“Yes, It’s True, But I Don’t Think They Like to Hear it Quite That Way”:
What Spencer W. Kimball Told Elaine Cannon

  • Article Formats:
  • MP3 audio
  • PDF
  • MOBI
  • ePub
  • Kindle store
  • NOOK store
  • Order Print Copy

Abstract: Elaine Cannon, who was general president of the Young Women some four decades ago, had an interesting conversation with President Spencer W. Kimball in 1978. According to Sister Cannon’s firsthand account, President Kimball revealed important insight into how he thought about himself as the prophet as well as how he thought leaders should talk to the general membership about that topic. Sister Cannon’s report is thus a valuable part of the historical record regarding both Spencer W. Kimball and prophets generally.

Elaine Cannon was the general president of the Young Women from 1978 to 1984.1 The Church’s attitude toward abortion and its opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment were unpopular in many circles at the time. One personal manifestation of this for Sister Cannon occurred in 1977. An international women’s conference was held that [Page 278]year, and Sister Cannon (prior to becoming YW general president) attended the conference with the general presidents of the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary. When the conference voted on the Equal Rights Amendment, these sisters were faced with a loud crowd hissing and booing them when they voted against it.2

Back Story: “The Debate is Over”

After this experience and against this cultural backdrop Sister Cannon spoke at a women’s fireside in 1978.3 She articulated an inspired defense of the family and of motherhood and expressed her devotion to the Brethren and to President Spencer W. Kimball specifically, who was president of the Church at the time. Along the way she said, “He is our leader, in all the world of would-be leaders, who can guide us back to the presence of God.” Then, “Personal opinions may vary. Eternal principles never do. When the prophet speaks, sisters, the debate is over.… I urge us all to provide powerful unity for those things we can agree upon — family, chastity, accountability to the Lord, sharing the gospel.”4

The biography of Sister Cannon, written by her daughter, includes an account of this experience.5 It reports that President Kimball spoke to Sister Cannon in the aftermath of this talk about her “the debate is over” remark and asked her not to repeat that way of speaking. According to Sister Cannon, he wanted to make sure members felt free to decide for themselves about prophets’ statements, and he worried that her remark could be misunderstood to imply something different — i.e., that members did not have agency and were coerced into following their leaders.

More to the Story

There is an important addition to this story, however, and it appears in Sister Cannon’s firsthand account of her meeting with President Kimball. This report was not included in the biography of Sister Cannon; it is buried under all the other voluminous artifacts, letters, and documents used in [Page 279]writing about her life. This firsthand report is significant, however. In it, Sister Cannon tells us that President Kimball asked to meet with her the morning following her talk and asked if she had said something to the effect that “when I [the prophet] speak, the people must obey.”

I answered, “President Kimball, what I said is that when the prophet speaks, the debate is over.” His next comment took me by surprise. “I don’t think the people like to hear that.” I replied, “But it’s true, isn’t it?” He paused for a moment and answered, “Yes, it’s true, but I don’t think they like to hear it quite that way.”6

We learn from this brief episode that President Kimball was confident in his reliability as a spokesman for the Lord — in his knowledge of the Lord’s will and in his ability to represent it accurately and with authority. In talking with Sister Cannon, President Kimball did not try to disavow or distance himself from this thought; he merely wanted to correct her way of saying it. Speaking so directly risked coming across as confrontational — as claiming that members do not have agency to decide on their own how to respond to prophets’ teachings. That was how President Kimball himself heard the statement, after all. As we saw, he thought she had said something like, “when I [the prophet] speak, the people must obey.”7

George Albert Smith

This concern about appearing to coerce members is reminiscent of George Albert Smith’s worry in an earlier episode. As I discussed in a previous paper,8 President Smith objected to the statement that “when [Page 280]our leaders speak, the thinking has been done.” In elucidating his reasons for disavowing this statement, President Smith emphasized the agency and personal responsibility of members to gain their own testimonies of what is taught. He disavowed the statement that “the thinking has been done” because it implied that Church leaders don’t follow this principle — that they try to coerce members instead. This was identical to President Kimball’s worry about Elaine Cannon’s statement.

There is an additional similarity between President Kimball’s response and President Smith’s, however. As discussed in the earlier paper regarding President Smith, he nowhere suggests that members must do their own thinking because prophets are unreliable in representing the Lord. That was not his reason; indeed, he did not even hint at such a motivation. And we also saw reasons to believe that, in any event, President Smith’s confidence in the Brethren would be high, not low.

