Light is an important symbol in Christianity. Jesus said:
I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.
Light is always associated with good in the scriptures (and darkness, of course, represents evil and error). In the LDS Church, light takes on a special significance in that there is a light within all of us, regardless of religion or faith, a light that emanates from God through Jesus. This light has a special purpose, outlined in Moroni 7:18-19:
And now, my brethren, seeing that ye know the light by which ye may judge, which light is the light of Christ, see that ye do not judge wrongfully; for with that same judgment which ye judge ye shall also be judged.
Wherefore, I beseech of you, brethren, that ye should search diligently in the light of Christ that ye may know good from evil; and if ye will lay hold upon every good thing, and condemn it not, ye certainly will be a child of Christ.
The LDS Church’s web site defines the Light of Christ and how it influences us:
The Light of Christ is the divine energy, power, or influence that proceeds from God through Christ and gives life and light to all things. The Light of Christ influences people for good and prepares them to receive the Holy Ghost. One manifestation of the Light of Christ is what we call a conscience.
Elder Boyd K. Packer expanded on this doctrine:
Regardless of whether this inner light, this knowledge of right and wrong, is called the Light of Christ, moral sense, or conscience, it can direct us to moderate our actions—unless, that is, we subdue it or silence it. (The Light of Christ, Ensign, April 2005, 8-14.)
In October 2010, Elder Quentin Cook compared our modern world to wartime England, when the lights went out at night to “make it harder for the attacking bombers to find a target.” He lamented that the Light of Christ seemed to be dimming in the lives of many: “As Latter-day Saints, we need to do our best to preserve light and protect our families and communities from this assault on morality and religious freedom.”
In short, the Church teaches that the Light of Christ–our conscience–is a precious gift from God that must be followed in order to be richly blessed:
Peace of conscience is the essential ingredient to your peace of mind. Without peace of conscience, you can have no real peace of mind. Peace of conscience relates to your inner self and is controlled by what you personally do. Peace of conscience can come only from God through a righteous, obedient life. It cannot exist otherwise. (Richard G. Scott, Peace of Conscience and Peace of Mind, October 2004 General Conference.)
But what happens when your conscience conflicts with the counsel of your Church leaders? What do you do when your conscience tells you that what they are asking is wrong? The Book of Mormon gives us a clear explanation. In 1 Nephi 4, Nephi comes across the drunken and prostrate figure of Laban, the man who had stolen Lehi’s wealth and refused to give him the brass plates:
10 And it came to pass that I was constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban; but I said in my heart: Never at any time have I shed the blood of man. And I shrunk and would that I might not slay him.
11 And the Spirit said unto me again: Behold the Lord hath delivered him into thy hands.
The angel gives Nephi several reasons why he should kill Laban, and Nephi eventually overcomes his conscience and smites off Laban’s head “with his own sword.”
(To be fair, the Bible also present such a moral dilemma when Abraham is commanded to sacrifice Isaac, but that was just a test, apparently.)
In short, we might summarize the Church’s attitude as “follow your conscience unless told otherwise.” Joseph Smith wrote that conscience is to be subordinated to obedience; disciples must His “will in all things [and] will listen to my voice and to the voice of my servant whom I have sent.
He further taught, “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be, and often is, right under another. … Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is. … Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive.”
But how are we to know what is right in each circumstance? Should we rely on our conscience? No, we should obey God and His servants, “even things which might be considered abominable to all who understand the order of heaven only in part, but which in reality were right because God gave and sanctioned by special revelation.”
In other words, the Light of Christ is insufficient for us to know right and wrong; we must either gain our own testimony of what seems “abominable” or rely on those in authority above us who “understand the order of heaven” better than we do. (Note that this letter was written to Nancy Rigdon, who had rebuffed Joseph’s proposal of plural marriage.) Given that some of Joseph’s prospective wives were given very little time, if any, to make a decision about accepting his advances, we can assume that he expected them to accept on faith, trusting that he was in the right, “although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.” The implication is obvious: in the absence of a confirming testimony, follow the leadership of the Church, even if what they tell you violates your conscience.
Michael Quinn refers to this as “theological ethics,” but whatever it is called, the important point is that loyalty to the church and its leaders overrules anything else, including one’s own conscience. Apostle Matthias Cowley understood this point when explaining why he “pre-dated” plural marriages so no one would know they took place after the first Manifesto: “I am not dishonest and not a liar and have always been true to the work and to the brethren…We have always been taught that when the brethren were in a tight place that it would not be amiss to lie to help them out. … I would lie like hell to help the brethren.”
This teaching continues through current church leaders. Ezra Taft Benson cited Marion G. Romney as follows:
I remember years ago when I was a Bishop I had President [Heber J.] Grant talk to our ward. After the meeting I drove him home….Standing by me, he put his arm over my shoulder and said: “My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.” Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, “But you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray.” [In Conference Report, October 1), p. 78]
What I find interesting here is that we are told here that, even if something appears to be completely wrong, it isn’t, because “the Lord will never let His mouthpiece lead the people astray.” We are left to conclude that, in a conflict between our own conscience–the Light of Christ–and obedience to the prophet, we are to set aside our conscience and obey. Lest anyone think I am exaggerating, I would simply say that I do not ever recall a conference talk, a church manual, or a prophet telling us that following the prophet is optional and depends on our conscience. A good example of this comes from Gordon B. Hinckley’s counsel for women in the church to wear only one pair of earrings. Shortly thereafter, Apostle David Bednar applauded the faithfulness of one who man who had heard President Hinckley’s talk and was dating a young woman who wasn’t as eager as he was to obey:
“This was a valuable piece of information for this young man, and he felt unsettled about her nonresponsiveness to a prophet’s pleading. For this and other reasons, he ultimately stopped dating the young woman because he was looking for an eternal companion who had the courage to promptly and quietly obey the counsel of the prophet in all things and at all times. The young man was ‘quick to observe’ that the young woman was not ‘quick to observe.'”
I could give many more examples, but it is clear that, as Bruce McConkie said, “Obedience is the first law of heaven, the cornerstone upon which all righteousness and progression rest. It consists in compliance with divine law, in conformity to the mind and will of Deity, in complete subjection to God and his commands” (in chapter 17, “Obedience, a Law of Heaven,” Old Testament Course Manual, LDSCES).
I’ll just close with one more example from Boyd K. Packer:
There is the need now to be united with everyone facing the same way. Then the sunlight of truth, coming over our shoulders, will mark the path ahead. If we perchance turn the wrong way, we will shade our eyes from that light and we will fail in our ministries. (Talk to the All-Church Coordinating Council, May 18, 1993.)
It’s a curious image, isn’t it? We are all to face the same way, with our backs to the light.