“We talk sometimes about free will,” observed President John Taylor. “Is that a correct principle? Yes. And it is a principle that has always existed, and proceeded from God, our Heavenly Father.”2 President Taylor cherished the principle of moral agency—the power Heavenly Father has given His children to choose good or evil and to act for themselves. However, he also taught that individuals are accountable to God for their acts. He affirmed, “God never gave man unlimited control of the affairs of this world; but always speaks of man as being under his guidance, inhabiting his territory, and responsible to him for his acts.”3
To emphasize the relationship between agency and accountability, President Taylor shared the following analogy: “A man lets or rents a vineyard or farm, the man occupying it has a certain agency and discretionary power vested in his hands, but always subject to certain conditions imposed by the owner of the property. Hence God made a covenant with Noah, Abraham, the Children of Israel, and the primitive saints. The making of a covenant naturally implies two parties: in such cases, God is one, the people the other. If the people fulfil their covenant, the Lord is bound to fulfil his; but if man transgresses then the Lord is not bound to fulfil his engagement. … Man, then, acts as a moral agent, to improve upon the blessings which God puts within his power, or not, as he pleases.”4
In President Taylor’s day, some people claimed that the gospel and the priesthood were intended to “bring men into bondage or to tyrannize over the consciences of men.” He boldly refuted this idea, declaring that the purpose of the gospel is “to make all men free as God is free; that they may drink of the streams ‘whereof shall make glad the city of God’; [Psalm 46:4] that they may be elevated and not debased; that they may be purified and not corrupted; that they may learn the laws of life and walk in them, and not walk in the ways of corruption and go down to death.”5
The Father … made a decree … that both the inhabitants of heaven and the inhabitants of earth should have their free agency. It was against this that Lucifer rebelled; and he could not have rebelled against a plan or commandment that had not been given; for rebellion signifies a violation of law, command, or authority; and he was cast out of heaven because of this rebellion. This rebellion could not have existed without a free agency; for without a free agency they would all have been compelled to do the will of the Father. But having the free agency, they used it; and Lucifer and a third part of the angels were cast out because they rebelled and used this agency in opposition to their heavenly Father. And not only because they rebelled, but because, as stated, “they sought to destroy the agency of man;” [see Moses 4:3] and their agency would have been used in opposition to the interests, happiness and eternal exaltation of mankind, which were proposed to be accomplished through the atonement and redemption provided by Jesus Christ.6
[God] has given us the ability to choose the good and refuse the evil. We can work iniquity or righteousness, just as we please; and the Devil has taken advantage of this, and tried to surround men’s minds with such influences as would bring about their ruin, that he might lead them captive at his will. The Lord has not bound them, nor controlled them; but the result of their actions he has controlled, whenever they have taken a course that was of itself calculated to injure his people.
The Lord … will let mankind pursue happiness in their own way, and according to their desire he will let them drink the cup of their own iniquity in their own way. On the other hand, he has manifested his goodness and will continue to do it to all his children. What does he design to accomplish? The building up of this kingdom upon the earth, the establishment of righteousness, the driving back of the adversary and the banishing of [Satan] from the earth. By this means, the principles of truth will be extended throughout the length and breadth of the earth, and all will bow to God and his Christ, and the chosen ones will administer the ordinances of his house forever and ever. The Almighty had this object in view long ago.7
We received the gospel. Was any one forced to obey it? Was there any coercion in any possible way manifested toward us? Not that I know of. Was Oliver Cowdery, who was the second elder in the church, obliged to receive this gospel? No, he was not. Was Hyrum Smith obliged to receive it? No, he was not. Were any of the witnesses to the Book of Mormon—the Whitmers and others? No. And after they did identify themselves with this church, were they compelled to stay in it? No. Have any of the members of the quorum of the twelve, the seventies, the high priests, or the members of the high councils, or the presidents of the seventies, or any class of men in this church, been compelled to occupy the position to which they have been called? I do not know of any, do you? I know there was no coercion used with me further than the force of truth recommending itself to my mind; neither was there with you, further than the power of truth operating upon your minds.8
