The traditions of men, part 1

I received this question in a comment: “You often refer to incorrect traditions that you see members following. Can you give me a few specifics?”
This is a potentially sensitive question and I want to answer it with care.  Before doing so, however, I want to clarify some initial matters:  First, I sustain the church’s leaders and I do not challenge their right to preside, make decisions, direct the affairs of the church, control tithing and call leadership.  I “fall in line” behind them and do not question their right to lead.  Second, I have a testimony of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and of President Monson as the only one authorized to exercise all the keys within the church.  Third, I do not think that observations about the church, even if they are critical of it, are proof that someone is misled, under Satan’s influence, or on the road to apostasy.  In fact, there are many active Latter-day Saints who have concerns, but who are content to remain active, faithful and supportive members of the church.  Concerns are not the same thing as rebellion or rejection.  Fourth, I do not either expect or advocate any changes being made.  When or if changes are made they will happen as a result of someone else’s actions, more than likely someone who would be in a position of authority within the church.  I am not such a person.  

Also, I want to be clear that I may personally make a value judgment about what has changed and mourn the loss, but another person may look at the same events and say they are good, developmental and preferred to what was there before.  So these are MY opinions, and not necessarily the view you should adopt as your own view.  You will have to decide such things for yourself.  That having been clarified, here are some of the things which have changed dramatically and are the product of accepted tradition now, but were entirely innovative when they happened.

The discarding of the Presiding Patriarch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  There is no scriptural authority for this change and there was nothing in the original order which suggested that a change would be made.  Now the current state of things is equivocal.  We actually have still a Presiding Patriarch who is still living.  He is emeritus.  Whether the church intends to terminate the office upon his death is unclear.  If they do, that will be an innovation and (in my personal opinion) unfortunate.
The alteration of the Presiding High Priest’s status from “President” to “Prophet.”  From the time of Joseph Smith until 1955 the term “Prophet” was used exclusively to refer to Joseph Smith.  It was changed in 1955 to apply to the living President, David O. McKay.  Before then no living man was ever referred to as “Prophet” within the church, other than Joseph Smith.  When the word “Prophet” was used after Joseph’s death, it was understood the term meant Joseph Smith.
The result of this change was to create a “cult of personality” around the church president in much the same way that the Catholic Church has created a “cult of personality” around Mother Mary.  You need to understand that whole subject before you get too excited by my putting it that way.  If you do not understand this technical description then you need to become acquainted with it to be able to comprehend what I am saying here.  To briefly touch upon the subject, the Catholic view of the “cult of personality” around Mother Mary is positive.  It does not get viewed by them as a defect or some terrible aberration.  Pope John Paul II considered himself a part of that “cult” involving Mary. 
In our context, what has happened as a result of this alteration is that the former significance of the church’s president was administrative, and priestly.  He was a final arbitrator and judge, a presiding authority and a leader whose words were to be considered carefully.  He was NOT considered infallible or to be invariably inspired.  In fact, during the presidencies of the Prophet Joseph Smith, President Brigham Young and President John Taylor, they all spoke against any notion of infallibility of the church’s president.  President Young was particularly cautionary about trusting church leaders instead of the Holy Spirit as your guide.  President Young said too much trust of a church leader would bring the saints to hell.  
President Woodruff was so criticized by members for the Manifesto that he defended himself by claiming that the Lord wouldn’t let him make a mistake on that order.  He said that the Lord just wouldn’t let the church’s president lead the saints astray.  That comment was what would later be used to buttress the notion popularly believed today that the “prophet is infallible.”
President Heber J. Grant was an unpopular church president.  One of the problems with getting the saints to respond to the church president’s counsel was solved when the president of the church became the living “Prophet.”  You can reject or question counsel from an administrative authority.  But to question a “Prophet of God” was to invite the damnation of hell.  So the change in nomenclature worked a mighty change in the perceptions of the Latter-day Saints.  The “cult of personality” was an inevitable result.  Everything the president did would be done as “God’s Living Prophet.”  No matter what decisions were made, no matter their wisdom, goodness or undesirability, the result was the same: “They MUST be inspired.  We may not have the human capacity to see it, but God’s ways are higher than man’s after all.  To question is to lack in faith.”

