Just my rambling thoughts about being gay and Mormon

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Freedom and Compliance to Authority

One of the great paradoxes of Mormonism is the tension between freedom of belief and action (moral agency) and compliance to ecclesiastical authority.  Joseph Smith broke with so many existing conventions of Christianity that it is overwhelming to consider them all.  He cherished freedom of thought and believe and viewed as a key element of his mission the breaking of restrictive and intolerant religious codes.  He taught that each person should find out for himself what God wanted him to do and then live true to that knowledge.  

Thus in the early days of the Church each member was encouraged to be his or her own prophet to find their own way to God.   Said he, "I teach correct principles and they govern themselves" and "we are not disposed, had we the power, to deprive any one of exercising the free independence of mind which heaven has so graciously bestowed upon the human family as one of its choicest gifts".  

With this belief in individual autonomy you would think that Mormonism would shy away from the dogma of constrained belief and subjection to church hierarchy.  It is ironic that Mormonism is one of the most centralized and authoritarian of churches. 

Early on, Joseph recognized that chaos would rein if each member used to a full extent the freedom of believe and practice that he advocated.  Individual freedom was tempered by the teaching of priesthood authority and keys, which established a framework for offices and authority to pronounce doctrine.  On occasion, this system of authority has been used beyond its boundaries to silence unpleasant dissent and enforce standardization.  

Brigham Young, perhaps the most authoritarian of all LDS leaders, established the pattern for using priesthood authority to dictate in matters far beyond basic gospel principles.  However, even Brigham stated, "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 that 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."

One author created titles for Mormons.  He called those who find comfort and safety in complete reliance upon institutions and authoritative oracles as "Iron Rod Mormons", and those who suscribe to a gospel of individual freedom of worship and revelation as "Liahona Mormons".  I like this analogy.  

The collision between individual autonomy and freedom and compliance to ecclesiastical authority is inevitable and will likely continue to increase, particularly for intellectuals and artists.   As the Church population grows in diversity, control and regimentation will increasingly spawn pools of independent thought.


  1. Excellent post!

    Where did the quotes come from? I'd like to file them away, but I need to know where they're from. Thanks.

  2. the quote from Brigham Young is from the Journal of Discourses 9:150. The quote second quote from Joseph Smith is from the Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, about page 49.