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Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 14 (2015): 7-32 and appeared in Meridian later that same year. We are running it again, in three parts over three days, with a few edits of the original.
The Brethren Cannot Say Everything They Might Like to Say
Just as the Lord doesn’t normally reveal all that He could, neither does the First Presidency speak authoritatively about all that it might. As President George Q. Cannon explained:
There are many things that the leading men of this Church can see and understand that they cannot impart to the people nor ask the people to do. Why? Because they know that the people would not come up to the requirement and that therefore they would be disobedient. Better to give them line upon line, precept upon precept, here a little and there a little than to give them something that they could not receive and that they would rebel against. That is the manner in which the Lord deals with His children, and it is the manner in which wise men inspired of the Lord deal with their fellow men.
He added: “Speaking as a First Presidency, if we could have our way, there are many changes that we would make; but you know how difficult it is to have people see alike upon many points.”48
The Prophet Joseph Smith once reflected on the difficulties he had in preparing the Saints to receive his teachings:
There has been a great difficulty in getting anything into the heads of this generation. It has been like splitting hemlock knots with a corn-dodger [a piece of corn bread] for a wedge, and a pumpkin for a beetle [a wooden mallet]. Even the Saints are slow to understand.
I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions: they cannot stand the fire at all.49
For this reason, the Lord and His servants must exercise patience with the Church and with us as individuals, not being “able to bear” all things at present (1 Corinthians 3:2); having “need of milk, and not of strong meat” (Hebrews 5:12) that we “may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2).
We Have Prophetic Testimony That the Presiding Brethren Won’t Lead the Church Astray
After Wilford Woodruff published the results of his revelation on plural marriage in the Manifesto, many Saints were shaken. In response, President Woodruff testified: “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place.”50 Likewise, nearly a century later, President Gordon B. Hinckley affirmed: “It is the Lord who is directing this Church. You don’t need to worry very much about Gordon Hinckley. The Lord is directing this work, and He won’t let me or anyone else lead it astray.”51 Elsewhere he said:
I want to make you a promise. I know it’s true. The Lord will never let the General Authorities of this Church lead it astray. It won’t happen. … We have a presidency of three. We have a Council of Twelve Apostles. We meet together in the temple every Thursday. We pray together, we discuss together, we seek the inspiration of the Almighty, and it’s my testimony that it comes.52
Many others have spoken similarly. For example, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf declared:
“God will not allow His Church to drift from its appointed course.”53 As mentioned previously, President Joseph Fielding Smith explained that while “an individual may fall by the wayside, or have views, or give counsel which falls short of what the Lord intends,” nevertheless “the voice of the First Presidency and the united voice of those others who hold with them the keys of the kingdom shall always guide the Saints and the world in those paths where the Lord wants them to be.”54
Elder Marion G. Romney stated that “today the Lord is revealing His will to all the inhabitants of the earth, and to members of the Church in particular, on the issues of this our day through the living prophets, with the First Presidency at the head.” The counsel they give, Elder Romney said, is the direction the Lord Himself would give “if He were here.”55 Elder Romney added that for those who “criticize what the Presidency say on these burning issues of our times, it would be well to remember that these prophets are but declaring to us the will of the Father.”56
President N. Eldon Tanner, a counselor in four First Presidencies, said: “Wherever I go, my message to the people is: Follow the prophet.” He added:
Today there are many issues under debate as controversies rage all around us. It should be evident to all that we need divine direction, as men and women who argue their causes seem to be unable to come to workable or peaceable solutions. It is sad indeed that the world does not know or accept the fact that in our midst is a prophet through whom God can direct the solution of world problems. True Latter-day Saints have no such dilemma. They know that the messages of the prophet have come from the Lord. …57
Elder Boyd K. Packer, echoing this thought, said simply: “When the First Presidency speaks, we can safely accept their word.”58
First Presidency Decisions Vary in Importance
Elder Dallin H. Oaks identified an important principle of personal revelation. He explained:
Revelations from God … are not constant. We believe in continuing revelation, not continuous revelation. We are often left to work out problems without the dictation or specific direction of the Spirit. That is part of the experience we must have in mortality. Fortunately, we are never out of our Savior’s sight, and if our judgment leads us into actions beyond the limits of what is permissible and if we are listening … the Lord will restrain us by the promptings of His Spirit.59
The same principle no doubt applies to the decisions made by Church leadership. The First Presidency is involved in countless matters and decisions, but they are not all of equal importance. To pick a simple example: decisions about the specific decor of a temple are generally of less importance than the decision about when and where to build the temple itself. And when and where to build a particular temple is of less importance than the project of temple-building in general. Thus, the Lord may require personal initiative and leave more room for delegation to Church staff on the first kinds of decisions, while exercising much greater influence on the second kind and strict influence on the third. The Lord seems to exercise control of a lesser or greater nature, depending on the importance of the issue.
