There are so many levels that this subject can be explored on but I will only be addressing the few that I think are the most interesting at the moment. The drama begins when a particular article was published in the old “Improvement Era” magazine back in June of 1945. The repercussions of this article seem to have survive to this day with those who are against the LDS Church and with those who are IN the LDS Church who still believe the false aspects that were presented in the article.
The article is very heavy-handed in its approach to the subject of sustaining, so much so that it advocates blind, unthinking obedience, a way of behavior directly opposed to the doctrine of agency. A concerned Unitarian minister wrote then President George Albert Smith who denounced the things taught in the article; it’s a pretty fascinating story.
I really appreciate the statesmen-like approach both of these gentlemen take in communicating with one another and believe that there is much that each of us can learn from them. Both express their respect and their concerns without harsh accusations, and the confusion is peacefully addressed.
Here is the original article as it appeared in the 1945 Improvement Era magazine, I have highlighted the key parts in red:
CONDUCTED UNDER THE SUPERVISION OF THE PRESIDING BISHOPRIC. EDITED BY LEE A. PALMER.
The teacher’s duty is to watch over the church always, and be with and strengthen them;
And see that there is no iniquity in the church, neither hardness with each other, neither lying, backbiting, nor evil speaking;
And see that the church meet together often, and also see that all the members do their duty. (D. & C. 20:53-55.)
Ward Teachers’ Message for June, 1945
“SUSTAINING THE GENERAL AUTHORITIES OF THE CHURCH”
NO Latter-day Saint is compelled to sustain the General Authorities of the Church. When given the opportunity to vote on the proposition in any of the several conferences held throughout the Church, he may indicate his willingness to sustain them by raising his right hand; he may manifest his opposition in like manner; or he may ignore the opportunity entirely. There is no element of coercion or force in this or any other Church procedure.
However, there is the principle of honor involved in the member’s choice. When a person raises his hand to sustain Church leaders as “prophets, seers, and revelators,” it is the same as a promise and a covenant to follow their leadership and to abide by their counsel as the living oracles of God. Consequently, any subsequent act or word of mouth which is at variance with the will of the Lord as taught by the leaders of the Church places the sincerity of such person in serious doubt. One could scarcely have claim upon complete integrity, if he raises his hand to sustain the Authorities of the Church and then proceeds in opposition to their counsel.
Any Latter-day Saint who denounces or opposes, whether actively or otherwise, any plan or doctrine advocated by the “prophets, seers, and revelators” of the Church is cultivating the spirit of apostasy. One cannot speak evil of the Lord’s anointed and retain the Holy Spirit in his heart.
It should be remembered that Lucifer has a very cunning way of convincing unsuspecting souls that the General Authorities of the Church are as likely to be wrong as they are to be right. This sort of game is Satan’s favorite pastime, and he has practiced it on believing souls since Adam. He wins a great victory when he can get members of the Church to speak against their leaders and to “do their own thinking.” He specializes in suggesting that our leaders are in error while he plays the blinding rays of apostasy in the eyes of those whom he thus beguiles. What cunning! And to think that some of our members are deceived by this trickery.
The following words of the Prophet Joseph Smith should be memorized by every Latter-day Saint and repeated often enough to insure their never being forgotten:
I will give you one of the Keys of the mysteries of the Kingdom. It is an eternal principle, that has existed with God from all eternity: That man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy; and if he does not repent, will apostatize, as God lives. (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 156-157.)
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.
I can understand, I think where the person who wrote this article was coming from and to be honest, there is an element of truth to what is being said. Let’s take Moses crossing the Red Sea; you either crossed and lived or stayed behind to get slaughtered by the Egyptians. So in that case, yes, the way was pointed and there really was no other way and there are many other cases where we have situations like this.
But to suggest that at every single moment at every single time that every leader is 100% right and infallible is more than ludicrous, it is a false doctrine. In fact, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young warned about that problem of over-reliance on fallible men (which we will see more of later). Whatever the author of the article meant, it give this impression that whatever any leader of the church does is always right and there’s no use to think on your own, you either obey immediately or you are in apostasy.
