“All things shall be done by common consent”

Within the corpus of J. Golden Kimball folklore, there is a story of Elder Kimball getting bored during a long process of sustaining officers at a stake conference somewhere south of Provo, Utah.  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 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 screeched in his magpie voice: “Just how in the hell do you people propose we get Mount Nebo into Utah Lake?”

I enjoy the story because it does highlight some interesting things about the nature of sustaining votes in Latter-day Saint culture.  By raising our hands to sustain officers or policies in conferences in the Church, we fulfil the instructions found in the July 1830 revelation (now Section 26) that “all things shall be done by common consent in the Church by much prayer & faith.”[1]  At this point in our history, however, these sustaining votes are largely perfunctory and a manner of routine rather than truly seeking common consent among Church members, hence the boredom and subsequent trickery during the stake conference with Elder Kimball.  In a way, that seems to have to do with a shift in the way we understand the phrase and process.

In the context of the Church in 1830, the indications are that saying that “all things shall be done by common consent in the Church” meant that Church leaders had to seek and have the agreement of Church membership in order to enact policies.  As the Joseph Smith Papers website indicates in the footnote for the passage in the revelation: “The term ‘common consent’ likely referred to seeking the agreement of church members for a particular course of action.”  For example, in recalling the day the Church of Christ was organized, Joseph Smith recorded that: “We proceeded, (according to previous commandment) to call on our brethren to know whether they accepted us as their teachers in the things of the Kingdom of God, and whether they were satisfied that we should proceed and be organized as a Church according to said commandment which we had received. To these they consented by an unanimous vote.”[2]  The same process was followed in 1835 to accept the Doctrine and Covenants—a group of Church leaders gathered to examine the Doctrine and Covenants and concluded that it was “necessary to call the general assembly of the Church to see whether the book be approved or not by the authoroties of the church, that it may, if approved, become a law unto the church, and a rule of faith and a practice unto the same.”  At a conference on 17 August 1835, the book was presented by Oliver Cowdery to the general assembly of the Church, then voting proceeded by quorums and groups, followed by the entire Church membership present.[3]  In both of these cases, voting was required to accept individuals as leaders or scriptures as canon by the Church.

It appears that the same understanding existed at the turn of the twentieth century and played a role in the Reed Smoot hearings.  During those proceedings, President Joseph F. Smith stated that: “No revelation given through the head of the church ever becomes binding and authoritative upon members of the church until it has been presented to the church and accepted by them.”[4]  President Francis Lyman likewise affirmed that:

The Lord has directed that in all our transactions of business everything must be done by common consent; that the president or the prophet or the apostles can not take matters in their own hands, even if it comes from the Lord, and carry it in spite of the people.  They have their rights and their rights are respected, and their agency is respected.[5]

These affirmations do seem to follow the understanding of doing things by “common consent” as looking to Church membership and only acting with their approval.

Yet, there is some conflict here between this democratic approach to governing the Church and the realities of being led by prophets, seers, and revelators.  On the one hand, requiring common consent in this way seems to indicate that the phrase vox populi, vox dei (“the voice of the people is the voice of God”) rules in the Church.  And, to some extent, there is truth to that idea—if that common consent is achieved by “by much prayer & faith,” as the revelation suggests, then the collective membership of the Church should be able to arrive at an understanding of God’s will and prevent one man (or 15 men) from taking the Church in a direction that is contrary to God’s will.  Yet, functionally, being led by a prophet speaking for God is more akin to a divine right monarchy than a democracy.  It raises the question—how can we reject the actions of someone we see as God’s mouthpiece without that rejection being seen as a rejection of God Himself?  We see some of the tension from trying to incorporate both aspects in our religion in the fact that in a revelation received not long before the one cited at the outset of this discussion and canonized as Section 24, we read that Joseph Smith is commanded to “go speedily unto the Church which is in Colesvill Fayette & Manchester & they shall support thee,” with an accompanying threat that if they do not, “I will send upon them a cursing instead of a blessing.”[6]  This creates a tension of requiring the voice of the people to affirm that the course the Church leaders are taking is appropriate while also setting up the expectation that the decisions of Church leaders are guided by God and that Church members are going against God’s will if they reject those decisions.

