Monday, November 3, 2008

Thinking for Yourself and/or Following the Bretheren--A Dichotomy?

Recent events bring up the apparent dichotomy of thinking for oneself versus following the Bretheren--an issue worthy of discussion. Obviously this tension has been highlighted by the recent political events in California, but the issue isn't new, and it's always nice to learn from other people's perspectives. Anti-Mormons love to bring up the "when the prophet speaks, the thinking is done" quote, but usually fail to include George Albert Smith's clarification to that statement.

In response to a letter of concern, President Smith said 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 [499] 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 free
To choose his life and what he'll be,
For this eternal truth is given
That God will force no man to heaven."

I suppose Steve Young, along with Joseph Smith, would also say: ""I want liberty of thinking and believing as I please." After all, it is very stereotypical to suggest that all Mormons think alike. Steve Young's great, great, great grandfather, Brigham Young once said: "There is too much of a sameness in this community. . . . I am not a stereotyped Latter-day Saint and do not believe in the doctrine . . . away with stereotyped 'Mormons'!" (JD 13:153, 55, as quoted by Hugh Nibley).

I’ve found that I personally resist being categorized as one type of person or another. I’m really hesitant to apply labels to myself and to others. I’m not sure if I can articulate all the reasons why. I suppose sometimes they’re actually helpful, but I hate feeling that I’m being pigeon-holed or cornered into being or thinking a certain way along with a certain group. It’s more liberating to be open minded to the wisdom of all, no matter where it is found, and to apply it. In other words, I’m open to good ideas no matter who presents them or where they come from. I might disagree with what one person thinks is a good idea, but I’ll hesitate to label that person out of respect for the fact that people can change.

Likewise, it bugs me when some people treat politics as if our faithfulness is contingent on which party we belong to, how we vote, or act as if the "other side" is evil. I seek out a more reasonable, moderate, middle ground. Our own eleventh Article of Faith has so many implications: "We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may."

My hope here is to get people to think, and ideally to respectfully share their thoughts, so that I can benefit from a more enlightened and diverse conversation than that which would take place between me and myself. My open question for any visitor here is how do you understand/reconcile the issue of "thinking for yourself" and being "obedient" by "following the Prophet"?


Anonymous said...

I have stated elsewhere that I believe that the Church's official position with respect to LDS government officials is or should be the same with respect to LDS voters:

"Elected officials who are Latter-day Saints make their own decisions and may not necessarily be in agreement with one another or even with a publicly stated Church position. While the Church may communicate its views to them, as it may to any other elected official, it recognizes that these officials still must make their own choices based on their best judgment and with consideration of the constituencies whom they were elected to represent."


Sally F said...

Thanks, Clean Cut! I was just thinking this morning a lot of the same thoughts regarding party affiliations and this election. I hate the whole good vs. evil; wrong vs. right thing that's been going on.

I personally think that there are a lot of good things about both candidates, and some less desirable things about both candidates. That I don't feel that one or the other is evil or even a bad choice doesn't make me less faithful.

I've enjoyed our political discussions and find your open-mindedness refreshing.

J+C Wood said...

I learned this lesson during my third year of marriage.

Thinking for myself, or following my wife?

Does she get her way, or do I get mine?

Am I in charge here, or is she?

I think it is the same question with the same answer.

Back in the day we were on vacation with my side of the family. (I think it is universal that newish couples will have arguments in this situation.) Suffice it to say that my plans clashed with those of my wife. Normally I would let her preferences take precedence, but this time was different. My older brother was whispering in my ear, "you can't always do it her way".

For some reason, I listened. It caused this issue to surface in our marriage. Pride, stubbornness, and rebellion enticed me to prove, just once, that I had a will of my own and had the capacity to exercise it. It wasn't about who would take the baby anymore. It was about 'when push came to shove, who would win?'; Me or my wife? Who would control the actions of our family? It all boiled down to immaturity, insecurity, and pride.

At that time I learned the lesson that, I am completely in charge of my life. I can do what ever I want. This just IS so, I don't have to force it. I don't have to prove it. I also realized that what I want to do with my life is give my wife what she wants. I like it, and I have considerable talent. I take my will power and I choose to make her way work. I choose to make it our way. I have the power to do that, and I do.

I believe it is the same with the prophets of God. I think for myself because there is no other way to do it. It is my brain and I use it. When I follow the prophet it is because I am choosing to follow. The idea that I must prove that I can think for myself only comes from immaturity, insecurity, and pride.

