What ought we to do if we believe we have received revelation that differs with the united voice of the First Presidency and Twelve apostles?
One of the great strengths–and arguably one of the defining features–of LDS doctrine as a belief in on-going revelation, both to Church leaders and individuals members. Members understand that the revelation they receive is only for their areas of stewardship and responsibility.
What should we do, then, in the case where we sincerely believe we have received revelation that tells us that the highest councils of united Church leaders are mistaken?
I here suggest five important principles drawn from apostles and prophets about such situations, which have blessed my life.
- As a first step, we ought to seriously consider whether we are mistaken or misled.
Elder Oaks taught that some things can disqualify us from revelation until we make them right:
We cannot have the companionship of the Holy Ghost—the medium of individual revelation—if we are in transgression or if we are angry or if we are in rebellion against God’s chosen authorities.
Note that there is no exception that says, “Unless you are right and they are wrong.”
- We should pray to have our heart changed if this is necessary.
Marion G. Romney, later of the First Presidency, had an experience very like this. Harold B. Lee described it:
In the political field where so much pressure is exerted on men to compromise ideals and principles for expediency, party workers early learned to admire Marion G. Romney’s intense loyalty to his own conscience as well as to the advice of his Church leaders, whose pronouncements on vital issues affecting the welfare of the nation he accepted as divinely inspired even though it frequently brought him into sharp conflict with leaders of his own political party. On one such occasion when Church leaders in a tersely worded editorial had denounced the trends of the political administration then in power, he confided in me something which it might be well if all loyal Church members in public life could emulate: “When I read that editorial,” he told me, “I knew what I should do—but that wasn’t enough. I knew that I must feel right about following the counsel of the Church leaders and know that they were right. That took a whole night on my knees to accomplish.” I submit in that statement the difference between “intelligent” and “blind” obedience. Marion G. Romney, while never disloyal to authority over him, could never be rightfully accused of being “blindly obedient.” (62-16, p. 742)
Thus, it was with difficult personal experience that President Romney would later teach:
Some members assume that one can be in full harmony with the spirit of the gospel, enjoy full fellowship in the Church, and at the same time be out of harmony with the leaders of the Church and the counsel and direction they give. Such a position is wholly inconsistent. . . . Those who profess to accept the gospel and who at the same time criticize and refuse to follow the counsel of the prophets are assuming an indefensible position. Such a spirit leads to apostasy.
President Romney also said:
If we are to be on the side of truth, we must have the Spirit of the Lord. To the obtaining of that spirit, prayer is an indispensable prerequisite. Praying will keep one’s vision clear on this question of loyalty as on all other questions. By praying I do not mean, however, just saying prayers. Prayers may be said in a perfunctory manner. Access to the Spirit of God, which is a directing power, cannot be so obtained. The divine injunction to pray is not to be satisfied in a casual manner nor by an effort to obtain divine approval of a predetermined course. A firm resolve to comply with the will of God must accompany the petition for knowledge as to what His will is. When one brings himself to the position that he will pursue the truth wherever it may lead, even though it may require a reversal of his former position, he can, without hypocrisy, go before the Lord in prayer. Then, when he prays with all the energy of his soul, he is entitled to and he will receive guidance. The mind and will of the Lord as to the course he should take will be made known unto him.
I assure you, however, that the spirit of the Lord will never direct a person to take a position in opposition to the counsel of the Presidency of His Church. Such could not be….
There is a very important point here—President Romney describes the necessity of being willing to be changed. This is really an act of consecration—of putting something we dearly love and value on the altar (our political convictions, our moral convictions, our deeply considered views, our social comfort, or the fact that we are going to be required to do a complete about-face on our views).
Only when we get to genuinely being willing to do this can we hope for the blessing. Faith precedes the miracle.
- We should be patient
Brigham Young talked about the first time Joseph Smith taught something that he didn’t and couldn’t believe. It happened when Joseph taught about 3 degrees of glory in heaven. Said Brigham:
I was not prepared to say that I believed it [3 degrees of glory], and I had to wait. What did I do? I handed this over to the Lord in my feelings, and said I, ‘I will wait until the Spirit of God manifests to me, for or against.’ I did not judge the matter, I did not argue against it, not in the least. I never argued the least against anything Joseph proposed, but if I could not see or understand it, I handed it over to the Lord.
Note that Brigham does not “blindly follow” Joseph. He does not start believing the doctrine simply because Joseph preached it. Brigham insisted that he have his own witness prior to believing.
Yet, Brigham did not go too far the other way either. He did not engage in learned debate, or publish an “alternative” newspaper (today such folks would probably start a blog or post on Facebook!) detailing all the reasons why he did not believe what Joseph was teaching. He conformed his outward behavior in accordance with his covenants, but he did not abdicate his inner responsibility for his sincere doubt and uncertainty. He waited for revelation, but he did not let that which he did not know destroy that which he did know.
If he had not taken this approach, he would never have gotten a revelation. Faith precedes the miracle, and this can include the faith to simply wait.
Cautioned President Packer:
There are those within the Church who are disturbed when changes are made with which they disagree or when changes they propose are not made. They point to these as evidence that the leaders are not inspired.
They write and speak to convince others that the doctrines and decisions of the Brethren are not given through inspiration.
Two things characterize them: they are always irritated by the word obedience, and always they question revelation. It has always been so.
