What Good Is a Prophet?
“Claiming to speak for God is a tricky business — especially when God changes his mind, often, on hot-button political issues after receiving immense public backlash.” – Lauren Jackson, writing for CNN about the Church rescinding the Exclusion Policy for LGBT families in April 2019
The Church has long been clear that doctrine doesn’t change and that a Prophet will never lead the Church astray. Changes that the Church does make, we are taught, are of policy only, and these changes come from God, not from external pressure or the prevailing attitudes of the day.
That’s the official line, anyway. But is it accurate?
In short, no.
There are several examples of times the Church’s leaders have clearly led the Church astray, changed doctrine, and made changes due to external pressure. Here are a few.
Brigham Young advocated that Utah become a slave territory, rather than a free territory, to the Utah legislature by arguing they must support slavery on religious grounds, stating that “inasmuch as we believe in the ordinances of God, in the Priesthood and order and decrees of God, we must believe in slavery.” Slavery wasn’t ended in the territory until the federal government ended slavery in the US in 1862.
Joseph Smith’s views on slavery were relatively progressive for his day, but the Church under Brigham Young did not condemn (and, in some cases, embraced) slavery. Some Saints in the Utah territory, including a few of the Church’s leaders, owned enslaved people of African descent. The Church was also involved in the enslavement of indigenous Americans; for example, in 1853, all 100 households in Parowan contained at least one enslaved Paiute child. 
Mass Murder of Indigenous Americans
Early Mormon settlers in Missouri were subject to an extermination order from the governor that ultimately resulted in them being expelled from their homes and forced to flee. Just 12 years later, under the direction of Brigham Young, the Mormon settlers in Utah Valley carried out their own extermination order against the Timpanogos people in order to take their land.
After decades of mounting pressure and threats from the US government, Wilford Woodruff proclaimed in 1890 that the Church would stop performing plural marriages (and again in 1904 when it was discovered that the church was still performing plural marriages) despite previous prophets stating that plural marriage would never be revoked.
Racism as Doctrine/Priesthood and Temple Ban for Black Members
In 1949, the entire First Presidency signed a letter for broad distribution that read in part, “The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord….The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the Church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the premortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality.”
Nearly 30 years later, after over a decade of strong social pressure resulting from the civil rights movement and long after the majority of the country had started making strides toward racial equality, the Church finally allowed the priesthood to men of African descent and temple blessings to men and women of African descent. Other than a brief mention in an obscure essay, the racist doctrines explicitly taught in the past have never been disavowed by church leaders, nor has the Church apologized to Black members for its racism.
President Joseph Fielding Smith taught, “Birth control is wickedness. The abuse of this holy covenant has been the primary cause for the downfall of nations….When a man and a woman are married and they agree, or covenant, to limit their offspring to two or three, and practice devices to accomplish this purpose, they are guilty of iniquity which eventually must be punished…[and is seen] as wickedness in the sight of the Lord.”
The Church has gradually changed its position and doctrine in regards to birth control, though top leaders still occasionally publicly encourage large family sizes. But far from causing the downfall of nations, birth control on a global scale has incredible net benefits: “by preventing unintended, often high-risk pregnancies, family planning saves women’s lives and protects their health; improves infant survival rates and bolsters child health; reduces women’s recourse to abortion and, especially, unsafe abortion; protects women and their partners against sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV/AIDS; enhances women’s status and promotes equality between men and women; fosters social and economic development and security at the family, community and country level; and helps safeguard the environment.”
Inclusion of LGBTQ Members
In November 2015, Church leaders implemented a policy that prohibited the children of a parent in a same sex relationship from being blessed, baptized or ordained and labeled church members in gay marriages apostates who required a church disciplinary council. In January of 2016, Russell Nelson, then President of the Quorum of the 12 Apostles, gave a talk broadcast to young adults across the world where he called the policy “revelation” and “the will of the Lord.” The policy was the subject of intense division and controversy among church members, with thousands leaving the church in protest. Last year, less than four years after the policy was implemented, the Church rescinded it. The Church has not apologized or taken responsibility for the harm done by this policy.
If doctrine and prophecies are sometimes wrong, and if doctrine is changed or rescinded in response to external pressure, and if the Church is consistently years behind the rest of the country in adopting positions in alignment with the widely recognized civil rights of marginalized people, how can Church members have confidence that they are being led by God? Given the Church’s track record of large errors in the past, why aren’t members encouraged to express concern when a Prophet’s guidance feels contrary to God’s will?
We are taught that God is eternal, that God is constant, that God’s doctrines never change. I believe this to be true. So why does man’s understanding of that doctrine change so much? Could it be that the mantle of Prophet doesn’t provide the clear, direct access to God that we’ve been led to believe it does? Based on the history of the Church’s backtracking on policy previously declared to be doctrinal, it’s pretty apparent that our Prophets see through a glass darkly just as much as the rest of us do, and sometimes even more so.
So what good, then, is a Prophet?
This is a question I don’t have an answer to, except to say that I’ve come to recognize the role of lowercase-p prophets in my own life, people whose words God uses to teach me something. Sometimes a friend, or an author, or my child is a prophet. Sometimes an activist, a stranger, or a podcast host is a prophet. And sometimes, a Prophet is a prophet.
But not always.
 While doing research for this essay, I stumbled across this Wikipedia article and learned for the first time about the Church’s involvement in enslaving indigenous Americans, particularly Paiute children. I encourage everyone to read it. It is so important that we know our history, even (and especially) the messy and awful parts.