From the Life of Joseph F. Smith
President Joseph F. Smith believed that individual agency and responsibility are inseparable, essential parts of the process by which God’s children become like Him. “You and I must secure the blessings of eternal lives for ourselves, through obedience and the mercy of God,” he explained. “We have the volition of our own wills and we can choose evil or good. … We have got to learn to stand or fall for ourselves, male and female.”1
President Smith personally appeared before members of the United States Congress in 1904 and spoke forcefully about the right of Church members to exercise their agency in making personal, religious, and political choices. On 26 March 1907, the First Presidency published “An Address: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the World,” which was unanimously adopted in the general conference of April 1907. Restating many basic beliefs of Latter-day Saints, the declaration affirmed: “We believe in the free agency of man, and therefore in his individual responsibility.”2
President Smith believed and taught that obedience to the laws of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the only means of achieving the liberty promised by Jesus Christ: “The truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
Teachings of Joseph F. Smith
God has given us the gift of agency and will hold us responsible for our choices.
God has given to all men an agency and has granted to us the privilege to serve him or serve him not, to do that which is right or that which is wrong, and this privilege is given to all men irrespective of creed, color or condition. The wealthy have this agency, the poor have this agency, and no man is deprived by any power of God from exercising it in the fullest and in the freest manner. This agency has been given to all. This is a blessing that God has bestowed upon the world of mankind, upon all his children alike. But he will hold us strictly to an account for the use that we make of this agency, and as it was said of Cain, so it will be said of us; “If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? and if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door” (Gen. 4:7).3
We are agents, and can choose or reject the gospel, follow the examples of the Savior or Lucifer. It is left optional with us. We are heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ, and have the privilege of attaining to glory and exaltation in the Kingdom where Jesus and the sanctified dwell, but it is left optional with us to choose or refuse; God has declared that He will require nothing at our hands but what He will enable us to perform. If He asks and requires duties of us that are difficult for us to perform, looking at them naturally, He will give us power to accomplish them. But unless we are worthy, and use all the energy and intelligence that we possess naturally, the promise on His part will not be fulfilled, because it is made on conditions that we do our part.4
The Lord has given to the children of men their agency. Men can do good or evil to suit themselves. … He simply holds us responsible before him and answerable to him for the use of the intelligence and the opportunities that he has given to us here in the flesh.5
God does not interfere with our agency but permits us to experience the consequences of our choices.
The agency of man is not interfered with by Divine Providence. If men were not left free to choose the good and refuse the evil, or vice versa, there would be no righteousness or even reason in bringing them to judgment. In consequence of the power of volition they become responsible beings, and therefore will receive the results of their own doings. They will be rewarded or punished according to their works, when the books are opened and they are judged out of the things written therein.
God, doubtless, could avert war, prevent crime, destroy poverty, chase away darkness, overcome error, and make all things bright, beautiful and joyful. But this would involve the destruction of a vital and fundamental attribute in man—the right of agency. It is for the benefit of His sons and daughters that they become acquainted with evil as well as good, with darkness as well as light, with error as well as truth, and with the results of the infraction of eternal laws. Therefore he has permitted the evils which have been brought about by the acts of His creatures, but will control their ultimate results for His own glory and the progress and exaltation of His sons and daughters, when they have learned obedience by the things they suffer. The contrasts experienced in this world of mingled sorrow and joy are educational in their nature, and will be the means of raising humanity to a full appreciation of all that is right and true and good. The foreknowledge of God does not imply His action in bringing about that which He foresees, nor make Him responsible in any degree for that which man does or refuses to do.6
