A few days ago, Elder M. Russell Ballard gave a timely talk to teachers and parents about promoting and sustaining faith in young people. Many welcomed it as a useful and inspired summary of principles which he and others have long advocated.
One thing troubled me, however, as I watched the reaction of Church members who discussed it on social media. And it troubled me because they were members.
The troubling side-show
In almost the next breath, many of those who were publicly applauding his talk’s content soon switched to complaining. Why complaining? Because Elder Ballard had also mentioned the importance of marriage in LDS doctrine and theology, and this troubled some members who are at present single.
Some wished they had not heard this section. One man faulted the apostle for not providing any concrete examples of how a single member could alter this current state of affairs. Others postured that they had merely been thrown a consolation prize of being assured that life would be better in the hereafter. And so on.
I do not deny—as the leaders of the Church have pain at pains not to deny—that being single can be a painful burden, especially in a Church and theology that holds out marriage and parenthood as a divine summit. (Single members sometimes forget, however, that we currently-married members were once single in our turn, and so do know something about that experience.)
And, I realize that if something touches an area of pain for us, we can occasionally “react” rather than think. Yet, I found the display troubling. People actually went to the trouble of putting their reaction down on digital paper, as it were, and spreading it about. That takes some forethought and intent.
Unsurprisingly, those who were excited by the talk seemed to be those who had long believed in or advocated for a similar approach in the Church’s youth curriculum and seminary program. This too is understandable—it can be gratifying when our concerns, intuitions, or inspirations are validated and publicly endorsed by someone with priesthood authority. This not only confirms our personal strivings and our sensitivity to God’s Spirit, but it can smooth the way to implementing them locally when an apostle endorses such an effort.
There was, however, an incredible irony in this display of enthusiastic praise followed by grumbling and complaining. In the first breath, they were praising Elder Ballard’s talk and saying how wonderful it was. But, in the very next breath, they were criticizing a relatively small section of that talk for being either untrue, or unhelpful, or hurtful, or whatever.
A difficult but necessary question
This raises a difficult question, which we might all do well to ask ourselves—when we rejoice in apostolic or prophetic teaching, are we rejoicing because it is apostolic and prophetic, or are we rejoicing because they happen to agree with us?
From what I saw, I fear that in some cases there was a definite slant toward the latter. “Finally,” some seemed to suggest, “an apostle has got it together and said what I’ve long known needed to be said.” This was swiftly followed by, “Now, if only they would get on board on this other issue of how to give (or avoid) counsel about marriage. Then I could have enjoyed the meeting fully. Close, but no cigar.”
In a sense, such apostolic guidance is thus seen as valuable and praiseworthy not because it represents the inspired word of the Lord to members of the Church, and not even because it is true (though those who praised it certainly believed that it was true), but instead because it allows a somewhat Nietzchean power play—apostles have social power and authority, and so that power and authority can be leveraged by me for my purposes to get my ideas ratified.
Put another way, are some not relieved that their intuitions were correct (because they knew that already), but instead happy that their previous certainties can now more easily be implemented?
It seems to me that there are three possibilities regarding Elder Ballard’s remarks about marriage. These options are:
They are a summary and reaffirmation of inspired prophetic teachings on the subject, acceptably expressed;
They are a summary and reaffirmation of inspired prophetic teachings on the subject, marred by an insensitive delivery or unhelpful approach;
They are mistaken.
Let us consider these in reverse order.
We certainly hold no doctrine of apostolic or prophetic infallibility in the Church. But, even if we presume that the counsel was mistaken—why would one undermine an apostle who is also advocating a course that we too endorse? After all, if he is mistaken about the marriage issue—why not assume he’s equally mistaken about curriculum? Why undercut the authority I hope to appeal to on the matter of teaching and curriculum?
This looks like an attempt to maintain superiority and control in our own eyes, or others’: we demonstrate how critical and unsparing we are, how well we distinguish truth from error. No one sneaks anything by us!
Or, it’s an effort that reveals the underlying problem—we see ourselves and our beliefs and priorities as normative. Thus, when an apostle agrees with me, he’s right. If he doesn’t, then he’s mistaken or insensitive at best. We’re back to using our endorsement of an apostle’s talk as nothing more than an exercise of social power.
Correct but insensitive?
All the above considerations apply here—if we don’t agree with prophetic infallibility, we believe even less in prophetic stylistic perfection.
If Elder Ballard was correct, but simply poorly phrased, all the less reason to break out the rhetorical knives on Twitter or Facebook. We risk becoming like those who rejected Peter because he had not been to the right schools (Acts 4:13), or Moses because he was slow of speech (Exodus 4:10), or Samuel because he was a Lamanite (Helaman 13), or Jesus because he came from the backwater Nazareth (John 1:46; John 7:52).
