Cover image via Gospel Media Library.
Duane Boyce and Kimberly White are father and daughter, and they have teamed up to produce the new book, The Last Safe Place: Seven Principles for Standing with the Prophets in Troubled Times. This is part two of an interview with them, conducted by Robert L. Millet, best-selling author and Professor Emeritus of Religious Education at Brigham Young University.
Robert: The scriptures talk about apostles being special witnesses of the name of Christ. You have an important section on this topic. What do you say there? What does it mean to be a special witness of Christ?
Kimberly: This is a sacred subject, so we have to be careful what we say in this context. We say much more in the book than we can say here because there we have space to treat the topic more adequately. Some things we can say are that one member of the Twelve, speaking on this topic, said that apostles can bear a special witness of the Savior because of “sacred interviews.” Another spoke directly of seeing the Lord “face to face,” and another one talked about having felt the Lord’s body like the original Twelve after the Savior’s resurrection. We cover this a lot more in Chapter Two.
Duane: Yes, it is a topic to be treated with the utmost care. Let me give you an example. I once had acquaintance with the personal secretary of one of the Presidents of the Church. He once confided in me, telling me what he privately witnessed regarding that President and the Holy of Holies in the Salt Lake temple. It occurred early in the morning on the day that leader was to be ordained and set apart as President of the Church. This secretary observed something miraculous and sacred—too sacred and too personal, both for him and for that President, to feel that he could authorize its publication. Thus, while I know what happened, and while this personal secretary later re-confirmed to me what happened, it does not appear in our book.
Kimberly: But we do share what we can. For example, one of the Brethren said that he had never shared all of his sacred experiences with anyone, including his wife, which suggests that there are sacred experiences among the apostles that we will never know about. Another of the Brethren said that artists had never really captured what he knew the Savior really looks like. More than one of them has spoken of viewing events of the Lord’s earthly ministry as though he had been there personally. You get the idea. The apostles really are special witnesses of Christ. It’s an important and sacred topic, and very important to include in a book about prophets. But we strive to discuss it delicately.
Duane: A natural question some have is this: “If the Brethren have sacred experiences, why don’t they talk about them?” They will be interested to know that one of the Twelve has said that they are “instructed” not to do so, and another has said that they are “commanded” not to do so. Again, it is a matter of sacredness. These things are not to be talked about lightly. Certainly not shown before the world. We handle the matter at some length—but with care—because that is how the Brethren themselves handle the issue.
Robert: Earlier (in Part One) I asked you about stories regarding the Brethren. Are there any more you feel like sharing?
Duane: Well, it’s fascinating to read about a member of the Twelve being visited from the spirit world by a prophet who had previously passed away. And about a member of the Twelve discovering, by the Spirit, the spot where a country had been dedicated decades earlier for preaching the gospel, even though there was no historical record of the location. It’s also fascinating to read about the surprising experience of a member of the Twelve in calling a stake patriarch, and of a prophet discovering the location for a temple in a Central American country—and so on. There are a lot to choose from. The Lord works with these leaders!
Kimberly: It’s also worth mentioning a couple of false stories that make the rounds from time to time. One is the story of George Albert Smith disavowing a ward teaching message that had been distributed by the Church. (“Ward teaching” was the precursor to “home teaching.”) The message was that “when our leaders speak, the thinking has been done,” and when President Smith was asked about this message he disavowed it. Some have taken from this that even the President of the Church did not consider the Brethren’s teachings to be reliable, and thus that members needed to do their own thinking. We show that that is a completely false understanding of President Smith’s message.
Duane: Another example is Hugh B. Brown’s remark that “we are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts.” Some have taken this to mean that President Brown was minimizing the importance of Church teachings or “orthodoxy.” We show that that is a total mischaracterization of his meaning. So, along with true stories about the Brethren and the reality of the Lord working with them, it is also valuable to be mindful of some stories that are mistakenly used to undermine prophetic leadership—because those stories are so totally misunderstood.
One of your chapters has the title: “Understand that Prophets Work in Councils (Not Alone).” Why do you have a chapter on that topic?
Duane: This point is crucial because it is easy to overlook how fully the Lord works through councils. As we point out in Chapter 4, even the President of the Church is part of a council—the First Presidency—as well as of the combined council of the First Presidency and the Twelve. He presides over these councils, but he is also a member of them. And the Lord declared that the decisions and actions of these councils must be unanimous. This means that to be official and authoritative, teachings must reflect the concurrence of all the Brethren. These councils are the source for the official teachings of the Church, not any individual acting on his own. One can look back on history and see instances of individual leaders saying one thing or another that was not true—but that’s just the point: they were speaking as individual leaders, not with the combined voice and weight of all the members of the presiding councils behind them.
Kimberly: Right. When a member of the presiding councils says something that is not taught by all fifteen members, he may be right or he may be wrong, but his statement is not authoritative. It is a personal comment. We don’t need to worry about what an individual said at one time or another because only teachings of the councils constitute doctrine. Unfortunately, sometimes people look to mistakes made by prior individuals and lose their faith in the reliability of apostolic leadership. But when we understand the role of councils in running the Lord’s Church, we can help those who are confused or upset by individual, non-authoritative statements. That’s just a brief overview; we do cover all of this carefully and in depth in Chapter 4.
Duane: It’s such a fascinating topic. It turns out that the principle of working in councils is extremely important. Even the Mountain Meadows massacre is traceable to individuals who ignored and violated what had been decided in councils. One of the Twelve taught that whenever the pattern of working in councils has not been observed, trouble has followed as surely as night follows day. It’s a fascinating topic.
Kimberly: By the way, this topic is closely related to the issue of whether prophets can lead the Church astray. It seems to us that quite a few mistakes have been made in people’s efforts to talk about this, and there have been a lot of efforts to explain exactly what “astray” means—but it’s not actually that complicated. This is a crucial topic, though, so we devote a whole chapter to it—Chapter 6. The reality is that the Brethren really can’t lead the Church astray. We explain what “astray” means and show that this promise is a robust, meaningful assurance from the Lord to us as members of His Church, not just some weak platitude. We really do have this promise from the Lord that we can trust His prophets! It takes a little more time than we have here to do it justice, but we can say this: every member can seek for herself a confirmation from the Spirit that this promise is true, and that the prophets cannot lead us astray.
You have a section on Brigham Young. What do you think is most interesting about him?
Kimberly: Let’s put it this way. Many people in the world, if they think about prophets at all, tend to think of them in the way we might picture a Medieval monk—someone who studies and ponders the scriptures all day long, cloistered in some monastery far away from the normal activities of the world, thinking and speaking slowly and deeply after long, introspective silences.
The problem for some, I think, is that this image doesn’t remotely describe Brigham Young! It doesn’t describe any of our prophets, but the contrast is particularly pronounced in Brigham Young’s case. He just doesn’t fit that image of a prophet. He was called to be a doer—a doer of large and overwhelming tasks. No monastery life for him! He is fascinating for that reason alone.
Duane: It is also fascinating to learn what he was like in his home life—and believe me, many will be surprised to learn what he thought about those who disagreed with him on doctrine, and what he thought about his own fallibility. We provide glimpses into all of this. In Chapter 4 we also refer to what Jedediah M. Grant once wrote to readers on the East Coast about Brigham Young. I can’t reproduce it here, but essentially he said that they were judging Brigham Young by the wrong standards and that, as a result, they would never understand him. It is a classic statement and a classic put-down of elite intellectual opinion.
Robert: How can members go about gaining a testimony of the leaders of the Church if they don’t already have one?
Duane: I think the place to start is with President Nelson’s repeated challenge to develop a testimony of the Savior. This comes from studying His life as recorded in the New Testament and His teachings and influence as included in all the other books of scripture, particularly the Book of Mormon. As one does this, it is impossible to overlook how fully and intimately He works through prophets. It turns out that one of the byproducts of developing a testimony of the Savior is that we develop a testimony of them as well. To appreciate the Lord is to appreciate how He works, and He works through prophets. That is impossible to miss. In developing a testimony of the Savior, we simultaneously develop a testimony of His chosen servants.
