As General Conference begins, may I be preserved from any desire to be a “Cafeteria Christian.”
Our relationship to living prophets is not one in which their sayings are a smorgasbord from which we may take only that which pleases us. We are to partake of all that is placed before us, including the spinach, and to leave a clean plate!
Neal A. Maxwell, Things As They Really Are (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1978), 74.
God refuses to give his children an aspirin for treating the consequences of sin when what we need is surgery. He will refuse to give us a rubdown when what we need are splints or a cast. He is not a silent, indifferent monarch in the sky, nor is he an indulgent grandfather figure who will give his children the irrelevant and incomplete therapy of partial truth. Only a portion of what he knows can we understand; and so much of what he would have us avoid, we must avoid by simple faith in what lies behind his “divine don’t.” This leaves us in a position like that of Adam, who acted in part on faith: “I know not, save the Lord commanded me.” (Moses 5:6.)
More and more I am seeing a strange idea. The idea is often present implicitly, but I’m starting to see it stated outright, as a sort of axiom or self-evident point.
That claims is that nothing God will ask of us would make us unhappy, or cause us discomfort, or make us suffer, or ask us to give up something good.
Certainly, nothing God asks will make us unhappy in the long view—but that long view extends beyond death and into the millennial years of the Lord.
“My kingdom is not of this world,” however.
For those who push it, the utility of this point of view is clear, though—one can simply use one’s reaction against a commandment or demand as evidence for whether it comes from God.
With such reasoning, Lehi’s journey in the desert could have been safely discarded. Indeed, Laman and Lemuel did so, complaining years later that but for Lehi’s visionary nature,
it would have been better that they had died before they came out of Jerusalem than to have suffered these afflictions. Behold, these many years we have suffered in the wilderness, which time we might have enjoyed our possessions and the land of our inheritance; yea, and we might have been happy” (1 Nephi 17:20-21, italics added).
Those who so argue will find many with welcoming, itching ears. But, those are not ears that have listened very closely to Jesus’ warnings. Eyes and hands are unarguably good things. Yet, Jesus tells us that even they must be severed and cast from us, on occasion. And, not insignificantly, such warnings come in the context of sexual morality:
But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell (Matthew 5:28–30).
One of the cruelest things people do is assure others that their sins aren’t sins, or that they won’t be regarded as sins for long. This distracts from the steeling of self to do the plucking out, cutting off, and casting away.
Such things will undoubtedly hurt. But, it is a poor physician who assures you that a soothing poultice will do when amputation is the only answer. Gangrene does, eventually, set in.
And when it does, the quack is nowhere to be found.
It is common, in some circles, to hear people talking about “bracketing” truth claims—to lay aside any consideration of whether certain ideas (often with religious implication) are true, and simply talk about the ideas in an entirely secular context. For example, one might discuss the resurrection of Jesus without trying to address the idea of whether Jesus actually rose from the dead. Instead, one might focus on what early Christians understood by the claim “Jesus is risen.”
Such an approach can be appropriate, at times.
Unfortunately, those who adopt it have a depressing tendency to declare that their approach is the only legitimate way to do valid scholarship on the topic. Thus, anyone who does not bracket the truth claims or implications of the resurrection is said to obviously be engaged only in polemics, or apologetics, or narrow sectarian discourse unworthy of attention or respect. To challenge such notions in print is seen as boorish and unbecoming. Curiously, this perspective is generally just asserted—not argued with evidence and logic—and generally comes heavily larded with a large dollop of disdain. (I speak, on that front, from some personal experience.)
But, leaving aside the obvious intellectual problems which such a stance raises, there are substantial risks for the Christian disciple, for the covenant Latter-day Saint.
Check your religion at the academy door?
All too often, this type of approach is essentially “checking your religion at the door.” But, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland was pretty scathing toward anyone who’d consider that, in any context:
“We check our religion at the door”? Lesson number one for the establishment of Zion in the 21st century: You never“check your religion at the door.” Not ever.
My young friends, that kind of discipleship cannot be—it is not discipleship at all. As the prophet Alma has taught the young women of the Church to declare every week in their Young Women theme, we are “to stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in,” not just some of the time, in a few places, or when our team has a big lead.
“Check your religion at the door”! I was furious (emphasis in original).
It is true that the “at all times” and “in all places” and “in all things” would seem to leave relatively little wiggle room—especially when the subject of one’s work bears directly on that witness of God. I don’t see how a Christian could approach the resurrection neutrally, and I think it would be spiritually dangerous to try, and intellectually self-deceptive to believe one could.
Let Your Faith Show
Elder Russell M. Nelson seems to be of the same mind as Elder Holland, and applied the ideas specifically to political, academic, and intellectual work:
Clinicians, academicians, and politicians are often put to a test of faith. In pursuit of their goals, will their religion show or will it be hidden? Are they tied back to God or to man?
