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Obedience in the Mormon Church

 Presenting my second guest post, from my good friend GDTeacher, who is a moderator at the New Order Mormon discussion board:

The leaders and published teachings of the Mormon Church focus strongly on the inherent virtue and the eternal importance of obedience to God, His commandments, and His leaders. This obedience imperative is common to many conservative religions, of which Mormonism is one. In spite of the church dogma and culture supporting unquestioning obedience to church leaders, people are responsible to make their own ethical and moral decisions. This essay will explore the basis for this Mormon belief in unquestioning obedience, some of the conflicts surrounding it within the church, as well as the potential negative ramifications of this dogma.


Basic Social and Cultural Reasons for Obedience

Separate from religious obedience, there are real safety, social, and cultural reasons for some level of obedience. The reasons may change from childhood to adulthood, but few would argue that some level of obedience to civil law or social norms helps society to function more smoothly. While most would agree that children should obey their parents or guardians, the extension of that obedience to church leaders has the potential of being problematic. For adults, obedience to just civil laws reduces social conflict and strife. From his well-known essay, Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau provides insight into the usefulness of obeying just civil laws, but also the imperative of violation of unjust laws.


If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of the machine of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth—certainly the machine will wear out. If the injustice has a spring, or a pulley, or a rope, or a crank, exclusively for itself, then perhaps you may consider whether the remedy will not be worse than the evil; but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn. (Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience, 1849)


While obedience to just civil law has recognized benefits, the extension of that obedience to church leaders can create real individual and social problems for both children and adults.


Foundations of Mormon Obedience


From an early age, Mormon children are taught the importance of obedience. In the introductory missionary discussions and Gospel Principles lessons, church investigators and converts are also taught the importance of obedience. For children, obedience to parents, church leaders, God, and His commandments is taught frequently. Indoctrination techniques, such as Primary songs like “Follow the Prophet,” are employed for children as young as three years of age. New converts are taught regularly the importance of obedience and long-time members receive reminders virtually every week of the importance of obeying God, His commandments, and His designated church leaders. These teachings have foundations in scripture, sermons and writings of the highest church leaders, and are disseminated and popularized through correlated church publications and Mormon pop culture through outlets such as Deseret Book.



Scriptural Justification of the Obedience Imperative


Obedience is a commonly used word and concept in the Judeo-Christian Bible as well as in LDS scripture. There are many references in the Bible to obedience or some derivative thereof. According to the Old Testament, Noah was blessed for his obedience. God also cursed


when they were not obedient. In the New Testament Jesus said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Jesus is also depicted as being ultimately obedient to God, when facing the pain and agonies of the atonement and crucifixion, he said, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39).


The Mormon emphasis on works provides a specific scriptural reason for obedience to church leaders. In James 2:17 we read, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” Faith alone is deemed inadequate to provide eternal life. Specific ordinances must be performed and specific commandments must be obeyed. Mormons rely upon church leaders to help them understand what specific commandments must be obeyed to qualify at the judgment bar for eternal life and for passage into the Celestial Kingdom.


Although there are references in the Bible to obedience, LDS scripture brings specific Mormon teaching on the topic of obedience. One of the foundational scriptures to Mormon theology is found in D&C 130:20-21:


20 There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—


21 And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.


This scripture has intuitive appeal to many Mormons, whether their perspective is more spiritual or more logical. From a spiritual perspective, some see a just God who will bless us for our righteous actions and not bless us if we fail to do those righteous actions. From a logical perspective the intuitive appeal is congruence with basic cause and effect thinking. Explaining the basic relationships between action and consequence, this scripture also serves as a foundation for the concept that obedience is the “First Law of Heaven,” a common figure of speech in Mormon theological discussions. In the Bible, the importance of obedience to the prophets is made clear, but LDS scripture re-emphasizes this point with D&C 1:38.


What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same. [emphasis added]


Leaders use this verse to make it clear that when the leaders of the church speak, they speak for God and members must obey, just as they would obey God.


An additional point of import, supported by LDS scripture, is the hierarchy of revelation. The prophet is authorized to obtain revelation for the church as a whole. Each leader is set apart to receive revelation and inspiration for the area of his stewardship. Each father is appointed to receive revelation for his family. Each individual can receive personal revelation. In responding to other members of the church professing to receive revelation for the church, Joseph Smith received the following revelation spelling out that only Joseph can receive revelation for the church, as recorded in D&C 28:2.


But, behold, verily, verily, I say unto thee, no one shall be appointed to receive commandments and revelations in this church excepting my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., for he receiveth them even as Moses.


This concept of the hierarchy of revelation is important to the concept of Mormon obedience. This gives the revelations and inspiration of those higher in the church hierarchy more perceived validity than those of lower level leaders or individuals. This emphasizes the importance of following church leaders and obeying their counsel and command, as they are understood to be closer to God in the hierarchy of revelation.


The importance of obedience to church leaders is spelled out in the scriptures and taught from the scriptures in Mormon teaching settings. The price for disobedience is also clearly spelled out in D&C 56:3.


Behold, I, the Lord, command; and he that will not obey shall be cut off in mine own due time, after I have commanded and the commandment is broken.


