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.