During General Conference this last weekend, two separate members of the Seventies Quorums quoted from a talk apostle Ezra Taft Benson delivered at BYU entitled “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet.” It is notable that the talk was not without controversy when it was given. Many authorities apparently were supportive but according to his biographer, “Spencer [Kimball] felt concern about the talk, wanting to protect he Church against being misunderstood as espousing ultraconservative politics or an unthinking ‘follow the leader’ mentality.”  What follows is a review of each point with some historical context and my own thoughts and analysis.
First, I think it is important to note at the outset that no one is called or ordained as the “Prophet of the Church.” We have a “Church President” or “President of the High Priesthood,” or President of the “First Presidency,” that we sustain with 14 or so others as having a prophetic capacity. So for clarity’s sake, I am editing Benson’s litany to refer to the Church President.
First: The [Church President] is the only man who speaks for the Lord in everything.
I think what Benson means is generally accepted, though I am not sure what it means to “speak for the Lord in everything.” The Lord speaks on his own in many things. But I do think that the Latter-day Saints believe that the Church President has the right to reveal the will of the Lord on any subject.
To bolster his statement, Benson quotes D&C 132:7: “There is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred.” I think this statement was true when the revelation was delivered in 1843; however, the whole principle of succession in our Church for the last 170 years or so has functioned on the basis that all members of the Council of the Twelve Apostles and First Presidency hold all the power and keys of the Priesthood. For succession to work, we say that though all those folks hold those keys and powers, only the Church President (and by extension the First Presidency) are authorized to direct their use. Otherwise, Strangites FTW.
Benson then quotes from the Revelation delivered at the organization of the Church. Now it is important to note that technically there were only three or four callings in the church at this point: maybe deacons (first evidence is given 4 days later), teachers, priests and elders. Joseph Smith is the first elder but God calls him a seer, translator, prophet and an apostle in the revelation. The Lord then says “Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his [Joseph Smith] words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me. For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.” Commandments at this point meant written revelations. I’m not sure about “words” in this context, but it is hard to say that either Joseph or the Church thought that they should do whatever Joseph said. Still he revealed skads of material to the church over the next 14 years, not all of which was written.
Should the modern church map the words of this revelation (Joseph Smith>>Church) onto the modern Church (Sitting Church President>>Church)? I think it works pretty well. Note that the revelation isn’t saying that Smith’s words were the Lord’s, just that the Lord wanted the people to treat him that way. It is quite certain that Smith got things wrong on occasion; but that wasn’t the point. Giving the words of the Church President serious treatment is important. And it is hard to think of many times in recent memory when the Church President has spoken and following his words hasn’t been demonstrably beneficial.
Second: The living [Church President] is more vital to us than the standard works.
For support, Benson read an account by Wilford Woodruff, where he related that at an early conference of the Church, some people wanted to confine teaching to the Book of Mormon, Bible, and Doctrine and Covenants. Joseph Smith asked Brigham Young to talk, who said those books were nothing to him compared to the living oracles.
I like to think of the Church President as they guy with the keys to the car (the car is the church). God lets him drive wherever he wants. Here is the thing, you need someone with the keys to drive the car. So of course, for the church, the living church president trumps the standard works. They can’t drive you anywhere.
Here is the other thing, though; as soon as he dies, all of the sudden, everything he said and everywhere he drove are less important than the standard works. How is that for temporal justice?
Third: The living [Church President] is more important to us than a dead prophet.
See: car driving metaphor.
Fourth: The [Church President] will never lead the Church astray.
And now things get interesting.
Not surprising, Benson goes to the originator of the terminology, Wilford Woodruff. It is important to know that this idea came about at a time when a not insignificant portion of the Church and its leaders actually thought the Church President may have actually been leading the Church astray (the manifesto). It is hard for me to imagine what that transition felt like to people who had dedicated and sacrificed so much to uphold the old way of things.
First, what would it mean to lead the Church “astray”? I’m not sure that a definition has ever been given. But if 1) the Church President will never lead us astray and 2) current views about God and the plan of salvation are accurate, then “astray” does not mean teaching ideas that are wildly wrong to the Church (see Adam-God). Does this matter that much? Well, no. The driver of the car will die and the offending ideas will inevitably be purged from the carburetor.
- For a good review of sources relating to the talk, including this quote, refer to Edward Kimball’s draft manuscript of Lengthen Your Stride on the CD which came with the biography, chapter 16, page 13.