Thus, scriptures provide a foundation for the importance of obedience. Written in the 19th century, LDS scriptures provide specific emphasis on following the leaders of the church hierarchy.



Teachings on Obedience by Leading Members of the Church Hierarchy


Joseph Smith taught and canonized the concept that whether something comes directly from the mouth of God or from the church leadership hierarchy, it is the same. This concept leads and has led Mormons to consider as scripture the statements of the church hierarchy. Here are a handful of statements made by leading members of the church hierarchy, that are effectively considered as scriptural by church adherents, which teach the importance of obedience to the church leadership.


"Always keep your eye on the President of the church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, even if it is wrong, and you do it, the lord will bless you for it but you don't need to worry. The lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray." LDS President Marion G. Romney (of the first presidency), quoting LDS President (and prophet) Heber J. Grant "Conference Report" Oct. 1960 p. 78. [emphasis added]


"When the Prophet speaks the debate is over". N. Eldon Tanner, August Ensign 1979, pages 2-3


"The Lord Almighty leads this Church, and he will never suffer you to be led astray if you are found doing your duty. You may go home and sleep as sweetly as a babe in its mother's arms, as to any danger of your leaders leading you astray, for if they should try to do so the Lord would quickly sweep them from the earth." Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 9, p. 289, 1862. [emphasis added]


"The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray." President Wilford Woodruff (considered scripture as it is canonized at the end of the D&C)


Obedience – The First Law of Heaven. Of special note is the concept that obedience is the First Law of Heaven, a notion which has gained particular prominence in Mormon theology during the past 30 years. This phrasing sounds so official, so certain, so unquestionable, so God-given that its origins must be unquestionably from God. Research of the scriptures, both the Bible and LDS scripture, never shows this exact phrasing. Yet this conception of “obedience” is a fundamental doctrine in the Mormon Church, reproduced in its frequent, regular teaching. Although apparently not commonly used until the middle of the 20th century, this phrase appears to have its origin in a General Conference talk given by Joseph F. Smith in October of 1873 in which he rebuked women for wearing the “fashions of  Babylon.”

This “first law of heaven” phrase was later popularized by James E. Talmage, Bruce R. McConkie, and N. Eldon Tanner.


But has not a woman the same volition that the man has? Can she not follow or disobey the man as he can follow or disobey Christ? Certainly she can, she is responsible for her acts, and must answer for them. She is endowed with intelligence and judgment, and will stand upon her own merits as much so as the man. That is why the brethren, during this Conference, have been teaching the sisters that they must refrain from the fashions of Babylon.   They must use their own judgment and agency as to whether they will obey this counsel or not. If they will not obey it, they will be responsible as much as the men are responsible for their acts. The man is responsible for the woman only so far as she is influenced by, or is obedient to, his counsels. Christ is responsible for the man so far as the man walks in obedience to the laws and commandments he has given, but no further, and so far will his atoning blood redeem and cleanse from sin; so far as they obey them will the principles of eternal life revealed in the Gospel have effect upon the souls of men, so also with women. So sisters, do not flatter yourselves that you have nothing to answer for so long as you may have a good husband. You must be obedient. Obedience is the first law of heaven. Without it the elements could not be controlled. Joseph F. Smith, General Conference, October, 1873. [emphasis added]


The circular logic of these statements often goes unnoticed among the general church membership. A man who is identified as a prophet says that as a prophet he will never say anything that God does not want him to say or else God would sweep him away before he were to say it. Since he has not been swept away, he is saying what God must want him to say.


These statements by apostles and prophets help to solidify the long-standing notion that the church leadership will never lead the church members astray, so that the leadership should always be obeyed, providing the members with some confidence and assurance that no matter what the leadership tells them to do, God will approve.

Teachings on Obedience from Correlated Church Publications

Within mainstream Mormon culture, doctrine is understood to come from scripture, church leaders, and certain church publications, most notably the monthly magazine, the Ensign. Although Mormon apologists lean on a rigidly narrow understanding that official doctrine comes only from scripture and pronouncements and declarations that are officially signed by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, culturally most members rely on the broader definition. As such, official church publications have been evaluated for teachings on the importance of obedience.


From a church teaching manual, for example, we find the following instruction for the teacher to tell class members to obey the leaders from the church hierarchy.


Explain that part of obeying God is following the counsel of those he has called to lead us. Share the following story told by President Gordon B. Hinckley, fifteenth President of the Church: 31384, Preparing for Exaltation, 23: Obedience: The First Law of Heaven, Purpose, 128


In the church magazine, the Ensign, we find the following from Joseph B. Wirthlin.


Obedience Opens the Windows of Heaven


The windows of heaven are open wide to the faithful and righteous; nothing closes them faster than disobedience. The unworthy cannot access fully the network of revealed truth. “The powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.” “Obedience is the first law of heaven.” That is why


exhorted us to “be humble, … submissive and … diligent in keeping the commandments of God at all times.”


