The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not a cult, precisely because it doesn’t ask obedience “no matter what.” From the beginning of people’s entrance into the waters of baptism, new members are encouraged by missionaries along the lines of “don’t just believe me – ask God!” That’s as true with vaccination encouragement as it is invitations to baptism, although this is a precious lesson easy to miss (and important to reinforce) in these days of do-whatever-it-takes to persuade people to get their shots. If we overlook that, we may well lean on someone so much that they do something just because they feel pressured, rather than because they feel right about it. Even if that increases the total vaccination numbers, do we really honestly think that’s a good thing?
In graduate school, some of my classmates were weirded out that I willingly sought to obey individuals I sustained, yes, as true prophets. After sensing some reservations that I was participating in a cult that demanded obedience “no matter what,” I reassured them: “No, you see, the difference is we’re freely encouraged to confirm anything and everything we’re being taught (by prophets or missionaries or scriptures) in our own prayers and direct seeking with God.”
That second layer of personal assurance and accountability has always seemed, to me, part of the beauty of our message. It’s what we used to tell investigators we taught in Brazil: “Don’t just believe us. You can go find out for yourself!” I continue to see that as one of the most important (of many) differentiators between the high-demand Church of Christ and a high-demand (but controlling, and mindless) cult. Not incidentally, this is also what our detractors try to ignore when they pretend to capture the spirit of our trust in presiding leadership through demeaning sound bites like, “when the prophets speak, the thinking stops.”
That’s neither fair nor true, of course. But some of the commentary from fellow brothers and sisters in the wake of continued vaccination encouragement by presiding leaders might well get people thinking otherwise.
Believe it or not, many people actually did go to God, and many people did receive direct revelation for them and their families. I did. Personally, when I’ve gone to and asked God about this topic, I’ve been told, by Him, not to tamper with this specific drug for me and my children.
In response, another Latter-day Saint man I equally respect quoted President Harold B. Lee’s statement – seemingly in an attempt to chasten the first brother:
“You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may conflict with your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life … Your safety and ours depends upon whether or not we follow … Let’s keep our eye on the President of the Church.”
After reading this exchange, I told my wife “I think we’re confusing something here” – with two different important truths being confounded:
(1) Being willing to move forward contrary to one’s own cherished ideas. It’s absolutely true that prophetic teaching will challenge our own preferences and ideas. That’s a big difference between a true prophet, and the other kind that gives “itching ears” just what they need to enjoy another carefree day. The most courageous missionary of all time, Samuel the Lamanite, said it best in his stirring contrast of old:
If a prophet come among you and declareth unto you the word of the Lord, which testifieth of your sins and iniquities, ye are angry with him, and cast him out and seek all manner of ways to destroy him; yea, you will say that he is a false prophet, and that he is a sinner, and of the devil, because he testifieth that your deeds are evil. But behold, if a man shall come among you and shall say: Do this, and there is no iniquity; do that and ye shall not suffer; yea, he will say: Walk after the pride of your own hearts; yea, walk after the pride of your eyes, and do whatsoever your heart desireth—and if a man shall come among you and say this, ye will receive him, and say that he is a prophet. Yea, ye will lift him up, and ye will give unto him of your substance; ye will give unto him of your gold, and of your silver, and ye will clothe him with costly apparel; and because he speaketh flattering words unto you, and he saith that all is well, then ye will not find fault with him.
Given all that, the first brother is right that we shouldn’t be surprised when our preferred socio-political or cultural views (including perhaps about health) are challenged by prophetic counsel.
That’s happened for many Saints, including me, over recent months – especially with this recent reiteration of counsel. And as someone who dearly loves and sustains these men, my wife and I have made a new commitment last week to praying more over this additional counsel from the First Presidency.
Okay, so does God really want me to do this? Let’s seriously consider this, even though it goes against so much of what we’ve come to believe about health and healing – and asks me to trust something we’ve come to see as so unworthy of trust.
That’s essentially the question my wife and I have been praying over more earnestly in the wake of this counsel. It’s unclear and very challenging. But I know what clarity feels like – and I know what the sweetness of revelation feels like.
