Hey guys, so if you dive into Latter-day Saint history, every so often you’re going to run into statements from or about past leaders that might seem a bit eyebrow-raising, and that don’t match up with the stuff you’ll be hearing at church on Sundays. For instance, an 1892 edition of the Young Women’s Journal reported that Joseph Smith believed the moon was inhabited by men and women who dressed like Quakers and had very long lifespans. Kinda weird.
Since some of these ideas are attributed to leaders of our faith, sometimes I’ll get messages from people wondering how to tell the difference between an authoritative teaching of the Church and an opinion or personal belief of a leader. In this episode, I’m going to show you how I personally go about navigating these scenarios — hopefully, you find it helpful.
Alright, so when you stumble upon a statement like this there are a few housekeeping questions you’ll want to take care of right off the bat. What was the setting for the statement? Who was the audience? Was it ever claimed to be a revelation from God or was this just speculative existential bro-talk? Check the reliability of the source, and the textual and cultural context for the statement. For example, while it seems like a no-brainer for us, in Joseph’s day, many people believed the moon was inhabited, thanks to astronomers like William Herschel and the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. Also, this isn’t a first-hand statement from Joseph, it’s actually a late third-hand statement from a guy named Oliver B. Huntington.
So we really don’t know whether or not Joseph believed this, but let’s just assume that he did. Where do we go from there? On the Church’s website, we’re reminded: “Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine.” In 2012 Elder Neil A. Andersen taught: “A few question their faith when they find a statement made by a Church leader decades ago that seems incongruent with our doctrine. There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find.”
So, is this idea about the moon taught frequently and by many either in the past or present? No, it’s not. So you really don’t need to worry too much about this being a doctrine of our faith. I love the way the renowned Latter-day Saint chemist, Dr. Henry Eyring (the father of President Henry B. Eyring) responded to the moon issue in 1957:
“I don’t know whether [Joseph Smith] said men live on the moon or not. But whether he did or not troubles me not in the least. A prophet is wonderful because he sometimes speaks for the Lord. This occurs on certain occasions when the Lord wills it. On other occasions, he speaks for himself, and one of the wonderful doctrines of this church is that we don’t believe in the infallibility of any mortal. If in his speculations he thought there were people on the moon, this has no effect on my belief that on other occasions when the Lord willed it, he spoke the ideas that the Lord inspired him to say. It is for these moments of penetrating insight that I honor and follow him.”
But let’s say you run across some weird statements while reading something less obscure, like Elder Spencer W. Kimball’s book, Miracle of Forgiveness, or Joseph Fielding Smith’s Answers to Gospel Questions. What do you do then? Are those books authoritative? Well, somewhat ironically, here’s what Joseph Fielding Smith wrote on the subject:
“It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. … You cannot accept the books written by the authorities of the Church as standards of doctrine, only in so far as they accord with the revealed word in the standard works. Every man who writes is responsible, not the Church, for what he writes. If Joseph Fielding Smith writes something which is out of harmony with the revelations, then every member of the Church is duty-bound to reject it.” Harold B. Lee taught something similar.
We would do well to remember that while we sustain our leaders as prophets of God, that does not mean that they are omniscient. President M. Russell Ballard said back in 2017, “I worry sometimes that members expect too much from Church leaders and teachers—expecting them to be experts in subjects well beyond their duties and responsibilities.” “…it is important to remember that I am a General Authority, but that does not make me an authority in general! My calling and life experiences allow me to respond to certain types of questions. There are other types of questions that require an expert in a specific subject matter….”
And if you have questions please don’t forget to include God in that quest. Brigham Young taught, “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 … Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.”
So when you stumble across eyebrow-raising statements, run through all of those housekeeping questions, and then consider these factors: Consistency; Does it mesh well with scripture? Unity; Is the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in agreement on the issue? Frequency; Is this something being taught often in public settings? And last but not least — Divinity; What does God have to say about it? When you run these statements through these filters, a lot of the confusion and controversy melt away. Hopefully, this framework is helpful to you. Check out the resources in the YouTube description for more info on this, watch some of our other videos while you’re here, and have a great day.
- “How to define LDS Church doctrine: BY Professor Anthony R. Sweat offers these 4 guidelines” via Deseret News: https://bit.ly/35WHLXU
- “Mormons and Moonmen” via Sunstone Magazine: https://bit.ly/3IL5MQh
- “Approaching Mormon Doctrine” via the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3pJNPKw
- “What Is Doctrine” via the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/3pKNjMg
- “What is ‘Official’ LDS Doctrine?” via FAIR: https://bit.ly/3MvXsGo
- “Question: Did Joseph Smith state that the moon was inhabited, and that its inhabitants were dressed like Quakers?” via FAIR: https://bit.ly/3IWplVR “Question: When, if ever, is it OK to disagree with Church leaders?” via FAIR: https://bit.ly/35DYmjl