In the comments following my last post a LDS member replied to a question I had about an older edition of Gospel Principles by stating: “I also wouldn’t put it passed the writers (whoever the nameless curriculum writers are) of Gospel Principles or any other manual to not only include a typo, but also to make an assertion that the scriptures themselves do not make.” I appreciated the candid answer but it left me frustrated. Here’s why.
Years ago, when I was starting to research Mormonism, I asked some local LDS leaders what sources I should read to understand Mormonism. They pointed me to the standard works but also to the words of the living prophet. In that connection more than one told me that any church manual that, at that time, was copyrighted by the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a true and trustworthy source. They especially pointed me to Gospel Principles as a great introduction to official Mormonism.
Over the years, I have heard similar things expressed at General Conference, in the Ensign by the First Presidency, and yes, also in manuals. In fact, I can’t think of a time when somebody in an official capacity downplayed the official manuals. To this day, the manuals are represented by official Mormonism as reliable sources of authority.
That is all well and good until you are talking with individual Mormons who do downplay the manuals.. They point back to the standard works as the only sources of authority. The trouble with that is that individual Mormons interpret them quite differently from each other as is very evident in the contradictory comments often left on this blog by LDS members.
Here’s my point and please try to understand the frustration this gives to a non-Mormons who are sincerely trying to learn what Mormonism teaches and not so much what individual Mormons believe. The official church consistently points to the living prophet besides the standard works as a source of authority. Included in this, according to church explanations, are things that are printed under his authority – like official manuals. And if you read the manual, Teachings of the Living Prophets, especially Ezra Taft Benson’s speech, the authority of the living prophet is very broad and is not restricted to just “official” pronouncements. Therefore it seems only legitimate and proper for a non-Mormon researcher to give much more weight to the explanations given in church manuals than to differing ones given by individual Mormons – when the topic is what does Mormonism believe and teach.
Therefore it is extremely frustrating when individual Mormons don’t give much weight to what the official church manuals teach. As far as I can tell, unless somebody can point me to an official declaration, the official leaders of the LDS Church, the General Authorities, have not disavowed Benson’s view of the wide-spread authority of the Living Prophet. In fact, by citing it extensively in an official manual, isn’t the logical conclusion that they support it?