Liahona and Iron Rod


Food for Thought.

Richard D. Poll (read entire article at this link)

IN AUGUST 1967, I delivered a sermon in the Palo Alto Ward entitled “What the Church Means to People like Me.” DIALOGUE published it that winter and the Saints’ Herald reprinted it the following year. In response to an invitation from the John Whitmer Historical Association, I took occasion recently to reflect on what has happened to the Liahonas and Iron Rods of Mormonism in the last fifteen years.

The terms were proposed in 1967 in this language:

There are two distinct types of active and dedicated Latter-day Saints. . . . deeply committed to the gospel but also prone to misgivings about the legitimacy, adequacy, or serviceability of the commitment of the other. The purpose of my inquiry is not to support either set of misgivings but to describe each type as dispassionately as I can, to identify myself with one of the types, and then to bear witness concerning some of the blessings which the church offers to the type I identify with.

Symbols for the two types came from the Book of Mormon  — from Lehi’s dream, the Iron Rod, and from Lehi’s experience in the wilderness, the Liahona:

The Iron Rod was the Word of God. To the person with his hand on the rod, each step of the journey to the tree of life was plainly denned; he had only to hold on as he moved forward. In Lehi’s dream the way was not easy, but it was clear. The Liahona, in contrast, was a compass. It pointed to the destination but did not fully mark the path; indeed, the clarity of its directions varied with the circumstances. of the user. For Lehi’s family the sacred instrument was a reminder of their temporal and eternal goals, but it was no infallible delineator of their course. . . . The Iron Rod Saint does not look for questions but for answers, and in the gospel —• as he understands it — he finds or is confident that he can find the answer to every important question. The Liahona Saint, on the other hand, is preoccupied with questions and skeptical of answers; he finds in the gospel — as he understands it — answers to enough important questions so that he can function purposefully without answers to the rest.



That authoritarianism in the Utah Church is pragmatic and not wedded to tradition is well illustrated by significant recent changes that are at least as acceptable to Liahona Saints as to rank and file Iron Rod members.

The abandonment of the policy of withholding priesthood from blacks is the most profound of these. But responsiveness to new circumstances may be seen also in the consolidated meeting schedule, the content of the Ensign,9 a new method for funding chapel construction, a redesign of temple garments, and a shortening of the missionary term — first for older couples and then for the young men and women who now proclaim the “only true gospel” in most countries of the free world. A study conducted by Correlation Evaluation to discover why so many converts do not remain active in the Church — like other data-oriented inquiries now in progress — may have important consequences for programs.

Nothing better illustrates the problems of developing an authoritative response to profound social change than the woman question. The Church emphasis on priesthood leadership and traditional family values is easier to express in sculpture than to apply in a world where Mormon women become psychiatrists and senators, adopt hyphenated names at marriage, and deliver their babies in the presence of their nervous husbands. The tactics of opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment generated a serious backlash among Mormons of both sexes, as did the short-lived experiment in restricting sacrament meeting prayers to priesthood holders. The process of institutional accommodation in so volatile a field is not measured by general conference endorsements of conventional answers but by the way Church publications, Social Service agencies, and the Brethren as individual counselors deal with unconventional problems.

As we look toward the future, several factors sustain optimism and commitment in people like me.

One is the characteristic of Liahona testimonies that has been consistent since the 1967 sermon. They find in the gospel sufficient answers to enough important questions to function purposefully in the Church without answers to the rest.

The second is the historical record — generally better known among Liahonas than Iron Rods —• that shows the tremendous capacity of the Institutional Church to accommodate new realities. When the mission of the Restoration is denned in terms of impact on the lives of people, every program, scripture, and prophetic pronouncement is subject to reconstruction or reinterpretation for the sake of that mission.

Furthermore, the limitations of authoritarian control operate as certainly and more swiftly in open communities like the Church than in states with plenary power to punish nonconformity. I am indebted to my brother, now bishop in the same California ward where the Liahona-Iron Rod concept was first proposed, for an illustration of the point:

Suppose I approached the brethren of the priesthood about home teaching as follows: “I’m sick and tired of your failing to visit all your families. Any elder or seventy or high priest who doesn’t do 100 percent home teaching this month is going to have his district taken away from him. Now get out there and do it!” Do you know how many families the bishopric would be home teaching next month? Two hundred and fifty. (That’s a hundred and twenty-five for each counselor.) And at the end of the second month do you know how many counselors the bishop would have? None.10


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