Agency in LDS Theology: A Misunderstood Concept?

By David Bokovoy

 In relation to the American people having a favourable agency in meliorating the condition of the Jews, as well as the tribes of Israel, it appears the thought has struck the minds of some on the eastern continent, as well as the western.—Ethan Smith, View of the Hebrews, 1825.

The scriptural concept of agency plays a significant role in contemporary Mormon theology, and yet I believe that it is frequently misinterpreted. In Joseph Smith’s revision of the book of Genesis (the Book of Moses), the Mormon prophet provided a window into events that occurred in man’s pre-mortal existence: “Satan rebelled against me [God], and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him” (Moses 4:3). Typically, Latter-day Saints associate this term “agency” with the ability to make decisions. In this sense, agency is believed to be synonymous with the notion of “freewill.” The 2010 publication Gospel Principles defines agency as “the right to choose between good and evil and to act for ourselves.” [1] While in LDS scripture the concept of agency certainly includes an ability to make decisions, in reality, agency clearly does not mean “freewill.” Agency refers to the act of being an agent; and the term “agent” in the 19th century, when Joseph was producing his scriptural texts, referred to “one that exerts power, or has the power to act,” and therefore, be held accountable for the consequences of his or her stewardship. [2] This more precise definition of the term “agency” carries profound theological implications.

One of the Prophet’s first revelations on the topic of “agency” was received in September of 1830. The revelation indicates that Adam was created to be an “agent unto himself” and that God “gave unto him commandment” (D&C 29:35). Throughout the D&C, Joseph’s revelations often use the term “agent” in a business sense, i.e. as an individual who “has authority to act for another,” meaning a “steward.” [3] For example, D&C 64:29 states: “Wherefore, as ye are agents, ye are on the Lord’s errand; and whatever ye do according to the will of the Lord is the Lord’s business” (D&C 64:29). To refer to man, therefore, as “an agent unto himself,” in reference to God’s commandments, suggests that Adam was created to hold personal stewardship or responsibility over his own decisions. The same revelation from 1830 goes on to state that without temptations to break God’s commandments, men and women “cannot be agents unto themselves” (v. 39). Clearly, in LDS theology, being an “agent,” and by extension exercising “agency,” involves much more than simply an ability to make choices.

Turning attention from the religious sphere to the world of 18th century American politics provides considerable clarity on the way Westerners prior to Joseph Smith understood the word “agency.” In James Madison’s contribution to the Federalist Papers written to promote the ratification of the Constitution, Madison declares that

the members of the federal government will have no agency in carrying the State constitutions into effect. The members and officers of the State governments, on the contrary, will have an essential agency in giving effect to the federal Constitution. [4]

According to Madison’s use of the term “agency,” we might ask ourselves the following question: “what would it mean if we encountered a statement by Madison accusing the federal government of taking away the agency of the States?”

Would such a hypothetical assertion mean that the federal government had somehow destroyed the State’s ability to make any choices whatsoever? Or more specifically, that the federal government was attempting to usurp the ability of the States to function as stewards, i.e. “agents,” exercising responsibility over their local governments?

Madison clearly used the term “agency” in harmony with the first definition of the word found in Webster’s 1828 Dictionary of the English Language, i.e. “the quality of moving or of exerting power.” [5] Contrary to what many Latter-day Saints assume, their scriptural term agency does not mean simply “freewill,” nor does it indicate merely an ability to make a decision. Agency refers to the ability to function as an agent, exercising dominion. Certainly, agency involves making decisions, but to limit the concept of agency to a freedom to choose is to misconstrue the fundamental concept of being an “agent.”

Since in Joseph Smith’s 19th century revision to Genesis, Satan is depicted as offering a plan that would destroy the “agency” of man, what specifically does that assertion imply? Did, as is frequently assumed, Satan present a plan that would not allow human beings to make their own decisions? Or would that statement suggest that Satan proposed that humans should not have agency, meaning power or dominion (and therefore, ultimately responsibility) over their choices as moral agents?

No one enjoys being in a situation in which he or she has absolutely no choice in a matter. By our very nature, we as humans desire the freedom to make our own decisions, and we resist being placed in a situation or circumstance in which we have no choice. And yet when we return to the Prophet Joseph Smith’s revelation on agency in 1830, we see that a “third part of the host of heaven” is identified as accepting Satan’s plan and being cast out of heaven “because of their agency” (D&C 29:36). The idea that anyone, let alone a third part of the heavenly host, would ever accept a condition in which the individual could never, EVER make any decisions whatsoever seems impossible to fathom. If, however, Satan’s plan was to remove agency out of the equation, so that humans were no longer responsible agents over their choices, such a plan would no doubt prove enticing to many souls.

