I began research for this article the day before the death of President Thomas S. Monson. My notes and thoughts took on a whole new meaning for me once I heard he passed away. My heart goes out to those grieving the loss of this truly exceptional person.
The refrain, “follow the prophet” for most Mormons conjures a stompy, primary melody taught to us as children. The hope is that we’ve internalized its message as adults, but I often wonder if it would be better to change it to something like, “follow Jesus Christ and those he’s inspired to lead us.” That doesn’t match the meter of the song at all, but you get my point. Even though it is sad when someone that so many of us adored passes away, it’s a good time to remind ourselves of that we are not disciples of a prophet. We are disciples of Jesus Christ.
It might be easy to forget who we’re following in the tight crowd of faces that lead us both within the Church and without—like a child who’s trying to keep track of where his parent is on a congested city sidewalk. I hope this article is a thoughtful reminder of who we really should be following as members of the Church, as well as a comfort that He is never far away.
Conformity vs Moral Agency
“Nevertheless they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God” (Helaman 3:35).
This scripture describes the state of the Nephites approximately 41 B.C. What interests me about this scripture, and others like it, is the way a willingness to follow, conform, and allow one’s will to be swallowed up in another’s is portrayed as virtuous behavior while other scriptures promote independent thought and behavior: “And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given” (2 Nephi 2:26).
These messages from the scriptures are paradoxical to each other. They teach us to be submissive, to follow; yet they also teach us to “act and not be acted upon.”
But whom exactly are we instructed to follow? This may clear up some of the seemingly mixed messages. I went through all the Topical Guide entries related to the word “Follow” to see if there was anything to learn about conformity vs individuality in a scriptural context. Below is collection of what I found.
Don’t Follow the Groupthink
The first and clearest renunciation I found against conformity to the wrong kinds of leaders was in Exodus 23:2. It reads, “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil.”
This scripture shocked me with its directness and clarity. It reads like a reminder of individual moral agency in a group setting. We are not absolved of individual accountability when we follow others. Social phenomena such as the bystander effect need to be resisted in the face of immoral behavior of our leaders. We need to be careful who we’re following, and not be afraid of being the pariahs who renounce groupthink in favor of morality.
And I’m not just talking about renouncing the ways of the world. There are plenty of situations within Mormon culture that beg for individuals to stand up and stand out against the rest of us whose impulse is to follow the Mormon culture crowd.
Ruth and Naomi: Following our Heroes
Quick recap of the story of Ruth and Naomi: Ruth was Naomi’s daughter-in-law. After all the men in their lives died, Naomi told Ruth that she should go back and live with her people. This was Ruth’s reply: “Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go… thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God” (Ruth 1:16).
There are a couple things to learn from Ruth in this situation. One is that we can—and should—learn to follow Christ by extension of other human individuals who help us follow Christ by their example. That is the purpose of prophets, after all. The case of Ruth is an interesting example of following Christ by extension of another individual, because in most cases it is a priesthood holder we are expected to follow. What I learn from Ruth is we can come closer to Christ by following female leaders as well. In fact, the people we learn the most from about Christlike behavior and actions may not even be members of our religion. This should be acceptable to us, as we are not the sole proprietors of truth and virtue. There is so much to learn about Christ from the good men and women in every walk of life. We are allowed to have heroes other than Jesus Christ.
The tricky thing about following Christ by extension of another human being is that they will always be fallible. When individuals garner enough followers their egos and pride tend to take over, and when that happens they are the last people in the world we should follow. Prophets are usually safe leaders to follow and exemplify, but even they have their faults and should not be deified in our minds. The Mormon hymn “Praise to the Man” has drawn some criticism from other Christian faiths for the opening line, “Praise to the Man who communed with Jehovah;”and this is a criticism I can understand. The words should really be, “Praise to Jehovah for communing with man.”
In a figurative sense, we need to let our heroes die so we remember we are followers, first and foremost, of a perfect person who has overcome death in all its forms. All other heroes are secondary. In His own words, “Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead” (Matt. 8:22).
- Be VERY wary of groupthink
- Follow your heroes, but remember they’re fallible
- After everything, our only goal is to follow Jesus Christ
I don’t think the gospel obligates us to follow anyone other than the Savior himself. The irony is that those who follow Jesus Christ and conform to his way of life are likely to stand out from the crowd as individuals, for that was the way He did things. In life, Jesus Christ was a champion of both the virtue of submission to God’s will as well as the virtue of individual moral agency and the courage to stand out from a crowd. We are not disciples of one who would have us follow blindly. As He said Himself, “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance” (D&C 131:6). Our responsibility as Christians to ourselves and to each other is to think for ourselves and follow Jesus Christ.