This tension was highlighted during the proceedings of the Reed Smoot hearings.  When President Lyman made his statement about being governed by common consent, as cited above, the senator that was interrogating him asked: “One of the articles of the Mormon faith is, is it, that the Lord is a being of limited power and in some respects of less power than the Mormon conference.  Is that true?”  He highlighted that if someone were called by God and rejected by the people of the Church, “then you would regard it, would you not, to be your duty in that particular case to obey the voice of the people in opposition to the expressed revealed will of the Lord?”  While President Lyman stated that the voting was done because “the Lord has so ordered” and that he believed that the people of the Church will not “reject any that the Lord presents,” the senator quipped in return that this still meant that the people had “a sort of veto power over the Lord.”[7]

The quip caught on in Utah, and so, Elder B. H. Roberts felt the need to respond to the senator’s representation of our faith’s system of common consent.  He said:

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!

His direct response to the idea of a “veto power over the Lord” was that voting didn’t determine the truth or the Lord’s will, only the “relationship of the members to that truth,”[8] but that God wanted it to be that way to respect the agency of Church members.

As mentioned above, I don’t think the raising of hands in conferences was intended as a function of deciding whether we assent to the truth by accepting the will of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve or not, but collectively determining whether they are truly revealing the will of God.  President Brigham Young taught something along these lines when he said: “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. … 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.”[9]  The expectation here is that we are to take the sustaining of officers, policies, and revelation as being in line with God’s will seriously and seek to know for ourselves if they are indeed in line with God’s will.

Yet, realistically, Church leaders govern the Church without waiting for votes by the general membership. For example, the policy announced in Official Declaration #2 came into effect when it was announced by Church leaders rather than after sustaining action during general conference—the first ordinations of black men after the press release on 9 June 1978 took place on 11 June, while the official acceptance of the declaration by the Church took place months later, on 30 September 1978.[10]  Likewise, many of the revelations accepted as authoritative when the Doctrine and Covenants was voted upon in 1835 were put into action and practice long before the 1835 vote to accept the Doctrine and Covenants as canon was taken (sending people on missions, organizing the Church’s structure and systems, etc.). “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” has likewise been, as President Dallin H. Oaks stated, “the basis of Church teaching and practice for the last 22 years and will continue so for the future” without any noticeable efforts to seek approval from the general membership of the Church on the subject.[11]  Even when a vote for common consent is sought, the expectation has, historically, been that everyone will unanimously support it.  For example, one 19th century poem by a Latter-day Saint contrasted the strife of a “a gentile election” with the “The United Uplift of the Hand” found among the saints, who “hail the glad truths with delight” whenever “the servants of God to our judgments appeal.”[12]  Most of the time, it seems that Church leaders move forward with decisions without waiting to do all things by common consent beforehand, likely expecting the majority of Church members to accept their decisions.

Perhaps this is part of the reasoning for the subtle shift in rhetoric over the years that is represented in how the “Come, Follow Me” manual handles the statement in the 1830 revelation.  In the manual’s commentary on D&C 26:2, we read:

When members receive callings or priesthood ordinations in the Church, we have the opportunity to formally sustain them by raising our hands as a show of support. The principle of demonstrating public support and agreement is called common consent. As President Gordon B. Hinckley taught, “The procedure of sustaining is much more than a ritualistic raising of the hand. It is a commitment to uphold, to support, to assist those who have been selected.”[13]

While the basic action and way it is discussed is still rooted in terms of seeking to know if members agree with decisions, the common consent discussed here seems to be more about members pledging to support and agree with decisions of Church leaders rather than putting the decisions of Church leaders to a test by vote to see if they will be supported.  The burden, it could be said, has shifted from the brethren needing to lead in a way that the people in the Church are willing to support, to the members of the Church being required to support Church leaders by the raise of hands and in their subsequent actions.

