Doctrine of Agency

Related Posts: Opposition In All Things ; Problem of Evil ; Fall of Man Part I ; Fall of Man Part II ; The Premortal Life

The doctrine of agency is a central Mormon belief. Agency means, generally, that we are free to make morally significant choices, but the purpose of agency is to permit us the freedom to choose moral good. However, freedom to choose moral good necessitates the option of choosing moral evil. Without a choice we could never freely choose to obey God’s commandments because obedience would be the only possibility. Consequently, agency exists to permit righteous choices but cannot exist without the possibility of evil choices. As Elder L. Tom Perry said, “Agency also opens the possibility for sin” (A Year of Jubilee, Ensign, November 1999). And Elder Boyd K. Packer said, “Choice cannot exist unless both good and evil are an option” (BYU Symposium, October 30, 1988).

When agency is understood in this light it is easier to understand how making righteous choices enhances individual agency. Thus we often hear about “develop[ing] our free agency in right choices” [1]; “[following] the teachings of the prophet does not violate the right of free agency; but rather enhances it”[2]; “[Agency] is freedom to choose right against wrong, not a choice between two equal forces”[3]; “When we choose to live according to God’s plan for us, our agency is strengthened”[4]; “to retain our agency we must daily walk in the light of our Lord and Savior”[5]; “pursuing correct alternatives widens the scope of one’s agency and leads to perfect liberty”[6]; “God’s gift and commitment to agency never will include a tolerance of sin”[7]; “one must use his agency to obey truth”[8].

In contrast, sin leads to slavery, addiction, and a loss of agency. “Addiction has the capacity to disconnect the human will and nullify moral agency”[9]; “To keep our free agency, we must not surrender self-control or yield to habits that bind, to addiction that enslaves, or to conduct that destroys”[10]; “If I do wrong, I am in bondage to that wrong. If I commit sin, I am in bondage to that sin”[11]; “When anyone succumbs to evil thoughts or evil doings...he brings himself under bondage to sin”[12].

The source of our agency
Mormons believe intelligence is an eternal quality. Abraham saw “the intelligences that were organized before the world was” (Abr. 3:22).These spirits “have no beginning; they existed before, they shall have no end, they shall exist after...they are...eternal” (Abr. 3:18). “Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be....The glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:36). Every intelligent being possesses this eternal, uncreated, glorious quality.[13] Therefore every intelligent being is an eternal being. Our intelligence cannot be reduced to the physical, chemical, and biological processes that maintain physical life. We are not robots, nor are we creatures.[14]

But even though we don’t believe we are God’s pure creation created from nothing (see Creation Ex Nihilo), we do believe God has instituted a plan whereupon we (us intelligences) can progress and develop. Agency is an essential part of this plan. But before going into this I would like to address the conditions needed for agency to be exercised. Elder Bruce R. McConkie has listed four necessary conditions for agency (“Agency,” Mormon Doctrine). These topics are interconnected so discussing one involves the others. They are as follows.

The existence of divine law ~ Agency requires freedom of choice, freedom of action. But if anything at all is to happen then our actions must have consequences. The existence of cause and effect means the existence of law. Therefore laws are prior to agency. In its eternal dimension our individual happiness or misery is a consequence of our individual choices and actions. This is how the book of Mormon puts it.

...if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin.  If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness.  And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness.  And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. (2 Nephi 2:13)

Individual, eternal progression (or damnation) is based on cause and effect and therefore rooted in law. “When we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (D&C 130:20-21).

Opposites must exist ~ Opposites have to do with tension, competition, and enticement. They are also related to how we know. Without opposition “righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad” (2 Nephi 2:11). In order for God “to bring about his eternal purposes” in man “it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter” (2 Nephi 2:15).

In addition to the bitter and sweet there must also be enticement. We cannot act unless “enticed by the one [thing] or the other” (2 Nephi 2:15-16). God entices us to do good. The Devil entices us to do evil. (Moroni 7:12-13; D&C 29:39.) The enticements we experience result in choices whose consequences are happiness or misery, bitter or sweet, the good and evil of life. These are opposites and consequences and, in and of themselves, enticements. Moreover, they are an integral part of our understanding. Without knowledge of misery we have no knowledge of joy. We cannot do good without knowledge of sin. Without opposites we cannot be enticed, choose, or reap the consequences of our choices. “If they never should have bitter they could not know the sweet” (D&C 29:39).