Kimberly: One of the things we point out in The Last Safe Place is that the Lord and His prophets come to us as a package. He once said of His authorized servants: “He that heareth you heareth me; and he that despiseth you despiseth me.” He has said that kind of thing more than once, including in this dispensation. It underscores the point that the greater the testimony we have of Jesus Christ, the greater our appreciation will be of those He has called to represent Him. This is why the best indicator of how we would respond to the Lord if He were among us is how we respond to His servants who are among us. There is no mystery about how we would respond to the Lord! The Lord Himself taught this principle during His earthly ministry, and a modern apostle has said the same thing—namely, that “it would not be a bit easier” to accept the Lord if He were among us than it is to accept His leaders. This is an important topic and we devote a whole section to it.
Duane: Another important way to gain a testimony of the Brethren is simply to study and ponder their words, sincerely and with real intent. Just as the Spirit attends our reading of scripture, so it attends our reading of their words. The Lord is as anxious that we know the reality of modern prophets and apostles as He is that we know the truth of the Book of Mormon. The Lord will reward our honest study with knowledge born of the Spirit.
Robert: You mention something you call the “prophet puzzle.” Can you explain that here?
Kimberly: Think about it this way. All members of the Church have a sense about the importance of prophets. The scriptures repeat the message many times, and, in ordinary times, it’s easy to accept. We’re generally happy to go along with counsel to read our scriptures more and love one another and so on. But it’s an entirely different matter for members when prophets say things, or offer counsel, or institute policies that don’t seem to make sense to them. Then suddenly it’s not so simple, even for devoted members. What are we supposed to do with situations like that? That’s the puzzle many members face.
Duane: As mentioned in Part One, some members, for example, were startled by the Brethren’s attitude toward Covid-19 vaccinations. I wrote an article about that at the time. I tried to capture what many members were feeling by giving it the title: “What’s Up with the Brethren?!” That’s the question members have whenever they see a decision that surprises them, whether it relates to various gay and lesbian issues, the Church’s involvement in business—whatever. It is easy for members to be puzzled from time to time and to think that one decision or another must be wrong.
Kimberly: Not all members are surprised by the same decisions, of course. Some members are surprised by one kind of decision, and others by another. For example, some think the Brethren are too hard on some of the social issues of the day—they might point to Elder Holland’s talk at BYU last year, or the continued emphasis on the Proclamation on the Family. Other members, though, think the Brethren are too soft on these issues—wishing that Elder Holland had actually said more, and that the Brethren would put greater emphasis on the Proclamation. The reality is that almost everyone faces surprise at one time or another.
Duane: The question is, how do we handle this when it happens? Our whole book is an answer to that question. We identify seven principles for standing with the prophets, and together they supply the answer to how we should respond when the Brethren surprise us. And we can be sure that more surprises are coming!
Kimberly: History prepares us for this, though. Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, Lehi leading an eight-year trek through a desert wilderness, Moses allowing his people to get trapped against a sea with their enemies chasing them, Elijah asking a destitute widow for her last portion of food, Elisha directing Naaman to bathe exactly seven times—in one particular body of water—in order to be cured of leprosy, Noah building an ark—long before there was any sign of rain, the Saints settling in the Salt Lake Valley, and so on. The Lord frequently tells His servants to do things that are surprises to them— that are difficult for them to compute. The scriptures are clear that we should expect to be surprised; it’s one of the marks of a true prophet.
Duane: The common theme in every one of these episodes mentioned by Kimberly is that they defied logic. But notice: they only defied mortal logic. They were not illogical to the Lord. That’s why we feel it is so important for everyone to be able to address the questions our loved ones might have about prophets. Understanding prophets matters. Left to our own reasoning we can never accomplish the Lord’s purposes, because our logic is limited by what we can know. And we can never know as much as the Lord knows. Not even close. Left to ourselves we can never be safe.
Kimberly: One important point we should add is that we are never reduced to blind obedience in sustaining and following the Brethren. Chapter 7 is devoted to this point. The gospel plan is for us to partner with the prophets—to be joint witnesses with them of what they do and teach. It’s a thrilling prospect, and it’s what the gospel requires of us. The ultimate message about prophets is that they are real! And we can increase our understanding of them and thus be in a better position to help those who don’t yet trust them. The reality is that there really are prophets—and we are the luckiest people on earth to know it!