To open the windows of heaven, we must conform our will to God’s will. Diligent, enduring obedience to God’s laws is the key that opens the windows of heaven. Obedience enables us to be receptive to the mind and will of the Lord. “The Lord requireth the heart and a willing mind; and the willing and obedient” are those who receive the blessings of revelation through the open windows of heaven. Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Windows of Light and Truth,” Ensign, Nov. 1995, 75


From a General Conference talk in 1936, we can further see the importance placed on obedience.


"What is the law of heaven? Obedience to the will of God, for 'man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth forth from the mouth of God.' Obedience, then, is the first law of heaven. Partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil of course was forbidden, not because it was undesirable, not because there was anything in it of itself that was wicked, not by any manner of means. For how could we be saved unless we had that knowledge of good and evil? How could we choose between the two? Impossible. Therefore the opposition came and we must be proven as to whether we would do all things whatsoever the Lord God should command us to do. Obedience to the law of heaven is an essential condition of salvation, and an essential condition in heaven." Rulon S. Wells, "Conference Report", April, 1936, p.39


In an analogy comparing horses to Aaronic Priesthood-aged boys, Joseph B. Wirthlin further describes the importance of unquestioning obedience. He compares the horses, which have been taught to respond with quick, exact, unquestioning obedience to how he thinks Aaronic Priesthood-aged boys could respond.


I observed a marvelous display of obedience during a recent visit to a large cattle ranch in Argentina.  Early one morning, the gauchos brought forty horses into a corral to select their mounts for the day. Gauchos are like cowboys in the   United States.  Each gaucho went into the corral and whistled softly like this [whistling]. This established their presence. When the horses heard the soft whistling, they lined up quickly near the fence, facing the gauchos. The horses held their heads high, kept their eyes constantly on their masters, and kept their ears forward in an alert, receptive stance. They gave complete attention and appeared to be anxious to serve. They quickly organized themselves into a line as if for a full military dress inspection or review. The gauchos stepped back out of the way and whistled again. The horses circled quickly to the other side of the corral and lined up facing the gauchos. They looked as if a drill sergeant had called them to attention. Each gaucho chose his mount for the day’s work and walked up to the horse he had selected. The others stayed in line waiting for their assignments.  When I asked how the gauchos taught the horses to be so obedient, I was informed that their training started when the horses were colts. Each one learned from its caring mother and from other mature horses. The gauchos began training the colts when they were young, with kindness, never using force of a lasso or a whip.  Watching this display of obedience, I thought of you Aaronic Priesthood brethren and how you are taught by your mothers, like the two thousand stripling sons of Helaman, and by caring fathers and priesthood leaders. I thought of you following their good example, disciplining yourselves, and keeping yourselves alert—willing to serve your Lord and Master as He chooses and calls you. Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Live in Obedience,” Ensign, May 1994, 39.


An emphasis on unquestioning obedience was provided by Elder Robert Oaks in a recent Ensign article.


"Obedience is a fundamental law of the gospel. It is not only the demonstration of our faith but also the foundation of our faith. But the philosophical standard of the world holds that unquestioning obedience equals blind obedience, and blind obedience is mindless obedience. This is simply not true. Unquestioning obedience to the Lord indicates that a person has developed faith and trust in Him to the point where he or she considers all inspired instruction -- whether it be recorded scripture or the words of modern prophets, or direct inspiration through the Holy Ghost -- to be worthy of obedience." Elder Robert Oaks, "Believe All Things," Ensign, July 2005, page 32 [emphasis added]


And finally, Hartman Rector, Jr., first noting that obedience is the first law of heaven, describes that it is not just obedience that is important, but obedience with exactness that is important if one hopes to attain the highest level in God’s kingdom.


Surely obedience is the first law of heaven. We are given to understand that there will be no disobedience in the celestial kingdom. It is therefore vitally important that we keep the commandments with exactness and not just “almost.” Hartman Rector Jr., “You Shall Receive the Spirit,” Ensign, Jan. 1974, 105


The eternal importance of obedience to God, to God’s commandments, and to the leaders of the church hierarchy is well-understood by members of the Mormon Church. To many of the questions that are asked in Mormon teaching settings, there are a few answers which are highly likely to be perceived as correct by most Mormons, regardless of the question actually asked. These answers include such short responses as: pray, read the scriptures, have Family Home Evening, listen to the Spirit, follow the leaders, and be obedient. Obedience is squarely ingrained in the set of memorized, unthinking answers that are often given, if not expected in Mormon teaching settings. Obedience is at the core of Mormon doctrine and Mormon culture.


Unquestioning Obedience to Leaders – A Basic Characteristic of Controlling Organizations


It is clear within the church doctrine and culture that there is a general expectation of unquestioning obedience to church leaders, from the prophet, all the way down to the local bishop. This obedience is seen as a virtue and a sign of piety and righteousness. Much research into the general characteristics of organizations that tightly control their memberships indicates that unquestioning obedience to leaders is common and expected in such groups.


