Obedience Is the First Law of Earth

Reading Lynnette’s excellent post about obedience got me to wondering a little about whether the Church has always been as obedience-happy as it currently seems to be.

It seems to me that it’s not at all inevitable from looking at our scriptures that we would focus on obedience quite so much. Sure, there are plenty of stories we can read as illustrating the importance of obedience, but there are just as surely others that appear to show the importance of taking initiative without being commanded. Nephi, for example, is often cited for his obedience in getting the brass plates and beheading Laban. But he also took the initiative at times. When his bow broke, he made a new one and used a sling and stones to get food. Or consider the Brother of Jared. When he asked what he should do to get light into the barges, the Lord asked him to suggest a solution.

Note that my point isn’t that these are examples of disobedience, but rather that these are stories from our scriptures where obedience really doesn’t play a role. I’m also not arguing that there are as many or more of these as there are obedience-illustrating stories. I’m just saying there are some stories like this.

Anyway, back to the question of focus on obedience over time. I have a pretty simple hypothesis. I suspect that the Church focuses a lot on obedience because the Church is easier to run when people are obedient. If a bishop says that a youth activity should be done a particular way, thing sure run more easily if everyone just obeys his wishes than if they express their own opinions. Taking people’s ideas into account can be a pain. If a General Authority says that we shouldn’t watch R-rated movies, it’s a lot simpler if we all just go along than if we raise a bunch of objections about this or that good R-rated movie or inconsistencies or other flaws in the ratings.

If my hypothesis is correct, then I suspect that discussion of obedience in the Church would have increased with the rise of Correlation. I understand if your first reaction is to be skeptical. I know Correlation is a favorite scapegoat on the Bloggernacle for all that is wrong with the Church today. I’m actually pointing to it for a specific reason, though. Wasn’t one of the points (the major point?) of Correlation to bring all Church organizations in line under priesthood direction? And wouldn’t the need to follow this direction be phrased as calls for obedience? And wouldn’t the ongoing power of Correlation require ongoing calls for obedience? Well, it makes sense to me, anyway. Let me know in the comments where you disagree.

Here’s how I tested my hypothesis. I counted uses of forms of the word obey (e.g., obey, obedience, obedient) and synonyms (e.g., follow) in General Conference during the past 100 years. Fortunately for me, this task was made very easy by BYU linguistics professor Mark Davies’s Corpus of General Conference talks. (Thanks to Mark Brown of BCC, who first pointed this wonderful resource out to me.)

Here are the results. The faded red line shows the year-to-year data. The saturated red line shows a five-year moving average. Results are in obey and like words per thousand words. I’m sorry that the graph is a bit small. Click on it to see the full-size version.

There’s definitely an uptick in usage of obey and like words in the 1960s, which if I understand right is about when Correlation was really getting underway. Prior to the mid-1960s, the moving average was rarely above 1.6 per thousand. Since that uptick, the moving average has never been below 1.6 per thousand, and has often been above 1.8 per thousand.

As another test, I decided to look at usage of a word that competes with obey to see if it had the opposite trend. I didn’t want to look at the opposite word, though: looking at usage of disobey is likely to yield the same results as looking at obey, since the topic is still obedience. I settled on looking at reason, since reasoning out solutions to problems is a process that might be seen as competing with obedience. If we’re reasoning a lot, we’re less concerned with obedience; if we’re focused on obedience, we might see less need to reason.

Here are results for forms of the word reason (used as a verb only, excluding reasons as nouns, for example). As in the previous graph, the faded blue line shows the year-to-year data. The saturated blue line shows a five-year moving average. Results are in reason and like words per thousand words. Note that this graph has a different vertical scale than the previous one. I chose the scales to highlight changes over time. Click on the graph to see the full-size version.

The pattern may not be quite as clear, but again there’s a clear trend in the 1960s. In the years prior to 1960, the moving average was always above 1.2 per thousand, and often above 1.4 per thousand. Since 1970, it has rarely been above 1.4 per thousand. Since the mid 1980s, it has never been above 1.2 per thousand.

I’m sure there are many possible objections to this fairly simple method of testing my hypothesis. I’d like to try to answer one of them. You might wonder if changes over time in usage of either obey and like words or reason and like words in General Conference might not simply follow trends in the world. To test this, I ran the same two queries on another corpus created by Mark Davies, the Corpus of Historical American English.