We join those who dismiss a prophet because he has an accent, or a speech impediment, or because of the cut of his clothes.
If what he is teaching is true, oughtn’t we to endorse and push it to all—not murmur and fault-find to give others a potential excuse to ignore the truth?
Correct, full stop?
And, finally, if this is the case—and I personally think that it is—we have even less excuse. We might pause and ask, however, whether our desire to find fault or minimize the authority of apostolic counsel reflects fear that we aren’t doing all we can in an area that pains, saddens, and frightens us.
But really, what other purpose is there in prophets and apostles?
If they are merely instruments of social power to enable us to push our own agenda, why bother? Life is too short to waste on a faith that operates that way, the embodiment of all the worst atheist caricatures about religion.
If they are so fallible that I substitute my conviction of my own correctness whenever I disagree—unwilling even to remain quietly questioning while I wait upon the Lord—why have them? You or I could do as well.
But, if they truly are prophets, watchmen on the tower—who see further and better not because of any innate worthiness or merit but principally because of the divine authority given them and in which we ostensibly sustain them—shouldn’t my discomfort at some teaching or phrasing at least give me pause?
Should my first reaction perhaps not be to rush onto Facebook or my blog to air my grievances or cluck my tongue? Even if I don’t need to hear a particular message, am I so sure that many others do not? And, if they do, am I not guilty of a grave sin if I through my murmuring and complaints impair others’ ability to hear it?
In this particular case, I have it easy. I agreed with everything he said. Rejoicing was easy.
But, the day will undoubtedly come when I do not, at least at first blush. (In fact, I’ve had such experiences in the past, and so fully expect I will have them again. There is not, I think, any shame or sin in that. What matters is how we respond.)
This is the danger and difficulty with living oracles, which religions have always striven to tame: you cannot control a live prophet, while dead ones committed to the page can be massaged and finessed. But, it is also the power and necessity of them. As President Eyring noted years ago,
Leo Strauss, in Studies in Platonic Political Philosophies, had it right when he saw that the prophets give us the greatest gift when they tell us truth which does not square with our reason. He said: “True prophets, regardless of whether they predict doom or salvation, predict the unexpected, the humanly unforeseeable. What would not occur to men, left to themselves, to fear or to hope.”
So, I write this now so that the judge of memory may hold me more strictly to account when my own next trial comes in such a matter, as it must for everyone.
 I hope to say more about this another time. For one recent example, however, see Dallin H. Oaks and Kirsten M. Oaks, “Trust in Heaven’s Timing,” 146 stake broadcast from Marriot Center, BYU (16 September 2012), reproduced in Ensign (February 2016).
 Though I hasten to add I regard them all as people of great worthiness and merit.
 Henry B. Eyring, “Faith, Authority, and Scholarship,” in On Becoming a Disciple–Scholar, edited by Henry B. Eyring (Bookcraft, Salt Lake, 1995), 64.
If Kelly wishes to stick to her guns and declare that anything Church Public Affairs says bears absolutely no relation to the Church’s official position on these matters, we could sigh heavily and pull out some recent—and not-to-recent—remarks from the leaders she claims to want to hear from.
Elder Neil L. Anderson
Elder Anderson directly addressed the question that Kelly and OW say they want an answer to:
Some may sincerely ask the question, “If the power and blessings of the priesthood are available to all, why are the ordinances of the priesthood administered by men?”
When an angel asked Nephi, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” Nephi answered honestly, “I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.”
When we speak of the priesthood, there are many things we do know.
We know that God loves all His children and is no respecter of persons. “He denieth none that come unto him, … male [or] female; … and all are alike unto God.”
As surely as we know that God’s love is “alike” for His sons and His daughters, we also know that He did not create men and women exactly the same. We know that gender is an essential characteristic of both our mortal and eternal identity and purpose. Sacred responsibilities are given to each gender….
While there are many things we do know about the priesthood, seeing through the lens of mortality does not always give a complete understanding of the workings of God. But His gentle reminder, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” reassures us that with time and eternal perspective we will see things “as they really are” and more completely understand His perfect love.
We all willingly serve. Sometimes we feel underwhelmed with our calling and wish we were asked to do more. Other times we are grateful when it is time for our release. We do not determine the callings we receive.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks
Elder Oaks’ remarks in April 2014 conference got a great deal of attention (if you haven’t read them, you should read them all). Kelly and many others, however, seem unaware that this is not a “new” take on things, or something novel. Elder Oaks taught virtually the same thing (though in less detail) more than twenty years ago:
President Joseph Fielding Smith taught that the Prophet’s action opened to women the possibility of exercising “some measure of divine authority, particularly in the direction of government and instruction in behalf of the women of the Church.” (Relief Society Magazine, Jan. 1965, p. 5.) President Smith explained: “While the sisters have not been given the Priesthood, … that does not mean that the Lord has not given unto them authority. Authority and Priesthood are two different things. A person may have authority given to him, or a sister to her, to do certain things in the Church that are binding and absolutely necessary for our salvation, such as the work that our sisters do in the House of the Lord.” (Relief Society Magazine, Jan. 1959, p. 4.)….
