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Free Agency

Although the term fell into disfavor at the end of the 20th century, Latter-day Saints have a long tradition of championing "free agency," the idea that God teaches us wisdom but lets us govern ourselves (cf. D&C 37:4). From the story of the council in heaven (Moses 4:1-3), we learn that God holds inviolable our freedom to live as we choose. Lucifer's arguments against free agency are unwittingly echoed today by moralists who fear that liberty will lead to license or by managers who want to maximize efficiency by restricting independence or individuality.

Being free to choose should "cheer up [our] hearts" (2 Ne. 10:23) and give us confidence to exercise our own initiative (D&C 58:26-29). Yet the council in heaven also teaches that agency is dangerous. We cannot expect to be shielded from the consequences of choices, our own or others'. Human beings have the power to inflict suffering on individuals, families, nations, or the environment—and we will reap what we sow, for good or for evil (Gal. 6:7; D&C 6:33).

Historically, Latter-day Saints have been slower to recognize infringements on free agency within the church than we have been to protest impositions on our freedom from outside. If democracy and constitutional rights help protect freedom in civil society (D&C 98:5), it is not clear why similar structures would not be desirable safeguards against the everpresent threat of compulsion or unrighteous dominion within the church as well (D&C 121:34-44).

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 Know This, That Every Soul Is Free  (Hymns 240)

Joseph Smith: I teach them correct principles and let them govern themselves.
Quoted in LDS Church News, February 24, 1990

Orson F. Whitney: Force can never win in a controversy involving the conscience or soul of man. "It may compel the body, but it cannot convince the mind." Thought is forever unfettered
. . . Freedom to believe, man cannot give; the right to act, where action injures no one, he cannot in justice, take away.

Life of Heber C. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Junvenile Instructor Office, 1888), 133-134

John A. Widtsoe: Since the law of free agency is ever uppermost in the plan of salvation, the Lord who gave the law must respect it, even though He weep at the errors of His children. It would be a violation of His own plan, should He step in. . . . Mankind, however sorrowful the condition, must fight its own battles, and win its own victories.

Evidences and Reconciliations (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1960), 217

Richard L. Evans: In the use of our free agency we have made a few and more than a few mistakes. Some of them are costly, and we shouldn't repeat them, and we should avoid making them in the first place, if possible. But the contrary plan was the plan of Lucifer, the plan whereby [we] would not have been permitted to have freedom to make mistakes.
Conference Report, April 1950, 104

Henry D. Moyle: God is dependent in large measure upon his children in the exercise of their own free agency to carry out his will and to accomplish his purposes upon the earth.

Conference Report, April 1962, 101

Howard W. Hunter: God's chief way of acting is by persuasion and patience and long-suffering, not by coercion and stark confrontation. He acts by gentle solicitation and by sweet enticement. He always acts with unfailing respect for the freedom and independence that we possess.

That We Might Have Joy (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1994), 78

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