1. What about President Ezra Taft Benson’s 14 Fundamentals Devotional Talk? Should we follow the President of the Church without question?
On February 26, 1980, at the Brigham Young University Marriott Center, President Ezra Taft Benson, who was then serving as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, gave what has become an extremely controversial devotional address.
The background for the address to which most conservatives and traditionalists are in full support, was President Benson’s desire to make the words of inspired latter-day prophets of God more relevant and life-changing in the lives of the young men and women in the Church. President Benson had watched as the words of his general authority colleagues, Presidents David O. McKay, Harold B. Lee, and Spencer W. Kimball, had been largely ignored on issues including birth control,1 music and media choices,2 scripture study, socialism,3 sexual purity, and a myriad of social issues. President Benson, feeling an anxiety for the youth of the Church, and certainly with only good intentions, proceeded with his message, which, unfortunately, contained some fatal flaws not in harmony with the words of scripture, the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith4 and the words of other presidents of the Church, including Brigham Young5 and George Albert Smith.6 It appears that President Benson did not understand the flaws relating to the subject of blind obedience at the time he gave his address, but it is clear that he later became aware of the issues. What he discovered was missing from his address was the fact that these teachings could only be adopted by the saints through love and persuasion, and not by dictatorially demanding obedience to any leader, including the President of the Church.7
The message of his address was immediately attacked by liberals and by the news media who believed that the address was merely a publicity stunt by President Benson to set the stage for his likely upcoming succession as the thirteenth President of the Church. We believe there is little or no evidence for such claims, and such behavior is certainly not in accordance with President Benson’s devotion to truth, his unwavering integrity, and his stalwart, even unimpeachable character.
The address, however, also distressed President Spencer W. Kimball, current President of the Church, and a handful of other leaders who believed the message could be misunderstood as “espousing an unthinking ‘follow the leader’ mentality.”8 According to multiple sources, President Benson was also required by President Kimball to apologize to both the Quorum of the Twelve and then later, to a combined meeting consisting of all other general authorities the following week. President Benson’s family and others close to him were well aware of the issues and the upcoming meeting before the general authorities. All had been praying for him, including President Benson’s son Reed, who left a supportive phone message, and his son Mark, who left him a brief letter of encouragement: “All will be well—we’re praying for you and know all will be well. The Lord knows your heart.”9 It is unfortunate that a public correction of the obvious issues within the address never happened. Despite his retraction, considerable talk among disgruntled general authorities continued. Of all the discourses ever given by President Benson, this stands as one of very few—and possibly the only one—that sparked concern from both sides—friends as well as those more prone to find fault.
Meanwhile, the news media had a fit over President Benson’s message, although largely for the wrong reasons. As President Benson had served as Secretary of Agriculture under United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the controversy attracted national attention, and the story made its way into the national news. Newsweek referenced President Benson’s address and included some of the reproofs suffered by him in at least two articles.10
The flames of criticism were being fanned by liberals, but conservatives privately, including close personal friends, also saw dangerous flaws in President Benson’s talk11—problems he had not anticipated. Although unintended, the talk became a new mantra for a non-thinking, blind obedient movement that had members aligning behind a supercharged “follow the Prophet” message as opposed to their taking a personal-responsibility attitude—a movement that began sweeping through the Church. This had not been President Benson’s intention, but the message he delivered clearly had that tone and influence. Some close personal friends of this veteran leader considered this address his most unwise and uninspired act as a public figure.12 Traditionalists had already weathered frequent criticism for blindly following the words of scripture over academic philosophy and culture, but this added fuel to the flames and a new round of criticism, unfortunately this time it was partially deserved.
2. Who are the ‘living oracles’? What did President Woodruff really say?
There is a story passed around the Internet coming from President Wilford Woodruff during his days in Kirtland. This account is often used to justify the undermining of scripture and previous prophets of God in favor of blind obedience toward current leaders. We will reference President Woodruff’s statement but first we need to clarify the true background and purpose of his remarks.
Taken in context, the message is clear: President Woodruff was not teaching that the current President of the Church, by default, trumps scripture and every other man in the Church. Instead, he taught the opposite! President Woodruff taught that EVERY man who has the Priesthood, regardless of his leadership position, has a right and a duty to receive revelation for himself and his family, and to be the oracles of God for himself. President Woodruff taught that the right to personal revelation is essential, and that without it, the scriptures become dead to the individual. The irony about this quote that is making its way around the Internet: it is being used to promote the myth for which it was originally given to counter. The true context of this instruction teaches the people NOT to engage in blind obedience toward their leaders, but to seek out and gain revelation, thus becoming the oracles of God, for yourself.