For abusive cults, the key word is CONTROL CONTROL CONTROL by Submitting to the Leadership - leaders tend to be the absolute end, looked to as prophets of God, as specially anointed apostles. Or they can be a strong, controlling, manipulative personality who demands submission even if he changes his views or conflicts occur in doctrine or behavior. Sometimes they can be looked on as God Himself. Often to obey a leader and their teaching is equal to obeying God. http://www.letusreason.org/culteac.htm


Members of “controlling organizations” usually cannot see the problems of the organization until they remove themselves from the organization or are somehow able to evaluate the organization from a detached, objective perspective. Thus whereas members of the Mormon Church can often see the problems with the Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple, the Hare Krishnas, and even conservative religious groups like the Hutterites or Old Order Amish, they are unable to see the similar characteristics within the Mormon Church. People look for validation of the correctness of their organizational memberships and reject information that creates cognitive dissonance by threatening the perceived correctness of the organizations to which s/he belongs.


Because the church teaches the prime importance of agency, or “free agency” as it is often called, members come to believe the contradictory idea that although obedience is important, we are free to choose. While this is technically true (members can in fact do what they want), the personal social and cultural consequences of disobedience can be devastating. Moreover, in describing the relationship between agency and obedience, church leaders have skillfully created a word play that would have people believe that freedom comes from obedience and only when people are obedient are they truly free. Yet clear, undogmatic critical thinking would indicate otherwise.


Elder Boyd K. Packer said: “Obedience to God can be the very highest expression of independence. Just think of giving to him the one thing, the one gift, that he would never take. …


“Obedience—that which God will never take by force—he will accept when freely given. And he will then return to you freedom that you can hardly dream of—the freedom to feel and to know, the freedom to do, and the freedom to be, at least a thousandfold more than we offer him. Strangely enough, the key to freedom is obedience” (Obedience, Brigham Young University Speeches of the Year [Provo, 7 Dec. 1971], pp. 3–4).


Inconsistencies Regarding the Teaching of Unquestioning Obedience


While obedience is clearly a doctrinal and cultural imperative within the Mormon Church, within the teachings of many church leaders there are inconsistencies and contradictions. These inconsistencies and contradictions are as “obedience” relates to “not questioning” and whether or not members should apply “sound judgment” to decisions as opposed to just obeying. Shown below are some quotes from General Authorities that seem to indicate that unquestioning obedience is really not such a good thing.


President Joseph F. Smith said, "We talk of obedience, but do we require any man or woman to ignorantly obey the counsels that are given? Do the First Presidency require it? No, never." (Journal of Discources (JD) 16:248)


Brigham Young said: "What a pity it would be, if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? 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 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 the influence they could give to 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, themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually." (JD 9:150)


"Do not, brethren, put your trust in man though he be a bishop, an apostle, or a president. If you do, they will fail you at some time or place; they will do wrong or seem to, and your support be gone;" (First Presidency Counselor, George Q. Cannon, Millennial Star 53:658-59, quoted in Gospel Truth, 1:319)


We should be dauntless in our pursuit of truth and resist all demands for unthinking conformity. (First Presidency Counselor, Hugh B. Brown, An Abundant Life)


These few, but powerful admonitions for Mormons to avoid unthinking obedience to leaders of the church are in sharp contradiction to the teachings to obey them. Since they are not published in correlated material or otherwise made more widely available by the church, most Mormons are unaware of the statements of leading members of the church hierarchy that contradict the basic obedience mantra. One wonders how different church culture may be if members were to take seriously the teachings of leaders like Hugh B. Brown.



Does It Make Sense to Simply Be Obedient?


When approaching any question in life, it often helps to ask what makes sense. Sometimes it makes sense to be obedient and sometimes it does not. Asking whether or not it makes sense to simply obey will be evaluated from a general perspective as well as from the perspective of a Mormon with regards to obeying church leaders.



Does It Generally Make Sense to Be Obedient?


Stepping aside from the context of the Mormon church and obedience to just civil laws for a moment, the simple question comes to mind as to whether or not it makes sense to see unquestioning obedience as a virtue, as an end in itself. Should we do what our various leaders tell us to do and just follow counsel and direction, or should we apply our own moral compass, judgment, and reason to the direction of leaders? The answers to these questions may vary from person to person and may be situation specific.


In some cases, it may make sense to simply obey. By example, a few scenarios in which it may make sense to simply obey have been outlined. Judgment has been applied to identify these situations in which it may make sense to simply obey without question.


1. A building you are in is on fire. You see a fireman who instructs you to exit through a specific door and go down the stairs.

2. You are in an automobile accident and you can’t move to see what is happening. You are told by a paramedic that your child is seriously injured and losing blood quickly through a partially severed leg.  The paramedic tells you that unless they apply a tourniquet to the child’s leg that the child will die within minutes.

3. As a soldier, you are told to quickly crawl up the backside of a distant hill to establish a sniper position to protect troops that will be moving near the ridge.


In these situations, a common theme emerged: They are near-term, life and death situations where qualified, specifically trained personnel were at hand who were looking after the interests of the affected person(s). In the above situations, unquestioning obedience seems to make sense.


