Wilford Woodruff famously said that the Lord would not allow him or any other man appointed as President of the Church to lead the church astray (See commentary after Official Declaration 1 in the Doctrine and Covenants). This statement, of course, is somewhat circular. Specifically, how can we know that his statement is true? How do we know that this statement itself isn’t “leading astray?” Just because someone says they are right doesn’t mean they are, last time I checked. So, couldn’t he have just said this to get people to swallow the hard pill of ending plural marriage?
Well, you can’t claim this was a concept first taught by Wilford Woodruff. The historical record is clear on this point: others taught this decades before him. Here are a few examples:
“The Lord Almighty leads this Church, and he will never suffer you to be led astray if you are found doing your duty. You may go home and sleep as sweetly as a babe in its mother’s arms, as to any danger of your leaders leading you astray, for if they should try to do so the Lord would quickly sweep them from the earth” (Brigham Young, February 23, 1862. Journal of Discourses, 9:289).
“I think when we have learned that lesson, we will be willing to take the counsel of those who are set to direct us, the officers who are over us; and if they are not just, true, holy, upright and men of God in every respect, just have faith enough so that the Lord Almighty will remove them out of the way, and do not undertake to remove them yourselves. This is the way we should live. There should be faith enough in the midst of this people that if your humble servants were to attempt to guide them in the ways of error, false doctrine, wickedness or corruption of any kind, he would be stopped in his career in twenty-four hours so that he would not be able to speak to them, and if he were not laid in the grave, he would have no power nor influence whatever. There ought to faith enough in a Ward, if the Bishop is wicked, if he is doing wrong and serving himself and the enemy instead of the Lord and his kingdom, to stop him in his career, so that the Lord would remove him out of the way. This has been the case in some few instances, and it ought to be every time and in every place” ( Brigham Young, August 18, 1872. Journal of Discourses 15:133-134).
“If I were to reject [the privileges and blessings of my calling as President] and take a course to deprive myself of the spirit of revelation . . . I would be taken forthwith from this world, I would not remain here at all to darken the minds of, or to lead astray, any of the members of the kingdom of God. According to the revelations that I and others of my brethren and sisters have received . . . If I observe my duty, I shall have the privilege of living and enjoying the society of my brethren and sisters, and of instructing them; but let me neglect this and I shall be removed out of my place forthwith” (Brigham Young, August 31, 1875. Journal of Discourses 18:70).
“God will not raise up another prophet and another people to do the work that we have been appointed to do . . . There is no question in my mind of [the leaders] ever proving themselves unfaithful, as a body; for if any of them were to become unworthy in His sight, He would remove them out of their place and call others from the ranks to fill their positions. And thus His Priesthood will ever be found to be composed of the right men for the place, of men whose backs will be fitted for the burden, men through whom He can work and regulate the affairs of His Church according to the counsels of His own will. And the moment that individuals look to any other source, that moment they throw themselves open to the seductive influences of Satan . . . they lose sight of the true order through which the blessings of the Priesthood are to be enjoyed . . . and are on dangerous ground . . . So it was with President Brigham Young, he held it on condition of his faithfulness. If any man in that position should become unfaithful, God would remove him out of his place. I testify in the name of Israel’s God that He will not suffer the head of the Church, him whom He has chosen to stand at the head, to transgress His laws and apostatize; the moment he should take a course that would in time lead to it, God would take him away. Why? Because to suffer a wicked man to occupy that position, would be to allow, as it were, the fountain to become corrupted, which is something He will never permit” (Joseph F. Smith, June 21, 1883. Journal of Discourses 24:189, 192).
So, Wilford Woodruff’s statement can’t be dismissed out of hand as some sort of an excuse to justify his major announcement in Official Declaration 1. His idea that the brethren (or specifically, the prophet) cannot lead us astray was not his idea, it was a view already held in the church for decades prior. The law of witnesses sustains him in his statement. And, as we will see in a subsequent post, the idea of the latter-day church not being led astray has precedence in scripture.