I had such a test decades ago when one of my medical faculty colleagues chastised me for failing to separate my professional knowledge from my religious convictions. He demanded that I not combine the two. How could I do that? Truth is truth! It is not divisible, and any part of it cannot be set aside.
Whether truth emerges from a scientific laboratory or through revelation, all truth emanates from God. All truth is part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet I was being asked to hide my faith. I did not comply with my colleague’s request. I let my faith show!
In all professional endeavors, rigorous standards of accuracy are required. Scholars cherish their freedom of expression. But full freedom cannot be experienced if part of one’s knowledge is ruled “out-of-bounds” by edicts of men.
If that’s what he thinks about medicine—a subject relatively untouched by most LDS doctrines—what of fields that touch LDS truth claims more intimately?
Every essay a testimony?
Does this mean, then, that every written work need include a bearing of testimony? Hardly—the audience and venue may or may not make that appropriate. But, C.S. Lewis’ intellectual mentor, George MacDonald, gave a wise caution:
Is every Christian expected to bear witness? One who believes must bear witness. One who sees the truth must live witnessing to it. Is our life then a witnessing to the truth? When contempt is cast on the truth, do we smile? [When the truth is] wronged in our presence do we make no sign that we hold by it?… I do not say we are called upon to dispute and defend [against falsehood] with logic and argument, but we are called upon to show that we are on the other side… The soul that loves the truth and tries to be true will know when to speak and when to be silent. But the true man will never look as if he did not care. We are not bound to say all that we think, but we are bound not even to look [like] what we do not think.
Sadly, too many are so worried that their faith might show, that they end up looking like that which they do not really believe, and do not really think.
This impression is only strengthened when they attack, ridicule, or with a sneer dismiss others who do let their faith show more overtly in their academic work. One wonders if this is to avoid feeling guilty for their own lapses, or if it is part and parcel of assuring others that they really are on the academic, secularized “team.”
“Satan need not get everyone to be like Cain or Judas….He needs only to get able men … to see themselves as sophisticated neutrals.”
Such decisions cannot but have spiritual consequences—what one starts doing merely to avoid making academic waves soon shapes one’s views. That which we defend and advocate—or which we refuse to defend or advocate—affects what we end up believing. This should not surprise us, if we consistently exclude (or actively avoid) spiritual evidence, since such evidence cannot but bear on many questions of ultimate importance:
In our own time, Joseph Smith, the First Vision, and the Book of Mormon constitute stumbling blocks for many—around or over which they cannot get—unless they are meek enough to examine allthe evidence at hand, not being exclusionary as a result of accumulated attitudes in a secular society. Humbleness of mind is the initiator of expansiveness of mind (emphasis added).
Compartmentalization and citizenship
Thus, compartmentalization or bracketing has real risks:
The mind can become “hardened in pride” (Daniel 5:20; Habakkuk 1:11). And it can also engage in self-deception, as Korihor finally acknowledged (Alma 30:48–50). The mind can let itself become defensively compartmentalized, a fortress astride the path to faith (emphasis added).
And, some of that risk derives from the “incessant requirements” of an academy jealous of our mental and procedural allegiance:
For the academician in his search for truth and in his efforts for its preservation or dissemination, the admiration and esteem of his peers is both useful and desirable. But these too can be easily corrupted into an inordinate desire for “the praise of men.” Sophistry can come to be preferred to simplicity. The language of scholarship, necessary in its realm, can come to be preferred to the language of faith. Once again, even for the person of faith, the incessant requirements of such associations can come to cloud one’s perspective.
But, if we were to follow the apostles on this point, doesn’t that risk putting one’s academic career or reputation in potential jeopardy? Yes, indeed it may. But, we were warned about such risks:
For one reason, it is unfashionable to be spiritual. A genius possessed of religious faith is sometimes tolerated among colleagues in the business, academic, or political world. His bilingual ability to converse in the language of his professional realm and in the realm of faith is noted but not often applauded.
Still, as Elder Maxwell cautioned years ago:
The orthodox Latter-day Saint scholar should remember that his citizenship is in the Kingdom and that his professional passport takes him abroad into his specialty. It is not the other way around.
Ultimately, if my citizenship is not obvious, do I perhaps have a problem?
The ninth commandment is neglected, being seldom discussed at any length. There are so many different ways to breach “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Exodus 20:16). We can spread falsehood knowingly and maliciously rather than inadvertently. Perhaps that is the worst form of breaking this commandment. We can also spread falsehood by simply passing it along in the form of idle gossip without malicious intent, which is somewhat mitigating. Either way, the innocent victim usually experiences a double blow: first, damage to his self-image/self-confidence; second, the diminished regard of others. Additionally, the victim probably comes to have diminished regard, even anger, toward those who so traffic in untruth.