Many things occur in the world in which it seems very difficult for most of us to find a solid reason for the acknowledgment of the hand of the Lord. … The only reason I have been able to discover by which we should acknowledge the hand of God in some occurrences is the fact that the thing which has occurred has been permitted of the Lord. When two men give way to their passions, their selfishness and anger, to contend and quarrel with each other, and this quarrel and contentions leads to physical strife and violence between them, it has been difficult for me to discover the hand of the Lord in that transaction; other than that the men who thus disagree, quarrel and contend with each other, have received from God the freedom of their own agency to exercise their own intelligence, to judge between the right and wrong for themselves, and to act according to their own desire. The Lord did not design or purpose that these two men should quarrel, or give way to their anger to such an extent that it would lead to violence between them, and, perhaps, to bloodshed. God has never designed such a thing as that, nor can we charge such things to the Almighty. …
The agency that [God] has given to us left us to act for ourselves—to do things if we will that are not right, that are contrary to the laws of life and health, that are not wise or prudent—and the results may be serious to us, because of our ignorance or of our determination to persist in that which we desire, rather than to yield to the requirements which God makes of us.7
You will suffer the consequences of your own mistakes, of your own errors, though they bring sorrow, or sickness, or death! So, I acknowledge the hand of the Lord in this free agency that he has given to the children of men; but I acknowledge the hand of man in the consequences of his own acts, following his disobedience to the law of God. I do not charge the weaknesses, the mistakes or errors, the crimes and wickedness of men, and the evils that exist in the world, to God the Father.8
It has been in [the] realm of freedom, and the exercise of human judgment that most of the evils that have occurred in the world have been done—the martyrdom of Saints, the crucifixion of the Son of God himself, and much of the apostasy and departure from the work of righteousness, and from the laws of God, have occurred in this realm of freedom and the exercise of human judgment. God in his boundless wisdom and gracious mercy has provided means, and has shown the way to the children of men whereby, even in the realms of freedom and the exercise of their own judgment, they may individually go unto God in faith and prayer, and find out what should guide and direct their human judgment and wisdom; and I do not want the Latter-day Saints to forget that this is their privilege.9
The Church of Jesus Christ does not infringe upon individual liberty.
The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom of freedom; the gospel of the Son of God is the gospel of liberty.10
Can you find an organization, ecclesiastical or otherwise, that has the same perfection of government and organization in it as can be found in the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, established by inspiration through the Prophet Joseph Smith? And what is the object of that organization? Is it to crush men? Is it to injure you? Is it to bow you down unto the earth? Is it to deprive you of your liberties, of your rights, of your privileges? Is it to make you slaves, menials, and degrade you unto the dust? Or is it to raise you up into the scale of intelligence and of manliness and increase your liberties, for there is no liberty like the liberty of the gospel of Jesus Christ? For I can tell you no man is free when he is under bondage of sin and of transgression, neither is any man free when he is under the bondage of ignorance in relation to the plan of life and salvation.11
I believe that there is not a freer, more independent nor a more intelligent people to be found anywhere in the world, who are more independent in choosing the course which they pursue, in the work that they perform and in everything that they have to do with, than the Latter-day Saints. There is not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in good standing, anywhere in all the world today that is not such by reason of his independence of character, by reason of his intelligence, wisdom and ability to judge between right and wrong and between good and evil.12
The religion of the Latter-day Saints relates to present conduct as well as future happiness. It influences its votaries [believers] in everything that affects human character. It is for the body as well as for the spirit. It teaches people how to live and act in this world that they may be prepared for the realities of the world to come. The Church, therefore, instructs in things temporal as well as things spiritual, so far as they relate to the Church, its properties and institutions and the association of its adherents. But it does not infringe upon the liberty of the individual or encroach upon the domain of the state. The free agency of man is a fundamental principle which, according to the tenets of the Church, even God Himself does not suppress.13
Obedience, the rightful exercise of agency, brings inestimable blessings.
