Whom he listeth to obey: spiritual confirmation and authority

A friend sent me a link to a fascinating (and depressing) exchange of letters in 1947 between Lowry Nelson (an LDS student doing research in Cuba) and the president of the Southern States LDS mission, and then later the First Presidency of the LDS church (at that time George Albert Smith; J. Reuben Clark, Jr,; and David O. McKay). In the exchange, Nelson states that he was, until that time, unaware of any “irrevocable church doctrine” regarding the denial of the priesthood to those of sub-Saharan African descent. The First Presidency firmly disabuses him of this notion, explaining that the restriction of priesthood blessings is a direct result of choices made in the premortal life. Further, they suggest specifically that the restriction came from the position of the spirits during the War in Heaven, during which one-third of the hosts of heaven followed Lucifer in rebelling against God; thus, they subtly support the common teaching that black Africans had been “fence sitters” in the War in Heaven, not actively fighting for God but passively watching the battle unfold.

What struck me most about the letters, however, is the First Presidency’s clear belief that Nelson had gone off the rails somehow:

Furthermore, your ideas, as we understand them, appear to contemplate the intermarriage of the Negro and White races, a concept which has heretofore been most repugnant to most normal-minded people from the ancient patriarchs till now.

What Nelson had done was to show, correctly, that notions of race common in the United States were quite foreign to people in places such as Cuba, where interracial marriage was definitely not “repugnant” to “normal-minded people.” This was apparently alarming enough for them to enjoin him to let go of the philosophies of men and embrace truth:

We should like to say this to you in all kindness and in all sincerity that you are too fine a man to permit yourself to be led off from the principles of the Gospel by worldly learning. You have too much of a potentiality for doing good and we therefore prayerfully hope that you can reorient your thinking and bring it in line with the revealed word of God.

As nauseating as that exchange is, it prompted me to think about LDS church members’ responsibility to sustain or follow their leaders. In this case, the leadership was quite simply wrong. Even the church now rejects what in 1947 was “doctrine,” meaning ironically that it supports Nelson, not the earlier prophets. The church’s current position is that no one knows why the restriction was implemented. In 2012, a BYU professor was roundly criticized for outlining the reasons for the restriction given by earlier church leaders, prompting an official response from the LDS church, which stated in part:

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.

I’m glad the church has rejected its racist past, but I do have a hard time with dismissing what prophets and apostles taught as revealed doctrine as mere speculation and opinion.

Since I read the letters, I’ve been thinking about this exchange as it illustrates perfectly what I see as a fundamental tension in Mormonism between following your own conscience and convictions, and obeying and sustaining church leaders.

All my life I have been taught that I have the right–maybe even the responsibility–to pray about counsel and instruction I receive from the leaders of the church. Such counsel is binding when the spirit confirms that it is true. A logical conclusion would be that, in the absence of such confirmation, the counsel would not be binding.

But I realize that, despite this teaching, in practice we are expected to obey by default. The underlying assumption seems to be that whatever we are instructed from our leaders will be confirmed by the spirit, so by default we are to obey automatically. Presumably we would go to the Lord for spiritual confirmation only when we had a personal disagreement with priesthood counsel.

I’m not talking about the discredited notion that “when the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done” but rather more subtle (and not so subtle) injunctions to obey without question. President Packer, for example, has taught that we must all face the same way, following our leaders; Elder Bednar has said that we must have “the courage to promptly and quietly obey the counsel of the prophet in all things and at all times”; and Elder Robert Oaks has taught, “For us, to ‘believe all things’ means to believe the doctrine of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ as well as the words of the Latter-day prophets. It means to successfully erase our doubts and reservations.”

So, in my view, the default position is that the prophet and the leaders are always right, but even if we do feel the need to get spiritual confirmation, it’s not exactly a fool-proof process. First of all, the leaders giving the counsel or teaching believe they are in line with the spirit. In the First Presidency’s 1949 statements about the “Negro,” they clearly stated that they were proclaiming doctrine that had been revealed to prophets and written in scripture. Similarly, Brigham Young stated that it was “revealed” doctrine that Adam is God. Nowadays both of these ideas have been discredited, with the LDS church now saying no one knows the reason for the priesthood restrictions, and Bruce R. McConkie famously saying that anyone who “believes the Adam-God theory does not deserve to be saved.” Do my spiritual confirmations or lack thereof trump those of my priesthood leaders? What if I don’t get a spiritual confirmation and others do? Who is right?

On one Mormon-themed message board, I tried to have a conversation about this fundamental tension between doing what you believe to be right and following your leaders, but it didn’t get very far. As far as I could tell, the consensus was that, if you have a moral or spiritual objection to priesthood counsel, you must already be out of tune with the spirit. That’s not a satisfactory answer, as it suggests that leaders are either always right or that we’ll be blessed for doing the wrong thing for the sake of obedience.

I’m not even sure I have a point here, but these thoughts have been going through my mind today.

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15 Responses to Whom he listeth to obey: spiritual confirmation and authority

  1. Missouri says:

    In 1 Corinthians ch 13…it says that prophecies will fail but charity never faileth. Those verses have beautiful and painful new meanding after reading the exchange with Dr. Nelson and the First Presidency.

    I enjoyed your post. We are encouraged to pray for a spiritual confirmation of truth but it just isn’t honest to say that if you get something different than you are supposed to, you deficient in some spiritual quality. What about investigators of the LDS Church…I always suggest that if they earnestly followed Moroni’s promise and didn’t feel it was true, do what they felt was right. Wish the Church would encourage the same. Ultimately, there is a tremendous problem with group think and leader worship (which is not scriptural). What a mess.