Although it’s not likely we will walk away from all our views of health, we understand God sometimes asks His children – all the way back to Adam – to do things we simply don’t understand. And we’ve been praying about everything with as much sincerity of heart and openness to being surprised as we can.
That’s what I understand God asks of those of us with concerns about prevailing medical orthodoxy around COVID-19, but who earnestly want to sustain our prophets: Staying open, soft, and willing to have their guidance ratified in our heart in a way that, yes, may supersede and even contradict our own preferred philosophies. And that’s what I hope all Saints in a similar position as me will continue to do in the days and weeks ahead.
That has felt good, and right to do. But there’s a second thing I do not understand God (or his prophets) to be asking us to do.
(2) Being willing to move forward contrary to one’s own conscience and sense of peace, or what is right. When someone has sought humbly and sincerely to hear out counsel and push back enough on their own views to openly consider it…what if, for whatever reason, they still cannot feel right about following that guidance, on the level of their own heart, spirit and communion with God (and others they trust, including medical professionals)?
We’re not talking here about a mere philosophical conflict anymore, mind you. This is about tensions in a place deeper than thought, or feeling – right there in our guts, where our own awareness and Spirit hears most directly God’s nudges for our lives and families. In that case – an instance where we can’t find that deeper peace – does God ask us to “just go along with it” and “obey no matter what?”
Of course not. Once again, that would be, in effect, what a cult does. Not us.
Come listen to a prophet’s voice. Make no mistake – we are grateful as Saints to understand that obedience is important as the “first law of heaven” – something we see modeled in our own prophet’s example and resolve to follow an earlier prophet’s council to learn Chinese. (“President Nelson desired to follow the counsel of the prophet, so he immediately began studying Mandarin”).
In a world of such conflicting messages and spiritual danger, the willingness to heed and hearken to the voice of living prophets is life-changing and life-saving. It cannot be overstated in its overarching importance.
But it can be overstated in another way: by giving so much rightful, understandable, legitimate attention to the importance of hearing and seeking to follow prophetic counsel, that we sideline, minimize, or ignore entirely the invaluable opportunity to seek-and-feel God’s confirming assurance and witness.
That is a problem. Is it not?
When Jesus came to the Nephites, he lay precious counsel before them. But rather than leaving the people to ‘just go do it’ (which no one would question when the Lord Himself is in your presence), I’ve find it interesting how much emphasis He gives right at the beginning to teach that the Holy Ghost and Father would bear witness of Him as well. Isn’t that the part we usually skip over in 3 Nephi 11? Maybe we shouldn’t.
Over and over, subsequent prophetic teaching affirms our individual ability and right to confirm for ourselves teaching and counsel given.
Turning prophetic counsel into enormous pressure. Given this clear emphasis in our doctrine, it has surprised and saddened me in recent days to see how much pressure and guilting some fellow Latter-day Saints have voiced about “not showing faith” and “not following the prophet” towards many who insist they simply haven’t been able to feel right (aka, peaceful) about getting vaccinated.
Here are three more quotes I’ve seen leveled at the vaccine hesitant Saints in recent days:
- “Make no mistake about it, brothers and sisters; in the months and years ahead, events will require of each member that he or she decide whether or not he or she will follow the First Presidency.” – Elder Neil Maxwell
- “Then, brethren, look out for the great sieve, for there will be a great sifting time, and many will fall; for I say unto you there is a test, a Test, a TEST coming, and who will be able to stand?” -Heber C. Kimball
- “Just like when Moses brought the bronze serpent staff and people only needed to look upon it to be saved. You have two options, follow the prophet or suffer in your own ignorance because you feel you know better than God’s prophet.”
Wow – that’s some serious pressure! Get the vaccine OR turn from the bronze serpent, fail the preeminent test of the last days, and show yourself as one of the tares ready to be sifted.
Is that what the Prophet hopes we will feel? Not according to Elder Christofferson. Based on the first-hand accounts of multiple attendees at an area leadership meeting in Utah on Saturday, August 14, Elder Christofferson was asked a question about what to do or say to someone who is upset with the First Presidency letter and specifically feeling like their agency is being taken away. The summary below is taken from two people who participated directly in the meeting.