– Neal A. Maxwell, That Ye May Believe (Bookcraft, 1992).
It is interesting, and telling, that the victim in this case also has the added burden of struggling against a sin that he or she would not have been liable to: harsh feelings toward the gossip. The victim of gossip must overcome these feelings, but that doesn’t mean the gossip is guiltless of inducing the sin either.
I always sobered by how evil–or even careless–acts tend to ramify and spread. One hopes good acts are as hardy.
Neal A. Maxwell (with a quote from Joseph Smith, Jr. that those who mis-cite him should consider):
The Lord will tend and tutor His anointed. He has His special ways, and we can trust Him to manage His leaders. Meanwhile those same leaders, whether Moses or Brigham Young, humbly and genuinely wish that every man were a prophet and each individual could have his own strong witness that this work is true (see Numbers 11:29; D&C 1:20).
Some have difficulty, however, about reposing confidence in the Lord’s anointed. Over the decades, “we have learned by sad experience” that it is better for developing dissidents to be lovingly counseled, and, if necessary, lovingly disciplined “early on.” Often, waiting means that any meekness they have vanishes. It is sad that, as their faith shrinks, their circle of influence may temporarily enlarge. From Liberty Jail, the Prophet Joseph, who had known so much betrayal and learned from so much “sad experience,” declared his determination thus: “Your humble servant or servants, intend from henceforth to disapprobate everything that is not in accordance with the fullness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, … They will not hold their peace—as in times past when they see iniquity beginning to rear its head—for fear of traitors, or the consequences that shall follow by reproving those who creep in unawares, that they may get something with which to destroy the flock.”
A few in the Church simply don’t like to have anybody preside over them. They are like the critics of Nephi, who complained that “Nephi thinks to rule over us,” saying that power, instead, “belongs unto us” (2 Nephi 5:3). It was the same in Moses’ time. Dissidents “rose up” against Moses, complaining, “thou … make thyself … a prince over us. … Ye take too much upon you.” (Numbers 16:2, 3, 13.) Some complained then—and a few do now—”Hath the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? hath he not spoken also by us?” (Numbers 12:2.)
— Neal A. Maxwell, Lord, Increase Our Faith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1994), 92-93.
President J. Reuben Clark:
I wish to make here one observation about the First Vision.
No man or woman is a true member of the Church who does not fully accept the First Vision, just as no man is a Christian who does not accept, first, the Fall of Adam, and second, the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Any titular Church member who does not accept the First Vision but who continues to pose as a Church member, lacks not only moral courage but intellectual integrity and honor if he does not avow himself an apostate and discontinue going about the Church, and among the youth particularly, as a Churchman, teaching not only lack-faith but faith-destroying doctrines. He is a true wolf in sheep’s clothing.
— J. Reuben Clark, “When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture,” address given to seminary and institute teachers, at BYU, 7 July 1954, published in Church News (31 July 1954): 9–10; reprinted in Dialogue 12 (Summer 1979): 68–80.
Joseph F. Smith
Some of our good Latter-day Saints have become so exceedingly good…that they cannot tell the difference between a Saint of God, an honest man, and a son of Beelzebub, who has yielded himself absolutely to sin and wickedness. And they call that liberality, broadness of mind, exceeding love. I do not want to become so blinded with love for my enemies that I cannot discern between light and darkness, between truth and error, between good and evil, but I hope to live so that I shall have sufficient light in me to discern between error and truth, and to cast my lot on the side of truth and not on the side of error and darkness. The Lord bless the Latter-day Saints. If I am too narrow with reference to these matters, I hope that the wisdom of my brethren and the Spirit of Light from the Lord may broaden my soul.
A member, at any given time, may not understand one point of doctrine or another, may have a misconception, or even believe something is true that in fact is false.
There is not much danger in that. That is an inevitable part of learning the gospel. No member of the Church should be embarrassed at the need to repent of a false notion he might have believed. Such ideas are corrected as one grows in light and knowledge.
It is not the belief in a false notion that is the problem, it is the teaching of it to others. In the Church we have the agency to believe whatever we want to believe about whatever we want to believe. But we are not authorized to teach it to others as truth.
[He] who ignores and repudiates the doctrine of the atonement, . . . Is not worthy of membership in the Church…He may be considered harmless and of no great danger to others, particularly, as long as he keeps his mouth shut and does not advocate his pernicious doctrines, and be permitted to remain a member of the Church; but the moment you find him trying to poison the minds of somebody else—the innocent, the unsuspecting, the unwary—trying to sow the seeds of death and apostasy and unbelief and infidelity in the minds of innocent people, that moment it becomes the duty of the bishop of the ward where the man resides to take him up and try him.
