On January 10, 2016, President Russell M. Nelson gave a marvelous talk to young adults in which he shared internal details of how the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles work together in unity to obtain divine solutions to the “thorny” problems that confront the Church. By so disclosing, he gave comfort and assurance of Divine direction to the spiritually-attuned and prepared listeners in his world-wide audience. But he also caused some other observers to begin debating among themselves regarding how the process works and even to question its legitimacy. He stated:
We sustain 15 men who are ordained as prophets, seers, and revelators. When a thorny problem arises—and they only seem to get thornier each day—these 15 men wrestle with the issue, trying to see all the ramifications of various courses of action, and they diligently seek to hear the voice of the Lord. After fasting, praying, studying, pondering, and counseling with my Brethren about weighty matters, it is not unusual for me to be awakened during the night with further impressions about issues with which we are concerned. And my Brethren have the same experience.
The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles counsel together and share all the Lord has directed us to understand and to feel individually and collectively. And then we watch the Lord move upon the President of the Church to proclaim the Lord’s will.
This prophetic process was followed in 2012 with the change in minimum age for missionaries and again with the recent additions to the Church’s handbook, consequent to the legalization of same-sex marriage in some countries. Filled with compassion for all, and especially for the children, we wrestled at length to understand the Lord’s will in this matter. Ever mindful of God’s plan of salvation and of His hope for eternal life for each of His children, we considered countless permutations and combinations of possible scenarios that could arise. We met repeatedly in the temple in fasting and prayer and sought further direction and inspiration. And then, when the Lord inspired His prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, to declare the mind of the Lord and the will of the Lord, each of us during that sacred moment felt a spiritual confirmation. It was our privilege as Apostles to sustain what had been revealed to President Monson. Revelation from the Lord to His servants is a sacred process, and so is your privilege of receiving personal revelation.
For most listeners and readers, this explanation is clear, forthright, edifying, and uplifting: the resurrected Jesus the Christ, who lives today and directs His Church, continues to reveal His will by the power of the Holy Ghost to His prophets and apostles. Such firm acknowledgment of Divine communication is manna from heaven—pleasing confirmation that God is near His prophet and His people—to the truly faithful and receptive.
As mentioned, some others were not pleased to learn the will of the Lord; to find out that the Lord thought differently than they do; to know that He disagreed with them. Part of the reason for the questioning was because some were looking for a loophole; for a way to label Divine revelation human policy; for a way to marginalize or excuse. After all, they reason, policies have been revised before and might be again. The call to the discontented was to be patient until the Church reverses or softens what some hoped was a temporary policy implementation—how wrong they were.
The following quotations (extracted from my published reference compilation Determining Doctrine) provide further explanations of the process President Nelson mentioned in his talk:
Heber J. Grant:
I was called into the Council of the Twelve Apostles by a revelation of the Lord to President John Taylor, and from the time that I entered the Council of the Twelve, two years after John Taylor was made President of the Church, until the day of his death, I met with him, week after week, in the Endowment house, and I know that he was a servant of the living God; I know that the inspiration of the Lord came to him; and I know that upon all occasions, whenever he said: "This is what the Lord desires," and his associates in the council of the apostles sustained his position, that upon every occasion he was vindicated and the inspiration of the Lord to him showed that his wisdom by the power of God, had been superior to the wisdom of other men. Several times I have gone to meetings in the old Endowment house, knowing that a certain matter was to be discussed, and my mind was as perfectly set upon a certain position on that question as it is possible for a man to have his mind set. I believe I am as decided in my opinions as the majority of people. I have heard it said that there is nobody as stubborn as a Scotchman except a Dutchman; and I am Scotch on my father's side and Dutch on my mother's (laughter). While I have gone to meetings in the old Endowment house determined in favor of a certain line of policy, I have willingly and freely voted for the exact opposite of that policy, because of the inspiration of the Lord that came to John Taylor. Upon every such occasion the servant of the Lord, President Taylor, was vindicated, and his superior judgment, by the inspiration of the Lord, asserted itself in favor of those things that were for the best good of the people.
From the President's opening speech, at the 89th annual conference of the Church, June 1, 1919. (James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-75], 5:128-29.)
Mark E. Petersen:
In the Church, if the Lord is going to give revelation for the body of the Church, he gives the revelation to the President of the Church. The President of the Church doesn’t just get up and announce it spontaneously and automatically. The way he proceeds is this: he brings any matter of policy or business or doctrine first to his counselors. Then they bring it to the meeting of the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve which convenes each Thursday morning at 10:00. Those fifteen men sit as a council, and they call it the Council of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. The President presents the business there, and after due deliberations, after everyone has had opportunity to ask questions, after prayer has been said earnestly on the subject, then a vote of acceptance or rejection is asked for. After an affirmative vote has been taken, and there has been unanimous decision, then such policy is announced to the Church. That’s the way it works, as a practical matter. (“Revelation,” Address to religious educators, 24 August 1954; cited in Charge to Religious Educators, 2nd ed. [Salt Lake City: Church Educational System and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982], 137-38.)