If you took the counsel of this article to heart, it would mean that if a bishop or stake president happened to be a sex predator and tried to exercise dominion over some kid that the kid should just obey because “when our leaders speak, the thinking has been done” and “it is God’s plan”. See how dangerous this is?
Well, one Dr. J. Raymond Cope, the leader of the First Unitarian Society in Salt Lake City was also concerned when this article was brought to his attention. It disturbed him and instead of using as a tool to drive people away from the LDS faith into his own fold, he seems to have followed a more Christ-like approach by trying to get the facts from the horse’s mouth so he wrote President Smith:
Dear President Smith:
It has been one of the great privilege[s] of my life to have lived for the past four years in Salt Lake City, and to have become personally acquainted with many of the leaders of the L.D.S. Church. From them I have learned many things, and the spirit of friendliness which is found in our relationships is a source of unending delight to me. It is because I have found you and the other leaders so very charitable and sympathetic that I make so bold as to write you this letter.
May I first assure you of my good will; that there is not one note of hostility in attitude. I am confident that you will understand why I write, and that we have a common interest in the problem.
Last June there was delivered to my door a short religious editorial, prepared by one of your leaders, entitled “Sustaining the General Authorities of the Church.” Its message amazed me a great deal, and with the passing of weeks my distur[b]ance became very acute. It might have passed, except that several members of your Church have come to me to discuss the subject. The most recent was a prominent doctor, who, because of this tract, he affirms, is losting [sic] his religious faith. He is a large man, and I became impressed with his deep sincerity as he broke down and wept like a boy. I am convinced that he is undergoing a very dangerous experience.
Permit me to quote the passages which seem to be brought most in question:
“He (Lucifer) wins a great victory when he can get members of the Church to speak against their leaders and to ‘do their own thinking[.]”
“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….”
I do not know who is responsible for this statement, but I am sure it is doing inestimable harm to many who have no other reason to question the integrity of the Church leaders. Many people are suffering because of this. My reply to each of those who have spoken to me is “please do not become distrubed [sic], for this cannot be the position of the true leaders. And, from my knowledge of the early writings of your leaders, I must assume this to be non-representitive [sic].
Several years ago, when I first became acquainted with the L.D.S. Church, I read extensively in the texts, and there are many passages which may be used to give a better expression to the vision and genius of your Faith. I cite but one, although there are many others which are familiar to you.
Quoting from the Discourses of Brigham Young, as Selected and Arranged by John A. Widtsoe, in the Chapter on “The Priesthood”:
“I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful that they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwa[r]t the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give their leaders did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whisperings of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.”
This quotation from Brigham Young is a wonderful passage, and it has been on the basis of such freedom that persons like myself have grown to have a deep feeling of kinship with the L.D.S. Church. It is in keeping with the high traditions of my Unitarian background that the gains made by my fellow workers are seen as gains for us all. It is a source of regret to all of us when one stone is discovered to bar the way to deeper faith within any soul.
With an assurance of my continued good-will and friendliness,
Most cordially yours,
J. Raymond Cope.
Good for Dr. Cope for pulling out that quote from Brigham Young, it’s a great one and really points out the fallacies taught by that article. Seeking to set the record straight, George Albert Smith wrote Dr. Cope back and explained the correct doctrine.
My dear Dr. Cope:
I have read with interest and deep concern your letter of November 16, 1945, in which you make special comment on “a short religious editorial prepared by one of your (our) leaders entitled “Sustaining the General Authorities of the Church’”. You say that you read the message with amazement, and that you have since been disturbed because of its effect upon members of the Church.
I am gratified with the spirit of friendliness that pervades your letter, and thank you for having taken the time to write to me.
