This is a call to balance the scales of obedience and free thought in our religious community.
Recently, I listened to an intelligent discussion on the Mormon Matters podcast on the topic of Wrestling with Prophets and Scripture. I highly recommend the podcast in that it is inspiring, enlightening, and it has Terryl and Fiona Givens as guests. If you are not familiar with them…well, you should be. Terryl is a personal favorite of mine. The podcast itself asks the hard question of how we approach prophets and scripture with the understanding that they are at times incompatible with one another, and at other times just wrong, while also maintaining that there is still a lot “right” with them also?
Terryl hits the reason and problem of the desire to blindly follow squarely with this powerful statement:
We want a standard that is infallible because it relieves us of the burden of continually exerting our self to use discernment. The way that Dostoyevsky put it so beautifully was “we want some person to be a keeper of our conscience.” But, the hard lesson is that there is never a moment when you can delegate your volition to another individual, leader or lay.
At around the 30 minute mark, Fiona makes an intriguing reference to President George Albert Smith defending freedom of thought, so I decided to go dig around the internet for it. FAIR concisely covered the historical exchange in this post. Note that the FAIR post also referenced a Dialogue article (p.35-39) that contains the original letter correspondence between George Albert Smith and Reverend Cope, which is worth reading.
The Chronological Order of Events and Background of President Smith’s Defense
- The church-produced Improvement Era (June, 1945 edition) contained an article called Sustaining the General Authorities of the Church that attacks any type of free thinking or descent and promotes obedience at all costs. It is harsh and direct.
- A Unitarian Reverend, J. Raymond Cope, hears directly from members of the LDS Church of the pain the article is causing. He decides to write President George Albert Smith to express his concerns.
- President George Albert Smith responds with a letter of his own denouncing the article and thanking Reverend Cope for his kindness and thoughtfulness.
The Concluding Paragraph from the Improvement Era Article
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.
While the main points of this paragraph bother me, to say the least, I am confident that the majority of active LDS members would nod in the affirmative while reading this. This is concerning! I accept that I may be over-generalizing, but the frequent dialogue and actions of the members I interact with seem to support my confidence in my position.
Summary Paragraph from President Smith’s Letter to Reverend Cope *Note that the emphasis is not mine, but George Albert Smith’s.
I am pleased to assure you that you are right in your attitude that the passage quoted does not express the true position of the Church. 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, which is that every individual must obtain for himself a testimony of the truth of the Gospel, must, through the redemption of Jesus Christ, work out his own salvation, and is personally responsible to His Maker for his individual acts. The Lord Himself does not attempt coercion in His desire and effort to give peace and salvation to His children. He gives the principles of life and true progress, but leaves every person free to choose or to reject His teachings. This plan the Authorities of the Church try to follow.
What a breath of fresh air when those in authority stand up for the belief and reason of the individual. We, as members of the Church, must always remember this life is based on agency, reasoning, and prayer, not on coercion, control, dominion, or compulsion (D&C 121:37). My intent with this post is not to instigate anger or frustration, but to recommend that we make an effort to be more aware of the importance of freedom of thought and take action when appropriate. There is a balance to be struck. We should not move towards distrust of our leaders and anarchy, but we also should not be blindly obedient.
I believe that all members should be reminded of this important exchange…often.
For Further Reading
The Dialogue article containing the letters between Smith and Cope (referenced above) was added to support the preceding article in the journal, An Echo from the Foothills: To Marshal the Forces of Reason by L. Jackson Newell. The Newell article is now one of my favorites. L. Jackson Newell, the editor for Dialogue at the time, identifies the tension between obedience and free thinking and attempts to bring the church back in the direction of free-thinking and reasoning.
