A bomb went off in Salt Lake City in the 1980’s.
But this bomb wasn’t set by Mark Hofmann. It was set by Ezra Taft Benson, the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
The trigger was his famous speech, The Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet, which he delivered to a packed house at BYU’s Marriott Center on February 26, 1980. But the bomb itself went off in President Spencer W. Kimball’s office at Church headquarters in Salt Lake City when he heard of it.
President Kimball was “concerned about Elder Benson’s February 1980 talk at BYU” and wanted “to protect the Church against being misunderstood as espousing . . . an unthinking ‘follow the leader’ mentality.”[i]
President Kimball required Elder Benson to explain himself to a combined meeting of all general authorities the following week. Additionally, President Kimball asked Elder Benson to apologize to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, but they “were dissatisfied with his response.”[ii]
A Little Background
What was it about Elder Benson’s talk that made President Kimball concerned it would be “misunderstood” as espousing “an unthinking follow the leader mentality”?
A brief survey of the talk should answer that question.
President Benson told his audience of 25,000 that the “grand key” to being crowned with God’s glory and being “victorious in spite of Satan’s fury” was to “follow the prophet.” President Benson then broke this one “grand key” down into fourteen “aspects” which he summarized at the end of his speech as follows, adding that “our salvation depends on them.”
- The prophet is the only man who speaks for the Lord in everything.
- The living prophet is more vital to us than the standard works.
- The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet.
- The prophet will never lead the church astray.
- The prophet is not required to have any particular earthly training or credentials to speak on any subject or act on any matter at any time.
- The prophet does not have to say “Thus saith the Lord,” to give us scripture.
- The prophet tells us what we need to know, not always what we want to know.
- The prophet is not limited by men’s reasoning.
- The prophet can receive revelation on any matter, temporal or spiritual.
- The prophet may advise on civic matters.
- The two groups who have the greatest difficulty in following the prophet are the proud who are learned and the proud who are rich.
- The prophet will not necessarily be popular with the world or the worldly.
- The prophet and his counselors make up the First Presidency—the highest quorum in the Church.
- The prophet and the presidency—the living prophet and the First Presidency—follow them and be blessed—reject them and suffer.
It is easy to see why President Kimball would be exercised at the content of this speech. He had just been portrayed to the world as a man whose words were more important than the standard works; more important than any other prophet in history; more important on any subject than what anybody else has ever said anytime or anywhere, regardless of their expertise; and whose every word could be considered scripture.
In effect, Elder Benson had just bestowed on President Kimball the thorny crown of infallibility. Elder Benson had presented a false depiction of the true nature of prophets. His Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet were actually Fourteen Fundamentals in Falsifying the Prophet.
And President Kimball was none too pleased about it.
But other than his private vetting of concerns and complaints, President Kimball apparently took no action to publicly repudiate, clarify, or distance the Church from Elder Benson’s fallacious statements.
And therein lies the problem.
Flashback to George Albert Smith
You see, this isn’t the first time such a thing has happened.
In June of 1945, The Improvement Era published its ward teaching message for priesthood holders to convey to other members in their monthly visit.[iii] This message contained the famous phrase, “When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done.”
Although this message seems to have caused nary a ripple (at least publicly) among the general membership of the Church, others questioned. Dr. J. Raymond Cope, the leader of the First Unitarian Society in Salt Lake City wrote a letter directly to President George Albert Smith, informing him this ward teaching message was “doing inestimable harm to many who have no other reason to question the integrity of the Church leaders,” and voicing his hope that “this cannot be the position of the true leaders.”
Church Members Can Do Their Own Thinking
President Smith wrote back to Dr. Cope on December 7, 1945, assuring him that the passage from The Improvement Era “does not express the true position of the Church; that even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church.”
So how did a ward teaching message so antithetical to everything the LDS Church stands for get published in an official Church magazine?
President Smith explains that “it was not prepared by one of our leaders. However, one or more of them inadvertently permitted the paragraph to pass uncensored. By their doing so, not a few members of the Church have been upset in their feelings, and General Authorities have been embarrassed.”
The Only Thing Necessary for False Doctrine to Triumph . . .
