Prophetic Fallibility, Institutional Revelation, and Institutional Salvation.

This post is inspired by some of the discussion on Stapely’s recent excellent post on the problems with defending the church’s pre-1978 policy to exclude black members from receiving the priesthood or the blessings of the temple. One of Stapely’s points is that the reasons that Brigham Young gave for the ban were demonstrably wrong. Several commenters asked a variation of these questions: If we acknowledge that church leaders can be wrong about something so important, then can we ever trust them? And if so, how can we distinguish between when they are speaking by revelation and when they are just wrong?

This post is this is an attempt to explore those questions. In doing so it draws together a few different threads: (1) the old perennial question of how to know when a prophet is “speaking as a prophet,” (2) the role that the body of the membership of the church plays in receiving institutional revelation, (3) Wilford Woodruff’s statement that the Lord will not permit the president of the church to “lead the church astray,” and (4) the idea of assured salvation (trust me, it will make sense when we get there).
1. When is a prophet speaking as a prophet?
We’re going to jump off with Elder Christofferson’s April 2012 Conference talk, “The Doctrine of Christ.” I think this talk is the most recent extended discussion by an apostle of the question of how to know when a church leader is speaking by revelation. Elder Christofferson attempts to explain how the church’s doctrine is defined, and his answer, is that the church’s doctrine is defined by revelation. But his discussion of how God gives revelation to the church is nuanced:
Elder Christofferson says there are two main ways prophets receive revelation for the church:
  • First, the Lord may give revelation directly to the president of the church. Elder Christofferson points to the Joseph F. Smith’s vision described in D&C 138 as an example.
  • Second, the combined council of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles may council together, weighing scriptures, teachings of church leaders, and past practice, and petition the Lord for guidance as a group. Elder Christofferson points to the revelation behind Official Declaration 2 as an example. (For a more detailed discussion of what led to the revelation behind Official Declaration 2, read Edward L. Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on the Priesthood, BYU Studies 47:2 at 5-78 (2008). EVERYONE SHOULD READ THIS. This history is not nearly as well known as it should be.)
But of course, not everything prophets say is revelation. Elder Christofferson quotes Joseph Smith’s rejection of the idea that a prophet is “always a prophet” in favor of the idea that a prophet is a prophet only when he is “acting as such.” And even published revelations acknowledge Joseph Smith’s limited knowledge and propensity to make mistakes. See D&C 10:37 (reminding Joseph Smith that he “cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous”). So if a prophet’s words are not always revelation, when are a prophet’s word’s revelation?
To answer that question, Elder Christofferson relies pretty heavily on what has become the classic source: President J. Reuben Clark’s 1954 talk “When are Church Leaders’ Words Entitled to Claim of Scripture?” President Clark gave this talk at a time when general authorities were expressing different opinions about the issue of evolution, and some of them had published strong, dogmatic-sounding pronouncements that some members took as a claim that those opinions were definitive statements of doctrine.
President Clark tackled this question by starting with D&C 68:4: “whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.” Using this scripture, President Clark argues that the key is whether the prophet was “moved upon my the holy ghost” when he spoke. President Clark dismisses anyone who is not the president of the church or acting under his direction as not “moved upon by the holy ghost” if that person holds himself out as giving institutional revelation to the church. But then he acknowledges “that even the President of the church himself may not always be ‘moved upon by the holy ghost’ when he addresses the people.” (He mentions “adventurous speculation” by general authorities, and though he doesn’t say so explicitly, I think it’s pretty obvious that he’s alluding directly to Brigham Young’s Adam-God doctrine).
So the question becomes how can the church know when a prophet is “moved upon by the Holy Ghost”? President Clark’s answer to that question was this:
The church will know by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members, whether the brethren in voicing their views are ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost’; and in due time that knowledge will be made manifest.
This also seems to be Elder Christofferson’s answer as well. He quotes this passage specifically in footnote six to his 2012 conference talk. I think this answer is significant. For President Clark, it’s not enough to say that the statement was made in conference, or on official letterhead, or over the signature of the first presidency, or that the president of the church said “thus saith the Lord” or “in the name of Jesus Christ.” There’s no easy litmus test. The real question is whether the Holy Ghost witnesses “in due time” to “the body of the members” that it was true.
I agree with President Clark’s answer. I don’t believe there is a simple litmus test, but I consider President’s Clark’s answer to be the lodestar for determining whether the teachings of a church leader are church doctrine. I would add to it a few additional guiding principles that I have found helpful whether a particular statement was given as “moved upon by the Holy Ghost”:
  • First, the closer we are to the fundamental principles of the gospel–the atonement, grace, faith in Christ, repentance, baptism, and sanctification by the reception of the holy ghost–the more likely we are moved upon by the holy ghost. The further we are from these principles, the more likely we are speaking by our own lights. See 3 Ne. 11:31-35. (Elder Christofferson quotes these verses at length in his talk). See also D&C 19:31.
  • Second, when we’re dealing with a statement made unanimously by the twelve and the first presidency, or a statement that many of the brethren have repeated, it’s more likely that they are moved upon by the holy ghost than when it’s one leader saying something idiosyncratic, or multiple leaders disagreeing. So, for example, the controversy between Joseph Fielding Smith and B.H. Roberts and others about creationism seems to me to be a question of church leaders expressing their own opinions, not speaking revelation.
  • Third, when we’re dealing with a statement that was made a long time ago and has not been repeated by more recent church leaders, that weighs in favor of the statement not being revelation, or at least, not timeless revelation. The church’s former opposition to birth control might be an example of this. It is simply not an issue today.
2. The role of the membership of the church in receiving institutional revelation.
At first glance, President Clark’s answer that it is the testimony of the Holy Ghost to the body of the members of the church that provides the key to whether a church leader is speaking as moved upon by the Holy Ghost might look like nothing more than the idea that individual members can pray for themselves and know that the prophet is speaking the truth. But I think there’s more to it than that. President Clark doesn’t just refer to the individual members of the church, he refers to “the body of the members.” I think he’s getting at a notion of the membership of the church acting in its official capacity as a ‘quorum’ of sorts. This notion is something similar to the capacity that the membership acts in when it sustains the decisions and actions of its leadership.
As I wrote a bit about in my post on conferences, the membership of the church forms the oldest and most basic body of church business. Before there were any priesthood quorums, the church did all church business in conferences, where the membership of the church did the business. Over time, much of the day-to-day business moved from conferences to councils, but many of the decisions of those councils need to be confirmed by the membership of the church in conferences to be valid. Ultimately, the most important council in the church is the membership.
And as I’ve written about before, I believe that prophecy is a gift of the spirit that it doesn’t come from ordination alone, but comes only from God. And like all gifts of the spirit, institutional revelation is given according to faith of the institution.
The membership of the church therefore plays a vital role in receiving institutional revelation for the church in at least two ways: First, we, as a body, have to have the faith to receive institutional revelation. Second, it is not enough to have the president of the church dictate revelation; we, the body of the members, have t have the faith to receive the witness of the Holy Ghost to confirm that revelation, just as we have to give our sustaining vote to confirm the actions of the leaders of the church.
This is an interesting contrast to the idea of papal infallibility. The catholic dogma is that the pope’s declarations are infallible when he is speaking ex cathedra (and that is further defined as speaking by his papal authority, to define a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the entire church). I’ve said before that the doctrine of papal infallibility is not that different, in practice, to the idea that a prophet declares revelation when he is “acting as” a prophet. But President Clark’s answer that institutional revelation necessarily requires the confirming testimony of the Holy Ghost to the members of the church is different. The Catholic answer is essentially a question of whether the pope properly exercised his authority. President Clark’s answer, by contrast, focuses on the reception of the teaching by the church.
I think it’s significant that the two examples Elder Christofferson chose to illustrate institutional revelation (OD-2 and Section 138) were examples that were formally adopted by the body of the members of the church in conference. Between that and his quoting President Clark’s answer verbatim in the footnote to his talk, I think Elder Christofferson is endorsing President Clark’s answer: we can know when the President of the Church is moved upon by the Holy Ghost when the Holy Ghost witnesses it to the body of the church.
The other interesting bit in President Clark’s answer is “in due time.” This suggests to me that perhaps the “body of the members” he refers to is not just the membership that exists at any one point in time, but a larger “body of the members” that exists across time. This seems to me like an important check on temporary trends and groupthink.
3. Can the president of the church make big mistakes?
President Clark’s recognition that even the president of the church may not always be “moved upon by the holy ghost” when he addresses the membership seems potentially to be in tension with President Woodruff’s statement in a conference talk at the same conference where he introduced the manifesto that he could not lead the church astray and that if he tried to, God would remove him from the presidency. See Deseret Evening News, p. 2 (Oct. 11, 1890).
I think there is a way to reconcile them. But first, let’s clear up a few things about President Woodruff’s statement. In the first place, it’s not canon. Official Declaration 1 has been adopted as canonized scripture, but President Woodruff’s statement has not. It is included in our modern edition of the D&C as part of several statements by President Woodruff to give context to OD-1, but it is like the study aids, or the bible dictionary, or the introduction to the Book of Mormon: it is not part of the canon. (And let’s note, neither is President Clark’s talk canon.)