We see the same indication in President Kimball’s case, but even more strongly. He did not correct Sister Cannon because she overstated his role and reliability as a prophet. Although he had clear opportunity to do this if he had wanted to, he didn’t. Instead he did the exact opposite and affirmed her statement. President Kimball corrected Sister Cannon only because of the way she expressed confidence in him. Her expression could be taken to mean that members are coerced into following what he said when they aren’t. “What he was teaching me,” Sister Cannon said, “was that there was a gentler way of getting the point across.”9

N. Eldon Tanner

An example of perhaps “a gentler way of getting the point across” is seen in the actions of President N. Eldon Tanner, President Kimball’s first counselor at the time. President Tanner later published a First Presidency message in the Ensign endorsing and praising Sister Cannon’s statement — indeed, he titled his article “The Debate is Over.” However, President Tanner made two points in his message that Sister Cannon had not made in hers. First, he assured members that prophets’ messages have the concurrence of the other prophets, seers, and revelators (indeed, of all the general authorities), and second, that members can receive their own assurance from the Lord that the Brethren’s decisions are approved by him. Both assurances remove any misunderstanding about “coercion.” President Tanner said:

[Page 281][Members of the Church] know that the messages of the prophet have come from the Lord and have the concurrence of all the General Authorities, who are men of vision and integrity, and who themselves try to keep in tune with deity. They [the members] are not, as some would suggest, following blindly and acting without their own agency to speak and think for themselves. Through prayer to our Heavenly Father each of us can have the assurance that the course we choose has his divine approval.10

So we learn two things from this episode with President Kimball: (1) he was confident in his ability as prophet to know the Lord’s will and to represent him accurately and (2) he felt it was important, nevertheless, for leaders to exercise care in how they spoke about this. Since members are free to decide for themselves what to do with prophets’ teachings, it is important to avoid language that might suggest they do not have such freedom.11

A Thread in President Kimball’s Ministry

President Kimball’s affirmation to Sister Cannon is not surprising, of course. When we look back on his ministry, we see multiple declarations from him that prophets receive the Lord’s will.

[Page 282]During the presidency of David O. McKay, for instance, Elder Kimball said of him:

He is a prophet. He does not just occupy a prophet’s chair; he does not just have a title of prophet, he is a real prophet and he is responsible for … more revelations in his fifteen years of leadership than are in all the Doctrine and Covenants .… I could take time to tell you of these revelations — temples that have been appointed, people who have been called, apostles who have been chosen, great new movements that have been established, great new eras, great new challenges .… They came by revelation. I want you to know he is a prophet. Don’t you question it. I do not know who will be his successor, but whoever it is will be a great prophet, and you need not ever worry.12

In an early address as president of the Church he referred to some who had spoken publicly about seeing the Lord and said, “Brethren and sisters, I want to add to these testimonies of these prophets my testimony that I know that He lives. And I know that we may see him, and that we may be with him.”13 He said in another early talk as president:

I know that the Lord has contact with his prophets, and that He reveals the truth today to His servants as He did in the days of Adam and Abraham and Moses and Peter and Joseph and the numerous others throughout time. God’s messages of light and truth are as surely given to man today as in any other dispensation.14

A short while later President Kimball devoted a whole talk to prophetic revelation. He said:

There are those who would assume that with the printing and binding of these sacred records, that would be the “end of the prophets.” But again we testify to the world that revelation continues and that the vaults and files of the Church contain these revelations which come month to month and day to day .… I know [Page 283]the Lord lives and I know that he is revealing his mind and will to us daily, so that we can be inspired as to the direction to go.15


Since that momentous day in 1820, additional scripture has continued to come, including the numerous and vital revelations flowing in a never-ending stream from God to his prophets on the earth.16

He added:

I say, in the deepest of humility, but also by the power and force of a burning testimony in my soul, that from the prophet of the Restoration to the prophet of our own year, the communication line is unbroken, the authority is continuous, and light, brilliant and penetrating, continues to shine. The sound of the voice of the Lord is a continuous melody and a thunderous appeal. For nearly a century and a half there has been no interruption.17

In a 1980 First Presidency message he said simply:

I have learned that where there is a prayerful heart, a hungering after righteousness, a forsaking of sins, and obedience to the commandments of God, the Lord pours out more and more light until there is finally power to pierce the heavenly veil and to know more than man knows.18

These statements by President Kimball constitute an important thread in his ministry as president. They are also consistent with the message he gave Sister Cannon: namely, that although it is important to make the point without creating misunderstanding, it is true that he knew the Lord’s will and could represent it accurately.

[Page 284]Conclusion

President Spencer W. Kimball corrected Sister Cannon for her public statement that “when the prophet speaks, the debate is over.” He worried that her expression risked suggesting that members do not have agency — that they are not free to decide on their own how to respond to prophets’ teachings. He didn’t want his status as prophet to suggest that members can’t question, explore, and find out for themselves. Of course they can — and should.

At the same time, however, President Kimball affirmed Sister Cannon’s actual meaning. “Yes, it’s true,” he said. While he wished for a better way of making the point, he affirmed that the point itself was accurate: he knew the Lord’s will and was reliable in speaking for him.

