Sustaining the Brethren

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Abstract: Believing Latter-day Saints hold different views about what it means to sustain the presiding Brethren of the Church. In this article, I outline some considerations that might be kept in mind as members of the Church evaluate their views on this vital topic and the Lord’s admonition to sustain the Brethren by their faith, prayers, and actions.

As part of their sacred covenants, Latter-day Saints embrace the principle of sustaining those called as prophets, seers, and revelators. They also accept the authority of the Brethren to lead the Church and to declare its position on various matters. Of course, the nature of mortal experience guarantees that the wisdom of their decisions will not always be obvious to everyone. How should members respond in situations where they do not understand or agree with the actions of the presiding councils of the Church?

President Henry B. Eyring taught the following:

By our sustaining vote, we make solemn promises. We promise to pray for the Lord’s servants and that He will lead and strengthen them (see D&C 93:51). We pledge that we will look for and expect to feel inspiration from God in their counsel and whenever they act in their calling (see D&C 1:38).

That promise will need to be renewed in our hearts frequently. Your Sunday School teacher will try to teach by the Spirit, but just as you might do, your teacher may make mistakes in front of the class. You, however, can decide to listen and watch for the moments when you can feel inspiration come. In time you will notice fewer mistakes and more frequent evidence that God is sustaining that teacher.

[Page viii]As we raise a hand to sustain a person, we commit to work for whatever purpose of the Lord that person is called to accomplish.1

If we accept President Eyring’s counsel to “look for and expect to feel inspiration from God in their counsel and whenever they act in their calling” with respect to a Sunday School teacher, we would naturally apply this counsel with no less seriousness in our attitudes toward the callings of those who preside in the highest councils of the Church. Though the statements of individual prophets and apostles are not inerrant, it is inconsistent with such counsel “to look for and expect” mistakes in the decisions made by the highest councils, even if we commend ourselves for great patience in our expectation that they or their successors will be forced to correct their supposed errors in time. It is, of course, even less consistent with the principle of sustaining the Brethren if we complain publicly about the decision or practice in question and actively lobby for change. That said, there are members of the Church who may not find President Eyring’s stance satisfying. In this article, I outline some considerations that might be kept in mind as members of the Church consider their views on this vital topic.

If God Lived on Earth People Would Break His Windows”

There is a vast difference that exists between our perspectives and those of God (Isaiah 55:8–9; 1 Corinthians 1:25–29). God perceives not only every thought and intent of every person’s heart but also foresees the eternal consequences of every person’s choices — and not only the consequences of such choices for themselves but also for all others who are affected by them (2 Nephi 9:20).2 He is also a being of perfect holiness (Moses 6:57; 7:35). He has no moral flaws, no selfish motivations (3 Ne. 12:48; 1 John 1:5). He wants only what is right and pure (Alma 7:20), and His love for us is perfect and unending (1 John 4:8). Not incidentally, His divine purpose is to help each of us become as He is (Moses 1:39).

It is hard to imagine how mortals could be less like God in these respects (Moses 1:10). Our natural condition limits our perspectives, subjects us to a constant battle with our selfish impulses, taints our love, [Page ix]and bends our purposes toward destructive ends (Mosiah 3:19). We are perfect at nothing (Matthew 19:17).

Because of these vast differences, it seems reasonable to expect God to behave and think differently about various matters than we do, and His ways will routinely make little sense to us. As President Spencer W. Kimball reported:

I have learned that where there is a prayerful heart, a hungering after righteousness, a forsaking of sins, and obedience to the commandments of God, the Lord pours out more and more light until there is finally power to pierce the heavenly veil and to know more than man knows.3

“To know more than man knows.” Precisely. We know immeasurably less than we imagine, and for one who has pierced the veil nothing could be more evident.

Examples from Scripture

Many of the teachings of the Church regarding God are difficult for nonmembers to understand and appreciate. For example, some who believe in God but who do not accept Joseph Smith as a prophet find it laughable to think that God has a physical body, that He would appear in modern times, and that He would require His prophet to use stone interpreters to translate gold plates. Some who do not embrace Christianity find absurdity in the idea of a God with a literal “Son” and the belief that His greatest act of love would be to require the suffering and death of that Son to pay the debt of human sin. Some would find the affirmations of believers that Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, fed five thousand, walked on water, and rose from the grave to be childish and naïve. Moreover, some might declare that Jesus was racist in His refusal to allow the Apostles to minister to the Gentiles or Samaritans (Matthew 10:4–5), insensitive in His remarks to the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:22–28), and sexist in calling only men as Apostles (Matthew 10:2–4). Yet that is what He did.

What the Test of a Prophet Is Not

All this helps us see why we cannot suppose that the test of authenticity for a prophetic teaching is whether or not it “makes sense.” Scripture and the history of the Church are replete with lessons teaching that we [Page x]should expect to hear things from prophets that seem utter foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18–31).4 Such things naturally invite both ridicule and offense from those who reject the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:4–16). None of this should surprise us.

Nor should it be a surprise when prophetic announcements make the Saints’ lives harder. When Moses approached Pharaoh, the short-term result was a steep decline in the quality of life for the children of Israel; Pharaoh punished them by making their hard labors even more demanding (Exodus 5:1–23). Similarly, life became more difficult for Joseph Smith once he began to share his First Vision (Joseph Smith–History 1:22–24), and for all the Saints thereafter.

A Yiddish proverb comments on the stubborn recalcitrance of humankind: “If God lived on earth people would break His windows.” Because it is our general tendency to reject God’s counsels and doings, our decision to accept or reject them ought not to be determined by a majority vote. Prophetic pronouncements are no more likely to be crowd-pleasers in the twenty-first century than they were in the first.

The Things of God Are Known
Only Through the Spirit of God

Paul taught that “the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God” and therefore that such matters can only be “spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:11, 14). If Paul is right, we must expect that the convincing testimony that the Brethren are being led by God will come only by personal revelation. President Harold B. Lee said it this way:“The measure of your true conversion … is whether or not you are so living that you see the power of God resting upon the leaders of this Church and that testimony goes down into your heart like fire.”5 This suggests that if we don’t see the power of God resting upon the Brethren, no amount of argument can serve as a substitute. Of course, this does not mean that reason is irrelevant to such conversion, but only that it is insufficient of its own accord. It is futile to look there for convincing power.[Page xi]

The Lord Is the One Who Calls His Leaders

To be able to adequately sustain the Brethren, we must have a witness that the Lord called them. President George Q. Cannon said this of Lorenzo Snow:

As I have said, God has chosen him to stand where he does — not you or me; and He knows every secret thought of men’s hearts. His all-piercing eye has penetrated the innermost recesses of his heart, and He has seen all there is about him, inside and out. He knows him thoroughly, because He created him. He knew his past history … And knowing this He has chosen him.6

President Gordon B. Hinckley, in speaking of the calling of Elders Russell M. Nelson and Dallin H. Oaks to the Twelve, said: “I want to give you my testimony that they were chosen and called by the spirit of prophecy and revelation.” He added:

Some will ask, why has the Church taken such competent men out of public service in their professions when they are doing so much good where they now are? I do not know. The Church has not done it. Rather, the Lord has made clear that these are they who should serve as His witnesses.7

When Elder Robert D. Hales was named to the Twelve, President Hinckley said: “I give you my testimony, my brethren, that the impression to call Brother Hales to this high and sacred office came by the Holy Spirit, by the spirit of prophecy and revelation. Brother Hales did not suggest his own name. His name was suggested by the Spirit.”8

Having called those who serve Him, it is not surprising that the Lord would say of them that “he that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth me; and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me” (John 13:20).

The Brethren Possess a Special Witness

In response to the criticisms Aaron and Miriam levied against Moses, the Lord rehearsed His intimate relationship with that great prophet and then asked: “Wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my [Page xii]servant Moses?” (Numbers 12:8). God backs up His prophets because they speak from a personal knowledge of Him. President Ezra Taft Benson once shared his testimony in these words:

And so on the third day following His burial, He came forth from the tomb alive and showed Himself to many. There were witnesses then who saw Him. There have been many in this dispensation who have seen Him. As one of those special witnesses … I testify to you that He lives. He lives with a resurrected body.9

One member of the Twelve remarked: “I know that God lives; I know that the Lord lives. And more than that, I know the Lord.”10 Another said: “I bear solemn witness that He lives. I know He lives because I know Him.”11 And still another said: “The spiritual gifts described in the Book of Mormon are present in the church today — promptings, impressions, revelations, dreams, visions, visitations, miracles. You can be sure that the Lord can, and at times does, manifest Himself with power and great glory.”12 President Harold B. Lee maintained that in God’s relationship to the leaders of the Church, “He is closer to us than you have any idea.” 13

Although similar declarations are not hard to find, in general the Brethren are careful in speaking of such matters in detail. Elder Boyd K. Packer, for example, said that “we do not talk of those sacred interviews that qualify the servants of the Lord to bear a special witness of Him, for we have been commanded not to do so. But we are free, indeed, we are obliged, to bear that special witness.”14 And Elder Marion G. Romney said:

[Page xiii]I don’t know just how to answer people when they ask the question, “Have you seen the Lord?” I think that the witness that I have and the witness that each [of the apostles] has, and the details of how it came, are too sacred to tell. I have never told anybody some of the experiences I have had, not even my wife. I know that God lives. I not only know that He lives, but I know Him.15

In this connection it is interesting to note the experience of President George Albert Smith. The venerable patriarch Zebedee Coltrin told him at a young age that he would “become a mighty prophet in the midst of the sons of Zion,” that “the angels of the Lord” would administer to him, that he would be “wrapped in the visions of the heavens,” and that he would become “a mighty man of faith before the Lord, even like unto the brother of Jared” 16 — and yet one searches in vain for any mention of experiences even approaching this sort in the sermons of George Albert Smith himself. A similar example is Jacob, brother of Nephi. Although Nephi tells us that Jacob saw the Lord (2 Nephi 11:3), when Jacob later listed his spiritual credentials in explaining why he could not be shaken by Sherem, he avoided explicit mention of his experience (Jacob 7:5).

