Within the corpus of J. Golden Kimball folklore, there is a story of the salty seventy getting bored during a long list of sustaining officers at a stake conference somewhere south of Provo. Noticing that most of the congregation was nodding off or had fallen asleep while mechanically raising their hands for every name read, he continued in his usual magpie voice, stating, “It is proposed that Mount Nebo be moved into Utah Lake, all in favor manifest by the usual sign.” The majority of the people raised their hands. Then, Elder Kimball paused, looked around, and yelled, “Just how in the hell do you people propose we get Mount Nebo into Utah Lake?” or “I expect all men to be here tomorrow morning with your shovels.”
As with last year, the main topic of discussion about general conference hasn’t been the words of Church leaders, but the dissenters who expressed themselves at the conference. As, I’m sure most of my readers are well aware, at least seven (some accounts say nine) people expressed themselves as “opposed” during the sustaining of Church officers. These individuals, who have declared that they are opposed for a variety of reasons—including institutional honesty about Church history, Church stance of women’s roles and LGTB families, spending of Church money on projects like City Creek Mall, and so forth—stood and shouted “opposed” when President Uchtdorf asked for contrary votes to sustaining the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
To many Latter-day Saints attending the conference in person or abroad, these dissenting votes were jarring. There were some occurrences during the 1970s and 1980s due to the restrictions placed on members of black African descent and the Church’s opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, but there haven’t been many, if any, occurrences of opposing votes in General Conference for a couple decades (click here for some more history on the issue). In response, the internet has been flooded with memes and blog posts discussing the event, mostly in negative tones. Those who were opposed have been called “hecklers,” and a number of individuals have expressed themselves as shocked or disappointed by their actions, ruminated on their likeliness to go to hell (I don’t know if that’s online, but I’ve heard plenty of that in my community in some form or another). Other memes have simply offered support for President Monson and other Church leaders, affirming member’s commitments to their leadership.
I want to make it clear that I support and sustain our Church leadership, but I also want to give some perspective on what happened during the sustaining of Church officers and how we could best respond. I also would like to discuss the principle of common consent—why we do it and what it means. My hope is that it will be informative and allow better discussion of the issues at hand.
Recently, I attended a lecture by Armand Mauss—the leading sociologist who has set his hands to Mormon studies. He spoke about a number of difficulties and issues that the Church is dealing with as it approaches its third century, including internal issues and organizations such as correlation, the accumulation of inactive members, the role and status of women in the Church, and the role of faith vs doubt in the Church. The last one of the four—faith vs doubt—was the one he devoted the most time to, noting that some General Authorities have made comments that recognize the validity of doubts, but asking how far they are willing to go to accommodate doubting members:
On the one hand, how can the church create and maintain a supportive environment in which individual members can struggle with serious doubts without jeopardizing the love and regard of fellow members, and even jeopardizing their church membership?
On the other hand, how can the church maintain boundaries around certain fundamental truth claims that define the very identity of the LDS religion? How much flexibility in understanding and interpreting church doctrine and practices can members claim and still feel that they belong?
This is a very difficult subject to approach, and is becoming more and more visible. Despite Elder Cook’s assurance that “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has never been stronger,” dissenting members are better organized and better able to give voice to their feelings than ever before, thanks to the internet. The dissenting vote is likely to become a regular part of General Conference, as demonstrated by online shows of support and commitments to dissent at the October conference this year.
Many non-dissenting members have expressed frustration that dissenters would disturb the sacred atmosphere of General Conference, and wondered if it is the appropriate place to dissent in. It is a very understandable concern, especially when unanimity has been the norm in voting and there is so much emphasis placed on the importance of conference. The truth of the matter is, however, that General Conference really is the appropriate time and place to express dissenting votes and members do have a right to express them. We read in the Doctrine and Covenants: “And a commandment I give unto you, that you should fill all these offices and approve of those names which I have mentioned, or else disapprove of them at my general conference.” (D&C 124:144, emphasis added.) Some leading brethren in the Church have made it clear in times past that thoughtful consideration of whether we sustain the Brethren is important. Take, for example, President Brigham Young:
Some may say, “Brethren, you who lead the Church, we have all confidence in you, we are not in the least afraid but what everything will go right under your superintendence; all the business matters will be transacted right; and if brother Brigham is satisfied with it, I am.” 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. I wish them to know for themselves and understand for themselves, for this would strengthen the faith that is within them. 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.