The relationship between prophets and the members they lead is a broad, multidimensional topic, of course. I have not tried to address that here.19 All I have done is draw attention to a little-known incident that must be considered in any effort to think about prophets and their representation of the Lord. Many voices are heard on this matter, and (to say the least of it) President Kimball’s should be one of them.

[Author’s Note: I express appreciation to Kimberly White for her expert editorial assistance in writing this paper. I also express appreciation to the family of Elaine Cannon for graciously granting permission to access the Elaine A. Cannon Collection in the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University.]

1. Sister Cannon’s public record shows her to have been a person of great sensitivity, depth, and talent — and, above all, a person of deep devotion to the Lord and his kingdom. But, if anything, her impressive character is even more evident in her personal letters, diaries, and notes, all of which display a spiritual energy and a goodness of heart that are quite breathtaking. A huge number of artifacts of Sister Cannon’s life — both personal and ecclesiastical — are housed in the Elaine A. Cannon Collection in the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Department of the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University, call number MSS 8195. This collection is restricted, but members of the public can access it with permission from the Special Collections department and the Cannon family. A memoir of Sister Cannon, written by her daughter, gives an important look into her character and life. See Holly C. Metcalf, Love’s Banner: Memories of the Life of Elaine Cannon (Kenmore, WA: Lamb and Lion, 2011).
2. For this description, see the letter from Sister Cannon to her family (“Darlings”), dated November 30, 1977, and found in the Elaine A. Cannon Collection, Box 5.
3. Elaine Cannon, “If We Want to Go Up, We Have to Get On,” Ensign 8, no. 11 (November 1978), https://www.lds.org/ensign/1978/11/if-we-want-to-go-up-we-have-to-get-on. The transcript for this talk (quite evidently typed by Sister Cannon herself) is found in Box 7 of the Elaine A. Cannon Collection.
4. Cannon, “If We Want to Go Up,” emphasis added.
5. See Metcalf, Love’s Banner, 204–6.
6. “Spencer W. Kimball: A Tribute,” This People, Dec 1985/Jan 1986, vol. 6, no. 8, p. 24, contained in the Elaine A. Cannon Collection, Box 4, Folder 20. This People magazine is not currently accessible in digital form. Selected hard-copy issues are available in the Harold B. Lee Library of BYU-Provo; this particular issue is also available in the library’s unrestricted Americana Collection.
7. President Kimball had the same worry about appearing to infringe on members’ agency in regard to Ezra Taft Benson’s BYU address “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet.” Not only did he worry about the political dimension of the talk and the misperception it might create, but he also “wanted to discourage an unthinking follow-the-leader mentality.” In a public statement, he and his counselors stressed that Church leaders “exercise no constraint on the freedom of individuals to make their own choices in these matters.” On this incident, see Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), 160-61.
8. Duane Boyce, “D&C 21, George Albert Smith, and Hugh B. Brown: A Fresh Look at Three Incidents in Church History,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, 32 (2019), 229–52.
9. “Spencer W. Kimball: A Tribute,” This People, 24.
10. N. Eldon Tanner, “The Debate is Over,” Ensign 9, no. 8 (August 1979), http://www.lds.org/ensign/1979/08/the-debate-is-over. President Ezra Taft Benson and Elders Gordon B. Hinckley, Bruce R. McConkie, and James E. Faust also highly praised Sister Cannon’s talk. Like President Tanner, none of them shared any hesitation about her remarks. See Metcalf, Love’s Banner, 206.
11. Neither President Kimball nor Sister Cannon is available for follow-up questioning about Sister Cannon’s report, of course, but far from unique, that is the norm in handling historical sources, and the report seems reliable for several reasons. First, it is an account written by Sister Cannon firsthand; it is not an off- the-cuff remark or a second-hand report by someone who overheard it. Second, it is an account Sister Cannon wrote specifically for the public record — a report she intended to be read by others. Third, the account appeared during her lifetime — shortly after President Kimball’s passing and long before her own. Fourth, the account is consistent with President Kimball’s multiple remarks about prophetic revelation. (See the section of this paper entitled “A Thread in President Kimball’s Ministry.”) And fifth, the report is consistent with President Kimball’s concern about appearing to constrict members’ agency — a concern he expressed regarding Ezra Taft Benson’s “Fourteen Fundamentals” address, for example (see n 7). Both public in its intent and consistent with features of President Kimball’s ministry, Sister Cannon’s report is a valuable part of the historical record regarding Spencer W. Kimball.
12. Edward L. Kimball, ed., The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 447.
13. Spencer W. Kimball, “The Cause is Just and Worthy,” Ensign 4, no. 5 (April 1974), https://www.lds.org/study/ensign/1974/05/the-cause-is-just-and-worthy?lang=eng.
14. Spencer W. Kimball, “A Program for Man,” Ensign 6, no. 11 (October 1976), https://www.lds.org/study/ensign/1976/11/a-program-for-man?lang=eng.
15. Spencer W. Kimball, “Revelation: The Word of the Lord to His Prophets,” Ensign 7, no. 5 (April 1977), https://www.lds.org/study/ensign/1977/05/revelation-the-word-of-the-lord-to-his-prophets?lang=eng.
16. Kimball, “Revelation.”
17. Kimball, “Revelation.” He used the same language seventeen years earlier, during the presidency of David O. McKay, in an article entitled “To His Servants the Prophets.” See Edward L. Kimball, Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, 431.
18. Spencer W. Kimball, “Give the Lord Your Loyalty,” Ensign 10, no. 3 (March 1980), https://www.lds.org/ensign/1980/03/give-the-lord-your-loyalty.
19. I have said more about this topic elsewhere. See particularly “Sustaining the Brethren,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 14 (2015), vii-xxxii, https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/sustaining-the-brethren/, but also: “A Lengthening Shadow: Is Quality of Thought Deteriorating in LDS Scholarly Discourse Regarding Prophets and Revelation?” Part One, Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, 26 (2017), 4-28, https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/a-lengthening-shadow-is-quality-of-thought-deteriorating-in-lds-scholarly-discourse-regarding-prophets-and-revelation-part-one/; Part Three of the same article, 102–10, https://journal.interpreterfoundation.org/a-lengthening-shadow-is-quality-of-thought-deteriorating-in-lds-scholarly-discourse-regarding-prophets-and-revelation-part-three/; and “D&C 21, George Albert Smith, and Hugh B. Brown: A Fresh Look at Three Incidents in Church History,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, 32 (2019), 229–52.