The following is the portion of the story often encountered, shared in talks, and reposted in social media:
“I will refer to a certain meeting I attended in the town of Kirtland in my early days. At that meeting some remarks were made that have been made here today, with regard to the living prophets and with regard to the written word of God. The same principle was presented, although not as extensively as it has been here, when a leading man in the Church got up and talked upon the subject, and said: ‘You have got the word of God before you here in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants; you have the written word of God, and you who give revelations should give revelations according to those books, as what is written in those books is the word of God. We should confine ourselves to them.’
“When he concluded, Brother Joseph turned to Brother Brigham Young and said, ‘Brother Brigham I want you to go to the podium and tell us your views with regard to the living oracles and the written word of God.’ Brother Brigham took the stand, and he took the Bible, and laid it down; he took the Book of Mormon, and laid it down; and he took the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and laid it down before him, and he said: ‘There is the written word of God to us, concerning the work of God from the beginning of the world, almost, to our day. And now,’ said he, ‘when compared with the living oracles those books are nothing to me; those books do not convey the word of God direct to us now, as do the words of a Prophet or a man bearing the Holy Priesthood in our day and generation. I would rather have the living oracles than all the writing in the books.’ That was the course he pursued. When he was through, Brother Joseph said to the congregation; ‘Brother Brigham has told you the word of the Lord, and he has told you the truth.’”Wilford Woodruff, Conference Report, October 1897, 22-23.
Perhaps, in the past, there could have been some justification for misquoting this story and taking it out of context. But a simple review of the source can easily correct the present misunderstanding. Here are the missing portions of President Woodruff’s address, unfortunately not commonly shared, that will help the reader keep the story in context.
Whenever the Lord requires any Prophet, Seer, Revelator, to speak, the Spirit of the Lord is with him to give counsel to the people from time to time as he is moved upon, and such as the people ought to hear. But I want you to understand this one thing; the Holy Priesthood and power of God do not stop there; it does not stop with the Presidency, it does not stop with the Twelve Apostles, it does not stop with our leading men of Israel; — there is not a man on God’s footstool that is sent forth into the world to preach the Gospel but ought to have the Spirit of the Lord upon him and the revelation of God to him. And by that power these valleys of the mountains have been filled with the inhabitants of the world today; by that power this Tabernacle has been built; by that power have the Elders, from the organization of this Church until today, performed their work. There is no end to the Holy Ghost and the power of God and the revelations of God to man. This is our position today before the world. Every man should have the Holy Priesthood with him, of some kind or other, when he goes to preach the Gospel; he should occupy some position of that kind. The Holy Ghost should be with that man. The Holy Ghost is with that man, revelation is with that man, if he lives his religion and does his duty before God.
I have before me the Twelve Apostles who were boys—who were young men when they were thrust into the vineyard—in their boyhood, as it were, when they went forth to the islands of the sea and the nations of the earth, and they have done that work in their young days by the inspiration and the power of God, and He will be with them until the end. We should all understand this. The Bible is all right, the Book of Mormon is all right, the Doctrine and Covenants is all right, and they proclaim the work of God and the word of God in the earth in this day and generation, until the coming of the Son of Man; but the Holy Priesthood is not confined particularly to those books, that is, it did not cease when those books were made. It belongs to every man that goes forth into the world and these are our principles, and these are our rights, and these are our duties, and these are our gifts. The Holy Ghost is not confined to any one man, but every one should have it. As the Lord said to Orson Hyde and the brethren with him, that were going to preach the Gospel: “Go forth and speak as you are moved upon by the Holy Ghost, and when you speak as you are moved upon by the Holy Ghost, that is the word of the Lord, that is the mind of the Lord, that is His Spirit, that is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believes.“Wilford Woodruff, Conference Report, October 1897, 22-23; emphasis added.
Again, placing this story in context makes it clear that rather than employing any form of blind obedience in one’s leaders, or dismissing the scriptures as irrelevant, we should each live worthy to think, ponder, pray, and receive revelation for ourselves.
3. Who are the living oracles? Putting Brigham Young’s statement in historical context
Another misquoted and out-of-context story finding its way around the Internet comes from Brigham Young while in the Nauvoo period. It appears Brigham Young initially discussed the incident during General Conference on October 8, 1866.
I got up and I took the books. He [Hyrum] had them on the stand. [I] got them separate and I took the Bible, “There lays the Bible, and there is the Book of Mormon, and there is the Book of Doctrine [and] Covenants, the revelations God has given through Joseph for the salvation of people of [the] 19th century. I would not give the ashes of a rye straw for these 3 books, for the salvation of any man [that] lives.” And that was my text and I think, before we got through, that the congregation was perfectly satisfied. If we had not living oracles in our midst we had nothing.
