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The Doctrinal Shelf Life of General Conference Talks

In my last post I wrote about latter-day prophecy on socialism, citing prophets and apostles from past General Conferences. I enjoyed both the agreement as well as the “disagreement without being disagreeable” that resulted. Studying the crossroads of politics and religions has led me to many a vigorous and informative debate with my fellow-saints, (especially while sitting in various Deseret Book locations signing copies of my book, “Our Title of Liberty.”)

At times I have identified with (but never compared my self to) the apostle Paul who did not shy from a debate whether it was “disputing in the synagogue with the Jews” or debating the Epicureans and Stoics on Mars Hill. I imagine many considered Paul to be pushy, a sentiment often associated with those who express strong opinions on controversial subjects. It is often said: “you can’t discuss politics and religion” but those are my two favorite topics of conversation…and I can only spend so much time talking about sports and the weather.

That said, I wanted to address the following responses pooh-poohing General Conference political statements as either personal commentary, or discounting the validity of talks given long ago: 

Some of the Elders of the church interpose personal political beliefs into conference and other talks.

Using a couple of conference statements from 50+ years ago…is silly.

The problem…is that you are using quotes from church leaders…which are quite dated

I cannot fathom such conclusions. Following that reasoning, we might as well stop listening in Priesthood and Relief Society classes on second and third Sundays since the “Teachings of the Presidents of the Church” lesson manuals mostly consist of General Conference quotes since the mid-1800’s. General authorities often quote apostles and prophets from General Conferences long past in a continuous blending of prophetic revelation and teaching on a wide variety of subjects.

No president of the church or general authority has ever said that older general conference talks are of no effect or that the doctrine presented has an expiration date. It is true that politics is not discussed as much today as it was in the past, which I imagine can be attributed to a much more fractured political environment whereby such talks would be a much greater distraction from the church’s central mission. I believe another reason is that the political evils of today are no different from those of 50 or 100 years ago – they just have different names and as such need no further comment from the brethren. Whatever the cause, the fact remains that latter-day saints are regularly encouraged by the first presidency to be politically involved and they have never once instructed the membership to disregard what past prophets and apostles have taught.

In the early Christian church a scriptural canon existed which was then added to and expounded upon by means of epistles which served as written conference address that added to doctrine revealed by the Savior. In like manner the restored church of Jesus Christ adds to and expounds upon the scriptural canon in General Conference. Those sermons remain just as valid in the future as the day they were given, (the only exception being when specifically superseded by new revelation that alters previous doctrinal positions, e.g., polygamy, or priesthood eligibility changes.)

Another comment made the case for blowing off older conference talks with: “Which of our living prophets or apostles have made similar statements?”

Is anybody really under the impression that living prophets must ratify everything preached by previous prophets? Others have made this erroneous point using an Ezra Taft Benson quote: “The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet.” I wholeheartedly endorse this position and would point to the fact that none of the quotes I cited have ever been contradicted by any subsequent general authority. In fact, there have been no conflicting statements on politics made in any General Conference in this dispensation.

That statement about living vs. dead prophets came from a 1st Presidency message by President Benson entitled: “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet”. (June, 1981 Ensign, First Presidency Message, at the time Benson was of course President of the Quorum of the Twelve) I would like to cite a few principles from that message as they apply to general authorities speaking about politics from the pulpit.

“Fifth: The prophet is not required to have any particular earthly training or diplomas to speak on any subject or act on any matter at any time.”

President Benson explained: “Sometimes there are those who feel their earthly knowledge on a certain subject is superior to the heavenly knowledge which God gives to his prophet on the same subject…We encourage earthly knowledge in many areas, but remember if there is ever a conflict between earthly knowledge and the words of the prophet, you stand with the prophet and you’ll be blessed and time will show you have done the right thing.”

Clearly there is plenty of earthly knowledge about politics available today, but since prophets are authorized to “speak on any subject,” I consider quotes like the following to be definitive statements on LDS political truth:
“Communism is anti-Christ.”
(David O. McKay, Conference Report, April 1950, p.175)
In 1950 many believed the “earthly knowledge” that communism was just another form of government and had no spiritual application. President McKay left no doubt as to what we should believe regarding communism.

I realize in this context the word “should” is controversial and scary. Discussing politics in many ways is like discussing religion – the truth is not scientifically provable and deals with opinions that are not always popular. Someone commented that my statement regarding what Mormons “should” believe was “divisive and cause[d] the thinker to judge the righteousness or accuracy of his fellow saints.” This is the kind of touchy-feely response that seems compassionate but is really an accusation that another’s opinion will lead others to bad behaviors. This sort of misdirection is how political discussion gets muddled: by inventing imaginary ill-effects of another’s position instead of addressing substance.