Here are results for obey-like words. To make the graph easier to look at, I’ve dropped the year-to-year data for both General Conference and the Historical American English corpus, and shown only the five-year moving averages.

It looks like the uptick in usage of obey and like words in General Conference in the 1960s was not correlated with a trend in usage of American English more generally, where there’s been a pretty consistent decline.

Here are results for reason and like words. Again, only five year moving averages are shown.

As for obey and like words, the General Conference trend is not correlated with a trend in American English more generally. There’s that correlated dip in the late 1920s, but since then, reason and like words have been used increasingly in American English generally, while being used less often in General Conference.

While this little study of course gives nothing like a definitive answer, I’m actually surprised at how consistent the results are with my hypothesis.


If you want to reproduce my results using Mark Davies’s corpora, here are the search strings:

For obey and like words, “[[=obey]]” (without the quotation marks). One set of brackets asks for all forms of the word. The second set of brackets and the equals sign asks for synonyms too.

For reason and like words as verbs, “[[=reason]].[v*]” (without the quotation marks). The brackets around reason work like they do for the obey search. The second part of the search, “.[v*]” asks for only uses of the words as verbs.

One last thing to note is that the corpora display results in word matches per million words, while I’ve shown them in words per thousand because for these words I think they’re easier to look at.


  1. This is awesome–the analysis, that is, not necessarily the actual trend. I bet you could publish something about this. I agree with your hypothesis–that is, the connection between correlation and expectations of obedience makes sense in my mind. I agree that “obedience” would make running a correlated church easier; I think another part of the puzzle might be the structures (pre- and post-correlation) that create opportunities for obedience. In order to “obey,” you have to know what you’re obeying; that is, without a specific rule that can be obeyed, you CAN’T obey. Correlation established what exactly those ‘rules’ are. And once people became accustomed to having “the rules” spelled out for them, when something wasn’t clearly defined they no longer looked for tools to reason things out, but rather they looked for more rules.

  2. I know that this comment is really grasping at straws, or staring at tea leaves, etc. but I figured I’d just toss it out there.

    As the civil rights ratcheted up through the 60’s we see more mentions of ‘obey.’ After the policy change on priesthood we see it drop. We see it rise as symposia became condemned and start to drop after the ‘September 6’ (albeit to a much lesser degree). It appears that in the wake of Prop 8 and the accompanying fallout we’re seeing a new dramatic rise. Makes one wonder how long until some major event caps this wave and what it will be.

    That said, the plot is so noisy I have little-to-no confidence that anything I said in the last paragraph is true. I do see merit in the claims made in the OP however.

  3. This is an amazing and interesting analysis. Absolutely fascinating, and actually a little frightening…

  4. I love this stuff! I think there is something to the cultural changes of the 60’s causing an increase in the use of obedience.

    I was interested in the use of reason for the second part of the analysis. I have always felt that the early writings and speeches of the restoration were much more interesting from an intellectual stand point than the writings and speeches of this day.

    I would also like to see some type of theme analysis of hymns. I think we might see a similar result. The early hymns had more intellectual meat and celebrations of enlightenment. Recent hymns seem to be more touch feely.

  5. I posit that perhaps “reason” began to become its own religion of a sort around that time, as well. Correlation is a correlation (no pun intended) not necessarily causation. And the purpose of correlation originally may have been in reaction to an upsurge in cultural perception.

    With civil rights, rebellion became a good thing rather than a bad thing. This cultural perception has continued. Perhaps the increase in talks relating to obedience has been to balance that opposing pressure.

  6. Anyway, back to the question of focus on obedience over time. I have a pretty simple hypothesis. I suspect that the Church focuses a lot on obedience because the Church is easier to run when people are obedient. If a bishop says that a youth activity should be done a particular way, thing sure run more easily if everyone just obeys his wishes than if they express their own opinions. Taking people’s ideas into account can be a pain. If a General Authority says that we shouldn’t watch R-rated movies, it’s a lot simpler if we all just go along than if we raise a bunch of objections about this or that good R-rated movie or inconsistencies or other flaws in the ratings.

    An excellent summary of what Mormon’s would refer to as “Satan’s Plan.”

  7. I started reading this post and wondered to myself “How is Ziff going to turn this into charts and graphs?” And sure enough, as I scrolled down you did it. Insightful post!