Under the priesthood authority of the bishop, the president of a ward Relief Society presides over and directs the activities of the Relief Society in the ward. A stake Relief Society president presides and exercises authority over the function to which she has been called. The same is true for the other auxiliaries. Similarly, women called as missionaries are set apart to go forth with authority to teach the everlasting gospel, and women called to work in a temple are given authority for the sacred functions to which they have been called. All function under the direction of the priesthood leader who has been given the priesthood keys to direct those who labor in his area of responsibility.
The answer that Kelly claims to want has been available the whole time.
Elder M. Russell Ballard
Elder Ballard likewise cautioned us against Kelly’s specific tactics more than twenty years ago:
In these latter days, we see people, increasing in number, who urge others to feel and voice dissent when frustration and hardship enter their lives. They would have us believe that the Church or its leaders are unfair to women, or that women are denied opportunities to realize their full potential within the gospel framework. Sisters, we know that the Church is made up of mortals, that priesthood leaders are fallible, and some may not always handle their stewardships with suitable sensitivity. However, I want you to understand this plain truth: the gospel of Jesus Christ provides the only way for women or men to achieve their full potential as children of God. Only the gospel can free us from the terrible effects of sin. Only by following God’s plan for us, with faith and determination to live ultimately in eternal families, can we qualify for eternal life in His presence. Ideally, the Church and the family do not inhibit our progress. They expedite it by putting our feet firmly on the gospel path that leads us back to God. We each have the privilege to carefully and prayerfully seek the Lord’s will for us regarding our individual challenges and dilemmas. Personal revelation is personal, indeed. It is not based on gender or position but on worthiness. It comes in response to sincere inquiry. However, revelation for the Church comes only through the Lord’s prophets, seers, and revelators.
In these confusing times, keeping our feet on the gospel path can be difficult. We hear many persuasive voices urging us to turn our backs on revealed truth and embrace the philosophies of the world.
He also pointed out:
Let me also observe that none of the Twelve are shrinking violets. We each have strong personalities. So when we are unified in a decision, you can rest assured that we have counseled together and come to that decision after much prayer and thoughtful discussion. 
And, the leaders do not (contrary to Kelly’s caricature) need a massive sidewalk protest to help them realize that this is an issue:
I have heard that some people think the Church leaders live in a “bubble.” What they forget is that we are men and women of experience, and we have lived our lives in so many places and worked with many people from different backgrounds. Our current assignments literally take us around the globe, where we meet the political, religious, business, and humanitarian leaders of the world. Although we have visited the White House in Washington, D.C., and leaders of nations throughout the world, we have also visited the most humble homes on earth, where we have met and ministered to the poor.
When you thoughtfully consider our lives and ministry, you will most likely agree that we see and experience the world in ways few others do. You will realize that we live less in a “bubble” than most people.
President James E. Faust
President Faust could have saved Kelly some tactics that could not work, had she listened. He spoke more than a decade ago:
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.
Even if Kelly doesn’t believe this, she should at least be savvy enough to realize that those in charge do believe it, and so aren’t likely to respond well to her approach—as she was told over and over again.
Sister leaders too!
And, if Kelly even were to insist that she’ll only listen to women—no XY chromosomes allowed—even that message is available, were she willing to hear it. Said Sister Elaine S. Dalton, the general Young Women’s president:
Young women, you will be the ones who will provide the example of virtuous womanhood and motherhood. You will continue to be virtuous, lovely, praiseworthy, and of good report. You will also be the ones who will provide the example of family life in a time when families are under attack, being redefined, and disintegrating. You will understand your roles and your responsibilities and thus will see no need to lobby for rights.
One really has to ask–what’s wrong with all of the above that makes Kelly think she hasn’t gotten an answer until now?
It is popular, in certain circles, to invoke the case of Pelatiah Brown in early Church history. Joseph Smith said this:
Elder Pelatiah Brown, one of the wisest old heads we have among us, and whom I now see before me… was hauled up for trial before the High Council.
“I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.” (History of the Church 5:339-340; see also TPJS, 288)
The implicit or explicit claim then made is that Joseph Smith would be opposed to subjecting those who teach and advance false doctrine, or who seek to undermine the Church, its leaders, or members, to Church discipline.
The First Problem
In the first place, this is absurd, because Joseph clearly countenanced–and participated in–the application of Church discipline to many who opposed the Church, fought against it, claimed its leaders were fallen prophets or frauds, or taught doctrines at variance with those he taught.
What, then, is going on in this case?