Now, one might think that if George Albert Smith felt so strongly about the official Church magazine depicting the prophet as despot, he would have done something about it. Especially given his claims that members of the Church were upset about it and General Authorities embarrassed.
One might expect he would have issued some sort of official public clarification or retraction of the erroneous doctrine.
But one would be wrong.
If it were not for President Smith’s response to Dr. Cope’s letter six-months after the article was published, we would never have known he disagreed with those sentiments.
Because President Smith did not publicly contradict and clarify the false doctrine published in The Improvement Era, it gained currency in the Church and was repeated later by other leaders, including Young Women President Elaine Cannon who paraphrased it in October 1978 General Women’s Meeting as, “When the prophet speaks, sisters, the debate is over.”[iv]
And in the August 1979 First Presidency Message, N. Eldon Tanner, First Counselor in the First Presidency gave the sentiment the priesthood imprimatur of authority by quoting Elaine Cannon approvingly (while dropping the “sisters” and capitalizing “Prophet”), “When the Prophet speaks, . . . the debate is over.”
To Repudiate or Not to Repudiate; That is the Question
The idea that all thinking stops, or all debate ends, when the prophet speaks, was clearly considered false doctrine by Church President George Albert Smith.
So how did it nevertheless become established as true doctrine? Because.
Because it stood unchallenged, it became accepted.
Because it became accepted, it was repeated by Church leaders.
And because it was repeated by Church leaders, it became established as doctrine.
It took only 30-years for the time bomb planted in the pages of the June 1945 Improvement Era to go off. And when it did, its falsification of the role of prophets became established as official Church doctrine.
Flash Forward to Ezra Taft Benson
The same thing happened with Ezra Taft Bensons’ Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet.
President Kimball had the same misgivings about The Fourteen Fundamentals as President George Albert Smith had about the 1945 Improvement Era article. President Kimball felt Elder Benson’s talk would lead to the Church being “misunderstood as espousing . . . an unthinking ‘follow the leader’ mentality,” just as President Smith felt The Improvement Era article would wrongly imply “that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking.” (Why does that remind me of a certain Primary song?)
As a result of President Kimball’s inaction, Elder Benson’s talk was repeated point-by-point in October 2010 General Conference by Seventy President Claudio R. M. Costa in his talk titled, “Obedience to the Prophets.”
And in the same General Conference, it was repeated again point-by-point by Kevin R. Duncan of the Seventy in his talk titled, “Our Very Survival.” Elder Duncan justified going over the same fourteen fundamentals in the same General Conference “[b]ecause they are of such importance to our salvation.”
Not only has Benson’s Fourteen Fundamentals been repeated twice in General Conference, thereby attaining the status of uncanonized scripture, the same talk is quoted in its entirety in chapter two of the 2010 Teachings of the Living Prophets Student Manual, as well as in the 2013 Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual.
The End of a Long and Winding Road
And now, putting the capstone on the process of transforming this false portrayal of prophets into official and orthodox Mormon Doctrine, The Fourteen Fundamentals makes its appearance in chapter 11 of the new Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society manual that will form the basis for next year’s course of study.
Because President Kimball failed to publicly repudiate or clarify the speech in 1980, Elder Benson’s false teaching stood unchallenged.
Because it stood unchallenged, it became accepted.
Because it became accepted, it was repeated by Church leaders.
And because it was repeated by Church leaders, it became established as doctrine.
And again, it took only 30-years for the time bomb planted by Elder Ezra Taft Benson in his Fourteen Fundamentals speech to go off. And now that it has, its falsification of the role of prophets will become established as official Church doctrine.
Elder Benson’s Fourteen Fundamentals of Falsifying the Prophet is complete.
As a special Christmas bonus, and at no additional charge, I conclude with some thoughts regarding Elder Benson’s speech and its inclusion in next year’s Priesthood/Relief Society manual. I call this section, The Fourteen Fundamentals of the Fourteen Fundamentals.
1. The new manual does not list all fourteen points of Elder Benson’s speech. Instead it takes the talk and condenses and rearranges it into four main subheadings. Even though one of the primary objections to the talk when initially given was that prophets could be authoritatively involved in political activism, and most such references have been deleted, a major political reference still remains in the manual where Elder Benson quotes Harold B. Lee—“You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may conflict with your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life. … Your safety and ours depends upon whether or not we follow. … Let’s keep our eye on the President of the Church.” (I guess it was important to include that in the manual what with the whole gay-marriage thing going on right now.)
