“It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear. We have accepted the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man’s doctrine.
“If anyone, regardless of his position in the Church, were to advance a doctrine that is not substantiated by the standard Church works, meaning the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, you may know that his statement is merely his private opinion. The only one authorized to bring forth any new doctrine is the President of the Church, who, when he does, will declare it as revelation from God, and it will be so accepted by the Council of the Twelve and sustained by the body of the Church. And if any man speak a doctrine which contradicts what is in the standard Church works, you may know by that same token that it is false and you are not bound to accept it as truth.” (Harold B. Lee, European Area Conference of the Church, Munich, Germany, 1973)
“If it is not in the standard works, we may well assume that it is speculation, man’s own personal opinion; and if it contradicts what is in the scripture, it is not true. This is the standard by which we measure all truth.” (Harold B. Lee, 11th President, Improvement Era, January 1969 p.13)
“The Church has confined the sources of doctrine by which it is willing to be bound before the world to the things that God has revealed, and which the Church has officially accepted, and those alone. These would include the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, the Pearl of Great Price; these have been repeatedly accepted and endorsed by the Church in general conference assembled, and are the only sources of absolute appeal for our doctrine.” (B. H. Roberts, Deseret News (23 July 1921) sec. 4:7.)
“One of the reasons we call our scriptures The Standard Works [is that] they are the standard of judgement and the measuring rod against which doctrines and views are weighed, and it does not make one particle of difference whose views are involved. The scriptures always take precedence.” (Bruce R McConkie, “Finding Answers to Gospel Questions,” an open letter to all “honest truth seekers,” dated 30 October 1980, [quoted in Michael Hicks, “Do You Preach the Orthodox Religion: Thoughts on the Idea of Heresy in the Church,” Sunstone v6:5 (Sept./Oct. 1981), 32].)
The fiery Brigham young has also expressed the same views:
“I do not wish any Latter-day Saint in this world . . . to be satisfied with anything I do, unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, the spirit of revelation, makes them satisfied . . . 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.” (Journal of Discourses, 3:5.)
“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 lead by him. . . . Let every man and woman know themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates or not.” (Journal of Discourses, 9:150.)
And LDS scripture likewise confirms that doctrine:
D&C 33:16: “And the Book of Mormon and the holy scriptures are given of me for your instruction; and the power of my Spirit quickeneth all things.”
D&C 42:12: “And again, the elders, priests and teachers of this church shall teach the principles of my gospel, which are in the Bible and the Book of Mormon, in the which is the fulness of the gospel.”
D&C 42:59: “Thou shalt take the things which thou hast received, which have been given unto thee in my scriptures for a law [i.e. understood in its widest sense, includes doctrine], to be my law to govern my church;”
The only person who is authorized to introduce new doctrine into the Church is the President of the Church, who will do so following the procedure outlined by Harold B. Lee in the quote given above. (I emphasize new doctrine, because it involves more than just “receiving revelation”. Prophets can teach and preach by inspiration and revelation without introducing new doctrine into the Church—which is what they do at every general conference.) J. Reuben Clark has expressed it as follows:
“Here we must have in mind—must know—that only the President of the Church, the Presiding High Priest, is sustained as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator for the Church, and he alone has the right to receive revelations for the Church, either new or amendatory, or to give authoritative interpretations of scriptures that shall be binding on the Church, or change in any way the existing doctrines of the Church. He is God’s sole mouthpiece on earth for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the only true Church. He alone may declare the mind and will of God to his people. No officer of any other Church in the world had this high right and lofty prerogative.” (Church News, July 31, 1954, p. 2ff; quoted in Cowan , 452.) [Richard O. Cowan, The Church in the Twentieth Century (SLC: Bookcraft, 1985).]
We sustain the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators to the Church; but we do not consider them to be infallible. No prophet has ever been infallible, in any age of the world, nor claimed to be. A prophet is a prophet when he is acting as such, and speaks by the inspiration of heaven, as taught in this verse:
4 And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.
The question that then arises, and is often asked is, how do we know when someone who speaks is “moved upon by the Holy Ghost”? How do we know when a prophet is acting as a prophet? The answer to that question was given by President J. Reuben Clark, counsellor in the First Presidency, as follows:
“There have been rare occasions when even the President of the Church in his preaching and teaching has not been ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost.’
“. . . To this point runs a simple story my father told me as a boy, I do not know on what authority, but it illustrates the point. His story was that during the excitement incident to the coming of Johnson’s Army, Brother Brigham preached to the people in a morning meeting a sermon vibrant with defiance to the approaching army, and declaring an intention to oppose and drive them back. In the afternoon meeting he arose and said that Brigham Young had been talking in the morning, but the Lord was going to talk now. He then delivered an address, the tempo of which was the opposite from the morning talk.
“I do not know if this ever happened, but I say it illustrates a principle—that even the President of the Church, himself, may not always be ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost,’ when he addresses the people. This has happened about matters of doctrine (usually of a highly speculative character) where subsequent Presidents of the Church and the peoples themselves have felt that in declaring the doctrine, the announcer was not ‘moved upon by the Holy Ghost.’” (J. Reuben Clark Jr, “When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?”)
In other words, the membership of the Church will know within themselves, if they have the Holy Ghost as they should, whether the speaker speaks by the Holy Ghost or not, as Clark again explains:
“I have given some thought to this question, and the answer thereto so far as I can determine, is: We can tell when the speakers are “moved upon by the Holy Ghost” only when we, ourselves, are “moved upon by the Holy Ghost.” In a way, this completely shifts the responsibility from them to us to determine when they so speak.” (Ibid., 68-9.) [J. Reuben Clark, Jr., “When are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?” speech given at BYU, July 7, 1954, published in the Church News, July 31, 1954; reprinted in Dialogue, 12:2.)]
In closing I should like to add that the number of occasions when the leadership of the Church in addressing the people has not been “moved upon by the Holy Ghost” has been extremely rare. No one need suppose, from presenting the above argument, that that is a frequent occurrence. It is the principle of it that is being discussed here, not the frequency of its occurrence.
In preparing the above material I have in part made use of this article, which is gratefully acknowledged.