Mormon Theological Ethics – Obedience to Authority

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Theological ethics are derived from conceptions of the divine and are, in part, an effort to identify divine mandates and human obligations meant to serve a transcendent purpose. The work of Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine represent an attempt to define ethics within a Christian context based not only on the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, but also their respective cultures. The practice of rabbinical midrash serves a similar purpose in Judaism.

Mormon theological ethics, while informed by Christianity and Judaism, represent a unique form of practical ethics; ethics that shape and define cultural norms and individual behavior.A proper exposition and full examination of these theological ethics would require a full manuscript at the very least. As such, I will highlight and briefly discuss a very small subset of what I consider to be some of the most interesting and uniquely Mormon ethics in this and upcoming posts.

Perhaps the most persistent and explicit Mormon ethical construct is that of authority and obedience. Indeed, many Mormons would consider this to be the very measure of faith itself. Elder Bednar once related a story about a young man’s relationship with a girl who, after hearing President Hinkley’s 2001 statement that “one pair of earrings is sufficient”, chose to wear two pair of earrings. The young man in this story decided to end the relationship because her disobedience in this small matter was, to this young man and Elder Bednar, evidence of a general lack of commitment to a key principle of Mormonism: obedience to authority. Especially prophetic authority. Shortly after President Hinkley’s remarks all BYU schools amended their honor codes to explicitly state that women were not to wear more than one pair of earrings and, I would argue, many Mormon young women embraced this opportunity to demonstrate their obedience to prophetic counsel.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre is the poignant example in Mormon history of obedience to authority leading to unimaginable tragic consequences. The men who committed this atrocity were acting based on the authority of Isaac Haight, their Stake President.It is important to note that this dynamic is only one of many factors that led to the massacre; however, it’s influence on these men cannot be ignored.

Mormon obedience to authority goes well beyond the mundane and the tragic.LDS leaders have consistently instructed Latter-day Saints to excel in educational and career pursuits, to maintain a strong commitment to family obligations, and broadly speaking, to be honest, kind, and productive members of society. It is no surprise then, to see Mormons acting as positive sources of social capital in many communities across the world.

The question still remains: what are this ethic’s origins and why does it persist? Simply put, the Mormon belief in continuing revelation and living prophets who commune with God and therefore have authority to act as His mouthpiece, explains both origin and persistence. When a Mormon is obedient to prophetic counsel, or even the counsel of a local leader, they are acting out a pious act in obedience to God, not men. Despite the cultural influences that have produced a type of “hero worship” of the Church’s general authorities, Mormon doctrine is explicit that these men are merely one means whereby God communicates His divine will in modern times.

Critics of the LDS Church often disparage this notion of obedience to authority and some go so far as to label Mormons and mindless automatons or “Morgbots.” This notion is as offensive as it is absurd. Certainly there are cases where LDS leaders have overstepped their bounds or even abused positions of authority. Likewise, some Latter-day Saints have followed counsel blindly, giving no thought to how a leader’s counsel may apply to their specific situation.However, these actions on the part of leaders and individual Mormons ignore another essential Mormon ethic: personal responsibility.

There are two key examples that demonstrate individual Mormons exercising their personal autonomy and penchant for free thought.First, is Utah’s ultimate rejection of prohibition against the counsel of church president, Heber J. Grant. Mormons in Utah recognized the failure of prohibition and provided the votes necessary for its repeal.

Second, is the number of Mormon women who work outside the home. In 1987 Ezra Taft Benson delivered an address wherein he counseled mothers to remain at home so that they may better meet the needs of their children. While many Mormon (and non-Mormon) women do remain home, there are many women within the church who pursue, thrive, and excel as members of business, academic, and other communities. I am confident that such women carefully considered President Benson’s counsel but ultimately decided that a career outside the home was desirable and/or necessary given their individual circumstances.

Within the context of this discussion we cannot ignore several statements by the Church in regard to this principle of obedience. Perhaps the most infamous is a statement found in a 1945 edition of a Ward Teacher’s manual:

When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan–it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.

 What some people fail to realize is that Church authorities repudiated the above claim that same year.

I am pleased to assure you that you are right in your attitude that the passage quoted does not express the true position of the Church. Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church, which is that every individual must obtain for himself a testimony of the truth of the Gospel, must, through the redemption of Jesus Christ, work out his own salvation, and is personally responsible to His Maker for his individual acts. The Lord Himself does not attempt coercion in His desire and effort to give peace and salvation to His children. He gives the principles of life and true progress, but leaves every person free to choose or to reject His teachings. This plan the Authorities of the Church try to follow. (emphasis in original)

 Another source often referred to in this context is Marion G. Romney who relayed the following story:

I remember years ago when I was a bishop I had President Heber J. Grant talk to our ward. After the meeting I drove him home … Standing by me, he put his arm over my shoulder and said: ‘My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.’ Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, ‘But you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray.’” (Conference Report, October 1960, p. 78.)