  8. Love this post, Ziff. It reminded me of a particularly unfortunate sacrament meeting talk a year or two ago in which the speaker held up faith and obedience as the way to live and denounced reason as a means for understanding our world. Holy hell. My head may have exploded in that moment had I not been able to eviscerate the comment to Caroline (who I was fortunately going to church with at the time) with a roll of my eyes and mockery over our Sunday School Snack Break.

    I simply do not understand the elevation of obedience in church culture. I have been saying for years what Kari said (#8)–the church, with its insistence on obedience (and essentially an unquestioning obedience since any answer to a question about our leadership’s counsel that does not lead to obedience and acceptance is seen as a non-answer or evidence of the listener needing to align herself with God’s will so they get the Right answer)–the church with its insistence on this kind of obedience is doing a damn fine job of realizing Satan’s plan. And that’s not okay with me.

    I’ve loved this quote from Galileo Galilei since I found it on a friend’s fridge (an excellent source of quotes, you know) several years ago:

    “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.”

    I’ll hold with that anytime before holding to the notion that I have a responsibility simply to obey.

  9. Really interesting stuff! I’m supposed to give a talk this weekend in my ward. My topic is 1 Ne. 3:7.

    You see a very similar trend in usage of this scripture. If you search for “I will go and do” in the general conference corpus, you see that it is not used at all until the 1890s. From the 1890s to the 1960s, it is used only sparingly (once in five years, on average). Since 1960 (corresponding with the rise of correlation), the scripture has been cited over the general conference pulpit 60 times–a five-fold increase from the previous 60 years.

  10. For fun, I ran “conscience” and synonyms on both data bases. In the LDS conference talks, usage reached its height in the 1880s, before the manifesto, dropped in the 1890s significantly and generally declined thereafter, with an uptick in the 1960s (D. McKay administration?) and declined steadily thereafter. What is more interesting, is that usage has steadily declined over that same time period in general english usage, with no upticks at all.

  11. This is absolutely excellent! Including David H’s conscience examination. As a sidebar, I don’t know when the last time was that I heard the concept of obedience to “correct principles” taught instead of the obedience to (follow) the living prophet concept.

    Since one of the main things changed in the infamous Elder Poelman’s conference talk (that was altered after it was presented) was “agency” (free or otherwise), I would be curious to know how that word has fared of late.

  12. Oh, my goodness. Another in a streak of homeruns, Ziff.

    The rise in obedience and and corresponding abandonment of reason (hehe) tracks my lifetime, so I’ll excuse myself for not noticing it. I wonder if it was noticeable to someone who came of age 10 or 20 or 30 years earlier?

  13. Thank you, Ziff, for this post. And, thank you, Amelia, for elaborating further on the concept of obedience.

    This is fascinating research. While correlation doesn’t equal causation, you can draw inferences from this data. I do find your conclusions fascinating. It would make sense that Correlation was founded to bring all organizations under priesthood direction. Isn’t it easier to teach obedience through this line rather than hear constant arguments? Easier, yes, but better? Well that is debatable.

  14. Thanks for your kind comments, everyone.

    Jessawhy, I would guess maybe 6 hours. I tend to work on something like this in bits and pieces for a while and then spend 2-3 hours at the end trying to throw it all together. Certainly as you would guess, the graphs take a lot more time than the writing. (Well, if I were a more careful writer and wrote more revisions, the writing would take as long, but I typically edit much less than I really should.)

  15. Ziff, this post is nifty and all, but are you sure it’s not just a way to complain that you don’t have the priesthood?

    Oh, wait.

    Seriously, though, this is fascinating, and I’d love to see you do more analyses like this. What would be especially interesting would be to try to test SilverRain’s questions about whether these changes are something about the structure of the church or just correlated to larger cultural changes–for example, could we find similar divergent results for other terms that have changed in status in the surrounding culture over time, like, say, “happiness” and “duty”?

  16. Ooh, I think you touched a nerve.

    1 – When Nephi’s bow broke he went to his father to ask where he should go to find food. This humbled Lehi who chose to repent of his murmuring and then chose to recommit himself to keep God’s commandments faithfully and without complaint.

    I’m not sure this is the best example of non-obedience in the book.

