Understanding just what is “official” in Mormon doctrine

By Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson

Note: The following article is a portion taken out of Chapter 18 (“The Church and Its Leadership”) found in our latest book Mormonism 101: Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Baker, 2015), available whereever Christian books are sold. This section is found on pages 310-315.

One of the main ways that the Latter-day Saints can learn from their leaders is at the biannual general conference. As the January 2011 Ensign reported,

God continues to reveal truths to living prophets through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. These truths are considered scripture (see D&C 68:4). They come to us primarily through general conference, held the first weekend in April and October, when members throughout the world hear addresses from our prophet and other Church leaders. (Ensign (January 2011): 15.

A student manual states:

The Words of the Prophets Delivered through the Spirit during General Conference Are Latter-day Scripture. Scripture is the mind and will of God revealed through His servants (see D&C 68:4). The Apostle Peter declared, “Prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Peter 1:21). Such scripture has been written and preserved in the standard works as priceless gems of eternal truth. However, the standard works are not the only source of scripture. Elder James E. Talmage (1862–1933) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles identified the connection between the standard works and the words of living prophets: “The Standard Works of the Church constitute the written authority of the Church in doctrine. Nevertheless, the Church holds itself in readiness to receive additional light and knowledge ‘pertaining to the Kingdom of God’ through divine revelation. We believe that God is as willing today as He ever has been to reveal His mind and will to man, and that He does so through His appointed servants—prophets, seers, and revelators—invested through ordination with the authority of the Holy Priesthood. We rely therefore on the teachings of the living oracles of God as of equal validity with the doctrines of the written word” (Articles of Faith [1968], 7; emphasis added). (Teachings of the Living Prophets Student Manual: Religion 333 (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2010), 72. Bold in original)

To be sure, the talks at the general conferences are not to be ignored. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, a member of the First Presidency, wrote,

Occasionally I ask myself, “Did I listen to the words given by the men and women who spoke at the most recent general conference of the Church? Have I read and reread their words? Have I pondered them and applied them to my life? Or have I just enjoyed the fine talks and neglected to apply their inspired messages in my personal life?” (Ensign (June 2013): 4).

The May and November issues of the Ensign and Liahona magazines are extremely important resources because they include all of the talks given the previous month at the conference. Saying they contained “the marching orders for each six months,” President Ezra Taft Benson taught, “For the next six months, your conference edition of the Ensign should stand next to your standard works and be referred to frequently.” (Ensign (April 2012): 8; and Teachings of the Living Prophets Student Manual, 23)

President Howard W. Hunter said,

Our modern-day prophets have encouraged us to make the reading of the conference editions of our Church magazines an important and regular part of our personal study. Thus, general conference becomes, in a sense, a supplement to or an extension of the Doctrine and Covenants. In addition to the conference issues of the Church magazines, the First Presidency writes monthly articles that contain inspired counsel for our welfare. (The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, ed. Clyde J. Williams (1997), 212; emphasis added, quoted in Teachings of the Living Prophets Student Manual, 73; bold in original)

References in church magazines about how the conference talks are “approved curriculum” are commonplace. For instance:

Pray that the Holy Spirit will be with you as you study and teach the talk(s). You may at times be tempted to set aside the conference talks and prepare the lesson using other materials. But the conference talks are the approved curriculum. Your assignment is to help others learn and live the gospel as taught in the most recent general conference of the Church. (Ensign (May 2013): 133. For otehr examples, see quotes from President Thomas S. Monson in Ensign (May 2010): 113; (November 2012): 110; (April 2013): 8, and (May 2013): 113.

One student manual gives specific instructions on how this can be done:

As you identify scriptural interpretations or clarifications, it can be helpful to write the reference of the conference address in the margin next to the scripture that is taught or clarified. Following are some examples:
• Next to Revelation 22:18 you could write the citation: Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Ensign (May 2008): 91–94. In this talk, Elder Holland referred to Revelation 22:18 and discussed the importance of continuing revelation.
• Next to Psalm 24:3–4 you could write: Elder David A. Bednar, Ensign (November 2007): 80–83. Elder Bednar discussed what it means to have clean hands and a pure heart.
• Next to Nehemiah 6 you could write: President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Ensign (May 2009): 59–62. President Uchtdorf discussed Nehemiah rebuilding the walls surrounding Jerusalem and the idea that ‘we are doing a great work and cannot come down.” (Teachings of the Living Prophets Student Manual, 87; italics in original)

Mormons are instructed that the words of the living prophet have more importance than the standard works:

Show students a Bible and ask: What books of scripture do we have in the Church that other religions do not? (The Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price.) Show students these other scriptures, and then stack them on top of the Bible. Ask: Do we have any other scripture in the Church? Read Doctrine and Covenants 68:2–4 to find the answer to this question. Stack some conference issues of the Ensign on top of the scriptures. Share the following statements. President Ezra Taft Benson, then President of the Quorum of the Twelve, said: “God’s revelations to Adam did not instruct Noah how to build the ark. Noah needed his own revelation. Therefore, the most important prophet, so far as you and I are concerned, is the one living in our day and age to whom the Lord is currently revealing His will for us. Therefore, the most important reading we can do is any of the words of the prophet contained each week in the [Church News] and any words of the prophet contained each month in our Church magazines” (“Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet,” in 1980 Devotional Speeches of the Year [1981], 27). (Doctrines and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Resource Manual, 117).

