And shall not lead astray: the Church and ‘infallibility’

papalAs Mormons we follow the prophet, we proclaim, lifting our right hand at many Church occasions, for ‘he shall not lead us astray’. Quite a few General Conference talks urge us to heed the words of the Lord’s anointed, to follow his counsel as the true Iron Rod for our ecclesiastical lives. ‘When the prophet speaks, the debate is over’ First Counselor N. Eldon Tanner wrote in the Church’s Ensign magazine August 1975, echoing an Improvement Era’s message of June 1945, and this message comes to us over and over again.The October 2010 General Conference listened with approval to Elder Claudio R.M. Costa, a Seventy, who repeated an injunction of Ezra Benson, an earlier Apostle, from a BYU devotional in 1980. These 14 ‘fundamentals’ highlighted the special position of the prophet, as the only one who could speak for the Lord in everything; the living prophet is considered more vital to the members than the standard works, and more important than a dead prophet”, and, most important of all, “will never lead the Church astray”. The points were later at the same conference repeated verbatim. So far, the prophet is clearly ascribed infallibility inside his mandate of faith and morals, but then the ‘fundamentals’ move to other fields as well, extending the truth claim, according to Costa: ‘The prophet is not limited by men’s reasoning’; ‘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’. Are our prophets ‘infallible? In principle, the ‘fundamentals’ would mean that President Monson could do authoritative statements in any field, in business administration or publishing – his own fields – but also in physics, astronomy or anthropology – my own field. That would be pretty ridiculous, and of course he is much too wise to attempt to do so, as knowing everything about everything ‘under inspiration’ is blatantly impossible. The only solution to such a quandary would be to say nothing at all, or limit oneself to doctrine and morals. In effect, that is exactly what is happening: the prophet as well as the other Fifteen, limit themselves to moral matters.

Yet we are taught that Mormon prophets are not infallible. In fact we do not even like the word as the Catholic flavor is not appreciated, though ‘fallible’ is definitely a word Mormon leaders use, also when describing themselves. We know the stories how Joseph Smith liked to shock visitors, by welcoming them when he emerged from a jocular bout of wrestling. Sweaty and covered with dirt he would introduce himself as: ‘Joseph Smith, the Mormon Prophet’. Joseph Smith took great pains to deny any kind of infallibility. Throughout he made it clear that he could make mistakes, and that a prophet was only a prophet when he was acting as such. That notion has been upheld as well; Bruce McConkie wrote in a publicized letter to Eugene England:

‘Prophets are men and they make mistakes. Sometimes they err in doctrine. This is one of the reasons the Lord has given us the Standard Works. They become the standards and the rules that govern where doctrine and philosophy are concerned. If this were not so, we would believe one thing when one man was president of the Church and another thing in the days of his successors.’

I am not an admirer of McConkie’s rigid scriptural interpretation, but I concur with this notion, and admire his loyalty when he wrote, after the 1978 revelation on the priesthood, that we had to forget everything he, Bruce, had written about the priesthood ban for blacks. I hope people do forget the quite vapid reasoning that has been developed.

One aspect stands out: the infallible individual is always the ‘other’, the ‘prophet’. It is the Twelve or the Seventies who speak out about the prophetic infallibility, not Monson himself. The discourse is on ‘follow the prophet’, not ‘follow me’. Gordon Hinckley was especially modest and honest, defining his prophethood as a form of gentle inspiration, while denying all insider knowledge concerning the future (the popular interpretation of prophethood). In his administration a gentle shift was discernible, away from the personal ‘infallibility’ to the collective inerrancy of the First presidency plus the Twelve Apostles. Both Hinckley and the apostles stressed the collective nature of inerrancy at several occasions.

November 6 1994 Apostle Russell Ballard told 25,000 students at BYU, that general authorities ‘…will not lead you astray. We cannot.’ This claim was officially published, and was repeated at another BYU devotional meeting in March 1996.

‘We cannot’ indicates an inherent infallibility which is not personal, but purely institutional. Whether this shift will last is not clear, but it does fit in an increased focus on collective leadership in the Church as a whole.

I slipped into using the term ‘infallibility’ because the Roman Catholic Church does use it and I want to make a comparison. For some LDS that Roman church might be far away, but in many ways it is our ‘relevant other’; especially in truth claims the claim for apostolic succession stands as the only logical alternative to restoration. The claims, structure and ambition of the LDS Church is modeled after the Roman Catholic Church — a centrally-led world church with a recognized claim of uniqueness and of divine mandate, sharing also the notion of salvation through works and priesthood as a crucial intermediary. Thus, the position of the pope in the Roman Church and our prophet in the LDS one are highly comparable. In Salt Lake the discussion should be over once the prophet had spoken, the parallel Roman Catholic expression runs: ‘Roma locuta, causa finita, when Rome has spoken, the issue is finished. Or, in a well-known LDS quip: ‘Catholics are taught that their pope is infallible, and they do not believe it. Mormons are taught that their prophet is not infallible, and they do not believe that either’. My point is, that this is quite the same.