In other situations it clearly makes sense to disobey. On a continuum of responses that starts at unquestioning obedience on one end and ends with absolute disobedience on the other end, the identification of the types of situations to which one would move from unquestioning obedience to questioning prior to obedience or disobedience would vary from individual to individual.  An example of a situation which may be such a border line case is that a doctor has told a person that she has cancer and that unless she undergoes surgery, chemo-therapy, and radiation immediately, she will only be expected to live six to nine months. Some would simply obey the doctor and undergo the outlined procedure.  Some have learned to shift responsibility for health care decisions to doctors. An alternative would be to seek additional medical opinions or to do further testing. If she chose to seek further opinion or additional testing, she has chosen not to simply obey, but to gain further information which will help her arrive at a more informed decision. The decision in this case seems to be less clear-cut. Some would opt to move forward as quickly as possible with the treatment outlined, while others would want to invest more time to gather more information, enabling a more informed decision. The differentiating factor between situations in which most people would choose to simply obey, and those in which some are likely to not simply obey is one of urgency with regards to the life-threatening scenario.


A common thread in the decision to follow counsel or to obey relates to the expertise factor. In a fire situation the fireman is the perceived expert. In a military situation, the commanding officer is the perceived expert who has our interest in mind. In a medical situation the doctor or paramedic is the perceived expert. We rely on experts in many areas of life. We implicitly trust those perceived to be experts in emergency situations. In non-emergency situations we check references on experts. We try to pick the best expert. In a business sense, we try to select suppliers who have the skills for which we are looking as a “core competency.” Experts help to make our life more efficient and better.


As we move to social and religious organizations, it is no wonder that many seek the guidance of experts. Given that the stakes of eternal life or eternal damnation are at risk, it is somewhat understandable human nature that people are willing to obey those who are perceived to be experts and who know more about the eternal picture than they do. People are afraid for their eternal lives, so relying on the “experts” just seems to make intuitive sense. But in the eternal scheme of things God has provided us with tools to guide ourselves or to select experts to follow.



Does It Make Sense for Mormons to Simply Obey Church Leaders?


Mormons are taught doctrinally and culturally to unquestioningly obey their leaders. This is viewed as a virtue and a sign of piety and righteousness. We have seen that there is a human inclination to trust experts. Mormons trust their leaders as experts. The leaders have been assigned a position of superiority in terms of receiving revelation for the larger group and in some meaningful fashion, directing the lives of their subordinates. The position of superiority is often perceived to be assigned as a result of greater spirituality. Sometimes the position of superiority is perceived to be assigned simply because that is how God wants things to be arranged organizationally in the current moment. In addition to leaders, God has given members of the church some tools that are perceived to be very powerful.


1. All people are given the Light of Christ to help them discern good from evil (



2. All Mormons are given the Gift of the Holy Ghost, which members are taught will help them to make correct decisions in alignment with God’s will.

3. Members are taught that they can receive personal revelation for guiding their own lives and making decisions which God would have them make.

4. Members are taught that we are created in God’s image, and God has also provided all people with sense, reason, and intellect to help each person make thoughtful, even inspired decisions. This is indicated by Galileo when he said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”


Relying upon these basic points, plus the apparently inspired guidance of some church leaders, Mormons can certainly determine, if not expect, that they as individuals are significant participants in any decision that could potentially affect their lives. Although it may be comforting to some to abdicate responsibility for spiritual decisions to church leaders, it is not clear that doing so is ultimately beneficial to the individual.



Examples of When It Does Not Make Sense to Obey


There are many empirical examples of when it does not make sense to obey, or said another way, when it makes sense to not obey. Consider the following situations from the perspective of a moral, independent thinking person.


1. A Nazi soldier working at the


gas chambers being told to kill hundreds of people

2. An adult member of Jim Jones’



group being told to kill children

3. A member of an Old Order Amish group told to shun an individual because of adultery

4. A CFO of the company for which you work telling you to destroy records that may implicate him in wrongdoing


In these scenarios, it would be easy for most detached persons to make the moral statement that it does not make sense to obey. That said, the personal consequences of disobedience in each of these situations may in reality be potentially devastating to one who decided to disobey.  In each of these situations, with the exception of perhaps the last, the people potentially faced with these decisions historically have been trained to obey their leaders and their own lives have been at stake. In the best case, people deciding to disobey in each of these situations would face expulsion from the organizations to which they are attached. The innate response of humans is to stay connected to their group and to avoid doing things that might result in expulsion.


A typical, moral Mormon would respond to the situations above in a similar fashion to how most other people would. But given the natural inclination to avoid or to suppress cognitive dissonance, church members would not make the logical connection between the situations above and obedience to church authority.



A Mormon-Specific Example of When It Does Not Make Sense to Obey


A specific example from Mormon history will illustrate the difficulty posed by unquestioning obedience to church leaders. The tragedy that has come to be known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre exemplifies the scope of potential consequences for unquestioning obedience on the lives of the unquestioningly obedient and on the lives of others. President Gordon B. Hinckley has indicated and acknowledged that the Mountain Meadows Massacre was tragic and terrible. The intent of this essay is not to illustrate that Mormons would universally and necessarily massacre innocent men, women, and children at the simple request of a church leader. The intent is to illustrate that Mormon leaders do not necessarily make good, inspired decisions; individual Mormons can and should take responsibility for their decisions, independent of church leaders; speculation on what might have happened at Mountain Meadows if church members would have made informed, moral decisions instead of obeying church leaders unquestioningly.