Given the wide range and the multiple layers of their work, it is unavoidable that, at times, errors in judgment may be discovered — and corrected — retrospectively. Elder Boyd K. Packer explained that, while under the plan of councils “men of very ordinary capacity may be guided through counsel and inspiration to accomplish extraordinary things,” nevertheless, “even with the best of intentions, it does not always work the way it should. Human nature may express itself on occasion, but not to the permanent injury of the work.”60
When we understand this principle, it is obvious why President J. Reuben Clark’s remark that “we are not infallible in our judgment, and we err”61 does not contradict President Gordon B. Hinckley’s statement that “the Lord is directing this work, and He won’t let me or anyone else lead it astray.”62 The difference in such statements stems from a difference in the issues that are involved and their importance. Though devoted and spiritually refined, mortal men work as mortal men across the extensive range and multiple dimensions of their work, and various weaknesses and errors manifest themselves.63 But as a council the Brethren cannot go where the Spirit forbids.
Change is Not Equivalent to Correction
When significant changes are announced, it is often easy to jump to the conclusion that a correction is being made. But there is actually significant reason not to assume this. For example, all of the following represent significant modifications in practice: expelling Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden;64 moving from a system of presiding patriarchs to a system of apostolic councils in guiding the Lord’s work;65 taking the gospel first to the Jews and then to the Gentiles, and then taking it first to the Gentiles and then to the Jews;66 moving from a patriarchal society in Nephite civilization to a combination of patriarchal presidency and Church presidency;67 first identifying the Salt Lake Valley as the place for Saints to gather to Zion and later identifying their own geographies as the place for Saints to gather to Zion;68 and so forth.
Each of these constitutes a significant change in direction, but it is difficult to see how any of them could be dismissed as a simple change of mind, or as a correction of previous practice. From the fact that Adam and Eve were expelled from the garden, it hardly follows that it was wrong for them to have been there in the first place. Nor does the Lord’s establishment of apostolic councils to lead His work —beginning in the meridian of time and continuing to today — suggest that it was wrong to follow a patriarchal pattern in the early ages of the world. And the fact that Norwegians now gather to Norway does not imply that it was wrong for them to gather to the Salt Lake Valley in earlier generations.
God responds to the current circumstances of His children and operates in accordance with a divine sequence and timing in fulfilling His grand design. Thus, in Moses’ day the priesthood was restricted to the Levites (and the office of high priest in that priesthood to Aaron and His descendants), and in His own earthly ministry the Lord restricted His teaching to the Jews alone.69 We might glimpse only a fraction of all the ways in which sequence and timing play a role in God’s actions, and nothing at all of the “whys,” but because it is certain that they do so, it would seem important not to suppose that all change is attributable to mortal caprice — much less to mortal error or to either divine or mortal correction of past errors.
The Saints Can Know They are Being Led Correctly
Naturally the Saints want to do more than accept, with a lazy and complacent spirit, whatever direction comes from those who hold the keys of the priesthood. The scriptures teach that the Lord, too, wants more than that. We have an obligation to study and pray, so that we may come to know that we are being led correctly.