There are … certain blessings which God bestows upon the children of men only upon the condition of the rightful exercise of this agency. For instance, no man can obtain a remission of his sins but by repentance, and baptism by one having authority. If we would be free from sin, from its effects, from its power, we must obey this law which God has revealed, or we never can obtain a remission of sins. Therefore, while God has bestowed upon all men, irrespective of condition, this agency to choose good or evil, he has not and will not bestow upon the children of men a remission of sins but by their obedience to law. …
All men are blessed with the strength of their bodies, with the use of their minds, and with the right to exercise the faculties with which they are endowed in a way that seemeth good to their sight, without regard to religion. But God has not and will not suffer the gift of the Holy Ghost to be bestowed upon any man or woman, except through compliance with the laws of God. Therefore, no man can obtain a remission of sins; no man can obtain the gift of the Holy Ghost; no man can obtain the revelations of God; no man can obtain the Priesthood, and the rights, powers and privileges thereof; no man can become an heir of God and a joint heir with Jesus Christ, except through compliance with the requirements of heaven. These are universal blessings, they are great and inestimable privileges which pertain to the gospel and to the plan of life and salvation, which are open and free to all on certain conditions, but which no persons beneath the heavens can enjoy, but through walking in the channel that God has marked out by which they can obtain them. And these privileges and blessings when obtained may be forfeited, and perhaps lost for all eternity, unless we continue steadfast in the course that is marked out for us to pursue. …
The sun shines upon the evil and the good; but the Holy Ghost descends only upon the righteous and upon those who are forgiven of their sins. The rain descends upon the evil and upon the good; but the rights of the Priesthood are conferred, and the doctrine of the Priesthood distils as the dews of heaven upon the souls of those only who receive it in God’s own appointed way. The favor of heaven, the acknowledgment of the Almighty of his children upon the earth as his sons and his daughters, can only be secured through obedience to the laws which he has revealed.14
The greatest measure of liberty comes through obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the perfect law of liberty. It is calculated to lead man to the highest state of glory, and to exalt him in the presence of our Heavenly Father, “with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” [James 1:17.]15
We believe that God’s will is to exalt men; that the liberty that comes through obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ is the greatest measure of liberty that can come to man. There is no liberty that men enjoy or pretend to enjoy in the world that is not founded in the will and in the law of God, and that does not have truth for its underlying principle and foundation. It is error that makes bondsmen. It is untruth that degrades mankind. It is error and the lack of knowledge of God’s laws and God’s will that leaves men in the world on a par with the brute creation; for they have no higher instincts, no higher principle, no higher incentive, no higher aspiration, than the brute world, if they have not some inspiration that comes from a higher source than man himself.16
It is only by obedience to the laws of God, that men can rise above the petty weaknesses of mortality and exercise that breadth of affection, that charity and love, that should actuate the hearts and the motives of the children of men.17
Brethren and sisters, let us be free. I contend—and I think I have a right to do so—that I am a free man, in accordance with my observance of the commandments of God. If I do wrong, I am in bondage to that wrong. If I commit sin, I am in bondage to that sin. If I transgress the laws of God, I am responsible before the Lord. But I contend that as to liberty, as to freedom of speech, freedom of will, freedom of action—as to everything that goes to make a free man in the midst of men, I do not believe there is another man on earth any freer than I am. Bless your soul, I can commit sin if I want to. I have as much liberty to commit sin as any man. No man has any right to commit sin; but all men have the liberty to do so if they will. God has given to them their agency. Is there any manhood displayed in my committing sin because I have liberty to do so? I have liberty to go to a saloon and drink liquor, if I choose, or go to a gambling [hall] and gamble. I possess just as much liberty in regard to these matters as any man living on earth. But the moment I should do such a thing as this I become a slave and a bondsman to iniquity. On the other hand, if I am not guilty of visiting saloons, or of playing cards, or of gambling, or of other crimes I am innocent of them and so far I am a free man. The truth has made me free in regard to this.18