But what does Catholic infallibility mean? Exposés about the Roman Catholic dogma (= official doctrine) of infallibility usually start with much needed disclaimers. Papal infallibility does not mean that the ‘pope is always right’, nor that ‘the pope commits no sins’, or ‘makes no mistakes’, just as it does not mean that anything the pope says is scripture even if he speaks as a pope. Actually the dogma is not about the pope, but about a specific kind of statements the pope is in a position to make. The dogma has been formulated by the First Vatican Council of Vatican in 1870 but very restrictively and concerns only very specific kinds of statements. The accepted conditions for an infallible declaration are, since 1870, that: 1. The pope has to utter it; 2. He has to speak ex cathedra (i.e. ‘in discharge of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, and by virtue of his supreme apostolic authority’); 3. He has to use the word ‘define’; 4. The doctrine has to regard faith or morals; 5. He has to state that the belief must be held by the whole Church. The text must indicate that the teaching is definitive and binding, in any type of wording, usually expressed by: ‘We declare, decree and define … ‘ (the teaching as definitive); as final indication the text usually has a so-called anathema (warning) attached, stating that anyone who deliberately voices dissent is outside the Catholic Church and no longer belongs to the flock.

If the wording is different, then the statement has (considerable) authority as coming from the pope, but is not considered infallible. In actual fact, there have been very few infallible papal statements formulated in the history of the RC Church. In the 1870 Council the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary was formulated by pope Boniface VIII as an infallible dogma, i.e. the belief that Mary, the mother of Christ, had been conceived beyond the influence of the original sin. In 1950 pope Pius IX gave the Church the dogma of the Assumption of Mary, the belief that Mary went to heaven without experiencing death, i.e. was ‘assumed body and soul in heaven’. The next Council, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council 1961-3, did reaffirm the principle of infallibility, speaking of the ‘sacred primacy of the Roman Pontiff and of his infallible magisterium’, but did not state any new dogma, and the following popes have not used the prerogative. They sometimes come close to it but skirt the exact wording, avoiding the heavy backlog of infallibility proper. This tendency is called, by critical scholars, ‘creeping infallibility’.

In practice Roma locuta is not exactly causa finita. The doctrine of papal infallibility – in contrast with church indefectibility – was not without its critics, and still is the subject of fierce debate, also within the Catholic Church. One leading Catholic theologian, professor Hans Küng, lost his teaching rights as professor of theology at Tübingen University, over his critical book on infallibility. After a host of other critical commentaries he wrote, it was his critique on this issue that brought him into open conflict with the bishops’ synod. And he is by no means alone. The heavy claim of infallibility is more a stimulus for critique than anything else. Well, with us LDS it is more or less the same: when the prophet speaks, the debate starts.

So both churches, ours and the Roman Catholics, struggle with the same problem: the authority of the leader. The combination of a strict hierarchy and a divine mandate – to use the Catholic term, but it holds well – somehow produces the notion of infallible leadership and statements. And that is always a problem, both for the followers and the leaders themselves. Who is infallible cannot be seen to make mistakes, so has a huge problem apologizing for past mistakes. One result is that protecting the institution becomes more important than protecting or comforting victims, which is exactly the risk any institution runs based upon a discourse of – creeping – infallibility. Who has the monopoly on atonement, has no means to atone himself. On 7 June 2010, Time Magazine ran a major article ‘Why being pope means never having to say you’re sorry’, and indeed, as infallible head of an indefectible church, one’s hands are severely bound. Just as the Catholic Church we have problems in acknowledging our own past errors as serious mistakes, and consequently in apologizing to the victims or their heirs. It took the LDS Church over a century to come clean about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, as the ultimate judgment hinged on the measure in which the prophet, Brigham Young was implicated. Past detours in theology, like the Adam-God theology or blood-atonement, are still difficult to acknowledge as mistakes, and sometimes their existence is denied. When the ban on priesthood for the negro was abolished, there was no refutation of any of the preceding ‘explanations’, nor was an apology extended.

