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.

Slavery
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. [1]

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.

Polygamy 
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.

Birth Control
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.


[1] 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.

ElleK

ElleK is a foodie, gardener, and writer. Women’s issues in the church are not a pebble in her shoe; they are a boulder on her chest.

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24 Responses

  1. Thanks for this! I thought you (and others) might be interested in this essay: http://salemthoughts.com/Topics/What_Is_A_Prophet.pdf

    My husband wrote it years ago and I’ve appreciated the research and thought behind defining a prophet per the standards of the scriptures. It has helped me understand how a man can be called to the office of Prophet while (hopefully) aiming to coming into the full wisdom and associated power from heaven. Many do not.

    Thanks again!

  2. Elisa says:

    Lots of good thoughts here. I think consolidating / conflating “prophet” and “President of the Church”, as the LDS Church as done, is unwise and totally counter to the way prophets are defined / appear in scripture. Church administration is primarily concerned with the survival of the institution. That should never be a prophet’s primary concern. Unfortunately, when “survival of the institution” conflicts with “doing what’s right for individuals”, administrators pick the former. We’ve seen this time and again with lack of transparency on Church history, silencing of sex abuse allegations, excommunication of people who speak truth to power, etc. Our leadership is now populated with lawyers and businessmen who are running a great business but who I don’t seem very often, if ever, to be fulfilling a very prophetic role. I’ve been looking beyond the Q15 for prophets, and to me I will only acknowledge words as being prophetic if the spirit tells me they are — the Q15 don’t get any special presumption from me anymore.

    With the recent post re: the woman who chose to stay at home with children and now regrets it, and this one, I’m reminded of a thought I’ve had a lot lately. There are a lot of good fruits springing from our Church. And there are a lot of bad fruits. The good fruits (service, kindness, hard work, etc.) I think tend to come from drawing people to God / Christ and creating strong communities. The bad fruits (racism, LGBT exclusion, narrow women’s roles, etc.) I think tend to come from the idea that we’ve put a bunch of men in charge, said they’re prophets (and really, the only prophets), and then cow-towed to every last thing they’ve said. To be honest, I don’t think there are a lot of good fruits growing from that. The idea that the prophet will never lead the church astray is so false and so dangerous.

    • EmilyCC says:

      I think the distinction between President of the Church and Prophet is helpful in thinking about. If we think of the Church like a business, which, by necessity, it is in a lot of ways, it makes sense to me to have the administrative/business focused-leader as well as a mission/spiritual focused-leader. And, if we see good fruits come from community, it makes sense to build the community beyond the Q15 in terms of creating policy and doctrine.

  3. EmilyCC says:

    Thank you for these clear articulate examples for the next time someone says how the Church never goes back on doctrine or policy, ElleK.

    I often think of how ironic it is that the Catholics treat their pope, who is declared as infallible, as someone who advises but not necessarily commands (I’m thinking of the practice of birth control in particular) while the LDS treat our prophet, who is clearly permitted fallibility in our theology, as above reproach and can do no wrong–so much so that we prefer to blame God’s mysterious ways than to consider the harm that is done in our very human attempts to live the Gospel.

  4. Jared says:

    I’ve been reading “Insights” by Sheri Dew where President Nelson relates a variety of experiences from his life. Its apparent that he is and has been guided throughout his life by the Spirit of the Lord. I’m not as old as he is, I’m in my 8th decade. I have had many experiences with the Spirit just as he has.

    He is a brilliant individual and is now the prophet of the church. On the other hand, I am very average and haven’t even been a Bishop or called to important positions in the church, yet I have been given many sacred experiences just like Pres. Nelson. In my teens, in answer to prayer I was taken to the other side of the veil and shown that if I didn’t repent of the things I was doing I would become like Lucifer. After that experience, I changed my life.

    All these years later, when I read and study about things as presented in this blog post my testimony can not be overturned. I’ve come to understand that Heavenly Father allows prophets to be fallible as well as being instruments in His hands to accomplish His purposes.

    Each of us needs to pay the price to obtain a testimony. My experience has taught me that far too many church members haven’t paid the price, so when they run into opposition they struggle. I believe this is all by design. After all, we’re here to be tried and tested. The parable of the 10 Virgins, the parable of the sower, Lehi’s dream and other teachings illustrate this doctrine.

    I hope those who are struggling will decide to let God Prevail in their lives, so they can have a genuine testimony that will survive the “mist of darkness” that is part of our mortal experience.

