General Conference and the Sensus Fidelium

A fun concept in Catholic teachings is the notion of the sensus fidelium, the “sense of the faithful.”  The idea is that the work of the Spirit guiding the church can be found not only in the teachings of ecclesiastical leaders, but also in the beliefs  and experiences of the members of the church, the community of faith.  Theologian Roger Haight explains that it includes “an active charism of discernment, a power of practical and possessive knowledge belonging to the body of the faithful by virtue of their concrete living of the faith.”  He clarifies, “This does not mean that in every matter of detail a majority of even a consensus of opinion in the Church at any given time is theologically sound.  But it does mean that the experience of the faithful is a source for theology.”1

I like this way of thinking about divine communication, that it not only comes top-down, mediated by the church hierarchy, but also from the ground up.  Put another way, the faith of the people at large also plays a role in shaping doctrinal understanding; it is not something simply imposed by the leaders.  And I would say that one can see a number of parallels to this notion in Mormonism.  Specifically, I’ve been thinking about this idea in the context of General Conference.

In preparing and delivering Conference talks, church leaders discuss those particular ideas which they, under the direction of inspiration, feel are important for the Saints to hear.  They expound doctrine, tell stories, encourage better living, and so forth.  However, a portrayal of the church as an organization in which the leaders say something and all the members immediately jump to obey (a caricature of the church both ridiculed by anti-Mormons, and idealized by some Mormons), overlooks an important factor–the role of the community in determining which teachings “take,” so to speak, and become influential in Mormon thought and practice.

As just one example, I mention two talks by Elder David A. Bednar.  In April 2007, Elder Bednar gave a talk titled “Ye Must Be Born Again.” In this talk, he used the analogy of a cucumber becoming a pickle.  This was a memorable image, and many remember the talk because of it.  But the metaphor hasn’t exactly caught on; I have seen few if any instances of this particular image being cited as part of lessons or discussions on the subject of being born again.  This can be contrasted to a talk given by Elder Bednar in April 2005, titled “The Tender Mercies of the Lord.” Since then, the phrase “tender mercies” has become commonplace in LDS discussion, as people make use of this model to interpret their own life experiences.

I think this is a helpful point to remember in thinking about just what it means to have inspired leaders guiding the church.  Those sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators play an undeniably significant role.  But when they speak, this is not the end of the conversation.  And given the emphasis in LDS belief on the importance of personal revelation, this process too can be seen as a facet of the work of the Spirit guiding the church.  Members of the community are not simply passive recipients of knowledge which is conveyed to them by their leaders.  Rather, LDS teachings are formed and refined through an ongoing interaction among leaders and members of the church (at both the general and the local level.)

Discussion regarding D&C 1:30 usually focuses on the question of what it means to say “only true and living church” (and how it might be related to the clause “with which I, the Lord, am well pleased”).  But there is another interesting element in this verse–the Lord says he is  “speaking unto the church collectively and not individually.”  Whatever it means for the church to be “true and living,” it applies to the church collectively.   This ecclesial model also underlies the principle of common consent. When we talk about God guiding the church, attention is often exclusively focused on how God inspires and directs church leaders.  But bringing in the role of a kind of Mormon sensus fidelium, I would argue, allows for a richer understanding of how revelation functions.

  1. Roger Haight, “Sensus Fidelium,” The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, ed. Richard McBrien (HarperSanFrancisco, 1995), 1182-3. []


  1. Interesting, Lynnette. This post gives some hope to those of us who chafe in an hierarchical organization. I am thinking particularly of the issue of birth control, which was strenuously preached against for many years, until the members just quit listening. Or Ezra Taft Benson’s “To the Mothers in Zion,” where he urged mothers not to work outside the home. Both of these ideals are still held in official discourse, but the sensus fidelium allows for much leeway.

  2. Thanks, jddaughter. BiV, the birth control issue is particularly interesting in this context, because a lot of Catholics make that exact case–the church prohibition on birth control hasn’t been accepted by the community of the faithful, and that calls its legitimacy into question.

