Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, my Mom and Dallin Oaks, a Convergence

Stephen Marsh Mormon 31 Comments

Joseph Smith found language terribly important, and was clear that no translation into English could be perfect because of the limits of the language.  Brigham Young expounded on the theme a number of times, that all revelation that came through prophets, all scripture and all records had flaws because of the weaknesses of the language, the impact of culture and other overlays that create the connotations we live with and the sub-texts of our lives.  My first memory of a devotional at BYU was of Spencer W. Kimball quoting Brigham Young on how we would go astray if we relied on him for truth.  Brigham Young believed in the errant nature of language, scripture and revelation that came through men.

As a result, he taught a number of times on the essential nature of communing with God directly for truth and that anyone who failed to do so was at risk to go astray from where God wanted him or her to be — relying on what others said would not do the task of leading one to truth because everything that was said was flawed.

Of all things, Elder Oaks recent talk at Harvard made me think of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young in the lens of an experience my mother had.

She needed to sign a legal document and have it certified and sent to Greece.  So, she got the document, took it to the embassy in Los Angeles, and had it certified.  The official then typed a translated copy, put the original in a tray in the safe (along with a lot of other documents) and stamped wax and seals on the copy and mailed the copy off to Greece.

In theory, anyone who wanted to verify the document could come back to Los Angeles and compare the typing and the translation for themselves.

Elder Oaks suggested that revelation from prophets was like getting a certified copy and that we had access to God to confirm the meaning and accuracy of the copy.  It struck me that we had not so much the opportunity to do so, as the obligation to do so, much as Brigham Young preached, because the copy necessarily will have some flaws of language, culture and expression that only contact with the author can rectify as to our needs, understanding and comprehension.

To fail to seek God out is to guarantee that we will be misled.  Perhaps only in insignificant ways, perhaps more so (thinking of a translation of a text I studied in college that used the term “valley” when it turns out that the author meant “warm bath.”).  But we can’t know until and unless we seek out God for ourselves.

For me, as to Elder Oaks talk, that meant a convergence of meaning that included my mother, Brigham Young and Joseph Smith.  You probably don’t share my experiences with my mom, the context and meaning you might gain could well be different, as well it should, which is what inspiration and revelation is all about, bringing us to truth in spite of our differences.

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Comments 31

  1. Great post Stephen, I loved it. If more of us understood this concept, rather than abdicating our decision making to our leaders, things would likely be different, or at least, the rhetoric surrounding our decisions, and how we treat others would be different.

    The obvious problem with such a tactic (at least a cultural problem) is that personal queries to God about a prophet-proclaimed topic may yield results different than, or even contrary to said prophetic claim. This, obviously leaves members in a precarious position (most recently the Prop 8 issues come to mind since I lived in CA during that debacle). While we might well respond that for such people the revelation they received is true, our strong culture may lead toward ostracism, excommunication, or just plain old fashioned bad feelings.

    There is still a very strong element, in our church and culture, that when the prophet speaks, it is God’s will, and that prayers to God to confirm said message will absolutely be answered in the affirmative. This conveyed clearly in the assumption of “Elder Oaks suggested that revelation from prophets was like getting a certified copy and that we had access to God to confirm the meaning and accuracy of the copy.” I see this as an upshot of Mormonism, and a downside, and I have no idea how to get around the cultural problems on a community level. The only solution I have is a personal one to be open to the possibility that my views may not always correspond with what the prophet says, and the views of others may not either, but that that’s okay.

    Additionally, I will add that this type of approach seems to depend heavily on the subject at hand. For example, it might be that my revelation says I should vote ‘no’ on Prop 8. I suspect I won’t be excommunicated for such a thing (although I may get some strange looks in the hall at church). However, in that same vein, if my revelation says it’s okay to drink coffee, I won’t be able to obtain a temple recommend. The more “established” rules (doctrines?) are less available for personal interpretation than more recent ones that have not had 100 years of tradition weighing in on them.

