Zelophehad’s Daughters

Contemporary Mormonism and the Magic General Authority

Posted by Eve

Because I have polygamous pioneer ancestors and am therefore related to an immoderate number of other Mormons, and because I grew up in Utah, attended BYU, and spent two months in the MTC, I’ve experienced more than my fair share of General Authority sightings. None were spectacular or even particularly personal, so “encounters” would be too strong a word.

For instance: my childhood ward included a GA’s daughter, and her father periodically attended to assist at the blessings of her children. Over the years the ward and stake were variously configured to include the children and grandchildren of past prophets and current apostles. I don’t recall any strange incidents resulting from these connections, but a few years ago President Hinckley attended my in-laws’ ward to set his grandson apart as bishop, and evidently as soon as word got out half of the valley fell all over themselves to attend, while the regular ward members had trouble getting in. I found myself uncomfortable with some of the excessive and absolutely sincere discourse that emerged from that occasion. (Is the sacrament more efficacious if blessed in the presence of the prophet, I couldn’t help but wonder?) Similarly, at BYU I once had a meeting with a professor preempted by a GA, and the secretary who called me to cancel suggested we all hang around the office door to catch a glimpse of the poor man and let his special blessings radiate out onto us.

When I was at the MTC, I never had much desire to stand in line and shake the GAs’ hands after they spoke at Tuesday-night devotionals. Partly this was a matter of personal reserve; I don’t particularly enjoy brief, superficial interactions with anyone, no matter how interesting that person might be on longer acquaintance. I think it would be fascinating to sit down and have an extended, heartfelt conversation with a General Authority, and I’d definitely have some questions to pose, but simply standing in line to shake someone’s hand has never much appealed to me. For one things, I like my space and privacy, and I tend to assume others do as well. Refraining from mobbing someone seems to me a fairly basic way of respecting him or her.

I respect the prophetic and apostolic offices, and I believe in appropriate expressions of that respect. But I also have to wonder if it’s right to treat the prophets and apostles with greater respect and deference than we do our ordinary brothers and sisters from whom we have no hope of spectacular spiritual outpourings. It seems to me that there’s a strain of latent idolatry in the way we sometimes treat GAs–as if they themselves were magical and infallible, rather than the human bearers of prophetic mantles. Such a view seems both deeply unfair to the General Authorities themselves, who surely don’t want to be people’s idols, and ever more problematic in our increasingly worldwide church. How many Mormons may ever only see a prophet or apostle once in their lives? Are they therefore less blessed by God than Utahns with greater access to the church hierarchy?

Many of us know of people who elbow their way to the GAs for extra-special blessings. A number of years ago I attended girls’ camp as part of my YW calling, and a woman got up at the evening devotional to explain that when she learned she was infertile, she insisted on flying out to Utah to meet with a member of the Seventy to get a blessing that had, so far, resulted in three children and (she just knew) was about to result in a fourth. I cringed, not least of all for the stake YW president sitting right beside her whose infertility had not been spectacularly healed by a high church official. Similarly, I’ve known of situations in which, for example, a CES employee was able to arrange for a mentally ill child to meet with a member of the Seventy. But what about all the infertile women, mentally ill children, variously troubled Mormons the world over who have no hope of access to a GA? Does God honor the blessings of GAs more than those of ordinary local priesthood holders? Are these distant Mormons simply relegated to a less blessed state? That unhappy conclusion seems an inevitable consequence of a certain magical view of General Authorities.

I do believe in the power of prophetic authority, although I don’t have an intellectually coherent view of precisely in what, that authority consists. (I’ll leave such questions to our resident scholars of religion Lynnette and Kiskilili). But I instinctively dislike the elitism and the fawning that inevitably seem to accompany the magical conception of prophethood.

Doesn’t the gift of the Holy Ghost make God equally accessible to us all–black and white, bond and free, male and female, close to or far from the magical GA?

36 Responses to “Contemporary Mormonism and the Magic General Authority”

  1. 1.

    My loudmouth two cents is that the priesthood is the priesthood. A priesthood blessing by a GA or by one’s worthy husband is the same in the sight of the Lord. If it were not so, the Lord would be a supremely unjust God.

    Amen to all you have said so beautifully.

  2. 2.

    They just read a letter in our sacrament reminding people that this kind of thinking is silly and that letters sent to Salt Lake will be sent back to the stake level.We’ve had at least one conference talk about it in recent memory, so I hope that the culture is starting to change. I didn’t grow up in Utah and will never understand this sort of adoration. They’re just people with callings, just like the rest of us.

  3. 3.