The Lord has instructed that sacred things are not to be spoken “before the world” (D&C 84:73). Likewise, the Book of Mormon declares: “It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him” (Alma 12:9). Nevertheless, the presiding Brethren have made it clear that they possess a special witness of the Lord.17

The Brethren Receive Revelation from the Lord

[Page xiv]The presiding Brethren receive revelation from the Lord continually. For instance, Elder Spencer W. Kimball, speaking of President David O. McKay, said:

He is a prophet. He does not just occupy a prophet’s chair; he does not just have a title of prophet, he is a real prophet and he is responsible for … more revelations in his fifteen years of leadership than are in all the Doctrine and Covenants. … I could take time to tell you of these revelations — temples that have been appointed, people who have been called, apostles who have been chosen, great new movements that have been established, great new eras, great new challenges. … They came by revelation. I want you to know he is a prophet. Don’t you question it. I do not know who will be his successor, but whoever it is will be a great prophet, and you need not ever worry.18

Speaking of the spirit of revelation in the Church, President James E. Faust said: “I can testify that the process of continuous revelation comes to the Church very frequently. It comes daily.”19 And Elder Dallin H. Oaks remarked: “Visions do happen. Voices are heard from beyond the veil. I know this.” He explained that recipients of such experiences “rarely speak of them publicly because we are instructed not to do so.” He further explained that most revelation is not so dramatic but comes through the still, small voice, and added: “I testify to the reality of that kind of revelation, which I have come to know as a familiar, even daily, experience to guide me in the work of the Lord.”20

President Gordon B. Hinckley reported:

There has been in the life of every [prophet and apostle I have known] an overpowering manifestation of the inspiration of God. Those who have been Presidents have been prophets [Page xv]in a very real way. I have intimately witnessed the spirit of revelation upon them. … Each Thursday, when we are at home, the First Presidency and the Twelve meet in the temple, in those sacred hallowed precincts, and we pray together and discuss certain matters together, and the spirit of revelation comes upon those present. I know. I have seen it.21

President Spencer W. Kimball remarked, regarding his own experience as the prophet:

I say, in the deepest humility, but also by the power and force of a burning testimony in my soul, that from the prophet of the Restoration to the prophet of our own year, the communication line is unbroken, the authority is continuous, and light, brilliant and penetrating, continues to shine. The sound of the voice of the Lord is a continuous melody and a thunderous appeal … the Lord definitely calls prophets today and reveals His secrets unto them as He did yesterday, He does today, and will do tomorrow: that is the way it is.22

Similarly, President Harold B. Lee said, speaking as President of the Church: “I bear you my solemn witness that it is true, that the Lord is in His heavens. … You ask when the Lord gave the last revelation to this church. The Lord is giving revelations day by day, and you will witness and look back on this period and see some of the mighty revelations the Lord has given in your day and time.”23

Boyd K. Packer summarizes: “Revelation continues with us today. The promptings of the Spirit, the dreams, and the visions and the visitations, and the ministering of angels all are with us now. And the still small voice of the Holy Ghost ‘is a lamp unto [our] feet, and a light unto [our] path’” (Psalms 119:105).24

The First Presidency Is the Highest Authority in the Church

[Page xvi]The Standard Works constitute the doctrinal foundation of the Church.25 Others in general leadership, of course, make declarations routinely. That is the nature of their ministry, and such declarations come in various ways.

The statements and guidance carrying the highest authority are those issued by the First Presidency, including those in which they are joined by the Twelve. Joseph Smith said:

The Presidents or Presidency are over the Church; and revelations of the mind and will of God to the Church, are to come through the Presidency. This is the order of heaven, and the power and privilege of this Priesthood. 26

In the same spirit, President Joseph Fielding Smith taught:

An individual may fall by the wayside, or have views, or give counsel which falls short of what the Lord intends. But the [Page xvii]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.27

It is customary to speak of “following the prophet,” but this is verbal shorthand. To be precise, the highest authority is the full First Presidency. In the Doctrine and Covenants we are told explicitly that “every decision made by [any of the presiding quorums, including the First Presidency] must be by the unanimous voice of the same; that is, every member … must be agreed to its decisions. … Unless this is the case, their decisions are not entitled to the same blessings which the decisions of a quorum of three presidents were anciently” (D&C 107:27, 29).

This passage was emphasized by Elder Boyd K. Packer, specifically in contrasting a statement made by the prophet, acting alone, with statements by the full First Presidency on the same subject.28 The same principle applies in President Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s observation that “there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.”29 On one occasion Elder Packer explained in some detail how the First Presidency and Twelve [Page xviii]work together and said: “That is how we work — in council assembled. … I have a deep, even a sacred, regard for councils; inspiration is evident in them. If ever another course has been followed, trouble has followed as surely as night follows day.”30 He also said in General Conference that, despite individual weaknesses, they are counterbalanced by “councils and counselors and quorums.”31

Speaking of his own experience in the First Presidency, President Gordon B. Hinckley said: “Even the President of the Church, who is Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and whose right and responsibility it is to make judgments and direct the course of the Church, invariably consults with his counselors to determine their feelings. If there is a lack of unity, there follows an absence of action.”32 And in emphasizing that it is not [Page xix]one particular “Brother” in Church leadership that we follow, but the Brethren, Elder Packer said: “There is only one ‘Brother’ to follow, and that is our Prophet President. But even he does not act alone, for he has counselors.”33

In short, while it is common to speak of “following the prophet,” it is actually the First Presidency that we follow.34 That quorum is the highest mortal authority in the Church. It is not the general membership that possesses authority to guide the Church. Nor does any particular individual — whatever his authority — act alone. Instead, it is the council of the First Presidency that governs the Church. The President of the Church is the highest authority in terms of possessing keys, but in terms of guiding the Church, the full First Presidency possesses the highest authority on earth. Significantly, the Lord said of them that “whosoever receiveth me, receiveth those, the First Presidency, whom I have sent” (D&C 112:20).

Teachings of Individuals Are Not Binding

President J. Reuben Clark explained the endowment that attends the teachings of those who hold the Apostleship:

[Page xx]Some of the General Authorities have had assigned to them a special calling; they possess a special gift; they are sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators, which gives them a special spiritual endowment in connection with their teaching of this people. They have the right, the power, and the authority to declare the mind and will of God to His people, subject to the overall power and authority of the President of the Church. Others of the General Authorities are not given this special spiritual endowment.

He specified that this limitation “applies to every other officer and member of the Church, for none of them is spiritually endowed as a prophet, seer, and revelator.”35

However, despite the significance of apostolic statements in general, individual statements by those who are sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators are not binding on the Church. For instance, the First Presidency formally issued statements condemning and correcting teachings by Elder Orson Pratt, and Elder Pratt expressly disavowed his authority to contradict or go beyond the teachings of those who held the keys.36 Similarly, Elder Boyd K. Packer once said that he knew by personal revelation that man did not evolve from animals,37 but qualified his remarks by placing the following caveat at the beginning of the printed version:

Only the Standard Works and statements written under assignment of the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles are considered official declarations by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The talk which follows was given without such assignment and no such approval has been sought or given. The author alone is responsible for the views set forth therein. They do not necessarily represent the Church.38

[Page xxi]His announcement that he knew this matter by revelation still did not make it official or binding on the Church.

And, of course, an announcement this declarative is rare in any event. It is not unusual for different leaders to see matters in different ways with different conclusions. We see this on topics ranging from evolution to Book of Mormon geography to the date of Christ’s birth.39 Nevertheless, from the fact that individual apostolic statements are not binding, it does not follow that no such statements are true. It is customary for the Lord to speak so that only those with ears to hear will actually receive the intended message, 40 and on this basis one can imagine that individual statements sometimes play the role of saying to the Saints something that is true but that would not be wise for the First Presidency itself to say. To each hearer is left the burden to listen and carefully consider the merits of such statements on their own.

