President David O. McKay served for more than six decades as a General Authority, and during this time he witnessed many notable events in the world’s history. He saw global upheaval, including two world wars, widespread regional conflicts, and the rise of superpower nations on the brink of nuclear war. He also lived through significant economic and social changes, such as the Great Depression and the world’s growing acceptance of instant gratification through promiscuity and illicit drugs. As an inspired witness of history, he spoke to Church members many times about agency and individual responsibility. In a conference address given after the United States had entered World War I, Elder McKay (then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) spoke of the tragic events that encompassed the world:
“I do not believe that God has caused the misery, the famine, the pestilence, and the death that are now sweeping the war-torn countries of Europe. I do believe that the conditions of the world today are a direct result—an inevitable result, of disobedience to God’s laws. … Men may choose the right or they may choose the wrong; they may walk in darkness or they may walk in the light; and, mind you, God has not left his children without the light. He has given them in the various dispensations of the world the light of the gospel wherein they could walk and not stumble, wherein they could find that peace and happiness which he desires, as a loving Father, his children should enjoy, but the Lord does not take from them their free agency.”2
Although President McKay recognized the tragedies that can occur when people choose evil, he remained ever grateful for the gift of agency. He understood the blessings that come from righteous choices, and he reminded those he taught that the freedom to choose is an essential part of the plan of salvation. In his discourses on the subject of agency, he often referred to it as “God’s greatest gift to man.”
Teachings of David O. McKay
The eternal gift of agency allows us to progress and gain exaltation.
Free agency is the impelling source of the soul’s progress. It is the purpose of the Lord that man become like him. In order for man to achieve this it was necessary for the Creator first to make him free.3
There is a significant reference in the [book of Revelation] to “a war in heaven.” (Rev. 12:7.) It is not only significant, but seemingly contradictory, for we think of heaven as a celestial abode of bliss, an impossible condition [for] war and contention [to] exist. The passage is significant because it implies a freedom of choice and of action in the spirit world. In the Pearl of Great Price we are given this account: “Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down;
“And he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice.” (Moses 4:3–4; italics added.)
Two things you will note in that passage: one, that Satan was determined to destroy the free agency of man. Free agency is a gift of God. It is part of his divinity. The second point is that he desired to supplant God. I quote, “Give me thy glory.” [See Moses 4:1.]
Freedom of the will and the responsibility associated with it are fundamental aspects of Jesus’ teachings. Throughout his ministry he emphasized the worth of the individual, and exemplified what is now expressed in modern revelation as the work and glory of God—“To bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” [Moses 1:39.] Only through the divine gift of soul freedom is such progress possible.
Force, on the other hand, emanates from Lucifer himself. Even in man’s [premortal] state, Satan sought power to compel the human family to do his will by suggesting that the free agency of man be inoperative. If his plan had been accepted, human beings would have become mere puppets in the hands of a dictator, and the purpose of man’s coming to earth would have been frustrated. Satan’s proposed system of government, therefore, was rejected, and the principle of free agency established.5
Although God has created the universe and all therein, “man is the jewel of God.” This is just another way of saying that the earth was created for man and not man for the earth. God gave to man part of his divinity. He gave man the power of choice, and no other creature in the world has it. So he placed upon the individual the obligation of conducting himself as an eternal being. You cannot think of any greater gift that could come to a man or woman than the freedom of choice. You alone are responsible, and by wielding and exercising that freedom of choice, you grow in character, you grow in intelligence, you approach divinity, and eventually you may achieve that high exaltation. That is a great obligation. Very few people appreciate it. The roads are clearly marked—one offering animal existence, the other life abundant. Yet, God’s greatest creation—man—often is content to grovel on the animal plane.6
Next to the bestowal of life itself, the right to direct that life is God’s greatest gift to man. … Freedom of choice is more to be treasured than any possession earth can give. It is inherent in the spirit of man. It is a divine gift. … Whether born in abject poverty or shackled at birth by inherited riches, everyone has this most precious of all life’s endowments—the gift of free agency; man’s inherited and inalienable right.7
References in the Scriptures show that [agency] is (1) essential to man’s salvation; and, (2) may become a measuring rod by which the actions of men, of organizations, of nations may be judged.
With agency comes personal responsibility to fulfill the “true purpose of life.”
The responsibility is upon each individual to choose the path of righteousness, of faithfulness and duty to fellowmen. If he [chooses] otherwise, and as a result [meets] failure, misery and death, he alone is to blame. As President [Brigham] Young said on one occasion:
“If Brother Brigham should take a wrong track and be shut out of the kingdom of heaven, no person will be to blame but Brother Brigham. I am the only being in heaven, earth, or hell, that can be blamed.
