One of the most interesting debates I had recently with a family member concerned our interpretations of the statement that "the prophet will never lead the Church astray."
I like the following from Julie Smith, which she wrote in response to J. Stapley's car analogy:
"I think your driving-the-car metaphor can help us with the meaning of 'astray' (which, as far as I know, has never been officially or adequately defined):
God will not let the car be driven into a ditch. He would remove the driver first.
But that doesn’t mean that the prophet can’t drive a longer-than-necessary route, take a detour, or swerve so hard I throw up out the window, etc.
I can rest assured that I should be in the car, but not that I will enjoy the ride. :)"
Is this what was meant to be communicated by leaders who originally made the claim, or is this the responsive interpretation by those who are familiar enough about Church history to know that, by common lay standards, leaders have indeed led people astray?
This, of course, all begs the question of whether or not Woodruff was correct when he made this claim while defending the Manifesto.
Anonymous, I'm not going to pretend to know exactly what was meant by Wilford Woodruff when he originally made the claim. As Julie noted, the meaning of astray doesn't seem to have ever been officially or adequately defined.
I can comment, however, on the context in which Woodruff made the statement. He said this after making a seismic change in the Church by ending the practice of polygamy. A lot of LDS questioned him and whether he was a true prophet because plural marriages had been such a huge part of their faith and their teaching as well as their lives. I'm sure many wondered if they really were now expected to simply do an "about face". I think his quote was meant to reassure the Latter-day Saints that he wasn't crazy and that the Church would be alright:
Here's the actual quote: “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.”
Now, the meaning of that quote sometimes takes on a life of its own--even to the point that some people assume God micromanages the Church and even that the President of the Church is infallible--a very problematic interpretation. I think the car-analogy--as expressed by Julie--sits well well with me based on what I know (including historically) and also what I've personally observed/experienced.
Loyd/narrator, you are right, of course. Just because the president of the Church claims something doesn't necessarily make it "true". (Which is why I personally prefer a loose interpretation and a little more ambiguity.)
Of course, I know some members for whom this would be considered a mute point because the quote has been "canonized" as Official Declaration I.
But it's only fair to make note of that little issue known as circular reasoning, which in essence goes like this: "I know the prophet won’t ever lead the people astray because the prophet said so."
In a similar vein, I've always understood that quote to say that we have an ultimate destination in mind - becoming like God. With that objective, the Prophet will never lead the Church into a situation where its members will lose the opporunity to reach that destination.
Frankly, that's the only interpretation of the quote (and the actual word "astray") that makes sense to me - since "astray" actually means "off or away from a mark or target".
So, in historical context, as you said, he was saying, "None of you will lose your chance at exaltation by giving up polygamy. You still can be exalted even if you follow my counsel and stop. Likewise, even if future Prophets make radical changes to the Church's teachings or practices, those changes won't keep you from your ultimate destination."
The quote simply doesn't say Prophets (or others) are infallible, and it doesn't even say they always enact the pure will of God. It would be really nice if all members understood that.
Well said, Ray/Papa D. That's a great way of looking at it.
I should mention here that it has been pointed out that this oft quoted Woodruff quote is actually found in the excerpts section of three addresses he made about the Manifesto, and which are not part of the Official Declaration I that was actually voted upon and "canonized".
It's easy to see why some view it as "scripture" because it's right there, but it seems as though it should be treated like any other quote by a General Authority, and as non-binding as any other footnotes or study aids that are included in the scriptures.
Margaret Young recently shared some wisdom that I think is applicable applicable here:
“Finally, let me make a bold suggestion. I suggest that we Mormons have chosen the wrong paradigm to describe how the church functions under prophetic leadership. We seem to have gone with the Wilford Woodruff statement used to defend the manifesto, since he was speaking to people who had suffered and even gone to jail over polygamy:
‘[T]he Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so he will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty’ (Official Declaration 1).
“Since we have multitudes of instances where one prophet contradicts another, it’s likely that President Woodruff’s statement has a particular context and is confined to that. Armand Mauss, in a comment on February 22 at the Juvenile Instructor blog stated: ‘[T]his claim seems to have originated as a kind of guarantee from Wilford Woodruff in 1890, as he tried to reassure some of the apostles and others who questioned the legitimacy (or necessity) of the Manifesto. That was a fairly specific context, and no one at the time seemed to take it as a universal gospel principle. I never heard of it as I was growing up during the first half of the 20th century, as I said, but it began to occur (totally out of its original context) with increasing frequency as part of the “retrenchment” era after the 1960s to reinforce the ‘follow the prophet’ mantra that is now so familiar to us.”
“Would we not all be better served by acknowledging that the Prophet is exclusively entitled to the mantle of leadership over the Church, and that he will always do the best he can to transcend his own culture and tradition in serving God, though not every utterance he makes will constitute the mind and will of the Lord?
“I would far prefer President Lorenzo Snow’s description of Church governance:
‘Seventy years ago this Church was organized with six members. We commenced, so to speak, as an infant. We had our prejudices to combat. Our ignorance troubled us in regard to what the Lord intended to do and what He wanted us to do … We advanced to boyhood, and still we undoubtedly made some mistakes, which … generally arise from a …lack of experience. We understand very well, when we reflect back upon our own lives, that we did many foolish things when we were boys … Yet as we advanced, the experience of the past materially assisted us to avoid such mistakes as we had made in our boyhood. It has been so with the Church. Our errors have generally arisen from a lack of comprehending what the Lord required of us to do. But now we are pretty well along to manhood … When we examine ourselves, however, we discover that we are still not doing exactly as we ought to do, notwithstanding all our experience. We discern that there are things which we fail to do that the Lord expects us to perform, some of which He requires us to do in our boyhood. … While we congratulate ourselves in this direction, we certainly ought to feel that we have not yet arrived at perfection. There are many things for us to do yet.’ (April, 1900)
“And to that, I say amen.”
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