By Cassandra Hedelius
In 1840, John C. Bennett was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ. His wife and children didn’t come with him to Nauvoo, and it’s not clear what his original motive was for posing as a bachelor instead of being truthful about his family status. His eventual motive was extremely clear: as Bennett ingratiated himself to Joseph and other leaders, and gained high religious and civic positions, he lied to women in order to take advantage of them sexually. Bennett is one of the earliest and most egregious cases of a conundrum we’re each likely to sometime face: if the church is guided by revelation, how do bad people fool its leaders?
To critics of the church, the answer is easy: the church isn’t guided by revelation. But for those of us who have unmistakable reasons for believing that the church is Christ’s kingdom and He literally leads it, we have to seek more complex answers.
Jesus called Judas to be a disciple, certainly knowing what he was capable of doing and would eventually do. Plenty of early church leaders apostatized. Apostle Richard R. Lyman was excommunicated for adultery in 1943. General Authorities George P. Lee and James J. Hamula were excommunicated more recently. Stake Presidents and Bishops have been convicted of terrible crimes, even sexually abusing children.
In D&C 124:16-17, the Lord tells Joseph about Bennett:
16 Again, let my servant John C. Bennett help you in your labor in sending my word to the kings and people of the earth, and stand by you, even you my servant Joseph Smith, in the hour of affliction; and his reward shall not fail if he receive counsel.
17 And for his love he shall be great, for he shall be mine if he do this, saith the Lord. I have seen the work which he hath done, which I accept if he continue, and will crown him with blessings and great glory.
“The work which he hath done” refers to Bennett having helped Joseph write the Nauvoo city charter (a guarantee of extremely important legal protections for the Saints) and successfully lobbied the Illinois legislature to approve it. Bennett was able to succeed because he was a minister, professor, physician, and a high-ranking official in the Illinois militia (professional licensing was practically nonexistent at the time). The plainest reading of the revelation is that Bennett was sincere, at least somewhat, in his enthusiasm for the church and helping the prophet. And therefore the Lord encouraged him to continue as he began, promising spiritual rewards if he’s faithful.
If I had been specifically named in a revelation from the Lord, I would pay close attention to the entire thing, not just the verses about me. In verses 47-50, the Lord says:
47 And it shall come to pass that if you build a house unto my name, and do not do the things that I say, I will not perform the oath which I make unto you, neither fulfil the promises which ye expect at my hands, saith the Lord.
48 For instead of blessings, ye, by your own works, bring cursings, wrath, indignation, and judgments upon your own heads, by your follies, and by all your abominations, which you practice before me, saith the Lord.
49 Verily, verily, I say unto you, that when I give a commandment to any of the sons of men to do a work unto my name, and those sons of men go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work, and cease not their diligence, and their enemies come upon them and hinder them from performing that work, behold, it behooveth me to require that work no more at the hands of those sons of men, but to accept of their offerings.
50 And the iniquity and transgression of my holy laws and commandments I will visit upon the heads of those who hindered my work, unto the third and fourth generation, so long as they repent not, and hate me, saith the Lord God.
51 Therefore, for this cause have I accepted the offerings of those whom I commanded to build up a city and a house unto my name, in Jackson county, Missouri, and were hindered by their enemies, saith the Lord your God.
52 And I will answer judgment, wrath, and indignation, wailing, and anguish, and gnashing of teeth upon their heads, unto the third and fourth generation, so long as they repent not, and hate me, saith the Lord your God.
53 And this I make an example unto you, for your consolation concerning all those who have been commanded to do a work and have been hindered by the hands of their enemies, and by oppression, saith the Lord your God.
In verses 47-48, the Lord is specifically condemning the Missouri mobs and officials who prevented the Saints from building the temple and drove them out. But there’s no reason to limit the Lord’s threats to specific Missourians only; in time Bennett would become much like them by accusing Joseph of spectacular crimes and contributing to the climate of persecution that murdered Joseph and forced the Saints to leave their temple and homes once again. And the Lord is presumably threatening all of us, including other church leaders who have grievously harmed those they were called to serve. Bennett, along with every other church leader and member, is plainly put on notice of the consequences of bad behavior.
But why would the Lord call someone that He knows will misuse the calling to commit terrible sins? A few reasons:
- There’s a knotty theological debate here, but arguably, God knows what we’re capable of doing or inclined to do, but doesn’t necessarily know for certain what we will do. Our choices here matter in determining who we become for eternity; they’re not just playing out a script that God knew perfectly in advance. And so God may call people in order to give them the chance to rise to the occasion, even though it’s possible or even likely they’ll choose evil instead.
- As God told Joseph not long before, in D&C 121:12-14, sometimes He lets people persecute the righteous so “that He may prove them (the wicked) also and take them in their own craftiness.” The Book of Mormon talks about people “ripened in iniquity” (Ether 2:9), that they need to have fully chosen their evil course before God acts against them. This can’t fully make sense to us now, from our mortal perspective, but God’s perspective is a very long view, including estates beyond mortality, and we can trust that His justice is perfect.
- When an enemy sowed tares among the wheat, the servants wanted to clean out the field immediately. The Lord stopped them, because pulling up the tares would harm the wheat as well (Matthew 13:24-30). In D&C 86:4-7, the Lord clarifies that “the blade is yet tender” means “your faith is weak.” Perhaps our faith is too weak to handle the sort of revelation it would take to weed out the bad actors, or potential bad actors, from church leadership.
None of this is to say the Lord doesn’t often direct the church in very specific ways. I’ve experienced this myself, even joking that the Lord doesn’t just lead the church, but even micromanages it. I suppose I’m comfortable with not understanding how a nearly infinite array of factors all interact so that the Lord can only give us a few general principles to grasp. I also recognize that’s much easier for me to say than for someone who has been personally mistreated by a church leader.
But at the end of the day, each of us must place our faith in Christ, and in His prophets, seers, and revelators speaking in unity on essential principles. We’re all moving forward in faith, trusting that even when mortals mess things up, in the end all will be well.
In the meantime, we can all emulate Hyrum Smith: “I, the Lord, love him because of the integrity of his heart, and because he loveth that which is right before me” (D&C 124:15). And like George Miller, we can be without guile, be trusted because of the integrity of our hearts, and for the love which we have to the Lord’s testimony, the Lord will love us (D&C 124:20). If we love what is right, if we love the truth revealed from the Lord, we’ll keep our hearts free from sin and the world’s influence, and not be shaken.
More Come, Follow Me resources here.
Cassandra Hedelius studied Political Science in Oklahoma and Law in Colorado. She currently lives in Aurora, Colorado and cares full time for her three young children and cat.