    2 – I’m sure Correlation is important, but isn’t it just a teeny bit ridiculous to ignore the sixties as an influence? Last time I checked it was the birthday of hedonism, pornography and modern individualism. Couldn’t the decade contribute to a .02% increase in references to obedience within an organisation which exists to oppose such things?

    This is something which is entirely supported by the following tables which show that obedience was becoming a less popular idea generally over the same period among people generally.

    It makes sense, at least to me, that during a period of social upheaval, individualism, family breakdown and a shift from established norms and practices towards individualist moral practice including the use of pornography, substance misuse, and sexual promiscuity that the church would respond by increasing its teaching of the virtue and value of obedience.

    The bit about obedience being more convenient for church leadership smacks of cynicism. Of course it is more convenient, I’m sure there are many church leaders who would enjoy their callings a lot more if people did as they were asked.

    However, as I understand it, when Lucifer proposed enforced obedience we started a war about it.

    Obedience is all about choice. No one forces you to obey, no one pays you to obey, no one makes you obey. But you can choose to obey, that’s not mindless, zombie-like or lemming like. It’s an intelligent exercise of agency.

    Personally, from my own experience, being happily obedient, even when it is in your own best interest, is rarely, if ever, the easier choice. To characterize obedience as mindless, imbecilic and agency-free is insulting to my intelligence and wit.

  17. Hagoth, you have a fair point that the broken bow story can be extended to include obedience. I was just citing it as an example where there’s something else going on too. This doesn’t invalidate my point that there are stories about things other than obedience in our scriptures unless you want to argue that every scripture story can ultimately be thought of as illustrating the importance of obedience.

    Regarding the Sixties themselves as an influence, sure, that could be. I’m sure for any word I studied, you could say “the Sixties” when I said “Correlation.” It would take a really fine-grained look at trends over time to tease them apart. Or more likely it would be impossible given that neither the Sixties nor Correlation had a clear and definite beginning. When it comes down to it, the Sixties may have even been a contributor to the rise of Correlation, which would mean your interpretation is just pushing one link backward in the causal chain.

    The change in uses of obey and like words from before Correlation to after was from about 1.5 per thousand to 1.8 per thousand (ish). Or in other words .0015 to .0018. As you note, this is an increase of .02 (or as I have it, .03), but this is in percentage points. If you look at the change in percentage, 1.8/1.5 = 1.2. The excess, .2, means there was about a 20% increase in uses of obedience and like words. Your framing minimizes it; my framing maximizes it. It good to think about it both ways to get a sense of the change.

    The bit about obedience being more convenient for church leadership smacks of cynicism. Of course it is more convenient, I’m sure there are many church leaders who would enjoy their callings a lot more if people did as they were asked.

    Exactly. Thanks for getting my point. Call me a cynic for noticing it, but it doesn’t make it any less likely to be true. I’ll just call you Pollyannaish for not thinking this is a primary motivator for emphasis on obedience. 😉

    Finally, regarding your defense of obedience, it appears that you were too busy having your nerve touched to read carefully. I didn’t say obedience was “mindless, imbecilic and agency-free.” Perhaps you were intending to start (or continue?) an argument on Lynnette’s post?

  18. I’m going to further derail this conversation by injecting my thought that Lucfier’s plan didn’t remove agency by enforcing obedience but rather by removing the consequences of choice. Choice and accountability, as the YW learn it, are the hallmarks of agency.

    Now back to your regularly scheduled ZD discussion…

  19. Thanks, Ziff. Very interesting.

    How does it come out if instead of using “reason” as the opposing word to “obedience”, you use “agency”. Do you get similar results both in GC use and general English language use?

  20. 23 – Check again

    Thanks, but what do you mean? Do you mean it was before or after?

    24 – Removing consequence

    Really? I’ve never thought of it that way.

    I thought that accountability flowed from choice and that choice or agency was what Lucifer wanted to withhold from us during the war in heaven?


    Good points. I suppose I assumed that the sixties was such a massive influence on American and global culture that it would de facto outweigh the influence of Correlation. I should also admit that I am not 100% clear on what Correlation is, it’s not part of the common church parlance in my area. I should have done a bit more digging and found some numbers first eh?

    I have assumed it is a reference to the universalised curriculum and programme of the church.

    Yes, on re-reading I appear to be considering some of Lynette’s points when I responded to your OP.