  2. Thank you for flagging Elder Oaks talk and this post. His talk to LDSSA (not Harvard in general) is packed with statements that could embrace many posts…here are some of my quick impressions fwiw:

    “Seek first to understand,and then be understood.” For me personally I believe that many outside our faith understand us to the point of discomfort. Some real students of the gospel see our church/leaders as being mortal priestly gatekeepers employing microbehaviors (coffee, tithing, one and not two earrings) and demanding allegiance to doctrinal orthodoxy to determine who is celestial/exaltation.
    I could fully embrace Elder Oaks statement that “prophets of God” are certifying authorities and personal revelation will always confirm the truth of their statements IF he and others in our faith will also recognize that rarely (if ever) do prophetic utterances come from the priest class or an institutional church but rather from the wilderness and non-priest class (Amos, Lehi, Jeremiah (the non-approved class), Samuel, John Baptist, etc. etc.).

    So it is with the prophetic revelations of prophets of God. They are the certifying authorities that their teachings or directions are from God. Anyone who doubts this—and all are invited to ask questions about what is true—can verify the authenticity and content of the message by checking it with the Ultimate Source, by personal revelation. As Joseph Smith taught, “We never can comprehend the things of God and of heaven, but by revelation.”[14]

  3. I wonder what Elder Oaks remarks would be to someone who insists that a paticular Church policy, initiative, whatever, doesn’t jive with the copy in the vault.

  4. If I were a cynic, I might take his words to mean that Elder Oaks seems to believe that revelation for rank-and-file members of the church consists of getting a confirmation from God that whatever Elder Oaks and his pals say is right. But only if I were a cynic.

  5. “Elder Oaks suggested that revelation from prophets was like getting a certified copy and that we had access to God to confirm the meaning and accuracy of the copy”

    Yep! It’s crucial to access God to confirm the accurate “meaning” of what is said because everything is interpreted through the private and personal lens of experience, which too easily twists and shape-shifts.

    I had an experience a few years ago with something President Eyring said that I completely disagreed with and was even repulsed by. (President Eyring is one of my fav’s) but to me his counsel seemed to be fear-based rather than faith-based. It really bothered me. After thinking it over and mulling over my reaction to it and then after praying for clarity, I concluded that it was something I would let go because it didn’t seem to fit. What he meant to communicate was obviously not what I had understood (even though it was in print)and I was comfortable giving us both the benefit of the doubt.

    And most importantly, I still happily sustain him in his calling.

  6. “God, when he makes the prophet, does not unmake the man” — John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 19:14.

    I was interested Elder Oaks’ comparison to a presumption in the law: The statements of Church leaders are supposedly entitled to a presumption of authenticity.

    He didn’t address whether this presumption is rebuttable, and by what standard of evidence. That’s where things get sticky.

    I believe our duty to sustain Church leaders means to recognize their right to discharge the duties of their calling. Those duties include guiding the policy of the institutional Church, and giving counsel to Church members. That’s “counsel,” not “orders.” You obey orders; you hearken to counsel. Disobedience to the lawful orders of duly-constituted authorities you have consented to obey is a vice. Disregarding “counsel” is not. It may be dangerous — you go your own way at your own risk — but it is not inherently immoral. We owe Church leaders a duty to hearken to their counsel — to give them a fair hearing — but we are not required, under penalty of spiritual sanction, to give the assent of faith to everything they say. We know, for a surety, that they are sometimes wrong (as are the rest of us), and are entitled to govern ourselves accordingly.

  7. “To fail to seek God out is to guarantee that we will be misled.”

    Given the small (insignificant?) membership in the church and yet the billions of religious worldwide, what does seeking God guarantee?

  8. I’m afraid in this setting asking for confirmation presupposes that you will only receive that, confirmation. To receive any other answer says you didn’t pray with faith or were deceived in the answer you received. Some who continued polygamy after the first and second manifestos did so on the basis of prayer but the leadership would say they were and are in error. Some who could not support proposition 8 or the marriage ammendment to the consititution would say they acted on the basis of prayer but again the leadership would say they were deceived. So what is the point of prayer if only one answer is expected and allowed?

