Leading the Church Astray

My question about what precisely we mean when we say that the prophet will never lead the Church astray came up on another thread. I’d like to explore that question here. A few notes to begin the discussion:

(1) Somewhere on T & S, Adam said that he thought the highest and best purpose of T & S was not to question the doctrine of the Church, but to tease out the implications of that doctrine. Adam, correct me if I am misrepresenting your thought. In any case, that is what I want to do here: start with the premise that the statement “The prophet will never lead the Church astray” is true, and try to figure out what it means. If you want to question that premise, start your own thread.

(2) Maybe another way to explain (1) would be to quote from Jim’s Element article about the idea that God has a body:

“It is as if to say obliquely, ‘I do not understand fully what it means to say that God is embodied, but I am confident that it is true.’ I share that confidence. Nevertheless, I find it difficult to talk philosophically about divine embodiment. My question in this essay is not whether the Father and the Son are embodied, but how to understand philosophically the claim that they are.”

This is how I feel: confidence that the idea is true, much less confident that I understand exactly what it means.

(3) To begin, I am not sure whether we should deem the phrase scriptural. We find the phrase not in OD-1, but in the “excerpts from three addresses by President Wilford Woodruff regarding the manifesto” that follow OD-1. Are those excerpts canonized? Does it matter?

(4) I spent some time in GospeLink and www.lds.org researching this phrase. While my work was by no means exhaustive, I think I can safely conclude this: the phrase is repeated a lot. What I couldn’t find, though, was an explanation of what it meant. Maybe it is obvious to everyone but me, but it seems that there are two possible extremes in interpreting this phrase:

(a) the prophet will never do or say anything in his capacity as prophet that is incorrect. I suppose we need to consider this option, but it seems to me that it is problematic because it smacks up against the idea that the prophet is fallible. In what sense is he fallible if he never does or says anything incorrect?

(b) and, on the other extreme, the prophet will never mess things up to such an extent that some people (one person? 100? 100,000? everyone?) will have their salvation in question. There’s a problem with this, too. Let’s say that the prophet decided to replace temple worship with the sacrifice of missionaries to volcanoes. (work with me here.) That seems as if it would jeopardize the salvation of lots of people. However, I also think that God could fix this. (God can fix anything.) So, this extreme seems to unravel: even if the prophet were off course enough to really mess up the kingdom, God could fix it eventually, therefore the Church wouldn’t be led astray. But this reduces the statement to meaninglessness.

(5) I suppose the solution might lie in avoiding the extremes and taking a middle course. If so, how/where do we draw the line on what we expect from the prophet?

(6) Another possibility would avoid the above dilemma. But, it is one with which I am not personally comfortable but perhaps need to work on: the idea that maybe the prophet will mess up to any greater or lesser extent, but it doesn’t matter, because we should follow him anyway, and will be blessed for doing so, even if we know the counsel is wrong. Anyone want to call me to repentence for having a hard time with this one?

(7) Conclusion: I think this is an interesting thought experiment, but the reality is I can’t think of anything Pres. Hinckley has said that stresses me out. Stay away from porn, stay out of debt, spend more time with your family, etc., make all of the above seem like petty wrangling in the face of good, solid, inspired advice that we’d all do well to follow.

42 comments for “Leading the Church Astray

  1. An footnote on the Woodruff sermons appended to the Manifesto in the current Doctrine & Covenants in 1981. Here is the footnote, which is number 46, and appears on page 148 of Leo Lyman, Political Deliverance (Illinois UP, 1986):

      The Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City, 1981), 291-93. This latest edition for the first time includes the additional page entitled “Excerpts from Three Addresses by President Wilford Woodruff Regarding the Manifesto.” These include his remarks at General Conference, Oct. 6, 1890; at Cashe stake conference, Nov. 1, 1891; and a discourse at the sixth session of the dedication of the Sale Lake Temple, Apr., 1893. A preliminary version of this chapter [i.e. Chapter 5, “The Crucial Year: 1890”, in Lyman’s book) entitled “Woodruff Manifesto in the Context of Its Times” (including citations of Woodruff’s speeches, see n. 42) was presented at the mormon History Association session in conjunction with the American Historical Assocation meeting at San Francisco in Apr. 1979. A commentator’s copy of the paper was subsequently loaned by the Church Historical Department to persons from the First Presidency’s office.

    Although Lyman doesn’t come out and say it, he is clearly claiming that the First Presidency got the material for the sermons from his 1979 paper.

  2. Julie,

    Thanks for the great post! This is exactly the kind of issue I hope to see whenever I log on and come to T&S.

    Here’s a couple of thoughts. First, there’s no question that President Woodruff’s statement is *assumed* to be canonical by the vast majority of American members. That’s not enough to prove that it *is* canonical. I accept it as such though because I doubt the Brethren would have permitted it to be included unless they wanted to make a firm statement on the subject. There have been other occasions, such as nixing Bruce R. McConkie’s idea of including the King Follett and “plurality of gods” discourses in the Standard Works, where the leadership has shown that they are very careful about what they let in to the Standard Works.

    Now, what does it mean? I am certain it does not mean a prophet never makes a mistake—even Bruce R. McConkie thought Brigham Young was just plain wrong on the “Adam-God” issue. For me, the only practical meaning is this: The Lord has enough foreknowledge to know who can be trusted with Church leadership, and to prepare such men. That alone precludes a “wicked” man, or one who would become such, from becoming prophet. Pres. Woodruff’s statement states the escape hatch is for the Lord to basically kill any prophet who might be about to go “over the deep end”, but I sort of doubt that it would ever quite come to that, given the long preparation involved beforehand.