The Lord Gives More Instructions Than Explanations

A curious fact about revelation is that the Lord rarely reveals the reasons behind it. For example, President Gordon B. Hinckley, recalling the [Page xxii]period during which he was both a counselor in the First Presidency and its sole healthy member, spoke of wrestling with a matter that seemed very serious and that seemed to require action on his part. Yet as he went to his knees in prayer, wanting to follow the proper course, there came into his mind a feeling of peace and the words of the Lord, with the simple message: “Be still and know that I am God.” Apparently what seemed urgent to him did not seem so urgent to the Lord — and yet President Hinckley received no explanation to help him understand why. The Lord told him to relax, but gave no insight into why he should relax.

Out of this experience President Hinckley bore this witness: “God is weaving His tapestry according to His own grand design. All flesh is in His hands. It is not our prerogative to counsel Him. It is our responsibility and our opportunity to be at peace in our minds and in our hearts, and to know that He is God, that this is His work, and that He will not permit it to fail. We have no need to fear. We have no need to worry.”41

This sounds similar to the report regarding President David O. McKay who, according to one account, said that he had “inquired of the Lord repeatedly” regarding the restriction on blacks holding the priesthood. In his latest inquiry, he “was told, with no discussion, not to bring the subject up with the Lord again; that time will come, but it will not be in my time, and to leave the subject alone.”42 This is reminiscent of the Prophet Joseph’s experience of being told, after praying earnestly to know when the Second Coming would occur:

Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter. I was left thus, without being able to decide whether this coming referred to the beginning of the millennium or to some previous appearing, or whether I should die and thus see his face. (D&C 130:15–16)

President George Q. Cannon once said of the First Presidency:

We can see a certain distance in the light of the Spirit of God as it reveals to us His mind and His will, and we can take these steps with perfect security, knowing that they are the right steps to be taken. But as to what the result will be, that [Page xxiii]is for the God of Israel to control. That is the way in which the Church of God has always been led, and it will always be led in that way until He comes who is our King, our Lawgiver and our President, even Jesus Christ. 43

Speaking of their own lack of complete knowledge of the Lord’s designs in the instructions He gives, President Cannon said: “It is just as necessary that the Presidency and the Apostles should be tried as it is that you should be tried. It is as necessary that our faith should be called into exercise as that your faith should be called into exercise.”44

The Brethren can thus be in the position of knowing what is right and yet not being able to say fully why it is right. In the words of Elder Neal A. Maxwell: “I have found that the Lord gives more instructions than explanations.”45 In the same spirit Elder Dallin H. Oaks said:

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.46

At times the Lord helps His leaders and the Saints understand the reasons for one decision or another — as he did in the case of the Manifesto, for instance47 — but this appears to be far from universal. [Page xxiv]While Mormon, for example, was instructed to include the small plates of Nephi in his record, he was not told why he was commanded to do so, and the reason did not become clear until centuries later. This is reminiscent (among many scriptural incidents) of Abraham, who was told to sacrifice Isaac but not why he should do so, and of Lehi, who was told to leave Jerusalem but not where his journey would lead or when it would end. Precedents like these should lead us to expect that the reasons for the Lord’s decisions will not always be immediately evident, and may not be evident even in our lifetimes. The Lord’s pattern is to require his children to live and act in response to the Spirit without complete information because the very purpose of life is to grow in the Spirit.48

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.

[Page xxv]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.”49

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.50

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.”51 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 [Page xxvi]about Gordon Hinckley. The Lord is directing this work, and He won’t let me or anyone else lead it astray.”52 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.53

Many others have spoken similarly. For example, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf declared: “God will not allow His Church to drift from its appointed course.”54 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.”55 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.”56 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.”57

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:

[Page xxvii]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. …58

Elder Boyd K. Packer, echoing this thought, said simply: “When the First Presidency speaks, we can safely accept their word.”59

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.60

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.

[Page xxviii]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.61

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”62 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.”63 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.64 But as a council the Brethren cannot go where the Spirit forbids; on matters of importance they will not do anything that would cause permanent injury to the work of the Lord.

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 [Page xxix]from the garden of Eden;65 moving from a system of presiding patriarchs to a system of apostolic councils in guiding the Lord’s work;66 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;67 moving from a patriarchal society in Nephite civilization to a combination of patriarchal presidency and Church presidency;68 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;69 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.70 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.71

The Saints Can Know They are Being Led Correctly

[Page xxx]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.”72 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

[Page xxxi]An inspiring example of this is found in the life of Elder Dallin H. Oaks.73 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.”74 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 [Page xxxii]in which we must reaffirm and even contend for religious liberty.”75 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.”76

Conclusion

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.

1. Henry B. Eyring, “Called by God and Sustained by the People,” Ensign, June 2012, 4.

2. Neal A. Maxwell, All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979), 6–27.

3. Spencer W. Kimball, “Give the Lord Your Loyalty,” Ensign, March 1980, 4.

4. What truths we do possess in the gospel hardly make us omniscient, nor do they endow us with the moral perfection needed to “see clearly” (Matthew 7:5) from an eternal perspective. King Benjamin’s declaration that “man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend” (Mosiah 4:9) was surely an understatement; those who suppose “they know of themselves” (2 Nephi 9:28) are deluded.

5. Harold B. Lee, “Be Loyal to the Royal Within You,” BYU Speeches, September 11, 1973, http://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=400 (accessed 7 January 2015).

6. Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of President George Q. Cannon, ed. Jerreld L. Newquist, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1974), 1:296.

7. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Special Witnesses for Christ,” Ensign, May 1984, 49.

8. Gordon B. Hinckley, “God Is at the Helm,” Ensign, May 1994, 54.

9. Ezra Taft Benson, “Jesus Christ: Our Savior, Our God,” Ensign, April 1991, 4; citing a talk given in San Diego, California, on 21 December 1979.

10. Quoted by Boyd K. Packer in “The Spirit Beareth Record,” general conference, April 1971, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1971/04/the-spirit-beareth-record?lang=eng (accessed 9 January 2015).

11. Richard G. Scott, “Sisters in Councils,” Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, February 2011, http://lds.org/broadcasts/article/print/worldwide-leadership-training/2011/02/sisters-in-councils/?lang=eng (accessed 9 January 2015).

12. Boyd K. Packer, “The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ — Plain and Precious Things,” Ensign, May 2005, 8.

13. Harold B. Lee, “Admonitions for the Priesthood of God,” Ensign, January 1973, 108.

14. Boyd K. Packer, “A Tribute to the Rank and File of the Church,” Ensign, May 1980, 65.

15. F. Burton Howard, Marion G. Romney: His Life and Faith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988), 222.

16. Robert and Susan McIntosh, eds., The Teachings of George Albert Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996), xix.

17. This is not to say that such experience is universal among the apostles. However, Elder Bruce R. McConkie held the view that modern apostles “are expected, like their counterparts of old, to see and hear and touch and converse with the Heavenly Person, as did those of old.” He said that members of the Twelve have the obligation “to see the face of Him whose witnesses they are” and that “the Lord’s apostolic witnesses are entitled and expected to see his face, and that each one individually is obligated to ‘call upon him in faith in mighty prayer’ until he prevails.” See Bruce R. McConkie, The Promised Messiah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978), 592–94.

18. The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 447.

19. James E. Faust, “Come Out of the Darkness into the Light,” CES Fireside for Young Adults (8 September 2002), The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Media Library, https://www.lds.org/media-library/video/2002–09–05-come-out-of-the-darkness-into-the-light?lang=eng (accessed 9 January 2015).

20. Dallin H. Oaks, “Teaching and Learning by the Spirit,” Ensign, March 1997, 14.

21. Gordon B. Hinckley, The Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997), 71, 555.

22. Spencer W. Kimball, “Revelation: The Word of the Lord to His Prophets,” April 1977, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1977/04/revelation-the-word-of-the-lord-to-his-prophets?lang=eng (accessed 2 January 2015).

23. Lee, “Admonitions for the Priesthood of God,” 108.

24. Boyd K. Packer, “Revelation in a Changing World,” Ensign, November 1989, 16. In this connection Elder Russell M. Nelson shares this interesting experience: “On the morning of the [Washington D.C.] temple dedication, President [Hugh B. Brown] greeted me with the news that he had been visited during the night by President Harold B. Lee (who had died the year before). Elder Brown described it as a glorious visit that meant much to him, for President Lee had been aware of some of the difficulties encountered by President Brown in the decisions that led to the construction of the temple in Washington, D.C. Later that morning, as we took President Brown to breakfast, Sister Harold B. (Freda Joan) Lee approached us. As we exchanged greetings, President Brown said to her, ‘I had a glorious visit with Harold last night. He is just fine. It was so good to visit with him.’” Russell M. Nelson, The Gateway We Call Death (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995), 100–101.