In any case, it’s a difficult tension to balance in our religion, given that many active members believe that the leaders of the Church are often inspired and directed by God.  These days it would also be difficult to truly gain unanimous common consent in a worldwide church—both for being able to count the vote (as large as the Conference Center in Salt Lake City is, it can only hold a small fraction of the Church’s total membership) and for the diversity of views held by members of the Church.  Thus, the shift from seeing the raising of hands as a way to check for support among Church members to a way for Church members to pledge their loyalty is, perhaps, a logical approach to resolving the dilemma posed by trying to combine democratic approaches to government with a theocratic system.  To some degree, however, I suspect we will see both approaches to the phrase “common consent” being held by Church members and that expressing common consent will be exercised at times as a way to express both support or opposition to propositions by Church leaders when given the opportunity to do so “by much prayer & faith.”  My hope would be that doing so would prevent any Saturday mountain-moving/lake-filling activities suggested by general authorities.

 

Further Reading:

Book of Mormon Central, “Come Follow Me 2021 Doctrine and Covenants 23-26”

Kent Larsen, “Lit Come Follow Me: D&C 23-26,” Times and Seasons 9 March 2021

Emma Smith, “We are Going to Do Something Extraordinary,” in At the Pulpit

 

Footnotes:

[1] “Revelation, July 1830–B [D&C 26],” p. 34, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 10, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-july-1830-b-dc-26/1.  See also D&C 28:13.

[2] “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” p. 37, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 10, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-a-1-23-december-1805-30-august-1834/43

[3] See “Minute Book 1,” p. 98, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed September 6, 2020, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/minute-book-1/102

[4] Joseph F. Smith in the Reed Smoot Trial, 1904, cited in Richard S. Van Wagoner, Steven C. Walker, and Allen D. Roberts: “The ‘Lectures on Faith’: A Case Study in Decanonization,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, v. 20, No. 3, p. 74, https://dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V20N03_73.pdf

[5] Proceedings before the Committee on Privileges and Election of the United States Senate: in the matter of the protests against the right of Hon. Reed Smoot, a senator from the state of Utah, to hold his seat [Jan. 16, 1904-April 13, 1906],” https://archive.org/stream/proceedingsbefor01unitrich/proceedingsbefor01unitrich_djvu.txt.

[6] “Revelation, July 1830–A [D&C 24],” p. 32, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed March 10, 2021, https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/revelation-july-1830-a-dc-24/1

[7] Proceedings before the Committee on Privileges and Election of the United States Senate: in the matter of the protests against the right of Hon. Reed Smoot, a senator from the state of Utah, to hold his seat [Jan. 16, 1904-April 13, 1906],” https://archive.org/stream/proceedingsbefor01unitrich/proceedingsbefor01unitrich_djvu.txt.

[8] B. H. Roberts, “Relation of Inspiration and Revelation to Church Government,” Improvement Era, March 1905, 361-364.

[9] Journal of Discourses, 3:45, Brigham Young, October 6, 1855.

[10] See Edward L. Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball and the Revelation on Priesthood,” BYU 47:2, https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/spencer-w-kimball-and-revelation-priesthood.

[11] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Plan and the Proclamation,” CR October 2017, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2017/10/the-plan-and-the-proclamation?lang=eng

[12] S.S.J. Provo (1867), “The United Uplift of Hand,” cited by Ardis E. Parshall, Keepatitchinin, 12 June 2012, http://www.keepapitchinin.org/2012/06/12/the-united-uplift-of-the-hand/.  See also Kent Larsen, “Lit Come Follow Me: D&C 23-26,” Times and Seasons 9 March 2021.

[13] https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/come-follow-me-for-individuals-and-families-doctrine-and-covenants-2021/11?lang=eng

12 comments for ““All things shall be done by common consent”

  1. As an older member, I often don’t clearly hear the names of those being sustained, sometimes by someone whose first language was not English. Yet I always raise my hand in support, having confidence that what is being done is the best that can be done given the needs of the calling, the needs of the person being sustained, and the sincere desires of the stake or ward leadership to do what is right. I am comfortable with this understanding, but wonder if the perfunctory performance of the sustaining is the best we can do.

