Then again, he's not the only faithful Mormon who didn't get the memo. You can be a life-long member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and still cling to a point of view that has been repeatedly discredited by the living prophets going all the way back to Joseph Smith.
Elder Costa centered his conference talk around a controversial speech given by Ezra Taft Benson at BYU in 1980. Elder Benson seemed to be making up new doctrine willy-nilly during that visit to Provo. Some who have read it since then and agreed with him have declared that when Elder Benson spoke those words, he was "speaking as a prophet." But one reason the talk was controversial was that Elder Benson was not the prophet at the time he gave that speech; Spencer W. Kimball was. And President Kimball was very much bothered by the message Elder Benson had delivered that day to the BYU student body.
The title Elder Benson gave his talk was Fourteen Fundamentals In Following The Prophet, and the totality of his argument was that anything the president of the church said at any time on any subject should be taken as the will of the Lord and the mind of the Lord, and that obedience to the prophet at all times without question was essential to our salvation.
Spencer W. Kimball's son Edward, President Kimball was upset over the talk because he wanted "to protect the church against being misunderstood as ...espousing an unthinking 'follow the leader' mentality." As the one actually holding the priesthood keys of Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, President Kimball was well aware that those gifts were manifest only under specific conditions, and he was sensitive to the reality that many in the church were already too willing to stamp every utterance of a General Authority with the gravitas of a vatical decree.
The President of the church was concerned enough to insist Benson apologize for the speech to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, but according to LDS historian Michael Quinn, some in that quorum were dissatisfied with his response. Kimball then required Elder Benson to explain himself to a combined meeting of all general authorities the following week. This was a big deal to Benson and his family, who feared the possibility of a formal rebuke. Happily, "the meeting went well for Benson, who 'explained that he meant only to reaffirm the divine nature of the prophetic call.'"
Well Then, How About A Retraction?
The leadership may have been mollified by Elder Benson's stated motivation for giving the talk, but the substance of it remained out there with its falsehoods left uncorrected. Faithful latter-day Saints were buying the transcript in the BYU Bookstore, listening to the cassette recording, and discussing it as though it were gospel. The rank and file membership of the church have never been told that anyone in the Church hierarchy at the time considered anything in that talk undoctrinal or problematic.
And so here we are today, thirty years later. With the participants in the original controversy long dead and gone, a known heresy ends up as the centerpiece of the Saturday Morning Session of Conference and suddenly attains respectability.
It's instructive that when Elder Benson succeeded Spencer Kimball as president of the church, he did not revisit this issue nor insist on any type of blind obedience to his own authority. Perhaps now that he held the keys he could tell the difference between divine revelation and personal opinion. Throughout his years of service in the church, I have found Benson's speeches and writings among the most instructive, and certainly among my personal favorites. When speaking or writing on the subject of America's founding and destiny, he is second to none, particularly in relation to Book of Mormon warnings and prophecy. His appreciation for our constitution and the necessity of guarding it against encroachment is perhaps his greatest legacy. His exegesis of Book of Mormon prophecy regarding the falling away of the Latter-day Saints infuses much of my writing here. I am a fan.
As a former member of President Dwight Eisenhower's cabinet, Benson knew first hand about the inroads being made by groups that the Book of Mormon referred to as "Secret Combinations" -cabals of men who throughout history have combined themselves together in secret with the aim of usurping the freedom and independence of others.
Eisenhower and Benson were united in their condemnation of what Eisenhower called the Military-Industrial Complex then being promoted by seemingly innocuous organizations like the Rand Corporation, whose members secretly advocated wholesale slaughter of Americans and foreigners alike in order to feed state power. President Benson's warnings of such secret combinations have proven prophetic, as today these groups don't even seem to care that they're not so secret anymore. They often now boast openly of their intentions, as shown in the new documentary film Invisible Empire.
But nothing resembling his usual foresight was present in the talk Ezra Taft Benson gave at BYU in 1980. Where he normally backed up his statements with scriptural citations, in this case Benson simply made blanket declarations as though the mere act of stating them would imbue them with divine authority. Many of the "keys" he insisted as vital, actually contradicted both scripture and the long-held teachings of the living prophets. It was a rare performance, undoctrinal and uncharacteristic of an otherwise brilliant mind. He was out of line with this one, and the Prophet was right to call him on it.
In the end, however, President Kimball's fears were realized. The substance of Benson's talk, along with news of the reproof Benson received for delivering it, was picked up by Newsweek magazine and provided ammunition for the church's enemies who used it as further evidence that Mormonism is a cult whose central authority demands blind obedience from its followers. In addition, those who like to claim that Mormons are not Christian had a field day pointing out how Benson taught that salvation hangs on how diligently one adheres to the words of the Mormon prophet, rather than upon the redeeming power of Christ. He really handed this one to the enemy.
Why Again? Why Now?
It is worth wondering why such a discredited sermon as this was repeated yesterday from the pulpit at General Conference. It's one thing for someone to deliver such words to an audience of university students and faculty, but when presented at the official conference of the Church, those words are seen as doctrine in the minds of the majority. Unlike a hundred years ago, conference talks today are vetted and approved for dissemination well ahead of time, so it's difficult to believe that this false doctrine simply slipped through unnoticed. The authorities have been very careful about combing through the talks in advance, particularly those given by untried lower-level speakers ever since that conference session in 1984 when way too much truth slipped out and had to be frantically bottled back up.
