"All In" Excerpt: Dean Hughes on Balancing Obedience and Thinking for Yourself

by | Jul. 06, 2019

Makes You Think

In beloved Latter-day Saint author Dean Hughes’ new book, Muddyhe explores what happens when faithful members of the Church face issues that call into question the balance between obedience to Church leaders and personal agency.

For example, in the October 1864 general conference, Brigham Young called 183 families to settle what was called the Muddy River Valley, a desert wasteland in what is now Nevada. Hughes’ new book tells the story of a fictional character who was raised on a farm and knows a lot about farming but is receiving counsel from Brigham Young, who is back in Salt Lake, about where and how to farm as well as whether he should enter the practice of polygamy and take a second wife.

Hughes writes in the author’s note for Muddy, “Early Church members believed in obedience, but this is the crucial point: then, as now, they also defended their right to think for themselves. President Young himself encouraged this, saying, ‘I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him’ (in Journal of Discourses, 9:150).”

On this week’s episode of All In, Hughes provided an example of seeking to strike this balance in his own life.

Listen to the entire episode here or in the player below.

Morgan Jones: You write in this note that "Early church members believed in obedience. But this is the crucial point, then as now, they also defended their right to think for themselves." Later in the note you write, "In any age, people have had to struggle with religious conviction and deep-seated personal standards." These two statements were really fascinating to me. How do we see the balance of that obedience and personal agency play out in your book? And how do you think that we still see that today?

Dean Hughes: Well, in the book, I think it comes down to that practical side where Brigham Young had never been to the Muddy River Valley; he only had reports on what it was like. And yet, he was quite specific about some of the things he asked the settlers to do who went in there. And some of them wanted to go up river to a place that was a little greener than where the other settlements had been. And from Salt Lake, he says, “No. I told you not to go there.” Now, he had some concerns about some of the Indian tribes in that area. And he didn't want them to spread out. It was right after the Black Hawk War, so you can see where he's coming from. But those who were down there, they're saying, “That's over. That is not a problem here. We're not concerned about this. This is a better place to farm. Why can't we choose for ourselves? It's only a few miles away.” And that's the difficulty, that's some of the difficulty in the novel where a young man who’s grown up on a farm, thinks he knows how to farm, feels like, “Brigham, you aren't here. Don't tell me how to do this.” But he wants to be obedient, right? He wants to be true to the Church. And so he struggles with that, and he tends to go to the obedience side, but it bothers him.

When you say, ‘How does it play out now?’ the example that I was thinking about, as you said that: When I was in graduate school, we're talking almost 50 years ago, blacks could still not hold the priesthood in our church. And I was called on a stake mission. And that was tough. I was at the University of Washington up in Seattle, and there's a lot of anti-BYU demonstrations going on over this very issue. And it was hard when you start to try to teach people, they would immediately bring up this issue, and I didn't have an answer. I didn't know why blacks couldn't have the priesthood. I wrestled with it. And there were explanations that came out. There were people who theorized and wrote, you know, ideas about, "This is the doctrine and this is why," and they didn't make sense to me. And here I was trying to be a missionary and, at the same time, feeling really conflicted about this. This issue just didn't ring true to me. Well, in 1973, a man named Lester Bush wrote an article in Dialogue magazine, and it was about this issue, and he had traced it very carefully, as to how this practice had come into the Church. It was a long, carefully documented article. By the time I finished, I decided that this was a policy not a doctrine, and it had come out of a certain time. But it could be and should be changed sooner or later, that (was in) ‘73.

When I said things like that, say in a Sunday School discussion or something, I sometimes was severely reprimanded for not being true to the Church, for preaching false doctrine. It was really painful to me. I had people who thought I was a renegade, and I wasn't. And I just thought that was true. Well, here's my mind and here's my spirit, and I'm trying to bring the two together. (In) 1978, I'm driving down the freeway in Missouri and the announcer comes on and says, “The president of the Mormon Church today announced a revelation.” And he said they announced that all males, you know, adult males could receive the priesthood or however they announced it. And I had to pull off the freeway and sit by the side of the road and cry. I was so relieved to have this over.

When these essays came out, official essays by the Church explaining some of the difficult questions, here's an essay that starts with the idea that this was a policy, not a doctrine, and everything I had said way back then was being verified. So I'm just saying that there's one that played out all the way through in my lifetime. Yeah, there are others around like that, where we're asking ourselves: Why is that? What's going to come of that? Is that going to stay the same? Is that going to change?

MJ: Dean, a question that came to me as you were telling that story, because I do think that there are still things that people are wrestling with right now: When you're in a Sunday School class and you bring that up, or when that starts being talked about and you express this belief that it's a policy and you're being reprimanded for it, how do you maintain faith and commitment to the gospel when you're faced with that kind of opposition?

DH: Well, now I teach the Sunday School class. I teach gospel doctrine in my ward so I do bring up some of those things myself, but, you know, I have a testimony. I have faith and then I have questions and I have things I can't answer. And I think that when you've been around for a while, you find that you're always going to have questions. There's never a time when the questions end, but if you've had certain experiences in your life that verify your faith, then you rely on those.

Listen to the rest of this week’s episode of All In here.

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