The change put the president into a league in which at a minimum criticism was disrespectful.  Worse, if you were convinced that he made a mistake, it followed almost as an inevitability that you were absolutely forbidden from saying so because to do so revealed a “weakness in the faith.”  In fact, there are General Conference talks which speak about criticizing the church president (or “Living Prophet”) claiming that the criticism was due to a weak faith, and it would lead to apostasy unless a person repented.

This cult of personality has grown as a result of internal structural changes, including correlation.  The outcome is particularly dramatic with respect to the tolerance of women’s inspiration.  Whereas, in the early years a woman could be regarded as a “prophetess” (Eliza R. Snow, for example), today that recognition would be offensive to correlation, where all functions are combined under priesthood, and all priesthood is subject to the president alone as final authority.

The changes have been evolutionary, and over a single person’s lifetime not all that dramatic.  However the cumulative effect from the start to now is dramatic.  Right now the church views any revelation or miraculous event originating with a woman as suspicious.  It was so markedly contrary to this trend when a mission president’s wife foretold the Chilean earthquake, and the Meridian Magazine covered the event without any notice that the message came through the wife, that I linked to that article on this blog.  The article presumed the propriety of the inspiration.  But the message came to the wife, not the mission president.  That would be an un-correlated event today, and there is an existing infrastructure that would frown on that.  Happily the event was not questioned, but instead celebrated.
The “cult of personality” has been extended to cover everything.  You name it it is now covered.  Take any complaint at all:  The chapel paint is hideous!  Well, there are those who will argue that the chapel’s paint is chosen by the regular authorities of the church, who are chosen by the prophet, and your complaint about the paint color is really questioning the Prophet of God’s authority.  Therefore you are on the road to apostasy….
It doesn’t matter the subject.  The argument works by extension to everything.  The Bishop cheated his business partner:  You shouldn’t question that because … yada, yada, .. you’re questioning the Prophet of God.  Therefore you are on the road to apostasy.
Try: My child was molested by her primary teacher.  Oddly enough it even works there, too.  At least there are many people willing to apply that by extension to every ridiculous proposition advanced.  So the cult of personality has now assumed a front and center position to curtail discussion, debate or consideration of even healthy alternatives to the way things are.  EVERYTHING is inspired.  EVERYTHING, by extension, is happening because a “Prophet of God” has made it so.  Therefore unless you concede that “All is Well in Zion” you are questioning the “Prophet of God” and on the road to apostasy.

The stifling effect of this is pernicious.  It is not a view shared at the top.  In fact, the brethren preach against this notion, but to no avail.  I have coined the term “Brethrenites” to describe the result of this cult of personality in my book Eighteen Verses.  There’s a chapter in there that discusses this problem.

Crap, this is going to take longer than I thought.  Well, here we go again.  This will be “Part One” and I’ll continue this with something more. 

13 thoughts on “The traditions of men, part 1

  1. I agree that the cult of infallibility (mormons say prophets are fallible but don’t believe it…) can cause some problems, but as a historical note, haven’t members of the 12 and the First Presidency been sustained as “Prophets, Seers and Revelators” since the time of Joseph Smith?

    It isn’t a huge jump (as you say, changes are gradual) to consider the President of the Church as the “Presiding Prophet” if you will.

  2. Denver:
    Do you stay seated when President Monson enters a room, while everyone else stands?

    …just curious.

  3. I have a question, now that you’ve been good enough to bring this up. This is a question that I’m actually afraid to ask — not afraid of you or of your response — but of … well, you’ll understand as soon as you see my question. Since you opened the door to this, I HAVE to ask this. I’ve been dying to ask this for years, but there’s no one to ask — except Heavenly Father, of course. And I have my opinion on what I believe His opinion is, but I’m afraid to believe myself, since my belief goes so counter to what we’re “supposed to believe”.

    So, do what do you believe about the notion/teaching/concept that “the Prophet will/can never lead us astray”?

    I’m not sure if this idea comes from D&C 43: 3-4, or where.

    D&C 43: 3 And this ye shall know assuredly—that there is none other appointed unto you to receive commandments and revelations until he be taken, if he abide in me.
    4 But verily, verily, I say unto you, that none else shall be appointed unto this gift except it be through him; for if it be taken from him he shall not have power except to appoint another in his stead.