I would not wish to control the human mind. I would not control the actions of men. God does not do it, he leaves them to their own agency to combat with the trials, temptations, adversities, and evils of every kind that are in the world, to which humanity is, or can be incident. He puts within their reach, however, certain principles and would like to lead them to himself if they would be led. If not, he then does the very best with them that he can.9
Man has a moral agency; acting under the Lord, and is, consequently, responsible to him for his acts, as a moral agent. But does he leave him alone and unassisted to carry out his designs? No. Looking upon man as his son, he has from time to time offered his services and instructions, as a father. He has given revelations, instructing and warning his people. He has given promises to the obedient, and threatened the disobedient. He has instructed kings, rulers, and prophets. He has also protected the righteous, and punished, by judgments, the wicked. He has promised to Abraham and others lands and possessions. He has held out promises of eternal life to the faithful; but has never coerced or forced the human mind.10
Are we not the framers of our own destiny? Are we not the arbitrators of our fate? … It is our privilege to determine our own exaltation or degradation; it is our privilege to determine our own happiness or misery in the world to come.11
By a careful examination of the Scriptures, we shall find that man has had certain powers vested in his hands, which he holds subject to the control and guidance of the Lord; and that if he has acted without the counsel, guidance, or instruction of God, he has gone beyond the limits assigned him by the Lord, and is as much culpable as [a government official] would be who should exceed the limits of his instructions; or a man holding a farm, or vineyard, by a certain lease, if he should disregard the conditions of that lease, and destroy the farm, or vineyard; for the earth is the Lord’s, and man was put on it by the Lord. It is not man’s possession, only as he holds it from God. … If man is placed as an agent to act for the Lord, and also for himself, and then should neglect the Lord, he would certainly be held responsible to his Creator.12
Let your memories run back, and you can remember the time when you did a good action, you can remember the time when you did a bad action; the thing is printed there and you can bring it out and gaze upon it whenever you please. … If you have studied language you can call that out at pleasure, you can show the distinction between the different parts of speech very readily. If you have studied mechanism your mind will go to the place where you saw a certain machine, and you will go to work and make one like it. If you have travelled in cities you can tell what kind of houses, and streets, composed the different cities you passed through, and the character of the people you associated with; and you can ruminate upon them, and reflect upon them by day or by night whenever you think proper, and call the things up which you did and saw. Where do you read all this? In your own book, you do not go to somebody else’s book or library, it is written in your own record, and you there read it. Your eyes and ears have taken it in, and your hands have touched it, and then your judgment, as it is called, has acted upon it—your reflective powers.
Now, if you are in possession of a spirit or intellectuality of that kind, whereby you are enabled to read your own acts, do you not think that that being who has placed that spirit and that intelligence within you holds the keys of that intelligence, and can read it whenever he pleases? Is not that philosophical, reasonable and scriptural? I think it is. …
Man sleeps the sleep of death but the spirit lives where the record of his deeds is kept—that does not die—man cannot kill it, there is no decay associated with it, and it still retains in all its vividness, the remembrance of that which transpired before the separation by death, of the body and the ever-living spirit.13
We are God’s people, and he is bound by everything that is calculated to bind either man or God. He is bound to take care of his people, if they take care of themselves; if they honour their calling and priesthood; if they magnify and do credit to the power and authority that is conferred upon them; if they do not deviate from correct principles, God is bound to fulfill all things according to the obligations that he is under; one of which is to provide for his Saints. … Who has ever known God to depart from correct principles? … I never have, and I am well satisfied that you never did.14
Why is agency essential to our exaltation? How are agency and the Atonement of Jesus Christ related?
In what ways does Satan continue to try to influence our agency? How can we resist those attempts?
What forms of guidance does the Lord give us to help us use our agency righteously? How does He reward our righteous use of agency?
Why is it important for individuals to have the opportunity to make their own decisions? How can we honor the agency of family members and at the same time encourage them to make correct decisions? How can you help family members understand the consequences of their decisions?
Although we are free to make decisions, why might unrighteous decisions restrict our freedom? How have you felt your freedom increase through righteous decisions?