“The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.” (Sixty-first Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, October 6, 1890)
If you ever have a discussion with a devout latter-day saint about one of the more controversial topics of doctrine or church history there’s a good chance this quote will be come up in some form or another. Black Africans not being able to receive the priesthood? Well, if the prophet said so, then it must be of God. What about the policy that bars children living with homosexual from being blessed as babies, baptized, confirmed, and receiving the priesthood until they are 18? The idea that leaders can’t lead us astray is used to bolster any policy that comes from Church headquarters as coming from God. Is there a possibility that it is not of God? If you express this idea you’ll probably be met with, “Of course those things are the will of God, because if it wasn’t, God would remove the church leader from their place.” I have more than once been told that this means that God would kill them. This interpretation causes the problem of being able to tell if God has killed off a leader because they were leading the church body astray or if they just died of natural causes due to old age. Since the senior leader of the LDS Church is usually one of the oldest guys in his quorum how would we even know if God removed him or not? When Heber J. Grant died of a heart attack was it because his arteries were clogged with cholesterol or because he did something that God did not approve of? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Since I don’t believe that God has put in place a policy of death by disapproval (which really sort of stinks of Satan’s compulsory plan), I think there’s a better explanation for what Wilford Woodruff meant when he spoke in conference that day. God has in fact revealed a way to remove the president from his place.
22 Of the Melchizedek Priesthood, three Presiding High Priests, chosen by the body, appointed and ordained to that office, and upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church, form a quorum of the Presidency of the Church.
82 And inasmuch as a President of the High Priesthood shall transgress, he shall be had in remembrance before the common council of the church, who shall be assisted by twelve counselors of the High Priesthood;
83 And their decision upon his head shall be an end of controversy concerning him.
84 Thus, none shall be exempted from the justice and the laws of God, that all things may be done in order and in solemnity before him, according to truth and righteousness.
Not only does D&C 107 outline how a church president can be removed it also creates a flat, rather than hierarchical, organization. It says that the First Presidency, the Quorum of the twelve, the Quorums of the 70, and stake high councils are all equal in authority. This means that should any of them attempt to exercise unrighteous dominion over the church, or lead anyone astray, the other quorums would have the chance to sustain it or challenge it. It could be argued that these procedures are only used if the leader commits a grave sin or does something illegal. Even if that’s the case, the right to authorize new policies, doctrines, and revelation lies with the members of the Church. The Church’s website has this to say about common consent:
“Not only are Church officers sustained by common consent, but this same principle operates for policies, major decisions, acceptance of new scripture, and other things that affect the lives of the Saints.”
This means that not only are the members supposed to be able to accept or reject decisions by church leaders by voting on them but that they can also remove said leaders from their places. This power of consent resides with the members or body of the church has the power of consent. B. H. Roberts expounded on this when he said,
“I know that some men . . . have advanced extravagant ideas . . . that the people must go on performing their daily duties without question, and then if the President should do wrong, God would look after him. Such teachings have now and then been heard; but I call your attention to the fact . . . that the Lord has provided means by which the Church can correct every man within it, and can dismiss the unworthy from power. That right is resident in the Church of Christ; and the Church don’t have to wait till God kills off unworthy servants before a wrong can be righted.” (A Defense of the Faith and the Saints, p. 167.)
It makes sense that the same body that can remove leaders is the one that puts them there in the first place. When Brigham Young decided to reorganize the First Presidency two and a half years after Joseph died he did it by consent of the members. They voted in favor of his being the president and that was it. There was no ordination, no setting apart, nothing other than a unanimous vote in favor. The only way he could act as president was if the members allowed him to. If they decided to vote in disfavor of him being in that position he would not have been president. Brigham explains:
“Perhaps it may make some of you stumble, were I to ask you a question—Does a man’s being a Prophet in this Church prove that he shall be the President of it? I answer, no! A man may be a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and it may have nothing to do with his being the president of the Church. Suffice it to say, that Joseph was the president of the Church, as long as he lived: the people chose to have it so. He always filled that responsible station by the voice of the people. Can you find any revelation appointing him the President of the Church? The keys of the Priesthood were committed to Joseph, to build up the Kingdom of God on the earth, and were not to be taken from him in time or in eternity; but when he was called to preside over the Church, it was by the voice of the people; though he held the keys of the Priesthood, independent of their voice.” (Journal of Discourses 1:133 Emphasis added.)
These scriptures and policies are virtually absent in the modern Church. So what happened? Do we believe they are even necessary? If these checks and balances are not needed then why are they in scripture? If the LDS Church can’t be led astray by it’s leaders why did God reveal the methods for limiting their power or removing them? Do we even consider the fact that a decision by the Church could be wrong? We don’t even have the chance to consent to procedures and polities, why has this doctrine been abandoned? Have we embraced the “unthinking follow the leader mentality” that concerned President Kimball? Have we sold our integrity for the comforts of authority? We are required to question, challenge discuss, and pray. If we don’t question what we are told by official sources we risk giving our free agency up to someone else to tell us what to do. The well thought out article on Fair Mormon, Well Nigh Dangerous by McKay V. Jones sums up our responsibility:
“There is a much more powerful safeguard against the possibility that a prominent man could lead the Lord’s Church astray. Inherent within the Church and the way it is organized are “principles of native strength that will enable it to weather every storm:” the fact that the Church is comprised of independent intelligences with freedom of choice and thought and a divine commandment to receive confirming revelation for themselves. With the emphasis on seeking revelation for oneself and discerning whether what one is taught is from God or from man, a wayward leader could never lead a significant enough number of people astray to harm the work. Those who follow the counsel to obtain their own spiritual confirmations of things, even what the prophets and apostles tell them, will not be able to be led astray, because they seek for their own confirming revelation. Instead of God needing to “kill off” unworthy servants, they would not be able to have an effect on an entire people who are commanded to seek for confirmation and light.”
For the spirit to be able to teach us we have to consider both options of an issue. We have to consider that we could be wrong about something. If our minds are already made up and our hearts are closed to further light and knowledge, then the spirit won’t have the ability to teach us. As members we need to honestly assess what comes from Church headquarters with the assistance of the spirit, take our heavenly injunction seriously, and not let the church be lead astray.