25. In addition, the teachings of Joseph Smith are of central importance. Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained: “The answers to nearly all important doctrinal questions are found in the standard works or in the sermons and writings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. If they are not found in these sources, they probably are not essential to salvation.” Mark L. McConkie, ed., Doctrines of the Restoration (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 229. He also said: “The Lord said to Joseph Smith: ‘This generation shall have my word through you’ (D&C 5:10). What this means is that if we are going to receive the knowledge of God, the knowledge of truth, the knowledge of salvation, and know the things that we must do to work out our salvation with fear and trembling before the Lord, this must come in and through Joseph Smith and in no other way. He is the agent, the representative, the instrumentality that the Lord has appointed to give the truth about Himself and his laws to all men in all the world in this age.” Ibid., 19.

26. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1837), 111. In another place, the Propeht taught: “Look to the Presidency and receive instruction.” Ibid., 161. Cf. The Words of Joseph Smith, eds. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 11 (Before 8 August 1839).

27. Joseph Fielding Smith, “Eternal Keys and the Right to Preside,” Ensign, July 1972, 88.

28. The subject was evolution and Elder Packer was speaking of a statement in a personal letter by President David O. McKay to a member of the Church. In Elder Packer’s view, President McKay’s statement was “in conflict with the two official declarations, each signed by all members of the First Presidency.” He then referred to the passage in D&C 107. See Boyd K. Packer, “The Law and the Light,” in Jacob through Words of Mormon: to Learn with Joy: papers from the Fourth Annual Book of Mormon Symposium, eds. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1990), http://rsc.byu.edu/archived/book-mormon-jacob-through-words-mormon-learn-joy/law-and-light (accessed 3 January 2015), 22–23.

29. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join with Us,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/come-join-with-us?lang=eng. President Uchtdorf’s observation regarding “members or leaders” is broad enough that it could apply to practically anyone, from an elders quorum president or bishop to the president of the Church. Certainly it applies to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which was perpetrated by members of the Church, including a stake president. See Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr, and Glen M. Leonard, Massacre at Mountain Meadows (New York: Oxford, 2008). It also applies to the explanations of Brigham Young and others about the former restrictions on the priesthood, since these explanations have now been explicitly disavowed by the Church. See “Race and the Priesthood,” https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng (accessed 15 March 2015).

30. Boyd K. Packer, “I Say Unto You, Be One,” BYU Devotional (12 February 1991), reproduced in BYU Devotional and Fireside Speeches, 1990–1991 (Provo, Utah: University Publications, 1991), 83–84. A particularly tragic example of Elder Packer’s observation is the Mountain Meadows Massacre, mentioned above. The decision of a local council of Church and community leaders was to let the emigrants pass without interference or harm. It was individuals meeting after the council who embarked on a different path, leading to the ensuing massacre. See Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr, and Glen M. Leonard, Massacre at Mountain Meadows (New York: Oxford, 2008), 155–57; see also 178.

31. Packer, “Revelation in a Changing World,” 16. A friendly disagreement between Elder David B. Haight of the Twelve and President Gordon B. Hinckley provides a humorous insight into the character of the highest councils of the Church. In the course of their disagreement, Elder Haight, 96, turned to President Hinckley, 93, and remarked: “That’s OK, Gordon. I used to think like that when I was your age.” Lawrence Flake, reported in Tad Walch, “Tales of LDS Leaders’ Wit a Big Draw at Ed Week,” Deseret Morning News, 21 August 2003, http://www.mission.net/missouri/independence/Photo006Flake03.htm (accessed 28 February 2015). It is hard to imagine that a conversation of this sort would occur in a system that consisted of a single leader simply giving instructions to subordinates.

32. Gordon B. Hinckley, “In … Counsellors There is Safety,” Ensign, November 1990, 50. Here is his full statement: “No president in any organization in the Church is likely to go ahead without the assurance that his counselors feel good about the proposed program. A man or woman thinking alone, working alone, arriving at his or her own conclusions, can take action which might prove to be wrong. But when three kneel together in prayer, discuss every aspect of the problem which is before them, and under the impressions of the Spirit reach a united conclusion, then we may have the assurance that the decision is in harmony with the will of the Lord. I can assure all members of this church that in the First Presidency we follow such a procedure. Even the President of the Church, who is Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and whose right and responsibility it is to make judgment and direct the course of the Church, invariably consults with his counselors to determine their feelings. If there is a lack of unity, there follows an absence of action. Two counselors, working with a president, preserve a wonderful system of checks and balances. They become a safeguard that is seldom, if ever, in error and affords great strength of leadership.”

33. Packer, “I Say Unto You, Be One,” 84.

34. Thus, while President Ezra Taft Benson spoke of fourteen fundamentals in following the prophet, he emphasized that it is the First Presidency — “the living prophet and the First Presidency” — that we follow. Ezra Taft Benson, “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet,” address to Brigham Young University, 26 February 1980; reproduced in Liahona, June 1981, https://www.lds.org/liahona/1981/06/fourteen-fundamentals-in-following-the-prophet?lang=eng. Similarly, Joseph Fielding Smith begins his statement on following the Brethren by saying, “neither the President of the Church, nor the First Presidency, nor the united voice of the First Presidency and the Twelve will ever lead the Saints astray or send forth counsel to the world that is contrary to the mind and will of the Lord,” but in his next expression, he emphasizes not the President of the Church, but the full First Presidency: “An individual may fall by the wayside, or have views, or give counsel which falls short of what the Lord intends. But 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.” Joseph Fielding Smith, Ensign, July 1972, 88; emphasis added.

35. Cited by Boyd K. Packer, “The Twelve Apostles,” Ensign, November 1996, 6.

36. See, for example, James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–1975), 2:229–35.

37. Packer, “The Law and the Light,” 25–26. He commented: “I said I would give six reasons for my conviction [i.e., that ‘the theory that God used an evolutionary process to prepare a physical body for the spirit of man … is false’], and I have listed only five. The sixth is personal revelation” (emphasis in original).

38. Packer, “The Law and the Light,” 1.

39. For a range of statements on evolution, a good starting place is FairMormon Answers Wiki, “Statements Made by Church Leaders Regarding Evolution,” http://en.fairmormon.org/Primary_sources/Evolution (accessed 6 January 2015); on Book of Mormon Geography; see Matthew Roper, “Limited Geography and the Book of Mormon: Historical Antecedents and Early Interpretations,” FARMS Review 16/2 (2004): 225–76; and “Joseph Smith, Revelation, and Book of Mormon Geography,” FARMS Review 22/2 (2010): 15–85; on the date of Christ’s birth, see Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “Dating the Birth of Jesus Christ,” BYU Studies 49/4 (2010): 5–38. On evolution in particular, it can be difficult to categorize different leaders’ views because the term itself is often used ambiguously. In avowing “evolution” one can mean any number of things — for example, that: (1) all forms of life developed by evolutionary mechanisms through blind chance, without divine guidance; (2) all forms of life developed by evolutionary mechanisms through blind chance, without divine guidance, except for humans whose evolution was guided; (3) all forms of life developed by evolutionary mechanisms, but this process was not blind, but divinely guided for them all; (4) all forms of life developed by evolutionary mechanisms through blind chance, except for humans, who were created apart, in a special creation; or (5) all forms of life developed by guided evolutionary mechanisms, except for humans, who were created apart, in a special creation. If speakers don’t say much about what they mean by “evolution,” it is impossible to be certain what they mean when they avow or disavow it. For this reason, readers need to be careful when comparing leaders’ views on the subject.

40. See, for example, Matthew 11:7–15; 13:3–9, 23–43; Mark 4:3–9, 13–23; 7:14–16; Luke 14:34–35.

41. Gordon B. Hinckley, “He Slumbers Not, Nor Sleeps,” Ensign, May 1983, 6.

42. In Gregory A. Prince and William Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), 104.

43. Cannon, Gospel Truth, 1:346.

44. Ibid.

45. Bruce C. Hafen, A Disciple’s Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 413.

46. Elder Oaks is speaking here specifically regarding the former restriction on blacks holding the priesthood, explaining why he was able to accept the restriction itself and yet not accept the various explanations that had been given for it. He goes on to say: “Some people put reasons to the one we’re talking about here [restrictions on the priesthood], 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.” Dallin H. Oaks Life’s Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book), 68–69. In short, the explanations offered for the restriction reflected people’s thinking (Brigham Young’s, primarily, it would seem) but were not themselves part of the official action.

47. See, e.g., “Excerpts from Three Addresses by President Wilford Woodruff Regarding the Manifesto,” following “Official Declaration–1” in the current edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.

