This is the first of a series of posts of Latter-day lessons from the Milgram experiments (here are part 2 and part 3). If you are unfamiliar with the Milgram experiments, you can see a video of it here. I should give some quick definitions for the experiment. The “Experimenter” is the person running the experiment and giving commands to the “Teacher.” The “Teacher” is (unknowingly) the subject of the study. The Teacher gives shocks of increasingly higher voltages to the “Learner” every time the Learner answers a question incorrectly. The Experimenter would tell the Teacher when to do this. The Learner in the main experiment was in a different room and the Teacher could hear the screams of pain as the shocks reached higher and higher voltages. When Milgram set out to do this experiment, he assumed that maybe 1% of the subjects would shock the Learner to the point of unconsciousness/death. He was very surprised to find that 65% of the subjects shocked the Learner past the point of consciousness/life. Many people think that the Milgram experiment showed how people were willing to do very harmful and evil things when told to do so by authority figures (well, at least I did). If we look closer, we can see the nuances of the study. There were 20-40 different variants of this experiment. Sometimes it would involve the subjects sitting in different places, sometimes women were involved, sometimes instead of the Experimenter being a scientist it was just a random person. I’ll discuss some of these variants in future posts. In the baseline experiment (the famous one), 65% of people obey all the way to the point of the Learner’s unconsciousness/death. When the Teacher and Learner were in the same room (so they saw the person they were hurting) those who were ‘obedient all the way’ dropped to 40%. When the orders to the Teacher were given by an ordinary guy instead of scientist (no lab coat), those who were ‘obedient all the way’ dropped to 20%.

When pressed by those in authority, people are likely to obey, even to the point of harming others and even going against their own conscience and morality. As seen by the experiment, by simply making the Experimenter no longer be a scientist the ‘obey all the way’ percentage dropped to 20% (even lower than when the Teacher was in the same room). To repeat, if a scientist told them to shock someone, they were over 3x more likely to do so. So perceived level of authority is a powerful factor to ignoring one’s own conscience/morality and obeying, particularly when the authority convinces you that your actions are for the ‘greater good.’ If a scientist can be perceived at that level of authority, imagine how much more significant the authority of Bishop or Stake President will be for a member.

Let’s kick this up several levels, how powerful is the effect of suspending one’s own morality when told to do something by a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator? Now most church members will say that this isn’t even a concern because our leaders would never ask us to do anything God didn’t want. The assumption is that if your conscience is saying to not do what they are telling you to do, then your conscience must be broken, just follow the leader, follow the prophet, follow the prophet… (sorry, got distracted). However, if we look at Mountain Meadows Massacre, what is the lesson that we should take from it? How about the story of Helmuth Hübener? He disobeyed his church leaders’ counsel and direction to support their civil government and was excommunicated. Then 4 years after the war when the US was cheering those who fought against the Nazi’s, his excommunication was deemed an error and undone.

When considering these parts of our Mormon history, I think to ignore the powerful psychological effect authority has on one’s willingness to obey even against their own conscience is to miss an important and even vital lesson. The LDS church is a very hierarchical and authoritative church as compared to most other religions (rivaled perhaps only by Roman Catholicism). As the saying goes: “Catholics say that the Pope is infallible, but none of them believe it. Mormons say that the Prophet is fallible, but none of them believe it.” Brigham Young recognized the potential for harm in this setting and said:

I am fearful they [Mormons] settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken the influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way.” – Brigham Young 1862 General Conference (quoted in General Conference of the church in 1963 and in 1989)

And this one is also important:

And none are required to tamely and blindly submit to a man because he has a portion of the priesthood. We have heard men who hold the priesthood remark, that they would do anything they were told to do by those who presided over them, if they knew it was wrong; but such obedience as this is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme; and the man who would thus willingly degrade himself should not claim a rank among intelligent beings, until he turns from his folly. A man of God… would despise the idea. Others, in the extreme exercise of their almighty authority have taught that such obedience was necessary, and that no matter what the saints were told to do by their presidents, they should do it without asking any questions. When Elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their minds to do wrong themselves.” – Millennial Star, vol.14 #38, pp. 593-95