Well, those who invoke this episode don’t know (or count on you not knowing) the context.
The Second Problem–What Was Elder Brown Teaching?
Elder Brown advanced some ideas about the interpretation of the Revelation of St. John. You know the Book of Revelation–it’s that massively symbolic book at the end of the Bible that many Christian hobbyists have for millennia interpreted and applied to a vast variety of world figures.
The Beast, for example has been declared to be everyone from the Pope du jour to President Jimmy Carter. (Carter may have been many things, but he was not The Beast.)
In fact, you would know this immediately if those who quoted the above phrase had not omitted key text with an ellipsis.
An “ellipsis” is that little dot-dot-dot (…) mark they put in to show they’ve omitted text. So, I suspect that they did read this part, but omitted it because it undercuts their whole argument.
Let’s read the phrase with the text replaced, as in the original. I have bold-faced text that our helpful quote-miners have not included:
I will endeavor to instruct you in relation to the meaning of the beasts and figures spoken of. I should not have called up the subject had it not been for this circumstance. Elder Pelatiah Brown, one of the wisest old heads we have among us, and whom I now see before me, has been preaching concerning the beast which was full of eyes before and behind; and for this he was hauled up for trial before the High Council.
I did not like the old man being called up for erring in doctrine. It looks too much like the Methodist, and not like the Latter-day Saints. Methodists have creeds wich a man must believe or be asked out of their church. I want the liberty of thinking and believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammelled. It does not prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.
The High Council undertook to censure and correct Elder Brown, because of his teachings in relation to the beasts. Whether they actually corrected him or not, I am a little doubtful, but don’t care. Father Brown came to me to know what he should do about it. The subject particularly referred to was the four beasts and four-and-twenty elders mentioned in Rev 5:8—”And when he had taken the book, the four beasts and four-and-twenty elders fell down before the Lamb, having every one of them harps, and golden vials full of odors, which are the prayers of saints.”
Thus, the high council has objected to one Elder’s interpretation of Revelation, and has disciplined him for it. Joseph says that he wouldn’t even bother to speak on this subject, if not for what they’ve done.
Core Revealed Ideas vs. Peripheral, Speculative Ones
Clearly, he’s not upset that Brown has been disciplined for his views about some core Church doctrine or for undermining belief in a core Church doctrine–like whether God exists, or whether Jesus was divine, or whether Jesus lived as a real person, or whether the doctrine of the atonement is absurd, or whether Church leaders are called of God with a unique and exclusive authority, or whether the Book of Mormon is a divinely-inspired volume. (These are all claims which the current crop of dissidents are being called to account for.)
No, he’s upset that a speculative matter–about which the high council knows no more of the truth than Brown may–is trying to settle a silly squabble over a gospel hobby-horse through Church discipline.
More Context, If You Need It
This becomes even clearer when you read Joseph’s rebukes to all involved (I here bring some snippets; you can read the whole thing at your leisure).
“I have seldom spoken from the revelations [of St. John]; but as my subject is a constant source of speculation amongst the elders, causing a division of sentiment and opinion in relation to it, I now do it in order that division and difference of opinion may be done away with, and not that correct knowledge on the subject is so much needed at the present time.” [This stuff doesn’t matter, but so you’ll stop arguing about it, I’ll tell you a bit.]
“The evil of being puffed up with correct (though useless) knowledge is not so great as the evil of contention.” [If Brown sinned in insisting upon his interpretation a bit much, those who fought with him about it are in a worse state.]
“Father Brown has been to work and confounded all Christendom by making out that the four beasts represented the different kingdoms of God on the earth. The wise men of the day could not do anything with him, and why should we find fault? Anything to whip sectarianism, to put down priestcraft, and bring the human family to a knowledge of the truth. A club is better than no weapon for a poor man to fight with.” [Brown wasn’t exactly right, but his heart was in the right place–he was advancing a doctrine he believed in an effort to bring others to Christ. He was not striking at the foundations of belief or faithfulness.]
“Father Brown did whip sectarianism, and so far so good; but I could not help laughing at the idea of God making use of the figure of a beast to represent His kingdom on the earth, consisting of men, when He could as well have used a far more noble and consistent figure. What! the Lord made use of the figure of a creature of the brute creation to represent that which is much more noble, glorious, and important—the glories and majesty of His kingdom? By taking a lesser figure to represent a greater, you missed it that time, old gentleman; but the sectarians did not know enough to detect you.” [Joseph corrects the misunderstanding, but note how kindly–he acknowledges its good intention. In peripheral matters, intention counts a great deal. If Brown had continued to teach false doctrine when corrected by Joseph, the outcome likely would have been different.]
