Follow the Prophet?
Sacrament meeting in the local Mormon congregation focused on “Following the Prophet” on Sunday, which feels appropriate, as I’ve pondered this concept quite a bit recently. A tension exists in Mormonism between a deep belief in a living Prophet who is the mouth of God on the earth today and a cherished belief that individuals can receive personal revelation directly from God. Discussions abound over when a prophet speaks for God and when we are commanded to follow. Two questions naturally arise, “What happens when your personal revelation conflicts with or deviates from the words of the prophet(s)?” and “What happens when current revelations conflict with the words of previous prophets?”
One obvious direction to head in this discussion is toward branch-offs of Mormonism, where groups of people—like the FLDS—refused to follow Brigham Young or renounce polygamy. It’s always easier to point at “their” flaws and conflicts, but ignore ours. It’s relatively simple to sing “Follow the Prophet” and call doubters to faithfully do the same when you agree and/or when you are comfortable simply following direction.
But what happens when prophets wade into tough issues such as gay marriage, vaccinations, racism, gender, and other politically divisive issues? One solution is to claim that we must differentiate between when a prophet “speaks for the Lord” and “speaks as a man.” Another is to say that you will never go wrong by following, even if God’s word changes (although God is supposedly unchanging). Both leave a great deal up to interpretation—which I actually support.
I’m sure no one is surprised that I am no fan of the phrase “follow the prophet,” nor do I appreciate holding up prophets as some kind of saints/superheroes/celebrities. I prefer “follow God” or “follow the spirit.” Many would argue that “follow the prophet” is synonymous with these phrases, but my personal experiences with revelation contradict this. And focusing on these men can detract from our focus on God and following them can verge too close to worshipping them.
I’ve seen people recently challenging Mormons who criticize the LDS church’s social media posts, believe in conspiracy theories, and are outspoken about their disagreement with the prophet publicly getting the vaccine. They say, “But I thought you followed the prophet?” This taunting phrase makes sense because, frankly, “follow the prophet” is frequently weaponized and used to shame and silence those (often more liberal members) who question, doubt, or disagree.
But I hope that this excruciating moment in the US and Mormonism doesn’t push people to keep promoting the line, “follow the prophet,” but instead builds more empathy for the complexities of revelation. I hope it makes more space to honor personal revelation and changes the way people interact with each other, church leaders, and the religion itself. But I’m not holding my breath.
When I think about revelation, I’m often reminded of this quote from Under the Banner of Heaven, where Jon Krakauer discusses the way Latter-day Saints have wrestled with the tension between a desire to have God speak again in the form of a new Moses and having God speak again directly to one’s heart and soul:
“But perhaps the greatest attraction of Mormonism was the promise that each follower would be granted an extraordinarily intimate relationship with God. Joseph taught and encouraged his adherents to receive personal communiqués straight from the Lord. Divine revelation formed the bedrock of the religion.”
– Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven