In one month in 1945, the message (for what was called “ward teaching” at the time) emphasized the importance of following the prophet. It included the line: “When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done.” George Albert Smith was the prophet at the time and he disavowed this message when asked about it.
In our experience, some have taken this disavowal as an indication that President Smith thought the Brethren were not necessarily reliable in representing the Lord. They conclude that President Smith must have objected to the notion that “the thinking has been done” because he believed Church leadership could easily be wrong—that’s why members need to think for themselves.
If you encounter this story as “evidence” that we can’t necessarily rely on the prophet and apostles, you should know that this thinking leaves out some very important context. George Albert Smith himself explained his reasons for rejecting that ward teaching message, and they had nothing to do with how reliable the Brethren are in representing the Lord. He merely emphasized that members are to be active in exercising their agency—in obtaining their own testimonies and in learning the truth for themselves. The phrase “the thinking has been done” implies that members are expected to obey blindly, and President Smith rejected that implication. Instead, he explained that individual members are still responsible for their own actions, including whether or not to seek their own testimony of what the prophets have said. Their thinking is not done, because they are still agents unto themselves, and can freely choose how to respond to the counsel of the Brethren. No one is forced. President Smith stressed that the Lord himself does not try to force anyone to accept his teachings. Rather: “He gives the principles of life and true progress, but leaves every person free to choose or to reject His teachings. This plan the Authorities of the Church try to follow.”
At no point in his explanation did President Smith say that individuals have to think for themselves because the leaders might be wrong in their teachings or actions and thus need members’ corrections. That conclusion is a mistake. He simply emphasized the role of agency—rather than coercion—in following Church teachings. In every case, members are their own agents and are responsible to seek the Spirit for themselves and to learn, independently, the truth of what is being said.
This is important to remember in cases where we are surprised or puzzled by the Brethren’s decisions. Our thinking is not “done” in such cases; we are not supposed to obey lazily and ignore our own surprise or discomfort. Neither are we supposed to reject their decision out of hand merely because we don’t already agree with it. We have divine Parentage and divine potential, so we can do better than either of those options. We can, in fact, do exactly what the Brethren did in reaching the decision in the first place. We can energetically and humbly study the issue, earnestly seeking inspiration from the Spirit. We can then receive an independent confirmation of God’s will and know for ourselves.
Elder M. Russell Ballard said, regarding the teachings that come from prophets and other leaders: “I promise you in the name of the Lord that if you will listen not just with your ears but also with your heart, the Holy Ghost will manifest the truth unto you of the messages.”
When we find ourselves puzzled, then, we can proceed as if the Brethren are correct. They are prophets and they possess the keys for making decisions. They are the Lord’s mouthpieces and, once we have received from him the testimony that they truly are prophets, our obligation to the Lord is to listen to their words as if from his own mouth. At the same time, the thinking is not done, since we also pursue our own personal confirmation regarding the issue. Then, in Elder Packer’s words, we can come to know the truth through our own inquiry, “not simply because someone else knows it.”
Following this path honors what George Albert Smith taught. We are to exercise our own agency and receive our own testimonies, not because the Brethren are unreliable, but because that is what it means to be a mature disciple of Christ and to know, independently, for ourselves.
Duane Boyce and Kimberly White are father and daughter. Coming soon from them—
Many topics about prophets are fully explored in these authors’ forthcoming book: The Last Safe Place: Seven Principles for Standing with the Prophets in Troubled Times. Published by Meridian, it is coming soon!
About the Authors:
Duane Boyce earned a Ph.D. from BYU and conducted his postdoctoral study in developmental psychology at Harvard University. He is a Founding Partner of the Arbinger Institute, a worldwide management consulting and educational firm. He has authored or co-authored several books, as well as publishing academic articles on gospel topics in BYU Studies Quarterly, Interpreter, Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, The FARMS Review, and The Religious Educator. Among other callings, he has served as a bishop and a stake president and with his wife in the Russia Moscow mission.
A graduate of BYU in Philosophy, Kimberly White is the author of The Shift: How Seeing People as People Changes Everything and a regular contributor to Meridian Magazine. She works as a technical writer and is currently writing a book on recent findings in brain science and how they relate to human morality. She has served the Lord for 27 years as a wife and mother.
 He said: “Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church, which is that every individual must obtain for himself a testimony of the truth of the Gospel, must, through the redemption of Jesus Christ, work out his own salvation, and is personally responsible to His Maker for his individual acts. The Lord Himself does not attempt coercion in His desire and effort to give peace and salvation to His children. He gives the principles of life and true progress, but leaves every person free to choose or to reject His teachings. This plan the Authorities of the Church try to follow.” A rehearsal of the relevant details, including the ward teaching message and President Smith’s full letter correcting it, can be found at: https://www.fairmormon.org/archive/publications/when-the-prophet-speaks-is-the-thinking-done.
 For more on the George Albert Smith episode, see Duane Boyce, “D&C 21, George Albert Smith, and Hugh B. Brown: A Fresh Look at Three Incidents in Church History,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, 32 (2019), 238–43, https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/dc-21-george-albert-smith-and-hugh-b-brown-a-fresh-look-at-three-incidents-in-church-history/.
 For more on how the Brethren make decisions on behalf of the Church, see our upcoming book, The Last Safe Place, published by Meridian Publishing.
 M. Russell Ballard, “His Word Ye Shall Receive,” General Conference, April 2001, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2001/04/his-word-ye-shall-receive?lang=eng. He applied this promise to the messages of General Conference speakers generally. Its strongest application, however, is to those who hold the keys to represent the Lord.
 Boyd K. Packer, Mine Errand from the Lord: Selections from the Sermons and Writings of Boyd K. Packer (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret, 2008), 341.