[Joseph F. Smith, in Messages of the First Presidency 5:83, and Improvement Era (November 1917): 7, 11.]
Straightforward ideas, but surprisingly opaque in some quarters.
In the recent general conference, President Dieter F. Uchdorf said something that has gotten a lot of press:
And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.
I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.
In the title page of the Book of Mormon we read, “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.”
This is the way it has always been and will be until the perfect day when Christ Himself reigns personally upon the earth.
It is unfortunate that some have stumbled because of mistakes made by men.
Now, I think that a perfectly true and important statement.
What I’ve found strange, though, is the amount of attention it has garnered. The media (and some of their sources) have acted as if this is something novel, revolutionary, or a sign of things “softening” in the Church.
For example, the Washington Times titles their article, “KELLNER: Mormon leaders open up about church’s shortcomings.”
So close. President Uchdorf was talking about leaders having shortcomings, not particularly the “church,” but let’s let that slide.
More to the point, how can you “open up” about something that’s been wide open for nearly two centuries?
It made the news overseas in England, with the author deciding exactly what mistakes he intuits Pres. Uchdorf as referring to. (For the record, I think he’s wrong.) Terryl and Fiona Givens (both of whom I admire a great deal) were quoted in the New York Times as saying:
“In a single blow, it shattered the cultural mythology that has been at the root of the doubt and disaffection that affects our members,” said Terryl Givens, a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond and the author of books on Mormonism.
Mrs. Givens said, “I’m looking at his talk as the balm of Gilead for many people who are struggling with questions to which they cannot find answers.” 
While I’m glad that some have found comfort in the statement—though I’m not always certain that the comfort they’ve found is the right type (as I’ll explain later)—I confess to being a bit surprised that they needed this statement in order to be comforted.
I will take the Givens’ word for the fact that there is this cultural issue that needed to be shattered (though I’m surprised, having been in the Church for over forty years, that I have not encountered it). There are, I suppose, different subcultures within the Church, and perhaps this message had not penetrated one or more of them. (The Givenses are academics, however, so you would think that the people they encounter would be of the more informed, more literate type.)
You see, the message given by President Uchdorf is not a new one—it has been given, and repeated, and repeated throughout Church history. Joseph Smith started it out by saying, “a prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such.” He would elsewhere say:
Altho’ I do wrong, I do not the wrongs that I am charg’d with doing—the wrong that I do is thro’ the frailty of human nature like other men. No man lives without fault. Do you think that even Jesus, if he were here would be without fault in your eyes? They said all manner of evil against him—they all watch’d for iniquity….
When I do the best I can—when I am accomplishing the greatest good, then the most evils are got up against me. – 31 August 1842
And, a month before his death, he told his listeners:
I never told you I was perfect—but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught—must I then be thrown away as a thing of nought? – 12 May 1844
So, out of curiosity, I went through my files, and took a selection of quotations that I have tagged as “prophets: fallible.” I include them below, with dates to show when they were given. I’m sure there are more if I did a concerted search; these are just the ones “lying around” in my files that were easiest to find.
There are a lot of them; feel free to skip to the end if you want to know how this all turns out. (But, you really ought to read them!)
…it is not the place for any person to correct any person who is superior to them, but ask the Father in the name of Jesus to bind him up from speaking false principles. I have known many times I have preached wrong.
We must all learn to depend upon God and upon Him alone. Why, the very man upon whom we think we can rely with unbounded confidence, and trust with all we possess, may disappoint us sometimes, but trust in God and He never fails.
The men who hold the Priesthood are but mortal men; they are fallible men. … No human being that ever trod this earth was free from sin, excepting the Son of God. …
Why do you not open the windows of heaven and get revelation for yourself? and not go whining around and saying, “do you not think that you may be mistaken? Can a Prophet or an Apostle be mistaken?” Do not ask me any such question, for I will acknowledge that all the time, but I do not acknowledge that I designedly lead this people astray one hair’s breadth from the truth, and I do not knowingly do a wrong, though I may commit many wrongs, and so may you. But I overlook your weaknesses, and I know by experience that the Saints lift their hearts to God that I may be led right. If I am thus borne off by your prayers and faith, with my own, and suffered to lead you wrong, it proves that your faith is vain. Do not worry.
I hope what I have said may be blessed to your profit. If I have said any unwise thing, forget it. If I have said any improper thing, I hope it will pass from your minds, and that which is good, cling to you.
And then, we have bishops among us. We will treat them courteously. Have they weaknesses? Yes, they are men just like we are. “What,” say you, “have you weaknesses?” Yes, lots of them. I wish I had not sometimes, and then again I don’t wish so.
