Monday, October 25, 2010

Iron Rod Saints & Liahona Saints

In 1967 (the year I was baptized), Richard D. Poll delivered a sermon in the Palo Alto ward in which he coined the terms Iron Rod Saint and Liahona Saint. The sermon was reprinted in Dialogue and the Saints' Herald, and was also later published in the essay anthology A Thoughtful Faith (1986, Philip Barlow, ed.). What follows is second of a few entries on the iron rod, the liahona, and impressions about Brother Poll's essay.

In Brother Poll's sermon, he coins the terms Iron Rod Saints and Liahona Saints. His words:

The Iron Rod was the Word of God. To the person with his hand on the rod, each step of the journey to the tree of life was plainly defined; he had only to hold on as he moved forward. In Lehi's dream the way was not easy, but it was clear.

The Liahona, in contrast, was a compass. It pointed to the destination but did not fully mark the path; indeed, the clarity of its directions varied with the circumstances of the user. For Lehi's family the sacred instrument was a reminder of their temporal and eternal goals, but it was no infallible delineator of their course….

The Iron Rod Saint does not look for questions but for answers, and in the gospel – as he understands it – he finds or is confident that he can find the answer to every important question. The Liahona Saint, on the other hand, is preoccupied with questions and skeptical of answers; he finds in the gospel – as he understands it – answers to enough important questions so that he can function purposefully without answers to the rest ("What the Church Means to People Like Me," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 2 (Winter 1967): 107-17).

Brother Poll's sermon / article then does quite a wonderful job of describing two types of faithful Latter-day Saints. He self-identifies with the second, and speaks of the blessings the church has to offer someone like him.

I first encountered his essay reprinted in A Thoughtful Faith. It's the first essay in a collection which touches on the growth of testimony beyond simple knowledge to sophisticated faith. (Simple and sophisticated are my words, not those of the essayists. I recognize that both are somewhat charged words, but I use them here with positive intent: while it is true that a simple testimony may be for some sufficient to sustain faith, life in a complicated world requires for some a more sophisticated approach. Poll's essay makes clear that there is room for both in the church.)

Brother Poll paints two types of saints as quoted above. In a subsequent entry, I'll discuss his terms. But here I'll simply state that I don't believe it is a binary state – one may not be either Iron Rod or Liahona. I find myself identifying with both, and at different times in my life I have felt closer to and found more comfort in one position or the other. (I should note that my observation is hardly earth-shattering; Poll himself discusses the matter in his follow-up essay, cited below.)

I acknowledge that Brother Poll gave voice to a circumstance that is not unique and is, in fact, quite compelling. He presented a follow-up essay in 1982 by which time over 1,500 reprints of his original Dialogue article had "found their way into circulation…. The sermon has been reprinted in Sunstone and its argument figures porimnently in the conclusion of Arrington and Bitton's The Mormon Experience" ("Liahona and Iron Rod Revisited," Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, June 1983, p. 70).

Note -- I've included links to the Dialogue articles, but please check out Dialogue's website here.

Next: Iron Rod and Liahona as Symbols of Saints


  1. Both essays are available free in the Dialogue archive at A search on Richard Poll is probably the quickest way to pull up both of them.

  2. Kristine, yes, that's true! I should have done more to plug Dialogue!!

  3. I agree with you. I don't believe we can lumped in an either/or bucket. I think we are all over the place. But I still feel grateful for his message because it was a plea for tolerance and understanding, of not condeming others because they don't believe exactly the way we do or think the way we do. I've seen marriages go completely down the drain because the husband and wife could not reconcile their spiritual differences. Some of my friends believe completely differently than I do, but I still cherish them as both as friends and fellow co-religionists (I've been waiting to use that term).

  4. Anon, you are right. The great value of Brother Poll's essay is that it allowed for discussion.

    In my next installment I'll talk about the symbols he chose, and in the one after that, I'll talk about the reaction to his essay.