Fortunately this quote is completely at odds with other statements by Church leaders:

The Lord Almighty leads this Church, and he will never suffer you to be led astray if you are found doing your duty. You may go home and sleep as sweetly as a babe in its mother’s arms, as to any danger of your leaders leading you astray, for it they should try to do so the Lord would quickly sweep them from the earth. Your leaders are trying to live their religion as far as they are capable of doing so. (Brigham Young,JD 9:289) (emphasis added)

The First Presidency have of right a great influence over this people; and if we should get out of the way and lead this people to destruction, what a pity it would be! How can you know whether we lead you correctly or not? Can you know by any other power than that of the Holy Ghost? I have uniformly exhorted the people to obtain this living witness, each for themselves; then no man on earth can lead them astray. (Brigham Young, JD 6:100)(emphasis added)

Notice that Brigham Young seeks to emphasize the duty of each individual. If individual Mormons are doing their duty, they cannot be led astray.If they are not doing their duty — to learn, study, and seek independent answers — then they very well be led astray.Brigham Young is also implicitly stating that even the First Presidency could fail and falter but that they “try to live their religion as far as they are capable of doing so.”

Finally, a statement by Harold B. Lee:

It is not to be thought that every word spoken by the General Authorities is inspired, or that they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost in everything they write. I don’t care what his position is, if he writes something or speaks something that goes beyond anything that you can find in the standard church works, unless that one be the prophet, seer, and revelator – please note that one exception – you may immediately say, “Well, that is his own idea.” And if he says something that contradicts what is found in the standard church works, you may know by that some token that it is false, regardless of the position of the man who says it. We can know or have the assurance that they are speaking under inspiration if we so live that we can have a witness that what they are speaking is the word of the Lord. There is only one safety, and that is that we shall live to have the witness to know. President Brigham Young said something to the effect that “the greatest fear I have is that the people of this Church will accept what we say as the will of the Lord without first praying about it and getting the witness within their own hearts that what we say is the word of the Lord.” (Harold B. Lee, Stand Ye In Holy Places, pp. 162-3, “The Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,” Address delivered to seminary and institute teachers, BYU, July 8, 1964)

Clearly, Lee makes a distinction of words uttered by the President of the Church but Lee still emphasizes the responsibility of each individual to gain a witness of the truthfulness of the words of LDS Church leaders — even the President of the Church.

Again in practice, most Latter-day Saints generally give very serious consideration to the counsel of their leaders but ultimately seek out answers appropriate for themselves and their families. Certainly some Church leaders have tried to make obedience to Church authority an absolute mandate but those leaders stand at odds with over 182 years of Latter-day Saint teaching and practice.


Mormon Theological Ethics – Obedience to Authority — 8 Comments

  1. Very nice collection of quotations, Seth. You might clarify whether the last one was from Hugh B. Brown or Harold B. Lee.

  2. I generally accept assignments/callings and follow counsel not out of “obedience” (or belief that leaders are necessarily “speaking for God) but out of a spirit of co-operation and support of others and of the group. To me, “sustaining” a leader means, in general, to co-operate and not seek to undermine. The counsel to leaders to lead by “persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned”, in my view, applies also to me as a lay person (or “follower”) in my relationship to my leaders.

  3. It helps to focus the “obedience as a virtue” discussion into two parts: obedience to God and obedience to leaders.

    With God, the practical problem is determining God’s will. Scriptures are subject to different interpretation; the voice of conscience or more direct forms of divine suggestion are often ambiguous; different prophets or leaders give different counsel. Then there is the philosophical problem posed by Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro: are the objects of God’s commands good because of his command, or does goodness rest independently of God, who then recognizes the good and commands it? The general view is that goodness stands independent of God. In either case, we have full confidence that God commands the good.

    With human leaders, whether senior or local, the problem is reversed. They can speak with more clarity to what they are giving as counsel, so the uncertainty that attends God’s commands is somewhat abated (although LDS leaders generally speak in terms of general principles rather than specific directives, which does open up some interpretive space for personal choice in construing and applying that counsel). But the moral component is less secure. We don’t think of humans as having perfect will or perfect knowledge. Even if we think moral goodness rests solely on God’s word, we are unlikely to grant that same status to the pronouncements of merely human leaders, regardless of their office. We all tend, I think, to regard moral goodness as independent of counsel given by human leaders, and measure counsel against our own sense of what is morally good.

