Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Danger of Infallibility, Part 1

“In the Catholic church everyone says the pope is infallible but nobody believes it; and in the Mormon church everybody says the prophet is fallible but nobody believes it.”              - Wendy Ulrich

Heber J. Grant once said to Marion G. Romney, “My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it" (Conference Report, October 1960, p. 78).

However, Joseph Smith said, “We have heard men who hold the priesthood remark that they would do anything they were told to do by those who preside over them even if they knew it was wrong; but such obedience is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme; and the man who would thus willingly degrade himself, should not claim a rank among intelligent beings, until he turns from his folly. A man of God would despise the idea. Others, in the extreme exercise of their almighty authority have taught that such obedience was necessary, and that no matter what the saints were told to do by their presidents, they should do it without any questions. When Elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their hearts to do wrong themselves" (Millennial Star, Volume 14, No. 38, Pages 593-595).

It should sit as a curiosity to you that we continually return to the sentiment expressed so long ago by President Woodruff that the President of the Church would never “lead you astray" (See Official Declaration-1).

We think it is unreasonable that the Catholic church considers its pope to be infallible.  We scoff the idea of infallibility, but then fervently believe that the President of the Church will never lead us astray. 

Why do we take such solace in President Woodruff’s statement?  Why has that taken such a pre-eminent stance in Mormon teachings through time?  It appears everywhere.  It was just in a recent Ensign magazine yet again: 

“Some might call our actions blind obedience. But we have the Lord’s personal promise that the prophets will never lead us astray" (by Elder Randall Bennett titled “Follow the Prophet.”).  

What does this statement mean?  Is it true?  Is it "the Lord's personal promise?"  What did President Woodruff mean in saying what he did?  Does it mean the Church President would never believe in or teach anything that is false, as some folks might interpret it today?  Or that he would never teach us anything that would cause us to err in doctrine?

Other Church Presidents preceding Wilford Woodruff directly expressed the exact opposite view:  

“President Joseph Smith read the 14th chapter of Ezekiel - said the Lord had declared by the Prophet, that the people should each one stand for himself, and depend on no man or men in that state of corruption of the Jewish church - that righteous persons could only deliver their own souls - applied it to the present state of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – said if the people departed from the Lord, they must fall – that they were depending on the prophet, hence were darkened in their minds, in consequence of neglecting the duties devolving upon themselves, envious towards the innocent, while they afflict the virtuous with their shafts of envy" (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Section Five 1842-43,  p. 237-38).

Brigham Young expressed the following in 1874,

“I have often said to the Latter-day Saints – 'Live so that you will know whether I teach you the truth or not.'  Suppose you are careless and unconcerned, and give way to the spirit of the world, and I am led, likewise, to preach the things of this world and to accept things that are NOT of God, how easy it would be for me to lead you astray!  But I say to you, live so that you will know for yourselves whether I tell the truth or not.  That is the way we want all Saints to live" (Brigham Young, JD 18:248).

In the Deseret News the saints read this:

“I told the people that if they would not believe the revelations that God had given, He would suffer the devil to give revelations that they – priest and people – would follow after.  Have I seen this fulfilled?  I have.
“I told the people that as true as God lived, if they would not have truth, they would have error sent unto them and they would believe it" (Brigham Young, Deseret News, June 8, 1873).

Mormon historian, D. Michael Quinn points out that this idea of infallibility “denies the principle of free agency and goes against Joseph Smith's assertion that a prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such. To ignore the limitations and errors of significant statements of the prophets, Quinn feels, would be as false as to ignore their visions, revelations and testimonies" (The Seventh East Press, November 18, 1981).

We delight in the reassurance that a man will not lead us to hell; the very man, in fact, in whom many of us have been placing our trust for salvation.  It’s as though, in effect, we breathe a sigh of relief when reiterating President Woodruff’s words from so long ago while thinking, “I’m glad to know that that man in whom I’ve placed all of my trust for salvation will not lead me astray.”  

Is this the teaching of the Lord?  Has He invited us to “follow the prophets?”  Verily, we can place all of our trust in another man, even a very good man (a Prophet), and ultimately find that we are not saved.  We must foremost learn to trust in Christ and “follow [Him],” and then receive his servants; otherwise we remain telestial (D&C 76:99-101).

What does it mean that the President of the Church will never lead you astray?  Does it mean that he is perfect?  Does it mean that he knows all truth?  Does it mean that every president and apostle has the same gospel understanding?  Have they all had the same amount of light and truth revealed from heaven?  Have all of them received the “testimony of Jesus" (D&C 76:51; Rev 19:10)?  Does it mean that the President of the Church will have no opinion about the gospel that is incorrect?  What about politics, science, ethics, business, or philosophy?  Do their opinions or statements always reflect the absolute truth in these matters?  

The answer to each of these questions is NO.  

If we’ve assumed his statement allows us to answer in the affirmative to any of the above questions then we’ve misunderstood the relation in which we stand to other men.  How then are we to understand President Woodruff’s statement that these men will never lead us astray?  


  1. “Brethren, this Church will be led onto the very brink of hell by the leaders of this people. Then God will raise the one mighty and strong spoken of in the 85th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants, to save and redeem this church.”

    This should be in the Journal of Discourses, but you fail to give a specific source as you do with your other quotes. Do you have the specific J.D. source for this quote?

  2. Thank you. In 1867 Joshua Jones attested that he heard Brigham Young teach this in Provo, in the Bowery. I've removed the quote since I could not find another source to substantiate his journal, and the accuracy of his record of Brigham's statement has been debated by some. But that is where it's found.

    Here is a better one, from a less obscure source:

    Mosiah Hancock recalls that the Prophet Joseph Smith said, “ will travel west until you come to the valley of the Great Salt Lake. will live to see men arise in power in the Church who will seek to put down your friends and the friends of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Many will be hoisted because of their money and worldly learning which they seem to be in possession of; and many who are the true followers of our Lord and Savior will be cast down because of their poverty” (Mosiah Hancock Journal, p. 19).

  3. I am very familiar with the quote from Mosiah Hancock, and we live in the day that Joseph's words are being fulfilled before our very eyes.

    Thanks for the clarification.

  4. When he said, "you will live to see men..." Who was the "you" he was talking to?

  5. Adam, the Prophet Joseph is speaking to the Saints.

    I believe his words were already starting to be fulfilled before his murder. In a sermon given just weeks prior to his death, the Prophet Joseph used Matthew 24 as his text. He was trying to warn the Saints. His warning applies to Latter-day Saints today, as well.

    Matthew 24 warns, among other things, about deception and false prophets. For example,

    4 And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you.
    5 For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many.

    11 And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many.

    24 For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.

    "Oh! I beseech you to go forward, go forward and make your calling and your election sure; and if any man preach any other Gospel than that which I have preached, he shall be cursed; and some of you who now hear me shall see it, and know that I testify the truth concerning them."

    "All the lies that are now hatched up against me are of the devil, and the influence of the devil and his servants will be used against the kingdom of God. The servants of God teach nothing but principles of eternal life, by their works ye shall know them. A good man will speak good things and holy principles, and an evil man evil things. I feel, in the name of the Lord, to rebuke all such bad principles, liars, &c., and I warn all of you to look out whom you are going after. I exhort you to give heed to all the virtue and the teachings which I have given you."
    Joseph Smith, May 2, 1844, DHC 6:363-367.