In 1969 President Hugh B. Brown spoke at a devotional assembly at BYU under the title, “An Eternal Quest—Freedom of the Mind.” At the beginning of his talk, President Brown expressed dismay that “freedom of the mind is suppressed over much of the world.” While emphasizing the importance of preserving such freedom of thought, his published remarks include the sentence, “We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts.”
In our experience, this remark has sometimes been quoted to support the idea that orthodoxy doesn’t matter that much. The argument seems to go, if a member of the First Presidency—no less—doesn’t care very much about “orthodox” thoughts, then orthodox thoughts can’t really be very important. It is thinking per se that matters.
This interpretation, though, takes President Brown’s remark out of context.
The quote is correct, but President Brown himself contradicts this interpretation of it—in the very same talk. His message as a whole is actually a celebration of the gospel, and he concludes it with a fervent testimony of its truths and with encouragement for these BYU students (1) to value “a conviction of the truth” and (2) to “take every opportunity to bear witness to that truth.”
Speaking of “the truth” and encouraging his listeners to bear witness of “the truth” are not the actions of a person who sees no difference between orthodox and heterodox spiritual thoughts. Nor are they the sentiments of a person who thinks orthodox and heterodox thoughts are equally valid—or who at least thinks the difference between them is unimportant. Indeed, President Brown’s complete address is actually a fervid manifestation of orthodoxy, and he ends it with the declaration that some things are true, that we ought to gain a conviction of those things, and that we ought to bear witness of them. It seems impossible, therefore, to read his one sentence as signaling a belief that the difference between orthodox and heterodox thinking is unimportant—the talk itself indicates the very opposite of that. In fact, it is hard to imagine a message that could be more orthodox than the one he gave on this occasion.
Of course, the same kind of orthodoxy is completely evident elsewhere in President Brown’s public addresses. A good example is his final talk in general conference, which includes this testimony:
My brethren and sisters, I want to bear witness to you as to the divinity of this work. From the center of my heart to the ends of my fingers and toes, I know that this is the work of God. I know that the gospel has been restored. I know that the men who are leading the Church are inspired and directed by him who appointed them.
These words could comfortably be considered a testimony of orthodoxy. And they are typical of President Brown’s sermons.
So what did President Brown mean, then, by: “We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts”?
Well, one thing to note is that he was speaking to BYU students. They had passed a bishop’s worthiness interview to attend BYU, were regularly taking religion classes, were attending Church meetings weekly, and were attending a religious devotional at that very moment. He thus had little reason to emphasize orthodoxy to this audience . . . and so he didn’t: their orthodoxy could be assumed. What seemed to worry President Brown instead was the way they might be orthodox. He seems concerned about the prospect of spiritual laziness—about the kind of obedience that is robotic and hollow rather than earnest and spiritually serious. He seems to be saying what Boyd K. Packer later taught: that members must become “independent witnesses” of gospel principles and truths. Rather than following leaders thoughtlessly, members are to tap the same source of intelligence those leaders are tapping. In another place, Elder Packer observed that as we grow and learn we will sometimes be wrong in our conclusions (i.e., we will have “heterodox” thoughts, in President Brown’s terms), but “there is not much danger in that.” Instead, “that is an inevitable part of learning the gospel. … Such ideas are corrected as one grows in light and knowledge.” If we are sincere and if we are spiritually invested, he taught, we will end up in the right place in our feelings and conclusions because we are engaging the same divine source prophets themselves are engaging. “Then,” President Packer says, “our obedience is not blind obedience. Then our agency is protected, and … we will do things because we know they are right and are the truth. We will know this from our own inquiry, not simply because someone else knows it.”
It seems clear that President Brown was making the same kind of point. He was speaking to an orthodox audience and he was including a warning specifically to them—namely, that their orthodoxy was hollow if it was not the result of earnest seeking; the gospel is not for the unserious and lazy. This explains why he would implore his audience to value a conviction of “the truth” and why he would immediately follow his famous sentence with: “One may memorize much without learning anything. In this age of speed there seems to be little time for meditation.”
It is actually a mistake, then, to see President Brown as minimizing orthodoxy. He was actually making a completely different point—a point that applies to all of us. What he actually seems to be saying is this: Don’t be lazy about the gospel! You will make mistakes in your thinking as you earnestly seek for truth, but that’s okay because your serious seeking will eventually take care of those. What is not okay is not to be earnestly seeking, but to be merely going through the motions. Don’t be guilty of that. The gospel does not call for complacency, however orthodox that complacency might be. 
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.
 Hugh B. Brown, “An Eternal Quest — Freedom of the Mind,” BYU Devotional Address, May 13, 1969, https://aims.byu.edu/sites/aims/files/foundation_documents/An_Eternal_Quest–Freedom_of_the_Mind–Hugh_B_Brown.pdf.
 President Brown did not actually include this sentence about “orthodoxy” in reading his talk. It appears in the published version, however. See Gary Bergera, “Guest Post: President Hugh B. Brown’s Most Famous Statement,” Keepapitchinin (blog), http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2012/02/07/guest-post-president-hugh-b-browns-most-famous-statement/.
 Hugh B. Brown, “A Missionary and His Message,” General Conference, April 1972, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1972/04/a-missionary-and-his-message.
 Boyd K. Packer, Mine Errand from the Lord: Selections from the Sermons and Writings of Boyd K. Packer (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2008), 341. Emphasis added.
 Boyd K. Packer, “From Such Turn Away,” General Conference, April 1985, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/1985/04/from-such-turn-away?lang=eng.
 Packer, Mine Errand, 341. Emphasis added.
 It is possible that President Brown had a worry about faux orthodoxy as well. Speaking somewhat generally, only declarations of the First Presidency are authoritative and actually define the official teachings of the Church (i.e., “orthodoxy”), but there is a large literature on gospel topics, as well as classroom declarations by instructors, that might seem to define orthodoxy—but don’t. Authors (including General Authorities), as well as classroom teachers in Seminary/Institute/Sunday School, etc., can make statements about many topics based on their own best thinking—from various doctrines and practices to political issues—but much of it goes beyond what is official. To the extent they do so, however, their teachings are unofficial and do not define what is “orthodox.” President Brown seems to be warning against mindlessly accepting such non-authoritative sources when he encourages his audience to “insist upon your right to examine every proposition”—including on religion. That makes perfect sense in a world where the scriptures, and official statements of the First Presidency, are (and were in 1969) outnumbered by non-authoritative sources on gospel topics. More about the Hugh B. Brown episode is covered in 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), esp. 243–47.