My Life in Zion

The life and views of a Latter-day Saint in the 21st Century…

When the Prophet Speaks, Is the Thinking Done?

President Thomas S. Monson speaking in the April 2012 General Conference.

I’m an avid reader of anything Mormon.

This post and its comments at By Common Consent over the issue of same-sex marriage really got me thinking, “How can so many active Latter-day Saints have such passionate views contrary to what the Church teaches?” After writing my post about same-sex marriage the same day I received a flurry of personal messages via Facebook, emails, text messages, and even a few phone calls. I didn’t mean to ruffle so many feathers of my friends and acquaintances. However, I also didn’t want to let the historic opportunity pass without sharing what I believed to be right. – I’m like Orson Pratt in that respect, even if general consensus finds me wrong, by golly I’m going down saying what my conscience feels is right! – The personal backlash was unexpected though. And when I saw multiple LDS friends (some of who are priesthood leaders elsewhere) posting on social media proudly, “I Support Gay Marriage!”, I was completely baffled.

“Haven’t our leaders taken a stance on this?” I thought. “What are these folks thinking?!”

“But,” I said chastising myself for being overzealous and quick to judge, “they  have the right to believe what they want to believe.”

It got me thinking of the oft recited, but not entirely understood quote, “When the prophet speaks the thinking has been done.” So I pulled up a page of my good friend Google and started to type…And lo and behold! Even Google knew exactly what I was looking for. And obviously I wasn’t the first one to do some searching on the subject.

Others had obviously researched the source of this quote before.

So where did the quote “When the prophet speaks the thinking has been done” come from? Well, it is actually a very interesting story.

Back in the day the Ensign wasn’t the official Church Magazine. Instead, there was the trusty Improvement Era with its wholesome messages, and which contained the monthly home and visiting teaching lessons. Only back then it was affectionately referred to as “Ward Teaching”. In respect to context and fully understanding the message, I wish to share the entire Ward Teaching lesson in which the source for our quote is found.

From the June 1945 Improvement Era:

Ward Teaching



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

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.

[End of Lesson]

Although the quote has been twisted somewhat since the original 1945 printing, the message was rather loud and clear: “When the leaders speak, the thinking has been done…

The appearance of this message caused some concern among members of the Church and some outside of the Church. Dr. J. Raymond Cope, the leader of the First Unitarian Society in Salt Lake City, was one of those concerned. He decided to express his concerns about the impact of this message in a letter to President George Albert Smith on 16 November of the same year. His letter was cordial and friendly, and I include it in its entirety as follows:

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.

On the 7th of December 1945 President George Albert Smith wrote the following reply:

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 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.

Faithfully yours,
Geo. Albert Smith

So what can we learn and devise from the origins of this often misquoted quote?

First, we learn that even the leaders of the Church can make a mistake. That the blatant phrase made it into print and a Church leader “inadvertently permitted the paragraph to pass uncensored” actually brings me hope. After all, if someone so smart and so near to the Lord can mess up on something so small, I have a chance at celestial glory, right?

Second, since the pioneering days of the Church we have been taught to govern ourselves. I love particularly the two quotes that President George Albert Smith used in his reply to Dr. Cope.

“I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”

– The Prophet Joseph Smith


“I want liberty of thinking and believing as I please.”

– The Prophet Joseph Smith

We are given our free agency “knowing good from evil; to act for [our]selves and not to be acted upon”. (See 2 Nephi 25-27 for full context.) Any menial student of Church History realizes that Joseph Smith was as stubborn and self-thinking as any philosopher of the day. Yet, he was humble enough to be a servant in the Lord’s hands. He used his agency to follow the Lord, and thereby teach us magnificent things about the Lord. And he taught the early Saints to use their agency likewise.

And so it is today. The prophets teach and guide us, admonishing us to do a variety of things, and we choose for ourselves whether or not to obey.

In the winter of 1980 President Ezra Taft Benson gave a landmark address, Fourteen Fundamentals of Following the Prophet, to students at BYU. In his address he gave fourteen essential guidelines of following the living prophet which he said to the students were “to help you pass the crucial tests which lie ahead…[and] if you will honor, will crown you with God’s glory and bring you out victorious in spite of Satan’s fury.” The entire talk is worth a thorough study, but his 9th Fundamental for Following the Prophet is often where we as Latter-day Saints try to find a gray area. What is the 9th fundamental?

“The prophet can receive revelation on any matter—temporal or spiritual.”

And then President Benson quoted President Brigham Young:

“Some of the leading men in Kirtland were much opposed to Joseph the Prophet, meddling with temporal affairs …

“In a public meeting of the Saints, I said, ‘Ye Elders of Israel, … will some of you draw the line of demarcation, between the spiritual and temporal in the kingdom of God, so that I may understand it?’ Not one of them could do it …

“I defy any man on earth to point out the path a Prophet of God should walk in, or point out his duty, and just how far he must go, in dictating temporal or spiritual things. Temporal and spiritual things are inseparably connected, and ever will be.” (Journal of Discourses, 10:363–64.)