Two Great Quotes
Gospel principles and the Church are not synonymous. But one reason these concepts have become so blurred is that we seem to be making obedience to Church into a terminal principle, rather than an instrumental one. It has become an end in itself. Therein lies the confusion about the first commandment: “Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 22:37-40). Loyalty to God and love of neighbor are the ends. Obedience to enduring principles is a means. Once obedience itself becomes an end, however, the believer no longer takes full responsibility for the consequences of his or her own actions. If things go awry, the sin be on someone else’s head. Never mind those sinned against. Fortunately, “love thy neighbor as thyself,” the ultimate principle, dams this stream of faulty reasoning.
The longer obedience is required, the more it must be checked by reason, considered in open discussion, and tested against the conscience of individuals. With no obedience, social life is impossible and anarchy prevails. With too much of it, emotions trammel reason and we simply substitute organized oppression for random violence.
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Matt Kern was born in Provo, grew up in Orem, and moved way out to American Fork, Utah. He is a new father and has been married and sealed for over 5 years. He served a mission in McAllen, Texas, 2005-2007, on the frontera with Mexico where he gained an addiction to gospel study and theological reasoning. Thanks to awesome resources like Rational Faiths, Matt went through Fowler's stages of faith 3-5 in right around 6 months. He is currently serving as 2nd counselor in his ward's bishopric.
All posts by Matthew Kern
Excellent post Matt!
I have a few really good quotes to go along with the theme you’re getting at:
“I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they 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 that 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, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 9, p. 150, 12 January 1862
“I should like to awaken in everyone a desire to investigate, to make an independent study of religion, and to know for themselves whether or not the teachings of the Mormon church are true. I should like to see everyone prepared to defend the religion of his or her parents, not because it was the religion of our fathers and mothers but because they have found it to be the true religion…There are altogether too many people in the world who are willing to accept as true whatever is printed in a book or delivered from a pulpit. Their faith never goes below the surface soil of authority. I plead with everyone I meet that they may drive their faith down through that soil and get hold of the solid truth, that they may be able to withstand the winds and storm of indecision and of doubt, of opposition and persecution. Then, and only then, will we be able to defend our religion successfully.”
Hugh B. Brown, “A Final Testimony” Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown pg 18.
“We sometimes use the organization as a default mechanism, absolving us of the re-
sponsibility of making moral choices. The organization becomes the repository of virtue or the repository of responsibility. One of the biggest “cop-outs” you can hear in any organizational context and especially in Mormon culture is the statement, “I will do what I am told, and if it’s wrong, the person who told me must bear the responsibility” I am justified because I am obedient. If I am told to do something that turns out to be evil or inefficient or unproductive, my loyalty to the organization somehow absolves me of responsibility for the results of that choice…We cannot allow the dictates of anyone to relieve the burden, pain, or growth that goes with individual responsibility. A quote from John Taylor expresses the points succinctly:
“I was not born a slave! I cannot, will not be a slave. I would not be slave to God! . . . I’d go at His behest; but would not be His slave. I’d rather be extinct than be a slave. His friend I feel I am, and He is mine. . .I’m God’s free man: I will not, cannot be a slave! Living, I’ll be free here, or free in life above-free with the Gods, for they are free. . . .”
“This condition is expressed by Sartre: we are condemned to choose. We are condemned to be free in the sense that there is always a final choice that none of us can defer to anyone else. If we do not abrogate our choices to leaders, what part should religion play in our lives? Gordon Allport described religion in terms of intrinsic and extrinsic criteria–the growth and security functions. Security religion provides refuge. It builds an ecclesiastical wall which protects from the onslaught of questions and doubts and decisions. Growth religion, on the other hand, forces its adherents to grow, to accept responsibility to assume the burden of proof, to move beyond extrinsic constraints. Growth religion provides not a wall but stepping stones to climb for the purpose of understanding, analyzing, serving, and making choices. We all seek the safe harbor at times. We need to be protected, to rest so we can go back for the battle. Security needn’t be an inhibiting force; it can and should be positive. Whether it is or not depends more on how the member responds to the system than how the system makes demands on the member.”