    I can see more than one way of thinking about it when the leaders and the members seem to be on different pages. Of course, one could here appeal to the argument that a prophet’s job is to call the members to repentance, and clearly there needs to be room for that dynamic. But I do think this is at least complicated somewhat by the idea that God is at work in the church as a whole, by the core LDS teaching that every baptized and confirmed member has the gift of the Holy Ghost. And it’s interesting to note how some ideals (such as the ones you note) have somewhat shifted over time–at least to some extent, I would argue, in response to the community.

  3. A very interesting concept; sort of a spin on Todd Compton’s article on non-hierarchal revelation. I like the way you expressed it here.

  4. Every time I am forced into a theological discussion…or, more often, forced to listen a theological perspective I do not agree with…like in church…or class…or whenever two or three fellow BYU students decide to sit on the grass and pat each other on the back over their shared perspectives…I just keep wishing I could have a link on a posterboard to bust out. I aspire to speak my mind as well as you. *doe eyes*

  5. There’s such a tension here. Personal revelation definitely is critical to the process, and completes the process. We are certainly not meant to be robots, unthinking in our application of and response to prophetic guidance. I loved Elder Holland in last year’s WW leadership broadcast, where he talked about general patterns (taught by our leaders) and the responsibility of us to seek divine guidance in our personal lives.

    But I think we need to be careful about how far we take this. After all, it was the people’s lack of faith that caused the higher law to be removed in Moses’ day. It was rejection of the prophets that brought the destruction before the Savior’s visit to the American continent. It was rejection of prophets that brought on the Great Apostasy.

    IMO, these examples illustrate that a collective/majority response hasn’t always been a good barometer of truth. 🙂

    I also think that just because we may not hear about the pickle analogy specifically, the doctrine he taught is true, simple, clear, and repeated. Though we may not hear about birth control in those words, specifically, we continue to be warned against selfish motives in not having children (even this conference, that was brought up (Elder Oaks), which, imo, was the key point even in decades past.

    Anyway, just some thoughts as I have mulled over this post.

  6. Agree that the pickle story has not caught on, but tender mercies was already a pretty well-known formulation, appearing in the first chapter of the Book of Mormon.

  7. Lynnette, I think this is a wonderful post. Nothing to add, just wanted to let you know.

  8. Thanks, Randy, Kaimi, Steve; I’m glad this idea made sense to someone besides me.

    Bill, it’s certainly true that the phrase “tender mercies” didn’t originate with Elder Bednar, but my (admittedly anecdotal) impression is that it’s become much more widely used since his talk. And it’s used in a particular way, referring to small blessings in one’s life.

    m&m, thanks for your perspective. I agree that there’s a tension between prophetic teaching and personal revelation; I think that tension is really at the heart of Mormonism. And I certainly wouldn’t argue that majority response is necessarily indicative of truth; clearly, as you point out, there are instances when that isn’t the case. (Though it is interesting in this context to note Mosiah’s observation that the voice of the people is usually right).

    But what I’m trying to get at here is that I think the community plays a significant theological role in LDS teachings, in a way that sometimes get overlooked when the church is described solely as a top-down institution. I find it interesting, for example, that the prophet, or even the top 15 leaders of the church, can’t on their own add scripture to the canon—they have to have it sustained by the body of the church. Even if this seems to have largely become a formality, I still see some theological significance to the practice.

    The pickle example might not have been the best one to use here—I mentioned it mostly because I find it entertaining. I realize that it wasn’t really meant to be a substantive doctrinal contribution. What sparked this post was that I found myself wondering which Conference talks would “catch on,” and become an influential part of LDS discourse; there are some which people continue to quote years later, and some that kind of fade away. And it occurred to me that there’s an element in that process that is a bit counter to more authoritarian ways of conceptualizing the church.