He responded with a smile to tell them not to be upset because they still have their free agency. And that people are in line with this advice if they talk to their doctor and their revelation leads them to not getting the vaccine. The most important thing, he noted, is not to get upset or upset at the Prophet should you choose not to get vaccinated (one person noted, “it seemed that was way more important to him that the vaccine and he said it a few different times”).
Elder Christofferson went on to suggest a primary purpose of the letter was to keep the temples open as long as possible – and how dearly leaders want temples to stay open. He commented that the pandemic is a distraction from the eternal matters the Church needs to stay focused on.
Bringing a little more generosity of spirit to the whole conversation, like Elder Christofferson embodies here, would go a long way to reducing the collective tension among us.
And preserve the very space members grappling over this, or other issues, need to seek God’s confirming reassurance of prophetic guidance (which is so easy to get distracted from in fear or frustration!)
A sore trial of faith. I don’t know if many appreciate how excruciating this is, and has been, for many faithful members who absolutely love the brethren. One of my own dear family members acknowledged “many tears shed” over the last several days, in profound confusion. I’ve met with other members who have been rocked by this too – grappling like they’ve never grappled before. One woman told me, “I’ve always felt in line with what the prophets say…until now.” Another said, “the last thing I want to do is go against our prophet.”
These are not people seeking a reason to dissent or disobey. They are some of the most faithful and pure-hearted people I’ve ever known.
And what’s being asked of them is not easy. Essentially, someone they deeply trust is asking them repeatedly to trust people, institutions and practices they have come to deeply distrust (and not for no reason; remember, that thing called the opioid epidemic – started by something with similarly impressive short-term effects and similarly take-for-granted assurance of something being “safe and effective”?)
For people harboring sincere questions like this, can you see how the “just get the dumb shot” attitude isn’t all that helpful? And can you see how much it’s complicated matters to have all the many legitimate questions and alternative views of health written off, ignored and actively suppressed – supplanted by easy sound bites like “can’t people just care about others” or “your freedom is fine until it impacts my own” [each of which sidesteps competing narratives of health and well-being entirely].
These dismissive attitudes leave fellow brothers and sisters on the defensive – more focused on reacting to external pressure rather than keeping attention on God and, yes, the prophet’s own words. The sacred space in which we all must discern the Lord’s will thus gets crowded over and confused – to the point that it’s almost impossible to “hear Him” for ourselves.
“But he’s spoken, duh! Through His prophets” misses the point entirely. It’s not a plea to trust medical orthodoxy that President Nelson has been reiterating over the last several years of teaching – nor even is it simply “trust me, I will lead you right.” As we all know, this good and inspired man has been pleading with us to learn to receive revelation for ourselves.
Isn’t that what this comes down to? That if and when we are asked to do something hard, we should be able to feel confirmation from God? In polygamy terms, however contra sensibilities and perspectives such a command was for so many, I don’t for a minute believe they were asked to do that without some kind of real, personal reassurance.
I’ve been asked to so some excruciating, terrifying and heartbreaking things in my life. Things that went against my own perspective and desires. But not without peace. The peace was always there.
In whatever circumstances, then, shouldn’t the pursuit of that reassurance be encouraged?
Not according to some.
The real danger of pressure overriding a deeper sense of right or wrong. As we see all around us, the growing response of many to the hesitant is to simply ramp up the pressure. When someone needs a little nudge to re-examine their perspective, I get that. But what of the second situation above?
In that case, I have to wonder whether inadvertent harm might arise from people who are over-pressured or bribed to take a step that never felt right?
If it does feel right, that’s one thing. But if it doesn’t, and people take the vaccine “just because the prophet asked me,” what happens – God forbid – if a serious side-effect emerges? What could this mean for someone’s own relationship to family members or the Church itself?
One woman writes, “I have lupus and Lyme .. my lupus doctor says not to get the vaccine, then this [Church statement] comes out and now family is telling me I’m not following the Church if I don’t get it.” Wouldn’t it be sadly ironic if our zeal to help encourage prophetic council pushed people farther away from the Church they lead?
