Following the Advice of Brigham Young and George Albert Smith

By: Stephen Marsh
August 31, 2012

When I was first at BYU, Spencer W. Kimball gave a talk that stayed with me ever since.

He worked off Brigham Young’s comment “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.” and implied that blind obedience would lead us straight to hell.

Who Said That? reprises that, in the best of ways, which got me to thinking about the entire subject.  I really appreciated what Winterbuzz had to say there.
To what she said, I have the following quote to add:

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 [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.”

Again 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.

Faithfully yours,

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.

That is what George Albert Smith had to say in response to “When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done.”

Do you think he was right? Was Spencer W. Kimball right in his warnings?

What do you think?

13 Responses to Following the Advice of Brigham Young and George Albert Smith

  1. Hedgehog on August 31, 2012 at 8:09 AM

    Yes and yes.
    We need to think and to be able to work things out for ourselves. How else can we become like God? For me following blindly is like taking a journey with my eyes shut, sitting through a lesson without listening and learning. We might have got it right (and only in so far as those we followed did so) but missed so much, learnt so little.

    I was discussing this subject with child 1 only yesterday afternoon, who said (I was so pleased)that although sometimes we hear that we will be blessed for following our leaders regardless of whether they are right, how much greater might the blessing be for doing the *right* thing having workied it out for ourselves.

    I love that hymn.

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  2. Bennett on August 31, 2012 at 8:36 AM

    So George Albert Smith published one message to the entire Church, and then corrected it for just one member.

    Why did he not publish a correction for the whole Church? Was he being irresponsible or disingenuous?

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  3. Bonnie on August 31, 2012 at 8:40 AM

    I am glad that my kids throw a cloak of mercy over me when, without sufficient forethought, I preach inaccurate doctrine in our family life or make statements that can’t be applied consistently in every context. I agree with one of the commenters at FMH who noted that all of the statements were over 30 years old, with the exception of one, which was 15 years old. I think the church has made great strides, especially with the recent talk on the gospel and the church, to clarify. It’s a difficult thing to correct past leaders. Loved the letter quote, Stephen.

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  4. Matthew on August 31, 2012 at 8:48 AM

    This would be more persuasive if the bulk of Winterbuzz’s statements didn’t occur *after* GAS.

    There will always be tension between authoritarian and individualistic elements in an institutional religion, and one can always more-or-less official quotes to justify either side. What matters isn’t what quotes we can find, but which ones have their ideas incorporated into the mainstream. And it’s hard to dispute that Mormonism, as she is currently played, places the emphasis on conformity of thought and practice.

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  5. Stephen M (Ethesis) on August 31, 2012 at 8:51 AM

    Bennett, quit trolling. A committee published a message and President Smith acknowledged it was wrong, mistaken and embarrassing.

    Hedgehog, thanks. I should not that organizations do better if they can maintain a dynamism between following orders and thinking for themselves. God keeps trying to tell us that.

    Bonnie, you are right that we could all use a little more kindness to each other, a little less mean spirited approach.

    And, many of the contrary statements are old too. We need a dynamic balance. I probably should blog on that as well.

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  6. Winterbuzz on August 31, 2012 at 9:00 AM

    This is an excellent follow up and I’m glad you shared it. I think the very fact that church leaders statements sometimes seemingly contradict or disagree speaks to the fact of free thought. That is comforting to me.

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  7. Howard on August 31, 2012 at 9:14 AM

    As a Mormon are free to think and believe as you long as you keep it to yourself if it falls outside the correlated gospel or current practices of the church.

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  8. annegb on August 31, 2012 at 9:40 AM

    I am frequently dismayed at the idea that we must be sheep and the idiocy that comes from it. Last week, I (once again) objected to the “men must give the opening prayer” policy. I suspect the executive secretary who I hinted was sexist thinks I’m apostate. Makes me livid. Frankly, I bet it makes God, Jesus and Joseph Smith mad, too.