2. The Fourteen Fundamentals is cited six times in the endnotes to Lesson 11 of the new manual. It appears the editors didn’t want to make it too easy for the reader to locate the talk to read the whole thing because they give the citation to the June 1981 issue of Tambuli. What the heck is Tambuli? With a little digging, I found out that Tambuli is the name of an LDS Church magazine . . . in the Philippines! Mormons who go by the endnotes are going to have a tough time finding this particular publication, unless, that is, they happen to speak Filipino.
3. I went through the entire new manual looking at all the endnotes to see if perhaps there were other citations to the Tambuli magazine. There are none. Instead, there are crazy references to publications that no English speaking Mormon has ever heard of—publications like The Ensign; and Conference Report; and The New Era. Who would ever be able to find a citation in little-known publications like those? No, it looks for all the world like the editors of the new manual knew good and well that Elder Benson’s Fourteen Fundamentals remains radioactive, and though they couldn’t quite keep themselves from regurgitating most of it, they nevertheless used a citation that would be as difficult to track down as humanly possible. Unlike the Spanish language Church magazine (Liahona), Tambuli cannot even be accessed on the Church website.
4. And another thing–Even though Tambuli can’t be accessed on the Church website, the Liahona magazine can—and it turns out the Liahona published the same talk in the same issue that it was published in Tambuli—June of 1981. Here is the link to it on the Church website. All you have to do to find it is go to the homepage and type in the search box—“Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet.” You only have to get the first word typed and the search function will give you the rest!
5. Not only is the speech available on the Church website in the Liahona magazine, as well as in the other publications noted above, it is also accessible on the BYU-Speeches website that is accessible through the Church website. When you bring up the BYU-Speeches version, you will see a transcript provided together with a link you can click to actually listen to Elder Benson giving the talk. Even this would have been easier to access than Tambuli.
6. Elder Benson’s talk seems to have been trouble from the beginning. If you listen to the speech and compare it with the transcript on the BYU-Speeches website, they are not the same. Several phrases have been deleted from the talk in preparing the transcript. After that, the talk was again revised before it was published in the Liahona. Finally, it has been revised once more for publication in the new manual. One wonders why a speech given by the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles should need so much revising in subsequent incarnations.
7. For example, if you compare the audio of the speech with the BYU-Speeches transcript, you will find the actual speech states it is our responsibility to “honor the principles of our inspired constitution, which at this time seems to be almost hanging by a thread.” The transcript deletes the final phrase, “which at this time seems to be almost hanging by a thread” from the end of the second paragraph. And under the Seventh Fundamental, the speech quotes Marion G. Romney as saying, “It is an easy thing to believe in the dead prophets, but it is a greater thing to believe in the living prophets.” The transcript deletes the final clause.
8. More deletions are made between the transcript of the BYU-Speech and the publication of the same talk in the June 1981 Liahona (and presumably the June 1981 Tambuli). For example, the transcript correctly quotes the talk as saying under the Eighth Fundamental, “There will be times when you will have to choose between the revelations of God and the reasoning of men—between the prophet and the politician or professor.” The Liahona version of the speech deletes “politician” from the sentence. Also, under the Tenth Fundamental, the transcript correctly quotes the speech as saying, “Those who would remove prophets from politics would take God out of government.” This sentence was dropped in its entirety from the Liahona version. Finally, Elder Benson’s description of General Conference addresses as our “marching orders” for the next six months is softened in the Liahona to “our instructions.”
9. Although most of the political statements have been completely removed in the new manual (with the notable exception of the Elder Lee quotation mentioned above), the single most problematic fundamental of following the prophet remains—the teaching that if a prophet tells you to do something that is wrong, you should do it anyway, and you will be blessed for it. But these are not Elder Benson’s own words. He is quoting from a 1960 General Conference talk by Marion G. Romney. But they are not Marion G. Romney’s own words, either. He is quoting from a private conversation with President Heber J. Grant from at least 15-years earlier (President Grant having passed away in 1945): “I remember years ago when I was a bishop I had President Heber J. Grant talk to our ward. After the meeting I drove him home. … Standing by me, he put his arm over my shoulder and said: ‘My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.”