48. Elder Charles W. Penrose explained that to see a glorified man, as our Heavenly Father is, is to see someone who is “quickened by [the] spirit in its fullness.” Charles W. Penrose, in Journal of Discourses, 26:21, http://en.fairmormon.org/Journal_of_Discourses/26/3#21 (accessed 28 February 2015). One way to think of the plan of salvation, then, is to see it as the path by which we develop this same fullness of the Spirit. We grow in Christ until we are eventually glorified in Him as He is glorified in the Father, and we receive of the Father’s fullness (D&C 93:13–20; 76:50–59, 92–95). Thus, we are told that “light is Spirit” (D&C 84:45) and that “he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light growth brighter and brighter until the perfect day” (D&C 50:24).

49. Cannon, Gospel Truth, 1:331.

50. 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.

51. 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, in Teachings of the Latter-day Prophets, 16 vols. (Salt Lake city: Bookcraft, 1998), 4:55.

52. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Excerpts from Recent Addresses of President Gordon B. Hinckley,” Ensign, July 1996, 73.

53. Gordon B. Hinckley, Church News, 30 March 1996, 3.

54. 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).

55. Smith, “Eternal Keys and the Right to Preside,” 73.

56. 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).

57. Ibid., 91.

58. N. Eldon Tanner, “The Debate is Over,” Ensign, August 1979, http://www.lds.org/ensign/1979/08/the-debate-is-over?lang=eng&query=%22the+debate+is+over%22 (accessed 12 January 2015).

59. Boyd K. Packer, “The Law and the Light,” 22.

60. Oaks, “Teaching and Learning by the Spirit,” 14.

61. Boyd K. Packer, “I Say Unto You, Be One,” 84 (emphasis added).

62. Cited in D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature, 1997), 7, 368.

63. Hinckley, Excerpts,” 73.

64. 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.

65. Genesis 3; Moses 4; 2 Nephi 2:19, 22; D&C 29:41.

66. Abraham 1:1–4; D&C 107:41–53; Luke 6:12–16; Ephesians 2:19–20.

67. Acts 10, 11; 1 Nephi 13:42; 3 Nephi 16:1–12; D&C 107:33.

68. 2 Nephi 5:18; Jacob 1:9; Mosiah 6:3–6; 25:1–19; 26:8.

69. 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).

70. The notable exception being his experience with the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15:21–28.

71. While it is possible to see the 1978 revelation on the priesthood as a correction of a past mistake, explanations by those who wrestled with the matter have consistently framed it as a matter of divine timing (see, e.g., President McKay’s reported revelation discussed in note 42 above and related text) and the fulfillment of past promises (see, e.g., Official Declaration—2: “the long-promised day has come”). President Gordon B. Hinckley flatly stated: “I don’t think it was wrong …[V]arious things happened in different periods. There’s a reason for them” (Gordon B. Hinckley, “We Stand for Something: President Gordon B. Hinckley,” On the Record, Sunstone 21/4 (December 1998): 71; cited in http://en.fairmormon.org/Mormonism_and_racial_issues/Blacks_and_the_priesthood/Repudiated_ideas). Moreover, it has been reported that in the meeting that resulted in the revelation, President Kimball referred to the policy of restriction as something the Lord had “theretofore directed.” See Bruce R. McConkie’s report in Doctrines of the Restoration: Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie, ed. Mark L. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 160. While Church leaders have repudiated erroneous ideas relating to the reasons for the previous restriction (see, e.g., http://en.fairmormon.org/Mormonism_and_racial_issues/Blacks_and_the_priesthood/Repudiated_ideas), no public statements by those who were present at the time of the revelation described the matter in terms of correction. See Gordon B. Hinckley, “We Stand for Something,” cited above; Boyd K. Packer, “Lessons from Gospel Experiences,” new mission presidents’ seminar, 25 June 2008, disc 4, track 12, 0:00–0:54 (cited in Gregory L. Smith, “Shattered Glass: The Traditions of Mormon Same-Sex Marriage Advocates Encounter Boyd K. Packer,” http://publications.maxwellinstitute.byu.edu/fullscreen/?pub=1462&index=6 (accessed February 17, 2015); Mark L. McConkie, Doctrines of the Restoration: Sermons and Writings of Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1989), 159–71; and David B. Haight, “This Work is True,” Ensign, May 1996, 22, https://www.lds.org/ensign/1996/05/this-work-is-true?lang=mon&clang=eng (accessed March 25, 2015).

72. Romney, Conference Reports, 90.

73. 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.

74. Church News, 22 June 1963; cited in Jerreld L. Newquist, Prophets, Principles and National Survival (Salt Lake City: Publishers Press, 1964), 187–88.

75. Dallin H. Oaks, “When ‘Freedom’ Becomes Religious Censorship,” from Wall Street Journal, 23 May 1990, Congressional Record, 1989–1990, http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?r101:S23MY0–271 (accessed 12 January 2015).

76. Oaks, Life’s Lessons Learned, 67.

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About Duane Boyce

Duane Boyce received his academic training in psychology, philosophy, and the clinical treatment of families. He received a Ph.D. from Brigham Young University and conducted his postdoctoral study in developmental psychology at Harvard University. He was a member of the Moral Studies Group at BYU and served on the faculty there. He is a founding partner of the Arbinger Institute, a worldwide management consulting and educational firm, and is the author or coauthor of five books. He has published academic essays on scriptural topics in BYU Studies, The FARMS Review, Religious Educator, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, and the Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture. He is author of the recent book, Even unto Bloodshed: An LDS Perspective on War (Kofford, 2015). Among other callings, he has served as a bishop and a stake president.

41 thoughts on “Sustaining the Brethren

      • I agree that Duane’s article is needed, timely and even uplifting. I wonder however if Duane was a little quick in his analysis that the priesthood ban was simply a matter of “divine timing” fn 71. The Church’s 2013 essay on the Priesthood ban seemed to argue that the origin of the ban was based more on racial attitudes of the time than revelation. Historian Richard Bushman indicated that the essay “drains the ban of revelatory significance, makes it something that just grew up and, in time, had to be eliminated”. 1978 statements must be read in light of 2013 and later statements.

  1. Interesting notions…

    I think I understand from this article that binding doctrinal announcements are those sanctioned by the First Presidency in unison. If so, when and where did Presidents Sidney Rigdon and William Law line up in support and implementation of Celestial Marriage in its fullness as presented in Section 132?

    • I didn’t quite read it that way…It seems to me the point of the article is that the combined First Presidency will not lead the church astray, not that every single thing we believe to be true doctrine must have a specific First Presidency endorsement.

    • Roger, the fulness of the law of celestial marriage as described in D&C 132 didn’t become binding on the Saints as a people until Brigham Young’s presidency. Before then, if I am not mistaken, it was only binding on individuals to whom it had been revealed and commanded through proper authority (ie. Joseph Smith)

  2. Joseph Smith gave the sealing keys to the twelve and not to the other members the first presidency (Rigdon & Law). Apparently someone had the notion that the twelve would be better able lead the church.

    • So … We have a notable exception. Now correct me if I misapprehend, but the issuance of the First and Second Manifestos was by the First Presidency, and in spite of apparent opposition and disunity by the Q12–

      • “I think I understand from this article that binding doctrinal announcements are those sanctioned by the First Presidency in unison. If so, when and where did Presidents Sidney Rigdon and William Law line up in support and implementation of Celestial Marriage in its fullness as presented in Section 132”

        I think that Roger has a point that needs to be seriously discussed and evaluated and not brushed aside.

        If the article that has been presented is to be taken seriously, we need to be willing to scrutinize the suppositions that have been offered by Brother Boyce.

        After all, the church is currently experiencing a higher level of criticism regarding, among other things, our changing doctrines, than perhaps ever before.

        Some people criticize us for changing doctrine and we as a church need to do some serious collective soul searching to see if a portion of the criticisms about doctrinal evolution are valid.

        I think his examples are valid and very interesting food for thought. We can continue creatively finding reasons that any example that one might present, represents a unique situation that merits an exemption clause, from the rather rigid protocol provided in this article, or we can quit being fearful and be honest with ourselves.

        I believe there are countless examples of what Roger is suggesting that could be given. The history of this church is full of them.

        What about all of the doctrinal declarations made by first presidencies that were later contradicted and changed by later first presidencies.

        Does doctrine change over time?

        I am not speaking about church policy. I can see how that may need to change with time and circumstances; I am talking about the raw doctrines that pertain to the Gospel.

        I believe that the concept of “progressive revelation” originally had to do with “continuous revelation” and the belief that the Lord’s church enjoys continuing revelations that remain consistent with previous revelations, and that all new revelations are congruent and harmonious with the past revelations, generally providing additional details and clarifications to past revelations.

        Sadly, I think that for many Saints, the term “Progressively revelation” has come to mean “Revisionist Revelation”, or the belief that past doctrines that were presented by a past First Presidency as being true, can legitimately be overturned and revised by the current First Presidency.

        The concept boggles my mind.

        It is as if our only valid collective reality as a church is our present state and that nothing that has ever happened or been taught in the past matters.

        It is as if the past does not have any relevancy to us in validating our claim of being the true church and enjoying continuous revelations from our modern prophets.