“This will equally apply to every Latter-day Saint. Salvation is an individual operation. … When salvation is sent to me, I can reject or receive it. In receiving it, I yield implicit obedience and submission to its great Author throughout my life, and to those whom he shall appoint to instruct me; in rejecting it, I follow the dictates of my own will in preference to the will of my Creator.” [See Discourses of Brigham Young, sel. John A. Widtsoe (1954), 390.]9
With free agency there comes responsibility. If a man is to be rewarded for righteousness and punished for evil, then common justice demands that he be given the power of independent action. A knowledge of good and evil is essential to man’s progress on earth. If he were coerced to do right at all times, or were helplessly enticed to commit sin, he would merit neither a blessing for the first nor punishment for the second. …
… Man’s responsibility is correspondingly operative with his free agency. Actions in harmony with divine law and the laws of nature will bring happiness, and those in opposition to divine truth, misery. Man is responsible not only for every deed, but also for every idle word and thought. Said the Savior:
Earth in all its majesty and wonder is not the end and purpose of creation. “… my glory,” says the Lord himself, “(is) to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.) And man in exercising the divine gift of free agency should feel in duty bound, should sense the obligation to assist the Creator in the accomplishment of this divine purpose.
The true end of life is not mere existence, not pleasure, not fame, not wealth. The true purpose of life is the perfection of humanity through individual effort, under the guidance of God’s inspiration.11
There are a few simple but fundamental things which everyone can do. One of these is for each individual to work out his own salvation. An outstanding doctrine of the Church is that each individual carries this responsibility, and that the salvation of man is a process of gradual development. … We should seek the strength and grace of God for inspiration to obtain the final victory.
However, to work out one’s salvation is not to sit idly by, dreaming and yearning for God miraculously to thrust bounteous blessings into our laps. It is to perform daily, hourly, momentarily, if necessary, the immediate task or duty at hand, and to continue happily in such performance as the years come and go, leaving the fruits of such labors either to self or to others to be bestowed as a just and beneficent Father may determine.
I am not unmindful of the scripture that declares, “By grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is a gift of God.” [See Ephesians 2:8.] That is absolutely true, for man in his taking upon himself mortality was [powerless] to save himself. When left to grope in a natural state, he would have become, and did become “carnal, sensual and devilish by nature.” [Alma 42:10.] But the Lord through His grace appeared to man, gave him the Gospel or eternal plan whereby he might rise above the carnal and selfish things of life and obtain spiritual perfection.
But he must rise by his own efforts and he must walk by faith.12
Choosing to obey gospel principles brings happiness, peace, and salvation.
Conformity to the Lord’s word or law will invariably contribute to man’s happiness and salvation. Those who do not what the Lord commands, we are told, will be subjected to justice and judgment. In other words, there is eternally operative in the moral world a law of compensation and retribution—compensation commensurate with conformity to law; retribution in actual degree to the extent of disobedience.13
The peace of Christ does not come by seeking the superficial things of life, neither does it come except as it springs from the individual’s heart. Jesus said to His disciples: “Peace I leave with you. My peace I give unto you; not as the world giveth, give I unto you.” [John 14:27.] Thus the Son of Man as the executor of his own will and testament gave to his disciples and to mankind the “first of all human blessings.” It was a bequest conditioned upon obedience to the principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is thus bequeathed to each individual. No man is at peace with himself or his God who is untrue to his better self, who transgresses the law of right either in dealing with himself by indulging in passion, in appetite, yielding to temptations against his accusing conscience, or in dealing with his fellowmen, being untrue to their trust. Peace does not come to the transgressor of law; peace comes by obedience to law, and it is that message which Jesus would have us proclaim among men.14
Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, has given us the means whereby man may obtain eternal happiness and peace in the kingdom of our Father, but man must work out his own salvation through obedience to the eternal principles and ordinances of the gospel.15
As members of society, we should appreciate freedom and promote the responsible use of it.
Freedom of speech, freedom of action within boundaries that do not infringe upon the liberty of others are … divine gifts “essential to human dignity and human happiness.”16
Liberty may be either helpful or fatal according to the use made of it. … “Liberty is an atmosphere of the higher life. … Liberty?—it is respect. … Men must be made capable and worthy of [liberty], otherwise public life becomes impossible.”17
True liberty in individuals consists in the enjoying of every right that will contribute to one’s peace and happiness, so long as the exercise of such a privilege does not interfere with the same privilege in others. It consists not in doing what one likes to do, but in doing what one ought to do. It is the right of each individual to be master of his own time and actions consistent with fairness and justice to his fellow men and with harmony with the laws of God. … It is freedom of choice, a divine gift, an essential virtue in a peaceful society.18
In these days of uncertainty and unrest, liberty-loving people’s greatest responsibility and paramount duty is to preserve and proclaim the freedom of the individual, his relationship to Deity, and … the necessity of obedience to the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ—only thus will mankind find peace and happiness.19
If we would make the world better, let us foster a keener appreciation of … freedom and liberty.20
David O. McKay
Chapter 22: Agency and Responsibility
Teachings of Presidents of the Church: David O. McKay, (2011), 204–13