Is it possble that the institutional Church actually wants to steer its members into accepting "doctrine" that was once openly condemned? Is it a move calculated to maintain control over a membership which is more and more beginning to question the propriety of the Church's institutional over-reach?
As discussed here previously, David O. McKay fought a losing battle against a segment of the governing body of the Church who felt it was their province to declare the doctrine, and the province of the members to echo what they say or to remain silent. (McKay's biographers document his discovery in the early 1960's that the negro ban on the priesthood had never been based on any revelation whatsoever, but was merely clung to by long-standing tradition. He wanted to reverse the ban way back then, but was stymied in his efforts because he was opposed by several of the Twelve and could not get a sufficient number of votes from the Quorum to go along with him.)
The programs and policies of the church in the twenty-first century differ markedly from that of the mid twentieth, and the twentieth century church was already showing a radical departure from the way the church operated in 1830 and 1840. Still, this mania for blind obedience to Church authority keeps surfacing, only to be officially slapped down again and again by those who actually hold the keys of prophecy. But recently this falsehood seems to be taking a firmer hold, and I no longer see those in high office scrambling to make the corrections. In spite of what some of lesser office have declared from time to time, Joseph Smith held that a person who advocated such unquestioning obedience "should not claim a rank among intelligent beings."
The Blindly Obedient Leading The Blind
What shall we then make of the sometimes subtle change in direction of the corporate church? When I speak of the corporate church, I mean the arbitrary rules of the monolithic, bureaucratic institution as opposed to the traditional teachings received via scriptures and divine revelation from latter-day Prophets in the church. A brilliant writer by the name of Tom maintains a site he calls Truth Hurts, where he seems to have a pretty good handle on this decline of true doctrine and its replacement with an unsupported counterfeit. He quotes the prophet Joseph F. Smith over a hundred years ago:
“Not a man in this Church, since the Prophet Joseph Smith down to the present day, has ever asked any man to do as he was told blindly. No Prophet of God, no Apostle, no President of a Stake, no Bishop, who has had the spirit of his office and calling resting upon him, has ever asked a soul to do anything that they might not know was right and the proper thing to do. We do not ask you to do anything that you may not know it is your duty to do, or that you may not know will be a blessing for you to do.” (Joseph F. Smith, Collected Discourses, ed. Brian H. Stuy, Vol. 3 (Burbank, B.H.S. Publishing 1987-1992).Those are the words of a true prophet. But a half century later, an insidious new doctrine was making inroads. Contrast President Smith's words with the lesson Elder Benson wished his listeners to adopt. He is quoting here from Marion G. Romney:
I remember years ago when I was a Bishop I had President [Heber J.] Grant talk to our ward. After the meeting I drove him home....Standing by me, he put his arm over my shoulder and said: "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." Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, "But you don't need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray."I don't know if you caught that. According to Romney's counsel, which Ezra Taft Benson once endorsed, if you do something wrong the Lord will bless you for it as long as you have the excuse that someone else told you to do it.
That, brothers and sisters, is heresy. It is not supported anywhere in the standard works, or in any modern revelation from any prophet in these latter days. It simply does not exist in any teachings of the Restoration. Yet I'm sure you know faithful members of the church who teach and believe that abomination. Perhaps you believe it yourself, in which case here's my question for you: Why in the world do you think you have been given the gift of the Holy Ghost if you don't think you're ever expected to use it?
I have been told by some visitors to this site that they find my occasional lack of deference to authority more than a little disturbing. I've been told I make them feel uncomfortable. Well, if you can think of another word besides heresy to describe a religious teaching that flies in the face of all scripture and common sense, I'll use that one instead. In the meantime, you should feel uncomfortable if you favor the belief in unsupported decrees over the revealed word of God.
Writing over at Truth Hurts, Tom included the above Romney quote in a piece questioning the use of indoctrination present in the Primary song "Follow the Prophet, He Knows the Way."
"It really is shocking," Tom writes, "when you look at it this way. Perhaps it’s true that the culture is so screwed up that they’d benefit from a prophet coming amongst us to tell us to repent, or await the certain destruction that’s coming. Perhaps it’s true we need an outside voice. That’s fine. But how about we draw the line somewhere? Perhaps we could draw that line at – oh, I don’t know – Follow the Savior, He Knows the Way."
One year ago this month I wrote a piece that I think is a pretty decent analysis of this so-called "doctrine" of Following the Prophet. I believe it is a complete enough discussion of the subject that a reasonable person should be able to come to a conclusion about whether the doctrine is real or a counterfeit.
Since I wrote that piece, this blog has attracted more than twenty-five thousand new visitors. If you happen to be among those new readers and you missed it the first time out, I invite you to look it over and decide for yourself whether or not "Follow the Prophet" is a bona fide doctrine of the Restoration. If you disagree with my conclusions, I welcome your response, but I do ask that you cite your authorities. I won't accept mere speculation. No matter how much you have been taught something is true, or how much you want it to be true, you're going to have to show me that it is true. Wishing that the "Leaders" in Salt Lake will take charge over us so we don't have to do our own thinking is how we members of the body of Christ let the Church slip from our control in the first place.
Here's that link:
UPDATE October 6, 2012: I just came upon this excellent 5 part analysis of President Benson's talk on the Fourteen Fundamentals at the blog, "In Mount Zion" available by clicking here.