Now, was not Joseph Smith a mortal man? Yes. A fallible man? Yes. Had he not weaknesses? Yes, he acknowledged them himself, and did not fail to put the revelations on record in this book [the Book of Doctrine and Covenants] wherein God reproved him. His weaknesses were not concealed from the people. He was willing that people should know that he was mortal, and had failings. And so with Brigham Young. Was not he a mortal man, a man who had weaknesses? He was not a God. He was not an immortal being. He was not infallible. No, he was fallible. And yet when he spoke by the power of God, it was the word of God to this people.
The First Presidency cannot claim, individually or collectively, infallibility. The infallibility is not given to men. They are fallible.
Do not, brethren, put your trust in 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; but if we lean on God, He never will fail us. When men and women depend on God alone, and trust in Him alone, their faith will not be shaken if the highest in the Church should step aside. They could still see that He is just and true, that truth is lovely in His sight, and the pure in heart are dear to Him. Perhaps it is His own design that faults and weaknesses should appear in high places in order that His Saints may learn to trust in Him and not in any man or men. Therefore, my brethren and sisters, seek after the Holy Spirit and His unfailing testimony of God and His work upon the earth. Rest not until you know for yourselves that God has set His hand to redeem Israel, and prepare a people for His coming.
I saw Joseph Smith the Prophet do things which I did not approve of; and yet…I thanked God that He would put upon a man who had these imperfections the power and authority which He placed upon him…for I knew I myself had weaknesses and I thought there was a chance for me. These same weaknesses…I knew were in Heber C. Kimball, but my knowing this did not impair them in my estimation. I thanked God I saw these imperfection.
We can and do know the truth with reference to the matters that concern our salvation . . . But with reference to matters involving merely questions of administration and policy in the Church; matters that do not involve the great and central truths of the gospel—these afford a margin wherein all the human imperfections and limitations of man, even of prophets and apostles, may be displayed….
when you take into account human weaknesses, imperfection, prejudice, passion, bias, it is too much to hope for human nature that man will constantly thus walk linked with God. And so we make this distinction between a man speaking sometimes under the influence of prejudice and pre–conceived notions, and the utterances of a man who, in behalf of the Church of God, and having the requisite authority, and holding the requisite position, may, upon occasion, lay aside all prejudice, all pre–conception, and stand ready and anxious to receive the divine impression of God’s Spirit.
Is anyone so simple as to believe he is serving the Lord when he opposes the President? Of course, the President is not infallible. He makes no claims to infallibility. But when in his official capacity he teaches and advises the members of the Church relative to their duties, let no man who wants to please the Lord say aught against the counsels of the President.
There have been rare occasions when even the President of the Church in his preaching and teaching has not been “moved upon by the Holy Ghost.” You will recall the Prophet Joseph declared that a prophet is not always a prophet….This has happened about matters of doctrine (usually of a highly speculative character) where a subsequent President of the Church and the people themselves have felt that in declaring the doctrine, the announcer was not “moved upon by the Holy Ghost.
How shall the Church know when these adventurous expeditions of the brethren into these highly speculative principles and doctrines meet the requirements of the statutes that the announcers thereof have been “moved upon by the Holy Ghost”? The Church will know by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members, whether the brethren in voicing their views are “moved upon by the Holy Ghost”; and in due time that knowledge will be made manifest.
We are not infallible in our judgment, and we err, but our constant prayer is that the Lord will guide us in our decisions, and we are trying so to live that our minds will be open to His inspiration.
Hugh B. Brown:
The only way I know of by which the teachings of any person or group may become binding upon the church is if the teachings have been reviewed by all the brethren, submitted ot the highest councils of the church, and then approved by the whole body of the church…I do not doubt that the brethren have often spoken under inspiration and given new emphasis—perhaps even a new explanation or interpretation—of church doctrine, but that does not become binding upon the church unless and until it is submitted to the scrutiny of the rest of the brethren and later to the vote of the people. Again, we are only bound by the four standard works and are not required to defend what any man or woman says outside of them.
If I should say something which is contrary to that which is written and approved by the Church generally, no one is under obligation to accept it. Everything that I say and everything that any other person says must square itself with that which the Lord has revealed, or it should be rejected.
Joseph Smith, as prophets were and as prophets are, was subject to disappointment, even to despair; to illness, to fatigue, to frustration, and even to failure. He was just a man, after all, and he had no special immunity from any of the realities of life that prevail for all the other beings who have ever been born.