    That addresses (for me) the issue of a prophet *deliberately* leading us astray, but what about *unintentionally* doing so? I think this category is the one most of us would be concerned with. After studying this issue quite a bit in my mind, and going through the Scriptures, I’ve come to a few conclusions:

    1. The Lord has never guaranteed that a prophet will never make an honest mistake. (Think of the all the work for the dead that had to be re-done because the saints were sealing people to prophets instead of their own ancestors, with evidently no prophet thinking to inquire of the Lord about this until Wilford Woodruff, for example).

    2. The Lord has never guaranteed that a prophet won’t look silly or embarrasing when making a mistake. (Think of Samuel in the Old Testament, blurting out loud for all and sundry “Behold! the Lord’s annointed!” upon seeing David’s oldest brother, only to have the Spirit tell him that no, it’s David who should be king—wonder how he explained that to David’s family?)

    3. What the Lord has guaranteed is that this church is the “stone cut out of the mountain without hands”, that it will never fall into apostasy, as in earlier ages. So, while a prophet might make a well-meaning mistake, and that could (in theory) cause some people some short-term harm, it will harm no one in the eternities, and the Church will never be forced away from its mission or destroyed over it.

    4. This is less of an issue now, where President Hinckley and the other brethren truly strive to be circumspect in what they say and do, than in earlier generatations where the leadership hadn’t fully learned that lesson yet.

    5. Yes, it is entirely possible that the Lord might expect us to support a program or policy or whatever of the prophet that we think is mistaken. When I was in the military I often had to obey orders that I thought didn’t make sense or were wrong-headed, but I recognized that disobeying would bring a worse problem (destruction of unity and unit cohesion). I never did anything I felt was morally objectionable, though. Does the Lord expect us to obey the prophet if we think he’s demanding soemthing morally wrong? Well, that goes back to the issue of whether the Lord would let a wicked man preside or not.

    I’m not fleshing all these points out, as I’m more interested in hearing what others say here, but my experience is that the above is what maybe 70% of the members or more I have encountered over the last 10 years believes, and I live in a college ward with lots of new people moving in all the time and moving out after graduation.

  3. My interpretation is that when it comes to doctrines/ordinances which are necessary to salvation, the prophet will not speak or act contrary to the Lord’s will.

    See Helaman 10:5, where the Lord says to Nephi, “And now, because thou hast done this with such unwearyingness, behold, I will bless thee forever; and I will make thee mighty in word and in deed, in faith and in works; yea, even that all things shall be done unto thee according to thy word, for thou shalt not ask that which is contrary to my will.”

  4. Julie says “I can’t think of anything Pres. Hinckley has said that stresses me out.”

    Well, I confess I was more than a little stressed over his 2003 conference address that seemed to imply that the United States’ unprovoked invasion of Iraq had something to do with defending our homes, our families, and our religion a la Captain Moroni. (That might have been a good justification for the *Iraqi* forces, but not much of one for the U.S.).

    I also wasn’t overly impressed by the assertion in the same talk that we should defer to the wisdom of national leaders because “they have greater access to political and military intelligence than do the people generally.” (And, truth to tell, I’m becoming less impressed by this assertion all the time).

    Fortunately, President Hinckley was clear to state that he was expressing at least in part his “personal feelings” and “personal loyalties” — a caveat that many of the more hawkish types in my ward seem not to have noticed.

    That caveat may be important to solving Julie’s puzzle — “a prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such” said Joseph, and I would suggest that the corollary is that the guarantee against leading the Church astray only attaches when he is acting *as* prophet. When the prophet is speaking on his own, he’s on his own, and so are we.

    If that conjecture is correct, then the burden is on us to understand when he is speaking the will of the Lord and when he is not. But that shouldn’t be the least bit surprising, as we have repeatedly been told that we have a responsibility to inquire of the Lord for a testimony of any instruction we have been given.

  5. A few observations that may affect how we read such a statement:

    1. Many scriptural statements and promises should be understood as conditional, even if those conditions are not explicitly called out in each utterance of the promise. One of the conditions of this particular promise may be our own preparation to receive the Spirit for ourselves. Brigham Young had quite a bit to say in this vein. The most representative quote is probably this one:

    “The First Presidency have of right a great influence over this people; and if we should get out of the way and lead this people to destruction, what a pity it would be! How can you know whether we lead you correctly or not? Can you know by any other power than that of the Holy Ghost? If have uniformly exhorted the people to obtain this living witness each for themselves; then no man on earth can lead them astray.
    (Journal of Discourses, 6:100-101, see also JD 4:298, 8:59-60, 18:249)

    Or, as his counselor Heber C. Kimball concisely put it: “You cannot lead a person astray unless that person is willing to be led astray.” (JD 12:190)

    2. The statement should be read in the context of scriptural statements such as those in the Doctrine & Covenants regarding unanimity in the leading quorums of the Church. James E. Faust spoke of this in General Conference in October of 1989:

    “HOW CAN WE be so sure that, as promised, the prophets, seers, and revelators will never lead this people astray? (see Joseph Fielding Smith, in Conference Report, Apr. 1972, p. 99; or Ensign, July 1972, p. 88). One answer is contained in the grand principle found in the 107th section of the Doctrine and Covenants: ‘And every decision made by either of these quorums must be by the unanimous voice of the same’ (107:27). This requirement of unanimity provides a check on bias and personal idiosyncracies. It ensures that God rules through the Spirit, not man through majority or compromise. It ensures that the best wisdom and experience is focused on an issue before the deep, unassailable impressions of revealed direction are received. It guards against the foibles of man. (‘Continuous Revelation,’ Ensign,, Nov. 1989, 10.)”

