A recent article in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture has me scratching my head. Yesterday, Part 1 of Duane Boyce’s “A Lengthening Shadow: Is Quality of Thought Deteriorating in LDS Scholarly Discourse Regarding Prophets and Revelation?” was released online. The 48-page article (and this is just the first part?!) highlights what Boyce sees as incorrect doctrines espoused in the works of newer apologists Terryl Givens and Patrick Mason (he’ll tackle Grant Hardy in the forthcoming Part 2). It seems Boyce is of the same opinion as MormonLeaks’ Ryan McKnight in viewing progressive Mormon views as detrimental to the church.
First of all, let us ponder on one apologist attacking other apologists who are writing publications aimed at persuading people to stay in the church…
Okay, now that we’ve swallowed that premise, let’s get to the article. Boyce explains the central issue,
Do significant errors regarding prophets and revelation occur, and are they becoming both common, and commonly accepted, in the rhetoric of LDS scholars?
He believes both Givens and Mason (and others like them) are promoting erroneous views of prophets and revelation which are becoming more widely accepted in Mormon literature. Specifically, he takes church leader statements that Givens and Mason use to back up their positions, and suggests the interpretations are incorrect. As I’ve shown previously, I’m totally okay with the idea of reevaluating original evidence people claim to back up their positions (see here and here). The problem, as I see it, is his implication that in misinterpreting those particular statements they have ultimately come up with arguments that cannot be supported in any way. And that’s what I disagree with. For example, in my Vernal Holley post, I worked hard to discredit faulty evidence, but I also worked hard to present other evidence that backed up the original claims.
The first argument Boyce examines is in regard to a particular interpretation of D&C 41:4-5.
To begin, consider a single paragraph by Terryl Givens.5 In it he desires to show that we should not expect moral superiority from men called as prophets — they are not “infallible specimens of virtue and perfection.” As partial support for the obviousness of this claim, Givens draws attention to the Lord’s statement to the infant Church, regarding Joseph Smith, that “thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments” and that “his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith” (D&C 21:4–5). Givens quotes only the phrase “in all patience and faith” in this passage, however, remarking that “God would not have enjoined us to hear what prophets, seers, and revelators have to say ‘in all patience and faith’ if their words were always sage and inspired.”6 Givens thus interprets this passage to indicate that we are to have patience and faith toward the Brethren since they are not always “sage and inspired.”
Boyce agrees with the claim that the Brethren are not “infallible specimens of virtue and perfection,” but doesn’t like the implication that we need to be patient with the brethren because leaders might not be inspired in a given situation. If what they say is what God would say (per that scripture), they are obviously always inspired. So we must reinterpret what it means to endure what they say with “patience and faith.”
If the Lord is telling us to receive prophets’ words as if from his own mouth, it is not likely that he is simultaneously telling us to have patience and faith because those words might not be “sage and inspired.” Such an interpretation reduces to the claim that the Saints should recognize that the Lord’s own words are not always sage and inspired and therefore that members should be patient with him….
The Lord’s instruction to consider Joseph Smith’s words “as if from mine own mouth,” and to do so “in all patience and faith,” would more naturally be interpreted to mean something like: “Follow my servant Joseph even though you will suffer all manner of persecution and hardship by doing so”….
Far from suggesting we need to be patient with prophets, the passage tells us we need to be patient in enduring the worldly consequences of following prophets.
Umm… okay. I guess I can see that interpretation. So nothing supports the claim that we need to be patient with the fallibility of prophets, because they may not always be 100% saying exactly what God would say? Because there’s this by Elder Holland:
So be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work. As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fulness is poured forth, it is not the oil’s fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can’t quite contain it all.10 Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving.
And (you knew this was coming) President Uchtdorf’s famous 2014 statement:
And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.
I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.
Another point Boyce disagrees with is Patrick Mason’s argument that the Brethren are only occasionally receiving revelation for church government. In his mind, the argument is both implausible and contradicts many church leaders statements. With implausibility, he argues that because a leader shares an account of receiving a powerful spiritual experience earlier in his life, it obviously proves a consistent closeness to the spirit. But… according to the scriptures and church history, powerful spiritual experiences aren’t actually evidence of consistent closeness to the spirit.
As far as contradicting statements by the Brethren, I don’t really mind his large section compiling statements saying the church works under constant inspiration and revelation. I’ve heard many of those types of statements in the last few years. (I’m amused he chose to include the obligation apostles have to seek a personal manifestation of Jesus Christ given Elder Oaks’ effort to downplay that one in the Boise Rescue.) My problem came in his attempt to disprove Givens’ interpretation of a B.H. Roberts statement. B. H. Roberts said,
Hence, 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.62
Givens argued this proves the brethren only occasionally receive revelation from God to govern the affairs of the church. Boyce thinks this is an understandable, yet incorrect, interpretation.
