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It was 35 years ago today that then-LDS apostle Ezra Taft Benson (President of the Quorum of the Twelve) delivered his now-famous speech, “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet,” to a devotional assembly at Brigham Young University. According to historian D. Michael Quinn, the Mormon Church’s president, Spencer W. Kimball, “was concerned” when he learned about Mr. Benson’s speech, fearing people would see it as the Church “espousing ultraconservative politics” or perhaps “an unthinking ‘follow the leader’ mentality” (Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, 110-111). President Kimball requested that Mr. Benson apologize to the upper tier of Church leadership (i.e., the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve), and then “explain himself” to the entire body of the Church’s General Authorities (ibid.).
When Mr. Benson explained that his remarks were “meant only to reaffirm the divine nature of the prophetic call,” all was apparently forgiven as life moved on in the Mormon Church. Ezra Taft Benson went on to become the President of the Church five years later.
Corbin Volluz at the Rational Faiths blog has written a really interesting article, “14 Fundamentals in Falsifying the Prophet,” in which he describes how Mr. Benson’s assertion in the speech of Mormon prophetic infallibility eventually became accepted and believed false doctrine within the Mormon Church. Mr. Volluz attributes the rise of this “false doctrine” to Spencer W. Kimball’s negligence when he refrained from issuing “some sort of official public clarification or retraction of the erroneous doctrine” espoused by Mr. Benson in 1980. While Mr. Volluz frames a good argument, I’m not sure I agree with his conclusions. I’m not sure the “concern” voiced by the First Presidency in 1980 was directed at the infallibility issue, and here’s why.
While it is documented that Mormon Church leadership had some misgivings about Mr. Benson’s speech, those misgivings could not have been too severe. In 1982 the Church published Teachings of the Living Prophets, Student Manual Religion 333 which quoted from the speech liberally. In fact, the manual quotes all 14 “fundamentals” from Mr. Benson’s summary just as they appeared in the 1980 press copy. From the 1982 Church manual:
(3-8) What Should We Remember about the Prerogatives of the Living Prophet?
In conclusion, let us summarize this grand key, these “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet,” for our salvation hangs on them.
First: The prophet is the only man who speaks for the Lord in everything.
Second: The living prophet is more vital to us than the standard works.
Third: The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet.
Fourth: The prophet will never lead the church astray.
Fifth: The prophet is not required to have any particular earthly training or credentials to speak on any subject or act on any matter at any time.
Sixth: The prophet does not have to say “Thus Saith the Lord” to give us scripture.
Seventh: The prophet tells us what we need to know, not always what we want to know.
Eighth: The prophet is not limited by men’s reasoning.
Ninth: The prophet can receive revelation on any matter, temporal or spiritual.
Tenth: The prophet may be involved in civic matters.
Eleventh: The two groups who have the greatest difficulty in following the prophet are the proud who are learned and the proud who are rich.
Twelfth: The prophet will not necessarily be popular with the world or the worldly.
Thirteenth: The prophet and his counselors make up the First Presidency—the highest quorum in the Church.
Fourteenth: The prophet and the presidency—the living prophet and the First Presidency—follow them and be blessed; reject them and suffer.
I testify that these fourteen fundamentals in following the living prophet are true. (Chapter 3, “The Living Prophet,” 15-16)
Spencer W. Kimball was still leading the Mormon Church when this manual was published in 1982. The body of Church leadership was essentially the same group of men who had listened to Mr. Benson explain himself — and the speech he gave — in 1980. Any concerns over what Mr. Benson taught in the speech would have been pretty fresh while this manual was being prepared. Yet all 14 fundamentals were included in the student manual, a book which remained available on the lds.org website until at least 2004.
In 2010 this LDS Institute manual was revamped. One would expect that the Fourteen Fundamentals summary would be deleted from the new edition if it actually promotes false doctrine or a view of Mormon prophets that is incompatible with current LDS belief. But what happened is virtually the opposite. Rather than quietly removing Mr. Benson’s Fourteen Fundamentals summary, the new edition includes the entire speech.
If this was false doctrine in 1980, published in an official Church manual in 1982, and published again in an official Church manual in 2010, the question must be asked: Who’s minding the store??
During the 2010 October General Conference, Mr. Benson’s speech was highlighted by two different General Authorities. In 2013 the Church published a new Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher’s Manual that reprints the summary of Mr. Benson’s 14 points. And this year, 2015, Mormons will be studying the Ezra Taft Benson volume of the Teachings of the President of the Church series, which also features teachings from the Fourteen Fundamentals speech (see Corbin Volluz’s helpful summary of which parts of the speech are included in the 2015 manual following the conclusion of “14 Fundamentals in Falsifying the Prophet”).