Simply put, freewill is not agency. Instead, the theological concept of agency in LDS scripture clearly refers to a person’s ability to serve as an agent, i.e. a culpable “steward” over his or her choices, so that when decisions are made, men and women are held accountable for exercising their freewill. This specific theological nuance for the term “agency” is witnessed in a revelation that Joseph received in September of 1831 concerning Sidney Gilbert’s “agency”:

“And now, verily I say that it is expedient in me that my servant Sidney Gilbert, after a few weeks, shall return upon his business, and to his AGENCY in the land of Zion” (D&C 64:18; emphasis added).

In Joseph’s revelation, Gilbert was to return his “agency,” meaning the land he had been given to exercise authority over as an agent in Zion. This passage makes clear that “agency” within LDS scriptural usage is not simply the freedom to make choices (Gilbert wasn’t returning to his decisions), but instead, a description of one’s stewardship. By extension, moral agency refers to man acting as an agent over his decisions, meaning one who is held responsible for a stewardship (freewill) given to him by God. In LDS theology, Satan sought to destroy man’s agency; an act that Lucifer argued would allow all humanity to be saved, since no one would have agency over his or her decisions.

Again, returning to Joseph’s revision to the book of Genesis, we see that God gave agency to humanity.  In the Book of Moses, the Lord states: “In the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency” (Moses 7:32). Obviously, agency, in this context, cannot refer to “freewill,” or the ability to make a choice, since according to LDS theology, God gave man his ability to make choices long before he placed the first humans in the Garden. Instead, the text implies that when God placed man in Eden, the Lord gave the human his agency, i.e. the responsibility to act as an agent (and therefore have dominion) over his choices on earth, including the way he determined to use its resources.

In Joseph Smith’s theology, agency appears directly liked with the religious concepts of consecration and stewardship. According to this theological system, men and women are to exercise agency over all of the gifts God has given them (including their free will). In a revelation dated to the 23rd of April, 1834, Joseph learned the consequences that can accompany this gift of agency:

“For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves. Therefore, if any man shall take of the abundance which I have made, and impart not his portion, according to the law of my gospel, unto the poor and the needy, he shall, with the wicked, lift up his eyes in hell, being in torment” (D&C 104:17-18).

Such is the price of agency. Yet agency also allows man to receive blessings from God:

“Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness; For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward” (D&C 58:27-28).

As this passage illustrates, LDS scripture places emphasis upon the notion that men and women are endowed with “freewill.” But “freewill” is not agency. The text simply indicates that men are agents over their choices and that therefore, when they make righteous decisions, “they shall in no wise lose their reward” (v. 28).

In sum, references to “agency” in LDS scripture (as shown via texts such as D&C 64:18) clearly refer to man acting as an agent, meaning one who is held responsible for a stewardship given to him by God. Satan sought to destroy man’s agency; an act which he argued would allow all to return, since no one would function as agents over his or her decisions. While this observation may seem like a small technicality, in reality, this more precise definition of agency carries many significant theological implications for Latter-day Saints.


[1] http://www.lds.org/manual/gospel-principles/chapter-4-freedom-to-choose?lang=eng

[2] http://1828.mshaffer.com/d/search/word,agent

[3] http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/agent.html

[4] The Federalist No. 44: Restrictions on the Authority of the Several States http://constitution.org/fed/federa44.htm

[5] http://1828.mshaffer.com/d/search/word,agency


Comments

Agency in LDS Theology: A Misunderstood Concept? — 26 Comments

  1. Very interesting observations, David. So to try to restate this in my own words, freewill would be our inherent power or ability to make choices, whereas agency would be the stewardship or responsibility to make moral choices that God has assigned to us during our time on earth. Yes?

    I’m curious what theological implications you have in mind in your final sentence? Seems to me this could have significant implications for how we understand the effects of the Fall, but I’m not quite sure what those implications would be.

  2. That’s a great summation, Chris. I kind of intentionally set this up for a possible part-two. Just to give one example of an implication, historically, some Latter-day Saints have used their understanding of “agency” as an ability to make choices and not be forced to perform righteous deeds as theological justification to oppose government programs that force citizens to contribute funds to welfare, etc., since any effort to make individuals do good violates the eternal principle of agency. I think a correct understanding of this term, however, shows one of the reasons that this political/religious argument is quite flawed.