  9. Moses said: “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29)

  10. I think many in the Mormon church do not understand what it means to sustain. I always say it means to give support to. In other words, a parent can sustain (support) their alcoholic adult son or daughter but not sustain (support) the child’s action to drink booze. I support President Monson’s right to receive revelation for the church, but I will still seek the Holy Ghost to guide me with those things I disagree with.

  11. “quoting Brigham Young on how we would go astray if we relied on him for truth”

    Great post Stephen. Thanks. I love this sentence – kinda seems contradictory to the “never lead us astray” doctrine… Leaders may very well lead us astray if we take out our own agency, personal revelation, study, etc. out of the equation.

  12. #12: I believe “astray” in that phrase has been defined down to “into a total train wreck that permanently ruins the Church.” Beyond that standard, Church leaders have broad latitude to lead members nominally “astray,” in the conventional dictionary sense of “into less-than-catastrophic error.”

  13. Thomas, I would agree with you, but I think many Mormons would not. It seems that most believe “astray” to mean that the current prophet cannot say anything that is untrue. Prop. 8 would be a good example. Many have said that we need to get in line with the prophet and vote the way he tells us to.

  14. The big take-away point on Prop 8 is that you could disagree publicly, pay for political advertisements on the other side (like Steve Young’s wife did) and remain a member in good standing with a temple recommend.

  15. #17:

    “[E]ven with the best of intentions, [church governance] does not always work the way it should. Human nature may express itself on occasion, but not to the permanent injury of the work.” (Boyd K. Packer, “”I Say unto You, Be One,'” in BYU Devotional and Fireside Speeches, 1990-1991 (Provo, Utah: University Publications, 1991), 84.)

    Most Mormons may believe otherwise (and Church culture may encourage them to believe as they do, and Church leaders may find it expedient not to go out of their way to disabuse them), but the Church does have at least a nominal position that its leadership isn’t infallible, and that “astray” doesn’t mean “into any error at all.” Church leaders may err, but they won’t be allowed to completely destroy the Church.

    This is actually very similar to how the Catholics believe the Church is “supernaturally preserved” from falling into mortal error: Popes can get things wrong, but they won’t be allowed to get things so wrong that the Church ceases to be the guardian of core Christian doctrine.

  16. As someone once said, Catholics are taught that the Pope is infallible, but they don’t really believe it; Mormons are taught that the Prophet is fallible, but they don’t really believe it.

  17. “The big take-away point on Prop 8 is that you could disagree publicly, pay for political advertisements on the other side (like Steve Young’s wife did) and remain a member in good standing with a temple recommend.”

    I really don’t think you meant exactly what you said, Stephen. If we say the biggest thing we learned from prop 8 was that the church wouldn’t punish its members from exercising their consititional rights (“the most sacrosanct and individual rights in the United States — that of free expression to participate in an election” according to lds.org), then the church is worthless.

    The church actually referred to the freedom of expression in issuing a statement regarding the anti-LDS backlash in the wake of prop 8, wanting antis to give LDS members the right to vote and publicly endorse the church point of view. Presumably, the church actually believed the freedom of expression thingy and was talking about all people and all points of view.

  18. GBSmith, you said
    “I’m afraid in this setting asking for confirmation presupposes that you will only receive that, confirmation. To receive any other answer says you didn’t pray with faith or were deceived in the answer you received.”

    I think that trying to make it into a yes or no answer is going about it the wrong way. We should pray to understand what the speaker was trying to convey. Even if they did it poorly or had a couple points that were a little bit off, there is almost always a good message in what the prophet or apostle is trying to say. The reason we pray is confirm whether what we took away from the talk is what God wanted us to understand.