But it was a statement made by the president of the church in conference wasn’t it? Doesn’t that mean it’s scripture? Well, not necessarily. Let’s ground ourselves: there’s a lot of kooky stuff in the Journal of Discourses that was said in conference that we don’t hold ourselves to, and some of which the church has expressly repudiated (like the Adam-God stuff). And again, as President Clark pointed out, canonized scripture says that church leaders’ words are scripture only when spoken as the leader is “moved upon by the holy ghost” (D&C 68:4). Let’s not be unreasonable about that: a person can be moved by the holy ghost and speak revelation, but still put revelation into imperfect language. Joseph Smith often went back to revise written revelations and even the Book of Mormon itself because the language didn’t always accurately capture the revelatory truth he had recieved. The promise that church leaders speaking when moved upon by the holy ghost will speak revelation is a promise that their when they are moved upon by the holy ghost their overall message is from God, but it is not a guarantee that all their language attempting to express that message will be inerrant. Put differently, President Clark asks when church leaders’ words can be called scripture, but even if they are scripture, even scripture is not inerrant–indeed one of the key features of the Book of Mormon is it’s emphatic and repeated rejection of inerrancy. As members of the church, our responsibility is to read church leaders’ words in their context and understand the message intended, not pick words out of context and infuse them with meaning that wasn’t really part of the general message or part of the question that the statement is addressing. (I acknowledge that what I’m doing here is something like the legal distinction between holding and dicta.)
So let’s look at the context of President Woodruff’s statement: the purpose was to reassure the members of the church that President Woodruff was not leading the church astray by abandoning polygamy. It’s one of several arguments that he made over the next several conferences after the manifesto, including the practical argument that were the church to continue official polygamy after the Reynolds decision had extinguished the church’s claim that it had a constitutional right to do so, the government could have seized the temples and driven the church entirely underground. The point was not “here, I’m going to declare forever the definitive doctrine of the church on prophetic fallibility,” the point was more specific than that. Look at the opening lines of his talk: “I want to say to all Israel that the step which I have taken in issuing this manifesto has not been done without earnest prayer before the Lord.” And in fact, he acknowledges the role of the membership of the church in receiving the institutional revelation behind the manifesto:
I want the prayers of the Latter-day Saints. I thank God that I have seen with my eyes this day that this people have been ready to vote to sustain me in an action that I know, in one sense, has pained their hearts….But go before the Lord and ask Him for light and truth and to give us such blessings as we stand in need of. Let your prayers ascend into the ears of the God of Sabaoth, and they will be heard and answered upon your heads, and upon the heads of the world.
The statement that God would not permit the president of the church to lead the church astray comes at the end of his address, when he is rising to a rhetorical crescendo. It’s not unreasonable that he might have drifted into hyperbole to make a point–that was normal in late nineteenth century sermons–but the point he was making is not that prophets cannot make mistakes, the point is that this decision to end polygamy was not done lightly, and that it was God’s will. It’s not fair to President Woodruff to take a statement he made in one context and turn it into something else entirely divorced from that context.
But, like I said, I think there is a way to reconcile President Woodruff’s statement that God will not allow the president of the church to lead the Church astray with President Clark’s acknowledgement that even the president of the church may not always be moved upon by the Holy Ghost when he speaks to the church. It depends on what “lead the church astray” means, but I do not believe that it means that the president of the church cannot make terrible decisions or believe wrong things.
For example: as a matter of scientific fact, Brigham Young was wrong when he said that black skin and African features were proof of being descended from Cain (or Ham), and that lack of such features is proof of the absence of such descent. As a matter of historical fact, he was wrong when he said the priesthood (both the ecclesiastical priesthood and the blessings of the temple) would be withheld from black people until all white people had received it. As a matter of doctrinal fact now recognized by the church, he was wrong when he said that Cain murdering Abel made black people ineligible to receive the priesthood or the blessings of the temple, and that interracial marriage was a sin punishable by death. He was wrong on many things. I believe he was called of God to lead the church, and that he was a prophet, but that did not make him superhuman, and it did not make his racism magically disappear. So I do not believe that the promise that the President of the Church cannot lead the church astray means that the President of the Church cannot teach wrong teachings to the church.
Instead, maybe it means that even if the President of the Church makes terrible decisions or believes and says things that are spectacularly wrong, he cannot stop the Lord from redeeming the church from his mistakes–even if it takes a very long time for the Lord to do so.
Perhaps one of the ways that the Lord may prevent the President of the Church from leading the church astray is the check of the testimony of the holy ghost to the body of the membership of the church as President Clark explained. Maybe the point is that when the President of the Church speaks or acts without being moved upon by the holy ghost, he cannot prevent God from using the testimony of the holy ghost to the membership of the church to correct his errors. And maybe it takes several generations, but “in due time,” the testimony of the Holy Ghost to the body of the membership of the church will prevail in the end over church leaders’ mistakes and wrong ideas.
4. Institutional salvation and perseverance.
In other words, I read the teaching that the church will never be led astray not as a promise that the church will never be wrong at all, but as a restatement of the idea that some the church may get things wrong, it will not fall into a total apostasy and lose the restored priesthood. This is sort of like the institutional analogue to the idea of perseverance–the idea that an individual person is assured of salvation while still in life.
This idea shows up in early Mormon scriptures and teachings. The plural marriage revelation talks about this: those that are sealed by the sealing power have their salvation assured, and with the sole exception of murder, those that are sealed will be saved no matter what sins or blasphemies they commit. It shows up later in Orson F. Whitney’s famous talk where he says that Joseph Smith had taught that “the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity.” He then explained:
Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God.
Other general authorities have quoted this passage many times over the years. Like Elder Faust in 2003 for example, saying “I believe and accept the comforting statement of Elder Orson F. Whitney” and going on to quote the above passage verbatim. It’s worth noting, also, that Elder Whitney was not just giving a doctrinal exposition; he was speaking from his own experience as a father of a son that struggled almost his entire adult life with alcoholism and depression, spent most of his adult life outside of church activity, and ultimately abandoned his first wife and their two children, whom Elder Whitney then raised in his own home.
But the idea of assured salvation scares people. It’s easily misunderstood as somehow suggesting that some people will be saved without repentance, or as condoning or justifying sin. So sealings gradually began to be understood less as dispensing an assurance of salvation and more as a conditional promise of salvation that would only apply at the end of a life of faithful service. (Stapely’s book explains this shift well.) More recently, Elder Bednar has taken pains, speaking in the same vein, to explain that Elder Whitney’s teaching that sealings assure salvation for children of the covenant cannot overcome the children’s agency: they still have to repent and obey the gospel.
But I don’t think that’s what the promises of assured salvation ever meant. They never meant that God would drag unrepentant people kicking and screaming into heaven. But that does not take away the forcefulness of the promises: They mean that God is faithful, that he is longsuffering, that his grace is eternal and that eventually, though it may take a long time, Heavenly Parents seek their own with unending patience and infinite love, and that though their eternal grace may not dominate the will of those that rebel, it will in the end persuade their will, and they will eventually “yield to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3:19) and repent. Those promises mean that Heavenly Parents will range through all eternity seeking their own, finding them, and bringing them back, not, to paraphrase Joseph Smith’s March 1839 Letter, by “compulsory means,” but by “persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned, by kindness, and pure knowledge,” because their “faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.”
If President Woodruff’s statement means that the Church’s institutional salvation is assured, then I think the promise must be similar. It doesn’t mean that the Church won’t make mistakes, it doesn’t mean that the President of the Church is somehow immune from the same propensity to sin that we’ve all inherited as children of the fall; but it does mean that God’s faithfulness is stronger than the fallen-ness of the church’s members and leaders, and that while we may wander, and even kick against the pricks at times, he will not abandon us. And though it may take many generations, “in due time,” he will redeem us from the mistakes of the past. If the church’s institutional salvation is assured, it is not because of the church’s faithfulness, but because of God’s faithfulness. It is not because the church can’t sin, and it is not because the church need not repent; it is because grace will eventually lead us to repent of every sin, and lead us to all truth. The president of the church, even if he makes terrible mistakes, simply does not have the power to stop God’s infinite grace toward the Church. As Joseph Smith said:
What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints.
Human beings sin. We “hate [our] own blood” and do terrible things to one another. Sometimes we do it out of malice. But sometimes we do it ignorantly, out of a misguided sense that we’re doing the right thing. Even good men do these things sometimes. Even good men with important callings do these things sometimes. God loves us anyway. And let me be clear: God does not wink that these evils. He is the advocate of the oppressed, and the bane of the oppressor, and his anger and his justice are on the side of the victims of these evils. But he still loves us even when we are the oppressors, and he believes we can repent. God is playing the long game.
So I’m at peace with the idea that church leaders can make mistakes, even big ones, even harmful ones, and that they are still called of God to lead the church. I won’t claim to know with certainty every time a church leader speaks whether each word he speaks is revelation or opinion, but I’m at peace with that uncertainty. I’m able to recognize the possibility that they are wrong sometimes, but I’m not giving up on them. And I trust that God is ultimately in charge. For me, this is enough.