It is not to be thought that every word spoken by the General Authorities is inspired, or that they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost in everything they speak and write. Now you keep that in mind. I don’t care what his position is, if he writes something or speaks something that goes beyond anything that you can find in the standard works, unless that one be the prophet, seer, and revelator––please note that one exception––you may immediately say, “Well, that is his own idea!” And if he says something that contradicts what is found in the standard works (I think that is why we call them “standard”––it is the standard measure of all that men teach), you may know by that same token that it is false; regardless of the position of the man who says it.
There have been times when even the President of the Church has not been moved upon by the Holy Ghost. There is, I suppose you’d say, a classic story of Brigham Young in the time when Johnston’s army was on the move. The Saints were all inflamed, and President Young had his feelings whetted to fighting pitch. He stood up in the morning session of general conference and preached a sermon vibrant with defiance at the approaching army, declaring an intention to oppose them and drive them back. In the afternoon he rose and said that Brigham Young had been talking in the morning but the Lord was going to talk now. He then delivered an address the tempo of which was the exact opposite of the morning sermon.
With all their inspiration and greatness, prophets are yet mortal men with imperfections common to mankind in general. They have their opinions and prejudices and are left to work out their own problems without inspiration in many instances. Joseph Smith recorded that he “visited with a brother and sister from Michigan, who thought that ‘a prophet is always a prophet’; but I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such.” (Teachings, p. 278.) Thus the opinions and views even of prophets may contain error unless those opinions and views are inspired by the Spirit. Inspired statements are scripture and should be accepted as such. (D. & C. 68:4.)
Since “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor. 14:32), whatever is announced by the presiding brethren as counsel for the Church will be the voice of inspiration. But the truth or error of any uninspired utterance of an individual will have to be judged by the standard works and the spirit of discernment and inspiration that is in those who actually enjoy the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Whether that happened or not, it illustrates a principle: that the Lord can move upon His people but they may speak on occasions their own opinions.
The prophets, as they walk and live among men, are common, ordinary men. Men called to apostolic positions are given a people to redeem. Theirs is the responsibility to lead those people in such a way that they win the battles of life and conquer the ordinary temptations and passions and challenges. And then, speaking figuratively, it is as though these prophets are tapped on the shoulder and reminded: “While you carry such responsibility to help others with their battles, you are not excused from your own challenges of life. You too will be subject to passions, temptations, challenges. Win those battles as best you can.”
Some people are somehow dissatisfied to find in the leading servants of the Lord such ordinary mortals. They are disappointed that there is not some obvious mystery about those men; it is almost as if they are looking for the strange and the occult. To me, however, it is a great testimony that the prophets anciently and the prophets today are called out from the ranks of the ordinary men. It should not lessen our faith, for example, to learn that Elijah was discouraged at times, even despondent. (See 1Kgs.19:4.)
This calling forth of ordinary men for extraordinary purposes is as evident during the Savior’s earthly mission as in former and later eras.
Now my divine commission and your divine commission is number one, to teach the principles of the gospel; number two, to teach them out of the standard works; number three, to teach them by the power of the Holy Ghost; number four, to apply them to the situation at hand; and number five, to bear a personal witness, a witness born of the Spirit that the doctrine that is taught is true. That is the teacher’s divine commission.
I do not always measure up to that by any means. I guess the brethren of whom I am one do as much preaching and speaking in Church congregations as anyone, unless it is the seminary and institute teachers. There are times when I struggle and strive to get a message over and just do not seem to myself to be getting in tune with the Spirit. The fact is, it is a lot harder for me to choose what ought to be said, what subject ought to be considered, than it is for me to get up and preach it. I am always struggling and trying to get the inspiration to know what ought to be said at general conference, or in a stake conference, or whatever. If we labor at it and if we struggle, the Spirit will be given by the prayer of faith. If we do our part we will improve and grow in the things of the Spirit until we get to a position where we can, being in tune, say what the Lord wants said. That is what is expected of us.
To keep ourselves unspotted from the world….includes being aware that God’s work on earth is done by human beings, all of whom have some weaknesses. It encompasses the ability to look for the good accomplished rather than being disillusioned when human failings surface. It includes resisting the urge to proclaim such weaknesses so adamantly that the basic good is overshadowed and testimonies waver.
We make no claim of infallibility or perfection in the prophets, seers, and revelators.
We who have been called to lead the Church are ordinary men and women with ordinary capacities struggling to administer a church which grows at such a pace as to astound even those who watch it closely. Some are disposed to find fault with us; surely that is easy for them to do. But they do not examine us more searchingly than we examine ourselves. A call to lead is not an exemption from the challenges of life. We seek for inspiration in the same way that you do, and we must obey the same laws which apply to every member of the Church.
We are sorry for our inadequacies, sorry we are not better than we are. We can feel, as you can see, the effect of the aging process as it imposes limitations upon His leaders before your very eyes.
Every student of church history knows that there have been differences of opinion among church leaders since the Church was organized.
