There is a common refrain among Mormons, the leadership and membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This sentiment is that the church leaders are incapable of leading the church astray. It’s not even that they wouldn’t lead the church astray, it’s more the Lord won’t permit them to. If they tried to (even unknowingly) God would remove them from their station, meaning he would end their life! Following the logic makes sense, if God really is at the head of the church, so we may as well just keep our heads down and follow the leaders blindly, right? This belief is closely related to the doctrine of prophetic leadership and is often associated with the concept of prophetic infallibility.
The LDS Church President is the highest-ranking and most authoritative leader. He is seen as the prophet, seer, and revelator, and holds all the keys! He (of course, always a He) is believed to have a direct line of communication with God. This belief is based on the doctrine of continuous revelation, which means that God continues to communicate with His people through modern-day prophets.
The phrase conveys the idea that when the President of the LDS Church speaks or leads on matters of doctrine, policy, or guidance for the church, he is guided and protected by divine inspiration. This protection ensures that he will not teach or lead the members of the church astray from God’s will. In other words, it is believed that the President of the Church will not make doctrinal or moral errors that could lead the church away from the path of righteousness.
This belief does not fully mean that the President of the Church is considered infallible in all aspects of life or that he cannot make mistakes in personal matters. The protection from leading the church astray is generally understood to pertain specifically to his role as the prophet and leader of the LDS Church in spiritual and doctrinal matters. If later on a President was found to have perhaps made a mistake, he can be dismissed by the current church president. He must have been “speaking as a man” only and not “speaking as a prophet”.
This idea is deeply ingrained in church doctrine and Mormon culture. It’s even been canonized in the scriptures!
Reversing Mormon Polygamy
It came up (but not for the first time) as Wilford Woodruff was forced to make drastic changes to the church. He stopped the practice of polygamy. The practice had been secret, and then finally once it was outed, practiced openly – especially once the church was established in the wilderness that was outside the jurisdiction of the federal US government. But once the territory of Utah was within the jurisdiction and the practice was made illegal, the US Government coerced the Mormons to stop the practice. Wilford Woodruff relented, so the church properties wouldn’t be confiscated, all the leaders be put in jail, and of course, so that the church wouldn’t lose tax-exempt status.
This was not a popular move among Mormons, especially not the polygamists. It shows the leader of the church bending to the secular world. Even though they believed they were living God’s true order of marriage, and that God’s ways are not man’s ways, because they are higher. The polygamists especially must have felt abandoned. They were marrying teenagers with the sanction of God after all, once the church withdrew its support for the practice, they could no longer get away with such heinous acts. They didn’t do these things with God’s sanction anymore, they couldn’t, at least not openly. This is why there are still today fundamentalist colonies around Utah that continue to practice polygamy. The extreme patriarchal practice was forced out of the church by outside pressures and everyone knew it.
President Woodruff though, reminded the membership that even if it looked like outside pressures forced him to do this, the Lord truly directed it. This was a faith-promoting twist, to allow membership to see his ending the practice as God-inspired, since if it wasn’t, God surely would have removed him (from the office as well as from this life).
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, Salt Lake City, Utah. Reported in Deseret Evening News, October 11, 1890, p. 2.)Doctrine & Covenants, Official Declaration 1, Wilford Woodruff, Excerpts from three addresses by President Wilford Woodruff regarding the Manifesto
Similarly, and more recently, the church has gone through a few other drastic changes. The church completely reversed its position and changed its direction dramatically, though it may not have been quite life-altering for the membership. Throughout the presidency of Hinckley and Monson, the church embraced the Mormon nickname. They used it to grow the awareness of the church and even branded the term with ad campaigns, websites, and feature films. When President Nelson took the reigns he pulled a complete turn-around and banned the nickname. He effectively canceled the social credit that had been building for decades under his predecessors. He even said that using the term was a “major victory for Satan!”
This surprised many, and offended others. Church leaders came to his defense and followed his bidding. The website content was deleted and the domains were redirected. The choir was renamed, and there was a major push to “rebrand” the church with a new Jesus-focused logo and domain names and even style guide reminding reporters (and the world) to call the church by its proper name. It states that when talking about the church and a shortened reference is needed “The “restored Church of Jesus Christ” is also accurate and encouraged.” They want the world to refer them to the restored church of Jesus Christ, this is known as leading the witness or the drawing your own conclusion logical fallacy. It’s the same as asking to be referred to as the “smartest person alive,” because if the request is heeded, it also propagates a fallacy, though carefully constructed. If it’s said, it doesn’t make it true, but by saying it feels to make it more true at least.
President Nelson’s defendants remind us that we must follow the leaders of the church because they can not lead the church astray.
You keep your eyes riveted on the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. We will not lead you astray. We cannot. Let me tell you why. Every week that I am in town, I attend a meeting of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve on the fourth floor of the Salt Lake Temple. If you could see the process by which decision and direction comes from that meeting, you would have a deep sense of confidence and comfort that the will of the Lord is being taught by the leaders of the Church. So keep your eyes riveted on the leadership of the Church. While individuals may falter, the body of general Church leadership will remain steadfast and true. If someone tells you that they have received revelation that the First Presidency and the Twelve have not received, run away from them.When Shall These Things Be? Elder M Russell Ballard, March 12, 1996
Church leaders would have us follow them today as God’s only representatives on earth, despite the fact that they don’t seem to be consistent. They want us to only hold them to the last thing they said, and if it’s different than what they said last week (or what their predecessors said), today is for sure from God, and earlier might not have been. We know that God is unchanging, but we can’t answer questions directed at Him. His ways are not our ways after all. But Elder Ballard assures us that if we could see the meetings of the First Presidency and the Quroum of Twelve Apostles regarding leading the church, if we “could see the process by which decision and direction comes from that meeting,” we “would have a deep sense of confidence and comfort that the will of the Lord is being taught by the leaders of the Church.”