Posted in Article and tagged , , , , , on . Bookmark the permalink.

About Duane Boyce

Duane Boyce received his academic training in psychology, philosophy, and the clinical treatment of families. He received a Ph.D. from Brigham Young University and conducted his postdoctoral study in developmental psychology at Harvard University. He was a member of the Moral Studies Group at BYU and served on the faculty there. He is a founding partner of the Arbinger Institute, a worldwide management consulting and educational firm, and is the author or coauthor of five books. He has published academic essays on scriptural topics in BYU Studies, The FARMS Review, Religious Educator, Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship, and the Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture. He is author of the recent book, Even unto Bloodshed: An LDS Perspective on War (Kofford, 2015). Among other callings, he has served as a bishop and a stake president.

29 thoughts on ““Yes, It’s True, But I Don’t Think They Like to Hear it Quite That Way”: What Spencer W. Kimball Told Elaine Cannon

  1. Maybe President Kimball was not always as confident of the rightness of his actions or of action or inaction he expected of another president of the Church.
    Peggy Fletcher Stack, The Salt Lake Tribune, January 29, 2010, writing of the publication of the expanded version (working draft) of Edward Kimball’s Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball, noted that: “Spencer Kimball told one interviewer before the [1978 priesthood/temple eligibility] change, ‘I don’t know that I should be the one doing this, but if I don’t, my successor [Ezra Taft Benson] won’t.’”
    It would be interesting to know whether by saying “Yes, it’s true” as to “when the prophet speaks, the debate is over” he meant anything more than when the president of the church makes a decision in the council of the Q12 and First Presidency, the decision for the Church at that time has been made, right or wrong.

  2. Pingback: "Yes, It's True, But I Don't Think They Like to Hear it Quite That Way": What Spencer W. Kimball Told Elaine Cannon | Meridian Magazine

  3. It is interesting to me that this is written based on an incident involving president Kimball, because one of the incidents that I find most difficult to reconcile with this idea also involves Pres. Kimball. I don’t know if this will get past moderation due to the topic — I would understand if it did not. Specifically the incident I have in mind is the so-called “oral sex” letter Pres. Kimball’s presidency sent out in the early ’80s. From what I understand (not being in a leadership position that allows me access to these things, though I understand that this letter is no longer accessible at all through official Church channels), Pres. Kimball’s administration sent out a letter covering several topics related to worthiness interviews. In this letter, they state that the First Presidency was of the opinion that oral sex (even between a married couple) was an unnatural, unholy, and impure practice. Elsewhere they state that couple’s guilty of unnatural, unholy, and impure practices should not hold temple recommends or attend the temple. To be fair, it is given as the First Presidency’s opinion, so that most debates about the topic that I have seen focus on when does the opinion of the First Presidency rise to the level of revelation. If I put this incident into the framework Brother Boyce is talking about here — that Pres. Kimball had little doubt about his ability to interpret his own opinion on oral se, then I begin to wonder exactly what we believe as Church. The official position of the Church is that the Church stays out of the marriage bed and lets couples decide for themselves — to the point that the Church almost doesn’t acknowledge that Pres. Kimball ever sent this letter out. I have seen many conservative therapists and priesthood leaders who refuse to condemn oral sex the way that Pres. Kimball seemed inclined to condemn it. Having a personal interest in sexuality, if Pres. Kimball was infallibly correct, then there are a lot of Church members living in sin and believing in this particular sinful practice based very much on the idea that Pres. Kimball was mistaken in his opinion about oral sex.