…even with the best of intentions, it [the governance of the Church by mortal priesthood holders] does not always work the way it should. Human nature may express itself on occasion, but not to the permanent injury of the work.
The members’ faith in the Brethren as living Apostles and prophets not only provides the needed direction but also clearly sustains those leaders in their arduous chores. There is more to it than this, however. Sustaining them also means that we realize those select men are conscious of their own imperfections; each is even grateful that the other Brethren have strengths and talents he may not have. The gratitude of the Brethren for being so sustained thus includes appreciation for members’ willingness to overlook the imperfections of the overseers. The faithful realize the Apostles are working out their salvation, too, including the further development of the Christlike virtues. Serious discipleship requires us all to be “on the way to perfection” rather than thinking we are already in the arrival lounge.
I’ve known a few prophets. You’ll hear them criticized and attacked, and people will sometimes talk about their failures or their weaknesses, because they’re not perfect.
Clearly, my problem and your problem is to hear the word of God from and through imperfect teachers and leaders. 
Good but imperfect prophets are especially likely to be slandered. Nor are they immune from trials. In fact, of the responsibilities of priesthood leaders, the Prophet Joseph Smith said, “The higher the authority, the greater the difficulty of the station.” President John Taylor further said, “God tries people according to the position they occupy.”
Near the end, the Prophet noted, “I never told you I was perfect; but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught.” The Prophet Joseph, then and since, has been subjected to intense mortal scrutiny. Yet, as prophesied, many in the world ever continue to “inquire after [his] name” (D&C 122:1).
A few question their faith when they find a statement made by a Church leader decades ago that seems incongruent with our doctrine. There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find.
The leaders of the Church are honest but imperfect men. Remember the words of Moroni: “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father … ; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been” (Ether 12:6).
At the same time it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader past or present necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well considered, opinion not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that a prophet is a prophet only when he is acting as such.
We should be careful not to claim for Joseph Smith perfections he did not claim for himself. He need not have been superhuman to be the instrument in God’s hands that we know him to be. In May 1844 Joseph declared, “I never told you I was perfect, but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught.” And he had commented earlier, “Although I do wrong, I do not the wrongs I’m charged with doing. The wrong that I do is through the frailty of human nature like other men. No man lives without fault. Do you think that even Jesus, if he were here, would be without fault in your eyes? His enemies said all manner of evil against him, and they all watched for iniquity in him.” Joseph was a mortal man striving to fulfill an overwhelming divinely appointed mission against all odds. The wonder is not that he ever displayed human failings, but that he succeeded in his mission. His fruits are both undeniable and incomparable.
I don’t expect people to have access to all of these. But, it’s hard to believe they’d never encounter any of them.
So, if some were genuinely troubled by this issue, I’m sincerely glad that their minds have been put at ease. I can’t help but wonder, though—how hard did they look for an answer to resolve their worry? It’s been taught so often, by so many, for so long, that you either have to willfully ignore all the examples, or almost not make any effort at all toward gospel study.
It just seems kind of odd.
The statements come from everyone: from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young all the way to the two youngest apostles in conference six months ago. It is from both doctrinal conservatives and others that are more liberal.
And, that the media thinks this is “news” demonstrates how little they know LDS doctrine, and how poorly their sources (often those with a grudge to nurse) inform them.
Postscript and teaser: (What some who are rejoicing are concluding from this statement, however, strikes me as much less benign. I’ll discuss that next time. And, that may help us see why some—and their sympathizers in the media—are excited. I think, however, they’re in for disappointment. And so, I rather dread the inevitable backlash.)
So here’s a poll. Was this new information to you, gentle readers, or no? I realize the answers may not capture every reaction, but hopefully you can find one that approximates what you thought. (Plus, I just wanted to play with the blog’s poll feature.)
 A Series of Instructions and Remarks by President Brigham Young at a Special Council, Tabernacle, March 22, 1858 (Salt Lake City, 1858), pamphlet in Frederick Kesler Collection, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.
 George Q. Cannon, April 6, 1879. Journal of Discourses 20:205.
 John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 20: 357 (30 November 1879).
 George Q. Cannon, August 12, 1883. Journal of Discourses 24:274.
 George Q. Cannon, “Need For Personal Testimonies,” (15 February 1891), Collected Discourses 2:178. See Millennial Star 53:658–659, 673–675.
 Lorenzo Snow, cited by George Q. Cannon, in George Q. Cannon Diary, 7 January 1898.
 Brigham H. Roberts, Defense of Faith and the Saints, 2 vols (Provo: Utah, 2002 edition), 346, 554–555.
 Joseph F. Merrill, Conference Report (1941): 51.
