Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Do the prophets deny they lead by revelation, or encourage dissent?

[UPDATE: In response to RoastedTomatoes’ charge of unfairness, I changed the original title (The prophets speak: ‘We have no revelation, so we encourage dissent’), and made modifications marked with strikethroughs (old) and boldface (new) to the first and fourth paragraphs.]

In a couple of interesting posts (here and here), RoastedTomatoes uses responses of President Joseph F. Smith to a Senate committee, and of President Hinckley to the media, to argue two conclusions float for thought and discussion two propositions that many believing Saints would find startling. While I am interested in the relationship of such sources to doctrine, the particular arguments are interesting in their own right, and here I recycle and extend my own take on how the prophets understand these two points.

One startling proposition is that
Judging on the basis of President Joseph F. Smith’s sworn testimony from the beginning of the twentieth century, it would seem that the church has in fact survived through periods of years without revelation to its president. Furthermore, if President Hinckley’s statements at the end of the twentieth century may be taken seriously, it would seem that the church currently survives for significant stretches without revelation or inspiration.
I agree with RoastedTomatoes that there aren’t any indications that spectacular manifestations occur frequently, but I don’t think the prophets understand this as an absence of revelation.

RoastedTomatoes’ quotation of President Woodruff, cited the current Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society manual—published with the Church’s logo, copyrighted by Intellectual Reserve, Inc., and including an approval date (presumably by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve)—are a better indication of what the prophets think than pressured Senate testimony. President Woodruff’s reference to the necessity of daily revelation is closely related to the common view of having the ‘constant companionship’ commonly associated with the gift of the Holy Ghost, God’s fulfillment of his promise in the sacrament to “always have his Spirit to be with you.” In the context of the guidance of the Church by revelation, this means that the leading quorums have enormous faith in the process of unanimity in councils (D&C 107). In exercising their legitimate stewardship, when 15 people with the gift of the Holy Ghost start a discussion from 15 different points of view and come to unanimity, they understand this as the Lord having guided their decisions (or at least it not being grossly against his will).

The other unusual proposition, derived from using President Joseph F. Smith’s mention of hundreds who did not accept plural marriage while remaining in good fellowship as a specific example, an acquaintance who didn’t believe in plural marriage is that
…diverse systems of belief and even disbelief are compatible with full fellowship in our church. …even people who flatly reject important doctrines taught by church leadership are allowed to remain in full fellowship and good standing,
an assertion parlayed into putative prophetic endorsement of “legitimate dissent, which is apparently okay or even encouraged…,” based a media interview by President Hinckley.

However, the observed fact that people are not automatically kicked out of the Church for having some different beliefs than the authorities does not imply that the prophets have ever thought there was such a thing as “legitimate dissent” within the kingdom of God, outside of one’s stewardship. (Here, distinctions must be drawn between questions/doubts/criticisms, and the publication thereof.) Rather, their messages to the Church—as opposed to the outside media, including Joseph’s famous ‘they govern themselves’ quote—seem pretty consistent in considering dissent with the united voice of the leading quorums a shortcoming, and spiritually perilous. All Church members have all manner of ‘shortcomings’ (in the leaders’ view) for which they are not kicked out, but this does not mean the prophets think such things are “legitimate” or “encouraged.”

In the media exchange quoted in a comment to RoastedTomatoes’ post, President Hinckley acknowledges that “People think in a very critical way”—when?—“before they come into this Church. When they come into this Church they’re expected to conform” (emphasis added). The reporter then presses President Hinckley about questioning within the Church, at which point he makes an artful dodge by referring to all the thinking going on at ‘the largest private university in America’—BYU. But translating the homage he renders to ‘thinking for themselves’ into ‘encouraged dissent’ within the Church is an unjustified leap, given what we know about BYU: there are serious limitations on academic freedom and dissent on subjects related to the Church. There may be all kinds of questioning and thinking and dissent going on at BYU—of worldly philosophies! But the debates and dissent and questioning at BYU are not about, say, the First Vision, or Book of Mormon historicity.

While the specifics of these propositions are interesting, I hope to discuss an overarching issue in a separate post: whether Church members should make serious doctrinal conclusions based on statements made in the face of secular questioning that ranges from hostile, to unsympathetic, to shallowly curious.

16 Comments:

Christian,

I'm going to call this post unfair.

With respect to the question of revelation, my concluding paragraph was: "How are we to resolve this all? Was President Woodruff wrong about the necessity of revelation? Were Presidents Smith and Hinckley somehow using a different, and higher, threshold for considering something to be revelation than Woodruff was (in spite of the evidence in the texts quoted above that all three men considered the 'still, small voice' of the Holy Ghost to be revelation)? Did the church need revelation in the late nineteenth century but not now? Were Smith and Hinckley attempting to finesse the issue for a nonmember audience? Or are church leaders not now experiencing the extent of revelation that nineteenth-century Mormons believed to be an essential trait of the true church?"