    I guess for me, this particular incident makes a very interesting case study in the question of prophetic fallibility. I would wonder what brother Boyce (and others) make of this incident.

    • Agreed, this one adds an interesting twist. If it were really as important as they made it seem at the time, you would think it would continue to be preached with the same force today, to strengthen families and to help the membership remain worthy. Or – did an official letter from the First Presidency just disappear, never to be mentioned again…

    • One of my favorite non-prophecies was the one given by President Hinckley in October of 1998. Recall that the previous four or so years saw tremendous market gains in the heat of the dot.com boom.

      After going through Genesis and the story of Joseph interpreting Pharaoh’s dream about the 7 years of plenty and 7 years of famine, he made a plea to the brethren of the Church to get their financial houses in order. He stated:

      “Now, brethren, I want to make it very clear that I am not prophesying, that I am not predicting years of famine in the future. But I am suggesting that the time has come to get our houses in order.”

      Of course, 2000 to 2002 saw some significant market reversals.

      I had two friends in my ward who took different approaches at this time. Both worked for the same very successful high tech company and were the beneficiaries of generous stock option awards that seemed to double every year or two.

      As a direct result of what President Hinckley said, one friend cashed in his options, paid off his house, settled all of his debts, moved to Florida to be near family and started his dream business of being a handyman. Low stress, and he loved it.

      The other friend retired at the age of 43, planning on using his every-increasing stock option values to take him through a very full retirement. He too moved and purchased a very nice little estate. However, within 3 years he was forced to return to work.

      I have learned through the years that even when one of our leaders states something as his or her advice or opinion, it is wise to consider their words seriously.


      • I agree, that we should seriously consider the teachings of prophets and apostles. However, I think we are talking about something more than just whether or not they are wise and give good advice. We are talking about whether or not they always correctly discern and express the mind and will of the Lord. If I understood, the thrust of Br. Boyce’s essay is that Pres. Kimball was confident in his ability to discern the will of the Lord and express it to the people. I guess the real question I see is whether that confidence alone is enough to state that he (and, by extension, other prophets and apostles) never made mistakes in that discernment and expression.

    • I’m pleased this got past moderation because it is a very interesting incident. It makes me think about something that was quoted earlier in the comments, something like:
      There are some issues that are really important to the Lord, and there are some things that are less crucial and it’s less important that they be done perfectly. God leaves those less important things to the best judgment of his leaders, and sometimes they get those things wrong.
      I think the oral sex incident was an example of the latter. The first presidency made a policy change, (I do think it is significant that it was always presented as something those men strongly believed, but not as something that was directly inspired) and there was tremendous pushback from church members who thought it was inappropriate for their bishops to be asking specific questions about their private sex lives, and micromanaging their chastity, and the policy got changed.
      To me I see that incident as a case of the Lord going, “These guys have something important to learn here about individual agency. I’ll let them run with it. They’ll be corrected, they’ll reverse themselves, and my leaders will never make that kind of mistake again.”
      I see the infamous “handbook change” as being similar. Gay marriage was, rather suddenly, made legal and the church leadership had no experience with that. But they did have experience with polygamy, and had a long-standing policy (which everyone forgets about) that dependent children of polygamous parents couldn’t be baptized. There hadn’t been any outcry against that and it probably seemed like the safest thing to do. I think they did their best and I can see the Lord being like, “Ok, sure. That’s fine. You’ll figure it out soon enough.” A few years later, it just hadn’t turned out to be that complicated or to impact that many people, and had been way more controversial than they probably expected or intended. So they made another policy change.
      I think that policies like these (e.g. what specific questions are asked in temple interviews, what do we label certain sins, what are the protocols for this, that, or the other thing) are very often the things the Lord lets his leaders learn from and grow from. They’re just policies. They’re just the way things are done, and they’re always changing. They’re not doctrine.
      It seems to me (and please, all of this is just me here, I’m just sharing how I see it) this whole discussion of whether prophets are fallible or not is misplaced. Are individual prophets fallible? Of course they are, because they’re men! That’s why we have FIFTEEN of them at any given time, and why they have to make unanimous decisions. Not one of them is infallible, and they have a gazillion decisions to make for a worldwide church in a gazillion places, and sometimes they’ll choose something that they later change, and the Lord lets them, because nobody’s eternal soul is endangered by a matter of policy.
      At the same time, they aren’t just a group of nice guys. They are chosen by the Lord, set apart by him, and put in place as watchmen to warn us of things that can harm us. The Lord promises all of us ordinary people in the scriptures (which ARE absolute doctrine, not mere policy) that he will speak to us through them, that we can trust them, and that he will do nothing (significant) without alerting them.
      There is no place in the scriptures where the Lord tells us to put our trust in really smart people, really obvious politics, or really great blogs. Just prophets, every time.