  1. swimlikeabrown says:

    Dear God That is a crazy explanation. Maybe God isn’t speaking to them. One sentence.

  2. JKC, Thanks for laying out the only reasonable explanation I have yet found that doesn’t simply adopt swimlikeabrown’s seemingly all-or-nothing thinking. (I’ve been too overwhelmed to lay it out like that.) Seems like swim may think God cannot be “speaking to them” except by dictating words while prophets act as stenographers without thought or understanding of their own. I’ve known lots of members who think something like that. I think they’re wrong. Maybe I’m wrong and misapprehended swim’s point. Maybe I swim more like a cutthroat.

  3. Thanks, JKC. Noted for reference back. I do think the “never lead astray” line is the bugaboo for many, and your analysis is useful. I’ve had many thoughts about the same, and have come to a short version that in the context of into polygamy and out again, “astray” should be heard with an inherent 25-50+ year wander element. Recalling to the mind the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years.

  4. swim, you’re comment is a little too cryptic for me to be sure that I understand your point. Maybe God isn’t speaking to church leaders. Yeah, maybe he isn’t. And maybe he is. And maybe he is sometimes, but not all the time. And maybe he is, and they’re not always understanding him or expressing it perfectly. Occam’s razor is appealing in theory, but in my experience, reality is never as simple as we’d like it to be.

  5. Thanks for your comment, JR. Fundamentalism is tempting to a lot of people. But people are complicated things.

    christian, I think the “wander” element is a good addition. Did Moses lead the children of Israel astray? No, I don’t think so. But he didn’t get them where they were supposed to be either.

  6. Becca D. says:

    That was a lot of mental gymnastics to convince yourself the leaders of the church are who they say they are. The historical facts prove they are not and have never been prophets, seers and revelators. I suggest two books, Christless Christianity by Michael Horton and An Insiders View of Mormon Origins by Grant Palmer. Every mormon should read these books and see the light of day.

  7. Thanks JKC. Good thoughts. Another point of consideration for “leading astray” is Elder Holland’s talk about being inspired to go the wrong way in the desert.

  8. Becca, I’m happy to have you disagree with me, but a blanket drive-by dismissal of the whole post as “mental gymnastics” without some more specific critique isn’t conducive to a good discussion.

    I haven’t read Horton. But it looks interesting. Palmer, in my opinion, is too sensational. I’d recommend that people read the primary sources themselves, which are more accessible today than they’ve ever been.

  9. J. Stapley says:

    The historical facts prove they are not and have never been prophets, seers and revelators. I suggest two books, Christless Christianity by Michael Horton and An Insiders View of Mormon Origins by Grant Palmer.

    Did Dehlin link to this post or something? The amount of banal thinking is out of the ordinary.

  10. In some ways, the Church propounds an idea that truth is inherently simple. (Thanks, Correlation.) If you absorb that mistaken idea but then leave the Church and encounter people making non-simple arguments, it looks like “mental gymnastics” to avoid “obvious truths.” The irony is, those who leave like this remain just as rigidly “fundamentalist” as when they were on the inside. They’ve changed their allegiance, but not their thinking or worldview.

    Nice post JKC. I think your idea of perseverance can be illustrated with Holland’s “inspired wrong road” story. I’ve addressed that and other ideas in a post here-

  11. I find our inability to nail down what doctrine is to be one my biggest stumbling blocks in belief. The cynic in me says that what is doctrine is purposefully made vague so that it can be changed in the future. Then I hear quotes like “policy can be changed, but doctrine never changes”. Then I read the history and it seems to me doctrine changes all the time.
    I rarely, if ever, am given any confirmations from the Holy Ghost as to what Truth is. Then I read James 1:5 and wonder why God doesn’t give to me liberally. So I trust that my spiritual gift is ” .. to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.” Words spoken by prophets are important. And not being able to discern doctrine from policy from speculation ends up making me alternatively angry and depressed.
    It’s easier to not even try.

  12. This is an exceptional attempt to corral and align a lot of different thinking about when a prophet is a prophet and when he’s not. I’ve lately decided that the core tenets of my faith are that God loves us, that he will not and cannot control us, and that history is very long. So I found this post very affirming.

  13. Franklin says:

    The greater problem in Mormonism is the de facto infallibility that both members and the General Authorities promote. We need to start dealing with the fallibility of our leaders in specifics. It’s great for President Uchtdorf to admit in conference that leaders make mistakes, but we never get down to the question of what those mistakes are and how we can avoid them. Instead, we are encouraged to simply accept everything that comes down the pipe because certainly God wouldn’t allow 15 inspired men sitting in council to concoct some policy that doesn’t make any sense or that actually hurts God’s children. And focusing on mistakes of the distant past still promotes the idea that our current leaders are immune to the same follies.

  14. I should add this additional source that a commenter on twitter led me to: In 1895, Joseph F. Smith, then President Woodruff’s second counselor, gave a talk at the Bear Lake Stake Conference where he dealt with the question of whether church leaders can teach wrong things to the church, and if they do, what is the remedy? The talk was abridged and included on the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith manual in 2011. But here’s the original unabridged source:

    Pres. Smith speaks on the importance of “honoring” (read: obeying) church leaders, but then he limits this by saying that church members are bound to do so only insofar as those leaders do not exceed their authority and speak by the “spirit of their calling.” And he quotes the “when moved upon by the holy ghost” language from D&C 68 that President Clark relied on in his talk.

    He then goes on to say that it is the “privilege” of church members to know if their leaders are speaking by the spirit. He’s acknowledging the role of the membership of the church in receiving institutional revelation.

    And his remedy for when a church leader gets things wrong is that that leader will “stand judged of the Spirit of God before the saints.” That’s remarkably similar, I think, to President Clark’s answer: that if a church leader says something and is not “moved upon by the holy ghost,” the church will “in due time” know that by “the testimony of the spirit of God.” I think that gives some more important context and nuance to President Woodruff’s statement.

  15. Rexicorn says:

    This is a great post! I have some questions about the 2nd point. I understand the role of the membership on a theoretical level, but what does it look like in practice? How does the body of the church actually act as a potential check on leadership? This is always my sticking point, both with this concept and with the idea of “working for change from within” that progressive Mormon spaces like to talk about.

    Mormonism has such an incredibly tight top-down structure compared to other denominations/religions I’ve seen. Excommunication is a looming specter for unorthodox Mormons in a way that it isn’t for, say, Catholics (I know Catholics can be excommunicated, but it doesn’t seem nearly as common, especially for rank-and-file members). Even Sunday School lessons are standardized across the whole church. So what room is there, practically speaking, for the membership to accept or reject anything? There aren’t many opportunities for individual adaptation that don’t open you up to discipline. I often wish wards could function more autonomously, like I see congregations doing in other Christian denominations.

    Is it just a reference to the slow tide of public opinion? Because I do see examples of revelations that lag behind changing opinions in the body of the church. But even then it’s more like the leadership giving membership permission to act on something they want to do anyway, not the body of the church acting as a recipient of its own institutional revelation.

  16. I love that Rachel. Thanks.

  17. Rexicorn: I think the Adam-God stuff might be one example of teachings that in due time the spirit does not confirm to the body of the members. The justifications for keeping black members out of the temple and excluding them from the priesthood is another. Maybe you’re right that at least on the second, it took shifting public opinion to open us up to the witness of the spirit. That’s something we still have to answer for.

  18. I am not finding any clear maps to understanding here, but instead something of “here is how I navigated these treacherous waters.” And that is important for us to think about. Tides rise and fall, and currents change. Deep holes can appear where firm footing was previously found. JKC, I believe you have given us some important help in figuring out how to work through these issues. Ultimately, it is up to us individually to exercise our faith, keep our eyes on the destination, trust in God for help, and then share our experiences with our family and friends. As I have often thought, the “straight and narrow path” may be straight, but it is narrow, often very steep, clogged with fallen rocks and trees, and lined with many well lit and easy offramps. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  19. Well said, kevin.

  20. Rexicorn says:

    But JKC, wasn’t Adam-God refuted by the leadership? Are you saying that only happened because the membership rejected it anyway?