The pursuit of political and spiritual truth at times requires bold, yet polite, lines to be drawn. Such is the nature of politics and religion. My goal is not to divide, but to persuade my fellow-saints to consider the prime Messianic declaration on politics: “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” The Savior is clearly saying that there are functions that should be taken care of by government while others belong to God and religion. He did not say which functions belong to which, in much the same way that He doesn’t give exact definitions of tithing or keeping the Sabbath day holy. He expects us to be “anxiously engaged” in following His prophets and His Spirit so we can obtain “the mind of Christ” in distinguishing which functions belong to Caesar and which should be left to God.

“Sixth: The prophet does not have to say “Thus saith the Lord” to give us scripture.”

This principle responds to those who feel justified in cherry-picking their political beliefs by asserting that prophets mix their “own personal political beliefs” into General Conference addresses.

I would point those folks to Pres. Benson’s follow-up: “…there are those who argue about words. They might say the prophet gave us counsel but that we are not obliged to follow it unless he says it is a commandment. But the Lord says of the Prophet, “Thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you.” (D&C 21:4.) Said Brigham Young, “I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call scripture.” (Journal of Discourses, 13:95.)

“Seventh: The prophet tells us what we need to know, not always what we want to know.”

President Benson then cited an eleven year old (at the time) conference quote “Said President Harold B. Lee: You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may conflict with your political views. It may contradict your social views.”
(Conference Report, October 1970, p. 152–153.)

(Notice how unconcerned President Lee is with being “pushy,” “divisive,” or the potential for some to “judge the righteousness or accuracy of their fellow saints.”)

Bruce R. McConkie said:
“To be valiant in the testimony of Jesus is to take the Lord’s side on every issue. It is to vote as he would vote. It is to think what he thinks, to believe what he believes, to say what he would say and do what he would do in the same situation.”
(“Be Valiant in the Fight of Faith,” Ensign, Nov. 1974)
Elder McConkie is clearly stating that the “the Lord’s side” of any issue exists and that we should be active in championing it, and voting for it.

I believe it to be plain and clear: The doctrine in General Conference talks is the mind and will of the Lord on any subject…it has no shelf-life, and it never expires.

{ 15 comments… add one }

  • Steve August 7, 2012, 3:23 pm

    Michael —

    The biggest problem with much of the Benson 1960s stuff is that it was flatly contradicted at the time by a member of the First Presidency, Hugh B. Brown.

    It is clear that a wide range of General Authorities, including Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball, disagreed with his political statements.

    Remember, then Elder Benson supported the idea that President Eisenhower was an active Communist tool, that the civil rights movement was a communist plot and that the John Birch Society was positive force — views that very few of his brethren shared.

    I personally don’t like socialism but you may remember N. Eldon Tanner who served in the First Presidency. He actively backed socialist policies in the Canadian Parliament.

  • DavidH August 7, 2012, 3:57 pm

    “With divine inspiration, the First Presidency (the prophet and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the second-highest governing body of the Church) counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. ”

    http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/approaching-mormon-doctrine

    I don’t see a consistent proclamation of those past political statements; I do not believe they can even be found on lds.org (I am willing to be corrected on whether any of them are on lds.org).

  • Michael J. Snider August 7, 2012, 4:04 pm

    Steve: I readily acknowledge that what you say is true…it just doesn’t change anything.

    Presidents Smith, Lee & Kimball (and Hugh B. Brown) never stated any differing opinion or corrective statements from the General Conference pulpit, which places their differences squarely in the non-revelation, personal opinion category. (It should also be noted that both Brown and Tanner held dual citizenship status in the U.S. and Canada and I have previously stated that much of what I cite from conference applies only to U.S. citizens as our 12th Article of Faith states that we uphold the various types of governments where saints are to be found.

    As to the rest of what you maintain about Elder Benson – (Eisenhower as communist tool, etc.), again – it is of no effect. None of it was ever stated from the general conference pulpit.

    It should also be noted that Ezra Taft Benson is not the only one who talked about these same themes from the GC pulpit. Pres. McKay, J. Reuben Clark and others have said many of the same things. How are you going to write all of them off? (Remember it was McKay who told Benson to accept the Eisenhower cabinet post even though he was an apostle at the time – an unprecedented move…no apostle keeps his day-job after getting called to the twelve.)