So religious authority has an inbuilt problem, but how do we as individuals deal with it? Most Catholics I know take the dogma with a huge grain of salt indeed in fact do not believe it, but yet see the pope as an important and inspirational figure. The Roman Catholic Church as such has caught the notion of infallibility in a huge and complicated network of theological reasoning, limiting it severely but keeping it intact as the ultimate authority to which one can sneak up: it works as long as one does not use it. That will not be the way of the LDS, as this kind of systematic internal discussion is neither developed, nor wished for. We can be helped by the deep practicality that pervades much of LDS church practice, which feeds into the way we as individual Mormons can solve this conundrum. One of the most important commentaries I ever heard as a member, was when I served as a stake president. My Regional Representative (it was in the ‘80s), said, after hearing a General Authority talk on inspired guidance: ‘But we are still human’. I do not know whether he consciously referred to the Triumph marches of old imperial Rome, but the parallel is striking. During the entire glorious Triumph, a slave stood behind the proud, victorious general, whispering in his ear: ‘You are still mortal’. We all need such a whispering voice, and the higher up, the more we need it.

Infallibility is a trap that is hard to escape, but has to be avoided or softened as much as possible. The idea that ‘When the prophet speaks, the debate is over’ in the long run is counterproductive, and should give way to empathic debate, in which the spirit is allowed to run free, undomesticated, in order for truth to emerge, errors to be avowed and conflicts to be mended. History then becomes a series of inspiring mistakes, just like our own lives.



46 comments for “And shall not lead astray: the Church and ‘infallibility’

  1. I liked your article. I was thinking that when any person speaks, whether it be a member in the ward, the stake president, a general authority, or the Prophet, we can pray to our Heavenly Father and ask if what they are saying is true. We can know the truth by the Holy Ghost. Does that mean that the Holy Ghost is infallible?

  2. Thank you Walter. This is a very good summary of an important topic. I especially appreciate the catholic angle as I live in a highly catholic area and am embarrassingly ignorant of their beliefs.

    For me, infallibility is not only an incorrect idea, it is a damning one. If the prophet (or president, or father, or whoever) *cannot* err then agency is fatally undermined. We no longer need to experience, think, struggle, or work out or salvation; we simply turn our agency over to another and wash our hands. In reality, many of my greatest examples have come from family and church leaders who willingly share their failures as well as successes. I am grateful for their condescension to my level. Considering that the Lord has called OT prophets, BOM prophets, Joseph Smith, and even my own parents to provide me guidance, and considering how seriously flawed all those individuals are, I cannot understand why someone would think that modern prophets and apostles are suddenly beyond reproach.

    I do have a few serious questions for you. Even more than the “the debate is over” quote, the citation I find most often raised in church circles is President Woodruff’s statement “[t]he Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray.” I believe that statement is used so often because it is found in the standard works. It is appended to OD1. My questions are these: do you know of any research on how the Woodruff addresses came to be included in the standard works? Were his conference addresses ever put to a vote as was OD-1? Are they considered part of the canon or simply commentary such as the bible dictionary and chapter headings?

  3. for the most part I really enjoyed this post, but really didn’t like this end of the 1st paragraph:

    In principle, the ‘fundamentals’ would mean that President Monson could do authoritative statements in any field, in business administration or publishing – his own fields – but also in physics, astronomy or anthropology – my own field. That would be pretty ridiculous, and of course he is much too wise to attempt to do so, as knowing everything about everything ‘under inspiration’ is blatantly impossible. The only solution to such a quandary would be to say nothing at all, or limit oneself to doctrine and morals. In effect, that is exactly what is happening: the prophet as well as the other Fifteen, limit themselves to moral matters.

    To begin, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone to claim to know everything about everything. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t.

    8 And it came to pass that Moses looked, and beheld the aworld upon which he was created; and Moses bbeheld the world and the ends thereof, and all the children of men which are, and which were created; of the same he greatly cmarveled and wondered.

    If Moses could be shown the entirety of this world, and all it inhabitants, and comprehend seeing all those things, then why can’t a modern Apostle/Prophet be shown and understand something in anthropology, astronomy, or physics? Is there something beyond the knowledge of Christ?, that he can’t teach to one of his Apostles? and then said Apostle could teach to the rest of us? Is there any field where learning from earthly teachers is a better training than learning from the Lord? and they should therefore not speak about what they have learned?

    Do current Apostles tend to keep to morals and generalities? YES. Possibly because the Lord has chosen not to teach them anything wonderous about other fields. But that doesn’t mean HE couldn’t.

    By the same logic of this paragraph, no priesthood holder can give any kind of blessing about healing if he isn’t an MD. And shouldn’t follow any inspiration to counsel them on personal things, because they don’t know as much as others.

    Also, consider these passages from Abraham chapter 3:

    16 If two things exist, and there be one above the other, there shall be greater things above them; therefore Kolob is the greatest of all the Kokaubeam that thou hast seen, because it is nearest unto me.

    17 Now, if there be two things, one above the other, and the moon be above the earth, then it may be that a planet or a star may exist above it; and there is nothing that the Lord thy God shall take in his heart to do but what he will do it.

