Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Throwback post: Arguing Prophets

This post was originally posted on my personal blog in 2013 but I have since decided to move it here:


A friend sent me a link to this awesome and depressing page over at It is a collection of quotes in favor of intellectual debate and free thought by general authorities of the LDS church, followed by a collection of quotes against intellectual debate and for blind obedience to the prophets (à la, "once the prophet has spoken, the debate is over.")

I choose to take these quotes at face value. In other words, here are messages delivered by leaders of the church through official means (discourses, conference talks, manuals) that at the time they were delivered were perceived both by the author and the audience as official messages from the Lord's anointed, and they contradict each other. What to do with this kind of doctrinal dissonance? There are a couple of choices:

  • Come up with some excuse or loophole that somehow proves they do not contradict, probably by adding nuance to both sides of the issue. Investigate most, but not all church-related questions. Obey big commandments, but question small ones. Draw a box around the core doctrines of the church taught by all the leaders since Joseph Smith, which shall not be questioned. Outlying ones can be questioned and found to be false (like Adam-God theory, blood atonement, etc.) Of course, where to draw the boundaries of the box is another can of worms. Where does polygamy fit? Historicity of the BoM? Visiting teaching?
  • You admit that one side of the issue has it wrong. Luckily, there is a perfect caveat, as Joseph Smith taught that a prophet is only a prophet when acting as such! So, the quotes on the wrong side of this issue (as you judge it) are simply instances where prophets were speaking as men, not prophets. The problem, of course, is that I would likely assume that the first set of quotes are inspired, and the second set are not. Someone else will arrive at the opposite conclusion, using the same criteria, the feeling of spiritual confirmation in our hearts. The tricky reality of spiritual confirmation is that there is no proof on this earth that spiritual witnesses lead people in the same direction. In fact, they usually lead them in the direction they already want to go. In other words, either spiritual witnesses are just another form of confirmation bias, or the interpretation of spiritual witnesses is colored and biased by our relative positions. The same phenomenon that leads me and Person B to disagree on this issue is likely the same phenomenon that lands George A. Smith and Bruce R. McConkie on opposite sides. They disagree on what's true, they publish their divergent positions, and they both think they're inspired.
In our Western society, we really hate stuff like this. Holding in two seemingly contradictory positions is uncomfortable. Usually in these situations we either ignore the dissonance or we pick a side and belittle the other. I don't have any answers. I think I'm right that intellectual curiosity, analytical thinking, and searching for truth are universally good and present no threat to things that are actually true. But I'm biased.

Here are some of the quotes.

Sample: Free thought=good

1. “What a pity it would be, if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blink self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken the influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually.”
 - Prophet Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, v. 9, p. 150 

2. “... convince us of our errors of doctrine, if we have any, by reason, by logical arguments, or by the Word of God, and we will be ever grateful for the information, and you will ever have the pleasing reflection that you have been instruments in the hands of God of redeeming your fellow beings from the darkness which you may see enveloping their minds.”
 - Apostle Orson Pratt, The Seer, pp. 15-16 

3. “Do not, brethren, put your trust in a man though he be a bishop, an apostle, or a president. If you do, they will fail you at some time or place; they will do wrong or seem to, and your support be gone...”
 - Apostle George Q. Cannon, Millennial Star, v. 53, pp. 658-659, as quoted in Gospel Truth, v. 1, p. 319 

 4. “If a faith will not bear to be investigated, if its preachers and professors are afraid to have it examined; their foundation must be very weak.”
 - Apostle George A. Smith, Journal of Discourses, v. 14, p. 216 

 5. (my favorite) “We should be scientific – that is, open-minded, approaching new problems without prejudice, deferring a decision until all the facts are in... There are altogether too many people in the world who are willing to accept as true whatever is printed in a book or delivered from a pulpit.”
 - Apostle Hugh B. Brown, “A Final Testimony,” from An Abundant Life, 1999 

Sample: Free thought=bad 

1. “There is no such thing as an accurate, objective history of the Church without consideration of the spiritual powers that attend this work... There is a temptation... to want to tell everything, whether it is worthy or faith-promoting or not. Some things that are true are not very useful... In an effort to be objective, impartial, and scholarly, a writer or a teacher may unwittingly be giving equal time to the adversary... In the Church we are not neutral. We are one-sided. There is a war going on, and we are engaged in it... The fact that something is already in print or available from another source is no excuse for using potentially damaging materials in writing, speaking, or teaching: ‘Do not spread disease germs!’”
 - Apostle Boyd K. Packer, "The Mantle is Far, Far Greater Than the Intellect," speech delivered at the 1981 Church Educational System Religious Educators’ Symposium 

2. “No true Latter-day Saint will ever take a stand that is in opposition to what the Lord has revealed to those who direct the affairs of his earthly kingdom. No Latter-day Saint who is true and faithful in all things will ever pursue a course, or espouse a cause, or publish an article or book that weakens or destroys faith.”
 - Apostle Bruce R. McConkie, Conference Report, October 1984, p. 104 

3. “My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he tells you to do something wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.”
 - Prophet Heber J. Grant, as quoted by Apostle Marion G. Romney in “The Covenant of the Priesthood,” Ensign, July 1972, p. 98 

4. "Any Latter-day Saint who denounces or opposes whether actively or otherwise, any pan or doctrine advocated by the prophets, seers, 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. This sort of game is Satan's favorite pastime, and he has practiced it to believing souls since Adam. He {Satan} wins a great victory when he can get members of the church to speak against their leaders and to do their own thinking."
 - Ward Teachers Message, Deseret News, Church Section, p.5, May 26, 1945 

5. “There are the so-called ‘learned’ that have let their intellect undermine their spiritual moorings and who would also attempt to lead the faithful away from those who are appointed by the Lord to lead. There are those who feel that our leaders are out of touch with the realities of the day. They would attempt to lead members by substituting their own knowledge for the revelations from God to His prophets. And, unfortunately, there are those who would so follow. Christ warned, ‘Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.’”
 - Bishop Richard C. Edgley or the Presiding Bishopric, General Conference, April 1993