        I have a son with Downs Syndrome. When I play hide and seek with him, he simply covers his eyes because he thinks that if he can’t see me, I can’t see him. He is oblivious to the broader context. This is how this current doctrine of progressive revelation feels to me. I think we need to quit covering our eyes with regard to the changes in doctrine between the past and the present.

        I am not sure how people justify this without employing some kind of relativism that is not congruent with the word of God and the unchanging doctrine of his gospel.

        Joseph once said that that the way one can discern that an angel is bad, is “by his contradicting a former revelation”

        Apparently angels are required to be consistent with past doctrine when they deliver a doctrinal message.

        Wouldn’t that apply to the a First Presidency that has originally proclaimed a doctrine that eventually needs to be overturned by a future First Presidency, or by a current First Presidency that is altering the true doctrine that had been proclaimed by a past First Presidency.

        Why do we hold the angels feet to the fire but not our mortal leaders?

        Here is another example to add to the two Roger has submitted-

        In 1835 a series of lectures called the Lectures on Faith were submitted by the First Presidency of the Church to be canonized in the Doctrine and covenants.

        They were literally the “Doctrine” part of the “Doctrine and Covenants” and they were sustained as the doctrine of the church.

        In 1921, the doctrine being taught in the church had changed so radically that the lectures in the D&C were becoming disruptive and causing continuous questions from the members of the church.

        At that time, the First Presidency of the Church took them out of the Doctrine and Covenants claiming that the lectures-
        “were never presented to nor accepted by the Church as being otherwise than theological lectures or lessons”.

        The implication was, “gosh, we are not quite sure how these lectures made their way into our scriptures, but we have determined that they should not have been put in them because they have never been accepted by the Church as anything other than theological lectures.”

        Never mind the fact that the claim that the lectures had never been accepted by the church as official doctrine was erroneous.

        Never mind the fact that the lectures had been canonized and sustained for many decades.

        Never mind the fact that there had been 5 previous First Presidencies that sustained the Lectures on Faith as the accepted, canonized doctrine of the Church

        Nevertheless, in 1931, The First Presidency under Joseph F. Smith determined that those Lectures that had been prepared by Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were no longer acceptable as official doctrine.

        I appreciate Roger for bringing up something that is obviously a sensitive issue and that needs to be discussed.

        If this comment should get published, I fully expect someone to now explain to me why this example, like the ones that Roger provided, represents a unique situation that does not violate the very black and white protocol of accepting truth that has been presented by brother Boyce.

        • I’m not sure that Roger’s original thoughts on Section 132 & polygamy with Rigdon & Law are inconsistent when you consider how the counsels and quorums that preside over the church operate today.

          Brother Boyce reinforced the idea that the presiding counsel of the church is the first presidency. My understanding is that upon the death of the president of the church that counsel is dissolved and the burden of leadership and the authority falls upon the twelve.

          If Joseph Smith knew that his time on earth was limited it follows that the keys of the kingdom, and also the specific doctrines and practices that came from Section 132 and other revelations would be left with the twelve and not with the first presidency.

          The presiding counsel of the church had the authority to change the practices of the church when the manifestos were given. President Woodruff had not passed away and the first presidency presided.

          I’m not sure that it is the doctrine that changes over time. It may be that our understanding of doctrine changes.

          The Lord has to work within our own culture, context & understanding when revealing instructions. Recognizing our personal and collective limitations means that our understanding of doctrine may not always as clear to us as He would like it to be. Because we are imperfect, it sometimes takes a substantial amount of individual and collective patience to get things right. We also have to deal with the fact that the Lord’s timetable may not match up with what we want.

          The Lord knows our limitations and has advised that we will continue to learn and grow line by line and precept by precept. The principle of individual and collective continuing revelation allows the purposes of God to roll forth despite our limitations.

          I’m not sure how to address Lectures on Faith example.

          • “I’m not sure how to address Lectures on Faith example.”

            I appreciate your integrity and honesty in responding to my example Tucker.

            The reason I feel it is a rather profound example is because when Joseph, Sidney and the entire First Presidency introduced the Lectures, they proclaimed that the Lectures were “embracing the import doctrine of salvation”.

            They also stated, over their signatures, that “We do not present this little volume with any other expectation than that we are to be called to answer to every principle advanced in that day when the secrets of all hearts will be revealed, and the reward of every man’s labor be given him”.

            Whew!

            They were quite sober about the significance of what they were teaching and the fact that they would be held accountable for it.

            Those lectures were written at the culmination of the revelatory sweet spot of Joseph’s ministry, having just received over 100 revelations in a 5 1/2 year period that would be canonized, compared to only about 20 canonized revelations that came during the following decade.

            Joseph and Sidney had previously beheld the glory of the Son on the right hand of the Father and received of his fulness as they experienced a vision which taught them many things about the nature and character of the Father and the Son and the plan of salvation.

            Is it a stretch to assume that Joseph and Sidney knew what they were talking about when they wrote Lectures on Faith and canonized it?

            Is it a stretch to assume that perhaps they knew just a little bit more about the true doctrine of Christ and the nature of God than President Joseph F. Smith and his associates?

            Despite the decision by Joseph F. Smith to extract the Doctrine from the Doctrine and Covenants, Bruce R. McConkie would make the following statement about the Lectures many years later:

            “It is without question the most excellent summary of revealed and eternal truth relative to the Godhead that is now extant in mortal language . . . . To spiritually illiterate persons, it may seem hard and confusing; to those whose souls are aflame with heavenly light, it is a nearly perfect summary of those things which must be believed to gain salvation”

            If by any chance Joseph and Sidney did understand what they were talking about, then we have some serious doctrinal issues regarding some false doctrines that are currently taught in the church.

            For instance, the Holy Ghost is not a personage; rather it is the Mind of God.

            And the Father is not a personage of flesh and bones but rather He is a personage of spirit, differing from the Son, who the Father created as a personage of tabernacle, despite the later insertions into the Doctrine and Covenants by Brigham Young.

            According to these lectures, it is impossible to exercise faith unto salvation unless one has the “correct idea of [Gods] character, perfections and attributes”

            What if the character, perfections and attributes of God taught by Joseph and Sidney were the correct ones and the Doctrines of Brigham Young that later infiltrated the church after Joseph’s death are the erroneous ones?

            Would that present a problem?

            Is that something that we should be concerned about?

            If so, the problem was caused by the false notion that as long as a change in doctrine was presented by a unified first presidency and sustained by the Twelve it should blindly be accepted.

            I find that supposition rather disturbing and problematic.

            Just sayin..

        • “President Hinckley bore this witness: “God is weaving His tapestry according to His own grand design. All flesh is in His hands. It is not our prerogative to counsel Him. It is our responsibility and our opportunity to be at peace in our minds and in our hearts, and to know that He is God, that this is His work, and that He will not permit it to fail. We have no need to fear. We have no need to worry.”

          I am not an academic nor do I come close to what one would call a gospel intellect. But to say we should do some serious soul searching regarding the ‘validity of the criticisms that our doctrines are changing’ in my mind implies a belief that church doctrines originate from the minds of men. This is not true! It comes straight from the Lord through his prophets. And if it comes straight from the Lord, why would we even need to give a second thought regarding these types of criticisms?

          “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,” … 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.”

          Do we plan on going back to the Lord after thinking about it and saying ‘Hey Lord, you’re changing doctrine too much down here and it’s bugging some people so can we slow it down a bit and be a little more consistent?’ A 4 year old child has more wisdom and perspective concerning the realities and truths of this world than we do of the eternities. Who cares why one first presidency canonized the Lectures on Faith while another did not? The church is true! The Lord “is closer to us than you have any idea.”
          After you die, you can ask the Lord why he allowed it to happened this way. As for me, when that day comes, I probably still won’t care. 🙂

  3. I loved this – every bit. I laughed out loud at the saying “If God lived on earth, people would break his windows.” And I said my silent “amen” when I read about changes not being equivalent to correction. Everything was spelled out so very clearly. Thank you so much!

  4. Considering the length of this essay, I am wondering how much of a problem exists in Church culture with “not following the brethren?” And more specifically, in what context are they to be followed?

    Following the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in spiritual matters is vitally important. But that is something different than the usual refrain I hear in church, “Follow the Brethren no matter what, they will never lead you astray.” This sort of absolutism is bound to cause problems among many who see that there have been many errors in the past (polygamy, priesthood bans, united order, etc.).

    One “follows the Brethren” under their stewardship of spiritual counsel and keeping the commandments. But one’s ultimate allegiance must be to the truth and to god, and there is no man or group of men that can or should tell you every step to take on that path.