    Years ago, some columnist, maybe Robert Kirby (?) wrote an article describing “Gospel Doctrine”, “Church Doctrine”, and “Social Doctrine”. The idea that “the Prophet will never lead us astray” is minimally Church Doctrine and probably at this point has been elevated to Gospel Doctrine. And maybe it’s even true – ?. If the Prophet, however, is “the President”, that might change things a bit. I don’t know. Please comment.

  4. Excellent analysis – I am 100% with you. It is something of a Stockholm Syndrome among many members of the Church – a kind of tunnel vision that does not allow them to step outside of themselves and either laugh or take a good hard objective look at things…..
    It stifles personal revelation.

  5. I think it is our pride we should lay down when we interact with church leadership but not our brain.

    Someone told me once “the Lord has a very low standard for church leadership.” I think it was one of the most helpful things anyone ever told me. I look on peoples faults with charity a lot in my daily life (and should all the time) but I expected better from church leaders. I was wrong to do that. They need charity as much as anyone else and I am sure way less than I do.


  6. I’m intrigued again at how relevant and accurate the blog post is today. I think I’ve heard every one of Denver’s word for word examples of the cult of personality “weak faith” “road to apostasy” “you don’t sustain the prophet due to raising questions” etc.. along with others.

    The response is exactly as this blogpost says, people are insecure and can’t contemplate questions or concerns, let alone have an open discussion about them. When I’ve seen the topic addressed people squirm as though some crawly creature is going up their back.

    Wow. Thanks for the helpful and healthy discussion Denver.


  7. Here’s a ridiculous, but actual example of the cult of which you speak – a friend of mine was trying to get an important document sent by certified mail from the post office located in the Wilkinson Center at BYU. The student clerk was unwilling to accommodate a fairly routine request (one that my friend had done at other post offices). When the clerk refused the request, and my friend pressed for a reason, the clerk responded “Because that it how the Prophet says it should be done.”

  8. What a funny example at the post office. Thanks for sharing that.

    I need to make a correction to
    my previous coment. I said people “can’t” contemplate questions or concerns about the church… Upon further thought, I should have said “don’t typically want to”

  9. Denver, I absolutely agree with you.

    The culture of the Church gives “spiritually lazy” members an excuse to not seek counsel from the Lord.

    For instance, it is a typical saying, “I’m not going to believe it unless the prophet says it from the pulpit.”

    They never think that perhaps it might be wiser to simply seek a witness from the Lord whether or not something is true.

  10. I agree with Ben. The president of the church has always been referred to as prophet. Every year in general conference, the president of the church has been sustained as prophet, seer and revelator. Even in April 1880, before Pres. Taylor had been sustained as president of the church, the conference sustained the Twelve as prophets, seers and revelators. Perhaps Denver was referring to the church at times other than when the general authorities were being sustained.

  11. Hi eddiek,

    I think Denver has already answered your question in two of his posts. He gives the history of the use of the title “Prophet” and also the history of the use of “President of the Church”.

    Here’s the paragraph that answers this from this post:

    “The alteration of the Presiding High Priest’s status from “President” to “Prophet.” From the time of Joseph Smith until 1955 the term “Prophet” was used exclusively to refer to Joseph Smith. It was changed in 1955 to apply to the living President, David O. McKay. Before then no living man was ever referred to as “Prophet” within the church, other than Joseph Smith. When the word “Prophet” was used after Joseph’s death, it was understood the term meant Joseph Smith.”

    But a more lengthy history of this is given in an entire post about it entitled:

    “Posted by the moderator (she thinks it important)”
    from FRIDAY, MARCH 12, 2010.

    You’ve probably never heard anything but “prophet” used in your lifetime, but it wasn’t always so.

  12. I’ve never really fit into church culture and remain quiet on the majority of subjects taught. The one thing that reeeally troubled me was when the primary song “follow the prophet” came out. I would simply cringe every time I heard it (still do). Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved all of our prophets and fully sustained them, but, some of the most powerful scriptures for me were the ones about Jesus saying “come follow me”. That is what I’ve strived to do and teaching us to follow the prophet felt like having 2 masters. Of course when he speaks at the pulpit and I feel his words through the Holy Ghost I follow those, but those are still the words of Christ spoken through his servant. How have we made such an evil practice appear so good?

    Also, I have been blessed with some gifts of healing that I know come from the Lord and when people have had healing and word gets out, it has been stated that only men holding the priesthood can heal and all other healing is from satan and therefore I must be a witch. Wow…where do people come up with these ideas???

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