From time to time I’ve heard it delicately suggested that the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church curriculum is, not to put too fine a point on it, bland pablum, and stale, to boot. These pundits have not read last week’s lesson.
Tucked into the back pocket of Chapter 19 of the Wilford Woodruff manual is the following statement, primly astounding:
Now whatever I might have obtained in the shape of learning, by searching and study respecting the arts and sciences of men, whatever principles I may have imbibed during my scientific researches, yet if the prophet of God should tell me that a certain principle, or theory which I might have learned was not true, I do not care what my ideas might have been, I should consider it my duty, at the suggestion of my file leader to abandon that principle or theory.
At first glance, this statement appears to enlarge the borders of prophetic authority rather vastly, and forthwith: the prophet, Brother Woodruff contends, properly claims jurisdiction over the temporal matters of arts and sciences as well as over the spiritual matters of sin and virtue, checking without struggle the claims of conscience and reason. I would not be at all surprised to learn that this kind of epistemological coup is precisely what Brother Woodruff had in mind, although I note that the statement was made in 1857 from the office of Assistant Church Historian, and I wonder whether President Woodruff maintained the same ambitions for the office of the President that Brother Woodruff apparently did.
The Curriciulum Department’s artful use of lacunae, however, applies a different gloss to the passage as it is encountered in 2006. Two paragraphs later, we read the following:
The fact is there are a great many things taught in the building up of this kingdom which seem strange to us, being contrary to our traditions, and are calculated to try men. Brother Joseph used a great many methods of testing the integrity of men, and he taught a great many things which is consequence of tradition required prayer, faith and a testimony from the Lord before they could be believed by many of the Saints. (emphasis mine)
These sentences suggest that the nature of the prophetic claim over art and science is not epistemological but political, construed broadly. That is, when the prophet challenges the scientist, his primary struggle is not over scientific hypotheses, but over souls. This is a subtle distinction, perhaps, but nevertheless a significant concession to science: the prophet asks the Saints to fly the banner of the Kingdom when sides must be taken, but leaves the benchtop and the microscope—and the archives, libraries, and double-blind randomized trials—to others.
As it happens, the leading councils of the Church over the course of the twentieth century ceded or abandoned many of the old conflicts with the hard sciences, although significant conflicts with the social sciences and the humanities remain. Most Latter-day Saints do not presently find themselves in the acute position that Brother Woodruff sketches, required by duty to the file leader to abandon accepted scientific precepts. The larger context of the chapter suggests an unlikely source for this shift: namely, the living prophet. While prophetic authority, as we have seen, may occasionally constrain scientific inquiry, it also frees us from slavishly literal readings of the Bible : when “Follow the Prophet” replaces sola scriptura, we need not require that scientific truth conform to, say, a literal reading of a pre-scientific Semitic cosmogony. Latter-day Saints are thus spared, for instance, the endless and endlessly tiresome wrangles over creationism. The Seer, the Book, and the microscope share the benchtop, for now.