The Lord Himself said, “Wherefore, verily I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal.” (See D&C 29:34).

President Marion G. Romney once said, “It is an easy thing to believe in the dead prophets, but it is a greater thing to believe in the living prophets.” And then he gives this illustration:

“One day when President Grant was living, I sat in my office across the street following a general conference. A man came over to see me, an elderly man. He was very upset about what had been said in this conference by some of the Brethren, including myself. I could tell from his speech that he came from a foreign land. After I had quieted him enough so he would listen, I said, ‘Why did you come to America?’ ‘I am here because a prophet of God told me to come.’ ‘Who was the prophet?’ I continued. ‘Wilford Woodruff.’ ‘Do you believe Wilford Woodruff was a prophet of God?’ ‘Yes, sir.’

“Then came the sixty-four dollar question, ‘Do you believe that Heber J. Grant is a prophet of God?’ His answer, ‘I think he ought to keep his mouth shut about old-age assistance.’

“Now I tell you that a man in his position is on the way to apostasy. He is forfeiting his chances for eternal life. So is everyone who cannot follow the living prophet of God.” (Conference Report, April 1953, p. 125.)

For some, when the Church teaches us what to do in our temporal lives, it becomes a gray area. But as for me and my house, I don’t want to stand on any iffy ground; I want to stand with the Brethren. So I look at the issue of same-sex marriage as a black and white issue as a Latter-day Saint.

The First Presidency of The Church sent a letter to all Church leaders in California which was to be read to all congregations on 29 June 2008. It addressed the election of March 2000 when California voters overwhelmingly approved a state law providing that “Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.” The California Supreme Court had recently reversed the vote of the people, and in November Californians were to vote on a proposed amendment to the California state constitution that would restore the March 2000 definition of marriage approved by the voters. The letter said in part,

The Church’s teachings and position on this moral issue are unequivocal. Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God, and the formation of families is central to the Creator’s plan for His children. Children are entitled to be born within this bond of marriage.

A broad-based coalition of churches and other organizations placed the proposed amendment on the ballot. The Church will participate with this coalition in seeking its passage. Local Church leaders will provide information about how you may become involved in this important cause.

We ask that you do all you can to support the proposed constitutional amendment by donating of your means and time to assure that marriage in California is legally defined as being between a man and a woman. Our best efforts are required to preserve the sacred institution of marriage.

The Church even set up the website to further clarify the Church’s stance on same-sex marriage.

Perhaps that lesson from the Improvement Era in 1945 would have been better if it had said that when Church leaders speak, their thinking has been done. The Lord’s will has been obtained. But it is just the starting ground for the real thinking of the Lord’s covenant people to begin. We each have free agency, and we can choose liberty and eternal life, or we can choose captivity and death. The choice is our’s and our’s alone.

It pains me to see my fellow Latter-day Saints publicly post that they support same-sex marriage.

When I posted a link to my blog entry about same-sex marriage on Facebook two days ago a flurry of comments erupted. Some things said were of great worth. Some things said were nonsensical. Some things said were bigoted and unkind (from both sides of the issue). I tried as best I could to moderate the discussion, but it took on a life of its own. Finally, exasperated to see two people whom I both care for with opposing points of view post back and forth at one another, I said this regarding the issue:

“It’s not about judging other people. We’re not judging anyone when we say we don’t support same-sex marriage. It’s not my place, or anyone’s place to judge anyone for anything they do. All we’re saying is that marriage is something we believe was instituted by God, and that the world shouldn’t change it into something else. History, if nothing else, is actually on our side on what marriage “is”, or at least “has been”. This isn’t about being a “Christian Country” or anything of the like. It’s not about putting others down. It’s about defending our rights as people of faith just as much as it is about civil rights for others. That’s why I say give folks civil unions, the same benefits, and let them have the persuit of happiness they’re guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Perhaps I should have added, “It’s about following the prophet.”

I am not one to judge anyone for anything. But I do know that when it comes to same-sex marriage, or any other temporal issue the Brethren want to advise me on, I want to be standing with the Brethren. Call me simple. Call me a bigot. Call me whatever you want. But don’t tell me I have blind faith, because I sure as heck do my own thinking for myself.

I’m far too stubborn to let some folks in Salt Lake City do my own thinking for me.

– Stan Way

Here are two videos that the Church produced in anticipation for the Proposition 8 vote in California back in 2008. It would take a few minutes to watch both of them, but I find that they are highly insightful and respectful in presenting the Church’s case against same-sex marriage. I hope you enjoy.

The Ward Teaching lesson contained in this post from the Improvement Era, as well as the letter to and from President George Albert Smith can be found in their entirety in the Spring 1986 Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought Volume 19 Number No. 1, pp. 35-39

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