    3. The statement by Pres. Woodruff, interestingly, refers not only to the President of the Church, but to others, too (emphasis mine):

    “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, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.”

    In this context, the promise seems to focus on the promise that, ultimately, the purposes of the Lord will be fulfilled. Elder Matthias Cowley made a similar comment in April 1901 General Conference:

    “There is no man, from the head of the Church down to the last ordained Deacon, who will have power to lead the people of God astray or to work any permanent injury to the cause of Christ.”

    4. The word “lead” may be important. We see in the case of Moses and the children of Israel that the Lord can take away laws, covenants, and blessings that he once offered to his people, because of their unrighteousness. Similarly, Jacob 4:14 teaches that “God hath taken away his plainness from them [the Jews], and delivered unto them many things which they cannot understand, because they desired it. And because they desired it God hath done it, that they may stumble.”

    Thus, while the prophets may not lead the people astray, the people may still receive “stumbling blocks” from the prophets, according to their desires. Brigham Young seems to be making such a claim when he says (emphasis mine):

    “He [Joseph Smith] was called of God; God dictated him, and if He had a mind to leave him to himself and let him commit an error, that was no business of mine. And it was not for me to question it, if the Lord was disposed to let Joseph lead the people astray, for He had called him and instructed him to gather Israel and restore the Priesthood and kingdom to them.

    It was not my prerogative to call him in question with regard to any act of his life. He was God’s servant, and not mine. He did not belong to the people but to the Lord, and was doing the work of the Lord, and if He should suffer him to lead the people astray, it would be because they ought to be led astray. If He should suffer them to be chastised, and some of them destroyed, it would be because they deserved it, or to accomplish some righteous purpose. That was my faith, and it is my faith still.” (JD 4:298)

    Overall, I think what we should expect from the prophet is what we should be able to expect from each other: that we are doing our best to be prepared to receive and act on revelation and to seek to build up the Church and the kingdom of God. If we are all seeking that Spirit, we have the promise that neither the President of the Church nor any other member of the Church can foil the purposes of the Lord in the salvation of his people, individually and collectively.

  6. It’d be interesting to get the context of the first few times this statement popped up. I’ve heard it attributed to Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, before the one by Wilford Woodruff in the footnote to OD-1. From what I recall, it seemed that the statement was always couched in some language like “The Lord would remove me from my place if I tried to lead you astray”, or “If the members are doing their part the prophet can never lead them astray”. I think this is to avoid the claim that the prophet is being denied his agency.

    How would the Lord remove a prophet? Is death the only option? We often say that the Lord usually does His work through his servants. D&C 107 gives some details about the quorums at the head of the church and how they can check each other when decisions are made in unrighteousness. Seems odd to have a scripture talking about the First Presidency making an unrighteous decision if the prophet cannot lead us astray, unless you think of D&C 107 as part of the process of not leading astray. Still, there aren’t a lot of details there.

    I think I fall into your number 5 solution, but I don’t know exactly where to draw the line. I’m not sure how the Lord would fix problems — do we have examples where the prophet says, “Hey, I was leading the Church in the wrong direction, but the Lord reprimanded me and this is what we need to do.” I guess we could assume that any policy change is an examples of this. I look at the prophet and apostles as good men who are used to listening to the promptings of the Holy Ghost and acting on them. Assuming they really do hold on decisions until they can act unanimously increases my confidence in their leadership.

  7. To respond to this post is to repeat what I’ve already said elsewhere, but oh well:

    Gary — I don’t see much point in debating whether a statement is “canonical” when it’s so unclear what the statement even means, regardless whether it’s canonical or not. That said, I agree generally with most of your sentiments, particularly your idea in (3) that it may refer simply to the idea that the Prophet will never lead the Church into a general apostasy. Trying to read much more than this into the statement becomes an exercise in hair-splitting that doesn’t really help clarify matters (IMO).

    One of the things that makes the Adam-God Theory so interesting (thus explaining why I talk about it ad nauseum) is that it:

    (1) was taught by a Prophet;
    (2) in contexts that sure look like a prophet being a “Prophet”;
    (3) often accompanied by rhetoric underlying the inspired, or dare I say “Prophetic,” nature of the teaching;

    and (most importantly)

    (4) was about the NATURE and IDENTITY of GOD, no less (if Prophets are ever in the business of being “Prophets,” you’d think it would be in contexts like this).

    As I think about Julie’s invitation to “start with the premise that the statement is true” and to “think about what it means,” I think it’s necessary to come up with an explanation that takes Brigham Young’s problematic theology into account. I end up coming back to (3) — particularly since the Church leadership hasn’t embraced the AGT in the 20th Century.

    Then again, even granting that the AGT hasn’t led the Church astray long term, I wonder if the historical lesson isn’t so much that “the Lord will never let the Prophet lead the Church astray,” but rather “The Lord will never let the Church go too far astray, despite a Prophet’s best efforts to take us there.”

    Aaron B

  8. President Hinckley’s comments
    from a recent conference talk seem relevant to me:

    I have now served in the general councils of this Church for 45 years. I have served as an Assistant to the Twelve, as a member of the Twelve, as a Counselor in the First Presidency, and now for eight years as President. I want to give you my testimony that although I have sat in literally thousands of meetings where Church policies and programs have been discussed, I have never been in one where the guidance of the Lord was not sought nor where there was any desire on the part of anyone present to advocate or do anything which would be injurious or coercive to anyone….

    I make you a promise, my dear brethren, that while I am serving in my present responsibility I will never consent to nor advocate any policy, any program, any doctrine which will be otherwise than beneficial to the membership of this, the Lord’s Church.