A knowledge of good and evil ~ Agency allows us the freedom to choose good. But how do we know the difference between good and evil? It is partly the consequences of our choices, the bitter and the sweet. But the pleasure of sin makes us susceptible to deception. Therefore God gives us commandments which inform us of the eternal consequences of certain actions.

After Adam and Eve “transgressed the first commandments...knowing good from evil” they were situated to “act according to their wills and pleasures, whether to do evil or to do good—Therefore God gave unto them commandments...that they should not do evil, the penalty thereof being a second death” (Alma 12:31-32). We believe “men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil” (2 Nephi 2:5). Once we have this knowledge we are responsible for our choices. Agency demands individual accountability. “Therefore to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin” (James 4:17). “There is no true freedom without responsibility” (Boyd K. Packer, Agency and Control, Ensign, May 1983).

An unfettered power of choice ~ We believe he who “is compelled in all a slothful and not a wise servant” (D&C 58:26). But it would be too simple to say that unfettered choice means there should be no compulsion at all. Many of our choices are based on negative consequences imposed by others, life has a way of forcing things on us, laws and punishments are necessary for orderly society, and children need parental guidance and sometimes discipline. But humans cannot be mechanistically adjusted to obey; we are not robots.

This is where the doctrine of agency takes on its political dimension. On one occasion President David O. McKay said,

Man’s greatest endowment in mortal life is the power of choice—the divine gift of free agency. No true character was ever developed without a sense of soul freedom. If a man feels circumscribed, harassed, or enslaved by something or somebody, he is shackled. That is one fundamental reason why Communism is so diabolically wrong.[15]

If an action stems from coercion, harassment, or slavery that action is not free. And I think that is an important point. I have heard some Mormons say that agency requires that children be allowed to choose whether to go to church or not, or for girls the length of the skirt they wear to church. Naturally parents will talk to their children about good and bad choices, but it is believed by some that the doctrine of agency demands that they do no more than discuss it with their teenagers. I believe this is a serious misunderstanding. Naturally it can be good for teenagers to experience greater freedom than they had when they were younger. But this has more to do with parents making wise choices for their children, not the doctrine of agency.

From my own experience, when I was a child and behaved outrageously, on a number of occasions (maybe three or four total) I was spanked with a belt. I didn’t like it, but it was never unprovoked. And I was never afraid of my father. I always felt like I could talk to him about anything. I was disciplined but I never experienced fear. As a teenager my experience was of a different kind. I remember one occasion when I was (probably) in the seventh grade. I was at a church youth activity—making bird cages out of popsicle sticks or some-such thing. I wanted to go outside and skateboard with my friends, so I asked my mom if I could. She said, “Troy, you need to decide for yourself.” I looked at her and said, “If you want me to stay, I’ll stay. If you leave it up to me I’m leaving.” As a teenager choosing between a boring church activity and skateboarding was a no-brainer. Skateboarding was way cooler. But she wouldn’t say to me, “I want you to stay.” I knew she wanted me to stay. If she had said so I would have gladly stayed to make her happy. But she wouldn’t say it. So I left. There are various ways that the doctrine of agency can be misunderstood, and misapplied.[16]

Using terror and fear to force others to uphold or oppose God’s law is evil because it is incompatible with the spirit of agency.[17] Using terror to prevent political debate and suppress unwanted beliefs is evil for the same reason. However, “the works, and the designs, and the purposes of God cannot be frustrated” (D&C 3:1). Those living under authoritarian governments can still repent of their sins and be saved. “Wrong alternatives restricts free agency and leads to slavery...pursuing correct alternatives widens the scope of one’s agency and leads to perfect liberty. As a matter of fact, one may, by this process, obtain freedom of the soul while at the same time being denied political, economic, and personal liberty” (President Marion G. Romney, The Perfect Law of Liberty, Ensign, November 1981).[18]