This may require considerable effort on our part. Elder Marion G. Romney said that “those … who will through mighty prayer and earnest study inform themselves as to what these living prophets say, and act upon it, will be visited by the spirit of the Lord and know by the spirit of revelation that they speak the mind and will of the Father.”70 The Saints are expected to receive revelation on these matters. Having faith in the Lord’s overall program, we will not find ourselves praying to find out if the Brethren have taken the right course, but rather to know for ourselves that the Brethren have taken the right course — and to understand what we must do personally in order to sustain their actions.
A Modern Example of Thoughtful Discipleship
An inspiring example of this is found in the life of Elder Dallin H. Oaks.71 Decades ago, when the U.S. Supreme Court first ruled against prayer in the public schools, President David O. McKay publicly criticized the ruling; he considered it to be leading the country “down the road to atheism.”72 Dallin Oaks, on the other hand, who was a law professor at the time, saw good reason for the Court’s decision in the case before it and worried that criticism might be based on incomplete information about the full rationale and intent of the ruling.
Brother Oaks began organizing his thoughts on paper — reviewing the Court’s reasoning and showing its application to secular influences in the public schools as well as to religious ones. Soon after completing his document, he met President Henry D. Moyle of the First Presidency at a Church function in Chicago. When President Moyle asked him about his work, Brother Oaks gave him a copy of this writing. President Moyle took an interest in it, and, upon returning to Salt Lake City, shared it with President McKay. Interestingly, after reading Brother Oaks’ thoughtful treatment, President McKay directed that it be published in the Improvement Era.
Thus, Brother Oaks did not give up his “right to think.” He felt dissonance between his own judgment and the public expressions of the prophet. He wondered about the issue and prayerfully brought to bear his own best thinking on the relevant questions. Significantly, however, he did not publish a critical article or give a disapproving speech. Instead, he expressed his feelings respectfully and privately (remember that it was President McKay who directed that it be published), with no motivation other than to help and in the spirit of true discipleship.
The outcome of this story is also instructive. Some thirty years later, and now one of the Twelve himself, Elder Oaks wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal on the subject of school prayer. He said: “When the Supreme Court decided the original school prayer case in 1962 … I thought the case was correctly decided. What I did not foresee, but what was sensed by people whose vision was far greater than mine, was that this decision would set in motion a chain of legal and public and educational actions that would bring us to the current circumstances in which we must reaffirm and even contend for religious liberty.”73
While the Court’s decision was probably the correct one on the matter before it at the time, the way the majority opinion was written set in motion the chain of events that President McKay had originally feared. In recognition of the prophetic nature of President McKay’s warning, Elder Oaks wrote: “My worldly wisdom in writing approvingly of the school prayer case on the facts of the decision was just a small footnote to history compared with the vision of a prophet who saw and described the pernicious effects of that decision in the years to come.” It was, he says, “a powerful learning experience on the folly of trying to understand prophetic vision in terms of worldly wisdom.”74
It was the Lord Himself who stated that “whosoever receiveth me, receiveth those, the First Presidency, whom I have sent” (D&C 112:20). Since receiving the Lord is here made equivalent to receiving His servants, this matter cannot be taken lightly. It is my hope that as each of us considers the perspectives raised in this article, we will be guided in our spiritual inquiry as we seek to uphold the Brethren with our faith, prayers, and actions.
Duane Boyce earned a Ph.D. from BYU and conducted his postdoctoral study in developmental psychology at Harvard University. He has authored or co-authored several books, as well as publishing academic articles in BYU Studies Quarterly, Interpreter, Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, The FARMS Review, and The Religious Educator. Among other callings, he has served as a bishop and a stake president and with his wife in the Russia Moscow mission.
He is co-author, with Kimberly White, of the forthcoming book: The Last Safe Place: Seven Principles for Standing with the Prophets in Troubled Times (Meridian Publishing, 2021). The Last Safe Place treats the themes in this three-part article in greater detail. It also includes much more information about who prophets are, how they work, and how we can embrace them in furthering the Lord’s glorious work of the last days.