Brief Summary of the Mountain Meadows Massacre


In early September, 1857, a religiously incited massacre occurred in a remote mountain valley in southwestern


. Although the exact number is not known, approximately 120-140 California-bound pioneers--men, women, and children--were slaughtered by a band of approximately 100 Mormon men and some number (perhaps 40-100) of Paiute Indians. The killing took place over the course of several days, with most of the killing occurring on September 11, 1857, as the victims were lured from their fortifications by Mormon leaders under the false pretense of a guarded escort. The victims, the Fancher Party, were in the wrong place at the wrong time as Brigham Young and the Utah Mormons were preparing for war with the




The circumstances behind the Fancher Party and the Utah Mormons are far too detailed to cover in this space. For excellent treatment of this topic please refer to The Mountain Meadows Massacre, by Juanita Brooks, or The Blood of the Prophets, by Will Bagley. Suffice it to say that the Fancher Party was just passing through


. Although there is conflicting evidence as to whether or not certain members of the Fancher party incited any ire among the Mormons, the weight of the evidence shows that the party was just passing through as many other


bound parties had done before. The Fancher party had passed through and was on the outer edge of the Mormon civilization when the final preparations for the massacre were being made.


In his confession, John D. Lee, the single man tried and executed for the massacre, gave several important insights into the mindset of the Mormons in the region. He said, “It was taught by the leaders and believed by the people that the Priesthood were inspired and could not give a wrong order.” This is foundational to understanding the mindset of the men that committed the atrocity. They believed, as does Elder Oaks above, that unquestioning obedience was important. Unquestioning obedience to church leaders along with the lack of personal moral choices made the possibility and brought the reality of The Mountain Meadows Massacre.



Decision Points along the Path of the Mountain Meadows Massacre


At key decision points, subordinate church leaders and non-leader men could have chosen to make different moral decisions, disobeying church leaders. These decision points are not meant to be exhaustive, but illustrative and will cover some points in the massacre planning and in the carrying out of the massacre.


Decision of George A. Smith to Encourage the Destruction of Emigrants. During apostle George A. Smith’s tour of southern


in late August, 1857, he encouraged at least Stake President Isaac Haight and John D. Lee to give emigrants passing through a “good drubbing.” Lee claims to have told Smith repeatedly that if Smith or Brigham Young did not send specific word to let emigrant companies pass unmolested that the southern Utah Mormons would “use them up” [kill them] with the help of the Indians. What if George A. Smith would have had the decency and morality to not encourage such action? What if Isaac Haight and John D. Lee would have disobeyed the counsel of apostle Smith and made their own moral decision to let the Fancher party pass through unharmed?


Decision at Dame’s Woodpile. According to historian Will Bagley, traditions tell that the fate of the emigrants was decided at a meeting at “Dame’s wood pile.” Encouraged by apostle George A. Smith’s southern Utah tour rhetoric and individual counsel, apparently Dame (Parowan Stake President), Haight (Cedar City Stake President), and another man met at the woodpile and decided to both encourage and to help the Paiutes attack the Fancher party, with the help being organized by John D. Lee. What would have happened if Dame and Haight had made the moral choice and not encouraged or helped the Paiutes to attack the Fancher party?


Decision to Destroy the Fancher Party. At a meeting of the Stake Presidency and High Council in



, the destruction of the Fancher party was proposed and discussed. Unanimous consent was not had and it was decided to send a messenger to Brigham Young, requesting guidance.  Stake President Haight hastily dismissed the meeting because he had not received the approval he desired. He met outside shortly thereafter with a group of men whom he could trust, deciding to destroy the wagon train. This was a change of plans from encouraging and helping the Paiutes to attack the wagon train. What would have happened if all of the men would have stood up to Stake President Haight’s immoral aim to destroy the Fancher party, including innocent men, women, and children?


Decision by Dame Not to Save the Fancher Party. According to Bagley, emigrant George Powers met Dame at Parowan on Wednesday, September 9, and asked him if he could not raise a company to relieve the besieged train. Although Dame was the senior Mormon military officer in southern


, he replied “that he could go out and take them away in safety, but he dared not; he dared not disobey counsel.” This indicates that he had received orders from leaders higher up the in the church hierarchy. What if Dame had decided to disobey counsel and take the Fancher party away in safety?


Decision When Higbee Delivered Orders. According to John D. Lee, John Higbee delivered orders “that the emigrants should be decoyed from their strong-hold, and all exterminated, so that no one would be left to tell the tale, and then the authorities could say it was done by Indians.” What if Higbee had made the moral decision not to deliver those orders? What if he had disobeyed his church leaders?



Decision at the Thursday Evening Priesthood Council. At the Thursday evening priesthood council, Higbee delivered the orders indicating that all emigrants who could tell should be exterminated. Lee indicated that he felt bound to obey the orders. Although Lee claimed to object to killing the women, Higbee ensured him that it must be done. At the priesthood meeting, they worked out the details of the final massacre. What if Lee and others in attendance at the priesthood meeting had refused to obey the immoral orders delivered by Higbee? What if they had followed their own moral compass and made their own moral judgments while disobeying church leaders.