The leaflet to which you refer, and from which you quote in your letter, was not “prepared” by “one of our leaders.” However, one or more of them inadvertently permitted the paragraph to pass uncensored. By their so doing, not a few members of the Church have been upset in their feelings, and General Authorities have been embarrassed.
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.
The Prophet Joseph Smith once said: “I want liberty of thinking and believing as I please.” This liberty he and his successors in the leadership of the Church have granted to every other member thereof.
On one occasion in answer to the question by a prominent visitor how he governed his people, the Prophet answered: “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”
Again, as recorded in the History of the Church (Volume 5, page 498  Joseph Smith said further: “If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way.”
I cite these few quotations, from many that might be given, merely to confirm your good and true opinion that the Church gives to every man his free agency, and admonishes him always to use the reason and good judgment with which God has blessed him.
In the advocacy of this principle leaders of the Church not only join congregations in singing but quote frequently the following:
“Know this, that every soul is free
To choose his life and what he’ll be,
For this eternal truth is given
That God will force no man to heaven.”
Again I thank you for your manifest friendliness and for your expressed willingness to cooperate in every way to establish good will and harmony among the people with whom we are jointly laboring to bring brotherhood and tolerance.
Geo. Albert Smith [signed]
(George A. Smith Papers (Manuscript no. 36, Box 63-8A), Special Collections, Marriott Library, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah.)
As of today, I have not been able to find any kind of statement at lds.org that states “when a prophet speaks, the thinking is done”, the closest I have come is an article by N. Eldon Tanner back in 1979 titled “The Debate is Over“. In it, he mentioned how impressed he was by then Young Women President Elaine Cannon’s statement “When the Prophet speaks, … the debate is over” (Ensign, Nov. 1978, p. 108).
Elder Tanner points out the importance of prophetic guidance in the world today and how valuable inspired truth is in a world of controversy. Technically , however, I think the statement itself is incorrect. The president of the Church cannot simply speak and end a debate because all decisions made by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles must be unanimous.
“No decision emanates from the deliberations of the First Presidency and the Twelve without total unanimity among all concerned. At the outset in considering matters, there may be differences of opinion. These are to be expected. These men come from different backgrounds. They are men who think for themselves. But before a final decision is reached, there comes a unanimity of mind and voice.” (Teachings of the Living Prophets Student Manual, (2010), 56–69)
This is not a new development either, it has always been this way since it was prescribed by revelation through Joseph Smith:
“And every decision made by either of these quorums must be by the unanimous voice of the same; that is, every member in each quorum must be agreed to its decisions, in order to make their decisions of the same power or validity one with the other—” (D&C 107:27)
Though the statement that N. Eldon Tanner supports seems to be flawed, he still stresses this important point about members not “following blindly” in the same article:
[The 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. They 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 choose has his divine approval.
Again we see that prophetic guidance verified by the Spirit of the Lord is the standard by which the Saints are to follow. Even as recent as 2013 it was stated by Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the first presidency of the Church:
“The invitation to trust the Lord does not relieve us from the responsibility to know [truth] for ourselves. This is more than an opportunity; it is an obligation – and it is one of the reasons we were sent to this earth. Latter-day Saints are not asked to blindly accept everything they hear. We are encouraged to think and discover truth for ourselves. We are expected to ponder, to search, to evaluate, and thereby to come to a personal knowledge of the truth. Brigham Young said: “ I am… afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security. … Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates.” “So we continually seek truth from all good books and other wholesome sources.” (Salt Lake City, Utah January 14, 2013)
The whole purpose of a prophet, apostle or any other leader is to provide inspired guidance, but by consent and persuasion rather than force. It is the duty of the Lord’s servants to speak as directed by the Holy Spirit and it is the duty of the Saints to inquire by that same Spirit if that instruction is of God or of men.
In this light, I think it is more correct to say: “When an apostle or prophet speaks and the Spirit agrees, then we may know that truth has been spoken”.
- http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/dialogue/id/16763 (pgs. 35-39)