Harold B. Lee:
As I come to you this morning with a humble heart to talk to you about revelation, I come to you as one who sits in the company of men who live close to their Heavenly Father. There have been occasions when I have had within me a feeling of sureness about things. I have seen matters come before the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve in our weekly meetings. I’ve seen a decision reached, not based upon reasoning, but upon an impression which after that decision had been made has been found to have been a Heaven-sent direction to protect and to guide.
I recall an incident a little over six months ago when an important matter had been decided upon, and the Presidency had called the Twelve to announce the decision. After the decision had been made, it was a thrilling thing to hear the President of the Church say, “Brethren, the Lord has spoken.” (“Divine Revelation,” Address to the Brigham Young University Studentbody, October 15, 1952, 9-10.)
Harold B. Lee:
I remember Brother John A. Widtsoe used to tell us about being asked at a conference, “How long has it been since the Church received a revelation?” Brother Widtsoe stroked his chin thoughtfully and said, “Oh, probably since last Thursday.” That startled his interrogator. However, there are many written revelations that are not in the Doctrine and Covenants. (“The Place of the Living Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,” Address to Religious Educators, 8 July 1964; cited in Charge to Religious Educators, 2nd ed. [Salt Lake City: Church Educational System and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982], 111.)
Harold B. Lee:
Brother John A. Widtsoe used to tell us about a group who gathered around him between meetings at a stake conference, and someone said, “Oh, Brother Widtsoe, how long has it been since the Church received a revelation?” And Brother Widtsoe stroked his chin for a moment and said, “Oh, probably since last Thursday.” When he said Thursday, he was referring to the meeting that is held in an upper room of the temple—the Presidency and the Twelve meet each Thursday. Brother Widtsoe knew, as I know and as all who attend those meetings know, that there we see in perspective the whole Church brought to review. We see wisdom beyond human wisdom, decisions prompted by powers beyond ourselves. We left our meeting a week ago last Thursday and I walked out of the meeting with President Hugh B. Brown. He said, “Wasn’t that marvelous to see that display of intelligence as we presented these very difficult problems?” Maybe it’s only been since last Thursday that the Church has had a revelation. (“Loyalty,” Address to religious educators, 8 July 1966; cited in Charge to Religious Educators, 2nd ed. [Salt Lake City: Church Educational System and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982], 64.)
Harold B. Lee:
Keep in mind that the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ are divine. Nobody changes the principles and doctrines of the Church except the Lord by revelation. But methods change as the inspired direction comes to those who preside at a given time. If you will analyze all that is being done and the changes that are taking place, you will realize that the fundamental doctrines of the Church are not changing. The only changes are in the methods of teaching that doctrine to meet the circumstances of our time. You may be sure that your brethren who preside are praying most earnestly, and we do not move until we have the assurance, so far as lies within our power, that what we do has the seal of divine approval. (“God’s Kingdom—A Kingdom of Order,” Ensign, January 1971, 8.)
Spencer W. Kimball:
Revelations continue to come to this great kingdom all the time. I suppose there is never a week when there are not revelations received. These revelations are approved. The President does not just announce some day, “Here is a new revelation.” The Presidency and the Council of the Twelve, the governing body of this Church are in session every Thursday. The important matters come before them, and the revelations of the Lord are approved by the people….
You need not think of revelations as being something very casual. Every week they come to the Church. I could mention numerous of them, if time permitted, that you probably haven’t thought of as a revelation. (“Revelation,” Address given at the Brigham Young University Stake Conference, January 13, 1957, 9-10.)
Spencer W. Kimball:
The revelations come as requested and needed; for instance, in 1947, when President George Albert Smith was the President of the Church, there came a revelation to the Church regarding missions, and counselors were given to mission presidents for the first time. That was immediately published all through the Church, in the Church Section of the Deseret News, an official letter to all mission presidents, and everybody in the Church had access to the knowledge of that change in the policy of the Church within a matter of days after it had been given. It was not necessary that that revelation be included in the Doctrine and Covenants. They are all in the minutes and in the files. (“Revelation,” Address given at the Brigham Young University Stake Conference, January 13, 1957, 2.)
Gordon B. Hinckley:
Ten years ago last Friday I was sustained in this great Tabernacle as a member of the Council of the Twelve. These have been wonderful years, fraught with a thousand faith-promoting experiences in many parts of the earth. But of all the experiences I have had, the most rewarding have come in participating in the weekly meetings of the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve in the temple that stands to the east of us. Here there is prayer, an earnest pleading for the will of the Lord. And in this sacred place is manifest the spirit of revelation as decisions and programs affecting the Church are proposed and presented. (Conference Report, October 1971, 161-62.)
Gordon B. Hinckley:
The First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles, called and ordained to hold the keys of the priesthood, have the authority and responsibility to govern the Church, to administer its ordinances, to expound its doctrine, and to establish and maintain its practices….