Decision Not to Lie to the Fancher Party. John D. Lee had an important opportunity as he walked into the Fancher party encampment under the white flag of peace to come clean with the hopeful Fancher party. Instead, he blatantly lied to them, telling them that the Mormons would provide a guarded escort out of the meadow back to



. What if John D. Lee had disobeyed church leader orders to lie to the Fancher party and told them the truth that they would be ambushed if they left their fortifications?


Decision to Give the Execution Order. After marching the men, women and children of the Fancher party up the hill for greater than half of an hour, John Higbee stopped and gave the fateful order, “Halt! Do your duty!” Higbee had the decision as to whether or not to call out that order. He chose to do so. What if he had chosen not to do so and instead had led the emigrants back to



? What if he had made the moral choice of not following his church leaders?


Decision to Follow through with the Executions. Each Mormon member of the Mountain Meadows execution team had the opportunity to choose to follow Higbee’s execution order or not. It is unknown as to whether or not any individual did not follow through in executing the order, but the results are clear, in the end, the order was completely carried out. What if the men chose not to obey their church leaders and made the moral choice not to execute the unarmed emigrants whom they were escorting?


Why did these Mormon men choose not to follow their own moral compass and chose to follow the immoral directives and counsel of their church leaders? We are left only to speculate. Were they certain that church leaders could not make mistakes? Were they certain that they should always obey their church leaders unquestioningly in the way that Elder Oaks teaches? Did they fear being expelled from their group or community for disobedience? Did they fear losing their families if they did not obey? Did they believe Brigham Young’s rhetoric that the Second Coming was beginning and they needed to prove that they were obedient to church leaders so that Christ would judge them favorably? Were they stuck in the fire of Brigham Young’s Reformation, unable to think clearly for themselves? Did they fear losing their eternal life by not following the counsel of church leaders? Perhaps all of these played a part. Perhaps it was something completely different altogether.



A Candle in the Dark – Honorable Mormon Men Disobeying Church Leaders


While the moral decisions were not made to prevent or to stop the massacre in the meadow, there were at least a few examples of honorable Mormon men who followed their conscience and disobeyed counsel and direction of church leaders.


Decision to Grind Fancher Party Grain – Joseph Walker. Brigham Young had commanded that Mormons not trade with emigrant trains at the time the Fancher party passed through


. This was a great hardship for the Fancher party who expected to restock with grain and other supplies. Bishop Philip Klingensmith sent orders to Joseph Walker not to grind the Fancher party grain. Following his own decision,


replied, “Tell the bishop I have six grown sons, and that we will sell our lives at the price of death to others before I will obey his order.” What if many others would have taken the moral stand to disobey immoral orders from leaders of the church?


Decision to Argue against Unjust War on the Fancher Party. In the




, John Hawley argued against the warlike position of attacking the Fancher party and supposedly “avenging the blood of the prophets.”


oaths of the day required members to avenge the blood of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Hawley argued against the idea of an attack on the wagon train to avenge the blood of the prophets. According to Bagley, the oath of vengeance required him to be certain he could justify killing a man, but the local Saints had no assurance that anyone in the Fancher party had participated in the murder of Joseph Smith. “You only suppose and that will not do for me,” said Hawley. What if more Mormon men were willing to disagree with the call to attack the Fancher party? What if more men were willing to make their own moral decisions?


Decision at Meeting of



Stake Presidency and High Council.
At the meeting of the Cedar City Stake Presidency and High Council, Stake President Haight sought approval to destroy the Fancher party. Unanimous consent was not to be had. Laban Morrill suggested, “We should still keep quiet, and a dispatch should be sent to Governor Young to know what would be the best course.” Although he advocated abdicating responsibility, Morrill was not advocating the immoral act proposed by Stake President Haight. What if more men were willing to stand up to the leaders of the church and seek a potentially more moral solution?


Decision to Object to the Plan to Kill the Emigrants. Some were called to the meadow to bury the dead, but when they arrived, found that most of the Fancher party were still alive. According to Bagley, when Lee ordered the men to help the Indians kill the emigrants, “some of the council objected to the butchery but were silenced by said Lee and 2 or 3 other of our file leaders.” What if not only “some” of the council objected, but most or all of the council objected to follow the immoral directives given by the church leaders?


While there were men among the Mormons who were willing to make their own moral decisions and to disobey leaders of the church, sadly most of the men involved followed the basic premise of the counsel given by Elder Oaks [above]. They had unquestioningly obeyed their church leaders. They neglected their God-given tools to help them make their own personal moral decisions and instead followed the counsel, directives, and orders from their church leaders. They had done as they were taught in their church doctrine and church culture, to obey church leaders unquestioningly.



Individual Mormon Responsibility Today


Although the Mountain Meadows Massacre represents an extreme case of what can happen when church leaders are followed unquestioningly, the basic issues still hold true. In spite of the church dogma and culture supporting unquestioning obedience to church leaders, people are responsible to make their own ethical and moral decisions. Abdicating responsibility for decisions to church leaders can be gravely immoral. Each person may consider the input and counsel of church leaders, but the ultimate decision is uniquely his or hers. As lyricist Neil Peart has written, “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice.” As Hugh B. Brown said so succinctly, “We should be dauntless in our pursuit of truth and resist all demands for unthinking conformity.” Be thoughtful. Be conscientious. Be honorable. Be moral. Obey church leaders if it makes sense to do so. Willingly disobey church leaders if it makes sense to do so.