After all, from the fact that prophets are not inspired “at all times and in all things” it hardly follows that revelation is therefore only occasional.
Um, except for the fact that B. H. Roberts actually said the word “occasionally,” which would imply “occasional.” But Boyce says we’re forgetting the “at need” phrase.
[S]ince [the Brethren] do not report receiving revelation “at all times and in all things,” but do report receiving it far more frequently than “occasionally,” the need for guidance would therefore itself seem to be more than occasional.
This makes my head hurt. Here’s the deal: Givens’ interpretation makes sense. Boyce’s interpretation, while I guess might be valid, is created by circular reasoning. “Here’s a statement by one church leader that on the surface doesn’t seem to agree with other church leaders. You can’t have church leaders disagree with one another,” (even though it’s completely expected with over a century of different personalities leading the church), “so I must figure out a way to make them agree.”
But, more importantly, Boyce is in agreement that revelation is not being received for administrative decisions 100% of the time. This seems to match what Elder Uchtdorf said,
As an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ and as one who has seen firsthand the councils and workings of this Church, I bear solemn witness that no decision of significance affecting this Church or its members is ever made without earnestly seeking the inspiration, guidance, and approbation of our Eternal Father.
He didn’t say no decisions were made without seeking inspiration, he specified no decisions of significance. Clearly, God leaves some things up to the Brethren, which then undermines Boyce’s first point where he argued that all statements and actions by prophets are inspired.
Finally, Boyce is irritated that both Mason and Givens suggest the possibility that the priesthood and temple ban was a “mistake.”
In the course of discussing the imperfection and fallibility of Church leaders, Givens tells us that Spencer W. Kimball, as an apostle, “referred as early as 1963 to the priesthood ban as a ‘possible error’ for which he asked forgiveness.”69 He is referring to this statement by Elder Kimball in a letter: “I know the Lord could change his policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error which brought about the deprivation.”70
Again, Boyce suggests Givens is misinterpreting Kimball’s statement. Since Kimball referred to the policy as belonging to the Lord, he cannot have suggested that it was in error (because the Lord cannot be in error!). So Boyce looks around for another use of “possible error” and finds one in the now disavowed teaching of President Joseph Fielding Smith regarding premortal actions disqualifying blacks from priesthood in mortality. According to Boyce,
[Kimball] seems to be saying something like this: “The priesthood ban is the Lord’s policy, but he could change it. If the restriction is due, as Joseph Fielding Smith (and some others) have thought, to error committed in the pre-earth existence, perhaps the Lord could forgive that error and release the restriction.”
Also, because Kimball felt advocating for the change of policy was showing contempt for “the sacred principle of revelation and divine authority,” Boyce argues that obviously President Kimball felt the priesthood ban was revelation and given by divine authority. This is where I’d take a page from Boyce’s book and submit an alternate interpretation. Activism from the ground up would be considered itself a violation of the rule of stewardship/authority, where only church leaders are allowed revelation to change policy affecting the membership as a whole. In my opinion, that statement doesn’t actually prove Kimball believed that the policy was inspired (even though he likely preferred that belief).
The biggest problem I have with this section is when Boyce talks about whether the church accepts the priesthood and temple ban as inspired (in spite of disavowing racist justifications). He points to a statement by Elder Oaks and concludes,
Here Elder Oaks relies on the distinction between instructions and explanations, accepting the priesthood-temple restriction itself as the correct action but simultaneously rejecting the various explanations that had been offered for it. The same distinction is evident in the Church essay regarding the priesthood. That essay disavows past explanations for the restriction, but (though it sets out at length the historical setting of the time) it does not disavow the restriction itself. 104
So, here’s the thing. While Boyce is correct that the Race and Priesthood essay does not disavow the restriction, it also does not say, as Oaks did, that the restriction was the “correct action.” The essay, approved by church leaders, doesn’t say the ban was inspired and it doesn’t say it was uninspired. In fact, when new Doctrinal Mastery curriculum materials were put out recently, they referred to the priesthood ban as an inspired policy. Within a few months that section was removed. Church leaders are being careful not to come down either side. Mason and Givens’ suggestion that the policy was a mistake is not outside the realm of possibility. Boyce’s opinion that the policy was inspired is also not out of the realm of possibility. Just because prior leaders viewed the policy as inspired, it doesn’t mean that is the official position of current leadership.
What did you think of Boyce’s article and arguments?