  2. “we believe that the leaders of the Church are directed and inspired by God”

    To the extent I’ve observed, it would be more accurate to say “many active members believe that the leaders of the Church at all levels are sometimes inspired and occasionally directed by God.” The broader generalization seems to fly in the face of the reality of doctrines, teachings and opinions, policies, and procedures changing over time and in the face of the reality of releases and excommunications of some leaders of the Church.

    There seems to be a wide variety of definitions of “sustain,” some explicit, but many merely implicit in the subsequent actions and beliefs of people who do raise their hands. Many do not seem to think it essential to accept either GBH’s or RMN’s definitions of “sustain”. (RMN: ““Our sustaining of prophets is a personal commitment that we will do our utmost to uphold their prophetic priorities.” Of course, there have also been significant differences of opinion as to which of their priorities are “prophetic” or in what sense they were “prophetic.”)

    Even as a “pledge of loyalty” it would seem that for some that pledge means accepting the fact that the leaders called are in positions of leadership of the church and being willing to deal with such leaders’ decisions as best they can until those leaders are no longer in those positions. It seems for some to include accepting the fact that leaders’ decisions are the policies and practices of the Church, but not necessarily that such policies and practices were directed by or even approved by God. I’m thinking, e.g., of the November 2015 announcements by some stake presidents that they would not follow the mandatory disciplinary council policy that was part of the November 2015 handbook changes, and of published criticism of those changes by people who raised their hands and who do believe they “sustain” their leaders. There are, of course, numerous less blatant examples.

    It does seem that the meaning of “common consent” to the Brethren “has shifted from the brethren needing to lead in a way that the people in the Church are willing to support, to the members of the Church being [subject to demands that they] support Church leaders [and their decisions, right or wrong] by the raise of hands and in their subsequent actions.” I don’t think the tension is resolvable, but that it will continue to play out in habitual or socially-pressured raising of hands that sometimes means nothing much as to beliefs or subsequent actions, and in intentional raising of hands with varied definitions of “sustain” in mind, and in a conscious declining by some to raise their hands in support or opposition, and occasionally in some hands or voices in opposition.

  3. You opening observation is a fair criticism JR. I’ll update the post to be a bit more accurate, along the lines of your suggestion.

  4. I have been questioned in a temple recommend interview why I was not sustaining all the ward callings. I explained that I had no one in young mens, or womens, and often didn’t recognise the names so didn’t vote.

    He said it would look better if I just sustain his decisions.

    There are 3 options; sustain, don’t vote, oppose. We have a stake president in his early 40s, who has been having seizure. He has been SP for 10 years, and I would be voting for his release. His father as an area authority when he died of brain cancer in his late 50s. But we will be meeting on line, so no one will notice.

    I see Pres Uchtdorfs family donated to the Biden campaign. I would like to know where the others stood, because I would have trouble sustaining someone with the moral judgement to vote for Trump.

  5. The General Conference reports of the first decade of the 1900s contain a number of assurances that members should feel free to vote their conscience when officers were presented. When read next to modern statements about common consent, there is a stark contrast. This may be because a major concern of that decade was trying to satisfy the U.S. government that the Church did not present a threat to the government. Along those lines, my favorite document is “An Address to the Word,” which was read at the April 1907 General Conference, and was a defense of a number of Church doctrines and policies. Touching on common consent, it stated:

    “We deny the existence of arbitrary power in the Church…Nominations to Church office may be made by revelation; and the right of nomination is usually exercised by those holding high authority, but it is a law that no person is to be ordained to any office in the Church, where there is a regularly organized branch of the same, without the vote of its members. This law is operative as to all the officers of the Church, from the president down to the deacon. The ecclesiastical government itself exists by the will of the people; elections are frequent, and the members are at liberty to vote as they choose. True, the elective principle here operates by popular acceptance, rather than through popular selection, but it is none the less real. Where the foregoing facts exist as to any system, it is not and cannot be arbitrary.”

    After the document was read to the congregation, Church leaders moved that it be adopted and accepted. The vote was unanimous in doing so. And then I guess it was basically forgotten, since I don’t think I’ve ever seen it referenced or included among historical statements of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

    It is ironic that modern explanations of common consent contradict a document that was adopted by common consent, and I think it is a nice illustration of the tension identified in the original post.

