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I think that ultimately it is two sides of a single coin. One side responsibility and the other side autonomy.

As for why the change, I think it came out of the movements of the 60's and 70's that many in the church, rightly or wrongly, saw as promoting autonomy but neglecting responsibility. Personally I think this is correct and that this national obsession with autonomy without responsibility climaxed in the late 90's with all the movements denying all responsibility - ironically by downplaying autonomy.

I also think that the change came because when the church would lay down a moral law or principle people would cry "free agency, free agency" as if that rendered moral statements inadmissible.

As is so often the case in religion, I think the arguments of opponents often defines what theology is emphasized.

Just to add, I think your quote contains this duality. You quote the part about our moral autonomy but leave out the verse about responsibility.

And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, and choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit; and not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate, to bring you down to hell, that he may reign over you in his own kingdom. (2 Ne 2:28-29)

2nd Nephi 2 is hard to beat!


It shouldn't really surprise us that the doctrine on this issue is changing. One of the classic trademarks of the Church is its propensity to pull this stuff. Frankly, it just looks to me like semantic nit-picking (akin to the "pre-mortal existence" vs. "pre-existence" types of debates). I mean, 2 Nephi 2 is quite clear on this, and JS was surely one to show that agency is one of the basic principles of existence. Call it what you want, it's all agency.

As far as the shift, we're a works-based righteousness church, not a faith-based righteousness church, and our file leaders frequently use guilt trips to change behavior. So the emphasis on (negative?) consequences over and against moral autonomy is expected.

And since when has scriptural silence on an issue ("there is no free agency in the scrips.") stopped a Mormon general authority?

I think Mormonism attracts rule followers. We don't realize that a lot of things are suggestions, not rules. Lately I'm giving myself permission NOT to do certain things, or just do it my own way.

I'm with God, and I figure if I vary from the accepted norm, we're in it together.

I've recently been fighting with the HP group leader about the issue of choice in home/visiting teaching. He feels I'm too rigid in my expectation. I feel if they choose to accept the calling, I will hold them accountable.

But when I give my speech on Tuesday, I'm going to make it clear that VT is way down on their list of priorities.k

I think I'm off the subject.

off subject:

if they choose to accept the calling

VT/HT-ing is a calling?

Also remember that he is talking to BYU students. Elder Oaks once said that one of his less than favorite tasks as BYU president was to read the letters to the editor and the ridiculous assertions that a certain rule was taking away free agency.

I'm not saying the talk isn't part of a larger trend, but I think the audience should be kept in mind.

Excellent question Dave and good responses Clark.

I think you must be right -- instead of having to constantly repeat "you can freely choose your actions but you cannot choose the consequences" the GA's seem to have shortened that message into the terms "moral agency". I think that the abuse of the term "free agency" that wanted to do whatever they want without consequence and hoped to use scripture to justify it caused the messaging tweak from SLC.

Of course this causes some real problems too I think. I am a firm believer in libertarian free will and this messaging shift away from the term "free agency" to simple "agency" or "moral agency" has been used as ammo by those that don't believe we have free will here on earth (causal determinists for example). I think pointing to the semantics change for that purpose is a crock, but it has been thrown at me on a couple of occasions as I defended LFW...

The biggest issue I have with they messaging change is that I think LFW is free -- we all have it in life whether we want it or not. Of course that is not what they are talking about, but it can be misleading.

The "free" in 2 Nephi 2 is shorthand for "free will," not "free agency." Even in the olden days, I was taught that we gave up our free agency when we were baptized (just like Pedro Martinez gave up his free agency when he signed with the Mets).

Calling the principle being taught in 2 Nephi 2 "free agency" when the word "free" in the associated verses means something else is just begging to be misunderstood. I think it makes sense to call it "moral" accountability, and I don't detect a different emphasis than in the past. It was always about obedience.

I thought I was the only one who had noticed this. I think the Ministry of Truth got to it. Free Agency is now Agency, Geneaology is now Family History. The only time you see "free agency" now in church manuals is in direct quotes from earlier prophets. When I mention it to people, they seem to sort of remember a time when we talked about "free agency" but it's kind of a distant memory. Probably no one wants to attract too much attention. I for one look forward to the continued simplification of the language in our holy writ. I hear the 11th edition of the scriptures is almost out. Doubleplusgood!

The scripture you quote does not support your conclusion. Nephi says that it is possible to choose "captivity and death," a choice which would make you, in many senses of the word, not "free." I second the comment that it is talking about free will, not absolute freedom. I don't think the church is changing anything here. It's just a choice of what aspect of freedom to emphasize. The personal responsibility for one's choices or the ability to choose.

Dave, I see it simply as a desire to avoid redundancy, with no sinister undertones whatsoever.

