March 1985

“Principles,” Ensign, Mar. 1985, 6


This is an edited version of an address given 6 April 1984 at the Regional Representatives’ Seminar associated with general conference.

The true essence of priesthood administration is not in procedure—it is in knowing and teaching principles and doctrine.

My assignment is to talk about the calling of missionaries. The Lord has given us the injunction to preach the gospel. That message is repeated more than eighty times in the scriptures—more than eighty times: “Preach the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people,” and that surely is reason enough to do it. I would like to add another reason to call missionaries. I think that if we understood, if we could grasp the importance of it, it would compel us to a greater determination to see that every young man be worthy to receive a mission call. Save only for those few who have some overruling physical impediment, every young man must be made worthy to receive a mission call.

Now, the world being what it is, we do not place the same stress on sisters being called on missions. For one thing, the number of places where sisters may safely be assigned is limited in every mission. And we have some missions now where the number of sisters almost predominates. We should not cease to call sisters, however, but should call ever-increasing numbers of elders.

If you could understand what I hope to convey about the calling of missionaries, you might understand that the calling of missionaries is crucial, not just to the growth of the Church, but to the very safety of the Church. I suppose the best title for what I am going to say would be the simple word principles. Now, I intend to present a few thoughts on the fundamental principles of priesthood government and then afterwards give examples of how essential they are in governing the Church, and then, after that, apply them to missionary work. These principles, of course, apply to all of the work of the Church.

We know that the work of our local priesthood leadership is never done. If they spent their full time, they couldn’t do it—and of course, they have to provide for their families and be worthy citizens. If that’s the case, then how can they safely choose? Of all of the things we have them doing, how can they choose those things that might safely be passed over? The responsibilities of local leaders can be placed into these categories:

We have an organization to maintain, with the constant problem of staffing.

We have programs to manage.

We have procedures to follow.

We have official policies to administer.

Then, we have principles to honor and to teach.

Organization, programs, procedures, policies, and principles—all are important. But they are not of equal importance. You may very well spend time and budget on things that are not crucial and actually neglect the weightier matter.

Let me give two examples, one from the more spiritual part of our ministry and one from the temporal part.

The first has to do with Church courts. It is our responsibility to discipline members when there has been a very serious transgression. The organization and the procedures for holding a court are explained in detail in the handbook.

However, unless you know the principles that apply in such cases, you might hold a Church court in technical compliance with the handbook, even follow proper procedures, and yet injure rather than heal the wayward member.

If you do not know the principles—by principles I mean the principles of the gospel, the doctrines, what’s in the revelations—if you do not know what the revelations say about justice or mercy, or what they reveal on reproof or forgiveness, how can you make inspired decisions in those difficult cases that require your judgment?

There is a spiritual element beyond the procedures in the handbook. It belongs to the priesthood and carries supernal power. Unless you are familiar with it, unless bishops and stake presidents are familiar with it, they might implement programs and yet not redeem the Saints.

Another example: It is clear in the revelations that we are to take care of the worthy poor. How is this to be done? We are to collect fast offerings and there are the welfare service programs—we’re familiar with those. In the handbooks are statements on how they are to be administered. Yet each case is different. Without a knowledge of gospel principles, you could act in technical compliance with the instructions, yet demean rather than exalt the member. Suppose you knew nothing of independence, thrift, and self-reliance.

It is not a matter of dedication, because we would never question that. It is a matter of where to place emphasis. It is a matter of vision. For “where there is no vision, the people perish.” (Prov. 29:18.)

There are principles of the gospel underlying every phase of Church administration. These are not explained in the handbooks. They are found in the scriptures. They are the substance of and the purpose for the revelations.

Procedures, programs, the administrative policies, even some patterns of organization are subject to change. We are quite free, indeed, quite obliged to alter them from time to time. But the principles, the doctrines, never change.