The context of this sermon is everything, and if not taken correctly, might appear to justify blind obedience or to further some other false doctrine. We must begin with what was happening in Nauvoo. During the period when the Prophet Joseph Smith began revealing the doctrine of Celestial Marriage in private, the doctrine was simultaneously being opposed openly and publicly by his brother, Hyrum Smith, and by William Law, both members of the First Presidency. This dangerous misunderstanding eroded the Prophet’s confidence in his counselors and caused him to confide instead in men like Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball, who had demonstrated a humble and faithful willingness to receive their own witness of the Prophet’s counsel. Within the proper context, Brigham Young’s message was directed toward the members of the First Presidency who had rejected the Prophet Joseph Smith and his revelatory message. Brigham Young’s comments had nothing to do with standing or authority of successive Presidents of the Church. Concerns about the succession of Church leadership were not on anyone’s mind at this time, particularly during this meeting. To present Brigham Young’s comments from that meeting as justification for blind obedience toward the current sitting President of the Church is a historical and contextual error. Additionally, Brigham Young had reference to the Church becoming a dead church devoid of revelation like those among the sectarian world who had rejected further communication from the heavens. Ongoing revelation is necessary, but such revelation is not limited in any way to the President of the Church, but is available to all members equally. To limit the message in Brigham Young’s discourse solely to the President of the Church is to take his words completely out of context and in an unintended way. Indeed, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would become a dead church if revelation was limited to the one man at the top while everyone else was required to follow in blind obedience from their personal ignorance. Progressives using this story to justify blind obedience is ironic.
In summary, the use of Brigham Young’s sermon during the Nauvoo period to justify blind obedience or to further the liberal agendas of the progressive movement is a mistake for any who hold to a traditionalist perspective.
4. Who are the servants of the Lord spoken of in the preface to the Doctrine and Covenants whose words must be heeded as if from the Lord?
The Lord gave the Prophet Joseph Smith the preface to the Doctrine and Covenants by direct revelation, in which He (the Lord) states:
What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.Doctrine and Covenants 1:38
There are many who have used this verse of scripture in personal conversation and in social media to justify blind obedience to certain statements that come from Church leaders, including the President of the Church. This is a mistake for several reasons.
First, the Lord gives no indication that His reference to “my servants” refers specifically to Presidents of the Church, and there is no reason to further conclude that “servants” has reference only to Presidents of the Church, while excluding other members. For example, Samuel the Lamanite was not the president with authority in his day, but he delivered what may be considered one of the greatest revelations in the Book of Mormon to the Nephites. Certainly, Samuel the Lamanite was one of the “servants” of the Lord.13
Second, the Lord clarifies in another revelation what should and should not be considered scripture and the word of the Lord. Keep in mind that “they” to whom the Lord is speaking refers to those other than Church leadership:
And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.Doctrine and Covenants 68:4
Any leader—and frankly, any member—can produce ‘scripture’ and speak the mind and will of the Lord with authority when they speak under the influence of the Holy Ghost. There are no exceptions to this doctrine. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.14 Any member of the Church who is humbly serving the Lord and living worthily, who speaks under the influence of the Holy Ghost, is one of the servants of the Lord spoken of in section 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants. How else can this passage be read?
Third, the Church takes an indisputable stand that no president of the Church is infallible15 or speaks only “when moved upon by the Holy Ghost.”16 Because the President has his own thoughts and feelings, Joseph Smith and other leaders have taught17 that many of the words spoken by the President of the Church—both past and present—do not represent the “voice of the Lord,” do not stand as “scripture,” nor the “word of the Lord,” nor the “will of the Lord,” and do not denote the “power of God unto salvation.”
Fourth, the law of common consent—a foundational principle of the restored Church—requires that to accept scripture as binding for the Church, it must be presented to the body of the Church and voted upon and accepted by its members. The leaders of the Church, including the First Presidency, cannot produce binding scripture or binding doctrine to which the Church is subject without the sustaining vote of the Church’s general membership. This is not new doctrine, but has come to us by revelation when it was first taught in 1830 that “all things must be done in order, and by common consent in the church, by the prayer of faith.”18
President J. Reuben Clark Jr. taught, “It is clear that the sustaining vote by the people is not, and is not to be regarded as, a mere matter of form, but on the contrary a matter of the last gravity.”19
In conclusion, here are some points that summarize the current issues facing 21st-century Latter-day Saints:
- Traditionalists hold firmly to the principle of ongoing revelation, but believe that continuing revelation will not contradict previous revelation represented in the scriptures. Conversely, progressives teach that the scriptures and revelations are filled with errors and display the ignorance of the leaders who received them. They promote the idea that racism, chauvinism, false science, and other out-of-favor artifacts are merely previous ‘prophets’ expressing their opinions as “products of their time.”
- Traditionalists take the 8th Article of Faith at face value, with the statement that, “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.”
- Traditionalists believe that God is unchanging—the same, yesterday, today and forever—and that He never contradicts Himself. Moreover, they accept the Prophet Joseph Smith’s testimony that there is no error in the revelations
Either way—for both progressives and traditionalists—the instrument of change lies within the Church’s membership. Every member possesses the responsibility to work within their personal stewardship to influence the church in the direction their conscience dictates.