    • Elisa says:

      I’m totally cool with the idea of prophets being fallible. Never in my life have I expected them to be perfect, and I’ve always been a fairly nuanced believer.

      But when we have church leaders who repeatedly claim that harmful teachings and practices — like excluding and marginalizing LGBTQ’s, excluding women from leadership positions, previously excluding black members from priesthood ordination and temple ordinances, previously practicing polygamy, previously teaching false doctrines about the nature of the Godhead — come from God, I think we have more than an “infallibility” problem. We have to ask tough questions about whether these men who claim to be prophets and ask us to obey these teachings are actually capable of discerning the difference between their own prejudices and the Lord’s voice. To me, calling inequality the word of God is more than simple fallibility. To me that is the epitome of taking the Lord’s name in vain.

      Given all of the examples we have of prophets who have made mistakes in the past, I would expect a bit more humility and self-reflection from our current leaders. I don’t see that at all. I see a digging in of heels on social issues and repeated assurances that they are right and we just need to trust and follow. So we can believe that prophets are not infallible all we want but they appear to disagree, and that’s a big problem.

      • Jared says:

        I’ve been on the other side of the veil for a few minutes. My experience wasn’t as profound as the apostle Paul or Joseph Smith but for over 50 years I have done what I can to live up to the experience I was given.

        I don’t expect others who haven’t had an equivalent experience to feel the way I do, but I try to encourage anyone interested to do what they can to acquire a deep and powerful testimony by engaging in mighty prayer and fasting until they are given an experience(s) that will change them. The scripture beg us to do so.

  5. Brett says:

    Doctrines never change. Policies, practices and schedules of the church fo change quite often. I would ask that people understand those Basic principles before they go off spouting to the church has changed it’s stockrooms rooms because of social pressures and such.

  6. Brett says:

    Revision: before the go off claiming that the church has changed its doctrines because of social pressure. Doctrines such as eternal marriage, poet of the priesthood, plan of salvation, the Godhead etc. never change

    • Ziff says:

      Except for when they do. For example, Brigham Young with his Adam-God doctrine had a pretty different understanding of the godhead than any Church presidents since. The doctrine/policy distinction might be comforting to make us think that there’s some unchangeable core to the Church, but I think it’s pretty much an entirely after the fact distinction. When something changes, like the priesthood/temple ban on black people, we decide that oh, really that was policy all along, even if people who lived during the time it was in effect thought it was doctrine.

      • Jared says:

        Ziff–To be doctrine the 1st Presidency and Q-12 need to sign off on the doctrine. To my knowledge this was never done. BY was teaching what he believed. He said, Joseph Smith taught him the Adam God doctrine. However, there is no record of JS explicitly teaching AG.. If anything BY may have taught things that are true, but shouldn’t have been taught at that time.

      • Elisa says:

        +1 for Ziff’s comment here. The doctrine / policy distinction is after the fact rationale to continue claiming that doctrine doesn’t change. And “doctrine” is just a fancy word for “let’s end the debate here.” Leaders can be every bit as wrong about doctrine as they are about policy.

      • Koteb says:

        I would say the doctrinal inconsistencies arising from polygamy are a much more difficult challenge to reconcile than the priesthood ban. After reading “Mormonism and White Supremacy”, a thorough historical investigation of the origins of the priesthood ban and its affects on past and modern church culture, I believe that the ban wasn’t inspired at all. Strangely, I’m ok accepting that the priesthood ban was BY’s weakness and biases, caving to the societal norms and prejudices of his day. I’m ok accepting that it perpetuated through our history for the same reason. I even can accept our current leaders failing to confront it as a historical specter due to their own weaknesses, biases, and failings. What I can’t reconcile myself with is D&C 132, which canonizes polygamy as a scriptural declaration, voiced from a Prophet in full “Thus saith the Lord” mode. It’s a lot harder for me to get around that one.

      • Elisa says:

        Koteb, agree that section 132 is an excellent example. It’s literally canonized and literally Joseph saying “thus sayeth the lord.” Reading that with full knowledge of the historical background is pretty crazy, especially the threats against Emma’s life. I don’t see how one gets around that raising serious, serious issues about prophetic authority – either Joseph was delusional or lying … not unlike how I don’t see how one gets around RMN in 2015 saying the exclusion policy was a “revelation” and then in 2019 saying its reversal was a “revelation.” Even if they policy was not “doctrine” RMN still described it as “revelation.”

        Really the only way to get around the “either the delusional or lying or really really bad at discerning the will of God” explanation is by thinking God is behind that insanity. Given the choice between a prophet who’s wrong and a God who’s arbitrary, capricious, vindictive, and cruel, I’m going with prophets being wrong.