“Oh, ye elders of Israel, hearken to my voice; and when you are sent into the world to preach, tell those things you are sent to tell; preach and cry aloud, “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel.” Declare the first principles, and let mysteries alone, lest ye be overthrown. Never meddle with the visions of beasts and subjects you do not understand. Elder Brown, when you go to Palmyra, say nothing about the four beasts, but preach those things the Lord has told you to preach about—repentance and baptism for the remission of sins.” [These are trivial and peripheral matters–so don’t preach them, and quit arguing about them! Surely don’t excommunicate an otherwise faithful member over them.]
“I make this broad declaration, that whenever God gives a vision of an image, or beast, or figure of any kind, He always holds Himself responsible to give a revelation or interpretation of the meaning thereof, otherwise we are not responsible or accountable for our belief in it. Don’t be afraid of being damned for not knowing the meaning of a vision or figure, if God has not given a revelation or interpretation of the subject.” [And thus, one ought not to discipline Elder Brown, since no authoritative revelation or standard applies in this case–God has not revealed it.]
“we never can comprehend the things of God and of heaven, but by revelation. We may spiritualize and express opinions to all eternity; but that is no authority.”
John Taylor made perhaps the best remark after Joseph’s: “I have never said much about the beasts, &c., in my preaching. When I have done it, it has been to attract attention and keep the people from running after a greater fool than myself.”
Those who quote this (significantly edited) material either don’t know the context (and are thus ignorant) or know it and hope you don’t (and are thus dishonest).
Neither case suggests you should trust their reading.
So, if you know someone being disciplined because of a slightly-bizarre view of the Revelation of St John, quote this episode.
Spare us, please, the specious claim that this means that you can oppose repeated instructions from local and general Church leaders about public acts and teachings.
Tune in next time when we see the same treatment offered to a more modern figure: President Dieter F. Uchdorf of the First Presidency. These folks are equal-opportunity quote-miners–both the nineteenth and twenty-first century leaders are fair game, it seems.
The Church has recently released some excellent resources on Church history and doctrine. There is a good summary of various accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, as well as the common canard from sectarian anti-Mormons claiming that we aren’t Christians.
The most recent release deals with the pre-1978 priesthood ban, which restricted blacks of African descent from holding the Church’s lay priesthood.
The most unfortunate thing about the priesthood ban was the reasons which some leaders and members offered for the ban’s existence. This new resource repudiates these ideas:
Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church….
The curse of Cain was often put forward as justification for the priesthood and temple restrictions. Around the turn of the century, another explanation gained currency: blacks were said to have been less than fully valiant in the premortal battle against Lucifer and, as a consequence, were restricted from priesthood and temple blessings….
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.
This repudiation is not new—various Church leaders have said the same over the years, but it is wonderful to have it on an official webpage approved by the First Presidency.
A slight downside
Nothing good ever seems to be without its potential for abuse, however. Some have recently used this web page to declare that “the Church has admitted that the priesthood ban was a mistake due to racism.” That is, they insist that God had nothing to do with the ban’s beginnings, and fallible mortals had to finally decide to get rid of it.
But, this is precisely what the page does not do. And, it seems to me, it is quite careful not to do it:
In two speeches delivered before the Utah territorial legislature in January and February 1852, Brigham Young announced a policy restricting men of black African descent from priesthood ordination. At the same time, President Young said that at some future day, black Church members would “have [all] the privilege and more” enjoyed by other members.
The justifications for this restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of black “servitude” in the Territory of Utah.
Note the careful separation of two issues:
The origin of the policy of the restriction;
The justifications offered for that policy.
This distinction is made repeatedly in the Church’s on-line materials. For example, a Church newsroom article labeled as an “Official statement” writes:
At some point the Church stopped ordaining male members of African descent, although there were a few exceptions. It is not known precisely why, how or when this restriction began in the Church, but it has ended….
Recently, the Church has also made the following statement on this subject:
“The origins of priesthood availability are not entirely clear. Some explanations with respect to this matter were made in the absence of direct revelation and references to these explanations are sometimes cited in publications. These previous personal statements do not represent Church doctrine.” (emphasis added)
Note again the separation between the “origin of” and “some explanations” for the priesthood ban. An earlier official statement said:
For a time in the Church there was a restriction on the priesthood for male members of African descent. It is not known precisely why, how, or when this restriction began in the Church but what is clear is that it ended decades ago. Some have attempted to explain the reason for this restriction but these attempts should be viewed as speculation and opinion, not doctrine. The Church is not bound by speculation or opinions given with limited understanding.
We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the Church.
When the Church says that “it is not known precisely why…this restriction began,” that would seem to disprove the claims of some, who say that the Church has admitted that the ban originated because of Church members’ racism and was thus “a mistake.” If we knew that, then the Church would not say that the origins are “not known” and “not entirely clear.”
If it was racism, does this mean God was not involved?
For a moment, however, let us presume that those enthusiastic to blame racism for the ban’s origins (rather than the explanations, which were clearly rooted in racism) are correct.