Corbin Volluz concludes his Rational Faiths article like this:
Because President Kimball failed to publicly repudiate or clarify the speech in 1980, Elder Benson’s false teaching stood unchallenged.
Because it stood unchallenged, it became accepted.
Because it became accepted, it was repeated by Church leaders.
And because it was repeated by Church leaders, it became established as doctrine.
And again, it took only 30-years for the time bomb planted by Elder Ezra Taft Benson in his Fourteen Fundamentals speech to go off. And now that it has, its falsification of the role of prophets will become established as official Church doctrine.
Elder Benson’s Fourteen Fundamentals of Falsifying the Prophet is complete.
Mr. Volluz bases his argument on the assumption that the thing that concerned Spencer W. Kimball about Mr. Benson’s speech in 1980 was the idea that Mormon prophets are infallible. And indeed, it is not difficult to find LDS teachings that contradict the idea of an infallible prophet. However, I am not convinced that this was the issue that troubled President Kimball; therefore, I’m not convinced that this “established doctrine” is false doctrine within Mormonism.
What if President Kimball failed to publicly repudiate or clarify the speech in 1980 because he actually agreed with it? Is it possible that President Kimball’s concerns over the speech were centered around the public’s perception regarding the Church’s role in politics, and the way the prophet’s leadership might influence the political process? Is it possible that Ezra Taft Benson’s assurances that his speech was only meant to “reaffirm the divine nature of the prophetic call” (i.e., not speak to the issue of politics) allayed President Kimball’s fears? If so, this would explain why the Church chose to include the 14 points of the speech in its 1982 Student Manual, thereby purposefully establishing it as official Church doctrine. And this is why it is repeated by Church leaders, and reprinted in multiple Church manuals, and accepted as truth.
I’m not saying this is how it was, but I believe it’s a possible scenario; and perhaps equally plausible as the one suggested by Mr. Volluz.
Whatever the truth of the matter is, Ezra Taft Benson’s “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet” has enjoyed a continuous and vibrant history in the Mormon Church for 35 years, perpetually warning Latter-day Saints that their very “salvation hangs on” how carefully and unconditionally they follow their prophet. Happy anniversary, Mr. Benson.
On February 6, 2015 LDS apostle Jeffrey Holland gave a public address titled, “An Evening with Jeffrey R. Holland” (see video here). He directs his remarks primarily to Church Educational System teachers and leaders, encouraging them to teach their Mormon students mindfully and thoroughly. Mr. Holland spends a few minutes speaking to the issue of questions of “doctrine, history or Church practice that can and often does arise as the work unfolds. You’ve heard these questions,” Mr. Holland tells his audience. “We’ve recently addressed a dozen or so of these issues in a series of essays, desiring to be both accurate and transparent within the framework of faith. Not all gospel questions have answers yet, but they will, and they’ll come.”
Then Mr. Holland delivers his next words with great passion. Jabbing the pulpit repeatedly, Mr. Holland exclaims,
“In the meantime, I have a question! What conceivable historical or doctrinal or procedural issue that may arise among any group could ever overshadow or negate one’s consuming spiritual conviction regarding the Father’s merciful plan of salvation; His only begotten Son’s birth, mission, atonement and resurrection; the reality of the First Vision; the restoration of the priesthood; the receipt of divine revelation both personally and institutionally; the soul shaping spirit and moving power of the Book of Mormon; the awe and majesty of the temple endowment; one’s own personal experience with true miracles; and on and on and on? It is a mystery to me – talk about a question! – it is a mystery to me how those majestic, eternal first level truths so central to the grandeur of the whole gospel message can be set aside or completely dismissed by some in favor of obsessing over second or third or fourth level pieces of that whole. To me, this is, in the words attributed to Edith Horton, truly being trapped in the thick of thin things.” (Beginning around the 50:50 mark in the video.)
There really is no mystery here. Mormonism is not built on a wide and solid foundation of pillars of majestic truth as suggested by Mr. Holland. It is more like a Jenga tower, with a foundation of just one slim truth-claim that must support the whole. All of Mormonism is built on Joseph Smith and, like a Jenga tower, when his pronouncements and accomplishments are proven unsound, the whole of the tower topples.