10. The idea that we should follow the prophet even when the prophet is wrong puts the prophet above not only the standard works and all prophets who have gone before; it puts the prophet above God himself. God’s commandments become secondary in the face of a prophetic instruction to do the opposite. And apparently, God himself is bound to honor the word of the errant prophet by blessing those who follow his contradictory counsel. And some time toward the middle of next year when we get to chapter 11 of the new manual, this egregious and pernicious idea will be taught as established Church doctrine to all male and female adult members. This is the ultimate fundamental in falsifying the prophet. And the problematic nature of this idea is hardly ameliorated by the concluding statement attributed to Heber J. Grant, which he allegedly said with a twinkle in his eye, “But you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray.” The Lord will just bless you for doing something wrong because the prophet told you to. Got it.
11. The Fourteen Fundamentals speech seems internally inconsistent in a number of ways. First, we know from the speech that what Elder Benson said is not necessarily scripture because he was not the President of the Church when he gave it. So why should it be considered binding in any sense? If it is the President of the Church who gives scripture, would it not be the concerns President Kimball expressed to Elder Benson about his speech that count as scripture, and not the speech itself? But maybe President Kimball didn’t tell Elder Benson, “Thus saith the Lord.” Oh, wait a minute. I almost forgot the Sixth Fundamental, The prophet does not have to say “Thus saith the Lord,” to give us scripture.
12. “The prophet will never lead the Church astray,” is the Fourth Fundamental. The quote comes from Wilford Woodruff who felt compelled to make this assertion as cover for his reversal on plural marriage in 1890. How else was President Woodruff to explain that he was for plural marriage before he was against it? Or that he (and John Taylor) had prophetically claimed plural marriage would never be rescinded? And so President Woodruff introduced this unfortunate phrase into the Mormon lexicon, which has assumed a life of its own as hardy as the sentiment is circular–“The prophet will never lead the church astray because the prophet said the prophet will never lead the church astray.”
13. The idea the prophet will never lead the Church astray is not only a perfect circle, it also admits of only two conclusions, neither of them palatable. The first is that the prophet is infallible and will only choose to do the right thing. Not only does this position make the prophet the only human being on earth deprived of moral agency, it also runs headlong into the recent Church essay laying the blame for the Priesthood ban on the influence of racist culture in the doctrinal policies of Church presidents. The second possible conclusion is that God must be pictured as a heavenly hit-man ready to take out the prophet as soon as he makes a false move. But really, this is just another way of saying the prophet will be allowed no moral agency. (Good grief! Even Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot were allowed agency to do what they wanted without being removed from the picture. But not so the prophet, apparently.) And it seems God was asleep in his sniper’s nest while prophets were forbidding blacks from the priesthood and the temple. But perhaps this explains why prophets are so old by the time they assume office. I mean, it’s much less suspicious for God to take out an erring prophet by making the hit look like a heart attack than by dropping a piano on him while he’s strolling down the street.
14. Finally, you know a false doctrine has really achieved the status of orthodoxy when Mormons are excommunicated for championing what was originally considered wrong. That’s what Adrian and Tausha Larsen found out a few months ago when they were excommunicated for promoting the idea that prophets are not infallible. This was enough to lose their Church membership. They are now officially outside the fold. And why? Because they sided with President Spencer W. Kimball and President George Albert Smith against President Wilford Woodruff and President Heber J. Grant.
And so, in the final analysis, it isn’t really a question of following the prophets, but rather what prophets we follow.
But don’t worry.
Even if the prophets we choose to follow are wrong, we will be blessed for it.
Just ask the Larsens.
[i] D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, (Signature Books: Salt Lake City, UT, 1997), 111.
[ii] Ibid, see endnotes 352-353 on page 469 for references.
[iii] The Improvement Era was the official Church magazine at the time, being the forerunner to today’s Ensign magazine, just as “ward teaching” was an earlier incarnation of today’s “home teaching.”
[iv] Sister Cannon’s paraphrase is much closer to a statement that is printed in the same paragraph of the 1945 Improvement Era article, which goes on to state: “When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan–it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.”