago God created Adam. “Nearly” and “final inning” implying the second coming is right around the corner. Obviously, Packer’s previous remarks pre-empted any significance to these end-of-the-world statements. Are we as Mormons expected to believe humans have been around this planet no longer than six thousand years?

  32. Manuel,
    I don’t think we have anything that really tells us how long humans have been around, nor do we have any idea how long years were three or four (or six) thousand years ago.

    We do have the seals in the book of Revelation, but those 7 seals could refer to time periods more than an exact thousand years, each.

    We know so little of our own actual history. We think we know a great deal. We think we know that the earth was created billions (or at least millions) of years ago, but that is all theory, based on less than written records (after all, Adam knew he was the first man, right?). We don’t know. No one who was there left an original record from the first civilization. No one left an original record of how the earth was really created, and no mortal was around to see it anyway.

    So, I see nothing wrong with assuming the earth has only been around (as far as humans living on it) for only 6,000 years, but I would suspect that time period should begin after the fall. Before that, was there time as we know it? Apparently, Adam and Eve went by God’s time, which means one day is a thousand years. If they lived in the garden 365 days, that would be 3, 650 years to us, wouldn’t it?

    Anyway, that’s way off topic, I guess.

  33. LOL! Hum, yeah… That’s exactly what I was concerned about… :-)

  34. Toni, with a basic understanding of science, we know a good deal about how long the earth has been around.

    As for using the phrase “chosen generation” or even “marked generation” I did a corpus search of general conference talks a few months ago. Up until this weekend, President Monson had only ever used the phrase “chosen generation” when addressing the Priesthood (using it as it is used in 1st Peter). The first instance I found in general conference in which the youth were addressed as a special or chosen group, simply for being born at a certain time, was in 1970.

    I think Toni’s comments in #29 are right, but I still have to question the efficacy of such attempts at encouraging faithfulness in the youth.

  35. The idea of a “chosen generation” has been around for centuries, as witnessed by 1 Peter 2:9 “..But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people;”

    I personally don’t like to see any group encouraged to think they are somehow better than everyone else…

  36. Toni,

    Actually we do know exactly how long years were 6ooo years ago. We also know approx. how old the earth is (billions of years), how the continents have moved about the globe, how seas have risen and fallen, and how thousands of animal species have lived and then ultimately become extinct. We also clearly know human beings have been on this planet much longer than 6000 years.

    What we don’t know is how Adam/Eve et al. fits into the scheme of all this.

  37. ByTheRules says:

    What about all of our spiritual brothers and sisters spirtually born in the last 500 years? Are they part of “our” group reserved to be born now? Are there any of our siblings with recent spiritual births that need to be cast out of heaven and not recieve bodies? Or are all of our sibilings with recent spiritual births going to go to a different planet?

    Help me out scholars!

  38. In my search of conference talks using the phrase “chosen generation” there are several different interpretations of who is in that group. Many use the phrase in connection with the passage in 1st Peter and view it as referring to Priesthood holders. Some consider all members of the church as the “chosen generation.” Milton R Hunter in 1947 used the term to refer to the pioneers who made the trek west. In 2006, Paul B Pieper gave a specific interpretation of the phrase “chosen generation” to refer to the first generation of a family to join the church; that first member to join becomes the chosen generation through which past and future generations are blessed.

    Oh wow. I just now read your question instead of just skimming. Well, first you have to determine what you believe about spirit birth (see here, here, here, and here). As you might guess, there are many different speculations from different individuals (and church leaders) and no consensus on your questions.

  39. Prez Monson brings up an important point. We need to stand up against moral decline in society instead of just going along to get along. That’s why obeying the Laws of God is my way of sticking it to The Man.

  40. ByTheRules says:

    geoffsn:

    Quite a read on your links, but having perused them at length, my point of Gods ongoing progression is not directly addressed. Given that God has not stopped progressing, it is a given that he continues to father/begat/create spirits subsequent to the council in heaven. These spirits as a group have not been addressed.

    But in your suggested readings, it does bring up an additional and interesting concept: Are we currently surrounded by intelligences that will someday have spirit bodies? Is interaction with intelligences as common as interaction with spirits/Holy Ghost/Light of Christ/Just Men Made Perfect, etc.

  41. Ah, sorry didn’t realize from what you’d written that you wanted info on God’s progression. Again, there are vastly different opinions. As you search for more and more sources of information on the topic, you may find that there are so many different and at times conflicting views even from church leaders, that you may conclude (as I have) that we have very little knowledge about these topics and most of our supposed knowledge is speculation.

  42. ByTheRules says:

    geoffsn:

    So a conclusion that those spirits embodied post grand council in heaven are those that constitute the “chosen generation” is as speculative as any? Kind of fun, but in your first answer you mentioned church leader quotes; any suggested references on point?

  43. Question about the morals referred to in GC talks and Sunday School lessons: When was the last time you remember morality being equated with something other than sexual behavior? It has been awhile since I have heard talks against things like lying, steeling, hoarding, corruption, etc. Is morality, in Church-speak, a narrowly used code word, like virtue?

  44. “Is morality, in Church-speak, a narrowly used code word, like virtue?”

    Unfortunately, yes.

    One illustration: I was a member of a certain organization in college that had as members about 50% mormons and 50% non-mormons. This was the Univ. of Utah, so that was normal. Anyway, this organization had language in it’s bylaws that mentioned that the organization was to advocate for and abide by the highest moral standards. The problem was that that many of the Mormon members kept insisting that this meant we were to inquire into the sexual behavior of prospective members. We finally had to change the word in the bylaws to “ethical” instead of “moral” in order to end this constant debate.

  45. So, I’m wandering around this site, and realize that there have been posts on this thread since I posted. Thanks for your comments, those of you who answered my posts.

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