It is often stated by critics of the Church that the LDS people are blind followers of the prophet, and that the Church expects and cultivates such blind obedience. A quote which they choose to offer in support of this misconception is that ‘when the prophet speaks, the thinking is done.’ This statement originally appeared in the Improvement Era, in June 1945, as the Ward Teaching message for the month. This message is reproduced here, in full, as it originally appeared.
Ward TeachingCONDUCTED UNDER THE SUPERVISION OF THE PRESIDING BISHOPRIC. EDITED BY LEE A. PALMER.
WARD TEACHERSThe teacher’s duty is to watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them;
And see that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking;
And see that the church meet together often, and also see that all the members do their duty. (D. & C. 20:53-55.)
Ward Teachers’ Message for June, 1945
NO Latter-day Saint is compelled to sustain the General Authorities of the Church. When given the opportunity to vote on the proposition in any of the several conferences held throughout the Church, he may indicate his willingness to sustain them by raising his right hand; he may manifest his opposition in like manner; or he may ignore the opportunity entirely. There is no element of coercion or force in this or any other Church procedure.
|I will give you one of the Keys of the mysteries of the Kingdom. It is an eternal principle, that has existed with God from all eternity: That man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy; and if he does not repent, will apostatize, as God lives. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 156-157.)|
The appearance of this message caused much concern among many inside and outside of the Church. Dr. J. Raymond Cope, the leader of the First Unitarian Society in Salt Lake City, was one of those concerned. He decided to express his concerns about the impact of this message in a letter to President George Albert Smith in November of the same year. The letter was cordial, and expressed the feeling that such a message was “doing inestimable harm to many who have no other reason to question the integrity of the Church leaders… this cannot be the position of the true leaders.”
President Smith responded to Dr. Cope with a letter of his own, designed to clarify the point, at the first of December. The letter, reproduced in full below, should lay to rest any misconception about whether the Church or its leaders expect blind obedience in any degree. (Items that are underlined are underlined in the original.)
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
Office of the First Presidency
Salt Lake City, Utah
December 7, 1945Dr. J. Raymond Cope
First Unitarian Society
13th East at 6th South Street
Salt Lake City, Utah
My dear Dr. Cope:
I have read with interest and deep concern your letter of November 16, 1945, in which you make special comment on “a short religious editorial prepared by one of your (our) leaders entitled “Sustaining the General Authorities of the Church’”. You say that you read the message with amazement, and that you have since been disturbed because of its effect upon members of the Church.
I am gratified with the spirit of friendliness that pervades your letter, and thank you for having taken the time to write to me.
The leaflet to which you refer, and from which you quote in your letter, was not “prepared” by “one of our leaders.” However, one or more of them inadvertently permitted the paragraph to pass uncensored. By their so doing, not a few members of the Church have been upset in their feelings, and General Authorities have been embarrassed.
I am pleased to assure you that you are right in your attitude that the passage quoted does not express the true position of the Church. Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church, which is that every individual must obtain for himself a testimony of the truth of the Gospel, must, through the redemption of Jesus Christ, work out his own salvation, and is personally responsible to His Maker for his individual acts. The Lord Himself does not attempt coercion in His desire and effort to give peace and salvation to His children. He gives the principles of life and true progress, but leaves every person free to choose or to reject His teachings. This plan the Authorities of the Church try to follow.
The Prophet Joseph Smith once said: “I want liberty of thinking and believing as I please.” This liberty he and his successors in the leadership of the Church have granted to every other member thereof.
On one occasion in answer to the question by a prominent visitor how he governed his people, the Prophet answered: “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”
Again, as recorded in the History of the Church (Volume 5, page 498  Joseph Smith said further: “If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way.”
I cite these few quotations, from many that might be given, merely to confirm your good and true opinion that the Church gives to every man his free agency, and admonishes him always to use the reason and good judgment with which God has blessed him.
In the advocacy of this principle leaders of the Church not only join congregations in singing but quote frequently the following:
“Know this, that every soul is freeAgain I thank you for your manifest friendliness and for your expressed willingness to cooperate in every way to establish good will and harmony among the people with whom we are jointly laboring to bring brotherhood and tolerance.
To choose his life and what he’ll be,
For this eternal truth is given
That God will force no man to heaven.”
Geo. Albert Smith [signed]
This letter can be found in the George A. Smith Papers (Manuscript no. 36, Box 63-8A), Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah. More detailed information on this topic can be found in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19:1 (Spring 1986), 35-39.