On the Imperfection of God’s Prophets and the Blessings of Critical Thought

March 10, 2015

This is a collection of quotes concerning the ideas of knowing for yourselves[1], critical thinking, and preserving agency.

On the importance of studying it out for ourselves and not believing everything that is said by those in authority.

Hugh B. Brown
First Counselor of the First Presidency

“One of the most important things in the world is freedom of the mind; from this all other freedoms spring. Such freedom is necessarily dangerous, for one cannot think right without running the risk of thinking wrong, but generally more thinking is the antidote for the evils that spring from wrong thinking. More thinking is required, and we call upon you students to exercise your God-given right to think through every proposition that is submitted to you and to be unafraid to express your opinions…Preserve, then, the freedom of your mind in education and in religion, and be unafraid to express your thoughts and to insist upon your right to examine every proposition. We are not so much concerned with whether your thoughts are orthodox or heterodox as we are that you shall have thoughts…Progress in maturity may be measured by our acceptance of increased self-responsibility and an increased sagacity in decision making.”

“There are altogether too many people in the world who are willing to accept as true whatever is printed in a book or delivered from a pulpit.”

“I admire men and women who have developed the questing spirit, who are unafraid of new ideas as stepping stones to progress. We should, of course, respect the opinions of others, but we should also be unafraid to dissent—if we are informed. Thoughts and expressions compete in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth emerges triumphant. Only error fears freedom of expression.” [2]

Bruce R. McConkie


“With all their inspiration and greatness, prophets are yet mortal men with imperfections common to mankind in general. They have their opinions and prejudices and are left to work out their problems without inspiration in many instances.”[3]

Brigham Young

“I do not wish any Latter-day Saint in this world, nor in heaven, to be satisfied with anything I do, unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, the spirit of revelation, makes them satisfied…. Suppose that the people were heedless, that they manifested no concern with regard to the things of the Kingdom of God, but threw the whole burden upon the leaders of the people, saying, ‘If the brethren who take charge of matters are satisfied, we are,’ this is not pleasing in the sight of the Lord.”[4]

“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…”[5]

Charles W. Penrose
Apostle and first presidency counselor

“President Wilford Woodruff is a man of wisdom and experience, and we respect and venerate him, but we do not believe his personal views or utterances are revelations from God; and when ‘Thus saith the Lord’, comes from him, the saints investigate it: they do not shut their eyes and take it down like a pill.”[6]

Samuel Richards
British mission president and Editor of the Millennial Star, 1852

“To what extent is obedience to those who hold the priesthood required?

This is a very important question and one which should be understood by all saints. In attempting to answer this question we would repeat in short what we have already written that willing obedience to the laws of god administered by the priesthood is indispensable to salvation but we would further add that a proper conservative to this power exists for the
benefit of all and none are required to tamely and blindly submit to a man because he has a portion of the priesthood. We have heard men who hold the priesthood remark, that they would do anything they were told to do by those who presided over them, if they knew it was wrong; but such obedience as this is worse than folly to us; it is slavery in the extreme; and the man who would thus willingly degrade himself should not claim a rank among intelligent beings, until he turns from his folly. A man of God… would despise the idea. Others, in the extreme exercise of their almighty authority have taught that such obedience was necessary, and that no matter what the saints were told to do by their presidents, they should do it without asking any questions. When Elders of Israel will so far indulge in these extreme notions of obedience as to teach them to the people, it is generally because they have it in their minds to do wrong themselves.”[7]


“Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?”  (Gal.  4:16)

George A. Smith
Apostle and First Counselor in the First Presidency

“If a faith will not bear to be investigated; if its preachers and professors are afraid to have it examined, their foundation must be very weak.”[8]

George Albert Smith

In the Ward Teaching Message of the June 1945 issue of the Improvement Era it related “When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done.” In response to this President George Albert Smith’s wrote that the passage “does not express the true position of the Church. Even to imply that members of the Church are not to do their own thinking is grossly to misrepresent the true ideal of the Church….It was not prepared by one of our leaders. However, one of more of them inadvertently permitted the paragraph to pass uncensored. By their doing so, not a few members of the Church have been upset in their feelings, and General Authorities have been embarrassed.”[9]

On the need to not be complacent or apathetic towards learning the why.