    Finally, I am a priesthood leader, and while yes it is more convenient when everyone does what I say without question I really don’t think that’s my primary motivation in church leadership, hence the nerve thing.

    I do hope Kiskilili gets back to me about the sixties though.

  21. About a year and a half ago, God put something in my heart to do. It surprised me. He spoke to me in ways as powerful as He has ever spoken to me. I was living only a couple blocks from the Logan Temple, and I went about several times over the course of a week, and it was always the same. If this wasn’t God speaking to me, then God has never spoken to me, and I have no testimony. I got sure about it, because it was something that would raise almost everyone’s eyebrows – even very open Mormons. I went and told my parents what I was going to do, and the Spirit was there again. I needed to know that someone would trust me.

    And I did it. And even though it has shaken up a number of people’s lives, there is already healing on many fronts. I can count at least twelve people whose lives are going to be better, freer, cleaner, more open, happier, because I obeyed.

    Point is this: we think of obedience as to the church, but it can never be to the church, per se. First, we make our covenants with God, not the church. Some of those covenants are to do with the church, no mistake. But the covenant is made with God. So that the thing we should most recall is exactly what it is that we have promised. Second, we think of commandments almost exclusively as the carnal rules of membership – but what about what God “works directly in us”? Are His urgings to us as individuals less a command?

    I remember Joseph Smith in his letter to Helen Kimball saying something like this: ‘whatever God asks us to do, that is the right thing to do.’ It may make little sense, it may not conform to everyone’s idea of us. It almost certainly will have nothing to do with identities and other postures. But it will be the right thing to do – and doing it will put us in a position to hear even more clearly at the next step.

    Cool. ~

  22. And I did it. And even though it has shaken up a number of people’s lives, there is already healing on many fronts. I can count at least twelve people whose lives are going to be better, freer, cleaner, more open, happier, because I obeyed.

    In a way, obedience may be the first law of earth, but the temple is the first rule of salvation.

    Thomas, I think I get your point at http://www.wheatandtares.org/2011/05/26/mysteries-of-salvation-finding-the-intent-of-god/#comment-15963

    Guess I should have read ZD first 😉

  23. Great post Ziff! I wasn’t all that impressed by the increase (over time) in the usage of obey, but once you look at it against the use outside of a church context, the changes become much more startling!

    You also made me think of something else. I like that you searched for reason as the opposite of obey, but I also wonder, what scriptural stories do we have that do actually show us positive examples of disobedience to commandments?

    I can think of Eve eating the fruit, but that’s it…

  24. Thanks, but what do you mean? Do you mean it was before or after?

    Before. If you do not know that hedonism, pornography, and modern individualism have a much longer history than the last 50 years, then you are not familiar with the history of western civilization (and likely non-western civilization, but I am unfamiliar with that history so unwilling to make that assertion). Hedonism, pornography, and what you call “modern individualism” are not new things. It is a misreading of history to believe they are.

  25. Exactly what amelia said. And, I would add, although you’re right to point to sixties’ culture as a factor, this has less explanatory power than Correlation for a general trend of increases in the term, since the sixties are over but Correlation is still with us.

  26. Could there be another point to the word obey or obedience than the connotation it has been given in everything posted above?

    Obedience has been called the first law of heaven not the first law of earth. So why might obedience be the first law of heaven..?

    Why is reason being considered as a counter to obedience?

    I have been a life long member of the church but only active for the past 4-5 years after 23 years of inactivity. The corpus on conference talks clearly shows that the tone of talks has changed in many areas. Before I encountered the corpus, as I became active again, I noticed a significant difference in the “tone” of the leaders’ talks now verses when I was active pre-1980.

    Is correlation a push for obedience or a push for consistency in a growing worldwide church?

    James Allen in “As a Man Thinketh” said: “Law, not confusion, is the dominating principle in the universe. Justice, not injustice, is the soul and substance of life. And righteousness, not corruption, is the molding and moving force in the spiritual government of the world. This being so, man has but to right himself to find that the universe is right; and during the process of putting himself right, he will find that as he alters his thoughts toward things and other people, things and other people will alter toward him.”

    I think correlation has to do with getting things right with the “spiritual government” and obedience and reason have to do with Law. Trying disobeying the laws of physics or quantum mechanics and see how far that kind of “reason” gets you…

    Just a thought…


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