Yet does this functionally happen in the church? Do we follow this council to find out for ourselves instead of simply assuming everything from our leaders is divine? Apostle Charles W. Penrose, who would later serve as counselor to President Smith, declared:

President Wilford Woodruff is a man of wisdom and experience, and we respect him, but we do not believe his personal views or utterances are revelations from God; and when ‘Thus saith the Lord’, comes from him, the saints investigate it: they do not shut their eyes and take it down like a pill.” – Millennial Star 54:191

Do we do this? When the prophet says “Thus saith the Lord” do we take the time to investigate it? Do we remember President Kimball’s reaction to Elder Benson’s talk on the “14 fundamentals of following the prophet”?

Spencer felt concern about the talk, wanting to protect the Church against being misunderstood as espousing ultraconservative politics or an unthinking “follow the leader” mentality. The First Presidency again called Elder Benson in to discuss what he had said and asked him to make explanation to the full Quorum of the Twelve and other General Authorities… A First Presidency spokesman Don LeFevre reiterated to the press the day after the speech that it is “simply not true” that the Church President’s “word is law on all issues—including politics.” – Lengthen Your Stride – Working Draft, by Edward Kimball

I’ve had the opportunity to know some great Mormons who do take this approach, but I’ve also known many who treat quotes from church leaders like downloaded messages from God (no human filters involved). I think that the Milgram experiment only accentuates Brigham’s concerns from so long ago. In another instance, Brigham is a bit more explicit about using your own moral judgement:

Now those men, or those women, who know no more about the power of God, and the influences of the Holy Spirit, than to be led entirely by another person, suspending their own understanding, and pinning their faith upon another’s sleeve, will never be capable of entering into the celestial glory, to be crowned as they anticipate; they will never be capable of becoming Gods. They cannot rule themselves, to say nothing of ruling others, but they must be dictated to in every trifle, like a child. They cannot control themselves in the least, but James, Peter, or somebody else must control them. They never can become Gods, nor be crowned as rulers with glory, immortality, and eternal lives. They never can hold sceptres of glory, majesty, and power in the celestial kingdom. -Brigham Young 1853 General Conference

If you can believe that God is capable of inspiring your leaders, surely you can believe God is capable of letting you know when they’re wrong. If instead we assume that their judgment is always superior to our own, perhaps we’re helping to put up a massive iron gate.

How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn’t get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew? – Dieter Uchtdorf 2012 Worldwide Leadership Training

We are hard-wired to “trust in the arm of the flesh,” particularly when that means authority. I think that we often miss the fact that trusting in the arm of the flesh is so frequently synonymous with believing authority/ourselves to be infallible.

Another important and often overlooked point is the context to this oft quoted verse:

We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. – D&C 121:39

This statement wasn’t given in a vacuum. It is in the middle of a long discussion of priesthood and priesthood authority. This is talking specifically about priesthood leaders. When we read that “many are called but few are chosen,” we’re reading that many priesthood leaders abuse their power and only few truly honor it. The saints in Joseph’s day understood this. I think we’ve sanitized it over the years to make it seem like an aside, an intermission on the discussion of priesthood. This statement is as true now as ever. This verse, with its proper context needs to be a lesson for us as members. We need to sustain and support our leaders. This doesn’t mean following them blindly. This doesn’t mean we must become “yes-men” to them. This does mean pray for them to be chosen instead of just called. This does mean to influence our leaders to do God’s will. Remember, one of Brigham’s concerns about us acting as if all our leaders decisions were divine is that it will “weaken the influence [we] could give to [our] leaders.”

Some justify their spiritual laziness by saying that while our leaders are fallible that God will never let them lead us astray, sort of a functional infallibility. Nevermind that this was first said when President Woodruff was convincing members not to leave over the Manifesto. Nevermind that it means that we’re denying our leaders their agency by assuming that God removes their ability to make mistakes in their callings. Maybe some make such a statement more nuanced. Maybe they think that our leaders can make mistakes, but they won’t be major/significant mistakes. Well, what is and isn’t significant depends a lot on who you are and how you’re being affected by it. I’m thinking that the women and children being slaughtered in genocide in the Bible considered that a significant mistake. I’m thinking that the thousands denied temple blessings their entire lives because of their skin might consider that significant. I’m thinking that people who had their homes stolen or victims who were told that they are crazy/exaggerating/’actually the guilty ones’ might consider that significant.