      • Great insight & perspective. And I think I agree that “nobody’s eternal soul is endangered by a matter of policy”. But, one could argue that, for quite a large number of people, their journey through mortality, and ability to spiritually progress within the gospel and the church, CAN be affected by policy. Ex: how many families were affected by the priesthood ban during their life on earth?
        Missing out on priesthood and temple blessings that would have been of great benefit as they learned, progressed, and exercised agency throughout life. And we certainly believe that our choices, progress & acquisition of knowledge here, will affect us there. I won’t be so bold as to declare the eternal effects on the souls of such a large group who were unable to participate in temple ordinances, or lived without the priesthood in their home. But I think we would all agree that these are incredibly helpful during our mortal journey – and that a policy did, in fact, exclude these blessings for so, so many.

      • Lia said: To me I see that incident as a case of the Lord going, “These guys have something important to learn here about individual agency. I’ll let them run with it. They’ll be corrected, they’ll reverse themselves, and my leaders will never make that kind of mistake again.”

        I find this an interesting possibility. FWIW, I think I would agree with you, that sometimes God lets prophets/apostles run with their best knowing that they will be corrected down the road. The question that I might ask — especially as this intersects with the assertion that Brother Boyce is making here — did Pres. Kimball (or other prophets/apostles) recognize when God was letting them run with their own best thinking and when God is truly inspiring/revealing to them? Brother Boyce is explaining how Pres. Kimball (and, by extension, other prophets and apostles) are confident in their ability to discern God’s will. Is this an example where Pres. Kimball — despite his confidence — did not correctly discern God’s will?

  4. The titular quote from President Kimball is a succinct summation of everything Duane Boyce has written for Interpreter arguing for prophetic infallibility, which seems to be his personal mission.

    True, he would insist he does not argue for prophetic infallibility, but that is precisely what he is doing. “Yes, of course they’re infallible, but people don’t like to hear it quite that way.”

    Backdoor rationalizations that imply that prophets are perfect ultimately erode faith and do far more damage than good.

    • I don’t see how it erodes faith. If you believe a prophet is called by God to lead the Church and speak on His behalf, it requires a lot of faith to trust in what the prophets say and believe the words are God’s words. If God descended onto this earth and gave a talk, it would be much easier to take those words as truth because we see from our own eyes that God spoke those words. Having the Church run by an imperfect human who speaks to God privately and then tells the Saints what God wants him to tell them is a much more difficult concept to grasp. Thus, it actually strengthens faith, not erodes it. Trusting in an imperfect human to run the Church the way our perfect God wants it to be run takes a staggering amount of faith. And the prophets, while imperfect, are called by God. If we’re trusting God, it makes sense that we would trust those whom God elects as His mouthpiece.

      • That is why our faith is in God; the prophet’s role is always to point to Him and the Savior.

        I don’t have faith in President Nelson. I have faith in Christ. I also believe President Nelson is the Lord’s mouthpiece in the Earth, a prophet, seer and revelator.

      • Why will be disappointed? Is it because these inspired men are not performing God’s will? Do we know God’s will better than these inspired men? Why didn’t God call us as seers and revelators then? If these men are not in tune with the Spirit and have their own agenda, is it probable that an omnipotent God is watching His Church be destroyed and doing nothing about it? Did an omnipotent God make a mistake in trusting mortal men to lead His Church?

        • Raegan, we will be disappointed because these inspired men are, like us, capable of well-intentioned error in interpreting God’s will. I do not think any of them are deliberately seeking to destroy the Lord’s Church. I also do not think their agency is extracted from them when they are called to high church office, and our church history is replete with examples of human error in the administration of the affairs and doctrines of the Kingdom, as is the history of the Church through every dispensation. We do no favors to anyone when we try to pretend it has ever been otherwise.

          Everything Duane Boyce has written for this website is implicitly premised on the idea that it is impossible for the leaders of the Church to make errors when acting in their official capacity. All references to them as “imperfect” seem to be qualified by the idea that their human fallibility is only operative when they’re off duty as prophets, so to speak. That is bad doctrine, and it erodes faith when members discover prophetic errors where they have been taught to expect de facto prophetic infallibility.