    I guess what I’m getting at is that the membership has very little power to actually reject practices or doctrines that don’t sit right — if it’s included in correlated lesson materials, it’ll be taught, and if it’s a temple recommend question, it’ll be used as criteria for temple attendance. The membership is more likely to invent folk theology to get around doctrines that don’t work than just abandon them, at least from what I’ve seen. Do you see it happen differently?

    This is kind of what I was getting at in the other topic when I said that the prophet is functionally infallible even if he’s theoretically fallible — the body of the church is still expected to obey the prophet whether he’s truly inspired or not. The only way to correct it is for another prophet to provide new information, which may happen in response to the members, but still leaves the members incapable of independent action.

  21. Rexicorn-
    After Brigham Young’s death, church leaders decided to put the Adam-God doctrine aside. Why? Because they decided the Standard Works of the church had to be the standard by which all that was taught in the church was measured. In short, if a doctrine is not in the Standard Works then don’t teach it.

  22. “wasn’t Adam-God refuted by the leadership? Are you saying that only happened because the membership rejected it anyway?”

    Basically, yes, I am. But I think I may also be viewing it as more of a collaborative process than a separate external check. Almost immediately after Brigham Young died, church leaders expressed doubts in private about it, or at least about teaching it publicly, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that President Kimball denounced it explicitly. I see church leaders’ doubts about it as part of the members’ failure to receive the testimony of the holy ghost confirming it. By the time President Kimball denounced it, he wasn’t changing things as much as he was recognizing what was already there.

    I hear what you’re saying about functional infallibility, at least in the short term. I think over the long-term there’s more flexibility.

  23. @Rexicorn: One more recent example (if BCC will allow this particular example) I see of this whole thing — that I think also illustrates how membership can push back against leadership — is the so called “oral sex” leader under Pres. Kimball of 1982. I am certainly not an expert on the incident, but here’s what I have pieced together:
    1) 1st presidency issues letter to local leaders emphasizing the importance of temple recommend interviews and being reasonably sure people are worth to enter the temple. As a small part of the letter, they state that “Married persons should understand that if in their marital relations they are guilty of unnatural, impure, or unholy practices, they should not enter the temple unless and until they repent and discontinue any such practice.” followed by “the First Presidency has interpreted oral sex as constituting an unnatural, unholy, or impure practice.”
    2) Local leaders interpreted this letter as permission to ask members whether they practiced oral sex and then deny or revoke temple recommends based on those admissions.
    3) There was some kind of backlash over the next year or so, and a later letter (Oct of the same year??) instructed leaders to not deviate beyond the specified questions and to not inquire after couples’ sexual practices. I note that this letter does explicitly refute the stance on oral sex from the previous letter, but rather suggests a “don’t ask, dont’ tell” kind of policy. I don’t know exactly what form the backlash took, but I am guessing that there were numerous letters or some other form of communications from members to Salt Lake that “Our temple recommends were denied/revoked for oral sex and we are a little bit upset”.
    4) Over the years, the Church decides that it will no longer publish or disseminate the Jan. 1982 letter (whatever that might mean).
    5) Since then (and even mostly before then), anything close to an official response from the Church on questions of “what is allowed in the marriage bed” is met with “it is up to the couple to decide. Most any discussion I see today about this incident seems to focus on this as “the interpretation of the First Presidency”, suggesting that it never should have had the prophetic force that local leaders gave it.
    What does this community think? Anything to add to the history? How it illustrates the ideas in the OP?

  24. Cody Hatch says:

    First of all, great post. I particularly like your final paragraph in your third point. Much food for thought there.

    Question though: how is this functionally different than the arguments put forth over the years for how the Great Apostasy occurred? I’m not arguing that the LDS Church has apostatized, rather I’m trying to figure out how a claim can be made (by the official narrative of the LDS Church) that Christianity apostatized for these reasons, but it’s different now. Don’t these arguments begin to invalidate the narrative regarding the Great Apostasy?

  25. JKC,

    Thanks for this post, it was really fantastic and thorough. I’ve had some similar general thoughts over the years, but this lays things out much more methodically and rigorously than I ever mused about the question.


    I share your frustration to a degree. The top-down structure of the Mormon church is much stronger than in just about any other large denomination I can think of, and the popular Mormon culture of not questioning leaders is very strong too, and those things obviously do make it hard for the body of the church to decide that something a prophet said isn’t right.

    That being said, I think it is possible and has happened. Adam-God is one of the clearest examples, I think; the doctrine wasn’t refuted by leadership until 1976 by Spencer W. Kimball, long after it had faded from church teachings. And it was controversial, among both leadership and members, even at the time it was taught. Blood-atonement probably fits into this category as well.

    The OP mentions birth control, and I think that’s the best example I know of. The church used to be strongly against birth control, but (as I understand it) members mostly ignored that advice and just used it anyway. Eventually, the church retreated to its neutral position it holds today, basically because the body of the church rejected the teaching that it was sinful. And in the feminist vein, I think church members have rejected/are in the process of rejecting older teachings about women working outside the home and men presiding in the home in any meaningful sense.

    I think OD2 was partially along these lines, too. While I was not alive at the time, I get the feeling that while most members weren’t publicly criticizing the church over the issue, by the late 1970s they were by and large confused and embarrassed by it. The overwhelming joy (rather than the confusion and schism that followed OD1) shows that the church was eager to reject the teaching, if not actually rejecting it quite yet.

    The November 2015 policy about gay couples and their children strikes me as the most likely candidate for this process happening with in the near-ish future (fingers crossed). Many traditionally believing members were confused by the announcement, and it still sits uneasily with lots of members (though, again, they’re not out protesting or anything).

    So yeah, it is really frustratingly slow, but if the Lord has been coming “quickly” for centuries, “in due time” probably won’t come as fast as we want it to–though I believe we should all be striving to make it sooner rather than later.

  26. As I wrote in the comment section in Stapley’s essay titled, Defending the Temple and Priesthood Restriction as God’s Will. God’s prophets make mistakes in big and small things. However, they do so with God’s oversight. In other words, God will use His prophets fallibility to accomplish His purposes. The Book of Mormon is the best source for acquiring understanding about prophet fallibility.

  27. Cody: Thanks for the comment. Frankly, in my opinion, too often we talk about the apostasy as an issue of the church believing incorrect doctrine and losing knowledge. But I’m not sure that’s right. The restoration was primarily a call to repentance and a restoration of priesthood authority, not the restoration of a detailed systematic theology. In my view, God cares a lot more about whether we are repenting and exercising faith in Christ, and trying to receive the Holy Ghost than about whether we believe the correct doctrinal things.

    Our theology has changed over the years on things like the precise details of the Godhead, and that’s fine. I go back to scriptures like 3 Ne. 11:31-35 and D&C 19:31. The essential doctrines are pretty few. There’s lots of room for variation and even error on other points of theology.

  28. Rexicorn says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, guys! Those examples do make sense, both in terms of short-term refutation (members simply not complying with birth control or oral sex prohibitions) and long-term (members slowly distancing themselves from Adam-God and leadership making it “official” after the fact). It does seem that the timeline for change in the church is typically long, with an institutional preference for stability. That’s good in some ways, but gets a little more frustrating when it comes to course corrections.

    Cody, you make a good point that “leaders doing the best with the light they’re given” is strikingly similar to how I usually hear churches described under the Apostasy. I guess the difference would be that the church claims access to greater knowledge through the priesthood? So it’s “most correct” even if it’s not completely correct all the time.

  29. Rexicorn, I think it’s more about authority and institutional revelation than about knowledge per se.

  30. Rexicorn says:

    JKC, I can see that. What actually apostatized during the Great Apostasy is a little vague.

  31. Rexicorn, here’s an old post where we discussed that. Some interesting comments there.

  32. Kevin Christensen says:

    And then there is the formal statement in D&C 1, spelling out “mine authority, and the authority of my servants” (D&C 1:6), which goes on to bluntly state:
    25 these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.

    25 And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known;

    26 And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed;

    27 And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent;

    28 And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.
    If we use that formal statement to set our expectations, we can avoid a lot of trouble. It provides a far more tolerant and robust set of expectations than, say, unconsciously deferring to Positions 1 or 2 of the Perry Scheme for Cognitive and Ethical Growth, which has this (courtesy of Veda Hale nearly 20 years ago):

    POSITION 1 – Basic Duality. (Garden of Eden Position: All will be well.)
    The person perceives meaning divided into two realms-Good/Bad, Right/wrong, We/They, Success/Failure, etc. They believe that knowledge and goodness are quantitative, that there are absolute answers for every problem and authorities know them and will teach them to those who will work hard and memorize them. Agency is “Out there”. The person is so embedded here that there is no place from which to observe themselves, yet they have a dim sense of there being a boundary to Otherness somewhere that gives their Eden-like world view boundary.