Every man and woman in this kingdom ought to be satisfied with what we do, but they never should be satisfied without asking the Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, whether what we do is right. When you are inspired by the Holy Ghost you can understandingly say, that you are satisfied.
What I’m trying to say with all of this, is that the expression of opposed votes is an acceptable expression of belief within Mormonism and that General Conference is the appropriate time to express that vote. If it was not, they wouldn’t ask for any opposed to raise their hands. The manner in which it was expressed—individuals standing and stating “opposed” (not “no!” as has been often recounted so far) was probably the most polite way they could proceed while still being noticed in the large auditorium.
That being said, I do not support them in their course or appreciate their actions and I personally do sustain the prophet, even while I recognize that they have the right to act as they did. How do I think we should respond? In a Christ-like manner. As Elder Quentin L. Cook taught:
Many in this world are afraid and angry with one another. While we understand these feelings, we need to be civil in our discourse and respectful in our interactions. This is especially true when we disagree…. Yet there are some who feel that venting their personal anger or deeply held opinions is more important than conducting themselves as Jesus Christ lived and taught. I invite each one of us individually to recognize that how we disagree is a real measure of who we are and whether we truly follow the Savior. It is appropriate to disagree, but it is not appropriate to be disagreeable. Violence and vandalism are not the answer to our disagreements. If we show love and respect even in adverse circumstances, we become more like Christ.
This is true whichever side of the issue you may be on. Remember, Joseph Smith taught that “friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism,” and that “if you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another.” While we tend to be concerned that we will not receive the same respect from the other side (again, whichever side we may be on in the issue), the more pertinent question is always, “Lord, is it I?” (Matt 26:22.)
These people are truly people, not demons sent from the fiery abyss (is we even believed in such a thing), and they deserve to be treated respectfully and civilly. What is more, they are Mormons and we have no right to tell them that they must leave the Church because we don’t see eye-to-eye with them. In the Book of Mormon Nephi asked the pertinent question, “hath he [God] commanded any that they should depart out of the synagogues, or out of the houses of worship?” and responded: “Behold, I say unto you, Nay. . . . He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him.” (2 Nephi 26:26, 33.) Their feelings don’t have to change ours, nor will they topple the Church, so there is no need to react defensively to them. We will probably just have to adjust and understand that there are members who love the Gospel and love the Church, but don’t agree with the direction its leadership is taking and respect them in that belief. At the same time, we should not be afraid to express our views, as long as we do so in the proper manner and realize that we may have to agree to disagree. As Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught last spring: “Be strong. Live the gospel faithfully even if others around you don’t live it at all. Defend your beliefs with courtesy and with compassion, but defend them.”
Shifting gears a bit, this issue also raises doctrinal questions about the process of sustaining officers of the Church or a proposed policy change. Are we voting on leadership or doctrine? If God chose them, then why do we even have to give our consent? Democracy and theocracy don’t seem too compatible, really. While there is a lot that could be said about the issue, one of my favorite discussions of the doctrine comes from Elder B. H. Roberts. In the early 1900s, the Church underwent an intense examination by the United States government after one of the Quorum of the Twelve—Reed Smoot—was elected to congress as a senator from Utah. During these hearings, there were a few questions asked, statements made, or missteps by general authorities that caught on with the youth in Utah as things to say to poke fun at or question Church leadership. Elder Roberts, a president of the Seventies who was also involved in the youth organizations of the Church, wrote a response to these “smart statements.” One of the concerns that he addressed was that:
In the course of the investigation of the subject of revelation, it was developed that a law revealed from God, before it became binding upon the Church, was submitted to the people in conference, and they voted to accept or reject it. Then this question was asked:
“Suppose a revelation is given to the Church, and the Church in conference assembled reject it by vote, what remains? Does it go for nothing?”
To which answer was made, in substance, that if the people rejected it, it would go for nothing for them—that is, so far as the people were concerned.
The senator then exclaimed: “A sort of veto power over the Lord!” and then there was laughter.
That is one of the catchy phrases which some of the youth of Zion are permitting themselves to be pleased with. A veto power on God!
