Last week Eric Johnson blogged here on the topic of following the prophet and personal revelation. He cited a recent Salt Lake Tribune article by Peggy Fletcher Stack titled, “Are Leaders Infallible? LDS Faithful are Admonished to ‘Follow the Prophet.’” I would like to look at another point from Ms. Stack’s article.
After discussing different aspects of the ways Latter-day Saints view their leaders, Ms. Stack asks, regarding LDS leaders, “But are their words really scripture?”
According to John Fowles, a British Mormon interviewed for the article, Mormons have “unrealistic and unnecessary expectations” for their leaders. He suggests that turning LDS authorities’ words into scripture would betray the LDS canonization process. He believes LDS leaders would probably prefer that members understand their words as “deeply pondered and inspired counsel sincerely delivered as such.” Or, in other words, inspired suggestions, wise advice — yes. Scripture? No.
But here’s the problem: Official Mormonism doesn’t agree.
Twice at last October’s General Conference, speakers made positive reference to a speech delivered in 1980 by an LDS Apostle (who later became President of the Church). In this original speech, Mormons were told that, “The Prophet Does Not Have to Say ‘Thus Saith the Lord’ to Give Us Scripture.” The point the apostle was making was that a prophet’s words are always wholly authoritative and binding upon the Church; what he says is scripture. Brigham Young, another LDS President, was quoted in this speech as having said, “I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call scripture” (Ezra Taft Benson, Fourteen Fundamentals of Following the Prophet, press copy, 6-7).
Conveying the idea of even more relevance for the 21st century LDS Church, this same speech has also been included in the newly updated Religion 333 Student Manual, Teachings of the Living Prophets, just released by the Church in March (2011, pp. 22-27).
The new edition of the Religion 333 Student Manual says, “What the First Presidency says is scripture” (43, 52). To support the point, the manual quotes Marion G. Romney:
“So I repeat again, what the presidency say as a presidency is what the Lord would say if he were here, and it is scripture. It should be studied, understood, and followed, even as the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants and other scriptures” (53, included here is an excerpt from a longer quote in the manual).
The Student Manual also says, “The words of the prophets delivered through the Spirit during general conference are latter-day scripture” (71, 72) and quotes Joseph Fielding Smith:
“When one of the brethren stands before a congregation of the people today, and the inspiration of the Lord is upon him, he speaks that which the Lord would have him speak. It is just as much scripture as anything you will find written in any of these records, and yet we call these the standard works of the Church… the word of the Lord, as spoken by other servants at the general conferences and stake conferences, or wherever they may be when they speak that which the Lord has put into their mouths, is just as much the word of the Lord as the writings and the words of other prophets in other dispensations” (73).
In January, Ensign magazine highlighted the topic of “The Scriptures” in its “What We Believe” column. It says,
“Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints accept the following as scripture: 1. The Bible… 2. The Book of Mormon… 3. The Doctrine and Covenants… 4. The Pearl of Great Price… 5. God continues to reveal truths to living prophets through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. These truths are considered scripture (see D&C 68:4). They come to us primarily through general conference, held the first weekend in April and October, when members throughout the world hear addresses from our prophet and other Church leaders” (Ensign, January 2011, 14-15).
Of course, this is problematic for defenders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who like to say, for example, the Adam-God doctrine was just Brigham Young’s opinion. Or Orson Hyde’s statement that Jesus was the bridegroom at the wedding of Cana was mere speculation. Or Spencer Kimball’s insistence that American Indians who join the Church become lighter skinned was just his personal view. (All these teachings were delivered in General Conferences. See respectively, Journal of Discourses 1:50-51; Journal of Discourses 2:82; Conference Report, October 1960, 34.)
So, as Ms. Stack asks, are the words of LDS leaders really scripture? Mr. Fowles (and other Mormons, perhaps those described by Ezra Taft Benson in his speech as “the proud who are learned and the proud who are rich”) suggest the answer is no. But according to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for members of the Church, the unequivocal answer is yes, they are.