Does this mean that God was not involved in the process? I do not think we can draw this conclusion too readily, though those who offer it are often keen that we do so.
For the sake of argument, let us presume that the ban had its origins in Brigham Young’s and his contemporaries’ racism. (We are here engaging in speculation, just as those who engaged in the racist speculation of the nineteenth century did. So, tread cautiously!)
Even if the ban had its origins in leaders’ racism, it does not follow that God was not involved in the process. If Brigham and other nineteenth century Mormons were racists, certainly most of American and European society was as well. The dynamics of race relations (which would contribute to America’s bloodiest war within a decade of the ban) in the United States must be borne in mind.
The Church’s progress could have been affected by the innate racism of western society. And thus, while God may not have wanted the ban to be necessary, and would have been happy to have it lifted at any time, He may well have recognized that the weaknesses of mortals in and out of the Church made it necessary—or, at least, a viable option among many.
Simply put, it may have been that a Church with a lay ministry, which did not segregate its congregations, would have had even more difficulties in the racially polarized American 19th century if blacks exercised spiritual authority over whites. My experience with some in the American South even today—and what others have told me of their experiences from a generation or two ago—suggest that this potential difficulty persisted well into the twentieth century.
It is thus possible that God commanded the ban as a type of “lesser of two evils,” in the racist 19th century. Or, alternatively, God could have used a ban that he did not initiate as a means of managing the racism which instigated it.
Evidence from later in Church history suggests that one of these scenarios is correct.
President David O. McKay was inclined to dispense with the ban, and prayed about the matter. He told church architect Richard Jackson:
I’ve inquired of the Lord repeatedly. The last time I did it was late last night. I was told, with no discussion, not to bring the subject up with the Lord again; that the time will come, but it will not be my time, and to leave the subject alone.
This evidence account leads us to one of four conclusions:
President McKay lied about revelation to silence critics on the issue of the ban;
President McKay projected his own racism onto God, perhaps subconsciously, thus allowing him to keep the ban in place;
President McKay was mistaken about his revelation;
The ban persisted not entirely (and perhaps not at all) because of past or present leaders’ racism, since God here has a leader willing and even anxious to dispense with the ban, but he is told not to.
Most members, I think, would reject options #1, #2, and #3. That leaves us, however, with option #4—whatever the origins of the ban, God seems to have been using it for some purpose. And, in 1968–70, that purpose had yet to be accomplished, because he forbade the ban from being rescinded and told the prophet to quit asking about it.
There is a similar account from President Harold B. Lee, though it is less well documented. We know for certain, however, that he had a similar view:
For those who don’t believe in modern revelation there is no adequate explanation. Those who do understand revelation stand by and wait until the Lord speaks….It’s only a matter of time before the black achieves full status in the Church. We must believe in the justice of God. The black will achieve full status, we’re just waiting for that time.
Previous leaders’ statements
This same distinction between the ban’s origins and the faulty explanations for it has been made previously by LDS leaders.
For example, President Gordon B. Hinckley was interviewed as follows in 1998:
Q: So in retrospect, was the Church wrong in that [not ordaining blacks]?
A [Pres. Hinckley]: No, I don’t think it was wrong. It, things, various things happened in different periods. There’s a reason for them.
Q: What was the reason for that?
A: I don’t know what the reason was. But I know that we’ve rectified whatever may have appeared to be wrong at the time.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks said in 1988, and republished in 2011:
If you read the scriptures with this question in mind, ‘Why did the Lord command this or why did he command that,’ you find that in less than one in a hundred commands was any reason given. It’s not the pattern of the Lord to give reasons. We can put reasons to commandments. When we do, we’re on our own. Some people put reasons to [the priesthood ban] and they turned out to be spectacularly wrong. There is a lesson in that….
The lesson I’ve drawn from that, I decided a long time ago that I had faith in the command and I had no faith in the reasons that had been suggested for it….
I’m referring to reasons given by general authorities and reasons elaborated upon [those reasons] by others. The whole set of reasons seemed to me to be unnecessary risk taking….
Let’s [not] make the mistake that’s been made in the past, here and in other areas, trying to put reasons to revelation. The reasons turn out to be man-made to a great extent. The revelations are what we sustain as the will of the Lord and that’s where safety lies (emphasis added).
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said in 2006:
One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated….
I have to concede to my earlier colleagues….
They, I’m sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the priesthood ban policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong….
It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don’t know, and, [as] with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time. But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years….
At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. I think, to the extent that I know anything about it, as one of the newer and younger ones to come along,…we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place.
Elder Alexander B. Morrison of the Seventy, when asked about the ban’s origins in 1998, replied:
It would be strange indeed if the Church and its leaders were intending to repudiate these recent statements, as the claims of some would require.