He’s assuring us that if only we could be a fly on the wall, we’d be confident they are leading the church properly. It’s a nice sentiment, but totally empty. It sounds like a salesman promising you that the car you’re about to purchase was well taken care of. If only you could watch as the previous owners gently cared for the vehicle and the certified licensed mechanics looked it over.
By the way, did you know that Elder Ballard was actually a car salesman in the past? He worked for multiple companies selling cars and later Ballard ran a business that was actually investigated by the SEC and its license was revoked due to manipulation and fraud, so can we take him at his word here?! How would we feel if we “could see the process by which decision and direction comes from” in his meetings where he conducted this manipulation and fraud?
And What About You?
Elder Kyle McKay side-steps this concept in a talk. He restates the familiar quote from Wilford Woodruff. “The Lord will never permit” a church president to “lead you astray.” Then he states that this does not mean that leaders are perfect or don’t make mistakes.
Another of Satan’s strategies is to use human error to disprove or diminish God’s truth. Brace yourself—it is possible, even likely, that something you have said or done has become someone else’s reason to doubt. We sometimes have an unrealistic expectation that God must somehow search out or raise up errorless people to do His work and lead His Church. In 1890, Wilford Woodruff declared, “The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. . . . If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place.”
What does that statement mean to you? Unfortunately, some have interpreted or distorted it to mean that the Lord will never allow Church leaders to make a mistake. That is simply not the case. It has never been the case. The scriptures repeatedly show that God does His work through humans and those humans make mistakes, sometimes even while God is using them for His purposes. Consider how many times in the Old Testament God used mistake-prone people to establish or preserve His covenant, and guide, sustain, and deliver His covenant people.
Then there’s Peter, the ear cutter-offer who denied Christ. Given his behavioral history, how could the church he led possibly be true? Yet it was. And finally, there’s Joseph Smith—mistake-prone at times, just like the ancients. But God called and magnified him in the greatest Restoration of truth ever.BYU-Idaho Devotional: A Sure and Certain Foundation, Elder Kyle S. McKay, April 25, 2023
First off, can the Executive Director of the Church History Department say things like “ear cutter-offer”? At least it’s while he’s explaining that church leaders make mistakes…
He challenges that if you aren’t perfect, how can you expect church leaders to be perfect?! Sounds like a perfect example of a whataboutism. Pay no mind to the errors of the church, you make mistakes too! But the difference may be individuals make mistakes and then seek to make amends rather than hunker down behind their god-given authority.
And what about you? If the truthfulness of this Church or the truthfulness of or your beliefs were judged by your errors, would anyone ever believe what you believe? Would there have been fewer mistakes, fewer messes, if God had only restored His Church and gospel through you?
So, what do we do with error? You can’t hide or hide from the humanness of humans. But it is equally unproductive to seek out error and wallow in it by making it an emphasis of study. You will never come to know and understand the truths of God by studying the errors of man. Nor has God appointed you, me, or anyone to be an ongoing arbiter of error in His leaders, scrutinizing every word or act of apostles and prophets to make sure they fit within our current understanding of correctness. That is not His plan; it is not His order.BYU-Idaho Devotional: A Sure and Certain Foundation, Elder Kyle S. McKay, April 25, 2023
He states: if the truthfulness of your beliefs were judged by your errors, would anyone believe it? I don’t think he realizes how valid his point is, since he takes for granted that the church is true and these beliefs are true. But, if there are errors in a belief system, should we continue to believe it?
He states that we can’t hide the humanness of humans. Meaning that they readily admit that they make mistakes and are not perfect… except that they don’t admit mistakes or apologize. They do admit faults, but they never specifically and never make amends for it as church leaders. And if anyone else acknowledges or even discusses these faults, they are criticizing their leaders, and this is not permitted.
He then uses fear to keep faithful members from looking at these errors. He says they “will never come to know and understand the truths of God by studying the errors or man,” presumably the man he’s referring to is the church president. He claims that God hasn’t appointed anyone to scrutinize the words of the apostles and prophets to ensure they are correct. The leaders would sure hope not! Collectively, they have stated many false claims and other idiocies that have been proven false – even by the church. Need some examples? There are plenty!
- Mormon means more good, or a victory for Satan.
- Men live on the moon and dress like Quakers.
- Man will never land on the Moon.
- Tithing Funds not used for City Creek Mall.
- Book of Abraham translated from papyri from the hand of Abraham.
- Joseph Smith didn’t practice polygamy.
- Polygamy Ordained by God, Polygamy Stopped by God’s command.
- November Policy is a revelation, and the November policy reversal is also from God.
If the church leaders cannot withstand any scrutiny, then perhaps they should not be leaders! Just as the saying goes, if it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth.