On a Facebook group I belong to, there was a recent discussion about a statement published as a “Ward Teachers’ Message” in the Deseret News, Church Section, p. 5, May 26, 1945. This has been discussed for decades. It should be discussed, not because of the original publication, but the phenomenon in Mormonism from whence it sprang and its effect on the human mind and heart.
The statement is a summary of one of the key folk doctrines of Mormonism: “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.”
The opening line of the message (“No Latter-day Saint is compelled to sustain the General Authorities of the Church”) is a declaration almost entirely undermined by what follows in the message and what culminates in the final paragraph quoted above.
It has been pointed out that the president of the LDS church at the time, George Albert Smith, responded in private correspondence with Dr. J. Raymond Cope, a Unitarian in Salt Lake City who wrote to the LDS church conveying his concerns about the statement. In his reply, Smith clearly states that the ward teachers’ message “does not express the true position of the Church.” He gives a heartfelt and articulate response, noting that “not a few members of the Church have been upset in their feelings, and General Authorities have been embarrassed.” The full text of the message and Smith’s letter to Dr. Cope are available here.
Despite George Albert Smith’s earnest private letter, this belief among Mormons persists.
Here’s the main reason for that: It is a current teaching of the church. Despite George Albert Smith’s emphatic support of freedom of thought among Mormons, statements like the one from the 1945 ward teachers’ message are repeated by senior members of the church hierarchy, in official church publications and by leaders and members at the local level quite regularly. Online social media communications further solidify this folk doctrine’s place in the minds and hearts of devout Mormons. For most devout Mormons, folk doctrines are the most important ones that guide their lives and interactions with other people. In fact, folk doctrines are what tend to dominate much of what is taught in the LDS church, even in the church’s semiannual general conference.
I will leave it to scholars of religious studies and sociology to compile a full list of statements that have perpetuated this “the thinking is over” principle among Mormons. But to give you a taste, here are a few places to look:
- “IfWe Want to Go Up, We Have to Get On” by Elaine Cannon, Young Women General President in the General Relief Society Meeting, October 1978 and published in the November 1978 issue of the Ensign.
- “The Debate is Over” by Eldon Tanner, First Counselor in the First Presidency in the First Presidency Message in the August 1979 issue of the Ensign.
- “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following theProphet” by Ezra Taft Benson, then president of the Quorum of the Twelve, BYU Devotional, February 26, 1980.
- “Criticism” by Dallin Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve in the Ensign, February 1987.
- “Lesson 12: Following the Living Prophet”from the Aaronic Priesthood Manual 1, in current use to teach young men ages 12 through 18, citing and quoting the Elaine Cannon statement above.
- “Obedience to the Prophets” by Claudio R. M. Costa, a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, in the October 2010 Semiannual General Conference of the church.
Dallin Oaks, in 2007 during his interview for the PBS documentary The Mormons, crafted an ingenious extension of this principle. Oaks (a senior apostle, mind you) stated: “It's wrong to criticize leaders of the church, even if the criticism is true.” This means true-believing Mormons aren’t supposed to criticize him for saying that. It’s brilliant, really.
In all my time as an actively participating member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I never once heard anyone repudiate or soften statements suggesting that faithful Mormons must absolutely assent to statements and decisions of the president of the church (a.k.a, “the prophet”) or the other fourteen apostles, except on rare occasions in private and in hushed tones—as if to do otherwise was akin to a devout Muslim blaspheming the name of Mohammed. As a side note, I think I could have very interesting conversations with my free-thinking contemporaries who grew up in modern Iran.
This widely accepted Mormon principle was on full display during the Prop 22 and Prop 8 campaigns in California, and during the national debate regarding the nearly-ratified Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It buttressed institutional racial offenses prior to the 1978 Official Declaration 2 (which ended the infamous “priesthood ban”). It was used in support of purges of academics from church-run universities. It has been used in a variety of other circumstances as well in matters weighty and mundane.
Another commenter on the discussion thread this post stems from, who is an active, believing Mormon (albeit a bit unorthodox), wrote that critical dialogue that allows him to think about and understand all the options makes it much more likely that he will choose the right option for himself. I think that’s a very good way to approach decisions. He further wrote that “truth invites scrutiny, for that is where its validity is uncovered,” and said he encouraged honest questioning of what we think we’re hearing when someone speaks.