    18 Howbeit that he made the greater star; as, also, if there be two spirits, and one shall be more intelligent than the other, yet these two spirits, notwithstanding one is more intelligent than the other, have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after, for they are gnolaum, or eternal.

    19 And the Lord said unto me: These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all.

    Here, the point of these verses in Abraham would make it “pretty ridiculous” that anyone teach anything because there will always be someone who knows more, right? But if the Lord is more intelligent than they all then why would anyone say that He is incapable of teaching his disciples? Or say that there are topics for which they ought not to speak?

    Having said this, they ARE fallible men, as was noted in the OP. But being fallible does not mean they cannot be taught by the Lord/Spirit in subjects beyond their mortal training.

  4. Problems occur because as Latter-day Saints we are not really “allowed” to question our leaders about anything. This is especially true in the corporate side of the Church. The result is what I have called de facto infallibility. It creates a culture in which members are openly told to obey their leaders even if they are wrong. Well, this is a stupid and uninspired edict. As the Church has made perfectly clear, no woman is required to follow her husband to hell. By the same reasoning, no member is required to follow an obviously mistaken leader, regardless of his or her calling. If common sense instead of this obedience myth had prevailed in Cedar City in 1857, we would not have had a massacre at Mountain Meadows.

  5. There are a variety of ways that people use infallibility. One is as evidence in arguing a particular position with others. Another is in weighing the actions one should take based on one’s own position with that of Church leaders and how to bring them into harmony.

    One aspect that interests me is how agency and accountability relate to infallibility.

    For example, to what extent do people believe that they are not accountable for actions taken in concord with the prophet’s direction?

    Will we be held accountable if we take action against our own conscience based on a good faith reliance on church leaders or are we held to a standard of obedience to church leaders and are blameless for our actions that are based on their mistakes?

    The question then isn’t so much infallibility as accountability for error.

  6. Infallibility can mean 4 things:
    1. The prophet has never erred in word and deed since birth.
    2. The prophet used to err in word and deed but not since being called to be prophet.
    3. The prophet may err in word and deed when acting as a human but not when acting as a prophet (this, of course, begs the question of how do you know the difference).
    4. The prophet does err in word and deed, even when acting as prophet, just less than the rest of us.

    I get the sense that most of the LDS members like to accept either 3 or 4, although no. 2 is not uncommon among the more naive.

    My personal belief is that the prophet is fallible in word and deed and that in order to inform ourselves of the truth or the best paths for our lives we should rely on our reasoning and intuition first, and then consult authorities’ opinions and injunctions for further guidance. Too many times LDS members inform themselves of truth and the ideal life path by searching for authoritative injunctions and don’t trust their own reasoning. They hold firmly to the principle that when the prophet speaks the debate is over/thinking is done and believe even mere questioning to be sin. This is not right. And I get the sense that even the LDS church authorities themselves counsel against this method by urging us to search, ponder, and pray before accepting authority.

  7. While not disagreeing so much with any of your specific claims, in human affairs limiting an authority is usually in the pursuit of replacing them with some alternate authority. If the authority is the (always mythical) people, the real alternate authority is some group that speaks for them.

  8. Dear Steve
    Yes, I agree that most of the members will hover between 2 and 3, and that 4 would be induce all of us to do our own thinking, or at least to do our own thinking as well. As for the counsel to search, ponder and pray, that is excellent, but this injunction is usually given to solve your own problems, not for instance for the acceptance of a new revelation. In 1978 the General Conference that heard the revelation on the priesthood for the first time, voted immediately to sustain it (which, by the way was excellent, as it was long overdue). They did not go home, prayed and came back to sustain.
    There is a redeemiong practicality in Mormon Culture that prevents us from taking obedience too far, and especially shielding the General Authorities from taking their claims too far either.

  9. Dear Mtnmarty
    That is indeed a crucial and important question you raise. Philosophers and ethicists have discussed this at length, especially in situations where obedience is part of the job, such as in army situations. The consensus is that obedience is a poor excuse for sins committed on command. But situations generating these extremes do occur very rarely. Within the restored gospel, the principle of free agency stands paramount, D&C 93:30 is adamant on that, one of the most profound revelations of Joseph Smith. So, whatever we do, we are accountable, how many Authorities we may invoke.

    Walter van Beek

  10. Dear Lew

    You are completely right, and I like the parallel of the woman following her husband but only as long as he is righteous.
    Walter van Beek

  11. Dear Jax
    The Lord can reveal anything, you are right there. But when He speaks, it is a revelation. Not all utterances of the prophet and the apostles have that weight, and evidently they are wise enough not to presume to know everything, so they keep to their main mandate, to be moral leaders.