An additional perspective
Interestingly, President Boyd K. Packer recently discussed how his perspective regarding the ban has changed in the present as the work flourishes in Africa:
We have had puzzling things. We had the matter of the priesthood being withheld from a part of the human family. That seemed so inconsistent with the rest of human life and humanity and the doctrines and tolerance. We couldn’t figure that out. That’s gone now, but why was it there? I’m not sure, but I do know this: it had the effect of keeping us out of [most of Africa] until we were ready and mature enough, and they were ready and mature enough. Looking back it is easy to see things that you don’t see looking forward.
We see again how the ban’s existence is “puzzling,” “we couldn’t figure that out,” and even now he’s “not sure” why it was in place.
Yet, the ban’s existence also kept the Church from extensive missionary work in Africa until recently. There are significant economic and cultural challenges to working in Africa—a premature enthusiasm for work there might have resulted, for example, in many converts but an unsustainable infrastructure. I have had private discussions with those involved who describe the economic obstacles as something the Church could not have coped with even a few years ago—and they challenge us even today.
Thus, even a ban that was rooted in the difficulties of 19th century racism could ultimately serve God’s purposes, and so be either tolerated or implemented by Him.
God is, after all, the ultimate multi-tasker.
What I am suggesting, then, is that even if one insists or concedes that racism was the origin of the priesthood ban (a concession the Church has not made, and has been at pains not to make), this does not mean that its continuation and its cessation were not firmly in God’s control.
It was necessary to respond to the racism of members and leaders of the Church, as well as potential members of the Church, and the often-hostile societies which surrounded them. The ban is one potential option—though whether God instigated it directly, or whether he simply allowed it and declined to remove it when asked by President McKay, we cannot say.
“I do not know the meaning of all things,” wrote Nephi, but “I know that [God] loveth his children” (1 Nephi 11:17).
It is easy—too easy, for some—to simply decide that this entire episode is all simply fallible mortal power plays or administration, with God lurking in the background (if he exists at all).
One can draw that conclusion if one wishes. Many have and will. But, they ought not to be allowed to claim that the Church has admitted as much.
“We don’t know” really does mean “we don’t know.”
But, we do know God calls prophets, and that there is safety with them, notwithstanding the twists and turns of telestial complexity and mortal fallibility.
 “The church’s First Presidency approves each of the enhanced topic pages….’ The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve both have been very supportive of this process,’ Elder Snow said.” – See Tad Walch, “LDS Church enhances web pages on its history, doctrine,” Deseret News (9 December 2013).
 Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), 183.
 Church historian Leonard Arrington, “asserts that President Lee, shortly before his death, sought the Lord’s will on the question of blacks and the priesthood during’three days and nights [of] fasting in the upper room of the temple,…but the only answer he received was “not yet.” Arrington relied on an unidentified person close to President Lee, but President Lee’s son-in-law and biographer found no record of such an incident and thought it doubtful.” – Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), working draft chapter 20, page 22, footnote 105; citing for the affirmative Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian and Arrington to author, February 10 and June 15, 1998; for the negative, L. Brent Goates, interview by author, February 9, 1998.
 Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 20, page 22; citing Goates, Harold B. Lee, 506, quoting UPI interview published 16 November 1972.
 “On the Record: ‘We Stand For Something’ President Gordon B. Hinckley [interview in Australia],” Sunstone 21/4 (Issue #112) (December 1998): 71.
 Dallin H. Oaks cited in “Apostles Talk about Reasons for Lifting Ban,” Daily Herald, Provo, Utah (5 June 1988): 21 (Associated Press); reproduced with commentary in Dallin H. Oaks, Life’s Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2011), 68-69.
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.
Following the living prophets is something that must be done in all seasons and circumstances. We must be like President Marion G. Romney, who humbly said, “. . . I have never hesitated to follow the counsel of the Authorities of the Church even though it crossed my social, professional, and political life.” (Conference Report, April 1941, p. 123.) There are, or will be, moments when prophetic declarations collide with our pride or our seeming personal interests. It can happen in many ways: businessmen caught in Sunday-closing efforts who must decide how they really feel about the fourth commandment; theater owners showing near-pornographic films who must decide between prophets and profits; politicians involved in an erring movement that calls forth a First Presidency statement, forcing them to decide which flag to follow; academicians whose discipline gives rise to moral issues on which the Brethren speak out, who must choose between peers and prophets; laborers who are caught in union-shop and free-agency situations. For the participants, such painful episodes tend to force home the question: Do I believe in the living prophet even when he speaks on matters affecting me and my specialty directly? Or do I stop sustaining the prophet when his words fall in my territory? If the latter, the prophet is without honor in our country!
– Neal A. Maxwell, Things as They Really Are, 73.
