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.”  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.  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.”  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. 
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.”  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.