For many years, members have been presented with a promise. It was claimed to have said by the Prophet Joseph Smith that,
“I will give you a key that will never rust, if you will stay with the majority of the Twelve Apostles, and the records of the Church, you will never be led astray.” (James E. Faust, “The Keys That Never Rust,” General Conference, October 1994, Sunday Afternoon session)
What a comfort this would be to those wondering about the possibility of history repeating itself! Each previous dispensation fell into apostasy, but this one has a promise that we today can just watch and follow the majority of the Twelve, as well as the records of the Church (which records referenced are unclear, but nonetheless). We are promised that nothing we are taught by our leaders will lead us away from our Father in Heaven. With such an easy measuring rod to follow, why would this key not be mentioned more often?
The quote is found only three times on the Church’s official website—the first time being earlier in the June 1994 issue of the Ensign, and then finally in Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith, published in 2007. It was a recollection from the Young Women’s Journal in 1906, some 62 years after the death of the Prophet—and was never recalled by any of his closest associates. Could this be because a focus on the principle of following a modern-day “prophet” (usually meaning the President of the Church) is what is focused on more?
The first time we read of this concept of “never being led astray” is in General Conference, October 1890. Wilford Woodruff stated:
“The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.” (Sixty-first Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, October 6, 1890, Salt Lake City, Utah. Reported in Deseret Evening News, October 11, 1890, p. 2.)
This quotation is referenced close to 130 times in official Church publications or talks. This variation is even easier to fulfill when one doesn’t have to worry about checking to see if the majority of the Twelve are unified. All we have to do is check where the President of the Church stands, and we can rest assured—once called, he will no longer able to teach false doctrine without being taken by the Lord. His agency has necessarily been removed, for our benefit. We can be assured that everything the President of the Church has said, while acting in his capacity as President of the Church, is the mind and will of God. That is, if the common interpretation of Woodruff’s statement is accurate. Is the statement accurate, however? Is it consistent with what the Lord Himself has revealed? Do we really need not worry about understanding the scriptures and revelations ourselves? Why would we, since we have someone else perfectly reliable to reveal their meaning to us and who will be “removed” before he has the opportunity to tell us something “not in the programme”?
The Lord Himself has stated that He is subject to His own agency, and that if He ceased to follow the law of Justice, He would cease to be God (see Alma 42:13). God retains His agency still. If God Himself can act in a way that could possibly lead to His removal as God, what makes us think a man called as a prophet cannot be removed by his own actions? Nowhere in the scriptures does it say that a man’s agency to follow God in this life is guaranteed; there is always the ability to choose good or evil.
The Lord warned Joseph on numerous occasions that his position was subject to his obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel. If Joseph ceased obeying those laws and ordinances, he would be removed from his position—not killed in an act of pre-crime due to a knowledge that Joseph would act, without him actually committing the act. That outcome would remove justice from the equation, causing God to cease to be God.
The Lord does make us some unequivocal promises for our dispensation regarding the priesthood and the keys to the priesthood and the ordinances. The Lords says,
“Unto whom I have committed the keys of my kingdom, and a dispensation of the gospel for the last times; and for the fulness of times, in the which I will gather together in one all things, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth” (D&C 27:13)
In section 65, the Lord says:
“The keys of the kingdom of God are committed unto man on the earth, and from thence shall the gospel roll forth unto the ends of the earth, as the stone which is cut out of the mountain without hands shall roll forth, until it has filled the whole earth.” (D&C 65:2)
The keys of the priesthood will remain on the earth for the “last time.” There will not be a re-restoration. The keys have been restored, and they are here to stay. Does that mean that they will always be with whomever they are given to, no matter what?
The Lord warned Joseph that he could lose the keys of the priesthood, declaring:
“And the keys of the mysteries of the kingdom shall not be taken from my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., through the means I have appointed, while he liveth, inasmuch as he obeyeth mine ordinances.” (D&C 64:5)
“For unto you I have given the keys of the kingdom and if you transgress not they shall never be taken from you.” (1832 Revelation to Joseph Smith)
The requirement is clear. Joseph was promised that the keys would remain with him for the rest of his life, on the condition that Joseph would not “transgress,” and would obey (keep/perform) all of the ordinances.
The Lord has promised that the keys and priesthood will remain on the earth—but being able to maintain them as an individual entirely depends on one’s actions. No one’s agency is removed simply because they received a calling. We as individuals are not off the hook from seeking and gaining a testimony of who holds the keys, based on the principles laid out in the revelations. We are responsible for our own righteousness and actions, and cannot ride on anyone else’s coattails into the presence of God.
The Lord revealed to the Prophet Joseph that only one living person at a time holds the authority to exercise those keys:
“And verily I say unto you, that the conditions of this law are these: All covenants, contracts, bonds, obligations, oaths, vows, performances, connections, associations, or expectations, that are not made and entered into and sealed by the Holy Spirit of promise, of him who is anointed, both as well for time and for all eternity, and that too most holy, by revelation and commandment through the medium of mine anointed, whom I have appointed on the earth to hold this power (and I have appointed unto my servant Joseph to hold this power in the last days, and there is never but one on the earth at a time on whom this power and the keys of this priesthood are conferred), are of no efficacy, virtue, or force in and after the resurrection from the dead; for all contracts that are not made unto this end have an end when men are dead.” (D&C 132:7)
This principle was clarified during the succession crisis of 1844 when the members were wondering who held the keys after the death of the Prophet Joseph. Brigham Young explained:
“I do not care who leads the church, even though [if] it were Ann Lee; but one thing I must know, and that is what God says about it. I have the keys and the means of obtaining the mind of God on the subject.” (History of the Church 7:230)
And later, explaining the distinction further, Brigham said:
“Does a man’s being a Prophet in this Church prove that he shall be the President of it? I answer, no! A man may be a Prophet, Seer and Revelator, and it may have nothing to do with his being the President of the Church. Suffice it to say, that Joseph was the President of the Church, as long as he lived; the people chose to have it so.” (Journal of Discourses 1:133)
The keys are dependent on a calling of God and keeping the laws of God. They are not dependent upon one’s sustained position. For as Joseph explained:
“it is necessary to know who holds the keys of power, and who does not, or we may be likely to be deceived.” (History of the Church, vol. 6 pg. 251)
This is a “key that will never rust.”