Holding fast to the Iron Rod

This week, we are all blogging about the Sunday Afternoon Session of the April 1971 conference. This was incredible session packed with memorable talks which resonate across the ages. It is also the home of one of the more controversial conference talks, at least among LDS Bloggers. President Harold B Lee’s talk entitled The Iron Rod has been a veritable lightning rod of criticism, and yet its message could not be more timely or topical today.

Around the time of this conference, an article entitled What the Church Means to People Like Me was gaining popularity in some Church circles. The article argues that there are two types of Mormons, Rod of Iron Mormons, and Liahona Mormons. The author identified as a Liahona Mormon, or one who sees God’s revelation as merely a compass and not a handrail. To Mormons like the author, the gospel provided a series of questions rather than answers. He contrasted this with Iron Rod Mormons who seek answers in the standard works and the words of living prophets. The author voices his doubts about these sources of inspiration and states that it is better for him to follow the light of his own personal revelation.

Does this sound familiar today?  If you didn’t know the origin of this article, you would probably think it was written in response to recent controversies over Ordain Woman or the LGBTQ policy change.

Yet, President Lee rebuked this attitude in no uncertain terms over 40 years ago! President Lee spoke of Lehi’s dream as a metaphor for our day, when many are seeking for divine truth but know not where to find it. He noted the mists of darkness and allure of the great and spacious building. And then he emphasized “[i]f there is any one thing most needed in this time of tumult and frustration, when men and women and youth and young adults are desperately seeking for answers to the problems which afflict mankind, it is an “iron rod” as a safe guide along the straight path on the way to eternal life, amidst the strange and devious roadways that would eventually lead to destruction and to the ruin of all that is “virtuous, lovely, or of good report.”

President Lee quoted from the aforementioned article as he noted that some, even members of the church, ask “[d]o the revelations of God give us a handrail to the kingdom of God, as the Lord’s messenger told Lehi, or merely a compass?” He noted that these church members “are somewhat like the scoffers in Lehi’s vision–standing aloof and seemingly inclined to hold in derision the faithful who choose to accept Church authorities as God’s special witnesses of the gospel and his agents in directing the affairs of the Church.” He warned that such individual “are those who are blinded by the mists of darkness and as yet have not a firm grasp on the ‘iron rod.'”

President Lee noted that such liberal members “read by the lamp of their own conceit.” But such efforts are contrary to the very nature of a church led by continuing revelation. He quoted Elder Widtsoe who had stated that “It is folly to speak of a liberal religion, if that religion claims that it rests upon unchanging truth.”

To those who struggle with doubts and questions, President Lee urged holding fast to the word of God “which could lead them through faith, to an understanding, rather than to have them stray away into strange paths of man-made theories and be plunged into the murky waters of disbelief and apostasy.” For true conversion “must mean more than just being a ‘card carrying’ member of the Church” instead it “means to overcome the tendencies to criticize and to strive continually to improve inward weaknesses and no merely outward appearances.

But President Lee’s most stern rebuke was for those “who would seek to destroy the faith of an individual or lead him away from the word of God or cause him to lose his grasp on the ‘iron rod . . .'” For as the Savior warned, such an action carries severe eternal consequences (See Matt 18:16 “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better … that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”).

Ultimately, President Lee bore powerful witnesses that “the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” form “a bulwark to safeguard against the pitfalls, the frustrations, and the wickedness in the world.” The plan of salvation formed in the heavens points clearly to the straight and narrow path that leads to eternal life, even though there are many who refuse to follow that way.”

It is unfortunate that so many failed to head President Lee’s warning at the time. And that so many today continue to subscribe the false notion that revelations from God through his Prophets are mere suggestions. How blind, how miopic and how ultimately foolish.

In Sunday School today, I taught a lesson based on the final chapters of the Book of Revelation. In those chapters, a woman who is described as a great whore represents Babylon. The kings and the merchants of the world have become drunken and seduced by her seeming greatness. She can perform great “miracles” that can deceive even the elect. And so many will be seduced by her pleasures and false doctrines.  This is a vision of the world that we live in today. If we do not hold on to a rod of iron, we will be tossed to and fro by the seductions and false teachings of the world.

Our own personal compass is not enough. In Lehi’s dream, those who try to seek the Tree without gripping on to the Rod of Iron do not make it. They either join the scoffers in the spacious building, wander off into strange paths, or fall into the dark abyss.

The danger of Liahona Mormonism is that it takes a true principle, the importance of personal revelation, and distorts it. Ultimately, rather than having faith in Jesus Christ, individuals begin to rest on their own personal and special insight, wisdom, and foresight. But such a compass must be rooted on the sure foundation of the word of God. The Liahona without the Iron Rod is a broken compass that cannot point the way back to the Heavenly Father.

I pray that those who need to head President Lee’s words will be reached and touched by his powerful witness. Now more than ever, we need to unabashedly and unceasingly cling to the Iron Rod and press forward to the tree of life.


This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey

Here are the other posts discussing the same session of General Conference

Nathaniel Givens Comforting the Afflicted and Afflicting the Comfortable
J. Max Wilson LDS Conference April 1971 – A Rebuke from President Harold B. Lee and Debunking the Iron Rod vs Liahona Taxonomy
John Hancock The Eternally Durable Iron Rod
Ralph Hancock Harold B. Lee on The Millstone of “Liberal” Religion
Michelle Linford Religion, Revelation, and Resolutions
Walker Wright “And If It Be In You It Shall Abound”



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