Members of the Church of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints – more commonly referred to as Mormon - believe that their leader is a modern-day Prophet, imbued with the power of revelation from God. With this teaching of modern-day revelation is the burden to always follow the teachings of the authorities, as their dictates come from the Almighty God himself.
I was raised in a family with a literal interpretation of Mormonism. My father was convinced that one day the U.S. government would fail and that Americans would turn to the Mormon leaders for guidance; that one day the entire world would know of and gravitate towards the Mormon faith; that modern-day revelation was real and that visions were a fact of life. Above all, the President of the Mormon Church is venerated as the mouthpiece of God, qualified to receive revelations for the entire church.
The lessons on un-wavering obedience to Mormon authorities start at an early age. In the official lesson manual of the Mormon Church is a lesson titled “Follow The Prophet”, aimed towards the youth of the Church. One of the quotes drawn from this lesson is by Marion G. Romney, talking about the past President and Prophet Heber J Grant:
“I remember years ago when I was a bishop I had President Grant talk to our ward. After the meeting, I drove him home. … When we got to his home I got out of the car and went up on the porch with him. Standing by me, he put his arm over my shoulder and said: ‘My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.’ Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, ‘But you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray"
Marion G Romney, in Conference Report, October 1960, pg 78
Or as I sang as a little girl in Primary – “Follow the Prophet, follow the Prophet. Follow the Prophet, he knows the way.” When my Primary teachers talked of the apostles and the prophet, I imagined the bearded sandal-clad, linen-clothed men of the New Testament. I was shocked when I realized the apostles and prophet of whom my teachers spoke of were in fact the old white guys that showed up on the screen twice a year during the world-wide televised General Conferences. Then I grew up and I began to crush under the burden of trying to follow the leaders’ will, as their teachings on the role of womanhood and striving for perfection stuffed me into a tiny little box that just didn’t fit. Like Cinderella’s ugly step-sisters, to fit into the narrow box of Mormon womanhood I needed to chop off pieces of me that just couldn’t fit inside that box.
The Mormon Church’s approach to dealing with the messy history of the prophets’ teachings is to deny the fact or to claim that the teachings of current prophets outweigh the teachings of old prophets. The Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research (FAIR) made the following statement when addressing the messy and very uncomfortable topic of the teachings about race within Mormonism
Past church leaders should be viewed as products of their times, no more racist than most of their American and Christian peers (and often surprisingly enlightened, given the surrounding culture). A proper understanding of the process of revelation creates a more realistic expectations of the Latter-day Saint prophet, instead of assumptions of infallibility foisted on the Saints by their critics.
Previous statements and scriptural interpretations that are no longer in harmony with current revelation should be discarded. We learn "line upon line, precept upon precept," and when modern revelation has shed new light, old assumptions made in the dark can be done away with.”
To combat the openness of the Internet era, where the messy history of the Mormon Church is easily accessible and a source of chagrin to many faithful Mormons, members are now justifying that these leaders were “speaking as a man” or that certain beliefs are “folk doctrine”. There is no way to draw a distinction between a leader “speaking as a man” or “speaking for God” – these distinctions all depend on the convictions of the individual interpreting the quotes, as well as the potential embarrassment factor of the quote. And once again, I would like reiterate the lesson that the Prophet is considered the mouthpiece qualified to receive revelation from God for the entire church and that as members we were taught that the Prophet will never lead us astray.
Perhaps Heber J Grant was “speaking as a man” when he had that conversation with Marion G Romney. Or perhaps Marion G Romney was “speaking as a man” when he gave that speech. Or perhaps all of the talks by the authorities that I attended as a youth will one day be dismissed as been “spoken as a man, rather than from God”. But how can members distinguish between the two? How do members balance the past teachings of the Prophets with the idea that the Prophet will never lead his people astray? Were the Prophets leading the people astray with their teachings on race? Was the Prophet leading the people astray with Proposition 8? And if members don't agree with the teachings of the Prophet, what about the consequences of challenging authority? But to admit that the Prophets can lead the people astray is to strike at the very root of Mormonism itself – question the legitimacy of the Prophets’ teachings and you question the very foundation of Mormonism.
Some members are able to shrug off the confusions of doctrine, focusing instead on the good points – the plan of Salvation, the idea of eternal families, the idea of Christian love. But I was not one of those members; I was a member that took the teachings literally. My literal interpretation of the leaders – enforced by the attitudes of members around me – turned me into a person at war between my conscience and the teachings of my leaders.