Let’s just recognize that few are chosen and that we need to give our leaders constructive/interactive support. We place a lot of responsibility on our leaders and they are very likely to screw up. Recognizing the mistakes of our leaders is essential to giving them true support; it is vital to sustaining them. Recognizing their mistakes is not “evil speaking of the Lord’s Anointed.” Our leaders are not the “Lord’s Anointed;” Messiah and Christ literally mean Anointed. Would we ever really call our leaders the Lord’s Messiah? No. They are people. People make mistakes and have struggles. They need our support. A healthy start to being truly supportive is to stop putting faith in/on them and instead put our faith on the Lord’s Anointed.

All that said, frankly I don’t know how to sustain some leaders. The last month has been a crazy one for me, and one which could have been much more difficult if my expectations of priesthood leaders were unrealistic.

Someone very close to our family, who I’ll call Jane for this discussion, has gone through a horrible ordeal. Her husband, ‘John,’ has a girlfriend, who was his subordinate at work and is half his age. John claims there has been no sex, but they hold hands, hug, text, email, sneak off into quiet corners and talk about how badly they want each other. When Jane found out about this, she was devastated. John told her that it was over, but if she told anyone about it, including friends, family, or a therapist, he would leave her. Frightened, she kept it bottled up and forgave. John didn’t actually end it. When Jane caught him again, she contacted her priesthood leaders, who promptly took action to not care. A year later the affair was still going on and Jane, upon catching John again, confronted him. He left her with a smug grin on his face saying that he didn’t have to ‘take it’ anymore. She talked to her priesthood leaders once more. She provided evidence of the relationship and ample tears. Her stake president told her that as far as he and her bishop could see, 1- John hadn’t done anything wrong, 2- they believed she was exaggerating, and 3- she was “guilty of infidelity” for telling her family (some of whom were present when John left).

If this story sounds fantastical or sensationalized to you, I don’t blame you. The response of the priesthood leaders is so outrageous that had I not seen and heard with my own eyes and ears, I wouldn’t believe it either. Perhaps what’s more unsettling is that as I’ve talked to my family and friends about this situation, asking for their thoughts and prayers, they have had their own similar stories to share in return. It has been disturbing how apparently common this situation is. A significant majority of them either had a family member, close friend, or had themselves gone through a similar ordeal with a lack of inspired leadership. In the midst of dealing with everything else above, I learned of some more disturbing news. My former stake president was arrested for hundreds of felony counts.

There are plenty of other examples out there if you actually want to find them. What’s concerning is that I didn’t seek out these examples; rather, at a seemingly accelerating pace they keep finding me. This tells me that either I’ve won the unlucky lotto, or it is indicative of something that is much more prevalent than I wanted to believe. Section 121 warns of this. It’s time for us to make sure that our fellow members know that sustain doesn’t mean blindly follow. It doesn’t mean accept what they say ‘like a pill.’ It doesn’t mean ignoring our own conscience and our own promptings from God the Spirit. This month would have been unbearable if I didn’t already view my leaders as fallible (you know, humans). Even so, this has been painful. I now feel more desire to strengthen the influence I can give. Perhaps the more effective and true method of sustaining leaders is giving them honest feedback instead of leaving them in a vacuum; perhaps this is how we ‘strengthen the influence we could give to them.’ Let’s help each other do the same, so no more have to have a rude awakening and learn the hard way. We need to wake up.

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Geoff was born in Northern Utah and raised primarily in Central California. He received a BS in Biomedical Physics from Fresno State, a MS and PhD in Bioengineering from Stanford, and is now an Assistant Professor at the University of Utah working as a Clinical Medical Physicist. He served his LDS Mission in Donetsk Ukraine. He's married and has two boys and two girls. He is currently the ward organist and primary pianist.

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