Revisiting President Packer on “Scientific Neglect” and Meetings

Given that my studies have involved the interpretation of Genesis, science, and evolution, Elder Packer and I have not always seen eye to eye. I remember well on my mission when Time Magazine ran the cover article about Mormon finances. This made it all the way to France, where we had a copy, and my companion Elder West really focused in on their description of Elder Packer as “the LDS Church’s hard-line number 3 man.” And indeed, he had and has that reputation.

But around 2007, while I was teaching volunteer Institute in Urbana IL, we attended a CES fireside for CES teachers, where he spoke. I think he felt that he was talking to insiders, whose commitment and knowledge ran deep, and we saw a different side of him. He was casual, funny, self-deprecating… surprising. We really only see the public persona of the Apostles, which is a very limited and selective part of them. I reprint below some comments from a post a few years ago revealing another side of him, called “Scientific Neglect.”  No, it’s not what you’re thinking. I believe this story is from when he served as mission president in  New England, 1965-68, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of this story, other than that President Packer is not always the “hard-liner” he is made out to be.

Scientific neglect can be a respectable procedure in discipline.

One missionary came into the mission field with some serious physical deformities. He was withdrawn, self–conscious, and retiring, particularly around girls. I had him examined by several doctors. Then I wrote to a friend of mine and told him I needed a substantial amount of money. He responded immediately with a check, the only condition being that he remain anonymous. With the cooperation of some able professional help, the deformities were corrected and the missionary was transformed in his appearance. Immediately his behavior changed.

Then I began receiving reports that he was breaking mission rules. I did not show much interest in the reports, although inwardly I was delighted. A few weeks later the problem came to a head when my missionary assistants reported that at a stake conference this missionary had left his companion and had gone up to the balcony to sit with a girl. There had been other times also, they said, when he had left his companion to go talk with the girl.

I was not disturbed by the report, and some time later my assistants returned to the office for something of a confrontation. They said, “You are not fair. This elder can get away with anything and you don’t do anything about it. Ordinarily nothing would make you act so fast as a report that an elder was leaving his companion to visit a girl. Yet in this case you won’t do anything about it. Why?”

It was only after a long discussion that they understood I was doing something about the matter. I was treating it with scientific neglect. When the right times comes, I told them, the elder will either return voluntarily to observing the rules or he will be pulled back to observe the rules—but that “pulling” will be ever so gentle.

In a short time, when he was convinced that the transformation was permanent and that there would be time for all of the things he had been kept from enjoying during his earlier years, the elder did return to being a missionary. During his period of breaking the rules it took some faith to believe that he would not overreact and get himself into difficulties so serious we would be required to apply severe punishment. But my faith in him was justified.
-Boyd K. Packer, Teach Ye Diligently (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1975), 161–163, emphasis added.

Elder Packer also gave some of the most quotable directive on meetings.

“It takes a pretty good meeting to be better than no meeting at all.”- Source at

RIP, President Packer

6 comments for “Revisiting President Packer on “Scientific Neglect” and Meetings

  1. He was a wonderful teacher and a great man — and a committed and compassionate Christian. The Church is better because of him.

  2. President Packer was one of the most unfairly maligned general authorities in recent memory. Thanks for sharing this story. It fits with my understanding that he was the driving force behind changes in the handbook allowing less than fully worthy fathers to bless and baptize their children. He definitely was more compassionate than he gets credit for though he undoubtedly said some things over the years that he probably wished he never said.RIP

  3. I really appreciate this story. Thanks.

    Kinda reminds me of when he said that “If we are not very careful, we will think we are giving comfort to those few who are justified and actually we will be giving license to the many who are not.” I guess – and I’m mind-reading here – he felt that private counsel could be different than public counsel. I only ever saw his public persona, and so I got the feeling he was a bit of a hard-nosed guy. Maybe that was not the full picture.

  4. One thing I remember was his focusing on the Rule first and then the exception. This story shows there were exceptions and that he recognized them. That being said, the public persona and comments in the bloggernacle certainly would back up your feeling. You know, I had that experience when I was much younger with Brigham Young. Then I read Arrington’s American Moses and I gained an entire new appreciation for him. Perhaps someday someone will do that for President Packer.

  5. Boyd K. Packer was a military pilot who was stationed in Japan during the initial period of the US Occupation. He did not get rotated home for diuscharge as soon as hethought he should be, but it meant that he was still there when Tatsui Sato and his wife were ready to be the first Japanese baptized Into the LDS Church since the mission in Japan closed in 1924. Brother Packer baptized Sister Sato,and began an association that continued until he spoke at Brother Sato’s funeral in Salt Lake fifty years later. Brother Sato had updated the translation of the Book of Mormon, and completed translations of the D&C, Pearl of Great Price, standard texts like Jesus the Christ by Talmage, and the temple ordinances. I think the Japanese members in Japan and Salt Lake knew Elder Packer a little better than average because of that.

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