The post presents a couple of sources that are somewhat unfamiliar to many readers and then raises questions about them. I don't draw conclusions there, I just try to keep people from evading the details of the texts in their interpretations.

And your summary of the Joseph F. Smith dialogue as a "mention of an acquaintance who didn’t believe in plural marriage" is preposterous. Smith claimed that several thousand faithful Saints in full fellowship had never believed in plural marriage, and that people were free to disbelieve anything except a few basic principles and remain members in full fellowship, as long as they behaved right. It's noteworthy that very few people (i.e., nearly zero) were excommunicated for beliefs during the first half of the 20th century. So there's an ample, inclusive variant of Mormonism within the legacy. Whether the current church fully embraces that particular tradition or not is a separate question.

I appreciate the personal attention. But I feel inclined to wish that your attention had been a bit more attentive... 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 3/14/2006 03:32:00 PM  

RoastedTomatoes, I made some minor changes to the post and its title. I am sorry the original title linked the ideas in a way you did not explicitly intend, and that I characterized your posts as more conclusive than they were. While we will likely continue to disagree, I hope this post no longer need be considered unfair. I don't want to be unfair or inaccurate.

However, I stand by the substance. Not only in the 19th century, but still today, no one has fellowship withheld for mere belief . What got people like the September Six (and Grant Palmer) in trouble was not private belief but widely published dissent. But allowing people to retain fellowship does not mean the Brethren would look upon those with private differences with encouragement of their dissent; rather, I believe their stance would be one of concern for their spiritual welfare, and hope that they eventually "come around." 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/14/2006 06:07:00 PM  

Christian wrote:
"...whether Church members should make serious doctrinal conclusions based on statements made in the face of secular questioning that ranges from hostile, to unsympathetic, to shallowly curious."

Christian, I do believe that the BoM contains accounts of such interactions between prophet and antagonist...and we call this scripture. We also have the Wentworth letter...

I think there is something to the perception that the words and actions and accounts of modern-day prophets (excluding Joseph Smith) are relatively short on the mystic and miraculous.

I guess we could write it off to a streak of the Jacob-Enos-Jarom-Omni type of prophets. Maybe we'll get an Mosiah soon? :-)

Comment by Watt Mahoun | 3/14/2006 08:52:00 PM  

Hmm. Somehow my comment didn't get posted. But Christian largely said what I was going to say. I think distinguishing between belief and dissent is important.

Watt, I'm not sure what counts as mystic. I don't consider Joseph particularly mystical at all, although he had those sorts of beliefs in his early life. But I see him as moving further and further away from them. The closest I can see as mystics in the Mormon tradition are typically excommunicated for it or at least pressured to stop. There are examples of this in the D&C although the Godbeites in early Utah are the best example.

What I do see is a strong tendency the last few decades to keep spiritual matters private. So I've heard people tell stories that they'd never share in public. I think that explains more of it. Now that itself has some interesting overtones since clearly to a degree in the 19th century that wasn't  the case. (Although I think the seeds were there and Joseph moved towards being more secretive about such matters) Note I'm not saying silence ought to entail these sorts of experiences nor am I suggesting that all prophets have had them. I do think though we ought be careful about our presumptions.


 

Comment by Clark Goble | 3/14/2006 10:49:00 PM  

Christian,

I'm questioning this part of your post:

-------------------- quote -------------------- 
"In the context of the guidance of the Church by revelation, this means that the leading quorums have enormous faith in the process of unanimity in councils (D&C 107). In exercising their legitimate stewardship, when 15 people with the gift of the Holy Ghost start a discussion from 15 different points of view and come to unanimity, they understand this as the Lord having guided their decisions (or at least it not being grossly against his will)."
------------------ end quote ------------------

My experience has been a little different. My experience has been that the requirement of unanimity, to quote James E. Faust, "ensures that the best wisdom and experience are focused on an issue before the deep, unassailable impressions of revealed direction are received." (James E. Faust, "Continuing Revelation," Ensign, Aug. 1996, 7.)

Having served for ten years with a group of 15 such people on the stake level (high council and stake presidency), I can testify that unanimity in and of itself is not what convinced me that revelation was involved. In fact, many times I've participated in discussions where a variety of views were expressed, my own being one of opposition to the prevailing view. And yet in each case, when it was over, I felt the confirming witness of the Holy Ghost as the stake president announced his decision.

Was it the unanimity that convinced me of the correctness of the decision? No. It was the Holy Ghost — revelation — that created the unanimity in the first place by assuring me that I should sustain the decision.
 

