Mormonism: Speaking for God?

The purpose of this blog is to discuss science and Mormon beliefs. In identifying and discussing these topics, it is important that, from the Mormon viewpoint, the beliefs are considered true and are not just personal opinion or folklore. Truth in religion implies a basis of some kind of revelation from God.

The Scriptures are True

The scriptures, we believe, were revealed by God to ancient prophets, and most Latter-day Saints accept scriptural statements as being true. Of course, individual interpretations of the scriptures may not be correct.

Statements by General Authorities May Be Personal Opinion

Statements by General Authorities are usually accepted by Latter-day Saints as being from God, but we must be careful in accepting such statements, because the authorities may speak their opinions with no desire on their part to have their statements be considered revelation from God. In contrast with today, General Authorities during the 19th century often gave personal opinions in books and sermons. Church Authorities today focus on basic principles from the scriptures and are less likely to propagate their opinions.

The Doctrine and Covenants explains when a Priesthood holder is speaking for God.
And behold, and lo, this is an ensample unto all those who were ordained unto this priesthood, whose mission is appointed unto them to go forth -- And this is the ensample unto them, that they shall speak as they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost. And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation. (D&C 68:2-4)
Statements by General Authorities, as well as by other Priesthood holders, should be considered to be the will of the Lord only if the persons were inspired by the Holy Ghost to make those statements. This implies that Priesthood holders may say things that were not inspired by the Holy Ghost and are thus not the will of the Lord. In fact, Joseph Smith said "that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such." When General Authorities speak, we have to discern whether they are speaking for themselves or for the Lord.

Only the President Can Declare New Doctrine

More importantly, statements made by Church authorities that are not taken from the scriptures are official doctrines of the Church only when they are given by or are authorized by the President of the Church. President J. Rubin Clark (Counselor in the First Presidency) explained it this way.
only the President of the Church, the Presiding High Priest, is sustained as Prophet, Seer and Revelator for the Church, and he alone has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scriptures that shall be binding on the Church, or change in any way the existing doctrines of the Church.
This means that Apostles, or other Church leaders, can not declare new interpretations of the scriptures or new Church teachings as official Church doctrine. In addition, not all statements by Church presidents are given as official church positions. If a president gives a statement as the official position of the Church, he will announce it as a revelation, and the statement will be approved by the Council of the Twelve and will be sustained by the members of the Church. For example, Brigham Young repeated a common belief of his time that there were people living on the moon. Even though that statement was commonly accepted by scientists of his time, the statement was obviously his opinion, and it was not given in the context of new church doctrine.

Folklore Fills in the Details

Every religion has information that should be considered folklore. Folklore might be true or it might be false, but it is accepted by people as being true, even though the truth of it has not been substantiated.

Folklore often attempts to explain situations or incidents that are not fully explained in the scriptures or in history. An example of folklore is the belief that Jesus was married. The scriptures do not teach that Jesus was married, and as far as I know no President of the Church has officially declared as Church doctrine that Jesus was married. There are historical documents that date back to the early centuries of Christianity that state that Jesus was married, but those documents have not been canonized as scripture.

Another example of folklore, from LDS Church history, is that the Federal Government originated the idea and came to the Church with a request that 500 men be formed into a Battalion to fight against Mexico. The truth is that Brigham Young sent Jesse C. Little to Washington to see if the Federal Government could assist the migration by employing Mormons to "fortify and defend the west". President Polk "offered to aid the pioneers by permitting them to raise a battalion of five hundred men, who were to join Colonel Stephen W. Kearny, Commander of the Army of the West, and fight for the United States in the Mexican War. Little accepted this offer." I expect that the men who volunteered for the battalion didn't know that Brigham Young had instigated the negotiations that led to their service with the U.S. Army, and they probably believed that the Federal Government had started the affair. Thus a new folklore was born.

Folklore can be hard to weed out of the Church, because members, including priesthood leaders and General Authorities, may have believed the folklore for generations and may have a difficult time accepting the fact that the stories are just folklore and are not "gospel".

1 Comments (click to add your comment):

Allen said...

Ardis Parshall has an interesting post in her blog about underground doctrine, beliefs that are actually folklore but people accept them as true doctrine.