The war in heaven
The struggle for agency began during the pre-mortal life. Mormons believe that all of humanity existed as God’s spirit children before the creation of the world. During that time there was a great counsel where the Father proposed, “We will make an earth whereon these may dwell...[and] prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abr. 3:24-25). God’s plan required agency which entailed a degree of risk. There would be enticement, consequences, accountability, knowledge of good and evil, hunger and plenty, happiness and misery, suffering and ease, righteousness and wickedness, shades of right and wrong. Some of us would be lost along the way; therefore, a Savior was needed to bring us back. When the Father said, “Whom shall I send?” (Abr. 3:27), Lucifer, one of God’s children “in authority in the presence of God” (D&C 76:25), proposed a different plan, saying, “I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor” (Moses 4:1). The guarantee “one soul shall not be lost” meant eliminating agency. Jesus, also one of our Father’s spirit children and his Beloved Son (Moses 4:2), came forward and said, “Father, thy will be done, and the glory be thine forever” (Moses 4:2). Jesus was chosen to redeem mankind, and the vast majority of us stood with our Father’s plan. Lucifer rebelled, starting a war of words and ideas that eventually persuaded “a third part of the hosts of heaven” to follow him. (D&C 29:36.) Because Lucifer rebelled and “sought to destroy the agency of man” he was cast out of heaven (Moses 4:2-3; Luke 10:18; Rev. 12:9; Moses 4:4).

President Ezra Taft Benson said,

Satan stood for...coercion and force. Because Satan and those who stood with him would not accept the vote of the council, but rose up in rebellion, they were cast down to the earth, where they have continued to foster the same plan. The war that began in heaven is not yet over. The conflict continues on the battlefield of mortality... Proof of this is found in the long history of humanity. (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, p. 23-24)

President David O. McKay said, “only by the exercising of Free Agency can the individual even approach perfection.”[19] Elder Hugh B. Brown said, “Man faces a vista of limitless development, eternal progression...Free agency is prerequisite to any character-building plan...[and] with free agency any plan is inevitably crammed with risk.”[20] “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Therefore we need a Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Elder Boyd K. Packer pointed out, “Had agency come to man without the Atonement, it would have been a fatal gift” (Atonement, Agency, Accountability, Ensign, May 1988). “Agency also opens the possibility for sin; that, in turn, creates the need for repentance” (Elder L. Tom Perry, A Year of Jubilee, Ensign, November 1999).

President Gordon B. Hinckley said,

The eternal nature of man has been revealed. We are sons and daughters of God. God is the Father of our spirits. We lived before we came here. We had personality. We were born into this life under a divine plan. We are here to test our worthiness, acting in the agency which God has given to us. (The Great Things Which God Has Revealed, Ensign, April 2005)

End Notes_______________________________________

[1]Elder Delbert L. Stapley once said “we have built-in powers of conscience sufficient to develop our free agency in right choices and to acquire qualities of goodness, humility, and integrity of purpose” (Using Our Free Agency, Ensign, May 1975).

[2] John A. Widtsoe, Evidences and Reconciliations, p. 239.

[3] S. Dilworth Young, BYU Speeches of the Year, October 28, 1959, pg. 3.

[4] Gospel Principles, p. 21.

[5] Hales, Robert D., To Act for Ourselves: The Gift and Blessings of Agency, CR, April 2006.

[6] President Marion G. Romney, The Perfect Law of Liberty, Ensign, November 1981. 

[7] Elder Marvin J. Ashton, A Pattern in All Things, Ensign, November 1990.

[8] Elder Richard G. Scott, Healing Your Damaged Life, Ensign, November 1992.

[9] Elder Boyd K. Packer, Revelation in a Changing World, Ensign, November 1989.

[10] James E. Faust, Reach Up for the Light, p. 33.

[11] Teachings Of Presidents Of The Church: Joseph F. Smith, p. 283

[12] Elder Joseph Quinney, Jr., Conference Report, October 1936, p. 37–38.

[13] Joseph Smith taught, “The intelligence of spirits had no beginning, neither will it have an end. That is good logic. That which has a beginning may have an end. There never was a time when there were not spirits; for they are co-equal [co-eternal] with our Father in heaven...Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age, and there is no creation about it. All the minds and spirits that God ever sent into the world are susceptible of enlargement” (Teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 354).

[14] “The volition of the creature is free; this is a law of their existence, and the Lord cannot violate his own law; were he to do that, he would cease to be God. He has placed life and death before his children, and it is for them to choose. If they choose life, they receive the blessings of life; if they chose death, they must abide the penalty. This is a law which has always existed from all eternity, and will continue to exist throughout all the eternities to come. Every intelligent being must have the power of choice” (Brigham Young, JD 11:272).

[15] Man May Know for Himself: Teachings of President David O. McKay, p. 80.

