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Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 14 (2015): 7-32 and appeared in Meridian later that same year. We are running it again, in three parts over the next three days, with a few edits of the original.
Author’s Note: Believing Latter-day Saints hold different views about what it means to sustain the presiding Brethren of the Church. In this article, I outline some considerations that might be kept in mind as members of the Church evaluate their views on this vital topic and the Lord’s admonition to sustain the Brethren by their faith, prayers, and actions.
As part of their sacred covenants, Latter-day Saints embrace the principle of sustaining those called as prophets, seers, and revelators. They also accept the authority of the Brethren to lead the Church and to declare its position on various matters. Of course, the nature of mortal experience guarantees that the wisdom of their decisions will not always be obvious to everyone. How should members respond in situations where they do not understand or agree with the actions of the presiding councils of the Church?
President Henry B. Eyring taught the following:
By our sustaining vote, we make solemn promises. We promise to pray for the Lord’s servants and that He will lead and strengthen them (see D&C 93:51). We pledge that we will look for and expect to feel inspiration from God in their counsel and whenever they act in their calling (see D&C 1:38).
That promise will need to be renewed in our hearts frequently. Your Sunday School teacher will try to teach by the Spirit, but just as you might do, your teacher may make mistakes in front of the class. You, however, can decide to listen and watch for the moments when you can feel inspiration come. In time you will notice fewer mistakes and more frequent evidence that God is sustaining that teacher.
As we raise a hand to sustain a person, we commit to work for whatever purpose of the Lord that person is called to accomplish.1
If we accept President Eyring’s counsel to “look for and expect to feel inspiration from God in their counsel and whenever they act in their calling” with respect to a Sunday School teacher, we would naturally apply this counsel with no less seriousness in our attitudes toward the callings of those who preside in the highest councils of the Church.
Though the statements of individual prophets and apostles are not inerrant, it is inconsistent with such counsel “to look for and expect” mistakes in the decisions made by the highest councils, even if we commend ourselves for great patience in our expectation that they or their successors will be forced to correct their supposed errors in time. It is, of course, even less consistent with the principle of sustaining the Brethren if we complain publicly about the decision or practice in question and actively lobby for change. That said, there are members of the Church who may not find President Eyring’s stance satisfying. In this article, I outline some considerations that might be kept in mind as members of the Church consider their views on this vital topic.
“If God Lived on Earth People Would Break His Windows”
There is a vast difference that exists between our perspectives and those of God (Isaiah 55:8–9; 1 Corinthians 1:25–29). God perceives not only every thought and intent of every person’s heart but also foresees the eternal consequences of every person’s choices — and not only the consequences of such choices for themselves but also for all others who are affected by them (2 Nephi 9:20).2 He is also a being of perfect holiness (Moses 6:57; 7:35). He has no moral flaws, no selfish motivations (3 Ne. 12:48; 1 John 1:5). He wants only what is right and pure (Alma 7:20), and His love for us is perfect and unending (1 John 4:8). Not incidentally, His divine purpose is to help each of us become as He is (Moses 1:39).
It is hard to imagine how mortals could be less like God in these respects (Moses 1:10). Our natural condition limits our perspectives, subjects us to a constant battle with our selfish impulses, taints our love, and bends our purposes toward destructive ends (Mosiah 3:19). We are perfect at nothing (Matthew 19:17).
Because of these vast differences, it seems reasonable to expect God to behave and think differently about various matters than we do, and His ways will routinely make little sense to us. As President Spencer W. Kimball reported:
I have learned that where there is a prayerful heart, a hungering after righteousness, a forsaking of sins, and obedience to the commandments of God, the Lord pours out more and more light until there is finally power to pierce the heavenly veil and to know more than man knows.3
“To know more than man knows.” Precisely. We know immeasurably less than we imagine, and for one who has pierced the veil nothing could be more evident.
Examples from Scripture
Many of the teachings of the Church regarding God are difficult for nonmembers to understand and appreciate. For example, some who believe in God but who do not accept Joseph Smith as a prophet find it laughable to think that God has a physical body, that He would appear in modern times, and that He would require His prophet to use stone interpreters to translate gold plates.
Some who do not embrace Christianity find absurdity in the idea of a God with a literal “Son” and the belief that His greatest act of love would be to require the suffering and death of that Son to pay the debt of human sin. Some would find the affirmations of believers that Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead, fed five thousand, walked on water, and rose from the grave to be childish and naïve. Moreover, some might declare that Jesus was racist in His refusal to allow the Apostles to minister to the Gentiles or Samaritans (Matthew 10:4–5), insensitive in His remarks to the Canaanite woman (Matthew 15:22–28), and sexist in calling only men as Apostles (Matthew 10:2–4). Yet that is what He did.