    This reminds me of the cult of Mao in China a few decades ago. I read a book (I forget the title), that included an account of an event at which Mao spoke to a large crowd. He shook hands with several people in the front row, and then those people turned and shook hands with those behind them, and so on. The author described the wave of euphoria that passed throughout the crowd with the passing of Mao’s magical touch. It was this fabulous example of collective effervescence.

    I don’t think the GA’s are trying to cultivate this sort of thing. They’re willing to serve and teach, but I think if they’re successful at their mission, we won’t need to rely on them so heavily as an intermediary between us and God. We’ll be able to communicate with Him, and feel His spirit directly.

  4. 4.

    A bit off topic but I was once in RS when the teacher asked the question about how many celebrity names we could match with their photo (a lot). Now how man GA’s could we do the same for? We spent the entire time in mini groups playing “match the photo to the GA’s name” game. It was so trivial I coudl’ve screamed. Let’s see… this is teaching me WHAT?? I should’ve walked out, gone home, and taken a nap.

  5. 5.

    Great post! Some thoughts:

    FoxyJ, they read that letter to us too. And this is what I wonder whenever it gets read: why, if the GA’s don’t want letters sent to them, do they quote them all the time in talks? President Hinckley and President Monson have both given talks citing letters written to them. Does citing letters in talks encourage letter-writing?

    Should there be a different standard of GA interaction for longtime members than there is for relatively recent converts? My SIL is a convert of ten years from Argentina, and as they worked to build the Church her family became good friends with the seventy who was over their area. She asked him to seal her, and did not see anything at all inappropriate about it, as she had had quite a bit of interaction with him at home. He seemed glad to do it. And the priesthood is the priesthood, and I’m just as sealed as she is, but the talk he gave was the most amazing sealing talk I’ve ever heard.

    I think there are some people who really need that interaction, who get added strength to their testimonies. I know there are some entitled-to-blessings GA groupies, and that’s scary. I myself am not a GA groupie–I’d rather have a heartfelt conversation, as you say. But I think there are other people, who are seeking needed blessings, and who are really benefited by the GA’s willingness to shake a few hands and offer some blessings.

  6. 6.

    It’s always amazing to me to hear people rave about GA’s. It’s kind of like how I feel about Bruce Springsteen. The most significant spiritual experience I’ve ever had was at a Bruce Springsteen concert in Houston, during the song “Land of Hope and Dreams.” During the part where he sang, “I will provide for you, and I’ll stay by your side; you’ll need a good companion for this part of the ride…” a wave of heat came over me that started at the top of my head and coursed through me and down to my feet and I started to cry.

    So, I guess I understand how these people feel. I’d elbow my way to the front of a room to meet Bruce.

  7. 7.

    Why, if the GA’s don’t want letters sent to them, do they quote them all the time in talks? President Hinckley and President Monson have both given talks citing letters written to them. Does citing letters in talks encourage letter-writing?

    They didn’t say don’t write them. They basically said (this was a worldwide letter) that “go to your bishop and stake president for these issues, don’t go over their heads, the SP can contact us if he needs help”.

    You’d be surprised at how many people with ties to GAs think that they can use their personal connections to trump whatever their SP says.

    So continue to write the GAs. Just please try to be observant of the priesthood order.

  8. 8.

    I think this is the form of social climbing that is acceptable among Mormons. Status is conferred when you know GAs personally or are related to them, or only have one degree of separation from them.

    I harbor a secret hope that someday we will have a president of the church who has a misanthropic streak. People will crowd around him one too many times waving their hankies and he will blow a gasket and tell them all to grow the he(ck) up. Why does it not occur to anybody that one way to respect the office these men hold is to respect their privacy? I cannot imagine how bizarre it would be to not even be able to go to the grocery store without a complete stranger running up to you to ramble on and on about how much it meant to the family when you performed the marriage for great aunt Gertie 20 years ago. Let’s remember, many of these people are old, with all kinds of aches and pains. It is selfish and thoughtless of us to make demands upon them, and the fact that we impose on them as we do betrays a spiritual immaturity.

    I once met a member of the presiding bishopric in the men’s room at the airport in Boise, ID. (cue the Larry Craig jokes) I had really liked his talk in the previous conference, and I almost said something to him. Then I felt sorry for him when I realized how awkward and awful must it be when people you don’t even know walk up to you in airport lavatories and attempt to engage you in conversation. So I take satisfaction in the knowledge that I allowed him to use the facilities in peace. And I didn’t try to shake his hand, either.

