Revelation and public pressure tactics

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held its semi-annual conference this weekend. There were some wonderful talks.

Unsurprisingly, media coverage focused on a small group of people who seem to be of the view that public pressure tactics, protests, and the like can induce changes in Church policy or doctrine.

Those who adapt or endorse such tactics often appeal to the 1978 priesthood revelation to Spencer W. Kimball as an example.[1]

There are many problems with this analogy, which I shan’t go into here. I want to focus on a more fundamental issue.

Surely of all people who could tell us about such things, President Kimball would be top of the list. He could probably outline what is helpful and not helpful for the man that Latter-day Saints covenant to sustain as the prophet, seer, and revelator for the whole Church.

So, how did President Kimball see pressure tactics or public appeals on matters of priesthood ordination?

He wrote to his son Edward:

These smart members who would force the issue, and there are many of them, cheapen the issue and certainly bring into contempt the sacred principle of revelation and divine authority.

That doesn’t sound like someone who appreciates public pressure tactics. It sounds like he thinks that if the Church could be swayed in this way, it would cheapen the very thing the protesters are clamoring about. One wonders if they care, or realize this.

At one point, his son wrote to him, “arguing it should still be proper for faithful church members to urge the prophet to seek God’s consent to change the policy.” This is important, because this is precisely what some recent agitators have claimed they were doing. They claim it is harmless, and even necessary. What did President Kimball think of this argument?

A week later Spencer responded again championing the Church position in a letter of eight single-spaced pages urging loyalty to the prophet. [Ch 21, p. 4]

It sounds like President Kimball disagreed. Vehemently. And, since he is better placed to articulate what it takes to get this kind of revelation or Church policy change, perhaps we ought to listen when he tells us what we oughtn’t to do.

Elsewhere, he expressed himself at more length:

Perhaps what the prophet needs is not pressure, not goading, not demands. He needs in every city and place defenders—a million men and women to encourage patience, understanding and faith . . . saying: “President, we realize we do not know all there is to be known about this problem. We have faith and confidence in you and in the Lord that if relaxation is to come, it will come when the proper time comes. We shall stand and defend as did Peter though the whole world be against us.” . . . The very fact that he [Pres McKay] has not yielded to the public clamor sets him up in my mind as a courageous person, for it would be relatively easy to yield if it were his decision. He has an unalterable responsibility to obey only the Lord. . . . There are many letters from embarrassed people. . . . Logic, faulty logic has replaced basic faith, and definitely reflects humanism. For instance, [Sterling] McMurrin [a non-believer Mormon, who often boasted of never having read the Book of Mormon all the way through] says: “ . . . The situation . . . is unworthy of a church and unworthy of a religion . . .” He says these attitudes are “immoral in our social life.” Imagine a McMurrin postulating thusly. How can he be so sure to set up standards? . . .

The conferring of priesthood, and declining to give the priesthood is not a matter of my choice nor of President McKay’s. It is the Lord’s program. . . . When the Lord is ready to relax the restriction, it will come whether there is pressure or not. This is my faith. Until then, I shall try to fight on. . . . I have always prided myself on being about as unprejudiced as to race as any man. I think my work with the minorities would prove that, but I am so completely convinced that the prophets know what they are doing and the Lord knows what he is doing, that I am willing to rest it there.”

His son and biographer Edward wrote that:

While he was sensitive to the concerns and needs of minorities and while he showed no personal denigration of blacks, he also gave no encouragement to others who pressed for change. “I decided long ago that I would be loyal to the Brethren,” he said. He reacted especially negatively to militant protests against the Church and coercive methods, particularly when those protesting had themselves no interest in becoming priesthood holders….

Spencer believed that external pressures made revelation even less likely to come. “Every effort seems to be against us to force us to change the Lord’s program….” Force invited resistance. [Ch 21, pp. 1-2, emphasis added]

We have seen some of this this weekend. The presence of excommunicated members at the priesthood protest this weekend partakes of the same dynamic.

In 1963, his son wrote asking about a possible change in priesthood status. President Kimball replied:

Let me give you my own feelings in this matter. . . . I have wished the Lord had given us a little more clarity in the matter. But for me, it is enough. The Prophets for 133 years of the existence of the Church have maintained the position of the Prophet of the Restoration that the Negro could not hold the Priesthood nor have the temple ordinances which are preparatory for exaltation. I believe in the living prophets. . . . I know the Lord could change His policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error(?) which brought about the deprivation. If the time comes, that He will do, I am sure. . . [Ch 21, p. 4]

President Kimball (like other leaders, I expect) did not usually discuss this matter. Why? His son tells us:

He talked very little about the issue [his son notes]. He felt that people rarely wanted to learn but only to argue. “I never bring up the subject,” [he wrote], “not because I am afraid of it but because it is futile. Many cannot understand because of their limited knowledge of spiritual things; many will not understand, since they feel their superior training or brilliance entitle them to make their own independent deductions.” [Ch. 21, p. 4-5]

That has been my experience as well. I’ve never seen anyone change their mind about such things, because they have made up their minds. They have been given answers, they simply don’t like the answers that are given. If they were truly seeking revelation, they would wait upon the Lord. They have already decided what they want, and are now using the methods of the world’s political agitation to pursue it.

When President Kimball sought the revelation, he took an interesting approach with the Twelve apostles, who would have to ratify any change to priesthood policy:

This answer had become clear in Spencer’s mind as early as late March, but he felt unity within the leadership was important and he continued to discuss the matter with others. He sensed resistance from some, which he fully understood. He did not push, lobby, pressure, or use his office to seek compliance. Instead, he increased his visits to the temple, imploring the Lord to make his will known, not only to him but also to the Twelve, to these good men who all their lives had quoted other presidents of the Church that it was not yet time. [Ch 22, p. 5]

If he won’t push, lobby, or pressure even in private among those who must make the decision, ought members of the Church be doing so before the world, in forums that a ripe for manipulation and misunderstanding? The question answers itself.

And, I think things are the same today. James E. Faust noted:

Continuous revelation will not and cannot be forced by outside pressure from people and events. It is not the so-called “revelation of social progress.” It does not originate with the prophets; it comes from God. The Church is governed by the prophet under the inspiration, guidance, and direction of the Lord. – James E. Faust, “Come Out of the Darkness into the Light,” CES Fireside for Young Adults (8 September 2002).

Even if the protestors and their allies don’t really believe that–as their actions suggest that they do not–you would think that because those who have to make these decisions believe it, the protesters would at least play along.

But, logical consistency has never been their strong suit. I expect we’ll hear more from them.

And, I expect it will continue to accomplish nothing, save to alienate them further from the prophets and apostles. They will deny this, of course–but actions speak louder than words.

[1] My sources are all from the CD-ROM version of his son’s biography of him, Lengthen Your Stride.