    • Just a brief aside: The three things you list as errors, polygamy, priesthood ban, and united order, were all *practices* of the church. The doctrine in each case didn’t change when the policy changed. It is still true, as stated in Jacob 7, that God sometimes requires polygamy but most of the time commands monogamy; going from one form of marriage to the other is a change of practice, not doctrine. It is still true that God decides upon whom to bestow the power of the priesthood, and that His decision changes over time, as in Peter’s time first banning Gentiles from the priesthood and then granting it to them. And it is still true that the saints of God should be willing to sacrifice all their property for the gospel’s sake, but that they are rarely able to live that way so the Lord rarely commands it. From that way of looking at it, they’re not “errors” at all, just changes.
      More important, I think there’s no question, as you point out, that our devotion and worship are for God alone and not for any man or group of men. I guess I would only point out, that to the extent that the Lord has told us that “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same”, then it is our devotion to Him that requires us to follow the prophets.

      • Lia & Chris I hope this statement from the First Presidency adds to the discussion.

        First Presidency statement (President George Albert Smith)
        August 17, 1949

        The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time. The prophets of the Lord have made several statements as to the operation of the principle. President Brigham Young said: “Why are so many of the inhabitants of the earth cursed with a skin of blackness? It comes in consequence of their fathers rejecting the power of the holy priesthood, and the law of God. They will go down to death. And when all the rest of the children have received their blessings in the holy priesthood, then that curse will be removed from the seed of Cain, and they will then come up and possess the priesthood, and receive all the blessings which we now are entitled to.”

        President Wilford Woodruff made the following statement: “The day will come when all that race will be redeemed and possess all the blessings which we now have.”

        The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintain their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes.

        The First Presidency

    • I believe the article was pretty clear as to ‘what context the Bretheren are to be followed’.

      You are also making the assumption that polygamy and people being excluded from the priesthood were mistakes made by the Bretheren that were later corrected. It took Joseph Smith upwards of 10 years to fully live the principle of ‘plural families’ after it had been revealed to him. And it was only after an angel with a sword appeared to him coming straight from the presence of the Lord and commanded him to begin following it lest he be destroyed. Clearly this was a directive of the Lord and the mistake would have been if Joseph had not implemented it.

      I also think that the references in Duane’s article regarding extending the priesthood to the Blacks made it pretty clear that this too was under direct commandment of the Lord. So if your views are that these directives did not come from the Lord but were simply mistakes made by prophets that were later corrected by different prophets, then you’ve got a whole different problem.

      You are correct in that one man or Group of men shouldn’t have to tell us everything to do. The Lord himself said that men are not to be commanded in all things. But it is clear from this article as referenced by the many testimonies born by prophets and apostles that God is at the head of this church and leads it directly through personal, regular association with the Bretheren. And if this is true (as I know it is) then it would be wise for us to heed their counsel.

      “President Joseph Fielding Smith taught:
      An individual may fall by the wayside, or have views, or give counsel which falls short of what the Lord intends. But 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.”

      • I agree with the message and spirit of this article. I also appreciate the author deliberating upon what is a binding statement of the Church and what is not.

        Lia, to distinguish between doctrine and practice might be splitting hairs. I agree, there is often a difference though, so the distinction should be made.

        Aside from the article, and on this topic, I have noticed a strong trend in my Mormon culture of people making statements of following the prophet or brethren no matter what. I was simply pointing out that not only is this NOT Mormon doctrine, it is repugnant to Mormon doctrine.

        If you want to strengthen the faith of the rising Latter Day Saints, it is wholly appropriate to introduce some ambiguity and paradox in your teachings (age appropriate of course). The problem is, most adults do not tolerate ambiguity or paradox, and therefore find discussions of the messiness of Church history wrong. But I have always found that this is due to a lack of their faith and not mine.

        Whatever the revelation on polygamy, Joseph married many women without Emma’s knowledge (or most of the saints for that matter), he married a 14 year old, and of the first 11 wives, 9 of them were already married to living husbands (polyandry). If these things do not raise red flags and cause you to question, than I admit, you and I have a different standard of faith. But doubt and questioning and critical introspection is not contrary to faith, it is its foundations.

        The thing is, if you bring these things up many people in the Church will immediately shut the discussion down, and I find this contrary to a strong and vibrant culture. I am not saying these things should be brought up in Gospel Doctrine mind you, but perhpas on occasion, and when appropriate, sometimes they should. There are too many people who would say that there is never an appropriate time to bring these up. I have met them. And this is contrary to my faith.

        I only mention this because we have set up a dynamic in Mormon culture that is anathema to the gospel. We have preached a very faith promoting, two dimensional historical narrative which is appropriate for primary children, but not so for young or old adults. This kind of historical fundamentalism has caused many in the Church to leave, for they grow up and encounter the real messiness of history and feel betrayed. Meanwhile, the fundamentalists of the faith accuse them of not being faithful, despite the fact that they are the ones who set up this dynamic. I wonder who the Lord will be displeased with?

        I do not think the author of this article was addressing this point, nor did he have to. I am simply making the point that it is inappropriate to teach the infallibility of the prophet, “Brethren,” or priesthood order. And further, it is wholly appropriate, at times, to discuss some of the messy things in Mormon history, and even the “shadow” side of some of our faith promoting doctrines. But in our culture doing this is seen as a taboo. I am grateful that the Church has started to release some essays addressing these topics. While they are baby steps, and sometimes a little to innocuous for me, I believe this is moving in the right direction.

        • John L., I agree with a lot of what you say here. It’s not productive to have a faith or a faith culture that can’t tolerate discussion of difficult issues; “blind” unthinking faith isn’t vibrant and won’t sustain us. But I am convinced that a living, questioning, vibrant, fearless faith will lead us exactly to, not away from, the conclusions presented here: that sustaining the brethren is the right way to go. Not because they’re always perfect or even always right (the promise that their leadership won’t lead to the “permanent injury of the work” is a pretty weak promise, really) but because they’re more right than we are.

  5. Since this article places a strong emphasis on the ability to trust statements from a unified Fist Presidency (rather than individuals), I’d be interested in the author’s opinion on the 1949 First Presidency statement that the priesthood ban was a doctrine, not a policy, and due to premortal misconduct.

    • Relevant to the 1949 statement, I would guess the first response would be this: the promises we have about First Presidency statements is NOT that they are always correct in every particular. The promise is that such statements will not lead the church astray to the detriment of our salvation, and/or “permanently damage the work”. The church is still growing, still saving souls, and still possesses the true doctrine and keys that lead to salvation! Even if you completely disagree with all the points I’ll make below, this one, the most important one, still stands: it didn’t destroy the work.

      So my second response, hinted at in the article above, would be this: that 1949 statement and the 1979 Manifesto are not as contradictory as people are claiming here. For one thing, in this statement the First Presidency insists that the ban is from God. Well, we don’t know how the ban was begun, but we do know that at the very least God did not want it overturned at that time, and kept it going long past when prophets were asking him to change it; Brother Boyce quotes President McCay, President Hinckley, and Elder Oaks on that point. And the subsequent Manifesto did NOT say the ban had been wrong, only that it was lifted.

      Related to that point, the 1949 statement also said explicitly, twice, that the ban would at some point be lifted. So the Manifesto agrees with it on that point as well.

      Of course, all the talk about “curse of blackness” and rejecting the priesthood is utterly cringe-inducing to read today. I want to make this point about that: None of that is in the text written by that First Presidency; it is all in a quote by Brigham Young. Obviously they thought it was on to something or they wouldn’t have used it, I don’t mean to minimize that point. But it is significant that they do not say they agree, they merely say that many prophets (all of whom would have been speaking as individuals, by the way) offered possible reasons, and then they quote one, with no further commentary of any kind.

      I also think Elder Oaks claimed he did not EVER believe any of the explanations given for the ban, even though he was certainly familiar with the 1949 statement; he evidently agreed with me that the Young quote was not meant to be taken as authoritative.

  6. Amazing article. Just in time for conference. Brother Boyce has clearly labored diligently and presented well thought out ideas. My love for the Bretheren has increased. Thank you Brother Boyce!

  7. This article has strengthened my testimony that the Brethren are who they claim to be –special witnesses of the Lord. I know this because the Spirit has taught me this truth over and over again. I am grateful for living prophets, seers, and revelators.

    This article reminds me how important the Holy Ghost is to my faith; without the teachings and comfort of the Spirit I am limited to my ways, which can never bring me joy. I know this because I have been down that road far too often.

    I realize it is important to study the doctrine out in my mind, and I do, as much as necessary to positively impact my relationship with the Lord; however, I have never found peace in lawyering the questions that surface. I don’t need to because The Spirit has given me more than enough spiritual evidence to satisfy my hunger for truth.

    I love the Lord. I love the Brethren. I love the Plan of Happiness.

  8. The question about blacks holding the Priesthood and whether it was a mistake seems to be missing the point, actually. The real question is why would the Lord restrict the Priesthood at all? It is rather extraordinary, in fact, that right now any worthy male can receive the Priesthood; for this is the first time in history to get that privilege. In Adam and Enoch’s day, there were several races unable to receive it. The Priesthood appears to have been limited to Abraham’s seed; and after Jethro no one other than a Jew seems to have been eligible. The Lamanites didn’t have it; and I don’t believe the Jaredites had it either.