  9. 9.

    p.s. to my earlier post: Does part of this desire to speak to General Authorities also come from an earlier time, when the Church was smaller and it was not considered presumptuous to speak to General Authorities? In my husband’s grandfather’s personal history, he tells how Apostle Matthew Cowley used to come to their mission reunions, and enjoy them. He mentions other instances of contact with the Brethren that would be inappropriate today, imo, but that were not uncalled for, and even welcomed, seventy years ago.

  10. 10.

    Eve, so well put. I have thought these same things.

  11. 11.

    “Doesn’t the gift of the Holy Ghost make God equally accessible to us all–black and white, bond and free, male and female, close to or far from the magical GA?”

    Amen. My heart goes out to those brethren and sisters who find themselves with such burdens of leadership, and such weird and alienating fame. I think about the story in Alma when he goes to the city that rejects him — they say, “we know who you are, and we just don’t care” — and part of me wonders if that wasn’t a bit of a relief to Alma (at least, temporarily).

  12. 12.

    My father says that Elder Nelson was recently at one of their stake conferences, and he got up, looked at everyone and said “I really don’t know why I’m here.”

    Maybe we should give them a weekend or two off. I can’t imagine the terrible burden they’re under to travel to farflung places every weekend.

    Plus, the last GA talk I heard at stake conference was really kind of terrible.

  13. 13.

    I harbor a secret hope that someday we will have a president of the church who has a misanthropic streak.

    I harbor a secret hope that one day we’ll get one who will talk about his childhood in Salt Lake City was really pretty crappy and he didn’t feel comfortable until after he left.

  14. 14.

    Great post Eve.

  15. 15.

    I agree with you that this seems silly that people look to higher authorities for “purer” blessings, and frankly it works. Not because the priesthood differs from one’s husband, bishop or the prophet himself, but upon one’s own faith in the priesthood blessing. I think that is at least in part why people look to general authorities for those hard-to-cure problems, because they don’t have the faith that those people they know have the ability to rid them of those problems, and as self-fulfilling their own prophecy, because of their own lack of faith in their local leaders, nothing happens. This creates a vicious legacy of GA’s miraculously healing things that other priesthood leaders just couldn’t take care of.

    As far as the idolatry linked with GA’s, I think that internationally this may be a bit of cultural carryover from other religions. I served my mission in Colombia and it wasn’t out of place to see President Hinkley’s picture take the place of the Saint Thomas or Mary statues in convert’s houses. From a catholic cultural standpoint carried over into mormonism, the prophet is man’s link to God and therefore fulfills the same shifting signifiers that were the catholic saints. I’m not saying that this is just part of convert culture, but I think that the idolization of the GA’s is much more prevalent in those circles.

  16. 16.

    I had dinner last night with a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy (cozy little affair of about 16), and left with a reminder that he’s just a man like all the rest of the men in that room who has a particularly demanding (and long lasting) calling. Seven of the past 11 years have been spent outside the U.S., and all kinds of family events (births, baptisms, graduations) have been missed because of it. Any man (and his wife) who will do that and maintain a sense of humor (as the man last night did) deserves our gratitude.

    But I didn’t leave feeling that we should bow down to him. That’s reserved for the Generals in the War in Heaven. And he said he had been a buck sergeant.

  17. 17.

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. You really said it all in your last sentence. These men (and women) are placed in their positions because of their leadership ability and because of the expertise and experience they have to share. There will be room in the Celestial Kingdom for all who have the faith to get there. It’s not a competition or a status symbol.

  18. 18.

    Great post Eve. One of the most troubling things I ever heard in an elders’ quorum lesson (okay, maybe that’s a bit of an exageration) was when a guy opened his comment with “some general authority counseled us to (fill in the blank). I don’t remember who the GA was, but if he was a GA, I know he must be smarter than me.” Really? So being a GA means you are smarter than everyone else, just by default? Troubling.

    (BTW, Hey Mark IV — how’s it going?)

  19. 19.

    Glenn!! Things are fine with me, et vous?

    Ixtlilxochitl says hello!

  20. 20.

    I had roommates at BYU who would line up to shake the hand of whatever GA was giving a fireside/devotional and then claim that they’d never wash their hand again. (I hope they didn’t go through with the plan!)

    I’m a bit baffled by the tendency to take the opinions of GAs as direct manifestations of the mind of God–especially when those opinions are explicitly stated as such. I had seminary teachers who said things like, ”I know he said it was only his opinion, but don’t you think we should trust the opinion of an apostle over our own thinking?” And I would think, the poor GAs–even when they go out of their way to clarify that they’re only giving their personal views, their words get treated as revelation. If we’re going to hang on their every word, it seem that we should at the very least include their comments to the effect that they’re not qualitatively different from the rest of us.