    Transition 1-2 – Dualism modified. (Snake whispers.) The person starts to be aware of others and of differing opinions, even among authorities. This started the feeling of uncertainty. But they decide it is part of the authority’s job to pose problems. It takes hard work to deny the legitimacy of diversity and to keep the belief in the simplicity of truth.

    POSITION 2 – Multiplicity Prelegitimate. (Resisting snake)

    Now the person moves to accept that there is diversity, but they still think there are TRUE authorities who are right, that the others are confused by complexities or are just frauds. They think they are with the true authorities and are right while all others are wrong. They accept that their good authorities present problems so they can learn to reach right answers independently.

    I’ve elsewhere made the case at length that Joseph Smith by precept and example, urges us to move on to Position 9:

    POSITION 9. Commitments in Relativism further developed.

    The person now has a developed sense of irony and can more easily embrace other’s viewpoints. He can accept life as just that “life”, just the way IT is! Now he holds the commitments he makes in a condition of “PROVISIONAL ULTIMACY”, meaning that for him what he chooses to be truth IS his truth, and he acts as if it is ultimate truth, but there is still a “provision” for change. He has no illusions about having “arrived” permanently on top of some heap, he is ready and knows he will have to retrace his journey over and over, but he has hope that he will do it each time more wisely. He is aware that he is developing his IDENTITY through Commitment. He can affirm the inseparable nature of the knower and the known–meaning he knows he as knower contributes to what he calls known.

    And there is the wonderful apt word “sustain” which, if you look it up in a good dictionary, the meaning reveals that we covenant to sustain our leaders, not because they are perfect, but because they are all too human, inspired now and then yes, but not God’s sock puppets. To sustain can not only mean to “up hold, to care for, to agree with,” but also “to suffer, to endure, to allow.” If the members of a community do not suffer each other’s imperfections, we’ll soon have no community. Perfection is a fairly rare commodity, and the demand for it has the effect of making only imperfection decisive, and therefore, the only meaningful thing to talk about.

  33. Cody Hatch says:

    Thanks for your perspective on the Apostasy, JKC. Again, great post.

  34. jstricklan says:

    Great post, JKC. Thanks for bringing along the conversation on this topic and focusing it a bit. I especially found your thoughts in part 4 very interesting and compelling. I hope this interpretation of “abiding salvation” in Mormon theology catches on.

    I also thought your ideas about how the body of the church participates in the discernment of revelation quite useful. In fact, it strongly reminds me of how traditional Catholic theology treats the subject, if I’m remembering correctly. Far from the fundamental tenet being that the Pope is the infallible decider (a common misconception emphasized by certain conservative thinkers — in fact, the Pope has only spoken infallibly twice, and both times it was about Mary), it is usually the long-term practice of the body of the (Catholic) Church that determines what is orthodox or not. Over time, centuries even, God reveals himself slowly to His people through the developing practices and beliefs of the Church. This is why tradition and liturgy is of equal importance to scripture in Catholicism (and also why there’s space for your occasional mystic or crazy saint, because who can say what exactly God will allow or will not). It is the Church, broadly conceived and over time, that is infallible.

    A similar concept might work well in Mormonism, particularly as the tradition ages and we have more practice working as a quorum of the whole. What a lovely thought, the quorum of the whole.

    I do wish, however, we didn’t have to tiptoe around the fact that the President of the Church has been, can be, and often is wrong. It would allow us to repent much more quickly and much more sincerely. We might even avoid some of the traditional pitfalls of God’s chosen people, who it seems to me are documented in scripture as usually refusing to repent because they believe themselves to already be righteous. For example, you lay out the African ban carefully and well, but even that would rub many (most?) Mormons the wrong way. Nonetheless, we must address this prophetic failure head-on if we are ever to grow past it. I don’t think we’re quite ready for that kind of thorough repentance.

    I have always thought Mormon doctrine emphasizes that it is our individual responsibility, as some point, to take responsibility for our agency, to stop being led and start following Christ under our own power, being helped by grace after all we can do. For years I took it for granted that the false doctrine of prophetic infallibility is an obvious idol that grown-ups must learn to let go, but my saying this aloud is deeply heretical and frankly offensive to many good, faithful Mormons. I just don’t know what to do about that reaction. I’m not interested in destroying anyone’s faith, but I’m also incapable of believing the prophet is supposed to think for me, let alone that he doesn’t make (sometimes horrible) mistakes. Wasn’t the prophet supposed to be a teacher and a role model, not just the telegraph through which God’s instruction manual came? Anyway, your post doesn’t go as far as I would, but I appreciate the contribution to the conversation, and many of the thoughtful comments.

  35. Thanks for that thoughtful comment, jstricklan.

  36. In other words, I read the teaching that the church will never be led astray not as a promise that the church will never be wrong at all, but as a restatement of the idea that some the church may get things wrong, it will not fall into a total apostasy and lose the restored priesthood.

    I think President Woodruff’s own statement supports this view. After the famous “lead you astray” sentence he says, “If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.”

  37. @jstricklan – “I do wish, however, we didn’t have to tiptoe around the fact that the President of the Church has been, can be, and often is wrong.”

    You had me until the word “often.” I will be the first to agree that promoting prophetic infallibility is a pitfall waiting to happen. But I think chances are high that when the prophet speaks, we need to align our position with his much more often than he needs to backtrack and align his position with ours.

  38. Thanks JKC. This is a great article and there are many good things to think about. Do you think that our leaders are aware of BCC and do you think that they consider it “loyal opposition”?

    Some of this opposition even comes from Church members. Some who use personal reasoning or wisdom to resist prophetic direction give themselves a label borrowed from elected bodies—“the loyal opposition.” However appropriate for a democracy, there is no warrant for this concept in the government of God’s kingdom, where questions are honored but opposition is not (see Matthew 26:24).

  39. I assume that at least some church leaders are aware of BCC. I wouldn’t presume to know what they all think of it, but I wouldn’t consider what we do here “opposition” to the church in any sense.

  40. Nicely done. You just put to paper and made sense of what many of us have felt over the years but haven’t quite known how to articulate. I am very curious if you think that polygamy was also a big mistake similar to the ban? I’m asking because I have a family member who feels it wasn’t “revealed.”

  41. jstricklan says:

    @Bensen, oh, I didn’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t assume inspiration. If you’ll indulge me a little, I’ll overshare and explain. My personal experience leads me to believe the assumption surely should be that when Church leaders from the President to the Primary speak, there’s much wisdom there. It’s just that assumption is the beginning of a process, not the end, as many believe. So what I mean by “often” is not “usually” but rather, “with enough regularity that I am not relieved of my responsibility to search, ponder, and pray for its concurrence with the scriptures, the whispering of the Spirit, and the example of Jesus Christ before making a decision on acting on it.” *Usually*, that process is short and results in a thumbs-up. Sometimes, that process results in a thumbs down.

    For example, I remember a great talk I heard from Elder Oaks at an EFY I attended while a teenager about dating. Elder Oaks is one of my all-time favorite speakers because of the argumentative clarity, intellectual rigor, and doctrinal seriousness that he often brings to a subject. I always come away with the Spirit having taught me something new. This talk was no exception. I examined his counsel, found it to be useful in inviting me to do good and to believe in Christ, and took it to heart in the subsequent years with great positive effect. However, toward the end of the talk, Elder Oaks also encouraged us to avoid dating people of other races or economic classes, arguing that it would be harder to form stable families because of our different cultural backgrounds. I immediately felt this was wrong, and decided that I should examine the statement more carefully. On review, I found it to be factually incorrect, against the injunction of scripture, and ultimately irresponsible because it allowed for or even encouraged the perpetuation of personal and systemic racism, which was certainly against God’s plan for his children. Having accepted my preliminary conclusion, I decided that I would prayerfully consider the matter again over the next few days and review it again, following the prophets’ examples in seeking after truth and holding fast to it.[1] The rest of the talks that day were also productive for me. Over time, I confirmed my analysis that a prophet, seer, and revelator of the Lord was wrong. This has been my repeated experience with a variety of personal and public instructions from Church leaders high and low, and in scripture. For a brief example, I feel no need to defend Paul’s statements[2] that women should not speak in church, particularly since it contradicts other things he himself said. Paul spoke in the language and tongue of his people, thanks be to God, and so do modern prophets. And sometimes that leads to terrible results. So what else is new? If sections 2 and 4 from the OP are right, we have little to fear from all this. The restoration is ongoing.

    However, I have come to recognize that a lot people would be deeply discomfited by my assertion, which bewilders and saddens me, given Mormon doctrine about agency and revelation, but also inspires a desire not to disturb their equilibrium. That leaves me often torn, and I hope I have offended no tender hearts today.

    TLDR, by “often wrong” I didn’t mean to say “usually wrong” or “they should do what I say”, but rather, “not an infallible guide and therefore not capable of relieving me of my responsibility to search, ponder, and pray, and to act according to the responsibility of agency which makes me a child of God.” Which I think most people would agree with in theory.