B.H. Roberts
Member of the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy and Assistant Church Historian

“In no department is the frank and honest confession ‘I don’t know,’ more imperative than in Theology; and when it is given as an actual confession of having reached the limits of our knowledge, it is worthy of all praise. But if it becomes tainted with the spirit of ‘I don’t care,’ then I have no respect for it. . . . Achievement in divine things, progress in the knowledge of them, comes only with hard striving, earnest endeavor, determined seeking.

“Mental laziness is the vice of men, especially with reference to divine things. Men seem to think that because inspiration and revelation are factors in connection with the things of God, therefore the pain and stress of mental effort are not required; that by some means these elements act somewhat as Elijah’s ravens and feed us without effort on our part. . . . Just now it is much in fashion to laud ‘the simple faith’; which is content to believe without understanding, or even without much effort to understand. . . . I maintain that ‘simple faith’—which is so often ignorant and simpering acquiescence, and not faith at all—but simple faith taken at its highest value, which is faith without understanding of the thing believed, is not equal to intelligent faith, the faith that is the gift of God, supplemented by earnest endeavor to find through prayerful thought and search a rational ground for faith—for acceptance of truth; and hence the duty of striving for a rational faith in which the intellect as well as the heart—the feeling—has a place and is a factor.”[10]

Robert Millet
Dean of Religious Education, BYU

“We must be willing to think, to open ourselves to new insights, to broaden our scope, if we truly desire to make a difference in the kingdom of God in the years ahead. It is one thing to respond to a hard question by saying, “I don’t know the answer to your question, but I know the gospel is true.” That’s a noble approach, I suppose. If we don’t know, then we don’t know. We ought not try to bluff our way through things. But how much more powerful is an answer like this one: “That’s a good question. Let me answer your question first, and then let me bear my testimony of the truths associated with this matter.” The Lord and his Church desperately need members who are committed to the faith and have a testimony of the gospel. But of even greater worth are those who know the gospel is true and also know the gospel.”[11]

Joseph F. Smith

“The voicing of one’s testimony, however eloquently phrased or beautifully expressed, is no fit or acceptable substitute for the needed discourse of instruction and counsel expected in a general gathering of the people. The man who professes a testimony as herein described, and who assumes that his testimony embraces all the knowledge he needs, and who therefore lives in indolence and ignorance shall surely discover his error to his own cost and loss. … Of those who speak in his name, the Lord requires humility, not ignorance.”[12]


One Last Anecdote.

The worst tragedy in Mormon history is the Mountain Meadows Massacre, where hundreds of innocent men, women, and children were slaughtered.  After digesting the horror of the carnage and savagery displayed by the members, we are left to ask ourselves how did this happen?  How did those acquainted with persecution likewise return the persecution at such a greater level?  How did followers of Christ commit such atrocities?  The answer lies in two fold.  First, the environment of fear and paranoia.  The second is blindly obeying the direction of priesthood leaders and giving them the responsibility of our agency.


[1] 1 Thessalonians 5:2

[2] “Final Testimony,” An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999)

[3] “Are the General Authorities Human?” address delivered at the Institute of Religion Forum at the University of Utah, October 28, 1966

[4] Journal of Discourses, v. 3, p. 45

[5] Journal of Discourses 9: 149-150

[6] Speech given at Tabernacle. Feb 7th, 1892 Millennial Star 54:191.

[7] The Latter-day Saints’ Millennial Star Vol. 14 (13-NOV-1852) Issue 38

[8] Journal of Discourses, Volume 14, Page 216

[9] Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 19:1 (Spring 1986), 35-39.

[10] Roberts, Seventy’s Course in Theology, 5:iv-v.

[11] Millet. More Holiness Give Me. 2001.

[12] Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 206.


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