    I also have a hard time when the current prophet is cited as the most righteous person in the world. We don’t think that on the local level–I don’t think anyone would take it well if someone suggested that the bishop must be the most righteous person in the ward. So–despite my great respect for President Monson–I don’t understand why that would be the case on the general level, either.

    Here’s another classic problem scenario: a GA reads some information in a secular book, and mentions it in a Conference talk. As it turns out, the information is inaccurate. But now it’s been shared by a GA, in Conference, which gives it a sort of quasi-canonical status. Does that mean we’re morally bound to believe it, even if “worldly” scholarship would suggest that it’s faulty? I’ve certainly met people who would say yes–even though the original GA statement was very likely also a product of “worldly” scholarship.

    Some strands of Protestantism get accused of committing idolatry by worshiping the Bible, centering their faith on it instead of God. There could be some interesting parallels here to the role of GAs in some strands of Mormonism, I think. (This seems related to jupiterschild’s recent intriguing post over at FPR on prophetic and scriptural authority.)

  21. 21.

    While perhaps the simple faith in the “magical GA” is not the ideal, it seems clear to me that such faith is acceptable to God.

    What of the woman in the crowd who touched Jesus robe in faith that she would be healed? What about similar accounts of people touching the apostle Peter?

    Clearly God has a soft spot in His heart for shallow people – which should be a great comfort to all of us here.

  22. 22.

    I have a secret theory that ga worship is a result of an increasingly impossible acheive definition of being a good Mormon. We like the idea of that level of perfection, but since we’ll never actually acheive it we worship those who we assume have acheived it.

    Of course, a simpler explanation is that we live in a celebrity-obsessed society. GA worship is a very natural extension of this.

  23. 23.

    I like your theory Adam. This is all very similar to the elevated status (and you used a great word Eve — “magical”) that is popularly given to sacred objects, like garments or consecrated oil. Rather than looking at these things as symbols — things that represent powerful ideas — they are looked at magical objects — things that have real power in and of themselves. It’s called simulacrum (I think) when we cross that line from symbolic to litereal in our objects of worship. I think the GA thing is very similar.

    Ixtlilxochitl — you should drop in and say hello. Maybe give us all an update on how President Hinckley is doing with those special skills of yours. Things have been quite, um, dusty lately. :)

  24. 24.

    This is a great post, Eve. I’m wondering how our magical thinking as mormons applies to not just GAs but priesthood in general. You allude to this when you say

    Doesn’t the gift of the Holy Ghost make God equally accessible to us all–black and white, bond and free, male and female, close to or far from the magical GA?

    When it comes to blessings, I’m not wholly convinced that my husband giving me a blessing when I’m sick is any more efficacious than me praying over him when he is. Why should it be? I can’t imagine the God I believe in saying, too bad for you, accident victim on the side of the road, no one holding the priesthood is around to give you a blessing, and therefore these prayers others are issuing in your behalf are worthless.

    In the same vein, is someone less blessed when I pray with them as a RS president or VT (or friend?) in their home than they would be if I were there as Bishop, HT, or male priesthood holding friend?

  25. 25.

    Claire, my own view is that such questions are answered by the maxim “God is not a jerk.”

  26. 26.

    Glenn,

    Oh, Ixtlilxochitl emails me all the time. At last report, Gordon B. and Marjorie P. Hinckley were seen wearing tie-dye t-shirts and riding matching Harley-Davidson motorcycles on a cross country tour of church temples. If anybody tries to wave a handkerchief in their faces, they give him the Mad Max treatment.

  27. 27.

    I have an amusing anecdote. (Amusing to me, anyway.)

    Living in Zion as I do, it’s not unusual to see general authorities around town, at cultural events, etc. One evening at the opera, my husband and I found ourselves seated next to one of the 12. (He was very personable and down-to-earth, for the record.) A local celebrity was working the crowd and paused to chat with Elder X and shake hands with those around. After he had moved on, the lady sitting in front of Elder X turned around and exclaimed, “Oh, I’m so glad you were sitting here, because we got to meet Mr. Celebrity!”

    Back on topic, I have some in-laws who have family connections to others of the 12 and have called upon them to perform sealings. It made me pretty uncomfortable to receive an e-mail announcement beginning, “W. and I will be sealed by Elder Z …” (As it turned out, Elder Z had an emergency that morning and sent another sealer in his stead.)

  28. 28.

    Living in Zion as I do, it’s not unusual to see general authorities around town,

    Hmm. I wasn’t aware that we had that many GAs living in North Texas…

  29. 29.