    [1]For me, following the prophet has always meant *emulation* as a teacher, not *obedience* as a general, which seems to make some people quite uncomfortable but yet seems to follow quite naturally from orthodox Mormon scripture and teaching.
    [2] Or Pseudo-Paul’s. But anyway, it’s all scripture.

  42. I am going to openly hijack this thread with a suggestion. When President Kimball was seeking information from the Lord he realized that the Lord could forgive a possible mistake earlier leaders had made with respect to race and priesthood. And yes, he used the word mistake and the word forgive. Did he seek that forgiveness from God?
    We have seen just recently the pain caused by a false story that the Church apologized for the ban. Also reported was the joy expressed by some Black members before the truth was known that the story was false.
    Shortly after the revelation was made public 40 years ago, a full page ad was taken out in the Salt Lake Tribune condemning the change. Could we mirror that ad with one of our own? An ad signed by as many members as we can get, both apologizing, not as the institution of the Church, but as individuals, for the suffering caused to our friends, neighbors, fellow saints for the damage done by racism, in its many forms. that has harmed others, both Black and White. Can we thank our Black members for their long suffering towards us as we have thrown off the false beliefs. Can we seek individual reconciliation, but publicly. Racism in our Church is still not completely healed. What can we do to heal it on this anniversary?

  43. I personally would love to thank all the Black members who have taught this mainly White church the true meaning of many of our scriptures. I thank them for their patience with us as we confront the false traditions of our fathers and learn to discard them. Didn’t the Lord specifically warn us that these traditions brought sin when He gave us the Doctrine and Covenants. I thank them for their exquisite examples of faith. I thank them for sharing their cultures with us. We are warmer and kinder for them. I wish I could afford a full page ad in the Salt Lake Tribune to shout it out to them. Without them we were only half a Church. Together we are whole.

  44. Loursat says:

    Pondering the “Be One” theme, I realized that I’ve made a mistake in my thinking about how we ought to deal with the aftermath of the priesthood ban. My mistake is assuming that there is some set of things we can do to put it behind us. It is dangerous to believe that at some defined point we can be done with our mistake once and for all. As long as we have that mindset, we will be impatient. We will be so eager to jump to the end that we will miss the many necessary things that need to be done along the way. The event last night at the Conference Center was a lovely, encouraging inspiration. It feels to me as if events like one that are part of what we need to do, and maybe the time will come when we really are one. That time is not here yet, though.

    One reason that people are reluctant to start the process of dealing with historical mistakes is that the process seems never to end. In many ways, it’s easier to pretend that there is no problem. As it has confronted the legacy of Nazism, Germany might be the world’s best example of a country that sincerely undertook to face its sins. Germans vowed never to forget their great mistake. They’ve made monuments to commemorate their victims, they’ve made laws to restrict Nazi ideology, they’ve taught generations of students the history of their country’s mistakes. They have really tried to change. Today most living Germans have no recollection of World War II, which ended more than seventy years ago. Yet the fascists are back, and many in Europe are saying that all of that German self-flagellation just created new problems. Germans have realized that every generation has to deal with the legacy of Nazism anew. As much as they might have wanted to put Nazism behind them, it is part of their heritage, and it is part of who they are. It takes just as much courage for the present generation to face that reality as it took for their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.

    I think the truth is that we Mormons cannot erase our legacy of racism–at least not within the horizon of a lifetime. We began the process of dealing with that legacy in 1978. If we are honest about it, we will acknowledge that we cannot foresee when or whether that process will end. The best we can do is to summon the courage to do what the present circumstances require. If, at some future time, we have built a legacy of oneness that overwhelms the legacy of our sins, then there will be cause for rejoicing. Let’s pray that future generations will enjoy that blessing. For now we must gird up our loins and keep doing hard work, recognizing that our sins are still with us. If we do that, I believe that we will have many sacred and joyful experiences along the way. Our grandchildren will have something to celebrate only if we do our best right now.

  45. @jstricklan, I appreciate your clarification. While we differ in a couple of your conclusions, I thoroughly support the process you’ve outlined. And no worries on the “overshare” – what else are comment sections in blogs for?

  46. Niecy Jones says:

    I have two questions that never seem to be answered. First, I’m curious as to how the author (and other LDS members) believe personal revelation works when the prophet is incorrect? I have always been told that members need to pray and seek out their own revelation. If this is true, and the prophet is indeed wrong, are members also receiving incorrect personal revelation? If this is the case, why would the Lord give incorrect revelation to millions of members? Or, are members just going along with whatever the prophet says? If it is the latter, why place such emphasis on personal revelation and, more importantly, what happens to members who are upfront about their disagreement with the prophet? Second, why is it so difficult to nail down prophetic counsel? I ask this question in all sincerity because I can’t understand the point of following a prophet who may or may not be making prophetic statements. Wouldn’t it be much easier if the prophet just told us when his words are prophetic counsel instead of this ambiguity, particularly since some members will automatically assume that everything is prophetic counsel and will shun/criticize…etc. others who don’t fall in line.

  47. jstricklan, your story of not being able to receive confirmation of something Elder Oaks said, despite being able to do so for most of what he said, sounds a lot like Elder Oaks’ story at the Be One program of not being able to receive confirmation of the justifications for the ban.

    Loursat, thanks for that very thoughtful comment. An apology would indeed be empty if it were not accompanied by a long-term commitment to reconciliation.

  48. Niecy Jones: Those are a lot of questions. I’ll do my best.

    “First, I’m curious as to how the author (and other LDS members) believe personal revelation works when the prophet is incorrect?”

    About the same as it works all the time.

    “I have always been told that members need to pray and seek out their own revelation. If this is true, and the prophet is indeed wrong, are members also receiving incorrect personal revelation?”

    Some of them, sure.

    “If this is the case, why would the Lord give incorrect revelation to millions of members?”

    Maybe he’s not. Maybe we’re just not very good at discerning revelation from our own thoughts, especially when we really want something to be true.

    “Or, are members just going along with whatever the prophet says?”

    I’m sure that’s true of some members.

    “If it is the latter, why place such emphasis on personal revelation[?]”

    I’m not sure I understand this question. If we’re not very good at seeking and discerning personal revelation, isn’t that a reason to emphasize it more, not less?

    “[A]nd, more importantly, what happens to members who are upfront about their disagreement with the prophet?”

    I think that depends on a lot of circumstances. But the short answer is that if they’re setting themselves up as the source of true revelation and preaching to the church that the prophet is wrong and they are right, that’s going to cause problems and possibly disciplinary action. If they’re just being honest and saying that they haven’t been able to receive confirmation of something, I don’t think it would.

    “Second, why is it so difficult to nail down prophetic counsel? I ask this question in all sincerity because I can’t understand the point of following a prophet who may or may not be making prophetic statements. Wouldn’t it be much easier if the prophet just told us when his words are prophetic counsel instead of this ambiguity, particularly since some members will automatically assume that everything is prophetic counsel and will shun/criticize…etc. others who don’t fall in line.”

    In my opinion, it’s hard because human being are complex, because we’re susceptible to many different kinds of biases, influences and methods of persuasion, because we’re exceptionally good at rationalization and self-justification, and because revelation is not easy.

    The point of following a prophet that may or may not be making prophetic statements is the same as following any prophet, because that’s the only kind of prophet there has ever been (other than Jesus). I think it’s also important to remember that prophets aren’t just fortune-tellers or dictators: they’re not there to make decisions for us or tell is what to do. The spirit of prophecy is the testimony of Jesus and the whole purpose of prophets is to teach faith in Christ and repentance. The point of listening to prophets is to increase faith in Christ and obey the prophetic message of repentance. Sometimes God gives prophets specific revelation to counsel some specific thing to avoid a problem in the future or something, but that’s at the periphery of their calling. The center of their calling is repentance. John the Baptist was the greatest of all prophets and basically all he ever said was repent and be baptized.

    I don’t think it would be easier if the prophet just told us when he was making prophetic statements. At least, maybe it would be easier, but it would not necesarily get us any closer to the truth. Brigham Young said he was speaking as a prophet when he said things that later turned out to be wrong. Like President Clark said, a prophet can speak in his official capacity and still not be moved upon by the holy ghost. So even if prophets did that all the time, it wouldn’t take away the need to receive revelation ourselves. We simply can’t escape the responsibility to learn to discern for ourselves. Basically nobody’s very good at it, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

  49. Bro. B. says:

    JKC, thanks for this insightful post. At the Be One celebration, which was very inspirational and unifying, I thought Elder Oaks made some good points that neither opened the door wider for a future apology nor shut it. He mentioned that the Lord rarely tells us why he asks us to do the things he asks us to do. He seems to hold the idea that former leaders felt the ban was indeed what God wanted at that time even if these leaders didn’t know why or came up with incorrect reasons. Even though he couldn’t get a confirmation himself for the ban or the reasons, he’s not going to throw them under the bus. Do you think that actually makes an apology unlikely?

