Do the prophets deny they lead by revelation, or encourage dissent?
by Christian Y. Cardall
[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
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
…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.