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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Free Thought - GalileoWhat 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.


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.

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