Brigham Young once made a highly revealing statement that is widely overlooked—but that should be famous. It illustrates an important principle about prophets, and especially about Brigham Young’s own doctrinal teachings.
In 1835, the Lord declared that “every decision made by either of these quorums [the First Presidency and the Twelve] must be by the unanimous voice of the same” (D&C 107:27). This remarkable command made clear how the Lord would govern His Church: the members of these presiding councils must prayerfully study and counsel with each other on the matters before them, until, under the guidance of the Spirit, they reach a unanimous decision.
Such a principle clearly has wide ramifications for how the Church must be governed, including what counts as the doctrine of the Church. After all, reference to “every decision” would include decisions about what to do, what to canonize, and what to teach.
The scriptures provide the core foundation for the doctrines of the kingdom, but in terms of mortals’ teachings, the highest authority in the Church is the council comprised of the First Presidency. Ultimately, this body (joined in spirit, and sometimes formally, by the Twelve), is the only authoritative source for interpreting the scriptures. Elder Neil L. Andersen stated that what constitutes the doctrine of the Church are only those things “taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve” and that are taught “frequently and by many.”[i] If a doctrinal matter is taught or mentioned only by an individual or two—and does not reflect the view of all fifteen prophets—then it is not official and does not represent the Church.
Here’s where Brigham Young comes in. He is famous for teaching some things (about Adam, for example) that have been controversial, and even disavowed. But he should also be famous (though, unfortunately, he is not) for something he said about his teachings. In a Tabernacle address in 1853, he remarked that, on issues of doctrine where there is no clear scriptural teaching, “it is as much my right to differ from other men, as it is theirs to differ from me, in points of doctrine and principle.”[ii]
It is clear from this statement that Brigham Young did not consider himself the arbiter of Church doctrine in ambiguous cases. On the contrary, he makes clear that he had no problem with others disagreeing with him in such instances: they could have their own opinions as well as he could. Since his teachings on such occasions did not reflect either the clear meaning of the scriptures, or the unanimous view of all the presiding Brethren, those teachings (no matter how confident he might have been about them) were simply not authoritative. That is a reality he made clear by his own words. Differences of opinion in such cases were permissible, and even each person’s right.
The most important thing to know about Brigham Young, of course, is that he truly was the Lord’s chosen servant and that he taught hundreds of things that were profound, completely consistent with the scriptures, and true.
It is also important to know, however, that there is no cause for worry when we consider something controversial he taught—something that was anomalous and not grounded in the canon (or even inconsistent with the canon). He explicitly recognized that such instances were not authoritative. And, since the possibility of such instances did not seem like a disaster to him, they needn’t seem so to us either.
The principle turns out to be pretty simple: On matters not clearly expressed in the scriptures, and not reflective of the views of all the presiding Brethren, individual leaders are free to pursue their own best thinking. And, if they feel so inclined, they can offer their own interpretations. But such interpretations (no matter whose they are) are always unofficial; they do not speak for the Church. In short, doctrinal authority resides in the scriptures and in councils, not in individuals. To paraphrase Brigham Young: on matters of interpretation, members had the same right to their opinions that he had.
Brigham Young certainly spoke his mind, but what he spoke was not always official or authoritative. There is no reason to be distracted by this, however, because—in what should be a famous statement—it was something he himself told us.
Duane Boyce and Kimberly White are father and daughter. Learn more about modern prophets in their new book, The Last Safe Place: Seven Principles for Standing with the Prophets in Troubled Times.
[i] Neil. L. Andersen, “Trial of Your Faith,” General Conference, October 2012, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2012/10/trial-of-your-faith?lang=eng
[ii] Brigham Young, “Saints Subject to Temptation, etc.,” A Discourse by President Brigham Young, Delivered in the Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City, April 17, 1853, Journal of Discourses, vol. 2: 123, https:// contentdm.lib.byu.edu/digital/collection/JournalOfDiscourses3/id/7928. Also quoted in The Last Safe Place, 91.
MikeMarch 15, 2023
Brigham Young was an amazing prophet and leader. He led the church through very difficult times, and literally led the physical gathering of Israel in the last days. But as you point out, he was not perfect - no one is, not even prophets. This is why the principle of Councils is so important. Yes, President Nelson has started and led may changes over the past 5 years, but none of them would not have been implemented without 15 senior church leaders, from various backgrounds and experiences and opinions, UNANIMOUSLY AGREEING to the changes. Obviously Joseph Smith could not have followed this principle from 1820-1835 because there were no apostles. And even up to Brigham Young's time, due to physical separation and physical hardships, the 15 apostles couldn't or didn't regularly meet, it may not have been very formalized and consistent yet. So yes when Brigham Young stated some of these theories that we do not currently agree with, he was following his own opinion, not doctrine approved by 15 apostles. I personally believe the same thing happened with the priesthood restriction. I believe Brigham Young may have been overly influenced by the times and by racist and/or slaveholding members of the church, and political ambition, when he made his racist remarks, did not want blacks to have the right to vote in Utah, and started the priesthood restriction. We have no documentation that states the 15 apostles at the time agreed to the restriction. Perhaps they would have agreed and consented. But perhaps at least one or two or five of them would have quoted the book of Mormon about the gospel being for black and white, male and female, and the fact that Joseph Smith approved black men to receive the priesthood. And the motion might have been killed or tabled. We will never know, but it does make a strong point to how councils are wise and protective for everyone, whether you are a mom and dad leading a family, or the Lord's prophet leading His Church.