Unfortunately for Mormons who value reason and thoughtful inquiry, one would be hard-pressed to find quotes from any of the members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve during the last 40 years that genuinely support notions such as “open up lines of critical dialogue that allow you to think about and understand all the options” and “we encourage honest questioning of what you hear us say.” Even more unfortunate is the likelihood that most active members of the LDS church wouldn’t like the church to function that way.
Church leaders at all levels, and much of the membership, like having it both ways. The official publications of the church (the Ensign, Liahona, lesson manuals, articles in the Church News or the “Newsroom” section of the church website, a general conference talk, etc.) state something extreme, a thoughtful person expresses legitimate concern or outrage, one of the brethren responds privately with personal assurances that the church isn’t really that extreme, the extreme teaching spreads and takes root, years later the same teaching rears its head and becomes even more widely accepted, and during this entire time there is no direct and concerted effort by church leaders to make public clarifications. They say, “oh no, we don't teach that,” but then allow it to be taught without a word of correction. (Also, they DO teach it, as evidenced by the Frankenstein-esque re-animation of Ezra Taft Benson’s “14 Fundamentals” talk in 2010 cited above.) The Mormon hierarchy values fealty and its own display of a united front above nearly anything else. I know this from painful personal experience and from hearing the painful experiences of many others.
These are smart men. And for the most part they are not trying to make life miserable for others. They dedicate their lives to a cause they believe to be truly helpful to people. But they have painted themselves and the church into a groupthink corner with paint that never seems to dry.
Perhaps things were different at another time. We can talk about what may or may not have happened in the pre-mortal existence described in Mormon cosmology. We can talk about personal letters written by past presidents of the church. We can talk about how Joseph Smith might have treated gay people in our modern world. The reality is that there is hard evidence showing that since at least the 1950s, almost every personal relationship, event, program, doctrine, policy, procedure, activity and every other church effort comes down to how it supports the absolute authority of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve in matters both spiritual and temporal.
The dirty little secret is that most devout Mormons like it that way. Many, if not most, active Mormons would like to have these 15 men be the head of a world government (the Kingdom of God on Earth with Zion as capital city and a United Order economic system) as was contemplated by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and the Council of Fifty. Google that when you have some spare time (and fasten your seat belt for the ride).
We can debate whether the authority of Mormon leadership is divine or a human creation. But where we side in that debate doesn’t matter much with regard to freedom of thought and expression. At this moment, the authorities of the church are stuck in a pattern of supplanting anything that could pass for divine with their own stubborn hubris. They are the ones who have frozen the church into a glacier. It’s worth pointing out that the only reason a glacier moves is due to gravity. They have not moved it an inch, and see no need to. We approach the height of irony when “special witnesses of Christ” (as LDS apostles are called) must be compelled to move rather than taking up the charge to move the people closer to the pure love that is the clear foundation of what Jesus of Nazareth taught. What is more, their answers aren’t the biggest problem. It is that they aren’t asking the necessary questions.
We can and should be thinking critically. We should speak up where we can. We should be outraged that because of a lack of vision and compassion, church leaders have allowed fear and hate to fester (and in some cases fomented it themselves) to such a degree that even they can’t do much about it out of fear of schism. That said, we shouldn’t be so naive as to think that anything short of an existential threat along the lines of the church losing its tax-exempt status will do much to move the church institutionally. They know about the alternative viewpoints. They just aren’t doing anything in response, other than digging in for a fight of their own creation.
Isn’t it odd that in a church which places a premium on following the prophet that if the president of the church were to announce that gay marriages would be performed in Mormon temples tomorrow, a significant percentage of members would surely reject him as a prophet? People think a bit more than the “thinking is done” principle suggests, although many Mormons are very ill-equipped to think (and to process their emotions) about issues because of that very principle. No wonder the church hierarchy is so obsessed with appearing unified if their hold on power is so precarious. No wonder they want people to believe that when the leaders speak, the thinking has been done and the debate is over. In their world, debate and thinking about anything other than obedience are dangerous.