    I would urge you not be to afraid to oppose socialism. While I believe in the freedom of Canada, Britain and the rest of the social/socialist democracies to follow their path, I firmly believe that when it comes time to step forward and rescue the Constitution from the brink of destruction, the saints and elders of the church will not be proposing large government-run entitlement programs.

  • Michael J. Snider August 7, 2012, 4:46 pm

    DavidH: There is precedent for political statements by church authorities that follow the process you cited. Take for example: President Heber J. Grant and his counselors’ declaration: (“Warning to Church Members on Communism,” July 3, 1936, Improvement Era 39, no. 8 (August 1936): 488)

    Multiple presidents of the church have made official statements on politically themed issues. (Take Joseph F. Smith’s/First Presidency’s declaration of the church’s position on evolution – that was PLENTY political) Multiple presidents of the church have stated that communism is evil either in official statements or from the General Conference pulpit. Members of the twelve have elaborated on these statements about communism, (as well as socialism.) If that doesn’t amount to a pattern of consistent proclamation, then I guess we disagree on what those words mean.

    What I’m really curious about is why something must appear on lds.org in order for you to consider it doctrinally binding? When did lds.org become the measure of accepted doctrinal statements? Since such a position has not been announced by the first presidency or any of the twelve I reject it as something you’ve invented out of whole cloth in order to make your points.

    Your position makes reason stare. Lds.org only has General Conference addresses back to 1971 on it – are we to disregard what was preached from the pulpit in the 1800’s, up to 1970 because it’s not on lds.org? (FYI – the church’s news room does points to archive.org as a resource for researching older conference addresses. http://archive.org/details/conferencereport)

  • Larrin August 7, 2012, 6:39 pm

    “No president of the church or general authority has ever said that older general conference talks are of no effect or that the doctrine presented has an expiration date.”

    I would argue that they have: “The Journal of Discourses is not an official publication of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is a compilation of sermons and other materials from the early years of the Church, which were transcribed and then published. It included some doctrinal instruction but also practical teaching, some of which is speculative in nature and some of which is only of historical interest. … Questions have been raised about the accuracy of some transcriptions. Modern technology and processes were not available for verifying the accuracy of transcriptions, and some significant mistakes have been documented. The Journal of Discourses includes interesting and insightful teachings by early Church leaders; however, by itself it is not an authoritative source of Church doctrine.” (Journal of Discourses, “Gospel Study: Study by Topic”, LDS.org)

  • Alison Moore Smith August 7, 2012, 9:48 pm

    I don’t have time to dig up all the prophetic quotes at the moment. But there are hundreds that are used for all sorts of purposes that simply are no longer, shall we say, “in play.” And, yes, some of them are conference talks — although I find that distinction a bit odd as the determining factor.

    One example is schooling. There are a few homeschoolers who use innumerable quotes from Brigham Young to “prove” that sending your kids to a public school is contrary to prophetic counsel.

    The counsel is real, it’s prophetic, and it’s never been withdrawn or officially countered. But it’s simply true that it’s time has past. How do I know? Because so many (all?) of our prophets have sent their kids to public schools and the counsel has simply dropped from the vernacular.

    There are many other bits of similar counsel that have gone the way of the world. While I haven’t researched, I suspect many could be found among the general conference talks as well. One example is the “requirement” to take the sacrament with your right hand. Another might be the dress and grooming of the Retrenchment Society era.

    I don’t make any claims about your particular quotes, but I think common sense tells us that even official counsel can expire.
    Alison Moore Smith recently posted…The Happiness Advantage – 5 Easy Steps to a Happier LifeMy Profile

  • Alison Moore Smith August 7, 2012, 9:57 pm

    OK, I found a General Conference quote by George Albert Smith from 1908. He said:

    Our people have been taught to take the sacrament with the right hand; we believe that is appropriate, and proper, and acceptable to our Father. The sacrament should not be accepted with a gloved hand; nobody should receive it in that irreverent manner. We should partake of it in humility, with preparation of clean hands and pure hearts, and with a desire to be acceptable to our Father; then we will receive it worthily, and rejoice in the blessing that comes to us by reason of it. The Lord has spoken regarding this.

    I was also taught this, but over the past two decades I have been asked about it and have been unable to find ANY reference to this in the missionary discussion, current manuals (including Gospel Principles), or any materials that new members would have access to. In other words, the counsel is gone for all intents and purposes. And I don’t think that was just an oversight.
    Alison Moore Smith recently posted…OvergrownMy Profile

  • Michael J. Snider August 8, 2012, 7:19 am

    Larrin/Alison – Thank you for the quotes. They are excellent examples of the differentiation between policy and doctrine…an important distinction because policy changes while doctrine does not. The Journal of Discourses, as it says on lds.org, contains “some doctrinal instruction but also practical teaching” and I agree that “by itself” it is not an authoritative source of church doctrine.