Compared to those who find peace to follow counsel like we’ve heard recently, what I’m suggesting here it may be damaging to persuade someone to go against their deeper sense of what feels right to them. I’ll never forget the time my mother and father agreed to a medical procedure they had not felt good about, at their well-intentioned doctor’s urging. When it almost killed my mother prematurely, my parents came away affirmed in the trustworthiness of their own deepest sense.
Of course, that deeper sense can lead people astray on other occasions, which reflects the value of outside people around us, including those with sacred stewardship and authority. Once again, this is the beauty of the “checks and balances” in the spiritual economy of heaven. Just as there is protection in being able to reach inward for a second confirmation, there is protection in being able to reach outward for the same. We’re never left with only one witness.
Rather than seeing choice of vaccination alone as the critical sifting and test, I wish we focus more collective attention to the state of our hearts towards each other – and the prophets themselves. Surely then, whatever our perspectives on vaccination, faithful Saints could unite in mourning the many who are rising up in anger against the Church over this – and reaching conclusions like this:
“This is the last straw…We’ve given into the globalists. I’m leaving the church.”
“YOU have the authority to receive counsel for your family and your life. Just because a man in ‘authority’ tells you to do something doesn’t mean you should!!!! When the leaders are going to the world and are not looking at the spiritual, then it is time to MOVE ON to a place where Jesus is Lord!!! Sorry, but they have been moving to the New World Order/One World for years….”
“Run as fast as you can they have sold out to the flesh.”
“Thinking about it, the antichrists will sit in the temple… makes sense now.”
These make me so sad. And the anger they reflect is not the way (as Jesus Himself made so clear in his initial comments to the Nephites). Whatever decisions are made about the vaccination, that can’t be what God wants.
Space and empathy as a remedy to frustration. I believe the best answer to some of this anger is to make space where we can share our hearts and seek to understand and love each other, across our different decisions. Everything I’ve written publicly about the matter has been to promote more space where people might be able to grapple with these questions, and seek their own confirmation of truth. I maintain that it’s the imbalanced conversation itself that has been the biggest problem of all; despite the intentions of all the noble “misinformation-fighters,” the coordinated campaign has left virtually everyone with concerns more concerned than they would have been.
Rather than witnessing free inquiry and open engagement, with truth claims unafraid of scrutiny and competing ideas competing in the marketplace of ideas, people with questions have had to go to the “black market” for any alternative views, like dissident voices in Russia or China secretly tapping into back-channel information. This is no exaggeration of how many of us have experienced this last year.
And into this emotional ferment comes the encouragement to essentially not worry and trust the wisdom of the dictates of government and medical leaders. “How can they say that?” so many people have asked. Another man noted the evidence of inadvertent side-effects and even people dying after vaccination, before saying “Why would they say ‘available vaccines have proven to be both safe and effective”?
These are honest questions that remain for many of us. At the very least, this might give you a little more empathy regarding what this has been like for many of us. No matter how many eloquent and impassioned op-eds keep saying it, this is not a simple choice between “responsibility” and “selfishness,” or between “science” and “ignorance” or even whether to “trust the prophet or not.”
And let’s stop pretending it is.
Jacob Z. Hess, Ph.D., writes about the implications of competing socio-political and health narratives – and what it takes to preserve public conversation where open exploration of truth in these matters is still possible. To see more, check out my personal blog (http://unthinkable.cc) or my YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUPXFAn5kAlSdr48uQzazzw).
 It’s true this is the kind of thing we all like to tell our kids sometimes. “Just do it!” ‘Why?” “Because I said so.”
That’s a ninja move all good parents have to pull out once in a while. And yet, the Lord cautions “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood”- in other words, we shouldn’t try to exert pressure on children, or adults “Just because I’ve got the priesthood.”
Doesn’t it always feel wrong after we’ve leaned on our children this way – or gotten “what we want” due to yelling or getting angry? It sure does for me. And I’m grateful to be slowly changing this pattern – moving more in the direction of a God who “without compulsory means” has all goodness and power flowing unto Him forever and ever.