  50. Elder Oaks seems to be drawing a subtle distinction between the justifications for the ban and the ban itself. As to the justifications, he came straight out and said he never felt the spirit confirm them. As to the ban itself, he doesn’t say that explicitly, but he also doesn’t say that he received that confirmation. Instead, he says that he determined to accept it as a matter of loyalty to priesthood leaders, suggesting that he never received that testimony as to the ban itself either.

    If he had said “I never received confirmation of the justifications, but I did receive confirmation of the ban itself,” I would think that would make an apology seem less likely. (Even so, I’d never say never.) But he didn’t; he said that he chose to accept it out of sense of loyalty.

    You know, 20 or even 10 years ago, I think Elder Oaks saying publicly that he could not get confirmation of the justifications for the ban might have made a bigger splash. I think some of the excellent historical scholarship that’s been done over the past decades or two on this issue has really brought to light the fact that the reasons never really made any sense; in my view it was that scholarship that made possible both the church’s swift and unambiguous response to Randy Bott, and the Gospel Topics essay repudiating the justifications. The result is that saying that the justifications were uninspired is not really controversial anymore. Of course, Elder McConkie arguably repudiated justifications in 1978, but I think even after the restoration of priesthood and temple blessings to black members in 1978, many, many (white) members accepted both the ban and at least some of the justifications as a matter of loyalty, and simply relied on a misreading of Brigham Young’s cryptic prophecy that the ban would end at some future date to reconcile that acceptance with the 1978 restoration. But I think it is potentially significant that Elder Oaks made that public acknowledgement, because people can no longer dismiss the Gospel Topics essay and the Newsroom response to Randy Bott as mere church bureaucracy. Elder Oaks also goes further than Elder McConkie did, because while Elder McConkie said that the justifications were given with limited knowledge and without the benefit of the new revelation that had come into the world, Elder Oaks to acknowledged publicly that he never could receive spiritual confirmation of the justifications even pre-1978, that seems potentially significant.

    I won’t claim to know if or when the church will ever issue an apology for the ban. But if it does, I think Elder Oaks’ public acknowledgement that even before the 1978 restoration he never received the testimony of the holy ghost as to the justifications, and his statement that he accepted the ban itself out of a sense of loyalty only, will be seen as a step on the path toward the apology.

  51. Bro. B. says:

    Good points again. I tend to agree that it’s significant that he states that DURING the ban, he couldn’t get a spiritual confirmation of the reasons. I still wonder if his statement about God “rarely telling us why” implies that he accepted the ban at the time because it still may have been what God wanted at the time and that besides staying loyal to the brethren, he’s not going to presume to apologize for God. If the other brethren feel that way too, no one’s going to presume to apologizeg—the most they’ll presume is that the timing was right for God to make the change.

  52. I read the “God rarely gives reasons for his commandments” as one of the things that caused him to question the justifications. In other words, if God rarely gives reasons, and there were lots of reasons given for the ban, then maybe the reasons weren’t given by God.

    You could read it as saying since God rarely gives reasons for his commandments (and, unstated assumption: the ban is a commandment), we shouldn’t expect reasons for the ban. Under that reading, it’s kind of doubling down on the idea that the ban itself was inspired even though the reasons were invented.

    But you could also read it as saying since God rarely gives reasons for his commandments, and the ban has lots of reasons given, then maybe the ban itself isn’t a commandment after all.

    Elder Oaks isn’t explicitly going that far, but everything he says is consistent with that conclusion–especially because he identifies his motivation for accepting the ban as loyalty to priesthood leaders, instead of as a testimony that they were speaking the truth or something like that.

  53. Bro. B. says:

    Tangent, but hopefully not a threadjack: I think it’s very interesting that President Kimball received and presented the revelation on the priesthood to the apostles while Mark E. Peterson and Delbert L. Shapely, probably the the two biggest opponents, we’re out of town.
    To your points above, the first reading seems more plausible to me: Elder Oaks’ motivation was to be loyal to the brothren because they may have been inspired without being given the reasons. Seems less likely that since they are giving reasons, they must be making them up to justify something they knew was wrong. But who knows? This difficult issue is similar to the polygamy issue. There were so many reasons for that one that were floated around but no one knows for sure, because it was done privately, behind the scenes. Like the ban, it was never presented before the body of the church for ratification either. And it seems that many that complied did it out of loyalty to the brethren. Hence the apt name for this blog.

  54. They don’t have to know it was wrong for it to be wrong. They could have believed it was inspired and been wrong. They could have been making up reasons to try to explain something they mistakenly believed was inspired.

  55. jstricklan says:

    Thanks, Bensen, and thanks to the other commenters, considering what we do with the complicated questions raised by the OP. These are good threads for weaving coats to keep us warm in winter of our troubles, a gift shared between us.

    JKC, interesting point about Elder Oaks’ talk and his statement about not being able to get a confirmation of the ban. I hadn’t thought of the parallel, and it is in many ways similar in process. It is heartening to have your own methods confirmed by an apostle!

    I am about to go on too long again, and I understand if you don’t have give-a-care enough to engage with it. You have given me enough by the OP that I believe we have both been edified and rejoice together — it is enough!

    Nonetheless, I persist, because I apparently can’t not. Given your point about Elder Oaks’ method, I’m interested in one very important difference that you highlight. In my case, when I have determined that a teaching is not inspired, I feel no compulsion to comply with it. Elder Oaks, however, personifies a different approach:

    “Instead, he says that he determined to accept it as a matter of loyalty to priesthood leaders, suggesting that he never received that testimony as to the ban itself either.”

    I think this is the thing that most needs interrogating. If Elder Oaks had no confirmation that the priesthood ban was of God, why would he continue to support it? The answer is because he loves and trusts and supports Church leaders, as well he should, and as I love and support him. By Elder Oaks’ (and many Mormons’) logic, “sustaining” is transformed by strange alchemy into mute submission by this logic, which is a deep poison for the people of God and a betrayal of our responsibility as individual disciples of Christ. The perspective suggests a mindset with very dark consequences, born truly of the love and trust we rightfully have of Church leaders, but which boldly declares we will allow our leaders to order us to do wrong, at the very least when the answer is unclear to us on our own. This perspective also justifies attacking, institutionally and personally, people who point out what was later proved right, because compliance, not righteousness, is the defining criterion. Love and support is defined, therefore, as unquestioning execution of orders, not dialog, not discussion, not the search for the straight and narrow way together.

    But sustaining someone doesn’t automatically mean standing idly by as they steer you personally or the body of the Church into an iceberg — it might, on occasion, mean doing something to right the ship. Thus, Elder Oaks’ choice highlights the difference and the danger of my method (in which I do not publicly nor privately assent to wrong teachings or policies) and why many people will have trouble accepting even parts 2 and 3 of the OP, let alone the consequences of 4. Hoping not to put words in your mouth, the thrust of the OP suggests that the false doctrine of practical infallibility need not be accepted; Elder Oaks’ statement suggests the contrary. While it allows, as you point out, the opportunity for repentance (without admitting personal fault) for Elder Oaks — having never received a revelation of the ban’s divinity, he need not defend it as such, well argued — it also reinforces the point that no repentance is or should be necessary, because righteousness is defined narrowly by compliance to our leaders when we comply with their commands — because, by extension of the argument, because God’s will is impossible for us to know and we need guides to tell us what is right, and God has given us those in the form of Church leaders.(This is at least in part true, but the principle of agency means that we cannot even give over to God the responsibility to tell us what is right.) Thus, the false doctrine of practical infallibility privileges the strain of Mormon thought that interprets “Obedience is the first law of heaven” to mean obedience not to the first great two commandments, not to God, but to the current policies and structures of the contemporary Church, whatever they are. Loyalty is privileged over truth; compliance with the law in sacrifice rather than justice and mercy. It is a dangerous idea, if the history of the people of God in this and former dispensations is any guide, as well as deeply doctrinally unsound.

    My saying so here, particularly so baldly, will probably make some people very upset as a challenge to their faith, which deeply pains me. I have no such intent; until recently, I would not even have been aware of the pain and threat these ideas cause in many Saints, who have with some justification built their faith on the rock of compliance to the prophets and apostles. I do not consider my position, however, a challenge to Mormon faith in the slightest; for me, it is an obvious extension of the principles of agency, revelation, and most of all discipleship to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is (as you pointed out) the only prophet to whom we need address infallibility. But I do understand, given the difficulties and the astronomical stakes of discerning what truth is, why my position is considered both scary and considered to many, given that there is a great deal of Mormon teaching that suggests institutional compliance is the first law of heaven. (I simply reject that idea as false under all the evidence.)