Unfortunately, it seems that Boyce will go to extreme lengths to avoid re-examining his closely held and treasured faith in prophetic infallibility. This is too bad, since the existence of the Restoration itself is rooted in the questioning of established belief and authority. This ossification is part of a natural process, I think, but it can’t be allowed to become (or remain) as the mainstream attitude of what passes for thinking in the Church.
Here’s my response I posted on The Interpreter:
I’m sure Terryl and Patrick will respond to this pre-meditated attack, but it’s a thinly veiled, convoluted attempt to revive the notion that the discredited “Negro Doctrine” was the “Lord’s policy.” Boyce tries to build a case that our leaders are more than “occasionally” inspired and virtually incapable of mistakes (dare we say infallible?), even though B.H. Roberts states just the opposite and even uses the word “occasionally.” Boyce’s attempt to rationalize away Roberts’ comments was laughable.
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Curt Burnett Boyce cites a letter written by Spencer Kimball in 1963 to the effect that the Negro ban was the “Lord’s policy.” However, that letter was written a full 15 years prior to the 1978 revelation, and Elder Kimball never used that phrase again in public addresses. Moreover, Elder McConkie gave the definitive statement when he effectively said “everything” ever written or said about the Negro Doctrine was “wrong,” including his own writings. I assume “everything” would apply to everything from Brigham Young’s original teachings to Elder Kimball’s letter that didn’t conform to the new revelation. I don’t believe the ban was ever “the Lord’s policy” and would make God a racist; instead, the God I worship stated plainly in several places that “all are alike unto me.”
I think it was Hardy, ironically talking about the need for better apologetics, who said that the leaders have worried so much about losing grandma’s testimony that they didn’t realize they were losing all of the grandchildren’s testimonies. The narrative that Boyce is trying to push is impossible to defend. Givens and Mason are aware of enough actual historical events that show that the men who lead us are very capable of error. The only way to reconcile this for me is accept that most of time our prophets are left to make decisions the same way that stake presidents, bishops, and parents receive revelation. That process is a careful analysis followed by discussion and pondering followed by a plea with God for some type of confirmation. I would hope that the men we sustain as prophets have refined this process and am better at it than I am, but I am very sure that they have biases, opinions and prejudices that get in the way. It is hard for me even to take Boyce seriously. The sad part is he does represent what the majority of members think in my ward. I have mentioned before that the brethren could clear this up because they really do know how the process happens and are content to let the members believe that Jesus is appearing to them on a regular basis.
I do find it interesting that very few members would seriously say that their stake presidents and bishops receive inspiration and revelation with the same clarity that they claim our prophets do. Maybe it is because we know them and know their families and flaws so we expect less of them. We have had two ward boundary changes in the last eight years that were done by our current stake presidency. Both of them involved a secret Sunday night meeting that we were informed about at church that day. At both of the meetings, the stake president stood up and assured all of the members that he was certain that the Lord’s hand was involved in the realignments. I think most members saw that boundaries were changed to help struggling wards. We all just accepted the fact that change needed to happen and we sustain those men that had to make the tough decisions on where to draw the new lines. Nobody really believes that Jesus showed up and told them what to do.
So my question is at what point are these men able to distinguish their own thoughts from what the spirit is telling them? Is it the moment they are called bishop? the moment they are called stake president? the moment they are called to be a general authority? Apostle? Prophet?
Sorry for the long comment, but I also completely understand what happens when you start losing trust in prophets. For me, it has been the hardest thing to deal with.
whyyyyyy are they doubling down on accepting the priesthood and temple ban of all things?
Well, it is robust discussion. 🙂
Zach, “So my question is at what point are these men able to distinguish their own thoughts from what the spirit is telling them?” It depends on how important it is to them to be able to tell the difference. Elder Bednar said in a Face to Face event that we overcomplicate things when we try to differentiate. If you are thinking about doing something you believe is good, it’s obviously the Holy Ghost (based on the scriptural idea that if it invites and entices to do good, it’s from Christ).
For what it is worth, I almost completely agree with Zach (July 23, 2017 at 1:34 am ). However, having been part of many stake presidency and bishopric meetings (across multiple stakes and wards), it is all too often the case that the reasons and rationales for decisions originate from and solely of personal preference, wisdom, experience, bias. Then, all too often (almost always), if the resulting actions are as momentous as ward boundary changes, the public rationales announced place an inordinate emphasis on “inspiration” that wasn’t voiced in the private deliberations.
I am fine with honest and sincere deliberations and unavoidably “biased” decision-making, but not with hyperbole, dissembling, and lies to engender agreement from the sheep.