  3. I guess I’m still not getting the distinction between free will and agency…perhaps because I’m trying to think of how agency would work in a deterministic (e.g, non-free will, or a compatibilist) sense and (probably) because I am not a philosopher, I can’t tie the knots.

    Could you perhaps give some instances when people would have freewill but not agency…and instances when people would not have freewill, but they would have agency? Or is one necessary (but not sufficient) for the other?

  4. David, Does this come close to what you’re saying:

    Free will: I choose to take the stairs or the escalator.

    Agency: I choose to help the less advantaged.

    A very interesting, compelling, and troubling definition/distinction. Thanks.

  5. Andrew,

    I think what David’s suggesting is that you can have ability to choose without having accountability for your choices. The former (free will) is a created capacity, while the latter (agency) is a responsibility imposed or appointed by law and commandment. Sort of like the difference between being a human and being a citizen.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, David.

    -Chris

  6. Thanks for the question, Andrew. I cannot give an instance or example when people would have freewill but not agency. Though freewill, meaning “voluntary choice or decision making” is a part of agency, it is not agency.

    To offer somewhat of a crude analogy from my own world, a wave is an important part of surfing, but that does not mean that a wave IS surfing.

    Making choices is a part of agency, no doubt. But as I understand its use in LDS scripture, agency simply means that you serve as an agent over those choices. With this in mind, it becomes clear that no outside force, whether another individual, a government institution, or even your own choices can even limit, let alone take away one’s agency.

    While each of these things can and do limit my ability to make decisions, I always have agency, even if I’m gagged, blindfolded, and thrown in prison. This type of circumstance would obviously limit both the amount and types of choices I could make, but it would not take away my agency. I would still be a steward over my own thoughts and the decisions I made on how to react to my imprisonment.

  7. Gary, I had to think that through for a minute, and then realized what a perfect summarization of the implication of the analysis your comment provided. Thank you so much. I’m going to steal your assessment in future conversations.

    And on a side note, for what it’s worth, I own all of your books, and I’m personally very grateful for your important contributions in Mormon history.

    Best,

    –DB

  8. The implication of course is that if one can be in chains and still have “agency” which even government compulsion cannot remove, then government can restrict anything it likes and we will still have “agency”. Does that sum it up?

  9. Oddly enough, I was thinking about this exact topic in one of my LDS classes yesterday at church. The word agency came up.

    I started thinking back to law school and what I learned about the word there.

    In law, agency is not the ability to make your own decisions. It means that the agent has been invested with power to act on behalf of someone else (the “principal”). But the power of action doesn’t come from within the agent herself. The power comes from the principal who grants the authority to the agent.

    Viewed this way – agency is not free will at all. It simply reflects the reality that we are only free in the sense that we are free to choose which influences in the world we will be governed by. Do we make ourselves agents of God? Or do we make ourselves agents of the demands of uncaring secular forces?

    I think it is a mistake to view the Mormon concept of agency as absolute freedom of action.

  10. I hope not to come across as dismissive, but no, MF Bukowski, your assessment does not “sum it up.” Readers should know that this response on my part is a continuation of a discussion with MF Bukowski via another board where I provided a link to this essay.

    My approach to LDS scripture is an effort to understand texts in their original historical context. This reflects my own academic training. While none of us are free from biases, myself obviously included, speaking personally, I like to think that my worldview has been shaped by this concerted effort, and not the other way around.

    Regardless, however, I believe readers should not be dismissive of an argument based upon the fact that it comes from a Jew, Baptist, Mormon, anti-Mormon, liberal, conservative, or even an atheist. I’ll let my own bias show through and state that I believe strongly that we should address arguments themselves, rather than attempt to dismiss them out of hand by identifying an author’s political and/or religious background that may be different from the ideologies we ourselves espouse.

    End of soapbox.

  11. Thank you, Seth. Very well said. I believe that there are a lot of wonderful insights that come from your assessment in terms of the LDS scriptural view of the Law of Consecration and our responsibility to the principal, i.e. God.

  12. Regardless, however, I believe readers should not be dismissive of an argument based upon the fact that it comes from a Jew, Baptist, Mormon, anti-Mormon, liberal, conservative, or even an atheist. I’ll let my own bias show through and state that I believe strongly that we should address arguments themselves, rather than attempt to dismiss them out of hand by identifying an author’s political and/or religious background that may be different from the ideologies we ourselves espouse.

    Amen to that.