    He doesn’t acknowledge the possibility of making an honest mistake, and I get the sense that he doesn’t think it’s important.

  9. Aaron,

    I’m pretty much in agreement with you, that the Woodruff statement pretty much means the Church won’t go into apostasy over a prophet’s actions/words. And I also think the Adam-God issue is the most problematic when dealing with the issue of prophetic inspiration. You’ve outlined it appropriately in your four points. I also think your final statement is true, especially when I think of things like Heber J. Grant’s open and public support of the League of Nations (which I think was a serious mistake, but even Pres. Grant said it was only his opinion), etc.

    I think the Lord could have gently corrected Pres. Young if He’d wanted to, *but He did not*—which raises issues of its own. Is Pres. Young’s statement true, that the Lord gives His people as much inspiration as they deserve? Is is possible He lets prophets go on in to some errors, as a way of *chastizing* the saints? Hmmm…I don’t know the answers to the questions I’m raising, but those questions have certainly come up in my mind.

    For example, something that was only recently brought to my attention was the fact that the “good ol’ days” of Church history, a’ la Brigham Young, etc., were hardly that. By good ol’ days I mean the erroneous idea that the early members were so much more faithful and righteous than us “wicked” members today. This is bunk! When you actually look at a)numbers and percentages of full-tithe payers, b)attendance of meetings, c) percentages of marriages out of the temple vs. in the temple, d) hometeaching, it turns out that the saints today are *far* more faithful and obedient than was the case in the 1800’s, or even before 1920 or 1950. Now this adds a whole new dimension to this equation. Can you imagine the state of Utah today so forcefully repudiating an openly stated First Presidency position, the way the saints did when Utah repealed prohibition, approved “free” public schools, and went overwhelmingly for FDR in all four of his elections (remember Pres. Grant’s open attacks on the New Deal, Social Security, etc.)? Just compare the ERA fight in the 70’s.

    So, a case could be made that the Lord might very well “hide” inspiration to His prophet, allowing the man to make even serious errors, as a way to chastizing that man’s generation, but knowing it won’t hurt the Church’s ultimate progress? Taken in this light, because later generations were more faithful, the Adam-God heresy got cleared up….

    I’m interested to hear other’s take on these points, which direct back to Grasshopper’s point about our responsibility as *hearers* of the prophet’s word.

  10. Julie and firends of the list,

    I am new here and I hope my comments may help a little and not be offensive.
    I am not in position to say what the Manifesto really was, since there are evidences that the idea of giving up celestial plural marriage had been around for a while and John Taylor and even W. W. himself had received instructions from the Lord to continue it. So, did the Lord answer as He did with Martin Harris and Joseph about those 116 pages, giving them what they were asking? Or was the president of the Church inspired to protect the Church? My guess is that W. W. was in fact inspired. But plural marriage continued to be lived and even new sealings were performed by the autority of the priesthood. So was W. W. using a kind of “Sarah-is-my-sister” statement to protect the Church and beat the Enemy in his own sphere? Did he take the responsability for plural sealings from the Church of the Son to give it entirely to the Church of the Firstborn? I know my ideas here may sound like out of topic. But without understand the context, we can understand the idea of “a prophet leading the Church astray is impossible”.


    Some interesting quotes:

    Journal of Discourses, Vol.9, p.151, Brigham Young, January 12, 1862
    What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? 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
    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. Let every man and woman know, by
    the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually.

    J. Golden Kimball, Conference Report, April 1904, p.29
    I feel a good deal, or at least I imagine I do, like a man does when held up by a burglar and he is looking into the muzzle of a six-shooter. I
    would quietly and willingly hold my hands up, but during the time would think very profoundly of what I would do if given my liberty. We are in a
    similar position today, but all the men in the United States cannot prevent a man from thinking. There are not Apostles enough in the Church to prevent us from thinking, and they are not disposed to do so; but some people fancy
    because we have the Presidency and Apostles of the Church they will do the thinking for us. There are men and women so mentally lazy that they hardly think for themselves. To think calls for effort, which makes some men tired and wearies their souls. Now, brethren and sisters, we are surrounded with, such conditions that it requires not only thought, but the guidance
    of the Holy Spirit. Latter-day Saints, you must think for yourselves. No man or woman can remain in this Church on borrowed light. I am a strong
    believer in the following statement made by my father in the House of the Lord in 1856 “We think we are secure in the chambers of the everlasting hills, but the time will come when we will be so mixed up that it will be difficult to tell the face of a Saint from the face of an enemy to the people of God. Then, brethren, look out for the great sieve, for there will be a great sifting
    time, and many will fall; for I say unto you there is a test, a test, a test coming, and who will be able to stand?”

  11. A much, much more practical question is what does the Lord do to keep the President of the Church from leading us astray, by mistake or otherwise. Here are a few answers:

    1) All normative doctrine is based on the consensus of the First Presidency and/or the Quorum of the Twelve. This is an enormous safety precaution – as the scripture says “in a multitude of counselors there is safety”.

    2) As I mentioned elsewhere, there are at least three legislative modes, and four independent veto modes in the Church (cf. D&C 107:21-32, D&C 26:2).

    3) If the President of the High Priesthood sins, he can be brought before a Church court, either a bishop’s court (D&C 107:76) or before the common council of the Church (107:82-83), which has the power to impeach him at last resort. All such decisions would be based on the unanimous voice of the same.

    4) Lacking such a judgment by the spiritual authorities of the Church, or a vote of no confidence by the body of the Church – a refusal to sustain him, he retains his position and authority.