- “01) BIRTH-CONTROL: What is the first commandment ever given by the Lord to man? How does the Lord feel about birth control? Should couples postpone having children?” Joseph Smith Foundation, https://josephsmithfoundation.org/faqs/home-and-family/01-birth-control-what-is-the-first-commandment-ever-given-by-the-lord-to-man-how-does-the-lord-feel-about-birth-control-should-couples-postpone-having-children/.
- “Music: The Forgotten Language of the Heart,” Joseph Smith Foundation, https://josephsmithfoundation.org/papers/music-the-forgotten-language-of-the-heart/; “Music & Dance FAQs,” Joseph Smith Foundation, https://josephsmithfoundation.org/faqs/category/music-dance/.
- David O. McKay, “Only One Standard of Morality,” Conference Report, April 1966, 109-110; “Statement by President David O. McKay on the position of the Church on Communism, April 1966,” Joseph Smith Foundation, https://josephsmithfoundation.org/docs/president-david-o-mckay-statement-on-position-of-the-church-on-communism-1966/.
See also, First Presidency, “Warning to Church Members,” Improvement Era, August 1936, 488; “First Presidency Message on Communism, July 1936,” Joseph Smith Foundation, https://josephsmithfoundation.org/first-presidency-message-on-communism-1936/.
Joseph Smith Foundation, “Do the Saints follow the counsel of their prophets? Franklin D. Roosevelt & The LDS Church,” April 2, 2015, YouTube, 03:38, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uphGAdziWDg&t=1s.
- “10 Largely Forgotten, but Timeless Principles, in Sustaining Leaders,” Joseph Smith Foundation, https://josephsmithfoundation.org/10-largely-forgotten-but-timeless-principles-in-sustaining-leaders/.
- “‘If Thine Eye Offend Thee’ (Part 1 – Blind Obedience? – To Question or Not to Question? That is the Question!)” Joseph Smith Foundation, https://josephsmithfoundation.org/papers/if-thine-eye-offend-thee-part-1-blind-obedience-to-question-or-not-to-question-that-is-the-question/.
- In June 1945, an article was written in the Improvement Era which endorsed blind obedience. President George Albert Smith responded to the article in a letter, disavowing the article as “grossly misrepresent[ing] the true ideal of the Church. The original Improvement Era article read,
“Any Latter-day Saint who denounces or opposes, whether actively or otherwise, any plan or doctrine advocated by the ‘prophets, seers, and revelators’ of the Church is cultivating the spirit of apostasy. One cannot speak evil of the Lord’s anointed and retain the Holy Spirit in his heart.
It should be remembered that Lucifer has a very cunning way of convincing unsuspecting souls that the General Authorities of the Church are as likely to be wrong as they are to be right. This sort of game is Satan’s favorite pastime, and he has practiced it on believing souls since Adam. He wins a great victory when he can get members of the Church to speak against their leaders and to ‘do their own thinking.’ He specializes in suggesting that our leaders are in error while he plays the blinding rays of apostasy in the eyes of those whom he thus beguiles. What cunning! And to think that some of our members are deceived by this trickery. . . .
When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan—it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.”“Sustaining the General Authorities of the Church,” Improvement Era, June 1945, 354.
A nonmember Dr. Raymond A. Cope wrote to President George Albert Smith, expressing concern with the Improvement Era’s claims. President Smith responded:
“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 ) 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.George A. Smith Papers (Manuscript no. 36, Box 63-8A), Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah; “A 1945 Perspective,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19, (Spring 1986): 35-39.
- Doctrine and Covenants 121:39-41.
- D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power (Signature Books: Salt Lake City, UT, 1997), 111.
- Sheri L. Dew, Ezra Taft Benson: A Biography (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company, 1987), 469.
- D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power (Signature Books: Salt Lake City, UT, 1997), 469, footnote 353.
- Ronald (Ron) M. Mann, personal correspondence with the author.
- 3 Nephi 23:7-13.
- Joseph Smith, History, 1838–1856, volume D-1 [1 August 1842–1 July 1843], p. 1560, The Joseph Smith Papers.
- Recently Dallin H. Oaks stated, “We don’t believe in the infallibility of our leaders.” Dan Rascon, “LDS Church introduces new leadership to worldwide audience,” KUTV 2, January 16, 2018, https://kutv.com/news/local/lds-church-introduces-new-leadership-to-worldwide-audience.
- Doctrine and Covenants 68:3-4.
- See, for example, Joseph Smith, Journal, December 1842–June 1844; Book 1, 21 December 1842–10 March 1843, p. 170, The Joseph Smith Papers.
- Doctrine and Covenants 28:13.
- J. Reuben Clark Jr., Conference Report, April 1940, 73.