  13. Very informative post, David. Your explication of Joseph’s concept of agency fits so well with other principles he taught that I find it natural and convincing. It also raises all kinds of questions in my mind about other aspects of Joseph’s theology. For example, elsewhere I have seen discussion of Joseph using the term “crafty” in characterizing sealings to plural spouses:

    “Again the doctrin or sealing power of Elijah is as follows if you have power to seal on earth & in heaven then we should be Crafty, the first thing you do go & seal on earth your sons & daughters unto yourself, & yourself unto your fathers in eternal glory, & go ahead and not go back, but use a little Craftiness & seal all you can; & when you get to heaven tell your father that what you seal on earth should be sealed in heaven I will walk through the gate of heaven and Claim what I seal & those that follow me & my Council”

    While this opens up another can of worms, I am sure, I would like to note that it looks to me that an agent, by Joseph Smith’s definition, is not a “yes man.” He is a person who has an opportunity to expand on as he is able. He is to go off and take that opportunity to build something great, and then return to his “boss” to argue, on the basis of the merits of what he has achieved, that he should be allowed to keep the fruits of his labor.

    One can clearly see Joseph the “savior on Mount Zion” who is using his agency to advocate for those who are sealed to him (and what an expansive vision of sealing!).

    Moreover, to suggest, as Mr. Bukowski does above, that even a person in chains has agency is to get the whole concept exactly backwards. If agency is deemed a responsibility or opportunity instead of simple “freewill,” then one can easily argue that a person’s agency can be limited or hampered by the illicit infringement of others. Perhaps Mr. Bukowski was being ironic? The problem, of course, is that no one knows exactly the extent of what any other person’s agency consists of, beyond the opportunity to obtain a physical body and participate in the test of mortal life.

    I am excited by this analysis because it shows the concept of agency to be so much more rich and compelling than simple freedom of choice. It is instead tied much more closely to an LDS salvation narrative that begins in the pre-mortal “first estate,” in which many made a choice for the responsibility and opportunity to add upon that estate. Those who followed the Adversary sought instead security without the risk of responsibility or the greater opportunity. They simply wanted to return to the Father safely.

    Unfortunately, the present state of understanding on these topics is so two-dimensional. How pallid and wan our teachings on agency in comparison! I would love to see all of this contextualized further within the business and real estate practices of Joseph Smith’s time. It would be wonderful put these teachings back into the realia of Mormon community, land, and business. It would also be interesting to place such concepts up against the current arrangement in the correlated LDS structure. Is there the same opportunity to be a Mormon “agent” today? One wonders.

  14. David, Thank you for your kind words. (Can you sense me blushing?)
    If I understand correctly, your definition of agency seems tied to behavior. What about agency in thought?

  15. Thanks David, very interesting. Theology and philosophy are not areas that capture my imagination, and the whole notion of agency and freewill in the context of God’s omniscience and foreknowledge is pretty foggy to me (the whole concept that if God knows everything that will happen, is there really “agency” or “freewill”). Do you have any suggestions for further reading on this topic for a layperson to better understand the differing perspectives and issues on this subject, and something consumable for a non-technical audience? :)
    Also, a quick follow-up on the political/religious argument comment. Your argument struck me quite differently when reading it for the first time. I actually thought it could be construed to strengthen/emboldened the religious/political position made occasionally (by libertarians and others) that being coerced to pay taxes for government programs they strongly oppose and don’t believe is a violation of conscience and God-given agency. Anyway, I hope I am making sense here.

  16. Well I have to admit I shot myself in the foot by not giving sufficent context to my comment here while simultaneously having another conversation with David on another site, and I am sorry to have given the impression that I would respond differently to an argument based on who was presenting it. In fact I have defended David many times on that other site. My objection was to the idea David voiced that “it becomes clear that no outside force, whether another individual, a government institution, or even your own choices can even limit, let alone take away one’s agency.”

    I think that that is clearly not a generally accepted LDS view. I think we can and do limit our own agency through say, drug addictions, sin etc, and that most church members would agree with that. Whether or not government intervention can limit our “agency” on some theoretical basis becomes perhaps a moot point when it is clear that regulation can indeed limit freedom of choice, for better or worse, and I think most church members would understand it that way as well. Perhaps as Trevor suggests, that is not a good thing. But I think that the bottom line is that the distinction between agency and choice is certainly not the generally accepted view. What we do with that is another question. As a good Wittgensteinian I like to look at the way a term is generally used in a given context and theorize from there, not decide what the “correct” usage is and hope to make the world fit it.