    Alison found a good example. The taking of the sacrament with one’s right hand always was policy and as is no longer taught, (I still teach it to my children as a sign of respect, not a requirement.) There is also policy that has not gone away. For example, when we pass the sacrament the presiding authority receives the sacrament first. Of course if someone else besides the bishop were to receive the sacrament first it would have no effect on the efficacy of the ordinance. At the end of the day the General Handbook of Instructions is just a big book of policy.

    All that has little effect on what I’m discussing regarding political doctrine though. I cite the Journal of Discourses very rarely simply because there was no communism or socialism in the 1800’s, (though Marx and Engels were certainly brainstorming it). When those evils came to fruition in the 1900’s, prophets spoke in very clear terms.

    I believe it is clear that policy, (like which hand we take the take the sacrament with), is not equatable with doctrine. Prophets and apostles have called communism “evil and “anti-Christ.” Those are doctrinal statements. Policy comes and goes – doctrine never expires.

  • Sarah August 8, 2012, 9:01 am

    Amen! …That’s all I gotta say. You rock; I can’t tell you how much I absolutely LOVE this post.

  • jennycherie August 8, 2012, 9:26 am

    Michael – the problem I have with mixing doctrine with political themes, and trying to apply it to government issues (particularly in the earlier post that stated that Latter-day Saints should have a certain view of socialized medicine) is that this is a worldwide church – 14,000,000 members from many different countries. The church very pointedly remains neutral on this issue. Even though older conference talks are still valuable resource, they do not replace or outrank current revelation. Our prophet has not ever told us how to vote or how to believe on issues regarding our government and its policies.
    jennycherie recently posted…Joy to the WorldMy Profile

  • Michael J. Snider August 8, 2012, 2:32 pm

    Jennycherie: I realize it may seem harsh or judgmental to believe that having a firm doctrinal stance against communism, socialism or socialized medicine somehow belittles or takes away from members in other countries that have it. I know. I lived in Canada for a year. I have also had to explain the differences to my oldest daughter, whom we adopted from China when she was 13 years old (and is now 20 years of age.)

    The problem with your premise is found first in the following scripture: “We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that he holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them” (D&C 134:1) Bottom line: Since voting is an act related to government, we will all be held accountable for our votes.

    Secondly: Saints in other countries will be responsible for their own acts in relation to their own governments…it is none of your concern (it’s also irrelevant to this discussion.) Each of us is responsible for our own salvation. I can’t imagine being held accountable for my acts in relation to government, being asked why I voted the way I did on a given issue and answering: “other countries were doing it.”

    Thirdly: The church has not remained “pointedly silent” on this because that is not the way the church deals with politics in this dispensation. Leading us to Christ is the prime focus of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and politics is secondary to that mission. That doesn’t mean it’s not important or that political positions are interchangeable; it just means that the church doesn’t talk about politics with the same frequency or in the same way.
    Your position that “older conference talks are still valuable resources, they do not replace or outrank current revelation” implies that somehow we have newer revelations that have somehow said “socialism is OK now” which replace or outrank the quotes I used when nothing of the sort has happened.
    There is a pattern to how the church treats politics and it has not changed since 1830.
    Political positions and beliefs are so important that we have been given a whole section on politics in the Doctrine & Covenants (134) as well as other scriptures wherein the Lord identifies the U.S. Constitution as the “constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established” (D&C 101:77) and commands us to observe it as it supports “that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me.” (D&C 98:5)

    Since then prophets and apostles have expounded on the “just and holy principles” (D&C 101:77) of political precepts and then leave it to us to be “anxiously engaged” in applying those principles.

    In the church’s political neutrality statement the brethren encourage us to “be informed about issues.”
    I would ask then: On what basis are you going to inform yourself?

    I suggest you re-read Elder McConkie’s instruction: “…to take the Lord’s side on every issue…to vote as he would vote…to think what he thinks, to believe what he believes.” and do some serious meditation and praying on the fact that the Constitution contains nary a scintilla of socialism or socialistic principles and then consider his counsel regarding correct and incorrect sides to issues.

    We have received instruction on socialism from an apostle of God in a General Conference address which has not been corrected or amended: “No true Latter-day Saint and no true American can be a socialist or a communist or support programs leading in that direction. These evil philosophies are incompatible with Mormonism, the true gospel of Jesus Christ.” (Conference Report, October 1961, p.74)

    I wish I could bold or italicize the last phrase of that quote. It should suffice to say that socialized medicine exactly fits the description of a program “leading in th[e] direction” of socialism. I don’t think it could be any clearer.

