One of the definitions of the word idol is “an object of extreme devotion.” The term is most often used today when referencing movie stars and other famous people.
In the scriptures, we’re taught to not have idols or graven images and are commanded to not even trust in the arm of the flesh.
I think we often assume that idolatry can only exist when we give praise or devotion to someone or something that is wicked.
Is it possible, though, that we as Mormons have allowed our leaders to become idols and are practicing idolatry without realizing it? Do we give excessive devotion, praise, money, time, energy, and attention to our church leaders?
How much money was spent on President Nelson’s 95th Birthday party a couple of months ago for example? How much attention and extreme devotion was given to him on that occasion?
But it’s not just the President of the Church that gets special reverance. Many if not ALL of the Leaders of our church get this kind of praise. Certainly members of the 70 and up.
When any member of the First Presidency or Quorum of the Twelve Apostles walks into a room, people stand in reverence. When meetings are adjourned, people wait for them to stand before they’ll stand. When they leave a room, people often also stand and wait for them to exit the building or will line up to try to meet them / get a picture with them.
When the Prophet recently came to BYU, MANY of the students wore church dress clothes to classes that day. 100s of people waited at the doors of the Marriott Center starting in the wee hours of the morning to make sure they got in to see the prophet.
Is any of this healthy? Would it be wrong to NOT stand when an apostle enters the room? It was recently pointed out by a General Authority that according to Church policy or tradition, it is, in fact, wrong to NOT stand when an Apostle enters a room.
I recall an Apostle coming to our ward. It was shortly after he’d been called and was returning to his home ward for the first time since his call to the Quorum of the Twelve. I was surprised when a hush came over the congregation and when everyone stood up and reverenced this man we all had known for so many years. It was very uncomfortable for me. I couldn’t bring myself to stand and found myself feeling even more uncomfortable when I was the only one still sitting down.
What might the scriptures teach us about this type of reverence towards a man? King Benjamin would remind us that he was no greater than those he served and that he worked to support himself and his own family. I think also he’d remind us that as humans we are less than the dust of the earth. His words, once properly understood, would bring us to the dust not bowing to a man, but bowing to God in a plea to be saved from our filthiness.
The scriptures also remind us of what happened when John the Beloved tried to give an Angel a reverential greeting:
And he says unto me, Write: Blessed are they who are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb. And he says unto me, These are the true sayings of God. And I fell at his feet to worship him. And he said unto me, Do you not see that I am your fellow servant? And of your brethren who have the testimony of Jesus? Worship God, for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy (Rev. 7:10).
My interpretation of the Angel’s words are “Get up, please don’t worship me or give me praise! Praise God and worship Him alone, I am just like you, a servant of the Almighty.” (It’s interesting how even the word servant takes on new meaning when we exalt them).
I would love to see an Apostle so uncomfortable when a congregation stands in hushed reverence for him that he motions them to sit down and pleads with them to please never stand for him again because he is intended to be our servant not our Master.
When they speak in Conference and elsewhere, their words are considered Scripture.
I recently spoke to a man who had been married to a current Apostle’s daughter. Sadly it ended in a bitter divorce. He told me that his ex-wife and her siblings printed out the General Authority talks and put them in binders to be studied thoroughly for the next 6 months. They taught the words of these modern-day leaders to their children as if every word came from God Himself. Their words are considered Holy Scripture for many Latter-day Saints, more important than the Standard Works because they are viewed as Living Oracles.
In my own experience, this is absolutely what I believed for many years. It’s also what I was instructed to do by my leaders. But, are their words Scripture? Or are their words just precepts of men? Things they’ve learned along the way…
I can think of many reasons and examples for why this teaching might promote idolatry and how treating their every word as scripture could cause many to be led astray.
Let’s just look at some obvious examples:
Brigham Young on Polygamy
Brigham Young taught in General Conference that if the Church ever abandoned Polygamy, it would lose its Priesthood and fall. He said, “Now if any of you will deny the plurality of wives, and continue to do so, I promise that you will be damned,” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 3, p. 266). Also, “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy,” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 11, p. 269).
Are these words of scripture? Does the Church still stand by these words of a prophet?
Brigham Young said he had never given any counsel that was wrong
“I am here to answer. I shall be on hand to answer when I am called upon, for all the counsel and for all the instruction that I have given to this people. If there is an Elder here, or any member of this Church, called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who can bring up the first idea, the first sentence that I have delivered to the people as counsel that is wrong, I really wish they would do it; but they cannot do it, for the simple reason that I have never given counsel that is wrong; this is the reason.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 16, p. 161).