  17. It must be early morning speaking, but I can’t place your quotation of David, Mr. Bukowski.

  18. David, this is an interesting expansion of moral agency as a theological concept, but you have given free-will short shrift. Free-will has a moral component; if we reject the position of hard determinism (and even if we don’t), moral responsibility is attached to the choices one makes as a free agent. I don’t think Joseph Smith Jr. was introducing a new theological or philosophical position, I believe Smith was echoing American themes of liberty, equality, individualism and democracy in his conception of human purpose. These themes are expressed in the libertarian free-will which pervades much of Smith’s scriptural writings.

    Thus, I think you are making a distinction between free-will and moral agency where none is necessary.

  19. A happily thought-out post, David. I hope that a sequel will give further detail to what precisely stewardship contributes to our notion of ‘agency’ beyond mere freedom of choice. I’m also curious, however, how your account would take into consideration nineteenth-century non-LDS theological discourse utilizing the term ‘agency’ (in the writings of, e.g., Asa Shinn and/or Randolph Sinks Foster). It seems to me, if I may push back a bit, that while D&C 64:18 has a context in legal/business discourse, the rest of the case at hand seems almost exclusively founded on dictionaries and on a few select passages that need not cut free will off from an organic connection to moral responsibility.

  20. I have been thinking about this lately, and came to the conclusion that agency was a measure of ones ability to act and not to be acted upon. For instance ones ability to act seems to be relative to knowledge. I don’t have the same trainng as David Bokovoy and that limits my ability to act in certain ways. I guess I could say that I don’t see agency as something that is static, but something that can be enlarged or diminished. For this reason I would say that God is the only being that has a full measure of agency. Although I was thinking this more in terms of how agency reflects our ability to act, or in what degree we can act I had not thought of it as being a description of dominion or stewarship. Though I did think it was related to stewardship. It definitely gives some food for thought. Thanks David.

  21. I came to this article from a link on another site and I’m glad to see that agency, agents and stewards are being tied together. Here are my own understandings of these principles:

    http://ldsanarchy.wordpress.com/2008/03/16/the-role-of-free-agency-in-political-systems/

    and

    http://ldsanarchy.wordpress.com/2010/12/03/the-nature-of-authority-the-lords-stewardship-law/

    The following comment, though, by David Bokovoy, is not correct:

    Making choices is a part of agency, no doubt. But as I understand its use in LDS scripture, agency simply means that you serve as an agent over those choices. With this in mind, it becomes clear that no outside force, whether another individual, a government institution, or even your own choices can even limit, let alone take away one’s agency.

    While each of these things can and do limit my ability to make decisions, I always have agency, even if I’m gagged, blindfolded, and thrown in prison. This type of circumstance would obviously limit both the amount and types of choices I could make, but it would not take away my agency. I would still be a steward over my own thoughts and the decisions I made on how to react to my imprisonment.

    So, as a corrective, see the first post above and also the following:

    http://ldsanarchy.wordpress.com/2008/03/31/the-faith-of-god-part-ten-the-relationship-of-faith-to-agency-power/

  22. The principal of free agency is simple. You make a choice, good or bad, then comes the consequence of that choice. This is called an eternal principal. What I believe to be incorrect among the Saints is the idea that free agency can be taken away through bad behavior or that we fought in heaven over free agency. It dose not say that anywhere in the scriptures. It actually say that we don’t exist without it. D and C 93. So are the Saints saying we would have ceased to exist if Satan would have won the war??? really???. Lets look at this logically or with the “voice of reason” as Joseph Smith would say. Satan wanted Gods glory, so he came up with the stupidest plan of all time, saying I can make it so that all mankind will be redeemed. How? We were infinitely more intelligent in the preexistence, we were being taught by God the Father after all so we knew way more of eternity than we know now. So if there was some sort of plan presented where we were not held accountable for our choices and yet still be redeemed, we would have said that’s impossible, eternal law cannot permit it. We fought for our brothers and sisters choosing this idiotic plan. Trying to convince them to follow Gods plan. I know what you are going to say read the Ensign talks on agency. Don’t worry I have. I love my leaders I just think there logic is a little off.

  23. noone (in post #25 above) said, “So if there was some sort of plan presented where we were not held accountable for our choices and yet still be redeemed, we would have said that’s impossible, eternal law cannot permit it.”

    I would not say that’s impossible because it sounds very much like the provision made for Little Children in the gospel plan. The plan presented by God does in fact allow little children to not be held accountable for their choices and yet be redeemed by the Savior. Granted, this unconditional redemption does not apply to everyone, but what if Satan proposed to extend the unconditional redemption offered to little children to all of God’s children? He might be able to deceive a certain number into following him.

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