The questions Mormons have faced in recent times are not the same choices that the men of southern


faced in the example above. Nonetheless, the choices today are real and significant choices. Mormons face the choice of accepting or rejecting what amounts to Pharisaical protocols in our church. They face the choice of shunning or embracing those whose practices are judged to be irregular or perhaps unorthodox. They face the choice of rejecting new science or embracing the new knowledge which God has provided. They face the choice of embracing or rejecting the claim that God has made it a priority to reveal and to command the appropriate number of earrings for people to wear. They face the choice of accepting or rejecting the church leaders’ rejection of the science that shows that some have the genetic predisposition for same-sex sexual orientation. They have many real choices today. They are responsible for their own choices. Church leaders may provide guidance or counsel, but the choice is ultimately up to the individual. Individuals are responsible for making their own ethical and moral decisions. They should follow the counsel of church leaders when and only when it makes ethical and moral sense to do so.


Watt Mahoun

GDTeacher, thank you. This was more thought provoking and conscience inspiring than any GD lesson I've ever been part of.

I think your point about the difference between a participant and a detached observer is very important. It's easy for us to judge those who have followed their beliefs into monsterous occasion. Yet I wonder what I would do had I been part of the MMM, had I truly believed that god was commanding me to do something by the voice of his servants...something of biblical (or even BoM) consistency. I'm afraid of what I might have done.

This is the reason that I am personally and almost irrationally against religious arguments for authority and obedience...

Some well documented atrocities have come as the result of the "banality of evil"...people just doing what they are told for all the reasons that people irrationally do things...this seems a human weakness that must and can be watched for and overcome...but the religous motivation seems the more common and dangerous to me, and one that has the power to cause people to "know" that they are doing "god's will" and "know" that they will find justification and reward in the kingdom of god.

This type of authority/obediance has the power to convince people that the world must and will come to a tragic and cataclysmic end. That the vast majority of the earth's occupants must and will be destroyed....on and on.

This mindset in the banal and happy minds of many is what scares me more than 1000 years of Nazi death.


Thanks Matt.

I agree that there is an important distinction between being a participant and detached observer, in all of the examples. I think it is particularly important in the midst of the commission of the atrocities. It seems to me to be less important in the planning of the those same atrocities. Using the MMM example, it would have been very difficult to maintain an individual perspective up in the mountains when Higbee said, "Halt! Do your Duty!" On the other hand, thinking of Dame, Haight, and Lee. It seems that it could have been much easier in the planning stages to stop and say, "WTF? This is just plain wrong. What are we doing planning on killing all of these innocents?" Granted I was not there and the irrationality of the moment has not washed over me. I am in fact a detached observer.

As you mention, the religious motivation seems to be very common and dangerous.

The primary reason I wrote this essay was that as I studied the MMM on and off over the past few years, the thought kept coming to my mind that aside from the actual suffering and killing of the Fancher party, the most damning thing about the whole incident is that these supposedly pious Mormon men committed this atrocity because they were being obedient. They were just doing what their church leaders told them to do without thinking for themselves.

Thanks for your comments.


Some time ago I was talking to a member about "blind obedience" and he said there isn't blind obedience in the church. I asked him if he prayed before accepting his latest calling or if he just accepted it immediately because he "knew" it was inspired by virtue of coming from a PH leader. The long pause that followed was his answer.


I had a similar conversation in the comments of a post on the Purim blog. I mentioned "blind obedience" and someone took issue with the characterization. The commenter to whom I referred, however, had said that neither the leaders of the church nor the church could ever make a mistake for which repentance would ne necessary, and that for one to suggest such a thing was tantamount to fighting against the church, the appropriate punishment for such being drowned with a millstone around one's neck. If that's not blind obedience, I don't know what is.


I chose my words carefully. Oaks used the phrase, "unquestioning obedience." Although I see that as essentially the same thing as blind obedience, I thought using the words of a GA would be more compelling or less dismissable.

Watt Mahoun

The blind/unquestioning obedience thing is interesting...folks like the ones on Purim want to praise the approach as the highest virtue, yet when challenged by those who disagree, they tend to take exception and claim to not be blindly obedient.

I was just reading an article today which suggests that the human ability to hold contradictory ideas in one thought is an evolved survival mechanism....that the contradiction is of less import than the potential reward.

So people will claim to value and practice critical thinking, while simultaneously cherishing blind obedience because the potential (alleged) reward for blind obedience is so great.

You know the argument: as long as I don't know that there is no afterlife, that the gospel isn't true (proving the negative), then it's worth acting as if it is true because the promised results are so great. Additionally, the down-side should the object of blind faith be false, is either minimal or unknown. I actually had a Stake President make this argument to me as a reason to continue believing.

With this in mind, I can see how folks might rationalize away concerns about moralities such as murder, as being secondary to the promised rewards of obedience to authority; either the authority of priesthood hierarchy, or that of god's will as interpreted through waht is often referred to as the spirit.

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