    5) Now, if both the Presiding Quorums and the general membership of the Church are content to sustain him in his divine appointment, only the Lord himself can release him, in death.

    Can the President of the Church make mistakes – sure. But can he lead the body of the Church down strange roads, contrary to the will of the Lord? Absolutely not. The Lord would either release him, or make his errors manifest by other means, according to the seriousness of the error.

  12. so…how does this relate to Pres. Hinckley telling everyone on national TV that we don’t drink Cafeine? or the coming apostacy over chocolate? ;)

  13. On the AGT matter, we should consider Brigham Young’s statement that the basics of the AGT were taught him by none other than Joseph Smith. Essentially Brigham Young erred in being too loyal to his predecessor, and also erred in preaching such mysteries before the general body of the Church, so the Lord had to inspire Pratt to speak up. The AGT _never_ became Church doctrine. The detailed AGT sermon didn’t even make it to the Journal of Discourses.

  14. There is a reason God told the brethern not to speculate but to teach only repentence to this generation …

    Given the Spirit and a good audience, you can speculate with them and then try to work out the meaning of the feedback you are getting. Early Church leaders liked to do that, which led to all sorts of interesting discussions, rumors and sermons.

    Reading such a sermon at a later date doesn’t tell us much, other than someone was working on a theme and trying to make it come together — and that they just could not restrain themselves from making use of an audience that was responsive enough for the speaker and the audience to play off of each other and the presence of the Spirit.

    Too many people today read such sermons as finished products rather than the search speculation that they were.

  15. Ethesis said:
    “Too many people today read such sermons as finished products rather than the search speculation that they were.”

    Please provide some reason — any reason — to take this statement seriously. That is, please cite some evidence that would suggest 19th Century Mormon leaders were self-consciously speculating. It’s easy to simply assert that teachings from long ago that we don’t like are “speculations” (and hindsight is 20-20 after all), but if I’m going to accept this understanding of the nature of 19th Century Mormon discourse, I’m going to need something more to go on.

    It is, of course, possible that there is evidence all over the place, and I am just ignorant of it. I don’t spend much time reading the Journal of Discourses, after all. But I haven’t gotten the sense from what I have read that last century’s LDS leadership took their own sermons less seriously than the LDS leadership does today.

    Aaron B

  16. I’m not sure if this has anything to do with this but it has always fascinated me:

    Discourses of Brigham Young, p.137 – p.138
    Perhaps it may make some of you stumble, were I to ask you a question—Does a man’s being a Prophet in this Church prove that he shall be the President of it? I answer, No! A man may be a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and it may have nothing to do with his being the President of the Church. Suffice it to say, that Joseph was the President of the Church, as long as he lived. He always filled that responsible station by the voice of the people. Can you find any revelation appointing him the President of the Church? The keys of the Priesthood were committed to Joseph, to build up the Kingdom of God on the earth, and were not to be taken from him in time or in eternity, but when he was called to preside over the Church, it was by the voice of the people; though he held the keys of the Priesthood, independent of their voice. 1:133.

  17. Well, my favorite sermon on the theme of speculating is Joseph Smith’s where he addressed a congregation and stated that he was glad that in front of them he felt free to speculate without the fear that when he made a mistake they would rise up and sting him to death. The theme of speculation and mistakes by leaders is clearly set out there.

    However, both the process, as well as the methodology are pretty clear cut. Feel free to reject anything you want to reject, but it is something you can even do yourself, if you have the interest.

    There are a number of other things that are common themes as well that go into sermons you might run into. Consider McConkie’s attmept to just bull through when he was wrong (his famous “Christ is no man’s friend” sermon, for example, which got him disciplined). I see a fair amount of that, where someone is kind of right, and accomplishing what God has for them to do, but where they just push on the points where they are wrong too, trying to just overcome the resistance.

    Not to mention, that, as Brigham Young noted, God speaks to us in our language, with the limits imposed by our language and mind set, and thus while He is perfect, our understanding is not. Much of the early hope of God restoring a pure language to the saints was the hope that it would allow them to understand God more than they could, limited by the bounds of their mortal experience and language.

    There are a number of threads that entertwine, only one of them is using an audience and the feedback of the Spirit to refine a thought or a belief through speculating about its boundaries and responding to the feedback. But that is an important one.

    Anyway, I don’t have time for footnotes and a longer post (you can see how often I’ve been visiting recently). Feel free to reject what I had time to say.

  18. Great post Julie! This is something that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently, but unfortunately, I have not been able to come to any satisfying conclusions in my own mind. I am encouraged by statements from J. Reuben Clark when he warned the members of the Church from trusting General Authorities too much. He stated many times that the First Presidency consisted of fallible human beings and that to think that their every word was scripture was erroneous.

    While this is something that I generally believe, it’s more difficult to ascertain when authorities are speaking as men and when they are speaking as prophets. For example, if President Grant’s first counselor (Brother Ivins) gets up in general conference and proclaims that Roosevelt’s New Deal is a virtuous program that should be supported by the LDS, and then a few years later President Grant declares that the program was inspired by the devil himself, who are we (or rather the LDS of that time) to believe? Surely, they both can’t be speaking for God in this matter. Or are they?

    So it is a tricky matter in deciding how to sort out the opinions from the scripture, but I’m fairly certain that if we try to attune ourselves to the Spirit and allow the Spirit to confirm in our hearts the truthfulness of what we hear, we cannot be led astray. Further, I should note that there is nothing about either statement by Grant or Ivins that would somehow imperil a person’s salvation. Only the reaction to the statement by a disbelieving member could cause apostasy.

