Obedience is the First Law of Heaven: An Early General Conference Meme?By: Hedgehog
Today’s guest post is by Hedgehog.
How do you feel about obedience? Not so long ago ago this post by Stephen resulted in a brief discussion about obedience. “Obedience is the first law of Heaven” is a phrase I have heard most of my life, it comes up fairly frequently in lessons about the subject in LDS manuals, sometimes as the title.
As I commented on Stephen’s post, I was talking to a friend who asserted that because obedience was the first law of heaven, learning to obey your priesthood leader was essential: that was what we’d have to be doing in the celestial kingdom. This sounded like an extreme view to me (though perhaps it was ‘priesthood leader’ that was the real red flag). The discussion on Stephen’s post resulted in my conducting a very swift internet search leading to this post, where robf asks “Where does the teaching come from?”, having traced the earliest source to a General Conference talk given by the then Elder Joseph F. Smith (hereafter referred to as JFS) in October 1873. The discussions there raised some interesting thoughts on the subject of obedience, and no-one suggested an earlier source for the quote. With this post I want, in part, to address the placing and context of the meme. I will also be referring to some of the comments made on robf’s post.
The overall message of the discourse is the importance of obedience. There does appear to be a fairly strong connection to obedience as covered in the endowment ceremony, and both men and women are specifically discussed. I found the tension between obedience as essential, only willing obedience being acceptable, knowledge and understanding being the root of that willingness, but obedience being the road to knowledge to be interesting, if somewhat circular. The discourse does display the same attitude towards the world we see today – world evil and corrupt, and all those outside the church get painted with that same brush, so not much seems to have changed there, and this is alluded to throughout.
The talk addresses our taking responsibility for our own actions and choices. There is a very much of its time section discussing man as head of the woman, but does state: “it is the duty of the man to follow Christ, and it is the duty of the woman to follow the man in Christ, not out of him.” and that: “she is responsible for her acts, and must answer for them. She is endowed with intelligence and judgment, and will stand upon her own merits as much so as the man.” This is followed by a brief reference to other talks in the conference “teaching the sisters that they must refrain from the fashions of Babylon” (is this fashion in the broader sense, or an early ‘modesty’ teaching, I wonder). There is then further discussion about Christ being responsible for the man and man for the woman culminating in this section in which the meme is embedded (emphasis added):
“So sisters, do not flatter yourselves that you have nothing to answer for so long as you may have a good husband. You must be obedient. Obedience is the first law of heaven. Without it the elements could not be controlled. Without it neither the earth nor those who dwell upon it could be controlled.”
Take the first three sentences here and the message looks like: Sisters, you must be obedient! Obedience is the first law of heaven!
It certainly sounds like it is the women who are being addressed at that point, else why not have ‘we’ as opposed to ‘you’ (the, ‘obey your priesthood leader’ in the discussion I was having, felt like this particular emphasis). The use of ‘you’ is specific emphasis here, given that the earlier sentences refer to men and women as categories but with the more general ‘she’ and ‘they’, and an earlier part of the talk does in fact use ‘we’, example: “We have got to learn to stand or fall for ourselves, male and female.” It seems he felt disobedient women were something of a problem at this time (just one of the downsides of multiple wives perhaps?).
The way the meme is presented to us in our day, seems very much to be along the lines of: You must be obedient. Obedience is the first law of heaven. (sentences 2 and 3)
I am being a little bit picky here. Whilst in this talk the second sentence is clearly addressed to women, following on as it does from the first, if it applies to women it should also to apply to men. I am also concerned that this presentation is neither appropriate nor helpful, as I shall explain.
Reading another way, with a pause after the second sentence, and then take the third and fourth, we see what looks like this: Sisters, you must be obedient! pause Obedience is the first law of heaven, required to control the elements.
The remainder of the paragraph, does in any case, give an explanation for the necessity of obedience, and does refer to the natural world:
“The elements are obedient to his word. He said, “Let there be light and there was light.” He commanded the land and the waters to be divided, and it was so. When Christ commanded the storm to be still, and the sea to be calm, the elements were obedient to him. The earth, and all the worlds which God has made are obedient to the laws of their creation, for this reason there are peace, harmony, union, increase, power, glory and dominion, which could not exist without obedience.”
This seems to me to be a somewhat poetic link between what he terms as ‘elements’, not generally viewed as having agency today, and people, who do. It is entirely possible that JFS believed the elements to possess agency. In this case, it would make sense that he might describe obedience as the first law of heaven: that everything around us was doing exactly that which it was meant to do, and that “without obedience there could be no union or order, and chaos and confusion would prevail.” Just imagine if we couldn’t rely on gravity, or friction or any of the other physical, chemical or biological phenomena/processes that allow us to live our lives. Kathryn Carmona suggests obedience is a natural law in her comment on robf’s post, because of this.