His response was profound:
After revealing himself to Joseph Smith, the Lord finally told him, with reference to the organization of the Church, that he must call together the baptized members and submit to them the question whether or not they were willing that he and Oliver Cowdery should proceed to organize the Church of Christ, and whether the people were willing to accept them as their spiritual leaders and teachers.
We may well marvel at such condescension of God; and yet when we come to analyze this, we learn that in this God only recognizes a great truth, and the dignity of his children, and acknowledges their rights and liberties. When he selected his prophet, to whom he first revealed himself, he chose whom he would and gave him the power of the apostleship; but when he was to effect an organization and exercise that authority upon others, then it must be with the consent of the others concerned, not otherwise. This is the principle of common consent, which the Lord respected at the organization of his Church, and which he still recognizes in its government.
The very title of our Church—the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—indicates that it is not only “the Church of Jesus Christ,” but also of the “Latter-day Saints.” It is Christ’s because he made it possible by his sacrifice, because it is the depository of his truth, because he has called it into existence, because he has given it a mission to proclaim the truth, and to perfect the lives of those who accept that truth; it is ours because we accept it of our own volition. God has conferred upon his Church and our Church the right of being governed by common consent of the members thereof. It is not a tyranny, nor an ecclesiastical hierarchy dominating the people and destroying individual liberty, as our friends the opposition have frequently declared. But now they are confronted with the fact that, so far from being a tyrannical institution, not only the officers but the very revelations of God are submitted to the people for their acceptance! And then they turn to the other extreme, and, astonished, exclaim: “Then you presume to have a veto power on God!”…
… When the Church votes upon the acceptance of any revelation, whether on doctrine or the appointment of officers, it acts for itself alone, and neither concerns, for praise or censure, people outside of the Church. It is merely the exercise of a right conferred upon the Church in the very inception of its organization, which granted it the right to accept or reject any rule or law that was suggested for its government. This law of common consent is in strict harmony with God’s moral government of the world. Man is by nature a free moral agent, and that agency involves the liberty of violating the laws of God as well as the liberty of respecting them. If individuals reject the will of God, they will be rejected by him; and this applies also to the Church. What men may do in their individual capacity, the Church may do in its organized capacity with, of course, similar results to the institution; for if the time should come that the Church, in the exercise of those rights and that freedom which God in the beginning bestowed upon her, should persistently reject his word and his servants until she became corrupted, God would repudiate and disown her as his Church, just as he would reject and condemn a wicked man. But so far, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints has received as divine law the revelations and doctrines proposed to her by the prophets of God. But suppose a law is promulgated before the Latter-day Saints, and the Church, in the exercise of the liberty which God has conferred upon them, reject it, the question is then asked, what remains?
The truth remains. The action of the Church has not affected it in the least. The truth remains just as true as if the Church had accepted it. Its action simply determines the relationship of the members to that truth; and if they reject it, the truth still remains; and it is my opinion that they would not make further progress until they accepted the rejected truth. The truth remains—that is the answer to the Senator’s question, for, as one of our poets has said:
Though the heavens depart, and the earth’s fountains burst,
Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,
Eternal, unchanged, evermore.
Thus, the principle of common consent is a recognition of our right to accept or reject any truth or principle or leader, whether individually or collectively. Those who have expressed themselves as opposed at General Conference are perfectly within their rights to do so, just as we are perfectly in our rights to sustain Church leaders. What is left is to carry ourselves in the most Christ-like manner possible.
Note that this post was taken largely from part of a post on my other blog, Prophets, Seers, and Revelators.
 Armand Mauss, “Mormonism’s Third Century: Coping with the Contingencies.” Paper presented March 25, 2015, Utah State University, Logan, Utah. http://religiousstudies.usu.edu/files/uploads/Recent_Presentations/Mauss_Mormonisms_3rd_Century.pdf
 Quentin L. Cook, “The Lord is My Light,” CR, April 2015.
 JD 3:45, Brigham Young, October 6, 1855
 B. H. Roberts, The Gospel: An Exposition of its first principles; and Man’s Relationship to Deity, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Desert News, 1901), 225.
 Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4714-4719). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition
 Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Location 2621). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition
 Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Cost—and Blessings—of Discipleship,” CR April 2014, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2014/04/the-cost-and-blessings-of-discipleship?lang=eng
 B. H. Roberts, “Relation of Inspiration and Revelation to Church Government,” Improvement Era, March 1905, 359.
 Roberts, “Relation,” 361-364.