  19. Holden, if you campaigned for a pro-legalization of adultery and engaged in it, and claimed it was just political, you would get excommunicated. On the other hand, it has been fascinating to watch the Church insist that people can take both sides of the prop 8 debate and not be wrong. I do believe that it is very possible to be on either side of that debate and not be wrong. And I think there is a lesson there.

    sandr, that is well said.

    kuri and Thomas, you’ve hit something that Brigham Young felt necessary to preach about.

  20. Sandr, I agree that in listening to conference addresses or talks in sacrament meeting we need to listen with an open mind and heart and if a person’s message strays into politics or some other area that’s not all that important, to not worry about it. As to Brigham Young’s advice to not take his pronouncements at face value, I’ve always assumed it wasn’t so much about doctrine but that he was referring to the decisions he was having to make about missions and colonization, the practical things that were having an immediate effect on persons lives. My point is there are times when someone needs a yes or no answer and there’s an understanding of what that answer should be. If I were to get no answer or feel that the answer was no then where does that leave me? What am I to do then?

  21. “Holden, if you campaigned for a pro-legalization of adultery and engaged in it, and claimed it was just political, you would get excommunicated. On the other hand, it has been fascinating to watch the Church insist that people can take both sides of the prop 8 debate and not be wrong. I do believe that it is very possible to be on either side of that debate and not be wrong. And I think there is a lesson there.”

    Stephen, I hate to belabor a point that nobody cares about. My original point about the church about freedom of expression and “all people and all points of view” was specifically addressing prop 8, as was the church statement. Same sex marriage was legal in California until the passage of prop 8 so I am at a loss as to your adultery reference.

    Regardless, I understand you are glad of the church’s attitude re: voting on both sides. I compare it to God providing air for us to breath since he made our bodies require oxygen to function. I think that is where the difference is between us.

    I, on the other hand, found it disturbing that the church, prior to the vote, only said it would not take action against individuals for voting against prop 8. It only acknowledged that members might vote either way based on their life experiences after the voting day. I, the father of a gay son, looked everywhere during the process to find something that gave my wife (because she was conflicted voting against what the church said was the right way to vote) the “OK” to vote her conscience. I never found it before the vote. Only the pathetic “we won’t take action against you”.

    Lastly, I agree with you “there is a lesson there”. My original objection was your statement that “THE big take away point of prop 8 was…”. That is why I said I thought you probably didn’t mean exactly it was THE point to be learned. Anyway, I understand what you are saying but because of my experiences I have a dramatically different take on what happened.

    Sorry to drag the discussion in this direction. I know it was not your original intent.

  22. Great post Stephen. While Steve Young’s wife is still a member in good standing (ie still has her temple recommend), I wonder the social consequences of her public stand. I don’t think she’s seen as a role model in conservative Utah County for example, and I suspect she’s probably heard some snide remarks in her ward about not following the prophet.

  23. I think this is where church participation is critical, the problem arises when the “translation” and the communication with God don’t seem to match up.

    @MH #27, I think you are quite right.

  24. Holden Caulfield said… I, on the other hand, found it disturbing that the church, prior to the vote, only said it would not take action against individuals for voting against prop 8. It only acknowledged that members might vote either way based on their life experiences after the voting day. I, the father of a gay son, looked everywhere during the process to find something that gave my wife (because she was conflicted voting against what the church said was the right way to vote) the “OK” to vote her conscience. I never found it before the vote. Only the pathetic “we won’t take action against you”.

    Why is it not good enough to study an issue yourself, reach a conclusion using the brain God gave you and then act on your own beliefs WITHOUT having to filter it through the scriptural, doctrinal, personal-opinion-of-genera-authorities sieve of Mormonism?

    The idea that it isn’t enough to know a thing on your ow, without the approval of the church, is what breeds cult-like behavior.

  25. #29 SM — It’s horrible form to remark on a typo, but I like the concept of “knowing a thing on your ow.” Lessons you learn by experiencing things that make you go “ow” are often the best-learned lessons.

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