  19. With regard to Brigham Young’s Adam-God teachings:

    Some commenters here have rightly pointed out that the reaction of Church membership to teachings may be an indicator of the inspired nature of those teachings. And evidence of this is in the Church membership’s general rejection of Brigham Young’s teachings. But it seems to me that our reactions say at least as much about us as about the teachings themselves. It is particularly interesting to note the reactions of those in attendance on the occasions when Brigham Young taught about Adam-God: almost every account we have (that I am aware of, and I’ve read lots) is positive, commenting on the Spirit’s confirmation of the teachings to the congregation, or commenting in a journal that President Young gave one of the best sermons ever, etc.

    It seems to me that the best way for us to determine whether a prophet’s teachings are inspired is, as J. Reuben Clark pointed out in his excellent When are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?, when we ourselves receive revelation on the matter. The reaction of Church membership as a whole may be helpful in seeking that revelation, but cannot substitute for our own personal revelation on these matters.

  20. Grasshopper is right. The AGT almost certainly has merit in some sense. Pratt objected on the technical issue of falling after a resurrection, arguing from Alma 11:42-43. Pratt is almost certainly right about the technical problems of Brigham Young’s AGT.

    However the general idea that Adam presides over his posterity, even as Abraham, is of enormous and profound scriptural merit. And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit. Howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but that which is natural; and afterward that which is spiritual. The first man is of the earth, earthy: the second man is the Lord from heaven (1 Cor 15:45-47).

  21. There is a difference between thinking that God and not Michael is Adam and thinking that Adam, Enoch / Metatron, Moses, etc. are God, or wear the mask of God in that they act in God’s name and are God’s voice through the Priesthood, each in their role in their dispensation.

    Anyway, enough on that point.

  22. The word of the Lord unto us today is that the AGT is wrong. Period. It is not often that incorrect theories gain official heresy status. It is now the emphatic statement of multiple Presidents of the Church that the AGT is incorrect. I believe they know that to be the case by revelation.

    Apologetically, we might consider “Adam” to be a Hebrew name-title for more than one man, like David, or Elias. Indeed Adam, or “first father”, may be named in similitude of our Heavenly Father – “the first man from the earth, earthy, the second man the Lord from heaven”.

    We do not pray to the Son. We do not pray to Adam. Adam is not the Father. Of that we can be sure. Anything more than that tends to be the type of ill founded speculation Joseph Smith asked the Elders to stay away from, lest they be overthrown.

  23. Grasshoper wrote:

    “Some commenters here have rightly pointed out that the reaction of Church membership to teachings may be an indicator of the inspired nature of those teachings. And evidence of this is in the Church membership’s general rejection of Brigham Young’s teachings. But it seems to me that our reactions say at least as much about us as about the teachings themselves.”


    Amen! If we don’t understand this we will think the higher law the Lord tried to give Israel during the days of Moses was wrong… and the peolpe was right!…
    For me, one of the greatest evidences of the truth in BY’s teachings about our relation to Adam is the fact that it was taught as part of the lecture at the veil, and John Taylor din’t change anything from it. But then, during the Smoot hearings, all the temple cerimonies were known by the Congress, thanks to bootleg copies of the SL Tribune, and they were very concerned among other things about Mormons worshipping a “different” god. Dropping A-G doctrine (sorry, I don’t call it theory) along with the law of adoption and plural marriage (all principles having to do with family organization – coincidence?) was a good step to statehood.
    Who should we believe? I believe in those who were trying to establish the kingdom of God.


  24. The salient fact about the AGT is that understood consistently, it is a dispute about an irrelevant detail, whereas in the context of traditional Christian theology (such as prevails in the Church) it is a cardinal heresy. Adam is not God, he is a son of God. Not the Son of God, but a son of God. He may yet preside over his posterity in the patriarchal order, but he is in no sense Elohim, nor ever will be. Mormon Poly-absolutism is theologically unsound, to put it mildly, a self-contradictory hybrid of process and Platonic metaphysics.

  25. Mark,

    Can you explain your last statement,

    “Mormon Poly-absolutism is theologically unsound, to put it mildly, a self-contradictory hybrid of process and Platonic metaphysics.”? Some of us are still learning a lot of the terminology used here at T&S. Are you meaning to say that AGT is self-contradictory, or the rejection of AGT? I think you made clear from your thread right before that you don’t agree with AGT (and I don’t either), so this statement here confuses me (probably because of my own ignorance). To me, AGT is a maze of contradictions, and my understanding is that those members and leaders who believed it shrugged off the scriptural citations that contradicted it.

    In any case, I have a different take on Joseph F. Smith’s suppression of AGT. He appears to have been frustrated with many of the Brethren for the careless way in which they openly speculated on doctrine, and how they never considered that those words would be read by non-members. He also seems to have properly understood that the Brethren were mistaken in neglecting the Scriptures themselves. His talks and written sermons do seem to be far more grounded in Scripture than his LDS contemporaries, and this is one of the reasons I see him as one whom the Lord raised up to correct “doctrinal abuse”.

    Antonio is correct about the AGT being used inthe temple endowment. What he might not be aware of is that there was resistance to this by many members. I posted on an earlier post here at T&S a link to the story of the Bunker family, who openly questioned the AGT and argued what would now be considered the correct view on Adam, but were counciled in a church court, with President Woodruff present and participating, to keep silence because they were “mistaken”. The arguments used against their view in that court are an example of what I mean by “doctrinal abuse”, and you would *never* see a G.A. make such arguments today.

