For the Orthodox Believer who believes that Prophets are near perfect men who literally speak face to face with Jesus and God here is a faithful article that helps us see it is not that simple. We explore this topic to help show that there is more nuance than that. Let’s Explore.
I validate that Joseph Smith interacted with the divine and perhaps some of the other prophets have too in this dispensation. I also validate that the narrative we were taught to hold is that to be a Prophet means that you speak directly with Jesus and/or Heavenly Father “face to face” and he/they tell you what to teach the Church. The trouble is once one dives into Church history one is left having to wrestle with the complexity of this and one’s view must adapt or one will likely lose faith.
The Church defines a Prophet as
Inspired men called to speak for the Lord
In Addition to that simple definition this is added
We sustain the President of the Church as prophet, seer, and revelator—the only person on the earth who receives revelation to guide the entire Church. We also sustain the counselors in the First Presidency and the members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators.
We give lots of definitive statements about the President of the Church, about the apostles, and about prophets in general. Lets look at some of these
1.) Prophets receive revelation for the Church. In gospel principles book it states
While in agreement it should be stated that D&C 1:28 states
And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.
That only as they are humble will they receive revelation and only from “time to time”. In other words it will be every now and then, and should not be expected regularly. God adds that their personal pride may also get in the way of that communication.
2.) The prophets voice is God’s voice. Again Gospel Principles manual states
This also has a caveat. Joseph Smith taught the following
“I visited with a brother and sister from Michigan, who thought that ‘a prophet is always a prophet’; but I told them that a prophet is a prophet only when he was acting as such” (Joseph Smith, _History of the Church_, 5:265).
Joseph is teaching us a valuable lesson. We must discern or look for ways to to recognize the difference between when a Prophet is acting in that office and when he is simply sharing the biases, prejudices, and thoughts, and ideas that only emanate from himself. We will explore this in the second half of this article.
3.) A Prophet is a “Special Witness”. The Gospel Principles manual states
A prophet is also a special witness for Christ, testifying of His divinity and teaching His gospel.
Many members take this to mean that he has seen Christ. Elder Oaks though shoots this idea down when he quotes D&C 107:23
“The twelve traveling councilors are called to be the Twelve Apostles, or special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world”
and then says
“This is not to witness of a personal manifestation. To witness of the name is to witness of the plan, the work, or mission such as the atonement and the authority or priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ, which an apostle who holds the keys is uniquely responsible to do. Of course apostles are also witnesses of Christ just like all members of the church who have the gift of the Holy Ghost.”
This is a really telling statement. He is affirming that the 15 top men as a group are not special witnesses because they have seen Christ. Rather they are special because of their office and due to the nature of their divine assignment. He then says they are witnesses of Christ but only in the same way that each of us are by the power of the Holy Ghost. So while I agree the Prophet can speak to God face to face it appears to happen much less than we think. It might even be fair to say that not every prophet in this dispensation has even seen the Lord.
Now lets run through how we might discern when a Prophet is indeed speaking on behalf of God. Below are several common misnomers.
A.) Any time a Prophet, Seer, or Revelator speaks in a official capacity in his office he is speaking for God
Elder Christofferson shoots this down when he says
At the same time it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such.”
In fact D&C 1 teaches us that God’s servants will err and will sin and will receive revelation only from time to time through the weakness of their language. We should, rather than set these men on pedestals, grapple with just how human they are and how they are receiving and discerning truth just like you and me.
B.) When several leaders back the same teaching and perhaps teach so on more than one occasion.
Elder Anderson in the very next conference shares this too is not a perfect way to discern when he says
A few question their faith when they find a statement made by a Church leader decades ago that seems incongruent with our doctrine. There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find.
C.) When all 15 top leaders believe, teach, and hold a teaching up as the mind and will of God
While Elder Anderson seems to imply such in the previous quote this too does not hold up. For example in the 1940’s the entire Church Leadership believed, taught, and testified that People of color and African descent were less valiant in the Premortal Life, taught that they had the curse of Cain, and that inter-racial Marriage was sin. They also taught across the board that these ideas were doctrines revealed from on high. You can read about such instances HERE and HERE. The trouble is the Church in recent years has disavowed these “doctrines” as false and racist theories. On LDS.ORG in their Gospel Topic Essay “Race and The Priesthood” The Church says in regards to these
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.