    That’s not even counting the millions who had, as far as we know, no knowledge of God or Christ at all.

    Until Peter was commanded to spread to the Gentiles, only Jews were eligible. And as for the “Gentiles,” before the Apostasy who knows if the gospel was available to everyone? The Lord has seen fit to restrict the blessings of His Gospel to a very select few in this life; for reasons no one knows.

    We talk about the ban on blacks, but let’s face it: practically speaking, the only race to have the Priesthood before the ban was lifted were white Anglo-Saxons. There weren’t too many Asians as members; and the church was only starting to spread in Latin America. While Blacks may have been explicitly restricted; everyone else was effectively banned too.

    Only after the Lord lifted the restriction did the Church explode into these areas of the world. And even now, if you are Chinese; you do not get the Gospel unless you live outside of China itself.

    The point is that the Church can’t be accused of racism until someone figures out why the Lord hasn’t pronounced the Gospel to everyone like He did to the Nephites after His crucifixion. And that’s a question well above my pay grade.

  9. In my experience, I have learned that Heavenly Father wants us to follow the direction of our leaders because He has called them to their position. Often times having faith requires acting without a sure knowledge of the results or reason. As mortals we tend to believe that we know better, therefore we choose to judge and criticize our leaders when Heavenly Father is asking us to trust Him by trusting them. We should never put worldly thoughts above the opportunity to sustain and obey those called by the Lord to help and guide us.

    Sustaining our leaders is more than simply raising your right hand when you are asked to do so. We pray for our leaders because we sustain them and want them to be as close to the Spirit as humanly possible, allowing them to receive guidance that we need.

    We are not required to sustain our leaders for them to be called into their position. In fact, they are called by the Lord and our sustaining is an acknowledgment within ourselves that we will help that individual fulfill their responsibilities. This understanding has helped me to realize the importance of thinking about, and praying for, my leaders. I feel truly blessed for the knowledge that my Father in Heaven has called men to lead and guide me in the direction He would have me go. There aren’t many aspects of my life that I can trust with my whole heart, but I know that I can trust Heavenly Father to keep His Church organized and lead by the right people.

  10. I loved this article. What a blessing it is to have a prophet living among us today, as well as 14 other men whom we sustain as “prophets, seers, and revelators”. No one claims that these men are perfect, but they are Special Witnesses and are called by God. Who else on the earth holds that distinction? If He trusts them, I would be well advised to do so also.

  11. This article has been on my mind a lot since General Conference, when a few individuals attending conference chose to yell out their dissenting votes when asked to sustain the prophet, his counselors, and the quorum of the twelve. This article is clearly of great importance for our day.

    We do not sustain the brethren because of political opinions or social affiliations. If we truly believe that our church is of, and led by a perfect God, then it becomes natural to sustain our imperfect leaders. Whether we give a sustaining vote or not indicates more about our relationship with our Father in Heaven than it does of our opinions of the men He has called. Withholding a sustaining vote is an effective way to tell our Heavenly Father that you do not trust Him or His judgement. If one can’t trust God to, then it is hardly surprising that they would struggle to trust anyone else.

    Trust and faith in our God and our Savior will lead to trust and faith in church leaders. If we are firm in the knowledge that God loves His children and His greatest motivation to bring us back to Him (Moses 1:39) then we can be firm that the brethren are the men He has chosen to help His means come to pass. We cannot return to our Father in Heaven without the guidance and counsel of the brethren.

    I love the Lord and though my life is not without questions, I have found that when I focus on the Lord first and foremost, everything works out and works together the way it should. When questions or disagreements arise on issues, I would hope that we all turn to our Father in Heaven and regain our assurance that He is in the Heavens and that He is over all. With that confidence we will be able to withstand the trials and persecutions that come to all those who are valiant in the faith.

  12. Thank You for your powerful point of view.

    A quote from a talk by Elder Anderson

    we should not ascribe the label of doctrine to teachings that have not been confirmed and repeated often by many of the Church’s leaders. He said, “There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many.” The church is not led by just one watchman on the tower, but by fifteen prophets, seers, and revelators who work in counsel together

    I voted twice for President Obama. I did not agree with him on every issue. But I did on most issues. I felt those issues that I agreed with the President were important enough to support him.

    The Brethren are defending the Church. They need our support. They are also promoting all that is good about the Church. We need to build our own strengths based on the Savior and his teachings..

    This may require us to see our testimony in a different light than how we view the Church. We may not agree with every issue the Church is facing and how it is addressed. If our testimony is strong we should support the brethren.

  13. In ancient times the people followed a prophet. Whenever the people rebelled or took the prophet’s words out of context (the Pharisees and Sadducees), they failed. Ultimately their rebellion led to the death of Jesus Christ their Savior. Simply put, we can follow those divinely appointed by the Lord to help lead us. The only way to decipher who the Lord’s anointed are, is to study and pray. Studying the words of the Brethren will quickly reveal their divine role as disciples of Jesus Christ. The Lord will never lead you astray, just as the way these Prophets claim that He will not lead them astray.
    I have come to know on an intimate level that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is indeed led and guided by a man and presidency divinely called of Heavenly Father. Their teachings and revelations are meant to be a light and beacon for each human being searching for truth in this mist of darkness that we wade through each day in the world. Their teachings, accompanied by the Holy Scriptures, prayer, and faith will enlighten any with question in mind.
    Amen Brother Boyce.

  14. I am late to this discussion but I think I may have something useful to add. To quote Alma “the meaning of the word” can be helpful in understanding the issues involved. So: what does the verb “sustain” mean?

    The word “sustain” has at least three distinct senses that are relevant to us as Latter-day Saints. The first sense is “to uphold or support”. That is the sense we usually think of when we raise our hands, and it is undoubtedly a true sense.

    Another sense of “sustain” is to “nourish or feed”. We have an obligation to sustain each other spiritually, by nourishing each other with the good word of God. This obligation extends to nourishing our leaders.

    A third sense of the word “sustain” is to “suffer, endure or put up with”–as in “he sustained a blow to the head”. 🙂 This is also a relevant and important meaning of the word. I find great comfort in knowing this meaning when I am asked to sustain someone in my ward or stake who I am confident will require me to sustain them in that sense of the word.

  15. What I learned about you and me and what I learned about God on June 8th of 1978.
    The first thing we learned is that that the apostles are living prophets, seers, and revelators. And that they too can repent of their past mistakes just like those who have gone before them, and those who will come after us. And so can we. Is that not what we learned?
    The most important thing we learned should have been the first thing we learned, that God is not a racist and that policy is not doctrine no matter what we heard or read in the Bible or the Book of Abraham. Is that not what we learned?
    We learned that there are better and less contentious ways to sustain our leaders and to love God and our neighbor as ourselves.
    And that Jesus is not the Rich Young Ruler in disguise we all so needed Him to be.
    And, of course, that we didn’t really need to wait around for God to reveal it all to us again. Is that not what we learned?
    The spirit of God is our spirit you see, the spirit of the children of God. It is the spirit of our common conscience. It is the spirit of our better selves and that even the best of us are sometimes just too busy being our lesser selves.
    That’s what we learned about you and me.
    I feel to celebrate. How about you?

  16. This paper on Sustaining The Brethren by Duane Boyce is absolutely the best information I have ever read about this subject! I learned so much, especially in the footnotes. I always wondered how to reconcile some things said by President Brigham Young from the early days of the Church as well as some things written and said by Elder Bruce R. McConkie, with official Church policy, changes in the Church on important issues of our times, and seemingly contradictory statements by some of the brethren on various matters. This article which appeared in Meridian magazine today and which led me to here certainly cleared up many things in my mind about these matters. I loved some of the references given regarding the very real and personal witnesses of Christ given to the members of the First Presidency and the rest of the Quorum of the Twelve. And finally, I really appreciated the comments and reasons made about how and why the Lord (nor the leaders of the Church who represent Him) does not always reveal to us hard things all at once but gives us a chance to grow in our willingness to accept changes, new Church policies, new directions and instruction line upon line.

    I can only imagine the division that might occur in the Church and what other things might happen if the Lord wanted to completely gather out the wheat from the tares in a very literal way in preparation for the Second Coming. I wonder about the symbolism given in President Uchtdorf’s Conference talk about a girl named Eva having to go off to stay with her Aunt Rose for a time until things got better. I am still trying to understand that parable but I think this method of teaching goes along with what was taught in this article – we need to listen to the teaching and instruction, pray about it, ask the Lord what it means, wait for more instruction, pray some more, and eventually, hopefully we will get it and be more accepting of it because we will know for ourselves that it came from the Lord.

    I believe that more than any other time in earth’s history, we need to understand the process of revelation in our own lives and we need to follow and sustain the brethren in all things for our own safety and protection in the coming days and trials ahead.

    Thanks so very much for taking the time to write this article. Can you tell me more about your book coming out this year – what it is about generally and where to get a copy.

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