I trust myself enough to believe that my own thoughts are good and smart. I also trust the prophets. I'm actually smart enough to trust their judgement more than my own. If I disagree with them, I choose to make their way work. It actually builds my self-esteem to know that I'm smart enough to do this.

It really comes down to being able to trust someone else. I trust my wife, and I trust the Brethren. I can easily do things their way and feel like I'll get to the right place; the place I want.

Trust + Action = Faith. It is ok to think differently than the leaders of the Church, but if you can't follow them anyway, then you quite simply have weak faith. If that upsets you, don't fret. It's a common ailment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a thought-provoking post! I love this statement by Brigham Young that I think addresses your question. See my post Know for Themselves at

Clean Cut said...

Thanks to all for the great comments. I appreciate the perspectives.

Jared, I think your comment about faith is right on and exactly what my wife and I have been talking about. Faith and trust are quite a combination and a form the critical bridge to reconciling this apparent "dichotomy". I really do believe it all comes down to faith.

Any other thoughts so we can build on this theme?

Clean Cut said...

Greg, I'll add that quote by Brigham Young here:

"You may know whether you are led right or wrong, as well as you know the way home; for every principle God has revealed carries its own convictions of its truth to the human mind. . . . What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? 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, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. 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. This has been my exhortation continually"

-Young, Brigham. Journal of Discourses. 9:150-151

Clean Cut said...

I'm realizing that most of the time I don't even need to spend much time "questioning" things because the Spirit of the Lord confirms the truth of what is taught almost instantaneously in my mind and heart. Hence one more reason why I believe the Holy Ghost is the greatest gift we can enjoy on this side of the veil.

Anonymous said...

The Brigham Young quote gives the key: We find out for ourselves - "inquire" - to learn if what we are taught is correct or not. That's the key. Most Saints fail to make the inquiry. They just trust and obey, a thing Brigham "feared most."

Give careful heed to the Brethren, but test their teachings by the Spirit. Not doing so means we suffer from the Cowdery Syndrome: the failure to ask, thinking it will be authomatically given without studying it out in our heart and our mind.

I've had to walk that tightwire for many years now. It's much more difficult than simply trusting blindly. But, the results have been a firmer conviction and rewards beyond measure.

Clean Cut said...

Thanks Anthony. Great comment. I suppose we could dedicate an entire discussion to the topic of properly "inquiring" and what you called the "Cowdery Syndrome". I love it! Then we need to be humble enough to not let our own pride get in the way of feeling "that it is right" in both our mind AND in our heart.

"Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me

"But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.

"But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong"
-Doctrine and Covenants 9:7-9

Some things are meant to be a struggle...

Anonymous said...

For me the bottom line is I need to live my life to be in accordance with the Holy Ghost. If I'm in line to feel the Spirit, then when a leader speaks, he'll speak with the Spirit and it will confirm truth to me. If I don't feel the Spirit confirm one way or the other then I use my judgement.

Anonymous said...

I think what really bothers the critics of the Church are that our leaders don’t need to use extortion, coercion or anything of the like. What really irritates our critics is that we follow our leaders willingly. During the past fifty years the West has seen a rise of individualism. The individualists can’t imagine why anyone would want to participate in something bigger than himself or join a cause that offers no compensation. That would almost certainly require personal sacrifice, something that individualists avoid whenever possible.

Since they would never join a group that requires personal sacrifice, without offering some type of compensation, they assume that we must be forced, intimidated or brainwashed. After all, that’s the only way they see themselves sacrificing personal time, means, comfort, etc. so why wouldn’t it be true for us?

Anonymous said...

It is a matter of perception. Members of the church don’t generally feel controlled, however, we are comfortable with being led. There is a big difference. The latter implys choice. Our “followship” is centered in our belief that Christ leads this church and the prophet is just his earthly mouth piece.

Our agency is ours and cannot be taken from us. We choose to follow the Lord and His anointed.

We take great heed to the council in the Book of Mormon found in Helaman 5:12. We remember on whom our foundation is built.

Clean Cut said...

I came across a thought provoking post entitled "Wading Through Cultural Waters", and I'm enjoying the conversation, in light of my desire to better make sense of this topic. I recommend the post and the comments.

One quote from "Illogically Logical" that really resonates with me:

"The prophet leads and guides us, but we all are supposed to take that under advisement and then communicate with Lord to see how that applies to us. That is why Emma felt ok about not going with the Saints out West. That is why some Mormons didn't support prop 8. That is why even though I supported prop 8, I don't judge those who didn't. We are all entitled to our own answers through the spirit and not every persons answers will be the same."