Any major questions of policy, procedures, programs, or doctrine are considered deliberately and prayerfully by the First Presidency and the Twelve together. These two quorums, the Quorum of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, meeting together, with every man having total freedom to express himself, consider every major question….
No decision emanates from the deliberations of the First Presidency and the Twelve without total unanimity among all concerned. At the outset in considering matters, there may be differences of opinion. These are to be expected. These men come from different backgrounds. They are men who think for themselves. But before a final decision is reached, there comes a unanimity of mind and voice. (Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997], 77-78.)
Gordon B. Hinckley:
I have now served in the general councils of this Church for 45 years. I have served as an Assistant to the Twelve, as a member of the Twelve, as a counselor in the First Presidency, and now for eight years as President. I want to give you my testimony that although I have sat in literally thousands of meetings where Church policies and programs have been discussed, I have never been in one where the guidance of the Lord was not sought nor where there was any desire on the part of anyone present to advocate or do anything which would be injurious or coercive to anyone. (Conference Report, April 2003, 64-65.)
Boyd K. Packer:
Recently President Hinckley reminded the Brethren that, while we are men called from the ordinary pursuits of life, there rests upon us a sacred ministry. And we take comfort in what the Lord said to the original Twelve: “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you.”
While each feels his own limitation, there is strength in unity. ever in the history of the Church have the Brethren of the First Presidency and the Twelve been more united.
Each week we meet together in the temple. We open the meeting by kneeling in prayer, and we close with prayer. Every prayer is offered in the spirit of submission and obedience to Him who called us and whose servants and witnesses we are.
The Lord requires that “every decision made by either of these quorums must be by the unanimous voice of the same” and that “the decisions of these quorums…are to be made in all righteousness, in holiness, and lowliness of heart, meekness and long suffering, and in faith, and virtue, and knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness and charity.” This we earnestly strive to do.
We know that we hold the power of the priesthood “in connection with all those who have received a dispensation at any time from the beginning of the creation.” We think of those who have preceded us in these sacred offices, and at times we feel their presence.
We are overcome with what the Lord said of those who hold these sacred callings: “Whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.” (“The Twelve Apostles,” Ensign, November 1996, 7-8.)
L. Aldin Porter:
When you see any document, any address, any letter, any instruction that is issued by the Council of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, it should be recognized for what it surely is—the mind and the will of the Lord to his people in this day. (Conference Report, October 1994, 83.)
I once thought that I had discovered something of an unimportant exception in these methods of discussing and approving needed action in moving the work of the Church forward. While the following two items do not directly concern receipt of revelation from the Lord, they do concern church ecclesiastical affairs as discussed in Council.
And perhaps in a way they provide a chuckle or two and a smile, for at first glance they do seem somewhat contradictory (the kind of thing unscrupulous anti-Mormons try to exploit). After further thought, to my mind a better explanation is that the Lord works in mysterious ways and accomplishes His purposes despite the human predilections and foibles of His servants. Then-Elder Monson did not do or even think of doing what Brother Packer indicated was never done in Council meetings; what Brother Monson did instead was pray—and then the Lord opened the way:
Boyd K. Packer:
It would be unthinkable deliberately to present an issue in such a way that approval depended upon how it was maneuvered through channels, who was presenting it, or who was present or absent when it was presented.
There is a rule we follow: a matter is not settled until there is a minute entry to evidence that all of the Brethren in council assembled (not just one of us, not just in committee) have come to a unity of feeling. Approval of a matter in principle is not considered authority to act until a minute entry records the action taken—usually when the minutes are approved at the next meeting. (Lucile C. Tate, Boyd K. Packer, A Watchman on the Tower [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1995], 243.)
Thomas S. Monson:
As I was proceeding toward recommending the creation of stakes in Adelaide and Perth, Australia, I knew that President Joseph Fielding Smith, who was President of the Council of the Twelve at the time, had serious reservations about the creation of stakes beyond the North and South American Continents. Reluctantly he granted approval for the Twelve to recommend to the First Presidency a stake in Adelaide, Australia. He said very casually, “The next time I wouldn’t be surprised but what you will recommend a stake way over in Perth, Australia!” My heart sank, for in my briefcase was the recommendation for a stake to be created in Perth.
I waited a few weeks, and then on the morning when I was to present the item for consideration of the Twelve, I prayed earnestly that President Smith would be amenable to the recommendation. Usually President Smith would look at the proposed agenda and then focus on something which caused him concern, which meant that particular item didn’t have much chance of being approved. As he proceeded through the agenda, just before he came to the item pertaining to Perth, he excused himself to go to the restroom and asked Elder Harold B Lee to carry on. Elder Harold B. Lee carried on during the period when the Perth proposal was considered and approved, after which President Smith returned to the room. It was the only time during the seven and one-half years that he served as my quorum president when I ever remember his leaving one of our temple meetings. I was pleased to have the opportunity to bring into existence the Perth Australia Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Thomas S. Monson, On the Lord’s Errand: Memoirs of Thomas S. Monson [Salt Lake City, Utah], 1985, 290.))