 J. Reuben Clark, “When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture,” Address given to seminary and institute teachers, at BYU, on July 7, 1954, published in Church News (July 31, 1954): 9–10; reprinted in Dialogue 12 (Summer 1979), 68–80.
 J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Church News [31 July 1954]: 8.
 Hugh B. Brown cited in Edwin B. Firmage (ed.), An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988), 124; cited in Dennis B. Horne (ed.), Determining Doctrine: A Reference Guide for Evaluation Doctrinal Truth (Roy, Utah: Eborn Books, 2005), 272–73.
 Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56), 1:322.
 Boyd K. Packer, The Things of the Soul (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997), 36 [Address given as Joseph Smith Memorial Sermon at Logan Institute 6 December 1959.]
 Harold B. Lee, “The Place of the Living Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,” Address to Seminary and Institute of Religion Faculty, BYU, 8 July 1964; see Teachings of Harold B. Lee, 541.
John Gee found a great quote from Gordon B. Hinckley:
We live in an age of compromise and acquiescence. In situations with which we are daily confronted, we know what is right, but under pressure from our peers and the beguiling voices on those who would persuade us, we capitulate. We compromise. We acquiesce. We give in, and we are ashamed of ourselves. . . . We must cultivate the strength to follow our convictions. (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley, 135, ellipses in source.)
The interesting thing is that if we succumb to such urgings, we are ashamed of ourselves–or ought to be.
But, one could add that if one will not succumb, those who have tried to persuade us–often with protestations of good will and friendship (for it is difficult to beguile with a severe tone)–will typically turn quickly, and resort to shaming of their own.
It is, in fact, precisely this tactic that Nephi sees in vision: “after they had partaken of the fruit of the tree they did cast their eyes about as if they were ashamed….And after they had tasted of the fruit they were ashamed, because of those that were scoffing at them; and they fell away into forbidden paths and were lost” (1 Nephi 8:25, 28).
Being scoffed at is never pleasant, but I regard it as a sign of success. Scoffing is an admission of intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy–it is not an argument, it is a tantrum (compare Moses 1:19).
This should not be surprising, though it often seems so. The adversary–like those who endorse his tactics–“is permissive on most things, but not on granting passports for citizens to leave his realm.” [Neal A. Maxwell, Deposition of a Disciple (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 11–12.]
Indeed, a key article of un-faith is that Satan’s realm is both preeminent, and all that matters. Only a fool would ignore it or not want to be a part of it….right?
Fellow thralls can expect bonhomie and courtesy; aliens passing by, never. Which is strange for a realm in which “tolerance” is a watchword, but it is tolerance or permissiveness within rigidly circumscribed boundaries.
A pseudo-sophisticated society is especially likely to dismiss someone who does not have impeccable educational credentials.
– Neal A. Maxwell, Sermons Not Spoken
And, often, even the credentials are not enough.
Thus, we too often hear how your conclusions are special pleading, evidence of being an “apologist” (as if every bit of demonstrative discourse was not advocacy for—and thus an ‘apology’ for—some view or other). You are not a neutral, balanced, disinterested scholar—while my conclusions are merely the dispassionate working out of the evidence toward the inevitable conclusions to which I am compelled, like Newton’s apple being drawn irresistibly toward the sandy ground, even against my will or preferences.
Thus, one’s education must not only be impeccable, but one must use it in the prescribed way and come to the “proper” impeccable conclusions. To fail such a litmus test is to almost immediately have one’s credentials disparaged or minimized—which may be fair game if one’s credentials are dubious and you’ve been waving them around. But, if one has merely made an argument, perhaps the argument ought to be given first priority before hasting to cast someone out of the secular scholarly synagogue.
And, the “proper” conclusions will have been determined (as they must) by some criteria outside of the evidence or strictly rational processes. Otherwise, a sober presentation of the data would suffice.
But, to point that out is considered gauche beyond belief.
The most deadly bias is the one we ignore or deny—in others, to be sure, but especially in ourselves.
Instead, however, some people want to skip the seemingly plodding “spiritual method.” As already pointed out, they are so busy surveying large, intellectual tracts that they fail to cultivate even a small behavioral tract. Theory rich and data poor! Intellectual speculation is easy, and compared to steady, spiritual submissiveness it makes few demands. The speculators end up “looking beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14), staring beyond the obvious. Jesus confirmed that only if we will “do” will we then “know” (John 7:17).
– Neal A. Maxwell, That Ye May Believe
Not only is speculation easy, it is not amenable to refutation. This makes it malleable, and small wonder that our speculations—and most theology is speculation, being grounded not in revelation but in intellect coupled with supposition—are always so congenial to our own preoccupations and priorities.
In the “doing,” the rubber meets the road, and our pretensions to sophistication and being “advanced students” get their comeuppance all too soon.