Who needs false doctrines when you can have unbridled speculation (a new series)

Stephen MarshMormon 19 Comments

“Say nothing but repentance unto this generation”  D&C 11:9.  How much fun is that?

Something I really enjoyed about BYU was the weekly devotionals.  They were not enough for me to finish my undergraduate degree there, but I really enjoyed them.

One talk that really struck me was a talk by Spencer W. Kimball on not relying on leaders for truth, but testing what they said and learning by the Spirit.  He introduced me to Brigham Young’s sermons on that point.

Brigham Young enjoyed speculating and extrapolation.  Reckoning he called it.  What is more, when he was taking a position based on logic and speculation he was not shy about admitting it was only logic, not revelation.

He was also very powerful in warning people that they could not rely on his speculation, his logic or his words, but instead needed to seek God and learn by the Spirit what was true and what was not, and that if they failed to do that, the words alone would lead them astray and they would be lost.

Even when it was revelation, Brigham Young warned people that those receiving revelation and those hearing the received revelation were limited by experience, context, language and their weaknesses.  Revelation needs the same process to sort through as speculation does.  Brigham Young talked and warned about that often as well.

I’ll share some unbridled speculations later, but I just wanted to set the ground rules first.  Relying on the guesses and thoughts of our leaders without seeking the Spirit and testing all things, will, in Brigham’s words “lead you straight to hell.”

Of course if I blogged on nothing but repentance, I’d have some pretty short entries here.  So.  Go forth.  Speculate.  Read.  Ponder.  Pray.  Repent.

Comments 19

  1. Stephen, I know we’re familiar with BY’s famous quote about not having reckless confidence in our leaders, however, I’d love to see the quotes you had in mind when you wrote the nice summary above. I’d love to add them to my quote files.

  2. I’m REALLY looking forward to this series, Stephen. The spirit of unbridled speculation based on nothing but “my seminary teacher said 30 years ago that…” is alive and well – at church and on blogs.

    Drives me positively up the wall. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Making Stuff Up.”

  3. Even when it was revelation, Brigham Young warned people that those receiving revelation and those hearing the received revelation were limited by experience, context, language and their weaknesses…

    Doesn’t this imply that a responsible leader should perhaps apply their own extra filters and caution on things they’re willing to say in front of an audience? Certainly Church leaders do this frequently–I don’t think President Packer ever stands up and just says EVERYTHING he knows–but it’s interesting to think about how many awkward missionary experiences would’ve/could’ve/should’ve gone differently if just a *little* more caution had been used from the outset.

  4. I second Andrew A’s motion. All in favor make it manifest…

    Seriously, I *am* familiar with his quote on not just being robots for our leaders. But those other quotations sound like gems for me in my personal study of prophecy in the early Church.

    Impart unto us, Stephen.

  5. I like the ideas you attribute to Spencer W Kimball and Brigham Young. Does this link look like the Spencer W Kimball talk you referenced?


    Also, do you have a citation on the Brigham Young quote? I’m guessing somewhere in Journal of Discourses…

    I’m back in Gospel Doctrine after years in Primary; yesterday, I about bit my tongue off listening to parts of the discussion on revelation. (I kept quite for my wife’s sake and because I really didn’t have any thoughts that were cohesive or constructive.) I understand next week is a continuation of the same theme and by then perhaps my thoughts will gel. The ideas you mention dove-tail nicely with my thoughts.

  6. IMO, BY + “logic” = recipe for cockamamie notions.

    Looking forward to the series. I think commenter Jen made a great point along these lines on another post recently when she said that what the prophets have said brings her closer to God because it gives her something to talk about with Him in prayer. I like that perspective.

  7. My sense if that eventhough BY wanted the membership to pray about what was said, the implication is that if you knew what’s good for you, you’d get the right answer. Telling him or President Packer or whoever in authority that their pronouncements are wrong is something I’m not sure I’d do even if an angel with a flaming sword came up and shook hands with me and told me they were in error.

  8. GBSmith:

    I tend to think that we actually should not take BY at his literal word when he was raining down fire and brimstone. He noted himself that he often used gruffer language than he would like, if only as a teaching technique. He admitted as much: “When you wish the people to feel what you say, you have got to use language that they will remember, or else the ideas are lost to them. Consequently, in many instances we use language that we would rather not use” (I can get the citation, if you are interested).

    BY *did* make his feelings known about *public* dissent, a la William Godbe. That’s quite different from “thinking otherwise”; Godbe was actively trying to create a rival movement (same with Stenhouse). Both of them, incidentally, lived their lives out peacefully–no blood atonement…huh…

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    At the moment all my books are packed up and in boxes in the garage as we get ready to move. Somewhere on line I thought I’d done an essay about Brigham Young and the things he had to say about the weaknesses of our language and how it limited us on how God could speak to us.

    It struck me once that if you had ten uninspired readings of scripture, you would get ten different interpretations, but if you had ten inspired readings, you would probably get thirty different readings … since the meaning would change with your knowledge, background and needs.