    My own testimony of the divinity of the Church isn’t harmed by acknowledging that perhaps many early Church leaders got complacent with regard to doctrine/speculation, etc., and perhaps a little stuck on themseleves and their own musings. In any case, I’ve often wondered if the persecution the church endured over polygamy wasn’t the Lord’s way of forcing needed corrections in both doctrine and behavior on the part of His leaders. I am grateful I live today, when our leaders are for more doctrinally grounded, better-behaved, and more circumspect in their words and actions. The early brthren were all Protestant converts and so had a lot of previous baggage and misconceptions to have to overcome. They did remarkably well, under the circumstances, and some how the “great caravan” rolled on.

  26. __Mark Butler__
    “Mormon Poly-absolutism is theologically unsound, to put it mildly, a self-contradictory hybrid of process and Platonic metaphysics.”


    I regret I don’t understand arm-chair-theologians’ speech. It’s not for me. What I know on the doctrine of Adam being our Father and God is that it was *doctrine* of the Church. You may call it theory today but back in those days it was doctrine.
    For those interested in the topic of Adam-God, for those who want to know the subject before judging it, I would suggest the following links:

    a great collection of 230 quotes on the doctrine, including discourses, minutes of meetings and trials, etc.

    an article by Davis Buerger publish in Dialogue magazine

    the master thesis by BYU professor Rodney Turner written in 1953

  27. Gary, I agree with everything you just said. Brigham Young was extraordinarily naive in some aspects of his cosmology, and extraordinarily prescient in others. Orson Pratt likewise, but for the opposite reasons. Both Pratt’s and Young’s cosmologies approximate the personal absolutism implied by a naive reading of the King Follett Discourse, in different ways. In Pratt’s world persons become divine by participating in the knowledge, power, etc., of the Absolute. In Young’s world persons are become divine by virtue of having a near-infinite first generation spiritual posterity.

    Hyper-sovereign Mormon cosmologies, following McConkie, fail in my opinion by merging the most incredible aspects of Pratt’s cosmology (e.g. simple foreknowledge) with the most incredible aspects of Young’s cosmology (e.g. differential fan out of ~80 billion). The neo-orthodox Paulsen / Ostler cosmologies are orders of magnitude more plausible. The only other option I am aware of is to dump personal absolutism and radically recast Young’s theology in a more pluralist, finitist, and existentialist direction, following the spirit of D&C 130:2, social trinitarianism on steroids.

  28. Mark,

    Thanks for the explanation and info. I have to confess though, that I’ve still got a long ways to go in figuring out some of the terminology, though when it is explained to me I find that I’ve got the concepts right. If we did “radically recast Young’s theology”, in what ways might it be more “pluralist, finitist, and existensialist”? Maybe it would be impossible. I am more familiar with Ostler (though not enough) than Paulsen. I like Ostler, but still see some holes in his views (particularly on whether God the Father had a father, and on God’s foreknowledge of the future). Maybe you could direct me to some links where I can get a sampling of these views? (For those of us without the financial capital to yet gird our loins and assault the task of reading all their books.)

  29. Antonio, I am familiar with the history of the Adam-God theory. I say theory, because in our Church, no one man has the unilateral authority to declare what is and what is not Church doctrine. Doctrine is what the Church officially proclaims to all the world to be true, and is established through the development of inspired consensus in the Presiding Quorums of the Church subject to the law of common consent.

    The body of the Church, coming from traditional Christian backgrounds, soundly rejected the AGT, and so Young quit teaching it, except for a brief and enormously controversial stint in the St. George temple. But the near unanimous opinion of every president of the Church from Wilford Woodruff on is that the AGT is either wildly speculative or unquestionably false. Brigham Young was out on a limb and Joseph F. Smith sawed it off. Might we suppose that within hours of his passing Brigham Young was taught the weaknesses of his cosmology, and was consulted on how best to mend the worst problems without wounding the testimony of his devout followers and creating a schism in the Church?

  30. Grasshopper, In my opinion, Paulsen and Ostler are on target, the best systematic LDS theologies produced to date, theologies that resonate strongly with Christian tradition, eminently suitable for wide publication and study.

    Existentialist cosmology, on the other hand, is extremely difficult – starting from the assumption that freedom is the most fundamental reality of the universe, that which cannot be explained in any other terms (paraphrasing Berdyaev). A Christian existentialist immediately runs in to the problem of whether to adopt panpsychist metaphysics a la Pratt / Whitehead, self-existent intelligences a la Roberts / Smith, or some other au courant alternative.

    Then starting with universal chaos, explain telelogical salvation as the ultimate expression of the will of a God of emergent rather than self-existent glory, in a way that gracefully fulfils the words of, at a minimum, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Nephi, Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, and Joseph Smith. No easy task that.

  31. Antonio, I might add the evidence is clear that the Presidents of the Church have always been in full possession of all the relevant historical facts. If they were disingenuous in public, it is almost certainly because they were trying to protect Brigham Young’s reputation. Rodney Turner et al, simply dug up the harsh truth of the matter, facts ever present to the highest councils of the Church. Pratt, on the other hand, had to suffer public humiliation, General Conferences devoted to the critical weaknesses of his theology, and he survived just fine.

  32. Mark,

    there have been many changes in doctrine, ordinances and church organization that could be used to point out that leaders can lead the church astray. I don’t believe change itself means apostacy. But I don’t believe every change is inspired either. When someone tries to “downgrade” the gospel, to “unrestore” principles, then you have to watch out. Some may think today’s leaders correct the mistakes of their predecessors, as if the Lord were presenting the latest version of the gospel.

    The teachings of BY on Adam were not well received by the majority of the saints. Does it mean BY was wrong?