Free agency and pre-existence are words that are difficult to translate out of english and, when rendered in another language, come out as agency and pre-mortal existence. They are simply klunky words that needed to be retired a long time ago. The real question is why it took us so long to get rid of them.

There was a discussion about this change somewhere in the bloggernacle a while back, but I can't recall quite where. The change seems to have been spearheaded by Boyd K. Packer starting 20 years ago or so, appearing in a conference talk in the early 1980s (I think?). Some leaders, especially those senior to Packer, have continued to use the term from time to time in conference addresses, while some other leaders (Elder Ballard?) have enthusiastically endorsed the newer terms. As pointed out above, "free agency" continues to appear in old passages quoted in church manuals.

Personally, I think the term "free agency" was kind of an awkward piece of "mormon speak" to begin with, and I'm not especially sad to see it go.

I have several non-Mormon friends who speak of "free agency" or "free will" so i am not sure it is really a mormon specific term.


Too much 1984 man.

I don't think that any doctrine has changed at all here. They may be emphasising that there are consequences to your choices more, but I see that as a good thing. "Free" agency does seem to denote that something is given without being required.

If you get a coupon for a free widget, you don't expect to have to pay anything right? So, maybe a move from the term "free" agency is a good one. It's only semantics, not a doctrinal change.

Does this not also shed a new light on Satan's plan? We have long assumed satan planned to take away our freedom and force us into obedience. I have long thought that perhaps his real plan was to take away our accountability instead. A much more compelling plan for some, easier to implement, and consistent with his style. Would we think different about satans plan if it was described as his wanting to take away our moral agency?

Come-on, the "no free agency" was a play on words.

Now there is old conflict between the “free agency and how to enforce it” BY wing of the church and the “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves” JS wing. The war in heaven continues even within the LDS church.

Does BYU still keep a plaque of that famous JS quote in a dark hall in the basement of the admin building? That said it all about the place when I attended there.

"Lately I'm giving myself permission NOT to do certain things, or just do it my own way."

Excellent advice Annegb...so why does the HP group leader have to conduct HT the way you see it?

I think a mountain is being made out of a mole hill...

For some those "mole hills" can trip them up easier then that mountain.

No, you misunderstand. I'm not trying to make him do it my way, he's trying to make me do it his way. He feels I shouldn't push the sisters, I should give them their free agency and let them not do it and shut up. He's been riding me a bit.

We had a contest and we kicked their butts and he's insulted. I don't care what they do. Although I think they suck.

Maybe I am overly sensative in interpreting what is said concerning this issue, but I felt much of what Elder Christofferson said differed from what I have come to believe. It is not so much that he dismissed the term 'free agency', but that I felt he was telling us to limit our experience and just be obedient.

I thought we were sent here to learn right from wrong through our own experience? Aren't we here to learn for ourselves what God's will is for us, line upon line. If we had all the answers to what moral behavior is and all we had to do on earth was be obedient to that, then why did we even need to come. Joy in life has come to me as I have allowed myself to experience life and gradually come to know God. I really appreciated what Elder Maxwell said about freedom of choice a few years ago;

"I marvel, as many of you know, at the extent of the cosmos--this encompassing vastness and personalness. It is incredible to even contemplate. But it is not as grand as God's gift to us of the freedom to choose. There are literally now, science says, more stars in the universe than there are grains of sand in every beach, every desert, and every ocean floor on this planet."

Nice comments, everyone. I see the shift in terminology mostly as word games, similar to changing the font size of "Jesus Christ" in the official logo of the Church. There is also a shift in emphasis, but it isn't earthshaking or nefarious.

It would be nice if they would just announce minor doctrinal or terminology shifts from the pulpit rather than make us tease them out from new trends observed in Conference talks over the years. Hard to distinguish "official" changes in doctrine from the personal opinions of various leaders that differ from the standard or traditional LDS positions but nevertheless creep into their discourse.

The outline for the 2005 Children's Sacrament Meeting Program includes these instructions:

As you teach the plan of salvation this year, please use and help the children understand correct terms and doctrine. Pay particular attention to the following:

  • agency Use the term agency rather than free agency to describe our freedom to choose. Agency is the term used in the scriptures (see D&C 29:36; Moses 7:32).
  • premortal life Use terms such as premortal life or premortal existence rather than preexistence to describe our existence before our birth into mortality on this earth.
  • Heavenly Father's plan Our Heavenly Father presented the plan of life and salvation in the Grand Council in Heaven. Only one plan was presented. Jehovah (Jesus Christ) sustained the plan of our Heavenly Father. Lucifer (the devil, Satan) attempted to change the plan.

In a talk on Free Agency and Freedom that indeed mentioned the subject of newspaper letters about BYU rules, Elder Oaks pointed out that the concept of free agency is known simply as agency in the scriptures, but he also went on to state, "We had free agency in the pre-existence. This is evident from the fact that more than one plan was put forward in the Council of Heaven, and that a third of the Hosts of Heaven could choose to follow Satan and rebel against the Father. Satan's plan, presented in the pre-existence, would have taken away our free agency."