Joseph Fielding McConkie, son of the apostle Bruce R. McConkie, answered the question “How do we distinguish the doctrine of the Church from that which is not doctrine?” He said that “good doctrine will always sustain the idea that the living prophet, not scripture or any other document, is the constitution of the Church.” (McConkie, Answers, 214; italics in original)

Over and over again, the message is that the teachings of the leadership must take precedence over anything else because these men will never guide the Mormon people wrong. Wilford Woodruff is quoted in three different church resources, saying:

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 (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff [2004], 199). (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff, 199, Gospel Principles, 41, and Teachings of the Living Prophets Student Manual, 20)

Joseph Fielding Smith agreed with such a teaching, saying, “I think there is one thing which we should have exceedingly clear in our minds. Neither the President of the Church, nor the First Presidency, nor the united voice of the First Presidency and the Twelve will ever lead the Saints astray or send forth counsel to the world that is contrary to the mind and will of the Lord.” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, 159)

The idea was reinforced in a manual written to the women of the church:

The prophet who leads the Church will never lead us astray. He tells us things that pertain to our lives now. The prophet gives us instruction from the Lord at general conference, which is held twice each year. He also gives the Lord’s counsel to us at other conferences held throughout the world. Many of the prophet’s addresses are printed in the Church magazines. In addition to the President of the Church, other men are sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators. These are the prophet’s counselors and the Quorum of the Twelve. These Brethren also receive revelation, bring us the will of the Lord, bear witness of the divinity of Christ, teach the plan of salvation, and perform ordinances. (The Latter-day Saint Woman, Part B, 99)

The Mormon people are told they can trust these men as delivering the truth because

if [the President of the Church] should become unfaithful, God would remove him out of his place. I testify in the name of Israel’s God that He will not suffer the head of the Church, him whom He has chosen to stand at the head, to transgress His Laws and apostatize; the moment he should take a course that would in time lead to it, God would take him away. Why? Because to suffer a wicked man to occupy that position, would be to allow, as it were, the fountain to become corrupted, which is something He will never permit. (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, 227; bracked in original).

What about when a current prophet’s teachings disagree with a former prophet? In a speech given on February 26, 1980, called “14 Fundamentals in Following the Prophets,” Ezra Taft Benson, then an apostle, made a number of points about the prophet, including the idea that he would never mislead the church, that he does not need to say “Thus saith the Lord” for something to be authoritative, and that he speaks for the Lord in everything. He also made it a point to say that the living prophet is more important than a dead prophet. For those who might think that this
teaching no longer applies because it is said by a man who is now dead, the speech was dusted o! in 2010 and quoted at length by two general authorities, showing how Benson’s ideas are still valid. (In Ensign (November 2010), see Seventy Claudio R.M. Costa, “Obedience to the Prophets,” 11-13, and Seventy Kevin R. Duncan, “Our Very Survival,” 34-36. The speech is also found in Teachings of the Living Prophets Student Manual, 22-27)

This authority apparently even extends to the ability for a general authority to add or subtract facts related to the Bible. For example, referring to the Gospel account in John 19, the February 2010 edition of Ensign reports:

John’s testimony does not record how Jesus was bound, but Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (1915–85) provided a powerful insight when he said that Jesus was then “led away with a rope around his neck, as a common criminal.” This detail is not found in the Gospel accounts and must therefore be ascribed to the prophetic understanding of one sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator. (Ensign (February 2010): 52)

With absolutely no historical or ancient manuscript support, some Mormon people are willing to grant divine inspiration to something that is no more than mere speculation. Yet for those who may even entertain the idea that their leaders are wrong, Mormons are firmly instructed that “they should never criticize priesthood leaders or say unkind things about them. Criticizing our leaders endangers our own salvation.” (The Latter-day Saint Woman, Part B, 106).

Paul took a position opposite to that held by the leaders of Mormonism. He invited his followers in Galatians 1:8–9 to closely scrutinize his teachings: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel . . . let him be accursed.” He made it clear that even he was not above criticism. When he saw an inconsistency in Peter’s behavior among the Gentiles, Paul saw
no problem in confronting Peter “to the face” about the matter (Gal. 2:11). This is especially significant, since Peter’s seniority far surpassed that of Paul.

Click Pinning down Mormon doctrine for a related article.