    Brigham Young’s style involved hyperbole as a rhetorical technique. That doesn’t help a modern audience, but was appreciated by his audiences.

    I should actually do a serious post rather than doing this as an introduction into a fun series of unbridled speculation discussions. 😉

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  11. I have no doubt that Brigham did a great deal of speculating. However, a great deal of what he is credited as to have said has served as an embarrasment to the Church since his time. While he may have conceded that “some” of his thoughts were merely conjecture (though I am included in the camp that would like to see your quotes), another great deal of what he taught comes across as highly Prophetic and authoritative. While Brigham challenged the saints to “test” his words, and those of the other Brethren, I don’t take him to mean that he was conceding the possibility that he was in error. Rather he was challenging them to learn from God just as he felt he did. After all, those who are certainly more antagonistic to the Church than I will never let us forget that this same man who challenged the saints to learn for themselves also said that he “never preached a sermon and sent it out to the saints, when after having been reviewed by him, could not be called scripture”. Lastly when we create excessive tolerance for Prophetic error, quite frankly we take the teeth right of revelation and modern Prophets. The message comes across as, “As members of the Church we are fortunate to be guided by a modern living Prophet through whom Gods reveals his will. However not everything he say’s is necessarilly true unless he gathers the collected body of the Church together, puts on his gonna give a prophecy suit, sings praise to the man in in A minor, stands before the congregation during autumnal equinox, declares “thus saith the Lord”, tests the wind and then broadcasts the revelation on KSL”. Then the final test is of course, do we still believe it fifty years later or do we dismiss it as false Prophecy with the best of intentions. If were going to claim prophecy then we ought to stick to it.

  12. Cowboy:

    I think what we’re suggesting is that we should stop using the artificial (or at least outdated) dichotomy of false-true prophecy. BY wasn’t the only one to speculate–they all did. Consequently, I am *convinced* that we are projecting a sense of what prophecy is onto Brigham that they never held for themselves. Brigham himself said that sometimes he used language he would rather not use to drive home a point (aka all the stuff of the Reformation). When they prophesied, I’m convinced that they saw it as a part of the mental thought process…indeed, Arrington has argued that the early Saints didn’t even see the world as a secular one. All things were spiritual.Therefore, when they said, “we’re prophecying,” they didn’t view it with the same standard that we do in our nice, quiet correlated era. Otherwise, what are we to make of the times when they said they “prophesied much” in a given day? Every word was a prophecy like section 76? Obviously not…otherwise, why don’t we accept them as section 76?

    Essentially, we’ve systematized revelation so much that we expect BY’s men to act similarly. I don’t think that’s intellectually fair to them. Let’s face it–we’ve grown much over the past 150 years, and it’s ok for us to admit that our ideas of revelation have grown, become more efficient as well.

  13. I would agree that over the last 150 years we have refined our practices and culture, which places Brigham Young at an unfair disadvantage when compared anachronistically against the backdrop of our modern times. Even so, the changes have not been that extraordinary. Revelation still remains, whether viewed secular or spiritual, the divine link (you could include Prophets here as well) the bridges the divide between God/The Savior and man, and it is the means whereby we are supposed to come to know their truth. So I think we will have to disagree, regardless of the secular/spiritual worldview espoused by the former generation of Mormons, God should remain constant. If Brigham Young felt that he was giving revelation or otherwise speaking with divine authority on his more controversial topics, then worldview is a less than convincing justification for recanting statements while maintaining prophetic integrity. That is not to say that he could never be in error, just not when he is holding himself out authoritatively. We blur the lines of revelation so much with this type of reasoning that frankly I have a hard time seeing the value. I think the fact that the Church has played this chip very sparingly suggests an awareness of how this type of thinking will ultimately dillute it’s message and impact in the world.

  14. i find it interesting that the early prophets encouraged speculation as well as studying things out for ourselves, while many current prophets and leaders look down on those who ask “too many” questions.

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    G. Q. Cannon (1891)

    Source: Millennial Star 53 (Liverpool: Oct. 19, 1891), p. 674. This is from a sermon of George Q. Cannon, Wilford Woodruff’s 1st Counselor, entitled “Knowledge of and Dependence on God,” delivered in Manti, Utah, February 15, 1891.

    Do not, brethren, put your trust in man though he be a Bishop, an Apostle, or a President; if you do, they will fail you at some time or place; they will do wrong or seem to, and your support be gone; but if we lean on God, He never will fail us. When men and women depend on God alone, and trust in Him alone, their faith will not be shaken if the highest in the Church should step aside. They could still see that He is just and true, that truth is lovely in His sight, and the pure in heart are dear to Him.

    Perhaps it is His own design that faults and weaknesses should appear in high places in order that His Saints may learn to trust in Him and not in any man or men. Therefore, my brethren and sisters, seek after the Holy Spirit and the unfailing testimony of God and His work upon the earth. Rest not until you know for yourselves that God has set His hand to redeem Israel, and prepare a people for His coming.

    Not a bad quote, not the one I was looking for, but not a bad quote.

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