    The bottom line is that I think declarations about a Mormon ethic of obedience are overstated. They rely too much on taking rhetoric at face value (or intentionally misconstruing it to score partisan points, as when the 1945 statement is quotes with no reference to its repudiation). I think Mormons give presumptive deference to the counsel and decisions of leaders as a practical matter of church governance (someone has to make the decisions), but when it comes to serious moral counsel, people really do weigh that counsel against their own sense of moral goodness. In the long run, LDS counsel tends to conform to LDS conduct rather than the other way around. (Examples: use of birth control and declining LDS family size; President Kimball’s one-off counsel to not shoot the little birdies or anything else.)

  4. This is an extremely important topic in Mormon ethics. I am glad you are addressing it. An early revelation in the Doctrine and Covenants states that “whether by my voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” Add that to the Article of Faith that advocates civil obedience, and we can see the shaddow under which the future of Mormon authoritarianism ethics has been built. Fortunately, not all Mormons buy into this extreme view, as you have noted.

    But, the topic brings back the absurdity of the common authoritarian mind set in which I was raised. It would have made Kafka proud.

    In 10th grade, I was asked by my Bishopric to serve as the pianist for ward priesthood meeting. I played the viola, not the piano. But, since this was God calling me, I accepted the call. I could not read the clefs to play piano. I, therefore, practised every day for a month to memorize each cord and then put the cords together for the first hymn that I learned on the piano, Come Ye Children of the Lord. I then went to a member of the Bishopric and told him that I was ready—I had worked for a month and now could accompany my first hymn in priesthood meeting. He was shocked when he suddenly realized that I didn’t know how to play the piano. He immediately released me. I never did play that piece.

    Beside the humor and absurdity, I have also witnessed firsthand the heartache and brutality that the conservative, naive Mormon authoritarian beliefs have caused down to the present day. This is created when autorities in high places think that they can do no wrong. When the the Apostle of War resorts to public name calling, yelling at subordinates, and demanding them to threaten and intimdate those who act in good faith and who consider themselves loyal to the Church. Whether these secret combinations are by the voice of God or by the voice of his servants, it is the same— the same damage, the same fears and tears, the same ruined families. When this occurs, amen to the priesthood of that supposedly infallible man.

  5. It should be noted that the phrase “whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” is from D&C 1:38, which qualifies the interpretation in two important ways. The same verse (38) restricts the meaning to “What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken,” which the rest of D&C 1 expressly demonstrates, does not mean that we should assume that whatever any church leader says is inspired. See especially, verses 24-28:

    24 Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.

    25 And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known;

    26 And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed;

    27 And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent;

    28 And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.

    Another point is the definition of the word “sustain”. My wife and I looked this up for a talk she was to give many years ago. “Support, uphold, permit, allow, suffer, endure (as in “I sustained a broken leg.”). Shauna observed that every definition requires strength on the one doing the sustaining. I personally see my sustaining vote not as a declaration of unthinking submission, but a promise to God to put up with the crap, and not to either blame God or the community, or use anyone’s failings as justification for my own separation from my personal covenants.

    I find it useful to look less at a Mormon culture of obedience, as if it all had to do with us, and we are uniform, and more at the nine different stages of the Perry Scheme for Cognitive and Ethical Growth, and at the sixteen different temperaments of the Myers-Briggs Types.


    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  6. I appreciated the essay, Seth. I am interested in practical applications of deference to authority and individual autonomy. I often see great burdens of small consequence assumed by church members as leaders encourage “faithfulness”. Bishops often bear great burdens of being obedient to stake leaders, church directives, and what often appear to be the whims of someone at Salt Lake. I believe that the vernacular was “being in the thick of thin things”.

    Additionally, while this may seem as petty, I cannot understand why there are certain unwritten injunctions that are applied i.e. no facial hair, only one earring for women and so forth and white shirts and ties for the Aaronic Priesthood. Are the brethren so spooked by a free-thinker that they need to groom us too?

    Cultural Mormonism and all of its trappings pervade very deeply into the church and feel stifling to me. I know that members are asked to shave if they are called to be temple workers. I really feel that the concept of Joseph’s “Abrahamic Tests” still is used to ferret out and control members. In other words, ask them to do things that at face value really should have little meaning and compel someone to comply as a measure of an obedient spirit.

    If that were all, I could more easily tolerate the misuse of power. I feel that stories of faithfulness are used in too many instances for manipulation towards things of little consequence. From the sanitized curriculum to the corporate culture, I feel overwhelmed by the church. I feel like a Morgbot. Just place the target coordinates in me and launch me and forget about me. I wish for a simpler faith, a more practical and individual application of the teachings of Christ. How long do you think it would take if we were all released from our church callings for us to finally stick our heads out of our dens and see if our neighbors were doing okay? I don’t think it would be that long and I think that the service rendered would be more genuine and heartfelt.