  • Alison Moore Smith August 8, 2012, 2:38 pm

    They are excellent examples of the differentiation between policy and doctrine…an important distinction because policy changes while doctrine does not.

    Michael, I’m aware of the distinction between doctrine and policy (and practice!), and I’ve written about that a number of times. The problem is your post ASSUMES that the distinction — within conference talks — is clear.

    I tend to disagree. In fact, if it was always clear, it would resolve an enormous number of gospel debates.

    So you will claim that the counsel about socialism is “doctrine” and others I know will claim the counsel about school is “doctrine.” And some will claim both are simply policy or practice or opinion.

    None of that is to say the prophets were wrong. I suspect that the Retrenchment Society was inspired — FOR THE TIME. But I think the particular standards no longer apply even though Brigham Young would have thought President Burton’s clothes were positively scandalous.

    I realize President Benson said a lot about communism and socialism — and, for the record, I tend to agree — but you asked a critical questions and assumed an answer that I think is erroneous:

    Is anybody really under the impression that living prophets must ratify everything preached by previous prophets?

    To a great extend, yes, I do believe that. Why? Because that’s how organizations work. If new member have no access to information, it dies out. If it’s critical (as I suspect all actual doctrine would be classified), then it should be repeated and kept as part of the Mormon story, so to speak.

    It’s also how people work. Unless a fairly recent prophet has reiterated a point, it will drop off the radar AND those who know but don’t like the long-ago-claimed “doctrine” will simply call it “policy” and say that it has now changed.

    For example, how have you determined that refusing public school services was just “policy”? How have you determined that it no longer applies?

    As for socialism specifically, I think there may be a number of reasons why the discussion isn’t so prevalent now (if it exists at all). First, Benson simply was very conservative and interested in this topic (and, obviously, very politically active most of his life). Second, with more and more members in socialist countries, it’s a hard row to hoe to keep telling them their countries are evil.

    Of course, if it’s true, we should beat the drum whether or not it’s uncomfortable (as the church has chosen to do with homosexuality, although from a very softened stance), but it’s at least INTERESTING and worth thinking about the fact that we don’t hear those strident words anymore.

    All that said, I think socialism is a huge threat to our freedoms. But that’s not what this post is really about.
    Alison Moore Smith recently posted…No YolkMy Profile

  • DavidH August 13, 2012, 11:10 am

    I am not addressing the merits–whether you or the statements quoted are true or correct today. I am addressing instead whether Latter-day Saints today should view those statements as representing the official and current position of the Church on those matters. That is, can a person differ from those positions, and consider himself or herself to be a faithful, believing, practicing Latter-day Saint today.

    I have no doubt that several apostles in the 1950s and 1960s opposed socialism, and so stated in conference addresses.

    The key language, though, in the Church’s statement on assessing what is doctrinal is that the teaching “IS consistently proclaimed.” Arguably those positions WERE consistently proclaimed. But they no longer ARE consistently proclaimed.

    Elder Paul Johnson said the following in instructing seminary and institute teachers recently:

    “Another challenge we face, especially if we have taught for some time, is a tendency to hold on to old files and old explanations,” he said. “We would be much better off keeping up with the current stance of the Church.”

    One of the best ways to do this is to be familiar with material in the newsroom at lds.org, Elder Johnson said. “Let’s keep up to date with the light we have been given.”

    “Many of us have a difficult time dealing with ambiguity, especially in issues concerning the Church,” he said. “In fact, we may be drawn to use quotes in our teaching that are definitive because they seem to dispel the ambiguity. But some quotes are definitive on issues where there is no official answer. People who are more tentative on a subject that hasn’t been revealed or resolved don’t get quoted as much, but may be more in line with where our current knowledge is. We plan to add helps to the curriculum for certain questions that are commonly raised.”

    http://www.ldschurchnews.com/articles/62620/Elder-Paul-V-Johnson-Helping-students-dispel-doubt-through-spiritual-knowledge.html

    Again, my point is not whether you or they are right or wrong. My point is that reasonable, faithful Latter-day Saints may differ on the merits of those matters because today the Church takes no official position on them.

  • jennycherie August 17, 2012, 6:56 am

    well said, DavidH! Is it my imagination or are we getting more and more mormon poppas?

  • Alison Moore Smith August 18, 2012, 5:03 pm

    DavidH, great input on the topic.
    Alison Moore Smith recently posted…The Happiness Advantage – 5 Easy Steps to a Happier LifeMy Profile

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