New words for old concepts can sometimes have new connotations. My first mission president in Guatemala suggested that the missionaries ought to call their contacts future members instead of investigators, because it would difficult for someone to report proudly that he had been a future member for ten years. I don't know whether or not his idea ever really caught on, but I have to admit that it was an interesting idea. I doesn't really bother me that I work in a Family History Center instead of a Branch Genealogical Library.

Many presidents of the church and other inspired leaders have talked about free agency and about our rejection of Satan's plan in the preexistence. Satan proposed the use of unacceptable or impossible means in pursuit of undesirable ends, and his plan was never presented by God as an authorized alternative, but this doesn't mean that he didn't have a plan or that his plan was not presented at all. If we need to change our terminology in order to avoid confusion, I hope that we won't lose important concepts along the way. My instinctive reaction is outrage at what seems to be a blatant attempt to mislead innocent children, but maybe this won't turn out to be as doubleplusungood as it seems.

I've heard the term "free will" used a lot by non-Mormons, but I've never heard the term "free agency" used by anybody but Mormons.

I don't think the two are interchangeable. I think "agency" implies action - that is, we are not only free to engage our minds and hearts on possible alternatives (free will), but also able to act on those options (agency).

The engagement of our minds and hearts in how we live our lives is utterly unencumbered - it is truly free. Nobody however much they try, can control what we think. Contrarily, our actions have consequences that we can't always control or even foresee.

I think the term "free agency" was probably an inaccurate rephrasing of the term "free will," acquired to reference latter-day scriptures. I think it's unfortunate that the powers that be have, in reformatting the phrase, focused more on the actions/ consquences concept of agency than on the "Know this, that every soul is free" concept of free will.

Here is a bit of what Elder Christofferson said, transcribed from a BYU-TV broadcast available for about a week after the event.

"I'd like to talk to you about moral agency and offer some counsel about how you use your agency. In years past we generally used the term 'free agency.' That's not incorrect. But more recently we've taken note that 'free agency' does not appear as an expression in the scriptures. The scriptures talk of our being free to choose and free to act for ourselves and of our obligation to do many things of our own free will, but the word 'agency' appears either by itself or with the modifier 'moral' as in D&C 101:78. [quotes scripture] When we use the term 'moral agency' then, we are appropriately emphasizing the accountability that is an essential part of the divine gift of agency."


what advantage do you see by announcing these "minor shifts" from the pulpit? What disadvantage do you think such actions might have?

SC, sounds like you want to tell us about your view of the pros or cons of actually announcing "minor shifts."

I don't really think this is a minor shift. I think it's a single, minor change brought about by a major shift - that of preaching obedience as the first law of heaven.

I see this semantic shift as an attempt to shore up a trend toward the confusion of "free agency" with "license".

Einstein's observation that problems cannot be solved at the same level at which they were created, is applicable to our situation.

We have a lot of rules. And when a new situation comes up, we add more rules. This follows naturally from the Mosaic mindset. Christ laid down the higher law in 3 Ne 12, but we don't really live it.

Joseph Smith really was similar to Moses. Like the Israelites of old, we were given the chance to build Heaven on Earth. But now we find ourselves wandering in the wilderness. It doesn't reflect badly on our scriptures, just on us.

Old Law: Do this, don't do that...

New law: Love. 3Ne12 is the instruction book.

The Church operates mainly from the old paradigm, which makes it hard to inspire the saints to think the new paradigm.

Agency, the freedom to choose, can never be taken away from us. It is part and parcel of the plan of salvation.

One's agency cannot be diminished, though one's choices can.

Whether its called "free agency" or "agency" or "free will," there are consequences attached to each usage of it.

I don't understand the issue. They seem somewhat interchangable to me. "Free Agency, Moral Agency." Even here in the Blogs I find many definitions of what is moral and what isn't ie: Word of Wisdom, Sex between adults, to name two.

We are "free" to make "moral" decisions based upon the "agency" that Heavenly Father gave us.

"You cannot lift another soul until you are standing on higher ground than he is...You cannot light a fire in another soul unless it is burning in your own soul."—President Harold B. Lee

And yet, when you are standing on "higher ground," you are looking down at "him."

Not if your looking up to the one with his or her hand reaching down to you

This is not a principle I embrace or understand.

But I was thinking about our patriarch, who also happens to be my neighbor. He used to drink and cuss and be a rabble rouser. Then one day he started going to church and he went on a mission and married a wonderful woman and life has been good to him.

He's chosen to be obedient. And he's been blessed. He's been protected and so has his family. Not perfectly, but still. I should be so humble.

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