It’s hard to admit you’re wrong. It’s especially difficult if you are in a position of leadership, because when you’re wrong it’s often in front of a lot of people. Admitting you are wrong as a priesthood leader has an added degree of difficulty because you are ostensibly guided by the Spirit in the things that you do in relation to your calling, so admitting you are wrong can also carry the implication that you aren’t following the Spirit. So I’m always impressed to come across experiences where priesthood leaders have the courage and humility to admit error. One of the most impressive examples that I’ve come across recently is Joseph Fielding Smith.

In his essay “The Mormon Cross,” Eugene England recounts a remarkable experience he had with Joseph Fielding Smith when Smith was President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (and, of course, before the 1978 priesthood revelation). Smith had written things affirming the notion that blacks were denied the priesthood because of things they had done (or failed to do) in the pre-existence. England felt strongly that this was not the case and was able to schedule a meeting with Smith to discuss the issue. He recounts the experience as follows:

I told President Smith about my experiences with the issue of blacks and the priesthood and asked him whether I must believe in the pre-existence doctrine to have good standing in the Church. His answer was, “Yes, because that is the teaching of the scriptures.” I asked President Smith if he would show me the teaching in the scriptures (with some trepidation, because I was convinced that if anyone in the world could show me he would). He read over with me the modern scriptural sources and then, after some reflection, said something to me that fully revealed the formidable integrity which characterized his whole life: “No, you do not have to believe that Negroes are denied the priesthood because of the pre-existence. I have always assumed that, because it was what I was taught, and it made sense, but you don’t have to believe it to be in good standing, because it is not definitely stated in the scriptures. And I have received no revelation on the matter.” (Dialogues with Myself, pp. 131-132)

I think lesser men would have been unwilling to admit error, and would have tried to find a way to justify or rationalize their position.

Another great example of this came from a friend of mine who was serving in her stake’s Young Women’s presidency. She told me about a lesson a counselor in the stake presidency gave to young women in a ward in her stake. The lesson was about chastity, and the counselor used terrible analogies and phrases in attempting to teach the young women (for example, comparing chastity to licking a lollipop and then offering it to someone and asking them if they’d like one that had already been licked; or “Don’t bring used goods to the temple altar,” just to name a couple). My friend was horrified and felt that she had to confront the counselor, since he would be teaching the same lesson to other wards as well. Bracing for the worst, she sat down with him and explained her feelings about how unhelpful and even damaging his lesson had been. To her amazement, the counselor very sincerely thanked her for letting him know and then humbly asked her for advice on how he could change and improve his approach. She provided him with a number of suggestions on ways to better approach the topic. He completely changed his lesson, and she informed me that what he taught in subsequent wards was incredibly positive and uplifting.

One thing that strikes me about both of these experiences is that the priesthood leader in question had not considered that he was wrong until someone sat down and discussed it with him in a civil, non-accusatory way. I realize not all priesthood leaders have the courage and humility to admit when they are wrong– and there are plenty of experiences out there to prove it– but I think we have an obligation to give them the chance.