    Above all else, be true to thyself.

  2. Steelhead says:

    Proof that “god” doesn’t actually speak through the prophets of the LDS Church?

    They seem to be wrong more often than right.

  3. Odell says:

    In the end one has to be a peace. Unfortunately those who claim moral superiority sometimes have no real authority at all. Perhaps the scripture, “By their fruits, you shall know them” speaks loudest in the conversation between Prof. Nelson and LDS church leadership.

    In the end, the Emperor was just and only nude.

  4. Ray Agostini says:

    “The underlying assumption seems to be that whatever we are instructed from our leaders will be confirmed by the spirit, so by default we are to obey automatically. ”

    “But I realize that, despite this teaching, in practice we are expected to obey by default.”

    No, John, you’re not expected to “obey by default”.

    “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self security. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.” – Brigham Young.

    You’re so apt to spin the most negative personal interpretation on Mormonism, I could almost swear you’re biased, John.

    In any case, best wishes to you and your lovely wife and family.

    • runtu says:

      Ray, my experience in the church tells me that we are expected to obey by default. Am I biased? Of course, just as you are biased. But I stand by my statements here, as I wouldn’t have made them if I didn’t believe them. I respect that you disagree, but I don’t believe what I said was motivated either by bias or by a desire to “spin the most negative personal interpretation.”

      • robinobishop says:

        Most accurately, I find this generation who speak derisively of Mormon universal, international accord to be disobeying (even from each other) by default. If there is a common attribute your neighbors flourish about, it’s your universal cynicism. This is understood and found correct, given your spiritual leaders are so often untrustworthy. How are you to be lead down the path of truth being cynical?

    • robinobishop says:

      Odell,
      Being an Orthodox Christian, what moral authority do you keep? Does it amount to no more than a book?

      • Odell says:

        How do you define Orthodox Christian, why do you include me in said classification and what point are you attempting to make?

      • Robin Bishop says:

        I am asking two questions here. I cannot make a point unless
        they are answered. I now suppose you do not understand the Questions. You assert authority does not exist with an LDS Prophet…The presumption is that you speak from authority to pull that off.

    • “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self security. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.” – Brigham Young.

      You’re can’t be serious about this often quoted ruse (for lack or a better term, which is quite mild) by Brigham Young. Have you studied the history of Young and those who followed him to the Salt Lake basin learning what happened to many early LDS members who didn’t agree with him? “self security” — ha! The only security Brigham Young was concerned about was anything but the security of someone else’s ‘self’. Anything that threatened Brigham Young’s ‘security’ of adding to his coffers and collection of wives was met with being ‘cast out’ or even other types of violent repercussions carried out by his henchmen.

      Let me ask you: What do think would happen (reaction of the leadership) if someone stood up in a Fast and Testimony meeting and said, “After much prayer and fasting, I now know “by the whispering of the spirit” that gay men and women should be allowed to cohabit in the bonds of matrimony and have a fulfilling, loving, sexual relationship with their significant other (spouse) as do heterosexuals.”?

      What do think would have happened if someone in Brigham Young’s day in Salt Lake City stood up in a Fast and Testimony meeting in the Tabernacle and said, “After much prayer and fasting, I now know “by the whispering of the spirit” that people of all races, be them black, brown, white, yellow, or red are children of God. I know “by the whispering of the spirit” that all are equal in His eyes in every respect, and it makes no matter to Him who they inter-marry with. I know “by the whispering of the spirit” that it makes no difference to God whether its a blond, white skinned Swede marrying a black haired, olive skinned Italian, or a black, kinky haired African marrying a white, frizzy red haired Irish person.”?

      • Robin Bishop says:

        Speaking for Brigham, he would reply something on the order, “Brother Someone, for the most part we are in agreement. However, you are foolish to say you know God’s mind and what he does not care about. Brother Someone, I can assure you that God, by his nature, cares infinitely about it. ”

        I would remind you that the Mortal Messiah made it clear that He was on this planet to bring the Jew (alone) to the fold. Would you now accuse the Savior of unequal treatment as if He perpetrated some form of injustice?

  5. lynn thackeray says:

    I wonder how the current crop of leaders would react to someone who was as bold as Nelson was. He was a brave man who called it as he saw it, which in his words were White supremacy and racism.

    The sad fact is that time has exonerated Nelson. In 1947 and today, his arguments would be considered moral and right, while god’s anointed mouthpiece looks foolish, bigoted and petty.

    • Robin Bishop says:

      Lynn,
      Keeping to your way of thinking, any change in expression of doctrine as identified in the Old Testament would always make the previous prophet foolish, bigoted, and petty. Lynn, centuries later, after the crucifixion of the Savior, Paul would demand your silence on the matter, given you are but a woman without the privilege to speak. Just saying…..

  6. robinobishop says:

    Missouri,
    Orthodox (deficient) Christians too frequently do not know what the confirmation of the Holy Ghost FEELS like, so many in our company here inclusive. LDS Church investigators come to understand and then recognize the presence and as consequence are born again.

    For you, a great many people who are in accord must be guilty of groupthink. How do we arrive at one true church as the scriptures pronounce, if we are not all in one accord?

    Throughout, Paul demands that the church congregations preach only what he taught them of Christ and his doctrines.

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