    Have each of us done this before? If so, doesn’t that mean that we are part of the forces (in Paul’s terms, the powers and principalities) that make it harder for the Church to repent, as described in OP #4. And yet, fondly I hope, fervently I believe, as you closed up:

    “Human beings sin. We “hate [our] own blood” and do terrible things to one another. Sometimes we do it out of malice. But sometimes we do it ignorantly, out of a misguided sense that we’re doing the right thing. *Even good men do these things sometimes. Even good men with important callings do these things sometimes. God loves us anyway.* And let me be clear: God does not wink that these evils. He is the advocate of the oppressed, and the bane of the oppressor, and his anger and his justice are on the side of the victims of these evils. But he still loves us even when we are the oppressors, and he believes we can repent. God is playing the long game.”

  56. Thanks, JKC and JStricklan; It seems if I wait long enough, one of you at least will articulate what I’m less clearly thinking. J’s last, lengthy comment includes a cogent statement of my position of the last few decades, but for me the “method (in which I do not publicly nor privately assent to wrong teachings or policies)” often depends upon my silence which some will interpret as assent when it is not. There are times, in my ward at least, when speaking up contrary to ” the false doctrine of practical infallibility” would (and has) caused more damage than silence. Here such speaking up seems better done individually with those it will assist rather than damage. But I also fret over not knowing how much damage is done by leaving some other silent attendees with the erroneous impression that their non-assent is unique and lonely.

    I’m not sure that Oaks’ accepting the ban out of loyalty included assenting to it. Maybe that’s too fine a distinction, but the ban did not call for any action on his part. Did he defend it? That would imply assent. Did he remain silent about it? Or, as in my initial reading of the transcript of his recent remarks, did he talk around it, leaving open the possibility of its inspiration? Maybe those behaviors do not imply assent, but only acceptance which may be temporary.

  57. I think JR makes a good point. Church policies can rub us the wrong way without actually requiring any action on our part. Deciding not to affirmatively oppose a policy doesn’t necessarily mean agreement with the policy. It sort of analogous to the legal concept of standing.

    I read Elder Oaks’ statement that he decided to accept the policy as a matter of loyalty to be not necessarily exalting loyalty over personal conviction, but more as an expression of humility. He may not have had confirmation that the ban was right, but he may also have not had confirmation that it was wrong, either, and in that uncertainty, it’s not unreasonable to think maybe they know something you don’t. That’s different, I think, from affirmatively believing something is wrong and going along with it anyway out of a sense of loyalty, and I don’t think that’s what Elder Oaks is suggesting we do.

  58. Bro. B. says:

    That’s a good point, correlating lack of assent or opposition to an issue with having no legal standing kind of gives you an out. From a different aspect of legal standing, he wasn’t a GA at the time. I do see the humility in his statement as you mentioned. And listening further into it, he does give another possible hint that the ban could have been the Lord’s will at the time, and that the prior leaders who supported it may have had good reason to do so, even if they couldn’t articulate the reasons for it in a way that most people could accept: “To concern ourselves with that which has not been revealed [the reasons for the ban] or with past explanation [for the ban] by those who are operating with limited understanding, can only result in speculation and frustration.” This seems to hold out the possibility that the ban was from God but He didn’t reveal the reasons. I suppose I’m engaging in the speculation he is talking about, and it does get frustrating. My grapple is not with the explanations—I think current understanding has become less limited and it’s easier for me to dismiss them. My grapple is more, if this was of God, what a tough Abrahamic test! If it wasn’t from God, and the brethren know that, wouldn’t it help everyone to just say it? Being fallible like us, maybe they just don’t know, and so they just want to move on. Besides, which leader since Brigham Young would presume to directly contradict his statement “any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] … in him cannot hold the priesthood and if no other Prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ.” He was giving a governors address to the legislature when he said this, among many other things. So was he speaking as a prophet? Leads me to conclude that even when testifying so directly like this, they can be wrong. Or again, did he know something spiritually as a prophet that nobody else did, regardless of his ability to articulate or explain it in a way that people could sustain it?

  59. I think Elder Oaks’ statement was fully consistent with both (1) the idea that the ban and the justifications for it were uninspired and (2) the idea that the ban itself was inspired, but the justifications were not. I think he’s very deliberately not taking a position on that.

    I think it’s smart to not set it up as a choice between (1) The ban was from God and was an Abrahamic test, or (2) the ban was not inspired, and the brethren know it is not inspired, because I think that assumes more certainty/knowledge than is fair to charge the brethren with. I think the third possibility that you recognize is closer to the truth: “Being fallible like us, maybe they just don’t know, and so they just want to move on.”

    I think asking whether BY was speaking in his religious role as president of the church or his civic role as governor is not productive. He himself blurred those lines, and besides, even if he was speaking in his religious role, that’s still not a guarantee. I think it’s better to focus on what substance of what he said.

  60. jstricklan says:

    Thanks, JR, Bro B, and JKC. I’ve written more words than anyone should have to read in a comment thread, but I feel like JR a lot — these comments often lead me to learn

    For myself, I have a fire inside that burns me up if I don’t say anything, but I think it’s important to leave it to each person and the Spirit to determine when to speak and when to be held back from speaking. I’ve felt distinct instructions from the Spirit to do both.

    There is one rabbinic tradition that deals with Abraham’s test by suggesting he was out of his mind and the angel intervened right on time. I like a version of that, that Abraham got this idea from his culture in his head that the thing you do is offer a child to God, and that God finally got through to him just in time.

    BY (and JS) was a judge, in the OT sense, or maybe a Moses “little m” messiah figure, holding both ecclesiastical and secular authority. (This is what Saul always wanted but couldn’t have.) That combination makes everything he said hard to parse. For myself, I agree that focusing on the substance is key, and exercising faithful discernment according to Mormon’s instructions in Moroni 7. But that’s me.

  61. “‘If you read the scriptures with this question in mind, “Why did the Lord command this or why did he command that,” you find that in less than one in a hundred commands was any reason given. It’s not the pattern of the Lord to give reasons. We [mortals] can put reasons to revelation. We can put reasons to commandments. When we do, we’re on our own. Some people put reasons to the one we’re talking about here, and they turned out to be spectacularly wrong. There is a lesson in that. … I decided a long time ago that I had faith in the command and I had no faith in the reasons that had been suggested for it.’

    “When asked if [he] was even referring to reasons given by General Authorities, [he] replied:

    “‘I’m referring to reasons given by general authorities and reasons elaborated upon … by others. The whole set of reasons seemed to me to be unnecessary risk taking. … Let’s don’t make the mistake that’s been made in the past, here and in other areas, trying to put reasons to revelation. The reasons turn out to be man-made to a great extent. The revelations are what we sustain as the will of the Lord and that’s where safety lies’ [“Apostles Talk about Reasons for Lifting Ban,”
    Daily Herald,
    Provo, Utah, June 5, 1988, 21 (AP)]” (Dallin H. Oaks,
    Life’s Lessons Learned
    [2011], 68–69).

    I am keenly interested in a comparison between what Elder Oaks said in 1988 and what said 30 years later. Has there been any evolution or growth in his ideas on the subject?

  62. Kent R Page says:

    I believe that to know the mind and will of the Lord, I should follow the law of witnesses.

    First, we have personal revelation. We are taught that we should be one with our spouse, our “help meet”. Our spouse can be a second witness. We are taught in order to receive personal revelation we need to strive diligently to obey all of the commandments (again multiple witnesses) with exactness (without justification). Usually, we do not receive a witness of the truth of a teaching until after we obey/after the trial of our faith. President Eyring (in a “Face to Face”) has taught that when we receive personal revelation that our love for the Lord and for His chosen leaders will increase. President Oaks (Elder at the time) taught in a recent “Face to Face” that he feels personal revelation is more reliable if he receives an answer he is less pleased to received; he said that we all have our own personal beliefs/desires that may not always be in-line with the will of the Lord. President Oaks also said that the gospel is consistent (at least it should be); we should verify our personal revelation with the Standard Works and the approved teachings of the Church.

    Second, additional multiple witnesses can be researched in the Standard Works. In understanding doctrine we should study and ponder how one scripture relates to another.

    Third, additional multiple witnesses can be researched in the teachings of the Modern-day prophets. Again, we should ponder how one address relations to other addresses.

    Fourth, the pattern, teachings, covenants, specify instruction (listen closely) we receive in the Holy Temple is perhaps the greatest “witness” of the mind and will of the Lord and Our Heavenly Father. Reflect upon the human and Divine relationships in the endowment and the relationships between all Temple Covenants — and all else too sacred to speak about outside the Temple.

    This is what is helping me better understand the Doctrine for myself and my wife and how we can better teach our children the Great Plan of Salvation. As President Oaks has stated we become the Doctrine as we learn and follow true Doctrine.

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