- If, after all this, we still believe we are being told that the leaders of the Church are wrong, we are still not authorized to publicly preach or urge a different course of action or teaching.
President George Q. Cannon noted:
We could conceive of a man honestly differing in opinion from the Authorities of the Church and yet not be an apostate; but we could not conceive of a man publishing these differences of opinion and seeking by arguments, sophistry and special pleading to enforce them upon the people to produce division and strife and to place the acts and counsels of the Authorities of the Church, if possible, in a wrong light, and not be an apostate, for such conduct was apostasy as we understood the term. We further said that while a man might honestly differ in opinion from the Authorities through a want of understanding, he had to be exceedingly careful how he acted in relation to such differences, or the adversary would take advantage of him, and he would soon become imbued with the spirit of apostasy and be found fighting against God and the authority which He had placed here to govern His Church.
- We may be taught things by revelation that are true, and for our comfort, but it is still not our place to spread them publicly, or use them to advocate for change, and so forth.
- Brigham Young: “Should you receive a vision or revelation from the Almighty, one that the Lord gave you concerning yourselves, or this people, but which you are not to reveal on account of your not being the proper person, or because it ought not to be known by the people at present, you should shut it up and seal it . . . as secret as the grave. The Lord has no confidence in those who reveal secrets, for he cannot safely reveal himself to such persons.”
- Joseph F. Smith: “Not even a revelation from God should be taught to his people until it has first been approved by the presiding authority—the one through whom the Lord makes known His will for the guidance of the saints. . . .The spirit of revelation may rest upon any one, and teach him or her many things for personal comfort and instruction. But these are not doctrines of the Church, and, however true, they must not be inculcated [i.e., taught and distributed/published] until proper permission is given.”
- Joseph Fielding Smith: “If a man comes among the Latter-day Saints, professing to have received a vision or a revelation or a remarkable dream, and the Lord has given him such, he should keep it to himself. . . . the Lord will give his revelations in the proper way, to the one who is appointed to receive and dispense the word of God to the members of the Church.”
Thus, we might say that an urge or willingness to use such supposed revelation for public consumption or advocacy is additional evidence that our revelation is not from God. Those with true revelation will be at peace, and have confidence that the Lord will respect the lines of responsibility that He has established for His Church.
I sympathize with those who struggle with such a situation. But, I think our duty is clear. Perhaps we have not yet been able to be convinced that what we have been asked is right. Perhaps we need, like Brigham Young, to simply wait longer. Perhaps all we can do, for the moment, is sustain the prophets and apostles with our silence. Is all this difficult? It certainly can be. But, this should not surprise us either. As Elder Neal A. Maxwell warned,
If we are serious about our discipleship, Jesus will eventually request each of us to do those very things which are most difficult for us to do.
Beware of false prophets. But, beware lest you become a false prophet. Elder M. Russell Ballard taught in October 1999 general conference:
When we think of false prophets and false teachers, we tend to think of those who espouse an obviously false doctrine or presume to have authority to teach the true gospel of Christ according to their own interpretation. We often assume that such individuals are associated with small radical groups on the fringes of society. However, I reiterate: there are false prophets and false teachers who have or at least claim to have membership in the Church….
Therefore, let us beware of false prophets and false teachers, both men and women, who are self–appointed declarers of the doctrines of the Church and who seek to spread their false gospel and attract followers by sponsoring symposia, books, and journals whose contents challenge fundamental doctrines of the Church. Beware of those who speak and publish in opposition to God’s true prophets and who actively proselyte others with reckless disregard for the eternal well–being of those whom they seduce. Like Nehor and Korihor in the Book of Mormon, they rely on sophistry to deceive and entice others to their views. They “set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion” (2 Ne. 26:29).
We need the prophets and apostles so desperately. I don’t think we treasure them enough. The political philosopher Leo Strauss was perhaps more right than he knew when he wrote:
True prophets, regardless of whether they predict doom or salvation, predict the unexpected, the humanly unforeseeable. What would not occur to men [or women], left to themselves, to fear or to hope.
The more I study and see, the more convinced I grow that the battle of our generation is over prophets—it will be about whether God has spoken, and whether those with his authority and they keys exist or not. I am a witness that they do. And, notwithstanding any weaknesses they might have, we and this world are lost without them. God be praised that there are again apostles in the land, and a prophet in Israel.
 Harold B. Lee, Teachings of Harold B. Lee, edited by Clyde J. Williams, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996), 84.
 Deseret News editorial, George Q. Cannon, editor, impression of 3 November 1869; reprinted in George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1974), 493.
 Joseph F. Smith Correspondence, Personal Letterbooks, 93–94, Film Reel 9, Ms. F271; cited in Dennis B. Horne (ed.), Determining Doctrine: A Reference Guide for Evaluation Doctrinal Truth (Roy, Utah: Eborn Books, 2005), 221–222. Also in Statements of the LDS First Presidency, compiled by Gary James Bergera (Signature, 2007), 121. Bergera indicates it is a letter from JFS to Lillian Golsan, 16 July 1902.
 Joseph Fielding Smith, Conference Report (April 1938): 65–67; see also Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56), 1:288.
 Neal A. Maxwell, A Time to Choose (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book, 1975), 46.
 Studies in Platonic Political Philosophies; cited in Henry B. Eyring, “Faith, Authority, and Scholarship,” in On Becoming a Disciple–Scholar, edited by Henry B. Eying, (Bookcraft, Salt Lake, 1995), 64.