          • I think I understand what you mean, and you make a valid point. If we are taught that prophets are infallible, we will be disappointed and have our faith shaken when we find out otherwise. However, I think Brother Boyce endeavors to do the opposite, which is highlight the fallibility of the prophets. I think some examples from Brother Boyce’s earlier work may help in understanding the scale of the prophets’ fallibility.


            I’ve copy and pasted a couple statements from that work below, specifically from section “An Important Proviso about Revelation: Degrees of Importance and Degrees of Control”.

            “It is easy to imagine that the Lord exercises such varying degrees of direction and control based on the importance of the issues under consideration. Sidney Rigdon . . . was directed by the Lord on two occasions to do as “seemeth him good” regarding certain particulars (D&C 41:8; 58:50–51), and other brethren were also told to decide a given issue on their own because, the Lord told them, that particular issue “mattereth not unto me” (D&C 60:5). In multiple other places the Lord speaks similarly — giving direction by the Spirit but leaving certain details for members to decide for themselves (e.g., D&C 38:37; 48:3; 61:35; and 62:7–8).”

            “Some issues matter a great deal, some matter to a small extent, and, comparatively speaking, some matter very little if at all, and the Lord exercises direction and control commensurate with such varying degrees of importance. Surely this reality explains why President J. Reuben Clark could remark that “we are not infallible in our judgment, and we err,” while President Gordon B. Hinckley could say that “the Lord is directing this work, and He won’t let me or anyone else lead it astray” . . . The difference in such statements would seem to stem naturally from a difference in the issues each has in mind and in their relative importance.”

            “I think it a reasonable conclusion to say that constant, never varying inspiration is not a factor in the administration of the affairs of the Church; not even good men, though they be prophets or other high officials of the Church, are at all times and in all things inspired of God. It is only occasionally, and at need, that God comes to their aid.”

            “It is hard . . . to imagine any thoughtful person who believes the Lord dictates “every decision” and prevents every mistake, or that “every word and every act” of anyone, in any position, is due to “inspiration from the Lord.” The fact that presiding councils govern the Church — not individuals (even prophets) acting on their own — is enough to disprove any notion of this sort.”

            I’m hoping that was helpful. I think what Brother Boyce is demonstrating is that the propensity for error is relative to the value the Lord places on a given issue. The Lord will allow the leaders to err on small matters, but will not allow errors that take the Church away from its appointed course.

            I take issue with saying that these men “will disappoint” because it is too bold a statement and opens the doors to pride and disrespect. I think Brother Boyce’s actual personal mission is to demonstrate that these men deserve our loyalty and respect. Not because they are infallible (because they’re not), but because the Lord called them to lead the Church and guide its members. It takes an enormous amount of faith and humility to trust and support these men with “arms made of flesh”. But if they’re good enough for God, they ought to be good enough for us.

  5. This paper attempts to make things simpler than they really are. It is trivial to demonstrate that the prophets disagree with themselves, change their minds, and make mistakes. Most educated LDS and readers of The Interpreter would agree with that. It is not tenable to ‘go back’ to thinking that every word that comes out of the prophets mouth is God’s direct will. We need a more nuanced view of then prophet’s role. Since any member with an internet connection can confirm the above in five minutes, our task should be how do we support/sustain the prophet without regressing into an authority/loyalty paradigm?

    • I think it is the job of the Saints to pray for their leaders, pray that the prophet can do his job well and obtain revelation and wisdom to guide the Saints and help the Church be run according to God’s will. However, it is the job (and benefit) of the Saints to have a personal relationship with the Savior as well. Question everything if need be. If we don’t feel a sense of peace and truth with words a prophet has spoken, we can (and should) search, ponder, and pray (that’s a primary song – something we’ve been encouraged to do at a very young age). If we have a testimony that the prophet is called of and speaks for God, the prophet deserves authority and loyalty, so I don’t see the problem here. The prophets are imperfect human beings and the Saints have a role and duty in supporting and sustaining these imperfect humans. But like I said, the Saints have access to the Holy Ghost and can and should pray anytime they want to. If you don’t know if a prophet is speaking truth on behalf of God, why wouldn’t you pray about it to know for yourself? The broad idea is that God chooses who will run the Church and have it not led astray. But nobody needs to believe that just because they are told that. Build you own testimony and see how you feel about the prophet and his role. Embrace your questions, develop a relationship with God, and seek answers and peace in your life. It actually is very simple.

  6. I want to relate Robert Smith’s quote of Brigham Young to what President Kimball told Elaine Cannon.

    In Robert Smith’s quote of Brigham Young, Brigham Young said, “Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually.” JD, 9:150.