I am not going to get in between any two parties arguing the nuances of revelation and inspiration. I agree somewhat with Boyce on some points, such as the “occasional” inspiration versus fairly constant inspiration. I am sure that no President of the Church or General Authority drops down to his knees and asks what to do in each and every situation. On the other hand, those men spend a lot of time in the temple praying and meditating, seeking inspiration and guidance in their callings. I remember reading about David O. McKay rising every morning very early to pray and meditate, seeking spiritual guidance and impressions daily, and he said those impressions were right.
I place a bit of distinction between revelation and inspiration. Revelations, to me, come in the form of pretty straightforward verbal directions such as verbal instructions or visions, such as what Wilford Woodruff ending the practice of polygamy in the church. I would agree that this type of communication from the Lord is on a much less frequent basis than is inspiration, spiritual impressions etc. During the restoration direct revelations were needed constantly as the ordinances and structure of the church were revealed. But once that restoration was complete, the need for direct revelation is only occasional, but the need for inspiration is constant, and I believe that our prophets and General Authorities seek such inspiration constantly.
Ending the practice of polygamy was one such item of significance where direction was sought and and given in no uncertain terms.
Ending the priesthood ban was another of those significant items that elicited a lot of meditation and prayer. Answers were sought much earlier than 1978, especially during the time David O. McKay was the prophet.
The origination of the priesthood ban has been laid at Brigham Young’s feet but the historical evidence is too ambiguous to establish such a claim. Parley P. Pratt made a statement in April of 1947 indicating that the restriction was known at that time, and due to his own travel time line, he had to learn of it sometime between April 8 and April 14 of 1847 since he arrived in Nauvoo on April 8 and his statement was on April 15. If he did not learn of it then, it would push the origination back to at least 1846, before he left on another mission to England in July. But there is reason to believe that the restriction was known even earlier, from a statement by Orson Hyde in April of 1845 concerning the curse laid upon Canaan as alluded to in the Book of Abraham and the incident with Ham and a drunken Noah.
It has to be remembered that Brigham Young was not called to the office of president of the Church until December of 1847. His right to lead the Church as President of the Quorum of the Twelve has been established by the voice of the people in August of 1844. So, what is one to make of that? Did Brigham formulate this policy during that tumultuous period of time with enemies of the church pressing from all sides and trying to get ready for the exodus to Utah? There is something about Occam’s Razor…..
Now, as to whether this was a knee jerk reaction to the McGary affair, it would seem that the restriction was before that time. And this also would seem to be one of those “significant” types of issues where serious reflection, prayer, and discussion would have been enjoined. But each to his or her opinion.
Umm, what about the first presidency letter in the 1940’s which said unequivocally that the priesthood and temple ban came from God?
Jewelfox, What about it? You can read the entire text of that 1949 letter here: https://www.fairmormon.org/answers/Mormonism_and_racial_issues/Blacks_and_the_priesthood/Statements. You can also read the relevant text from Joseph Fielding Smith’s 1931 “Way to Perfection” here: http://emp.byui.edu/OpenshawR/Pearl%20of%20Great%20Price/Cain,%20Ham%20and%20the%20Priesthood.htm. It would seem that JFS provided or summarized what “we all know” and that on at least some things he and the 1949 letter were unequivocally in error. I see no particular reason to think a First Presidency infallible or immune from the human tendency to teach the “traditions of their fathers.” See, e.g. on a closely related subject the acknowledgment of JFS: “No, you do not have to believe that Negroes are denied the priesthood because of the pre-existence. I have always assumed that because it was what I was taught, and it made sense, but you don’t have to believe it to be in good standing, because it is not definitely stated in the scriptures. And I have received no revelation on the matter.” Joseph Fielding Smith, quoted by Eugene England here: http://eugeneengland.org/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/1990_e_003.pdf. So, what about it?
In response to Zach’s question, “So my question is at what point are these men able to distinguish their own thoughts from what the spirit is telling them?” and Mary Ann’s response, I think this matters a great deal. Take the controversial example of the November 5th policy. A person who views homosexuality as entirely unnatural and feels a bit “grossed out” contemplating homosexual relationships and families would positively view a policy that made it less likely for homosexual couples and families to join their social circles. A person who was used to viewing their own instincts and divine inspiration as functionally one and the same would then interpret this to mean that homosexuality is against divine law and they are holding the righteous line in declaring it so. They have no training or incentive to more closely examine their own biases and challenge their own views.
It’s too easy to enshrine one’s own opinions as doctrine and one’s own thoughts as God’s thoughts when revelation doesn’t involve critical processes for studying the difference between the two. This is how my own thought process used to go, and it led me to some very arrogant and decidedly un-Christlike places that I now regret very much.