    • Brian G says:

      All these doctrines have changed. Doctrine and Covenants once had a whole chapter on marriage that wasn’t eternal marriage. Then polygamy changed marriage doctrines. Then we changed again. Priesthood teachings have changed numerous times since Joseph’s day. Plan of salvation also changed and evolved. The godhead even. Lectures on faith and the Book of Mormon seem much more trinitarian than we teach today.

    • Ryan says:

      Brett, do some research. Been a member for 40 years and I believed the same until I did the research. Every doctrine has changed, even the very ones you mentioned.

      • Jared says:

        I see it as doctrine expanding as the prophets learn line upon line, precept upon precept.

        9 We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.

        (Pearl of Great Price | Articles of Faith 1:9)

  7. GEOFF -AUS says:

    Totally agree. In a conference, during a pandemic, and a devisive election campaign, you would expect a PROPHET to have advised on how to deal with the virus, and how to vote to heal the division in America.
    Prophet of old condemned corrupt governments.
    If a prophet can’t do these he is irrelevant.

    • Jared says:

      LDS are taught doctrine and then they govern themselves. I don’t want to be told what to do by prophets. I want to be taught correct doctrine. I’ll do the rest, otherwise we’re not independent beings exercising agency. To do as you imply sounds more like what Lucifer had in mind.

    • DB says:

      GEOFF-AUS, just to be clear, you expect the president of the church to tell members how to vote in political elections and if he doesn’t he’s irrelevant?

  8. Wendy says:

    Thank you, ElleK for challenging the false notion that dubbing someone, even oneself, a “Prophet” makes it so. You are casting light on a shadow side of the church that has, as you so cogently demonstrated, exacted harm on human beings in the name of God for generations.

  9. Kevin Christensen says:

    There is a difference between noticing that one’s subject (in this case, a prophet) has not behaved in the ways that we might expect or want him to, and self-reflecting (checking ourselves for beams) on what we should expect and what is most desirable personally according to social norms. On what I should expect from a prophet, I took the time to gather 28 distinct Biblical tests for True and False Prophets. (None of them amount to “poll trends in popular culture to see if a prophet conforms to current norms and values”.) That list of distinct tests had the effect of helping me refine my own expectations and thereby “see clearly” (Matt7:5). I also studied the Bible for passages that described what a person should do to see truth. These turned out be a way to formally offer the sacrifice of a a broken heart and a contrite spirit, to offer up what I expect and desire as potential sacrifices in order to see what is Real. Then I located and studied 70 or so different arguments given by Biblical peoples to justify their rejection of prophets. None of them, I notice, had gone out of date, and all of them boil to to people saying, “It’s not what I think,” or “It’s not what I desire.” It turned out that every argument corresponds to a failure on that issue to offer up the sacrifice of a broken heart and a contrite spirit. Joseph Campbell observes that in the Ancient World, temples typically had two guardian statues representing Fear and Desire (What we, in our limited mortal understanding, think and what we want). So entry into the Real requires letting go what we fear and desire. There is a difference between Abraham entering into a dialogue with God in order to understand (“Wilt thou destroy with righteous with the wicked?”) and Peter telling Jesus in no uncertain terms “Be it far from thee Lord: this shall not be unto thee,” (Matt 16:22). The first leads to understanding, and the second brings a rebuke.

    https://www.fairmormon.org/answers/Biblical_Keys_for_Discerning_True_and_False_Prophets

  10. Mortimer says:

    Geoff-Aus and Jared, While we should be taught correct principles and govern ourselves, that doesn’t preclude us from speaking truth, especially when confronting evil. (Were we on the right or wrong side of history I’m constantly appeasing the 3rd reich? In not speaking out against the Trump Administration and even singing (celebrating) at his inauguration? I don’t think so. Neither of these stances was “neutral”).

    And what about being taught correct principles? Our educational system hardly serves all saints (only a small %), and is far from life-long. Are we being taught to evaluate information? Protect ourselves and our families from QAnon or foreign campaign slander? Or even at a basic level- are we learning how to increase our spiritual discernment? No. No. No.

    We can’t fall back on this old maxim by Joseph (a high-falutin’ one – something that alludes to a much more perfected utopian society) when we don’t implement it fully.

    In the meantime, speaking out against evil, whether it be slavery, or racism, or misogyny, or autocracy, or false “prophets” and dangerous misinformation would be a start.

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