Bonner Ritchie, “The Institutional Church and the Individual.” Sunstone Magazine, pg. 103
“Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”
G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, p. 71.
“Those who . . . would exalt the isolated individual conscience into an absolute and also those who . . . would exalt obedience to society’s judgment into an absolute, all need to learn to honor Oliver Cromwell’s famous plea, ‘I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, consider that you may be wrong.’ . . . [we ought to] preserve and transcend the paradox, rather than . . . oversimplify it into a battle and . . . choose a side.”
Eugene England, “Obedience, Integrity and the Paradox of Selfhood” quoted in Dialogues With Myself, pp. 32-33
“The general resolution of the paradox of individual and group, of integrity to conscience and obedience to law or commandment, is, I believe, found in covenants. . . . [A covenant] is, in the words of the fine Bible scholar, George Mendenhall, ‘[a] free, voluntary acceptance of ethical obligation on the basis of and as response to past experience.’ A covenant is a free, conscientious binding of the individual will to God, to an eternal partner, to a community and its land and history and sacred texts. It is not made blindly but out of gratitude and hope based in real experience. It turns neither the individual will nor the community into an idol that holds ultimate authority but reserves that ultimate authority to God, who is known and served both through the self and the community. One remains perfectly free to break the covenant but is bound in conscience to the reality of his experience with the divine, both as an individual and through the experiences made possible to him only in the community.”
Eugene England, “Obedience, Integrity and the Paradox of Selfhood” quoted in Dialogues With Myself, pp. 35
Great quotes. I am sort of a quote junky, so these will be good to add to my stash.
Well in that case, if you’re interested, send me your email and I’ll send you an arsenal of cool quotes I’ve been gathering over the years 🙂
I listened to that same podcast, Matthew. Thanks for bringing it up here.
The reason the Improvement Era quote is best known is because there was never a retraction issued. President George Albert Smith rejected the sentiment in a private letter, but should have issued a correction on the front page of the Improvement Era’s next issue, if he were serious about correcting this message to the general membership.
Or he could have addressed it specifically in his next conference address.
Unfortunately, this leaves us with the situation that though President GAS apparently disagreed with the sentiment of allowing his thoughts to dictate the thoughts of the membership, he didn’t think it important enough to let the membership know.
One can only wonder why that would be.
Also, President GAS’s failure to issue a public correction led to President Eldon Tanner’s rephrasing of the same sentiment in a late 1970’s General Conference talk, I believe, in which he said that when the leaders have spoken, the debate is over.
It is no wonder Church members tend to view this as the case. It has been repeated twice in official Church forums and has never been retracted publicly or officially.
Link this to the frequently heard mantra of “follow the prophet” and “God will never allow the prophet to lead the church astray,” and the results on the beliefs of the general church membership regarding the infallibility of church leaders would seem to be ineluctable.
I also feel that a more public response would have been appropriate. For me, like you, it does not end there. I desire the Church as a whole, general authorities included, to be more open to and encourage free thought. I think that we have some people in high places that are compassionate towards the idea, but I think we also have those (a majority still) that are against it.
The leadership of the Church has a hard task, because they can truly shift the scales, for “better” or “worse”. I put better or worse in quotes, because that is ultimately subjective to each member of the Church. Some members are offended by the concept of free thought after a General Authority has spoken on a matter, because it breaks their narrative of the Church. If you study the history of the Church and its teachings/doctrines you will see that reality/history is telling a story that is foreign to what is found in the Church curriculum. I think that the majority population of the Church still follows the traditional narrative and so when GAs speak they speak in a way as to communicate with the majority.
That being said, I feel that the Church is transitioning at a relatively quick level to be more inclusive of history, more open to alternative thinking, and adapt to technology (internet). Why? Because information is coming fast and furious.
There is a simplicity that is alluring to members of any organization in the concept that a select few have all the answers (see Givens quote above). Due to that desire for simplicity the obedience model is upheld by its members just as easily as its leaders.