    Walter van Beek

  12. Dear Dave
    As far as I know the OD-1 was put to a sustaining vote by the General Conference, but I am not completely sure. Maybe someone else has the answer here?

    Walter van Beek

  13. Dear Mormon Apparel
    That is a tricky question you pose, and a highly relevant one. Theologically, there might be more than one answer here. Mine would be that the influence of the Holy Ghost comes through feelings, through an inner experience of certainty and clarity, ‘warming the heart’; thus, that kind of experience always passes through our own interpretative system, so while sometimes very convincing cannot be called infallible. And surely it is not transferable to someone else, and the infallibility claim is usually made in an interpersonal relation.
    Walter van Beek

    Walter van Beek

  14. Where the Roman Catholic Church has most egregiously strayed into error which blatantly revealed its humanness is when it has ventured into making proclamations in areas of science, outside its reasonable purview of theology and spirituality. In declaring Galileo a heretic for his heliocentric model of the solar system, the RCC set itself up for centuries of ridicule and mistrust. Same with its reactions to Darwin’s Origin of Species, though it took a significantly more measured approach, here.

    The leadership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does well (or would do well) to take this as a cautionary tale, to avoid making rigid proclamations in areas where science is leading to drastically different conclusions. Whether God may be *able* to reveal deep and complex truths about scientific matters to those who have little education in those areas and who do not perform scientific research, God does not seem, in general, to have ever been inclined to make such revelations, and those who have presented themselves as being in receipt of divine revelations regarding scientific matters, without the rigorous research to back up their conclusions, have typically been found to be in error.

    Better, I think, to leave science to scientists in order to avoid ending up with egg on one’s face.

  15. For the sake of clarity, here are the 14 fundamentals of following the prophet that are referred to in this post:

    “1. The prophet is the only man who speaks for the Lord in everything
    2. The living prophet is more vital to us than the standard works
    3. The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet
    4. The prophet will never lead the church astray
    5. 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.
    6. The prophet does not have to say ‘Thus sayeth the Lord’ to give us scripture
    7. The prophet tells us what we need to know, not always what we want to know.
    8. The prophet is not limited by men’s reasoning
    9. The prophet can receive revelation on any matter, temporal or spiritual
    10. The prophet may be involved in civic matters
    11. The two groups who have the greatest difficulty in following the prophet are the proud who are learned and the proud who are rich
    12. The prophet will not necessarily be popular with the world or the worldly
    13. The prophet and his counselors make up the First Presidency- the highest quorum in the Church
    14. The prophet and the presidency – the living prophet and the first presidency – follow them and be blessed; reject them and suffer”

  16. But… you didn’t ask about that… OD-1, in the back of the D&C, records that it was proposed for a vote, but doesn’t record the vote. That suggests to me that there was less than unanimous assent, but I think it was standard procedure even then to go through the vote motions.

  17. For some LDS that Roman church might be far away, but in many ways it is our ‘relevant other’; especially in truth claims the claim for apostolic succession stands as the only logical alternative to restoration.

    Absolute nonsense. Eastern Orthodoxy’s claim to apostolic succession is just as good as Roman Catholicism’s if not better. And no pope.

  18. Thank you for a great post, and for taking the time to respond to specific comments. We all live our lives across “tensions”; that is we live our lives in balance between competing principles. It is true that we should obey our preisthood leaders, even when we don’t understand them or agree with them. It is also true that we are responsable for our lives and actions, and we must do the right thing even when our church leaders oppose us. We have to find a balance between these competing principles. We want to believe that a moment will not exist when a true conflict will occur. Church and scripture history teaches us otherwise.

  19. Thank you for a most interesting post, Walter.

    John Hancock (17) reminded us of the text of the “14 fundamentals”. Some are quite bold statements, more typical of a previous generation. I think active Mormons can see them in the broader context of how the Church and its members have been operating for decades: all by all, these fundamentals are applied within reasonable boundaries and with a good sense of realism and adaptability. The 14 fundamentals are part of a rhetoric of respect and even veneration for the office of the prophet. In the U.S. such statements do not seem to bother outsiders much.

    However, the real concern for such rhetoric is in countries where Mormonism is unknown and easily viewed as a cult. One of the criteria for government officials and for cult-hunters to identify a dangerous cult is blind obedience to an infallible guru who is said to be divinely competent in all matters, spiritual and temporal. So, when the cult itself provides official texts that seem to confirm the same, these are readily used as proof. In that context, proclaiming some of these inflated “fundamentals” wordwide is problably not so wise anymore. It is surprising that a Brazilian Seventy like Elder Costa did not seem to anticipate this when, in his 2010 General Conference talk, he revived them from a Benson-talk of 30 years before. Perhaps Brazil does not know the cult-hunting atmosphere that other countries experience? Or is the rhetoric a way to “please” the prophet or a way to call critics to repentance? Neither would have much effect, I think.