I would ask if this sort of obedience can be the same kind of obedience applied to people with agency, and I don’t think it is necessarily helpful to use the same word, though scientists do talk about ‘obeying’ in the context of physical laws. My understanding had certainly been that agency was the thing that distinguished us from the rest of creation. The rest of creation would appear to be following natural law. Many of the things we are asked to obey would appear to be whims of man. As RickH commented:
“I’ve heard people quote D&C 130 trying to shore up the idea of “Obedience for Obedience’s sake,” and I don’t quite buy it. To me, it doesn’t say that the law irrevocably decreed in heaven is obedience. To me, what it’s saying is that blessings flow naturally from obeying the law to which they pertain.
“And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.”
“It’s kind of a natural law kind of thing. If you eat healthy food, you’ll be healthier. In Malachi, tithing is associated with specific blessings. If we obey that law, we receive those blessings. But what about multiple earrings? Is it a law unto itself? Which blessings are predicated on that law? Now, if you accept the “Obedience is the first law of heaven” idea, there will be some blessing that will come from just blindly obeying because if we obey, we’re blessed.”
What would be the natural law behind those practices many here describe as pharasaical, such as the earrings Rick mentions? And if, as JFS seems to be suggesting with his analogy, the point is to be obedient to some greater natural law, those kind of rules certainly seem to be a waste of all our time.
I find the JFS sentence referring to the control of those who dwell on earth to be somewhat troubling (scary, even), as I do the further remark: “The angels in heaven would not be controlled without it..” Was the word ‘control’ used rather differently 150 years ago, I wondered. So in true Mormon sacrament meeting talk style I checked the OED (my local library account allows me online access to the full entry). Suffice it to say, the meaning of the word has changed very little. A generous reading would take it to mean that the control comes from within the individual, but as written it looks like the action of an external agent. The use of control referring to self was used in the 1800s, including the time this talk would have been given, however in the examples given the self was specifically referred to one way or another in conjunction with the verb. Is there a particular US use at the time that would place ‘controlled’ as an adjective in this context? I much prefer the more generous reading. I don’t believe we fought for our agency in heaven only to be required to give it up, to be controlled by an external agency. That makes no sense at all.
JFS goes on to say:
“It is said in the Scriptures that all things are possible with God; but he only works in accordance with the principles by which he himself is governed”
To me, it supports the idea of the obedience of mankind to those governing principles (which I would suggest are the same as the natural law discussed above), in order to become like God. Certainly it indicates that God does, in some sense, obey something.
JFS also states:
“We talk of obedience, but do we require any man or woman to ignorantly obey the counsels that are given? Do the first Presidency require it? No, never. What do they desire? That we may have our minds opened and our understandings enlarged, that we may comprehend all true principles for ourselves; then we will be easily governed thereby, we shall yield obedience with our eyes open, and it will he a pleasure for us to do so.”
The desire is that that we willingly obey because we understand. Presumably those same principles by which God is also governed. It therefore surely behooves any leader who gives an instruction to be obeyed, to be prepared to identify and explain the principle behind it and thus aid understanding. This requires rather more than being told “obedience is the first law of heaven”, in my view. Obedience isn’t a principle that can explain. Steve Warren wrote:
“Church leaders, members and manuals often teach that obedience is the first law of heaven. This well-intended and rather impressive-sounding concept attempts to convey a correct principle; namely, that obedience to Christ is a fundamental attribute or behavior of those who follow him. Unfortunately, it also often is used to convey an incorrect principle; namely, that church members should automatically obey church leaders.”
Unnecessary rules, I feel, merely serve to muddy the waters, precisely because obedience is demanded, but no real underlying and eternal principle exists to support them, when what we need to be concentrating on are the governing principles they are obscuring. A wise parent does not lay down unnecessary rules for their children that they will then be required to enforce. I have been thinking much on the Saviour’s admonition that we become as little children, and little children ask ‘Why?’. They do it all the time. They do it because they want to understand. We shouldn’t have to stop asking why. Asking is part of the learning process.
JFS further said:
“Let us put away the foolish fashions of the world, live up to the truth, and seek to find out God, whom to know is life eternal. The road to this knowledge is obedience to his laws and to the whisperings of the still small voice in our own hearts. That will lead us into truth if we will hearken, and do not blunt the monitor that is within us.”
Firstly I would suggest the knowledge he speaks of here is an experiential knowledge: a deeper knowledge than that which can be obtained from any explanation. It does not preclude the necessity for our asking questions, or using our “intelligence and judgement” to “stand upon [our] own merits”. Secondly, he speaks of “obedience to his laws”: the laws of God, not the whims of man. In my experience, obedience to the whims of man does not lead to good fruits, and fails in developing that experiential knowledge. Thirdly, he speaks of following the Spirit, asking that we “not blunt the monitor that is within us”. JFS teaches the necessity both of obedience, and following the Spirit, as a partnership.
As the first law of Heaven? My own view, developed since Stephen’s post, is that obedience isn’t the sort of law that can be obeyed in and of itself. Rather it is a law in the sense of scientific laws, in that it can be observed from the outside, that things work out, when we all obey those governing principles that God obeys. In that sense, possibly, it could be described as the first law of heaven. As a meme, it is frequently misused.
How do you read it?