Comment by Gary | 3/14/2006 11:46:00 PM  

the current Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society manual—published with the Church’s logo, copyrighted by Intellectual Reserve, Inc., and including an approval date (presumably by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve)—are a better indication of what the prophets think than pressured Senate testimony. 

I think it is a better indication of what the correlation committee think. 

Comment by J. Stapley | 3/15/2006 02:10:00 AM  

Watt,  that's a great point about exchanges with antagonists being included in the Book of Mormon. Indeed there seem to be many important differences in Church authority and structure between the Book of Mormon and now. I'm not sure what the "believing" take on that is. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/15/2006 06:52:00 AM  

Clark,  perhaps it got lost when I changed the title of the post, and then its permanent link changed... Anyway, thanks for your comments. Indeed it must be kept in mind that absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence---one must articulate reasons for evidence to have been expected. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/15/2006 06:53:00 AM  

Gary,  thanks for the quote and your experience. How often experiences like yours and Pres. Fausts' occur---as opposed to simple unanimity---is impossible to know, but in any case your observations come down on the side of prophets believing they govern by revelation, as opposed to the proposition RoastedTomatoes floated. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/15/2006 06:54:00 AM  

J.,  are there reasons to think the Correlation Department comes to decisions contrary to the united position of the 1P and Q12? I would imagine these quorums ensure that the Correlation Department functions as an executor of their intentions, not something that takes on a life of its own.

In the specific case of this manual, its development process was described in a letter from the Church posted  at FMH. Of course the process did include the Curriculum Department, but also: "Lastly, proof copies were sent to the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve for final review. Once their suggestions were incorporated, the book received a final proofreading and was then sent for translating and printing." 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/15/2006 07:00:00 AM  

What got people like the September Six (and Grant Palmer) in trouble was not private belief but widely published dissent. But allowing people to retain fellowship does not mean the Brethren would look upon those with private differences with encouragement of their dissent; rather, I believe their stance would be one of concern for their spiritual welfare, and hope that they eventually "come around."  

Christian, I don't find that much to disagree with here. It seems likely to me that those with private differences of opinion likewise hope that the church leadership will eventually "come around." It's happened before, and it will happen again. But this kind of mutual toleration among groups with different opinions is the mortal way to achieve unity among diversity, so I guess it's got to be a good thing...

With respect to people who are excommunicated for publishing, it seems to me that these excommunications don't even target the individual in question. Rather, the intent is to excommunicate the person's written work. By excommunicating an author, the leaders can create feelings of suspicion in the minds of members that dramatically reduce the impact of the author's work.

A nice case study is Grant Palmer's trial. He wasn't tried when his book was published; the trial process only began several years later. Why? Perhaps because the book was selling well. In any case, the act of publishing the book was disregarded and unpunished for a few years, so that in itself wasn't the cause of his trial. Furthermore, the church didn't try or punish most of the people who were sources for the ideas in Palmer's book. So it wasn't even publishing that set of ideas that caused a trial. What differentiated Palmer, then, from the other authors who published similar material? Again, sales figures are a plausible answer. 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 3/15/2006 11:46:00 AM  

RoastedTomatoes, no doubt perceived "impact" on the Church is a big factor in any disciplinary proceeding, not just for "apostasy." In addition to this source of variability, the fact that discipline occurs locally means that things could vary significantly based on what particular stake presidents choose to do. (I don't know the extent of there being specific guidance from above in really high-profile cases.)

My impression had been that Palmer was only disfellowshipped, not excommunicated, within a year or two of his book's publication. (I seem to recall also that it did have limited circulation under a pseudonym in manuscript form for years previously.) I don't know if excommunication has happened since. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/15/2006 05:02:00 PM  

Christian, it was about two years after the publication of the book, not several as I had stated. 

Comment by RoastedTomatoes | 3/15/2006 05:32:00 PM  

Could it also be that there is precious little in Palmer's book that would be successfully excommunicated by excommunicating Palmer?

I'm thinking that the cat's out of the bag and nothing short of a miracle will put it back again...certainly not an excommunication.

Comment by Watt Mahoun | 3/15/2006 11:03:00 PM  

Clark Goble wrote:
"I'm not sure what counts as mystic. I don't consider Joseph particularly mystical at all, although he had those sorts of beliefs in his early life. But I see him as moving further and further away from them"

Clark, I agree...and I think the membership at the time of Joseph Smith saw a mystic in him...even a demi-god...and much contrary evidence would not dispel this illusion. In fact, it still persists and is the bain of every living prophet since. :)

At least this has been my impression of him. | 3/15/2006 11:08:00 PM  

Watt,  they can't eliminate the ideas from existence, but they can prevent them from gaining currency among loyal members. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/16/2006 07:10:00 AM  

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