If you over-emphasize programs and procedures that can change, and will change, and must change, and do not understand the fundamental principles of the gospel, which never change, you can be misled.

Now, listen carefully. I do not imply that you should ignore the handbooks or manuals, not for one minute would I say that. What I do say is this: there is a spiritual ingredient not found in handbooks that you must include in your ministry if you are to please the Lord.

When you know the gospel, you will have a loyalty toward the instruction in the handbooks that you cannot have otherwise. By so doing, you will save yourself the innovations that cannot work.

Because the Church is growing so fast, there is a temptation to try to solve problems by changing boundaries, altering programs, reorganizing the leadership, or providing more comfortable buildings. What we really need is a retrenchment such as we have read about in Church history. What we really need is a revival of the basic gospel principles in the lives of all the Latter-day Saints. The true essence of priesthood administration is not in procedure—it is in principle, in doctrine!

The prophet Joseph Smith gave us the key. He said, with reference to administration, “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves.”

Some time ago I interviewed a young bishop in Brazil. He was twenty-seven years old. I was impressed that he possessed every attribute of a successful Church leader—humility, testimony, appearance, intelligence, spirituality. Here, I thought, is a young man with a great future in the Church.

I asked myself, as I looked at him, “What will his future be? What will we do for him? What will we do to him?” In my mind I outlined the years ahead.

He will be a bishop for perhaps six years, then he will be thirty-three years old. He will then serve eight years on a stake high council and five years as a counselor in the stake presidency. At forty-six he will be called as a stake president. We will release him after six years to become a regional representative, and he will serve for five years. That means he will have spent thirty years as an ideal, the example to follow, the image, the leader.

However, in all that time, he will not have attended three Gospel Doctrine classes in a row, nor will he have attended three priesthood quorum lessons in a row.

Brethren, do you see yourselves in this illustration?

Unless he knew the fundamental principles of the gospel before his call, he will scarcely have time to learn them along the way. Agendas, meetings, and budgets and buildings will take up his time. These things are not usually overlooked.

But the principles are overlooked—the gospel is overlooked, the doctrine is overlooked. When that happens, we are in great danger! We see the evidence of it in the Church today.

I wish to raise a voice of solemn and sober warning! We live in a day of great opposition, not just in the United States, but worldwide. It grows by day and by night all across the world. Enemies from without, reinforced by apostates from within, challenge the faith of the rank and file members of the Church. It is not the programs of the Church they challenge. They are, in fact, quite complimentary of them. It is the doctrines they focus on. It’s the doctrines they attack, and we notice that many leaders seem to be at a loss as to how to answer doctrinal questions. I’ve had something to do in the public communications program, and daily calls come from all over: “Help. What do we do? They are challenging the doctrines.” If our members are ignorant of the doctrines, we are in danger, notwithstanding efficient programs and buildings.

Now, I do not wish to demean our efforts. I see manifestations of gospel principles at work everywhere. Let me give an example.

In stake leadership meetings, I frequently ask a young elders quorum president about the procedure of calling a new counselor. How would you call a new counselor? The following is, I am very happy to report, typical of what happens.

The president says, “Well, first, I would go over the names of my quorum members in my mind and select the one who impresses me that he should be my counselor. Then I would pray about it.”

“Why do you pray about it?”

“To receive direction from the Lord.”

“What kind of direction?”

“To know whether it is right or not.”

“You mean revelation?”


“You think you can receive revelation on such a thing?”


“Are you certain?”


“But you are a very ordinary young man; do you really believe you can get revelation from God?”

“Yes, sir!”

“Have you received it before?”


“I’m not going to be able to talk you out of it, am I?”

“No, sir!”

Just think of that! An ordinary young elders quorum president knows what revelation is and how to receive it. An ordinary young man knows how to approach the Lord through the veil and get revealed instruction.

That is the essence, the very essence of priesthood government. That is a principle of the gospel. It is a law of God that he will reveal his will to his servants. Not just to the prophets and Apostles, but to his servants across the world. It is a precious principle that must be guarded and nurtured, and when we are overprogrammed it sometimes is smothered.