What the Test of a Prophet Is Not
All this helps us see why we cannot suppose that the test of authenticity for a prophetic teaching is whether or not it “makes sense.” Scripture and the history of the Church are replete with lessons teaching that we should expect to hear things from prophets that seem utter foolishness (1 Corinthians 1:18–31).4 Such things naturally invite both ridicule and offense from those who reject the things of God (1 Corinthians 2:4–16). None of this should surprise us.
Nor should it be a surprise when prophetic announcements make the Saints’ lives harder. When Moses approached Pharaoh, the short-term result was a steep decline in the quality of life for the children of Israel; Pharaoh punished them by making their hard labors even more demanding (Exodus 5:1–23). Similarly, life became more difficult for Joseph Smith once he began to share his First Vision (Joseph Smith–History 1:22–24), and for all the Saints thereafter.
A Yiddish proverb comments on the stubborn recalcitrance of humankind: “If God lived on earth people would break His windows.” Because it is our general tendency to reject God’s counsels and doings, our decision to accept or reject them ought not to be determined by a majority vote. Prophetic pronouncements are no more likely to be crowd-pleasers in the twenty-first century than they were in the first.
The Things of God Are Known Only Through the Spirit of God
Paul taught that “the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God” and therefore that such matters can only be “spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:11, 14). If Paul is right, we must expect that the convincing testimony that the Brethren are being led by God will come only by personal revelation. President Harold B. Lee said it this way:“ The measure of your true conversion … is whether or not you are so living that you see the power of God resting upon the leaders of this Church and that testimony goes down into your heart like fire.”5 This suggests that if we don’t see the power of God resting upon the Brethren, no amount of argument can serve as a substitute. Of course, this does not mean that reason is irrelevant to such conversion, but only that it is insufficient of its own accord. It is futile to look there for convincing power.
The Lord Is the One Who Calls His Leaders
To be able to adequately sustain the Brethren, we must have a witness that the Lord called them. President George Q. Cannon said this of Lorenzo Snow:
As I have said, God has chosen him to stand where he does — not you or me; and He knows every secret thought of men’s hearts. His all-piercing eye has penetrated the innermost recesses of his heart, and He has seen all there is about him, inside and out. He knows him thoroughly, because He created him. He knew his past history … And knowing this He has chosen him.6
President Gordon B. Hinckley, in speaking of the calling of Elders Russell M. Nelson and Dallin H. Oaks to the Twelve, said: “I want to give you my testimony that they were chosen and called by the spirit of prophecy and revelation.” He added:
Some will ask, why has the Church taken such competent men out of public service in their professions when they are doing so much good where they now are? I do not know. The Church has not done it. Rather, the Lord has made clear that these are they who should serve as His witnesses.7
When Elder Robert D. Hales was named to the Twelve, President Hinckley said: “I give you my testimony, my brethren, that the impression to call Brother Hales to this high and sacred office came by the Holy Spirit, by the spirit of prophecy and revelation. Brother Hales did not suggest his own name. His name was suggested by the Spirit.”8
“He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth me; and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me”
Having called those who serve Him, it is not surprising that the Lord would say of them that “he that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth me; and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me” (John 13:20).
The Brethren Possess a Special Witness
In response to the criticisms Aaron and Miriam levied against Moses, the Lord rehearsed His intimate relationship with that great prophet and then asked: “Wherefore then were ye not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” (Numbers 12:8). God backs up His prophets because they speak from a personal knowledge of Him. President Ezra Taft Benson once shared his testimony in these words:
And so on the third day following His burial, He came forth from the tomb alive and showed Himself to many. There were witnesses then who saw Him. There have been many in this dispensation who have seen Him. As one of those special witnesses … I testify to you that He lives. He lives with a resurrected body.9
One member of the Twelve remarked: “I know that God lives; I know that the Lord lives. And more than that, I know the Lord.”10 Another said: “I bear solemn witness that He lives. I know He lives because I know Him.”11And still another said: “The spiritual gifts described in the Book of Mormon are present in the church today — promptings, impressions, revelations, dreams, visions, visitations, miracles. You can be sure that the Lord can, and at times does, manifest Himself with power and great glory.”12 President Harold B. Lee maintained that in God’s relationship to the leaders of the Church, “He is closer to us than you have any idea.” 13
Although similar declarations are not hard to find, in general the Brethren are careful in speaking of such matters in detail. Elder Boyd K. Packer, for example, said that “we do not talk of those sacred interviews that qualify the servants of the Lord to bear a special witness of Him, for we have been commanded not to do so. But we are free, indeed, we are obliged, to bear that special witness.”14 And Elder Marion G. Romney said:
I don’t know just how to answer people when they ask the question, “Have you seen the Lord?” I think that the witness that I have and the witness that each [of the apostles] has, and the details of how it came, are too sacred to tell. I have never told anybody some of the experiences I have had, not even my wife. I know that God lives. I not only know that He lives, but I know Him.15
In this connection it is interesting to note the experience of President George Albert Smith. The venerable patriarch Zebedee Coltrin told him at a young age that he would “become a mighty prophet in the midst of the sons of Zion,” that “the angels of the Lord” would administer to him, that he would be “wrapped in the visions of the heavens,” and that he would become “a mighty man of faith before the Lord, even like unto the brother of Jared”16 — and yet one searches in vain for any mention of experiences even approaching this sort in the sermons of George Albert Smith himself. A similar example is Jacob, brother of Nephi. Although Nephi tells us that Jacob saw the Lord (2 Nephi 11:3), when Jacob later listed his spiritual credentials in explaining why he could not be shaken by Sherem, he avoided explicit mention of his experience (Jacob 7:5).