And yet he taught people that Adam is God the Father:
“Now hear it, O inhabitants of the earth, Jew and Gentile, Saint and sinner! When our father Adam came into the garden of Eden, he came into it with a celestial body, and brought Eve, one of his wives, with him. He helped to make and organize this world. He is Michael, the Archangel, the Ancient of Days! about whom holy men have written and spoken–He is our Father, and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do. Every man upon the earth, professing Christians or non professing, must hear it, and will know it sooner or later.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 1, p. 50).
And he prophesied falsely:
“In the days of Joseph [Smith] it was considered a great privilege to be permitted to speak to a member of Congress, but twenty-six years will not pass away before the Elders of this Church will be as much thought of as the kings on their thrones,” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 4, p. 40).
The Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet
More recently we see other words that were taught as Scripture from Conference in homes all around the world by prophets ONLY later to be overturned by the Living Prophet.
Here’s an excerpt from an article published in Rational Faith:
A bomb went off in Salt Lake City in the 1980’s.
But this bomb wasn’t set by Mark Hofmann. It was set by Ezra Taft Benson, the President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
The trigger was his famous speech, The Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet, which he delivered to a packed house at BYU’s Marriott Center on February 26, 1980. But the bomb itself went off in President Spencer W. Kimball’s office at Church headquarters in Salt Lake City when he heard of it.
President Kimball was “concerned about Elder Benson’s February 1980 talk at BYU” and wanted “to protect the Church against being misunderstood as espousing . . . an unthinking ‘follow the leader’ mentality.”[i]
President Kimball required Elder Benson to explain himself to a combined meeting of all general authorities the following week. Additionally, President Kimball asked Elder Benson to apologize to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, but they “were dissatisfied with his response.”[ii]
A Little Background
What was it about Elder Benson’s talk that made President Kimball concerned it would be “misunderstood” as espousing “an unthinking follow the leader mentality”?
A brief survey of the talk should answer that question.
President Benson told his audience of 25,000 that the “grand key” to being crowned with God’s glory and being “victorious in spite of Satan’s fury” was to “follow the prophet.” President Benson then broke this one “grand key” down into fourteen “aspects” which he summarized at the end of his speech as follows, adding that “our salvation depends on them.”
- The prophet is the only man who speaks for the Lord in everything.
- The living prophet is more vital to us than the standard works.
- The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet.
- The prophet will never lead the church astray.
- The prophet is not required to have any particular earthly training or credentials to speak on any subject or act on any matter at any time.
- The prophet does not have to say “Thus saith the Lord,” to give us scripture.
- The prophet tells us what we need to know, not always what we want to know.
- The prophet is not limited by men’s reasoning.
- The prophet can receive revelation on any matter, temporal or spiritual.
- The prophet may advise on civic matters.
- The two groups who have the greatest difficulty in following the prophet are the proud who are learned and the proud who are rich.
- The prophet will not necessarily be popular with the world or the worldly.
- The prophet and his counselors make up the First Presidency—the highest quorum in the Church.
- The prophet and the presidency—the living prophet and the First Presidency—follow them and be blessed—reject them and suffer.
It is easy to see why President Kimball would be exercised at the content of this speech. He had just been portrayed to the world as a man whose words were more important than the standard works; more important than any other prophet in history; more important on any subject than what anybody else has ever said anytime or anywhere, regardless of their expertise; and whose every word could be considered scripture.
In effect, Elder Benson had just bestowed on President Kimball the thorny crown of infallibility. Elder Benson had presented a false depiction of the true nature of prophets. His Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet were actually Fourteen Fundamentals in Falsifying the Prophet.
And President Kimball was none too pleased about it.
But other than his private vetting of concerns and complaints, President Kimball apparently took no action to publicly repudiate, clarify, or distance the Church from Elder Benson’s fallacious statements.
Most recently Elder Gary Stevenson said this of President Nelson:
How might you find this heavenly help, even as Moses did, and not be deceived or give in to temptation? A clear channel for divine assistance was reaffirmed in this dispensation by the Lord Himself when He declared: “Wherefore, I the Lord, knowing the calamity which should come upon the inhabitants of the earth, called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments.”12 Using simpler words, we might say that the Lord, who knows “the end from the beginning,”13 knows the unique difficulties of our day. Therefore, He has provided a way for us to resist challenges and temptations, many of which come as a direct result of the deceitful influences of the adversary and his attacks.
The way is simple. Through His servants, God speaks to us, His children, and gives us commandments. We could restate the verse I just quoted to say, “I the Lord … called upon my servant [President Russell M. Nelson], and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments.” Isn’t that a glorious truth?
I bear solemn witness that the Lord did in all reality speak to Joseph Smith from heaven, beginning with the grand First Vision. He also speaks to President Nelson in our time. I testify that God communed with prophets in past ages and gave them commandments designed to lead His children to happiness in this life and glory in the next.
