I originally wrote the following post in September 2011. I am republishing it today as a tribute to John Dehlin, a courageous man who was a key figure in my life during the year after I came out. I had the opportunity to work with him and others in organizing the first Circling the Wagons conference. He has single-handedly made a huge difference in the way Mormons think of gay and lesbian people, and his work in this regard was recognized by Equality Utah when it named him "Ally of the Year."
He now faces discipline from the Mormon Church for, among other things, publicly supporting marriage equality. It is extremely likely that he will be excommunicated later today. This post is for him and for all those other souls who yearn to be free.
“When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan–it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy. God works in no other way. To think otherwise, without immediate repentance, may cost one his faith, may destroy his testimony, and leave him a stranger to the kingdom of God.”
How often have we heard a variation of this statement, whether from a fellow members of the LDS Church, from a bishop, in a Gospel Doctrine class, from a stake president, or even in General Conference?
This statement was contained in a ward teacher message published in the June 1945 issue of the Improvement Era (the equivalent of today’s Ensign). It prompted the pastor of the Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City to write a letter to then-President of the Mormon Church, George Albert Smith, which read in part as follows:
Dear President Smith:
It has been one of the great privileges of my life to have lived for the past four years in Salt Lake City, and to have become personally acquainted with many of the leaders of the L.D.S. Church. From them I have learned many things, and the spirit of friendliness which is found in our relationships is a source of unending delight to me. It is because I have found you and the other leaders so very charitable and sympathetic that I make so bold as to write you this letter …
Last June there was delivered to my door a short religious editorial, prepared by one of your leaders, entitled “Sustaining the General Authorities of the Church.” Its message amazed me a great deal, and with the passing of weeks my distur[b]ance became very acute. It might have passed, except that several members of your Church have come to me to discuss the subject …
Permit me to quote the passages which seem to be brought most in question:
“He (Lucifer) wins a great victory when he can get members of the Church to speak against their leaders and to ‘do their own thinking’.”
“When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan–it is God’s plan. When they point the way, there is no other which is safe. When they give direction, it should mark the end of controversy….”
I do not know who is responsible for this statement, but I am sure it is doing inestimable harm to many who have no other reason to question the integrity of the Church leaders …
Several years ago, when I first became acquainted with the L.D.S. Church, I read extensively in the texts, and there are many passages which may be used to give a better expression to the vision and genius of your Faith. I cite but one, although there are many others which are familiar to you.
Quoting from the Discourses of Brigham Young, as Selected and Arranged by John A. Widtsoe, in the Chapter on “The Priesthood”:
“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 that 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 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 whisperings of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.”
This quotation from Brigham Young is a wonderful passage, and it has been on the basis of such freedom that persons like myself have grown to have a deep feeling of kinship with the L.D.S. Church. It is in keeping with the high traditions of my Unitarian background that the gains made by my fellow workers are seen as gains for us all. It is a source of regret to all of us when one stone is discovered to bar the way to deeper faith within any soul.
With an assurance of my continued good-will and friendliness,
Most cordially yours,
J. Raymond Cope
President George Albert Smith, in response to this letter, wrote the following:
My Dear Dr. Cope:
I have read with interest and deep concern your letter of November 16, 1945, in which you make special comment on “a short religious editorial prepared by one of our leaders entitled “Sustaining the General Authorities of the Church.” You say that you read the message with amazement, and that you have since been disturbed because of its effect upon members of the Church.
I am gratified with the spirit of friendliness that pervades your letter, and thank you for having taken the time to write to me.
The leaflet to which you refer, and from which you quote in your letter, was not “prepared” by “one of our leaders.” However, one or more of them inadvertently permitted the paragraph to pass uncensored. By their so doing, not a few members of the Church have been upset in their feelings, and General Authorities have been embarrassed.
I am pleased to assure you that you are right in your attitude that the passage quoted does not express the true position of the Church. Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church, which is that every individual must obtain for himself a testimony of the truth of the Gospel, must, through the redemption of Jesus Christ, work out his own salvation, and is personally responsible to His Maker for his individual acts. The Lord Himself does not attempt coercion in His desire and effort to give peace and salvation to His children. He gives the principles of life and true progress, but leaves every person free to choose or to reject His teachings. This plan the Authorities of the Church try to follow.
The Prophet Joseph Smith once said: “I want liberty of thinking and believing as I please.” This liberty he and his successors in the leadership of the Church have granted to every other member thereof.
On one occasion in answer to the question by a prominent visitor how he governed his people, the Prophet answered: “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”
Again, as recorded in the History of the Church (Volume 5, page 498) Joseph Smith said further: “If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way.”
I cite these few quotations, from many that might be given, merely to confirm your good and true opinion that the Church gives to every man his free agency, and admonishes him always to use the reason and good judgment with which God has blessed him.
In the advocacy of this principle leaders of the Church not only join congregations in singing but quote frequently the following:
“Know this, that every soul is free
To choose his life and what he’ll be,
For this eternal truth is given
That God will force no man to heaven.”
Again I thank you for your manifest friendliness and for your expressed willingness to cooperate in every way to establish good will and harmony among the people with whom we are jointly laboring to bring brotherhood and tolerance.
Geo. Albert Smith
While I appreciate the words of President Smith, which reaffirm some of the supposed bedrock basics of Mormonism, I feel a certain amount of sadness and resignation that the spirit and mindset that resulted in that message being written 66 years ago was alive and well enough in the Church at that time to be so expressed in a Church-wide publication. I feel even more disappointment to know that this same philosophy and mind-set is alive and well and thriving in the Church today – at all levels.
I sometimes wonder whether, in the Church, there is more worship of the “trueness” of the Church than of he who is supposedly the head of it. Have Brigham Young’s worst fears been realized?