Cover image via ChurchofJesusChrist.org. 

Elaine Cannon was general president of the Young Women from 1978–1984, while Spencer W. Kimball was the prophet. It was a tumultuous time. The traditional family was under attack, primarily through emphasis on the inequality of women in the family and in society generally. It was against this cultural backdrop that Sister Cannon spoke at a women’s fireside in 1978. In her talk Sister Cannon articulated an inspired defense of the family and of motherhood, and expressed her devotion to the Brethren and to President Kimball specifically. Along the way she said: “Personal opinions may vary. Eternal principles never do. When the prophet speaks, sisters, the debate is over. I urge us all to provide powerful unity for those things we can agree upon—family, chastity, accountability to the Lord, sharing the gospel.” [1]

Years later, following President Kimball’s death, Sister Cannon wrote a small piece in a public magazine for Church members about her relationship with President Kimball. She talked about the experience of giving this talk and reported that the morning following it President Kimball asked to meet with her. He asked if she had said something to the effect that “when I [the prophet] speak, the people must obey.”

“I answered, ‘President Kimball what I said is that when the prophet speaks, the debate is over.’ His next comment took me by surprise. ‘I don’t think the people like to hear that.’ I replied, ‘But it’s true, isn’t it?’ He paused for a moment and answered, ‘Yes, it’s true, but I don’t think they like to hear it quite that way.’”[2]

This little episode is telling about President Kimball’s character. He was perfectly confident in his reliability as a spokesman for the Lord—in his ability, in his official capacity as President of the Church, to express the Lord’s wishes accurately and with authority.[3] “Yes, it’s true,” he said. Nevertheless, he worried about “the people” and how such a statement about “debate” might strike them. Whatever his reliability, members still had the freedom to choose for themselves how to respond to his teachings and whether to follow them or not. They did not have to follow his counsel. The idea that members did, according to Sister Cannon, was the impression he wanted to avoid. “What he was teaching me,” she said, “was that there was a gentler way of getting the point across.”[4]

Aftermath: President N. Eldon Tanner

The aftermath of this incident is instructive as well. President N. Eldon Tanner, President Kimball’s first counselor, later published a First Presidency message in the Ensign (the official Church magazine at the time) endorsing and praising Sister Cannon’s statement. In fact, he titled his article “The Debate is Over.” In his message, perhaps as a “gentler way of getting the point across,” President Tanner emphasized two principles. First, he stated that the prophet does not work in isolation but, in his official capacity, represents a unified First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. He said that members of the Church “know that the messages of the prophet have come from the Lord and have the concurrence of all the General Authorities, who are men of vision and integrity, and who themselves try to keep in tune with deity.” Here President Tanner is emphasizing the centrality of councils in leading the Church (a topic we have discussed from different angles in two previous articles: “‘That’s Okay, Gordon.’ What David B. Haight Said to Gordon B. Hinckley When They Didn’t See Eye to Eye.” and, regarding Brigham Young’s doctrinal teachings, “It Is As Much My Right . . . .”. The principle is that prophets’ official teachings are not simply personal, but reflect the views of all those in the presiding councils of the Church.

The second principle President Tanner emphasized is that members are neither coerced to follow the prophet nor to obey him blindly. He said:

“They [the members] are not, as some would suggest, following blindly and acting without their own agency to speak and think for themselves. Through prayer to our Heavenly Father each of us can have the assurance that the course we [the Brethren] choose has his divine approval.”[5]

Sister Cannon’s statement ran the risk of unintentionally implying that members are forced to follow the prophet—and thus that they do so blindly. President Tanner’s statement simply makes clear that this is not the case. Members follow the prophet based on their own agency.

What This Episode Teaches Us

We learn two things (at least) from this little-known episode in Church history. First, prophets understand that they are not to speak in a way that implies that members are forced to follow them. Members are not forced to do that. We can either respond to the Spirit or resist it; the choice is ours.

But second, the truth that we are free to follow prophets (or not) does not mean that prophets are unreliable in representing the Lord. We are free to follow them or not even though they are reliable.

That is what President Kimball knew, and it is what he taught Sister Cannon.

*****

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

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[1] “If We Want to Go Up, We Have to Get On,” Women’s Fireside, Ensign, November 1978, https:// www.lds.org/ensign/1978/11/if-we-want-to-go-up-we-have-to-get-on?lang=eng. The typescript for this talk (quite evidently typed by Sister Cannon herself) is found in “Slender Box” 7 of the Elaine A. Cannon Collection, in the Special Collections division of Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University. The box carries the call number MSS 8195.

[2] In “Spencer W. Kimball: A Tribute,” This People, Dec 1985/Jan1986, vol. 6, no. 8, 24.

[3] Obviously, this does not mean that he claimed to represent the Lord in every opinion he held or in every thought he had. Joseph Smith taught that a prophet was a prophet “only when he was acting as such.” (“History Draft [1 January–3 March 1843],” p. 14, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 12, 2023, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-draft-1-january-3-march-1843/16.) Nevertheless, when he represented the Lord officially, he was confident in his reliability as a spokesman. As seen in earlier articles, the Brethren work in councils, where they “study things out” together. Along the way, everyone will have thoughts that ultimately undergo revision as, under the Spirit, unanimity is sought and ultimately achieved.

[4] In “Spencer W. Kimball: A Tribute,” 24.

[5] N. Eldon Tanner, “The Debate Is Over,” Ensign, August 1979, http://www.lds.org/ensign/1979/08/ the-debate-is-over?lang=eng&query=%22the+debate+is+over%22. President Ezra Taft Benson and Elders Gordon B. Hinckley, Bruce R. McConkie, and James E. Faust also highly praised Sister Cannon’s talk. Like President Tanner, none of them shared any hesitation about her remarks. See Holly C. Metcalf, Love’s Banner: Memories of the Life of Elaine Cannon (Kenmore, Washington: Lion and Lamb, 2010), 206.