[16] I have noticed that many people from my parent’s generation have a notion that agency demands a kind of libertarian freedom of choice. I remember when I flunked my first school class. It was either the seventh or eighth grade (Jr. High). My parents sat me down and said, “What can we do to help you want to do better in school?” Needless to say, I was astonished, incredulous really. At that age I didn’t care about grades and it was plainly obvious to me there was nothing they could do to help me want to do better. To be honest, it caused me to loose a little respect for my parents. Such a statement seemed profoundly ignorant. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want anyone to think these examples characterize my parents. One of my friends once mentioned to me that my parents were in the top 5%. Looking back as an adult I’m inclined to agree. But there is this notion among that generation that children should be permitted “to exercise their agency.” It is not uncommon to come across this when the doctrine of agency is discussed in Sunday school.

I have wondered from where they got such a strange belief. Did it have anything to do with the growing sense of personal freedom that was developing in the sixties? hippies being the most obvious example. Perhaps it was a popular social science trend? Did Freud have anything to do with it? (Developing the child ego and all that.) I haven’t been able to pin it down. But there was a libertarian interpretation of agency during that generation. To quote from a Dialogue article from 1967.

Parental eagerness to lead children in righteous patterns can easily and subtly result in essential denial to them of the rights of free agency. When the nine-year-old announces his intent to stay home to watch television instead of attending sacrament meeting, a real challenge exists for a parent to choose between the two principles of "teach thy child" and "allow your child free agency." If the parent conveys to the child that he cannot have a choice in such matters, the child somewhere will assert his right to be a free agent. A young Mormon soldier who had earned all his priesthood awards for faithful attendance began smoking, drinking and, in general, violating the rules and practices of the Church when he went into military service. The man's discussion of his early life disclosed a feeling that he had rarely been given a chance to decide things for himself. His church attendance was mainly because of parental pressure. The parents did not give him a feeling that he was a participant in the choices made. The discomfort he felt from being deprived of his free agency, coupled with poor judgment from lack of experience in making choices, resulted in his aberrant behavior, which nearly destroyed him as he searched for his privilege of being a free agent. (Veon G. Smith, Free Agency and Conformity in Family Life, Dialogue, vol. 2, no. 3, Autumn, 1967, pp. 64-68)

The doctrinal mistakes are revealed in phrases such as “allow your child free agency” and one young man’s feeling of “being deprived of his free agency” who “searched for his privilege of being a free agent.” The war in heaven was fought over the issue of agency. The agents of agency won. The issue is settled, we have our agency. Period. Moreover, if moral agency is retained while living under authoritarian governments what justification is there for ideas such as allowing agency, or searching for agency, or even respecting agency? They seem rather empty.

[17] In the document The Family: A Proclamation to the World the church states, “There are too many homes where children fear their parents or where wives fear their husbands...individuals who … abuse spouse or offspring … will one day stand accountable before God” (The Family: A Proclamation to the World, Ensign, Nov. 1995).

[18] “Know that the wicked choice of others cannot completely destroy your agency unless you permit it” (Elder Richard G. Scott, Healing the Tragic Scars of Abuse, Ensign, May 1992). Thus, “Some men may succeed in denying some aspects of this God-given freedom to their fellowmen, but their success is temporary. Freedom is a law of God, an eternal law” (Elder Ezra Taft Benson, Conference Report, April 1967, Second Day—Morning Meeting). “The adversary cannot take away [your agency] without your yielding it to him” (Elder Robert D. Hales, To Act for Ourselves: The Gift and Blessings of Agency, Ensign, April 2006).

[19] Taken from President Howard W. Hunter, The Golden Thread of Choice, Ensign, November 1989.

[20] Elder Hugh B. Brown, Conference Report, April 1956, Third Day—Morning Meeting, p. 105.


  1. I like that McConkie names "an unfettered power of choice" as one thing needed for agency, but that would mean that it (free choice) is not the same as agency.

    Why do members of the church commonly define agency as freedom of choice? That idea is not found in the dictionary at all.

  2. See "Free Agency and Freedom" by Dallin H. Oaks

    "Interferences with our freedom do not deprive us of our free agency. When Pharaoh put Joseph in prison, he restricted Joseph's freedom, but he did not take away his free agency. When Jesus drove the money changers out of the temple, he interfered with their freedom to engage in a particular activity at a particular time in a particular place, but he did not take away their free agency."

    "Dallin H. Oaks was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when this fireside address was given at Brigham Young University on 11 October 1987."

  3. The war in heaven was fought over the issue of agency. We are therefore guaranteed that no matter what our circumstances--drug addiction, bad childhood, where we live--we will always have enough agency to have access to the atonement of Christ.