  20. Does a prophet have a distinct and clear responsibility to tell us when they are speaking an infallible truth or presenting true revelation? Why is it incumbent upon the listener to discern such when the prophet would know with assurance if it is just his opinion or interpretation?

  21. My guess is that the prophet wouldn’t always know. Just a guess, but my own personal revelation has included fallible personal elements that were only clear in hindsight. Not only the response, but the results, are part of the dialogue.

  22. The problem the 14 fundamentals is accepting them contradicts the first one The prophet is the only man who speaks for the Lord in everything. Ezra Taft Benson was NOT the prophet when he introduced them!

  23. Walter referred to the “14 fundamentals” as a recent example of how a certain concept of infallibility remains alive in the church. It is, indeed, a remarkable example, not only because some of the statements are so strongly worded, but because a Seventy from “abroad” revived them after 30 years. Could it be that Elder Castro was unaware of the controversy which the “14 fundamentals” already sparked at the time of Benson’s devotional in 1980? President Kimball, then the prophet at the time, was upset over the talk, according to his son Edward. The talk by Elder Castro revived the controversy. See here and here.

  24. Very nice article, Walter. A few follow-up questions:

    1. If you were to include Brother Benson’s 14 fundamentals in a missionary discussion delivered to an average individual with a high school education, do you believe their desire to join the church would increase or decrease?

    2. Is there a correlation between the stridency with which the myth of prophetic infallibility and institutional inerrancy is advanced in certain quarters and the decline in political, intellectual and philosophical diversity among church leaders, where it is now virtually impossible to find a registered Democrat or men willing to ask the probing questions once posed by the likes of B. H. Roberts, John Widtsoe, Hugh B. Brown, and others? And to what extent does this trend mirror the polarization that has occurred over the past 30 years in American politics?

    3. Given that our church leaders today literally live in a “fish bowl” and that the Internet and the modern media ensure that any questionable assertion/prophecy/teaching they deliver will be scrutinized, dissected, and questioned, how likely is it that some general authority is going to repeat the errors of his predecessors by predicting the arrival of the Second Coming, vilifying the science of evolution, or speaking on some subject other than how we can better live righteous lives and render service to others?

    4. Isn’t one of the real dangers of the myth of prophetic infallibility that it is all too often embraced by local priesthood leaders—not to defend the prophet but their own actions?

    I will conclude with one of my favorite anecdotes from the Revolutionary War.

    To assist in training the Continental Army, George Washington retained the services of a German military officer by the name of Baron Friedrich von Steuben. When asked about the difference between European and American soldiers, the Baron replied (I’m paraphrasing here): “When you tell a European what to do, he does it; with an American, you must first explain why he should do something before he will do it.”

  25. Walter,

    Its important to note that the quote about “When the Prophet Sspeaks, the thinking has been done” was refuted. This phrase first appeared in the Improvement Era, June 1945, pg. 354. A Unitarian minister in Salt Lake was so disturbed that he sent a letter to Pres. George Albert Smith asking for clarification. Here is his letter:

    Letter of Reverend J. Raymond Cope

    First Unitarian Society
    13th East at Sixth South Street
    Salt Lake City 2, Utah
    J. Raymond Cope, Ph.D., Minister

    November 16, 1945

    President George Albert Smith
    Church of Jesus Christ of L.D.S.
    Office of the President,
    Salt Lake City

    Dear President Smith:

    It has been one of the great privilege[s] of my life to have lived for the past four years in Salt Lake City, and to have become personally acquainted with many of the leaders of the L.D.S. Church. From them I have learned many things, and the spirit of friendliness which is found in our relationships is a source of unending delight to me. It is because I have found you and the other leaders so very charitable and sympathetic that I make so bold as to write you this letter.

    May I first assure you of my good will; that there is not one note of hostility in attitude. I am confident that you will understand why I write, and that we have a common interest in the problem.
    Last June there was delivered to my door a short religious editorial, prepared by one of your leaders, entitled “Sustaining the General Authorities of the Church.” Its message amazed me a great deal, and with the passing of weeks my distur[b]ance became very acute. It might have passed, except that several members of your Church have come to me to discuss the subject. The most recent was a prominent doctor, who, because of this tract, he affirms, is losting [sic] his religious faith. He is a large man, and I became impressed with his deep sincerity as he broke down and wept like a boy. I am convinced that he is undergoing a very dangerous experience.

