FairMormon is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of LDS doctrine, belief and practice.
Mormonism and church leadership/Independent thought
Mormonism and independent thoughtSummary: It is claimed that the Church teaches that we should not exercise independent thought. "When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done."
Jump to Subtopic:
- Question: In Mormonism, when our leaders speak, has the thinking been done?
- Question: Why did President Tanner say: "When the prophet speaks the debate is over"?
- LDS Newsroom: "Belief in prophets and apostles at the head of the Church does not mean that members blindly follow their leaders"
Question: In Mormonism, when our leaders speak, has the thinking been done?
The prophets themselves have counseled us to think for ourselves
It is clear the Church leaders counsel us to follow the guidance of the prophet. It is also clear that the prophets themselves have counseled us to think for ourselves. James E. Talmage summarized it well when he said that "God has not established His Church to make of its members irresponsible automatons, nor to exact from them blind obedience. Albeit, blessed is the man who, while unable to fathom or comprehend in full the Divine purpose underlying commandment and law, has such faith as to obey. So did Adam in offering sacrifice, yet, when questioned as to the significance of his service, he answered with faith and assurance worthy the patriarch of the race: "I know not, save the Lord commanded me." Each one of us will ultimately be responsible for the decisions that we ourselves have made—not those that the prophet have made. As the Prophet Joseph Smith once said, "I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves."
Critics use a statement made in the Ward Teachers' Message published in the Improvement Era in June 1945 to claim that members must do whatever Church leaders say without question
Critics use a statement made in the Ward Teachers' Message published in the Improvement Era in June 1945 to claim that members must do whatever Church leaders say without question. The statement is presented by the critics as follows:
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.... 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.
We provide the complete quote below, with the phrases emphasized by the critics in bold type:
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.
Response from President George Albert Smith regarding the statement: "The passage quoted does not express the true position of the Church"
When the ward teaching message was published, concerns were raised regarding how this statement would be interpreted. President George Albert Smith responded to a concern expressed by Dr. Raymond A. Cope of the First Unitarian Society:
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.
Finally, we should point out that, in a 1946 letter to Dean Brimhall, Elder Albert E. Bowen of the Quorum of the Twelve rejected the ward teachers' message even more forcefully than had President Smith and explained that it had been written by a young clerk in the Presiding Bishop's office and sent out without anyone in authority having approved it.
Brigham Young: "I exhort you to think for yourselves"
Brigham Young made the following statements:
Ladies and gentlemen, I exhort you to think for yourselves, and read your Bibles for yourselves, get the Holy Spirit for yourselves, and pray for yourselves.
The great masses of the people neither think nor act for themselves. . . . I see too much of this gross ignorance among this chosen people of God.
Joseph Smith said the following:
All have the privilege of thinking for themselves upon all matters relative to conscience. . . . We are not disposed, had we the power, to deprive anyone of exercising that free independence of mind which heaven has so graciously bestowed upon the human family as one of its choicest gifts.
Dallin H. Oaks: "We can be united in following our leaders and yet independent in knowing for ourselves."
Dallin H. Oaks shared the following in the April 2008 conference:
Members who have a testimony and who act upon it under the direction of their Church leaders are sometimes accused of blind obedience.
Of course, we have leaders, and of course, we are subject to their decisions and directions in the operation of the Church and in the performance of needed priesthood ordinances. But when it comes to learning and knowing the truth of the gospel—our personal testimonies—we each have a direct relationship with God, our Eternal Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ, through the powerful witness of the Holy Ghost. This is what our critics fail to understand. It puzzles them that we can be united in following our leaders and yet independent in knowing for ourselves.
Perhaps the puzzle some feel can be explained by the reality that each of us has two different channels to God. We have a channel of governance through our prophet and other leaders. This channel, which has to do with doctrine, ordinances, and commandments, results in obedience. We also have a channel of personal testimony, which is direct to God. This has to do with His existence, our relationship to Him, and the truth of His restored gospel. This channel results in knowledge. These two channels are mutually reinforcing: knowledge encourages obedience (see Deuteronomy 5:27; Moses 5:11), and obedience enhances knowledge (see John 7:17; D&C 93:1).
Additional quotes from both early and modern Church leaders may be found here.
Question: Why did President Tanner say: "When the prophet speaks the debate is over"?
President Tanner's statement was referring to several specific moral issues
N. Eldon Tanner once said, "When the prophet speaks the debate is over." One critic of the Church even goes so far to state, "Some things that are true are not very useful + It is wrong to criticize leaders of the Church, even if the criticism is true + Spying and monitoring on members + Intellectuals are dangerous + When the prophet speaks the debate is over + Obedience is the First Law of Heaven = Policies and practices you’d expect to find in a totalitarian system such as North Korea or 1984; not from the gospel of Jesus Christ." 
President Tanner is speaking about several specific moral issues, which he outlines in his talk. He is not advocating that one should not think for themselves:
Why should there be any debate over the moral issues which are confounding the world today? From the beginning God has made his position very clear in regard to marriage, divorce, family life and love of children, immorality, chastity, virtue, and the high and holy role of women. Through his prophet today he reiterates the Old and New Testament teachings which are clear on these matters.
To gain these riches many engage in the debates on moral issues. The alcohol and tobacco industries and dealers in pornography are accumulating great wealth at the expense of the people and to the detriment of their health. With all the evidence of child pornography, it is deplorable that any parent would allow any child to be so exploited. Some children are being neglected and abused because their mothers are seeking worldly pleasures and careers outside the home. Many fathers are more concerned with their financial success than with the welfare of their wives and children.
We must turn all this about. We cannot serve God and mammon. Whose side are we on? When the prophet speaks the debate is over.
LDS Newsroom: "Belief in prophets and apostles at the head of the Church does not mean that members blindly follow their leaders"
Belief in prophets and apostles at the head of the Church does not mean that members blindly follow their leaders. While the prophet of God receives revelation and inspiration to guide the Church as a whole, revelation flows at every level, including to the leaders of congregations and to individual families and members. In fact, individual members are expected to seek that kind of divine guidance to help them in their own lives, in their responsibilities in the Church and even in temporal pursuits, including their occupations. Members are also expected to prayerfully seek their own “testimony” or conviction of the principles their leaders teach them.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
- James E. Talmage, The Vitality of Mormonism, (Deseret News Press, 1919), 42.
- George Q. Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith, the Prophet (Salt Lake City, Utah: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1888), 529.
- Ward Teachers' Message for June, 1945, "SUSTAINING THE GENERAL AUTHORITIES OF THE CHURCH" Improvement Era, June 1945, p.354
- Letter from President George Albert Smith to Dr. J. Raymond Cope, Dec. 7, 1945 (emphasis added).
- Albert E. Bowen to Dean Brimhall, 26 October 1946, p. 1. Dean R. Brimhall papers, MS 114, box 12, folder 21, Manuscripts Division, J. Willard Marriott Library, Salt Lake City, Utah.
- Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 11:107.
- Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 9:295.
- Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 49. off-site
- Dallin H. Oaks, "Testimony," Ensign (May 2008).
- Jeremy Runnells, "Letter to a CES Director" (2013)
- "Prophets," LDS Newsroom