We do not preach the gospel of fear. We do not seek to terrorize the souls of men. We do not ask a man to be righteous because of the terrors of the damned. We do not want you to be good because you fear the punishment of the wicked. We do not want you to do right because of the penalty that attaches to the doing of wrong. We want you to choose the right because it is right, and because your heart loves the right, and because it is choice above everything else. We want you to be honest, not merely because it is the best policy, but because in so doing you honor God and you carry out His purposes in your lives; for “an honest man,” it is an old, and perhaps a hackneyed, saying—“is the noblest work of God.” We want to be honest because we love God, and we cannot be the Saints of God [unless] we are. We should be good because we love to be good, and not because we fear the consequences of evil.19
The Lord does not accept obedience from men except that which they render cheerfully and gladly in their hearts, and that is all that is desired by his servants. That is the obedience we ought to render, and if we do not we are under condemnation.20
[Jesus Christ] not only had intelligence, but He applied that intelligence in the doing of good and in the making of men free from the errors of the world and the evil traditions of the fathers. He declared in words of truth and soberness, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” [John 8:31–32.] No man is like God unless he is free. God is free. Why? Because He possesses all righteousness, all power, and all wisdom. He also possesses His agency, and His agency is exercised in doing that which is good, and not that which is evil. So no man can be like unto Him until he can subject himself unto that which is righteous, pure, and good, and until he can forsake error and sin and overcome himself. …
He that is most pliant and submissive to the will of God shows the greatest wisdom among all men. He that sets up his opinion in opposition to the wishes and purposes of the Lord is of all men the farthest from God in that regard. Though he may be fashioned and formed in the image and likeness of the Father, yet he is most unlike the Son unless he can say in his heart, “Father, not my will, but thine, be done.” [Luke 22:42.] It is the will of the Lord that we should possess this spirit, and understand this truth. It is true that there is to us but one God, the Father, and that all men will have to be subject unto Him and are required to obey His commandments, in order that they may be free and the disciples of Christ indeed.21
Suggestions for Study
What is agency? Who has agency? Why is agency a blessing?
How does God expect us to use our agency? What does He promise us if we choose to obey Him? (See also D&C 58:28.)
Why are we allowed to suffer the consequences of our actions? How would our mortal experience be diminished if God averted war, prevented crime, and destroyed poverty? How might you respond to someone who mistakenly attributes to God “the evils that exist in the world”?
Although God “has permitted the evils which have been brought about by the acts of His creatures,” what assurance do we have that He will “control their ultimate results”? (See also Romans 8:28; D&C 98:3.)
What does it mean to “infringe upon the liberty of the individual”? How can parents and leaders in the Church help others to be obedient without infringing upon individual liberty? (See also D&C 121:34–46.)
How does the Church help us to become truly free? How do sin and error restrict us?
What “great and inestimable” blessings have you received when you have chosen to obey God’s laws? (See also D&C 130:20–21.)
How is it different to obey God’s laws because of love rather than because of fear of punishment?
How can we follow the example of the Savior in becoming more obedient to the will of the Father?
Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, 11 Nov. 1873, 1.
In James R. Clark, comp, Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 6 vols. (1965–75), 4:144; the entire address is on pages 143–55.
Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. (1939), 49.
Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, 3 Jan. 1871, 2.
In Brian H. Stuy, comp, Collected Discourses Delivered by President Wilford Woodruff, His Two Counselors, the Twelve Apostles, and Others, 5 vols. (1987–92), 2:297.
In Messages of the First Presidency, 4:325–26.
Gospel Doctrine, 56–57; paragraphing added.
In Messages of the First Presidency, 5:70–71.
Gospel Doctrine, 48.
Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, 2 Mar. 1867, 3.
In Collected Discourses, 5:143.
Gospel Doctrine, 492; paragraphing altered.
In Messages of the First Presidency, 4:79.
Gospel Doctrine, 49–50; paragraphing added.
Gospel Doctrine, 82.
Gospel Doctrine, 53–54.
In Conference Report, Oct. 1903, 2.
In Collected Discourses, 4:410–11.
In Collected Discourses, 3:217–18.
Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, 11 Nov. 1873, 1.
In Collected Discourses, 4:407.
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