    Permit me to quote the passages which seem to be brought most in question: “He (Lucifer) wins a great victory when he can get members of the Church to speak against their leaders and to ‘do their own thinking[.]'” “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. …”

    I do not know who is responsible for this statement, but I am sure it is doing inestimable harm to many who have no other reason to question the integrity of the Church leaders. Many people are suffering because of this. My reply to each of those who have spoken to me is Òplease do not become disturbed [sic], for this cannot be the position of the true leaders. And, from my knowledge of the early writings of your leaders, I must assume this to be non-representitive [sic].

    Several years ago, when I first became acquainted with the L.D.S. Church, I read extensively in the texts, and there are many passages which may be used to give a better expression to the vision and genius of your Faith. I cite but one, although there are many others which are familiar to you.

    Quoting from the Discourses of Brigham Young, as Selected and Arranged by John A. Widtsoe, in the Chapter on “The Priesthood”: “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 that 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 thwa[r]t the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give 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 whisperings of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.”

    This quotation from Brigham Young is a wonderful passage, and it has been on the basis of such freedom that persons like myself have grown to have a deep feeling of kinship with the L.D.S. Church. It is in keeping with the high traditions of my Unitarian background that the gains made by my fellow workers are seen as gains for us all. It is a source of regret to all of us when one stone is discovered to bar the way to deeper faith within any soul.
    With an assurance of my continued good-will and friendliness,

    Most cordially yours,

    J. Raymond Cope. [typed]

  26. And here is Pres. Smith’s response to the good Reverand. The most important statement: “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.” This is clear refutation.

    Letter of President George Albert Smith

    Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
    Office of the First Presidency
    Salt Lake City, Utah

    December 7, 1945

    Dr. J. Raymond Cope
    First Unitarian Society
    13th East at 6th South Street
    Salt Lake City, Utah

    My dear Dr. Cope:

    I have read with interest and deep concern your letter of November 16, 1945, in which you make special comment on “a short religious editorial prepared by one of your (our) leaders entitled ‘Sustaining the General Authorities of the Church'”. You say that you read the message with amazement, and that you have since been disturbed because of its effect upon members of the Church.

    I am gratified with the spirit of friendliness that pervades your letter, and thank you for having taken the time to write to me.
    The leaflet to which you refer, and from which you quote in your letter, was not “prepared” by “one of our leaders.” However, one or more of them inadvertently permitted the paragraph to pass uncensored. By their so doing, not a few members of the Church have been upset in their feelings, and General Authorities have been embarrassed.

    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.

    The Prophet Joseph Smith once said: “I want liberty of thinking and believing as I please.” This liberty he and his successors in the leadership of the Church have granted to every other member thereof.
    On one occasion in answer to the question by a prominent visitor how he governed his people, the Prophet answered: “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”

    Again, as recorded in the History of the Church (Volume 5, page 498 [499] Joseph Smith said further: “If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way.”

    I cite these few quotations, from many that might be given, merely to confirm your good and true opinion that the Church gives to every man his free agency, and admonishes him always to use the reason and good judgment with which God has blessed him.

    In the advocacy of this principle leaders of the Church not only join congregations in singing but quote frequently the following:
    “Know this, that every soul is free To choose his life and what he’ll be, For this eternal truth is given That God will force no man to heaven.”

    Again I thank you for your manifest friendliness and for your expressed willingness to cooperate in every way to establish good will and harmony among the people with whom we are jointly laboring to bring brotherhood and tolerance.

    Faithfully yours,

    Geo. Albert Smith [signed]

  27. Neal, I was unfamiliar with this letter by George A. Smith. Thanks for sharing it.

    Sadly, as we witness the endless proliferation of handbooks, instructions, policies and programs, it would appear that we have turned a deaf ear to Joseph’s advice to “teach them correct principles, and let them govern themselves.”

  28. Eric,

    Handbook 2 which guides most of ward functions is actually fairly terse. It answers a lot of questions but by no stretch of the imagination will it run a ward for you. Still plenty of thinking required to run a ward, don’t worry. In fact, it starts with 3 chapters on “principles”, so I perhaps Joseph would be happy about that.

  29. Frank, don’t forget that there is a section devoted entirely to how things are open to being altered if needed in specific units, and one section specifying which things (ordinances mostly) that CAN’T be altered. Very little is truly set in stone.

  30. Frank,

    Perhaps Joseph would be pleased with those 3 chapters on “principles,” but I dare say he would be dismayed by other trends.

    In 1990, Brother Packer, in an unusually candid address at a Regional Representatives Seminar, openly addressed the problem of over regimentation in the church and threat it posed to both the institution and the members. Below are a few my favorite quotes:

    “The most dangerous side effect of all we have prescribed in the way of programming and instructions and all is the over regimentation of the Church. This over regimentation is a direct result of too many programmed instructions. If we would compare the handbooks of today with those of a generation ago you would quickly see what I mean.”