Whether the questions troubling Mormons are about the plan of salvation, the First Vision, the LDS priesthood, continuing revelation, the Book of Mormon, “and on and on and on,” or same-sex marriage and women in the priesthood, they all come back to Joseph Smith, the foundation of the Mormon Church. Past LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley told the media in Salt Lake City why he was convinced that Joseph Smith’s teachings and messages were still so important in 2005:
“Because they are the foundation of our faith. Everything we have is a lengthened shadow of Joseph Smith. He was the key figure in the restoration of the gospel as we have it, and our foundation of doctrine and practice and procedure all come down from him.” (Church News, 3/19/2005, 3)
The December 2014 Ensign magazine included an article by Marlin K. Jensen in which he told readers,
“It is important that we become familiar with our Church’s history, especially with its founding stories. These stories – Joseph Smith’s First Vision, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, angelic visitations by John the Baptist, Peter, James, John, Elijah, Elias, and others – contain the foundational truths upon which the Restoration is based.” (Lessons from the Sacred Grove,” 71)
And so, when a Mormon learns that Joseph Smith engaged in plural marriage practices that are clearly forbidden in the Bible (e.g., marrying mother/daughter and sister pairs); when they learn that his revelations failed (e.g., selling the Book of Mormon copyright); when they learn that the relating of his history — regarding his First Vision, his translation of the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the priesthood, his translation of the Book of Abraham (“and on and on and on”) — are fraught with problems; when they learn that he borrowed heavily from Freemasonry for the temple endowment; when they learn that his understanding of the very nature of God changed and progressed over his lifetime; they rightfully wonder: Why should I believe the Mormon Church is true? Why should I believe my Church leaders are really hearing from God? Why should I believe anything promoted by my church since it all stems from what I now see as one polluted source?
Who said Christianity was corrupt and needed to be restored? Joseph Smith.
Who said Joseph Smith was called by God to be the prophet of this dispensation? Joseph Smith.
Who said the Bible was filled with errors? Joseph Smith.
Who said the Book of Mormon was the most correct book on earth and would get a person closer to God than any other book? Joseph Smith.
Who said the words of latter-day prophets are to be accepted as the very word of God? Joseph Smith.
Who said a positive religious experience proves Mormonism is true? Joseph Smith.
And on and on and on.
Mr. Holland’s mystery is no mystery at all. “Those majestic, eternal first level truths so central to the grandeur of the whole gospel message can be set aside or completely dismissed” because these, as well as the “second or third or forth level” doctrines of Mormonism, all trace back to the pronouncements of Joseph Smith, a man revealed through his own history as a false prophet.
Mormonism is built on Joseph Smith, and everything in the Church is a lengthened shadow of him. Every doctrine, every practice, every procedure is built on, and flows from, his claim to speak for God.
It was Joseph Smith’s claim that his church is the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth (D&C 1:30) that led eventually to a Mormon apostle’s pronouncement that “This Church…is the way, the truth, and the life” (Marion G. Romney, quoted in the Book of Mormon Student Manual: Religion 121 and 122, 26).
Friends, Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). Though we are dead in our trespasses and sins, nevertheless, God, being rich in mercy, will make us alive together with Christ—by grace He saves us—and raises us up with Him and seats us with Him in the heavenly places in Jesus, so that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ. By grace we may be saved through faith. This is not of our own doing; it is the gift of God (see Ephesians 2:4-9).
This, my friends, this is the real mystery–that though we are sinners, God rescues and redeems us in Christ if we will but surrender to Him in faith. We don’t need Mormonism. We don’t need “new revelation.” We don’t need Mormon temple ordinances. We don’t in any way need Joseph Smith.
We need Jesus. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Jesus is our all in all (Ephesians 1:19-23).
In 1912 some Mormon leaders doubted both the content and reliability of The King Follett Sermon. Mormon apostle George Albert Smith wrote:
“Sometime ago I received an invitation, mailed from the Liahona office, to contribute to a fund for the purpose of mailing copies of King Follet’s[sic] funeral sermon. At the time I was somewhat surprised, because I have thought that the report of that sermon might not be authentic and I have feared that it contained some things that might be contrary to the truth when I knew just what it was, so I did not reply to the letter. Not being very well, I did not feel like taking the matter up, and have learned since that some of the other brethren felt as I did and thought that greater publicity should not be given to that particular sermon.”
Mormon apologist Blake Ostler writes,
“The First Presidency demonstrated its opposition to the idea of man’s necessary existence again in 1912 when it removed the King Follett discourse from [B.H.] Roberts’ Documentary History of the Church. Charles B. Penrose, in particular, doubted the authenticity and correctness of the reporting of the sermon.
Oh, what might have been