  6. I think this is a much talked about and little understood principle. Two things led me to consider it more seriously a few years ago. First, callings or advancements in priesthood; I decided that since I don’t belong to the quorums or organization in any way, that I had no right or reason to vote. Second, when large organizational sustainings contained the phrase “[and all others] as now constituted” and I had no way to know who all those others were, that I also could not affirm. I’m very enthusiastic to give ” a vote of thanks” but sustainings take a lot more thought. As a single, older woman, my vote/non-vote is probably not noticed anyway.

  7. The destruction/removal of historic murals and art (Including Minerva Teichart’s works) in the Salt Lake And Manti Temples (announced two days ago) and the ending of live acted endowments has been anything but by common consent. Nearly all online comments are horrified. There will be no sustaining vote about this, no reaction from the cloistered halls of the church office building, no recourse for the saints. And precious, irreplaceable pieces of our shared cultural history have already been smashed up for the installation of projection screens for “increase efficiency”.

    Whatever scriptural and historical precedent there may have been for the voice of the people is no more.

    You didn’t include President Nelson’s recent comment on sustaining votes in general conference, which basically discouraged any opposed, and clarified the symbolic- non-functional value of said votes.

  8. Mortimer, for clarity, which comment from President Nelson are you talking about?

  9. 2014 Conference, Russell M Nelson

    “When we sustain prophets and other leaders, we invoke the law of common consent, for the Lord said, ‘It shall not be given to any one to go forth to preach my gospel, or to build up my church, except he be ordained by some one who has authority, and it is known to the church that he has authority and has been regularly ordained by the heads of the church.’

    This gives us, as members of the Lord’s Church, confidence and faith as we strive to keep the scriptural injunction to heed the Lord’s voice as it comes through the voice of His servants the prophets. All leaders in the Lord’s Church are called by proper authority. No prophet or any other leader in this Church, for that matter, has ever called himself or herself. No prophet has ever been elected. The Lord made that clear when He said, “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you.” You and I do not “vote” on Church leaders at any level. We do, though, have the privilege of sustaining them.“

  10. That’s a pretty narrow re-interpretation of common consent…God leads everything church leaders do, but we have the privilege of sustaining them. (This talk came in the wake of controversial opposing votes having been cast in general conference which caused massive push-back from conservative members who felt that unanimous voting was part of the religious tradition and that opposed votes were spiritually disruptive to the peace of the meeting.

  11. Yeah, that is a pretty narrow interpretation of common consent, Mortimer. That would have been a great quote to have worked into the post and thank you for bringing it (and the context of the quote) into the discussion.

    The word consent itself means to “give permission for something to happen” or “agreement to do something”, which really is a bit more broad than pledging to support anything that Church leaders do because we’re confident they are led by God. Common consent, in the sense of requiring the agreement of everyone, is not a convenient way to govern, however, especially in a large organization that claims that God is directing its leaders. So, the re-interpretation by President Nelson and President Hinckley seems to be a way to try and resolve that tension by shifting the meaning of common consent to something more compatible with how they feel the Church should be run. And it is kind of in line with one definition of consent in the 1828 Webster dictionary, which is “a yielding of the mind or will to that which is proposed.”

    Personally, I feel drawn to the idea of common consent meaning that I have a say in how the Church is run (and I wish I could say that I feel like I do), but I also recognize where Church leaders are coming from in how they are approaching the issue.

  12. Interesting remark in the press release for the leadership session:

    This is the first time Area Seventies have been introduced for a sustaining vote in a leadership meeting of general conference. Previously, the vote was usually done on the Saturday of general conference weekend. These new Area Seventies will also be sustained as a group during general conference. This new approach continues to fulfill the law of common consent as described in section 42 of the Doctrine and Covenants: “It shall not be given to any one to go forth to preach my gospel, or to build up my church, except he be ordained by some one who has authority, and it is known to the church that he has authority and has been regularly ordained by the heads of the church.” (https://newsroom.churchofjesuschrist.org/article/april-2021-general-conference-leadership-meeting)

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