Now, provided that young president is familiar with the scriptures, he will never follow false leaders. He will have read in the Doctrine and Covenants:

“It shall not be given to any one to go forth to preach my gospel, or to build up my church, except he be ordained by some one who has authority, and it is known to the church that he has authority and has been regularly ordained by the heads of the church.” (D&C 42:11.)

Nor will he be organized so mechanically as to miss inspiration. He would have read in the forty-sixth section of this verse:

“But notwithstanding those things which are written, it always has been given to the elders of my church from the beginning, and ever shall be, to conduct all meetings as they are directed and guided by the Holy Spirit.” (D&C 46:2.)

It is so important that every member, particularly every leader, understand and know the gospel.

It is not easy to find time to study the gospel. It is harder for the stake president to do it and infinitely harder for the bishop to do it, but it is necessary and it is possible. Brethren must attend the classes as often as they can; bishops and stake presidents should find some way to attend at least a good share of the Gospel Doctrine classes and the appropriate priesthood quorum lessons.

We must see that the generations that follow us learn the gospel. It is our duty to deliver to them, the generations that follow us, intact, the principles and the ordinances of the gospel and the authority of the priesthood.

Foster those programs which are designed to teach the gospel. Primary, Sunday School (incidentally, I have heard of local leaders who have recommended that Sunday School be discontinued; that would be very, very foolish of us indeed), the priesthood lessons, the auxiliary lessons, Relief Society Spiritual Living lessons, the Aaronic Priesthood and Young Women programs, and sacrament meetings can be powerful, if we will use them to preach the gospel. Sacrament meetings should be gospel oriented. And I do not see how a bishop or stake president could rest until seminary was operating for his young people and the teacher training program that makes these programs of the finest quality receives some attention. All of these deserve watchcare and endorsement.

Now, in conclusion, just this one point: What has all of this to do with the calling of missionaries? It has everything to do with it!

If there is any best way for a young member of the Church to gain an in-depth knowledge of the gospel, it is to serve a mission. A mission is a near perfect combination of study and application of principles as one learns them. Nothing can compare with it.

The calling of a missionary requires him to be able to teach the basic principles of the gospel all day every day. He teaches the plan of salvation over and over and over again.

The Lord is our example. It would be hard to describe the Lord as an executive. Let me repeat that. It would be hard to describe the Lord as an executive. He was a teacher! That is the ideal, the pattern.

Missionaries are teachers. No student learns quite as much from hearing a lesson as a teacher does from preparing it.

Just imagine having a two-hour study period every day with a companion. How would you like that? The missionary studies the scriptures as he never has before and as he never will be able to do again, particularly if he is called as a leader.

He is given a foundation in the very essence of the gospel. He is taught the fundamental principles of priesthood government. The future of the Church will depend on him knowing that.

Question: Where do you suppose that young elders quorum president got his foundation in gospel principles, the pattern of revelation? Where do you think he learned about revelation? Well, no doubt it came from his mission.

The safety of the Church in generations ahead rests on our success in calling missionaries. If we have concern for the future of this work, we will not rest until every able-bodied young man is made worthy and desires to receive a call to a mission.

Now, I only mentioned in the beginning the matter that we are commanded to preach the gospel. We’re commanded to preach whether there is any extra benefits and blessings to it or not. Why? It is our duty! That is a principle, a commanding principle!

Procedures and programs and policies and organization and budgets and buildings are important in their place. These we must do, but we must not leave the weightier matters undone.

We must move forward. We could open six new missions right now if we had the missionaries. So our counsel and instruction to all leaders is to move forward, to renew with great urgency the calling of young men and a lesser but sufficient number of young sisters, to go forth to preach the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people in answer to the commandment that we have been given.

Photography by Marty Mayo and Wes Taylor