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  9. Stephen M (Ethesis) on August 31, 2012 at 10:06 AM

    Annegb // I agree. Matthew, Kimball’s warning was prophetic in my mind.

    But I really do need do do a post on the dynamic tension of acting in concert and of thinking.

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  10. Mike S on August 31, 2012 at 12:11 PM

    It is unfortunate that the Church “corrects” doctrines (or at least generally understood and accepted practices) through press release, etc.

    A perfect example occurred this week. If anyone saw the NBC Rock Center documentary, the very Mormon family had parents who implied that Coke was against the Word of Wisdom. The mother said she never drank it. The father sheepishly said he liked Dr Pepper. Among a fairly high subset of the active Mormon population, this is the accepted practice. They don’t sell caffeinated drinks at BYU. Etc.

    Yet the Church came out with some comments on the documentary. It was a single blog post in the official Mormon Newsroom (which I know you all regularly read):

    Finally, another small correction: Despite what was reported, the Church revelation spelling out health practices (Doctrine and Covenants 89) does not mention the use of caffeine. The Church’s health guidelines prohibit alcoholic drinks, smoking or chewing of tobacco, and “hot drinks” — taught by Church leaders to refer specifically to tea and coffee. *

    This very specifically and in black and white provides a “small correction” to what is basically understood by many members and which was shown as a practice by believing members – caffeinated drinks are NOT against the Word of Wisdom by.

    And note the asterisk. The original wording said that “the church does not prohibit the use of caffeine” and that the faith’s health-code reference to “hot drinks” “does not go beyond [tea and coffee].” It was changed after it was originally released to the current wording on the website to “does not mention…”.

    If this all seems confusing, it is because it is. President Hinckley, in a 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace, said that we DON’T drink caffeinated soda.

    MW [voiceover; footage of Hinckley interview]: Example. Mormons adhere to a very strict health code.
    MW: No alcohol, no tobacco, no coffee, no tea, not even caffeinated soft drinks…
    GBH: Right.

    So, we still see some teachings spread wide by leaders, yet corrected with buried paragraphs in obscure blog posts – even as recently as this week.

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  11. Karen on September 1, 2012 at 12:35 AM

    When our Church truly practices the Christlike principle of tolerance, kindness and mercy for those who struggle, we will see amazing growth and happiness among Church members. We will see sinners embraced, the poor included, and the weak strengthened. Right now those who stray from obeying Church principles are either ostracized, disfellowshipped, or excommunicated, even when they are repentant, humble followers of Christ. His example with the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, and his close friendship with Mary Magdelene reveal a God who forgives readily, embraces and edifies sinners, and cherishes all of his children, including those who are “lost.”

    I long for the day when our Church recognizes that God is truly no respector of persons and that He loves His children unconditionally and infinitely. That is the God I love and worship. That is the God I hope that our Church will begin to teach about and revere.

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  12. Jon on September 1, 2012 at 8:41 AM

    Considering the quotes that the prophet will never lead the church astray is taught in the gospel essentials manual and other places makes one believe these teaching are current. Also, we mustn’t forget the teaching of Hinckley and no earrings which was later reinforced with the story of the young man that wouldn’t marry his fiance.

    The scriptures teach that leaders of the church can lead the people astray. Spiritual liberty dictates that we don’t blindly follow as current leaders preach.

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  13. ajax on September 1, 2012 at 7:04 PM

    Joseph Smith Jr.:
    We have heard men who hold the priesthood remark that they would do anything they were told to do by those who preside over them — even if they knew it was wrong. But such obedience as this is worse than folly to us. It is slavery in the extreme. The man who would thus willingly degrade himself should not claim a rank among intelligent beings until he turns from his folly.
    A man of God would despise this idea. Others, in the extreme exercise of their almighty authority have taught that such obedience was necessary, and that no matter what the Saints were told to do by their presidents, they should do it without any questions.
    When Elders [leaders] of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they [the leaders] have it in their hearts to do wrong themselves.( Millenial Star, Archive Volume 14, Number 38, Pages 593-595).

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