    I think when people finally get to the point where they live on their own light and the Holy Ghost burns in their bones, they move beyond the point of thinking GA’s are magic, larger than life guys. I think they finally see them for what they are. Regular people who have the weight of the keys of the kingdom on their shoulders trying to do the best they can to build faith in the Lord among the people and trying to steer the Church in the direction the Lord is trying to take it. If that isn’t magic in itself to pull off that miracle, I don’t know what is. But I don’t need to treat them like rockstars, but I certainly would get up and stand on my feet if they walked in the room in respect for the huge burden that is on their shoulders. Praise to the men who commune with Jehovah. These are true messengers sent from God.

  30. 30.

    Thanks, enjoyed reading your words. Along w/you I would love to have a great heartfelt talk w/a GA or perhaps be in a situation to be invited to the same dinner (such as Mark experienced). But I’m sure there won’t be any “Meals w/the GA’s” coming up anytime soon!!

    The experiences you shared about people getting “higher” priesthood reminded me of something that happened some time ago. A brother in our ward had a serious injury happen to him at work. So the wife or someone called the home teachers to come give a blessing. (I heard this second hand due to calling I had at time so unsure of who called the ht’s, must have been someone else) Well Both of these good men left their jobs that day, in order to perform the blessing.

    Then it turns out the Bishop and Stake Pres (who I love and admire as someone I think could totally be a GA if he lived on the other side of the country :) ) was asked to give the blessing instead, apparently due to the “extra spirituality” factor. The Bishop said he also had a job and need to support his family- other priesthood holders were already en route. He wanted people to know that it is the Priesthood, not the exact Priesthood holder that matters in receiving blessings.

  31. 31.

    Reading this post evoked a number of thoughts. I enjoyed of what I read.

    There was one idea that I would like to add. I don’t understand it entirely (this is usually the case), but I feel it is worth considering. We learn from D&C 46:19-20 that there is a gift of the spirit to heal and a gift to be healed. This appears to be two separate gifts. It would appear that these gifts should be added to our spiritual preparation when illness is a factor in our life. We can pray for these gifts and when we are ill, or know of someone who is ill, we can ask in prayer that these gifts can be made available.

    I know of a man who I believe has the gift to heal. Others who know him feel the same. I’ve asked him if he has the gift and he says he feels he does. He is an average member of the church. I would assume these gifts are had among our sisters as well.

    I’m not sure how faith, priesthood power, and gifts to heal all interact. And in the final analysis it doesn’t matter, I believe we should appeal to all that the Lord has made available.

    If this so called Bird flu turns into a pandemic we will need to draw on the powers of heaven and whatever the source of the power the Lord extends to us will be fine with me.

    I hope we will be diligent in seeking for all the gifts of the Spirit as the Lord teaches. I fear that in this day of prosperity we as church members are letting the opportunity to grow in these gifts slip by us as we rely on the excellent medical help available.

  32. 32.

    [...] I meant to link to this last week — so now it’s an “old” post by Eve on the magical general authority [...]

  33. 33.

    I have shaken hands with a few and nothing miraculous happened, but it was a lesson to see how incredibly humble they were. People where crowding around to shake their hand and yet they seemed more like they were honored to shake my hand. It is good to see they are indeed human like the rest of us.

  34. 34.

    Church authority adulation is such an interesting aspect of LDS culture. I babysat for the daughter of a GA. When the daughter was young, her mother had been told to dress up more often, and she rarely left the house in anything besides a nice dress, complete with nylons and earrings, sometimes even when just going to the grocery store. It would be a difficult burden to play a role where you must be on guard for people scrutinizing your appearance and behavior.
    A GA was close friends with my uncle and came to speak at his funeral. I had left early with my young baby, and was standing to the side outside the chapel, crying. As the GA walked out of the church, he paused and talked to me briefly and told me my baby was beautiful. It was only as he walked away that I recognized him. I probably wouldn’t remember that quiet exchange if he hadn’t been a GA, but it did show me that this man was humble and sensitive to another person grieving, and after that I always particularly looked forward that that GA’s talks in conference.
    I hope if the opposite had happened, if he had been brusque or inadvertently rude, that I would not find in the incident a poor reflection on the church or its doctrines.
    I can see where people are coming from when they treasure the slightest contact with GA’s or their family, because everyone told me to write that story down in my child’s baby book.

  35. 35.

    [...] Holy Person in Mormonism? Eve’s recent post at ZD on the magical GA got me thinking about how such a phenomenon fits in the larger history of Christianity. The LDS [...]

  36. 36.

    I agree with Adam that living in a celebrity obsessed society probably has much to do with it. Otherwise, I don’t understand the purpose of including mere sightings of GAs in testimonies. It takes great restraint on my part to not be disgusted by that form of name dropping and to stay focused on the actual message of the testimony.

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