    There is another reason why President Kimball, President Brigham Young, and other prophets do NOT want blind obedience, but want obedience deriving from a testimony provided by the Holy Ghost. As Jesus told Nicodemus, we must all be born again. That means that we must have the Holy Ghost in our lives such that we are purified, sanctified. and thus made Christlike by the Holy Ghost. This influence of the Holy Ghost is made possible by the Savior’s atonement and is THE ONLY WAY TO BECOME PURIFIED, SANCTIFIED, AND CHRISTLIKE. THE ONLY WAY! Blind obedience excludes the Spirit, excludes the influence of the Holy Ghost. Blind obedience DOES NOT CHANGE A PERSON THE WAY THE HOLY GHOST CHANGES A PERSON.

    Does that mean that we have to pray about everything the prophet says? Yes, if necessary. But hopefully we are so close to the Spirit that we recognize the truthfulness of a prophet’s statement when we hear it. And, in fact, if we are continually in doubt about what the prophet says, that means that we are NOT living worthy to have the Spirit with us. And someone may think that some outward acts of obedience (e.g. attending meetings but not really pondering and listening, hometeaching or ministering on the 31st of the month, giving poorly prepared lessons at home and in church) are sufficient, but they are not sufficient. Outward acts of obedience are necessary but not sufficient to develop spiritual growth; likewise, blind obedience is NOT sufficient to develop spiritual growth. If we are NOT experiencing the Holy Ghost, we will not be born again; we will not be purified, sanctified, and Christlike. This is what Nephi meant when he said that he and others followed the law of Moses but knew that only following the law of Moses would not save them. As Nephi said, we must follow Christ, that is, become purified, sanctified, and Christlike. Blind obedience is like obeying the law of Moses and thinking it is sufficient to save. Following the Spirit continually saves because in that process we become purified, sanctified, and Christlike.

  7. Excellent article, Brother Boyce.

    On Jan 12, 1862, Pres Brigham Young himself said:

    “What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? 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 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 thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to 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 whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually.” JD, 9:150.

    This seems to match the same concern by Pres Kimball.

    However, there remains a strong tendency within the LDS tradition to attribute infallibility to our prophets, even if we are all free to pray about their words to determine for ourselves whether they are of God. We need to much more carefully address whether in fact our prophets are infallible, and whether everything they say is the very word of prophecy.

    We have, for example, heard Elder McConkie speak about Pres Kimball’s May-June 1978 revelation: “Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.” BYU, August 18, 1978, online at https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/bruce-r-mcconkie_alike-unto-god/ .

    This suggests that Elder Orson Pratt was correct to oppose Pres Young on that very issue. Yet, we are taught that the Brethren ought not to be at odds with one another.

    Perhaps Duane Boyce will do us the courtesy of addressing this fraught question in a future article in Interpreter.

    • I believe Brother Boyce has answered this question before, but I can’t find the reference offhand. My memory is that he noted a difference between instructions and reasons. The Lord gives prophets instructions but he doesn’t usually give them reasons (Elder Oaks said that.) His point was that none of the reasons usually given for the priesthood ban were inspired–even in the official declaration the lack-of-valiance thing was only listed as a possible reason, not as part of the revelation. The “instruction” was a limit on the priesthood, but all the “reasons” were just good people trying to make sense of it. When the instruction was changed, all those reasons were disavowed. What is being rejected there, in your quote, is not the ban itself but all the justifications that had been offered for it.

      I will try to find the article where he lays this all out but in the meantime, I’m pretty sure that was the general idea.

  8. This is a wonderful follow-up to Bro Boyce’s earlier paper. What we don’t seem to investigate is why people would want to think of prophets as mistaken and prone to error. As a psychologist, I think in terms of motivation, and perhaps it is that some are high in Openness to Experience, one the the “big five” (OCEAN) personality factors, and lower on Conscientiousness. That is, if I am open but not very careful and conscientious, I am motivated to reject anything that might seem like it is constricting my personal freedom, such as being encouraged to oppose the ERA. I would propose a study: a measure of agreement/disagreement with the Prophets-as-prone-to- errors model (PPEM?) plus an OCEAN personality test.

    I predict the adherents of the PPEM will be quite put out at me for suggesting a personality structure motivation. But I think it might be an interesting question to research.

  9. This is an interesting little tidbit of historical info that I am pleased to know about, but that critics may take issue with. Their problem, not mine.

    I see this tidbit in conjunction with the George Albert Smith item in Boyce’s previous paper and they should be understood together in fuller context and broad application.

    So nothing really earth-shaking here, but something well worth knowing and pondering. Good for Duane finding and sharing it. It will be interesting to see if critics try to make any mischief with it though; some of them are always looking for such things to manipulate and exploit.

    The fact is that when the prophet has given the people the mind and will of the Lord, the responsibility shifts to hearers to accept or reject and understand what has happened. The prophet’s skirts remain white, figuratively speaking. I love having prophets!

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available

All comments are moderated to ensure respectful discourse. It is assumed that it is possible to disagree agreeably and intelligently and comments that intend to increase overall understanding are particularly encouraged.