So as you can see even all 15 leaders can be wrong about what is doctrine. This brings into question why the Holy Ghost didn’t correct them? Why were they so certain about things being from God only to have later leaders teach that these men were wrong and heavily influenced by their prejudices, perspectives, and cultural milieu? This should give each of us pause to consider Elder Uchtdorf’s quote which applies to all of us
We too often confuse belief with truth, thinking that because something makes sense or is convenient, it must be true. Conversely, we sometimes don’t believe truth or reject it—because it would require us to change or admit that we were wrong. Often, truth is rejected because it doesn’t appear to be consistent with previous experiences.
When the opinions or “truths” of others contradict our own, instead of considering the possibility that there could be information that might be helpful and augment or complement what we know, we often jump to conclusions or make assumptions that the other person is misinformed, mentally challenged, or even intentionally trying to deceive.
D.) When something is canonized it can be trusted as God’s word.
This too falls short when one considers that the Song of Solomon is canonized and yet Joseph Smith said of it
The Song of Solomon is not an inspired writing.
Also we at one time had a section in the D&C which in the 1835 edition was section 101 and in 1844 edition was section 109 which stated
Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy: we declare that we believe, that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.
When Brigham Young went public with the Church’s practice of polygamy this section was eventually removed and it must be admitted that even while this section was in our scripture, Joseph Smith and other leaders were practicing plural marriage at the very time they were pointing to this section and claiming not to do so.
E.) When a Prophet declares he got his information straight from God himself.
This too doesn’t hold up when it is considered that Brigham Young taught the ADAM-GOD Doctrine which was that Adam the first of God’s spirits to take a body on earth was actually God the Father. Brigham not only taught this but it was accepted as truth and testified as such by all the top leaders except Orson Pratt. Not only that but Brigham claimed such teaching came by way of revelation when he said
How much unbelief exists in the minds of the Latter-day Saints in regard to one particular doctrine which I revealed to them, and which God revealed to me – namely that Adam is our father and God – I do not know, I do not inquire, I care nothing about it.
I would suggest reading all the quotes to this link and ask how certain many of the leaders and the lay members of that day were that this teaching was divine and came from God and that they knew it be revelation. This should cause us pause and help us to be willing to ask ourselves what might I believe with certainty is true today that might need adjustment.
Then contrast that with President Kimball’s disavowal of the Adam-God doctrine when he said
For instance, is the Adam-God theory. We denounce that theory and hope that everyone will be cautioned against this and other kinds of false doctrine.
And Elder McConkie’s addressing this teaching that Brigham Young was wrong and that God permits leaders to teach False Doctrine in the Church. Here are his words
Nonetheless, as Joseph Smith so pointedly taught, a prophet is not always a prophet, only when he is acting as such. Prophets are men and they make mistakes. Sometimes they err in doctrine….
Yes, President Young did teach that Adam was the father of our spirits, and all the related things that the cultists ascribe to him. This, however, is not true. He expressed views that are out of harmony with the gospel…..
I do not know all of the Providences of the Lord, but I do know that he permits false doctrine to be taught in and out of the Church and that such teaching is part of the sifting process of mortality…. I repeat: Brigham Young erred in some of his statements on the nature and kind of being that God is and as to the position of Adam in the plan of salvation….
If we choose to believe and teach the false portions of his doctrines, we are making an election that will damn us……
May I wrap up with the words of President Uchtdorf when he said
And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.
So how can one be sure they are grasping truth and discerning when a prophet is acting as such? This is the million dollar question that is full of nuance and paradoxes. In the end I believe the most effective model is the one the Lord gave when he said
I think the most accurate model is to study our beliefs out and be willing to claim authority within ourselves to wrestle and make personal decisions on our beliefs. To feel empowered hold perspectives that the majority of Saints do not hold at times when our study and inner light press on us to dissent.
For you to understand the doctrinal and historical content and context of the scriptures and our history, you will need to study from the best books. As the lord directed, the best books include the scriptures, the teachings of modern prophets and apostles, and the best LDS scholarship available.
God desires us to be truth seekers. To do that we must let go of the comfort of holding onto beliefs because someone else assures us they are true and we must feel empowered to step out beyond our comfort and truly seek out truth.