And too there are those who simply don’t wish to appear too committed, for fear this will cost them credibility in their country:
We must never underestimate the erosive power of routine and repetition insofar as the cares of the world are concerned. There are, depending upon one’s particular cluster of cares, different things to be guarded against. Regardless of role, the challenge is there for us all….
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.
For the person involved in government or politics, the constant striving for preeminence or the challenge over turf can get in the way of giving service to others. Some civil servants are barely civil. For some politicians, “getting even” is, somehow, seen as succeeding.
– Neal A. Maxwell, Sermons Not Spoken (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1985), 10-11.
Secularism, too, has its own “priests” and is jealous over its own “orthodoxy.” Those who choose not to follow Him are sometimes quick to say “Follow me.” They enjoy being a light, and the accompanying recognition and reward are not unpleasant.
– Neal A. Maxwell, Plain and Precious Things (Deseret Book, 1983), 87.
To mix religion with secularism is an especial treat. The recognition and rewards will be loud and effusive–in some quarters.
The risk is that secularism is a jealous god, and soon pushes out anything living in revealed religion. One is left with a shell or outline: the skeleton of systemic theologies or the specter of the god of the philosophers.
Such things are welcomed, in some quarters, because they are safe and forever tentative. One can control this god and his/her/its doctrines, such as they are. One needn’t be embarrassed by them.
As many know, it was recently General Conference for the Church. It is always a vaguely surreal experience for me to, after I have heard conference, to see what some vocal members of the Church are then grousing about immediately afterwards. As Elder Maxwell put it:
Those who make demands of the Lord Himself (or His mortal leaders) to perform according to their criteria actually want a God who will serve them, not vice versa!
– Neal A. Maxwell, Not My Will, But Thine (Deseret Book, 2008), 92.
I’ve often wondered why such people behave as they do. It seems so pointless, so self-contradictory. What is the point of a faith or religion that we can affect with political tactics and public pressure? Do they see religion as only—or primarily—an instrument of power, and are simply upset that they don’t wield it, or that it isn’t being exercised as they think it should? Worse, do they think everyone sees it as they do?
Some dismiss the Church out of hand for not being trendy in its theology and for being authoritarian. To such I say, better a true theocracy with a little democracy than a democracy without any theology. Yes, the kingdom of God is a kingdom; there is no “one man, one vote” rule between its King and its citizens.
Isn’t the point, instead, to get something we couldn’t get in any other way? If the Church is merely to imitate whatever social or political priorities strike me as most wise, do I need it at all? Shouldn’t I be possessed of a radical humility that suggests that I don’t know the answers, I can’t see what’s coming, and the fact that the human track record for anyone weighs against me or anyone else doing something that isn’t disastrous? Human history is largely a march of folly, a tale of utopias turned to disasters, and sometimes-well-intentioned efforts to improve things foundering on the shoals of human nature and unintended consequences.
That type of humility, I think, explains why the Church is led by councils, and why it does not innovate without revelation:
Some chafe unduly at the carefulness in the Church. They think of themselves as being ready to go when it is being ready to follow that is the skill needed at the moment.
– Neal A. Maxwell, All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience (Deseret Book, 2007), 106.
But, people with noisy advice and complaints are not typically inclined to follow. And, it is then not surprising that in their preoccupation with what the apostles and prophets “ought” to do, they ignore or disparage what they are told to do.
The critics of the Church, who are often those within the Church, frequently say, “Why doesn’t the Church do this or that?” or “Why does the Church do this or that?” Those who desire to make the greatest demands of the Church are usually those who make the fewest demands of themselves in terms of their discipleship.
– Neal A. Maxwell, Wherefore Ye Must Press Forward (Deseret Book, 2009), 69
Leo Strauss had it right: “True prophets, regardless of whether they predict doom or salvation, predict the unexpected, the humanly unforeseeable. What would not occur to men, left to themselves, to fear or to hope.”
Anyone trying to use the public pressure tactics of identity politics tacitly declares that he or she simply doesn’t believe this. To use such tactics proclaims that we have made our decision—we have our answer, we are not seeking one.
For, if we truly seek revelation, why would we try to force or manipulate it? Do we think that God or his leaders need us shouting vocally? Can God not do his own work? Are his leaders so blind and deaf to private expressions of concern that they need the spotlight of publicity to force their hands?
And, why complain when we do not get what we want? Should we not rather acknowledge that we want to do God’s will? And, cannot we be humble enough to admit that despite our best efforts and brilliance, we might be very mistaken about what that is?
And, at the very least, ought I not to be wary when what I want God to do meshes so well with my own desires and with the world’s current sensibility? When his commands dovetail so nicely with my own power or interest? When I get what I want through lobbying? How, then, would I ever know that I am wrong?
I am far more comforted when God tells me to do things that make me uncomfortable.
Fortunately, this happens often–every general conference, at the least.
I presume he rarely needs to bother me about following my bliss.