I often think that modern Mormons view the sustaining of their governing Church hierarchy as “prophets, seers and revelators,” as being exclusive to the offices. This is most readily apparent in the proclivity for us to refer to the President of the Church as “The Prophet,” when no such office in the Church exists. It was at Kirtland that Joseph, with ornate splendor, cracked the walls that separate people from prophets. And Brigham Young is perhaps the greatest fruit of his labor.
It was Joseph’s goal to instill God’s power into the people and to create a grand city of prophets. In 1835 and in dedication of their new temple to God, the priesthood rose in their various quorums and sustained the authorities of the Church. The Twelve were declared “prophets, seers and revelators.” I’m not sure that we can capture the zeitgeist of 1835, having heard that phrase repeated over and over in our lifetimes; but I believe that this was a great extension of the hand of God to His people.
And Brigham was a great beneficiary of this democratization. While he was a religious man and apparently experienced some gifts of the Spirit (notably glossolalia) he was no natural visionary or seer. After Joseph was killed and the Saints prepared for their doom in the West, Brigham made what I view as one of the most poignant confessions we have on record. Mary Rollins Lightner, heroine of the restoration, was one of Joseph’s wives, but was such, she later wrote, only as a result of her confrontation with an Angle. She remembered a bit of a conflict with Brigham in the waning days of Nauvoo and wrote that “he Said he would give anything to have seen what I had.” (1) Later near the end of his life, Susa Young Gates recorded that when asked if he had ever seen the Savior, Brigham responded that he hadn’t, and that he didn’t expect to until he died. (2)
Brigham was keenly aware of his own natural gifts and his relation to Joseph. At one point Brigham emphasized this when offering a predictive commentary to some visitors to his office: “I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet…” (3) It is uncertain if Brigham was alluding to Amos who made a similar claim:
7:14 Then answered Amos, and said to Amaziah, I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was an herdman, and a gatherer of sycomore fruit:
15 And the LORD took me as I followed the flock, and the Lord said unto me, Go, prophesy unto my people Israel.
16 Now therefore hear thou the word of the LORD…
Jean Calvin, Mormonism’s archetypal foe, analyzed these verses in a way that is perhaps helpful when looking at Brigham:
…he indeed modestly says, that he was not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet: why did he say this? To render himself contemptible? By no means though the words apparently have this tendency; but it was to gain for himself more authority; for his extraordinary call gave him greater weight than if he had been brought up from his childhood in the schools of the
Like Amos, Brigham was an unschooled farmer and laborer; however, it was not the schooled prophets over which he attained primacy, but the natural prophets. In a Sermon delivered at the Tabernacle in 1860, Brigham spoke of “the characters of Oliver Cowdry, Martin Harris, and others, [and then] noticed that men, who have been natural Seers, and had many other remarkable gifts, had fallen away, principally because they had not Sufficient humility.” (4) The previous decade, he had similarly preached (speaking of himself in the third-person):
A person was mentioned to-day who did not believe that Brigham Young was a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator. I wish to ask every member of this whole community, if they ever heard him profess to be a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, as Joseph Smith was? He professed to be an Apostle of Jesus Christ, called and sent of God to save Israel. If you know what the calling of an Apostle is, and if there were ten thousand of them on the earth at the same time, you must know that the words of an Apostle who magnifies his calling are the words of the Almighty to the people all the time… Joseph Smith was a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator before he had power to build up the kingdom of God, or take the first step towards it. When did he obtain that power? Not until the angel had ordained him to be an Apostle. (5)
John Taylor in confronting one apostate defended Brigham and further explained what it means to be a natural seer:
Brigham Young in saying that He did not profess to be a prophet seer & Revelator as Joseph Smith was, was speaking of men being born Natural Prophets & seers. Many have the gift of seeing through seer stones without the Priesthood at all. He had not this gift naturally yet He was an Apostle & the Presidet of the Church & kingdom of God on the Earth and all the Keys of the Holy Priesthood & of Revelation was sealed upon him & the spirit & power of Revelation was upon him daily. (6)
Perhaps out of a measure of discomfort or out of respect for his dead friend, Brigham consistently avoided calling himself a prophet, seer or revelator. Elsewhere he was recorded saying, ” I am not going to interpret dreams; for I don’t profess to be such a Prophet as were Joseph Smith and Daniel; but I am a Yankee guesser;” (7) and “I have never particularly desired any man to testify publicly that I am a Prophet; nevertheless, if any man feels joy, in doing this, he shall be blest in it. I have never said that I am not a Prophet; but, if I am not, one thing is certain, I have been very profitable to this people.” (8)
Michael Quinn has noted that it wasn’t a regularity to sustain Church leaders as prophets, seers and revelators during the life of Brigham Young, except for conferences in 1855 and 1857 (9). This may be somewhat underrepresented as Orson Pratt recorded the Saint Louis Stake conference as affirming Brigham’s status as a prophet, seer and revelator in 1854 and conferences in England were doing the same. (10)
Despite Brigham’s reticence to employ the tripartite title, his co-religionists viewed him as bearing it. When the First Presidency and Twelve were rebaptized in the Endowment House font, each member of the First Presidency was re-ordained and commissioned as prophets, seers and revelators. (11)
Joseph ‘s vision was to use the Church as means to endow God’s people with gifts and power. Despite his proximity to Brigham, Wilford Woodruff obviously missed some of his comments; still his commentary on the nature of prophethood is an excellent analysis of Brigham’s behavior and our own potential within the Church:
It has been remarked sometimes, by certain individuals, that President Young has said in public that he was not a prophet nor the son of a prophet. I have travelled with him since 1833 or the spring of 1834; I have travelled a good many thousand miles with him and have heard him preach a great many thousand sermons; but I have never heard him make that remark in my life. He is a prophet, I am a prophet, you are, and anybody is a prophet who has the testimony of Jesus Christ, for that is the spirit of prophecy. The Elders of Israel are prophets. A prophet is not so great as an Apostle. Christ has set, in his Church, first, Apostles; they hold the keys of the kingdom of God. Any man who has travelled with President Young knows he is a prophet of God. He has foretold a great many things that have come to pass. (12)
- Mary Elizabeth Rollins Lightner, Autobiography, in B. Carmon Hardy, ed., Doing the Works of Abraham: Mormon Polygamy: It’s Origin, Practice, and Demise (Norman, OK: Arthur H. Clark Co., 2007), 48.
- Note, 1885, Susa Young Gates Collection, Box 11, Folder 1, Subfolder 1, Utah State Archives, Salt Lake City.
- Fred C. Collier, ed., The Office Journal of Brigham Young, 1858-1863, Book D (Hanna, UT: Collier’s Publishing Co., 2006), 5.
- Ibid., 184
- Brigham Young, Sermon, April 7, 1852, JD 6:319-320.
- Wilford Woodruff Journal, 5:549-550
- Brigham Young, Sermon, July 26, 1857, JD 5:77.
- Brigham Young, Sermon, October, 7, 1864, JD 10:339.
- D. Michael Quinn, The Mormon Hierarchy: Origins of Power (Salt Lake City: Signature), 251.
- Orson Pratt, Seer, 2:230.; Report of the London Pastoral Conference, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints…on Saturday and Sunday, December 25th and 26th, 1852… (N.p.: N.pub., n.d.), 1.
- Wilford Woodruff Journal, 4:460-461
- Wilford Woodruff, Sermon, December 12, 1869, JD 13:165.