God continues to give commandments to our living prophet today. Examples abound—a more home-centered, Church-supported balance in gospel instruction; the replacement of home and visiting teaching with ministering; adjustments to temple procedures and ordinances; and the new Children and Youth program. I marvel at the goodness and compassion of a loving Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, who restored the Savior’s Church to earth once again and have called a prophet in our day. The Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ offsets perilous times with the fulness of times.
What’s most interesting about this quote from Elder Stevenson is how he presumes that no one should have any issues with comparing President Nelson to Joseph Smith. Nephi does tell us to liken the scriptures to ourselves, right? But is this what is intended by that invitation?
Can we simply input our names anywhere in the scriptures and have it be true? Could I put my name in Joseph’s place and also have it be true? Could we put Russell M. Nelson’s name where Noah’s name or Abraham’s or Jesus’ or Korihor’s name appears and have it be true?
I know what idea Elder Stevenson is preaching and it’s always felt wrong to me. He’s suggesting that because President Nelson is a prophet, anything said of Joseph as a prophet can also be applied to him—since they are both of this same Holy Order, so to speak.
This concept has never totally resonated for me. For example as a missionary I shared the glorious story of Joseph Smith‘s first vision and how the heavens were literally opened to this young boy. He actually saw God the Father and His Only Begotten Son Jesus Christ and an innumerable host of angels. Just prior to that his soul was almost lost in hell it seemed and he was nearly overcome with darkness. Evil thoughts filled his head and he was sure he would perish. But then a pillar of light descended upon him gradually.
I often shared that Joseph was a special young boy. At a tender young age he went through an illness and surgery with no medicine that led to bones being cut out of his leg. He limped the rest of his life. He lost his dearest brother Alvin at a young age because of Doctor malpractice. His family was so poor they moved several times. His father had their life savings stolen from them in a ginseng deal gone bad. Etc.
Joseph’s life was and is one I consider amazing. He was tarred and feathered for his vision and beaten by mobs too many times to count. He lost 6 children, one of which was caused by a mob breaking into his tiny home. And of course he would eventually be betrayed by nearly every convert and every friend he ever had and would give his life for the church.
And then as a good young missionary I would say in effect “And as a result of Joseph’s vision, Joseph became a prophet and God established His true church through him.” ……. “and because God restored his authority to earth and set up his true church, we have a true prophet today just like Joseph smith. His name is Ezra Taft Benson.”
I always felt a little guilty especially when I’d share this teaching and the person’s response was one of awe and reverence. “A true prophet on the earth today? Wow!” And all this was achieved by sharing the wonderful story about Joseph.
So when Elder Stevenson makes the stretch that we can simply place Russell M. Nelson’s name in wherever we find Joseph’s in scripture should not be a surprise to anyone. Even if illogical and not based on doctrine.
It’s ironic how we teach that today we need a modern prophet to receive revelation for our time. Noah received revelation pertinent to his day and his time. Moses to his. But our times are not their times. So we say. And yet at the same time, we conveniently apply the revelation given to Joseph to our prophet today.
Likening the scriptures to ourselves is so we can humbly apply powerful lessons or teachings to our lives, not to elevate ourselves.
1 And it came to pass that I spake unto my brethren, saying: Let us go up again unto Jerusalem, and let us be faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord; for behold he is mightier than all the earth, then why not mightier than Laban and his fifty, yea, or even than his tens of thousands?
2 Therefore let us go up; let us be strong like unto Moses; for he truly spake unto the waters of the Red Sea and they divided hither and thither, and our fathers came through, out of captivity, on dry ground, and the armies of Pharaoh did follow and were drowned in the waters of the Red Sea.
We might say “Let us be faithful as was Jesus when He did not shrink from the bitter cup” which takes nothing from our Lord and in no way elevates us. Such a likening can give us strength. But to say Russell M Nelson is just like Christ because he drank from the bitter cup of being our prophet is simply blasphemous.
No wonder so much opportunity for idolatry. We assume too much of ourselves and those who lead us. We give them too much reverence. Too much of our devotion. Joseph would reject such devotion. His teachings led to his death as most true prophets messages do. If people are standing and cheering for you when you walk into a stadium or into a room then your message may not be from God.
1 Nephi 22:23
23 For the time speedily shall come that all churches which are built up to get gain, and all those who are built up to get power over the flesh, and those who are built up to become popular in the eyes of the world, and those who seek the lusts of the flesh and the things of the world, and to do all manner of iniquity; yea, in fine, all those who belong to the kingdom of the devil are they who need fear, and tremble, and quake; they are those who must be brought low in the dust; they are those who must be consumed as stubble; and this is according to the words of the prophet.
3 And he had gone about among the people, preaching to them that which he termed to be the word of God, bearing down against the church; declaring unto the people that every priest and teacher ought to become popular; and they ought not to labor with their hands, but that they ought to be supported by the people.