The Lord has instructed that sacred things are not to be spoken “before the world”
The Lord has instructed that sacred things are not to be spoken “before the world” (D&C 84:73). Likewise, the Book of Mormon declares: “It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him” (Alma 12:9). Nevertheless, the presiding Brethren have made it clear that they possess a special witness of the Lord.17
Duane Boyce earned a Ph.D. from BYU and conducted his postdoctoral study in developmental psychology at Harvard University. He has authored or co-authored several books, as well as publishing academic articles 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.
He is co-author, with Kimberly White, of the forthcoming book: The Last Safe Place: Seven Principles for Standing with the Prophets in Troubled Times (Meridian Publishing, 2021). The Last Safe Place treats the themes in this three-part article in greater detail. It also includes much more information about who prophets are, how they work, and how we can embrace them in furthering the Lord’s glorious work of the last days.
2. Neal A. Maxwell, All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979), 6–27.
3. Spencer W. Kimball, “Give the Lord Your Loyalty,” Ensign, March 1980, 4.
4. What truths we do possess in the gospel hardly make us omniscient, nor do they endow us with the moral perfection needed to “see clearly” (Matthew 7:5) from an eternal perspective. King Benjamin’s declaration that “man doth not comprehend all the things which the Lord can comprehend” (Mosiah 4:9) was surely an understatement; those who suppose “they know of themselves” (2 Nephi 9:28) are deluded.
5. Harold B. Lee, “Be Loyal to the Royal Within You,” BYU Speeches, September 11, 1973, https://speeches.byu.edu/?act=viewitem&id=400 (accessed 7 January 2015).
6. Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of President George Q. Cannon, ed. Jerreld L. Newquist, 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1974), 1:296.
7. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Special Witnesses for Christ,” Ensign, May 1984, 49.
8. Gordon B. Hinckley, “God Is at the Helm,” Ensign, May 1994, 54.
9. Ezra Taft Benson, “Jesus Christ: Our Savior, Our God,” Ensign, April 1991, 4; citing a talk given in San Diego, California, on 21 December 1979.
10. Quoted by Boyd K. Packer in “The Spirit Beareth Record,” general conference, April 1971, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1971/04/the-spirit-beareth-record?lang=eng (accessed 9 January 2015).
11. Richard G. Scott, “Sisters in Councils,” Worldwide Leadership Training Meeting, February 2011, https://lds.org/broadcasts/article/print/worldwide-leadership-training/2011/02/sisters-in-councils/?lang=eng (accessed 9 January 2015).
12. Boyd K. Packer, “The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ — Plain and Precious Things,” Ensign, May 2005, 8.
13. Harold B. Lee, “Admonitions for the Priesthood of God,” Ensign, January 1973, 108.
14. Boyd K. Packer, “A Tribute to the Rank and File of the Church,” Ensign, May 1980, 65.
15. F. Burton Howard, Marion G. Romney: His Life and Faith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988), 222.
16. Robert and Susan McIntosh, eds., The Teachings of George Albert Smith (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996), xix.
17. This is not to say that such experience is universal among the apostles. However, Elder Bruce R. McConkie held the view that modern apostles “are expected, like their counterparts of old, to see and hear and touch and converse with the Heavenly Person, as did those of old.” He said that members of the Twelve have the obligation “to see the face of Him whose witnesses they are” and that “the Lord’s apostolic witnesses are entitled and expected to see his face, and that each one individually is obligated to ‘call upon him in faith in mighty prayer’ until he prevails.” See Bruce R. McConkie, The Promised Messiah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978), 592–94.