    Here are some questions that could help our discussion:

    1. Was A-G taught as doctrine? (my answer: yes. it was part of the lecture at the veil until WW decided to dro it)

    2. Did BY learn that from Joseph Smith? (my answer: yes)

    3. Do all prophets have the same knowledge? (my answer: probably not) The members of the First Presidency and the 12 are sustained as prophet, seers and revelators. Don’t they have – as any other priesthood holder – to magnify their calling to act as prophets, seers and revelators? (my answer: I don’t know what goes between them and the Lord, but for sure they have to magnify their callings as anyone else)

    Many people go straight to the “anti-” side before even taking a look in the source of the doctrine.

    I would be curious to hear from Julie, who started the discussion, what she has been thinking on the topic as well as if all our discussion on Adam-God is helpful to her questions.


  33. Mark,

    there have been many changes in doctrine, ordinances and church organization that could be used to point out that leaders can lead the church astray. I don’t believe change itself means apostacy. But I don’t believe every change is inspired either. When someone tries to “downgrade” the gospel, to “unrestore” principles, then you have to watch out. Some may think today’s leaders correct the mistakes of their predecessors, as if the Lord were presenting the latest version of the gospel.

    The teachings of BY on Adam were not well received by the majority of the saints. Does it mean BY was wrong?

    Here are some questions that could help our discussion:

    1. Was A-G taught as doctrine? (my answer: yes. it was part of the lecture at the veil until WW decided to dro it)

    2. Did BY learn that from Joseph Smith? (my answer: yes)

    3. Do all prophets have the same knowledge? (my answer: probably not) The members of the First Presidency and the 12 are sustained as prophet, seers and revelators. Don’t they have – as any other priesthood holder – to magnify their calling to act as prophets, seers and revelators? (my answer: I don’t know what goes between them and the Lord, but for sure they have to magnify their callings as anyone else)

    Many people go straight to the “anti-” side before even taking a look in the source of the doctrine.

    I would be curious to hear from Julie, who started the discussion, what she has been thinking on the topic as well as if all our discussion on Adam-God is helpful to her questions.


  34. Sorry, folks…. could the owner or moderator delete one of my messages above, pease? :)

  35. Antonio,

    Whatever the other weaknesses of the McConkie cosmology, there is nothing the McConkie’s appear to understand better than the importance of differential symmetry in theology – not down to the world by world basis as in Adam, but down to the father by father basis as in Abraham.

    The word of the Lord to Joseph F. Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie is that exalting Adam above Abraham is a serious mistake. Now in my opinion, converting the world chaining Arminianism you find in Young to the differential Calvinism one seems to find in McConkie is not an adequate solution. Differential Open Theism is much more plausible.

    This apostolic diversity should make it clear that a complete cosmology has not yet been revealed in this dispensation, but almost certainly yet will be. So on difficult questions, we rely on inspired consensus. I think it is safe to say that we have fifteen living apostles who unanimously agree that Joseph F. Smith was inspired on this matter. In a multitude of counselors there is safety, and who better than the First Presidency and the Twelve, upheld by the common consent of body of the Church.

    The Twelve was never unanimous in support of the AGT, so the doctrinal authority lay in the consensus of the First Presidency. What the history of the AGT teaches us then, is that the common sense of the general assembly of the Saints may be equally prophetic.

  36. Did Brigham Young teach the AGT as doctrine? Yes, briefly.

    Did the body of the Church sustain it as doctrine? No, never. Neither formally nor informally.

    Was the AGT the common belief of most of the leaders of the Church at that time? Definitely, but as an official mystery, not an official doctrine. Mysteries are so-called for a reason.

    Did Joseph Smith believe that Adam was the Presiding Father of this world, patriarchal inferior to Michael? At least briefly, or so it would seem.

    Did Joseph Smith anticipate the extended AGT that Brigham Young taught in the October 1854 General Conference? Probably not, in fact the evidence is much better that Joseph Fielding Smith is a far more accurate rendition of Joseph Smith’s views, Adam as Abraham to his posterity rather than Adam as Elohim to his posterity. It seems that the difference between Smith and Young is while both seem to have believed that Michael and Adam were different persons, and apparently that Michael was Adam’s exalted patriarchal superior, Young believed that Adam was previously exalted, and Smith seems not to have, from what we can tell, anyways.

    Now this is all a deep mystery that is not now, nor ever has been an official doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ. It is a mystery revealed in part to prophets and apostles, that most saw fit and proper to only hint at.

    Here is Paul:

    “Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor 13:8-2).

  37. Joseph Smith’s comments along the lines of “If I could tell you all I know (who I am, etc.) you would cease to follow me,” which were always made to his staunchest followers, e.g. Brigham Young, tell me that, as far as cosmology goes, we may be in for some real “culture shock” (Nibley’s term) when all the facts are known. In the meantime we have these bare outlines to give us context, but most of the word of the Lord to the Church has to do with how we should behave in this probationary estate.

  38. “He remarked on several occasions when conversing with his brethren: ‘Brethren, you do not know me, you do not know who I am.’ As I remarked at your priesthood meeting on Friday evening, I have heard him in my early days while conversing with the brethren, say (at the same time smiting himself upon the breast), ‘I would to God that I could unbosom my feelings in the house of my friends.’”

    –Wilford Woodruff

    Etc. etc.

  39. Someone back there asked how I thought the discussion was going since I’m the one who started it.

    I’m a tad disappointed, really, with the focus on A-G. As they say, hard cases make bad law, and I can’t think of a case harder than that.

    P.S.–Don’t all you laws geeks break your fingers trying to correct me on the idea that hard cases make bad law.

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