48. Cannon,Gospel Truth, 1:331.
49. History of the Church,6:184–85; from a discourse given by Joseph Smith on Jan. 21, 1844, in Nauvoo, Illinois; reported by Wilford Woodruff.
50. Official Declaration–1. On another occasion he said: “I know what the will of God is concerning this people, and if they will take the counsel we give them, all will be well with them.”Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, inTeachings of the Latter-day Prophets, 16 vols. (Salt Lake city: Bookcraft, 1998), 4:55.
51. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Excerpts from Recent Addresses of President Gordon B. Hinckley,”Ensign, July 1996, 73.
52. Gordon B. Hinckley, Church News, 30 March 1996, 3.
53. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join with Us,”Ensign, November 2013,https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/come-join-with-us?lang=eng(accessed 11 January 2015).
54. Smith, “Eternal Keys and the Right to Preside,” 73.
55. Marion G. Romney,Conference Reports of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, April 1954, 90,https://archive.org/stream/conferencereport1945a#page/n89/mode/2up(accessed 12 January 2015).
56. Ibid., 91.
57. N. Eldon Tanner, “The Debate is Over,”Ensign, August 1979,https://www.lds.org/ensign/1979/08/the-debate-is-over?lang=eng&query=%22the+debate+is+over%22(accessed 12 January 2015).
58. Boyd K. Packer, “The Law and the Light,” 22.
59. Oaks, “Teaching and Learning by the Spirit,” 14.
60. Boyd K. Packer, “I Say Unto You, Be One,” 84 (emphasis added).
61. Cited in D. Michael Quinn,The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power(Salt Lake City: Signature, 1997), 7, 368.
62. Hinckley,“Excerpts,” 73.
63. Thus, President Harold B. Lee could say: “Never in the world would anybody in his right mind ever desire to be the prophet of God. This is a responsibility that is fraught with some of the most serious and terrifying responsibilities that can be given to man. One in this position can be a target for evil. He is watched to see if he is going to make a mistake. A dear little seven-year-old girl said in a prayer, ‘Heavenly Father, bless the new President so that he will make only a few mistakes at first, and afterwards not any.’ And I felt like saying, ‘You dear little soul, that’s what I’ve been praying all the time.’ The Lord knows that in my heart I don’t want to make any mistakes, but I’m human. I’m not an object of worship. Our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, is at the head of this church. He’s the one we should worship.”The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. Clyde J. Williams (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996), 528.
64. Genesis 3; Moses 4; 2 Nephi 2:19, 22; D&C 29:41.
65.Abraham 1:1–4; D&C 107:41–53; Luke 6:12–16; Ephesians 2:19–20.
66. Acts 10, 11; 1 Nephi 13:42; 3 Nephi 16:1–12; D&C 107:33.
67. 2 Nephi 5:18; Jacob 1:9; Mosiah 6:3–6; 25:1–19; 26:8.
68. Harold B. Lee, “Strengthen the Stakes of Zion,” General Conference, April 6, 1973,https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1973/04/strengthen-the-stakes-of-zion?lang=eng(accessed 11 January 2015).
69. The notable exception being his experience with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21–28. Even here, though, the Lord did not take the gospel to her proactively, but responded to her supplications.
70. Romney, Conference Reports, 90.
71. I take this account from my paper, “The Brethren and the Lord: A Letter to My Children,”This People, Fall 1995, 34–46. Elder Oaks has recently written of it in his Life’s Lessons Learned, 64-67.
72.Church News, 22 June 1963; cited in Jerreld L. Newquist,Prophets, Principles and National Survival (Salt Lake City: Publishers Press, 1964), 187–88.
73. Dallin H. Oaks, “When ‘Freedom’ Becomes Religious Censorship,” fromWall Street Journal,23 May 1990, Congressional Record, 1989–1990, https://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?r101:S23MY0–271 (accessed 12 January 2015).
74. Oaks, Life’s Lessons Learned,