    “Local leaders have been effectively conditioned to hold back until programmed as to what to do, how, to whom, when, and for how long. Can you see that when we overemphasize programs at the expense of principles, we are in danger of losing the inspiration, the resourcefulness, that which should characterize Latter-day Saints. Then the very principle of individual revelation is in jeopardy and we drift from a fundamental gospel principle!”

    “Some of us remember when President Kimball saw the outlay of curriculum and the vast display of printed material. He said he was frightened, “We have done it all with the best intentions.” It is just that we can do far too much of good things. One or two reports of inactivity or extreme behavior and we rush to make corrections across the whole Church with more programs, more interviews, more assessments.”

    “The hardest ailment to treat is a virtue carried to the extreme. We cannot seem to learn that too much, even of a good thing, or too many good things, like vitamins taken in overdose, can be harmful.”

    Now, here’s the $64,000 question: how much have things changed in the church since Brother Packer delivered those remarks?

  31. Looking at this from the other side, I believe the prophet is generally constrained from speaking freely by inspiration, due to the lack of faith and unity of the members. The Lord does not move the prophet to give revelation that Church members are not prepared to receive, and will refuse to accept.

  32. Well that didn’t stop Jesus from turing over the money changer’s tables. You position sounds more like rationalization for their silence.

  33. Not rationalization, just understanding why we don’t hear more from Church leaders. The people will not endure sound doctrine. In the words of Samuel the Lamanite –

    But behold, if a man shall come among you and shall say: Do this, and there is no iniquity; do that and ye shall not suffer; yea, he will say: Walk after the pride of your own hearts; yea, walk after the pride of your eyes, and do whatsoever your heart desireth—and if a man shall come among you and say this, ye will receive him, and say that he is a prophet.

    Yea, ye will lift him up, and ye will give up to him of your substance; ye will give unto him of your gold, and of your silver, and ye will clothe him with costly apparel; and because he speaketh flattering words unto you, and he saith that all is well, then ye will not find fault with him.

  34. We don’t hear more because the heavens are currently closed to our prophets. What evidence do you have that the Mormon people won’t endure sound doctrine?

  35. Dear Eric

    Your probing questions ask for another post, or even a series of them. So I’ll be very short. On 1: people often are searching for certainty and cognitive anchors, so the fundamentals even might have a conversion appeal. 2. ask for a further post, by someone else, I am afraid. You might be right, but it needs further study. 3. Not only the fishbowl is important – and it is! – but also an awareness of historical limitations, and the realization that the Mormon world has become much larger than the Wasatch front.. 4. Absolutely; it can lead to priesthood abuse.

  36. This is a very valuable contribution to the data needed for our discussion, Neal. We are not the first to spot the ‘infallibility trap’, of course, and the tension between top-down authority and the authority of agency

  37. Dear Eric This discussion leads into the basic ‘paradoxes’ on Mormonism (see Teryl Givens” wonderful book with that name) i.e. between control and agency. I wonder whether brother Packer would repeat that statement in e General Conference talk …


  38. The discussion seems to have moved into the topic of revelation content, but the issue at hand is independent of that theological question. The Roman Catholic Church never claims direct revelation, just the authority stemming from tradition and from scriptural interpretation. The pope is the Vicar of Christ, and does not claim to be his mouth piece. And yet, they are in the same dilemma. The combination of a centrally lead church and doctrinal authority makes some kind of ‘creeping infallibilty’ an ever present danger.
    Walter van Beek

  39. There are three models of infallibility (that are obvious to me, and surely more that are not obvious to me):
    1. Scripture, tradition, discussion, debate and deep reflection, coalesce to what might be called a “consensus” truth.
    2. Direct revelation or inspiration. A “descended” truth.
    3. Sanctified or enlightened or ordained holy man. An “enlightened” truth.
    There are threads of all three in Mormon thought. I personally lean toward the “consensus truth” model, away from the “enlightened truth” model, and am ambivalent (i.e., questioning) about the “descended truth” model. At the same time, I suggest that Mormon culture leans fairly strongly toward the “descended truth” model.

    Two important characteristics of the descended truth model are that it can be generalized and that it allows for little or no debate or disagreement. So a Stake President and a Bishop and an Elder’s Quorum President may each feel and each be accorded a descended truth kind of infallibility, within his sphere of responsibility. I would suggest that happens frequently and that it is more of a problem than a virtue.

  40. #5, Actually, if prophetic infallibility had been in play in the case of the MMM, John D. Lee and the rest would have waited for John Haslam to return from Salt Lake before acting. More’s the pity they didn’t.

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