    I would even take it further and argue that the community has played a significant role in shaping LDS practice in other ways. For example, the temple changes in the early 1990s came in response to the concerns of members. I even think that (gasp!) feminism has had some impact (even if aspects of it have been explicitly denounced)—I see possible evidence for this in shifts such as “rule” to “preside,” and the recent emphasis that “preside” does not mean “have the final word.” And it might be worth noting that the model I’m proposing can actually be seen as a defense of the church—critics sometimes talk disparagingly about the way the church has shifted in response to concerns of the community. What I’m trying to put forth here, though, is a possible way of thinking about those shifts in the context of LDS theology (regardless of whether you describe them as “changes” or “re-articulations of something that was there all along”—a question probably worthy of its own post.)

  9. jddaughter, for what it’s worth, I can very much sympathize with your situation. I also found the culture of BYU to be somewhat . . . challenging. I hope you manage to stumble across some kindred spirits at some point; I think it makes things a lot more tolerable. (And I’m glad you found the bloggernacle!)

  10. Thanks Lynnette. Where I couldn’t find kindred spirits , I have been lucky enough to make one…but we don’t see each other everyday…having lives and all. I hope to find others.
    The bloggernacle was introduced to me, first, by my sister (I listened but didn’t look), then, strangely enough, by a very enlightened boyfriend ( I listened but didn’t look), then finally, once I was hit over the head with the reality of it all and started going completely out of my head, a trusted professor recommended it to me…the same way one might perscribe a medication. Now, I go to the nacle maybe three or four times a day…simply for the maintenance of sanity.

    It’s strange when you get to this point. It reminds me of what early Christians must have experienced during the period of roman oppression. I walk around all day thinking, hey, maybe she/he’s one of us? I make sly little test-the-water comments, I take note of people’s terminology and the artwork in their homes.

    I’m always surprised by who I find. Often the people who talk about Heavenly Mother in church are as conservative as they come. The hippies and the save the whale types still embrace mom and dad’s theology. Yet, the middle aged,male, suit wearing, political science teaching, high priest boss with the glasses, and the 70 year old, male, Institute teacher, whose equally elderly and stereotypically mormon looking wife came each week to bring cookies….they are the kindred spirits.

    It has really opened my eyes, and heart.

  11. Lynnette,
    The Pickle Analogy came up in conversation last week.
    I decided the analogy didn’t work for me because I like cucumbers so much better than pickles, and they’re much healthier.
    So, perhaps God has no interest in my becoming a pickle. Perhaps s/he wants me to stay a cucumber.

    I’m glad the analogy hasn’t caught on yet, but perhaps that’s one reason why.

    I like your post, but I’m a little disheartened to think that there are very many ways in which the majority of members disagree with the church leadership. Especially because it seems that it’s possible for the leadership to disagree amongst themselves (Evolution comes to mind).
    When I mention divergent ideas, I usually hit a brick wall and a response quoting a GA. Perhaps I’m thinking of concepts that are too far off the path.

  12. Your thoughts on this issue got me thinking about an essay I read by Margaret Toscano. She brought up similar ideas (I think it was an essay of hers, or it may have been a book?) where, for example, the men of the Church did not take up the counsel from Pres. Kimball many years ago to avoid hunting for sport, even though–and I remember this talk–the counsel was very specific and direct and from the prophet himself. I don’t remember if M. Toscano made this comparison, but contrast that “hunting” counsel with how quickly the “no more than one earring” counsel was taken up as being important. It certainly got me thinking and I didn’t realize that Catholicism studies had put a name to it. Thank you for the discussion.

  13. jddaughter, I definitely know what you mean about the process of trying to ferret out other liberal Mormons. We’re so well trained to be careful in what we say that you really have to look for hints. And I appreciated your observation that you can find kindred spirits in unexpected places; it was a good reminder to me.

    All right, Jessawhy–you can remain an unredeemed cucumber. I’m sure God would never force anyone to be born again and become a pickle against their will. 😉

    Thanks, mmiles.

    KevinR, that’s a great example, of the Kimball talk about hunting going nowhere, versus the Hinckley prohibition of second earrings quickly becoming a litmus test of obedience. That’s a much better illustration of this than the pickle thing; thanks for mentioning it.


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