Sometimes when combing through pages of the Ensign to read recent Conference talks I have felt disappointed. Although our arguably most powerful belief as an organization is in our leaders’ abilities to receive continuing revelation, a glance at recent addresses makes it clear that our mode of receiving revelation is no longer that practiced by Joseph Smith. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but whereas Joseph Smith spoke directly through God’s voice in his numerous public outpourings of revelations, current leaders very rarely make such claims of authority.
Given the central importance of our claim to continuing revelation, some explanation is needed as to why we have shifted so much in our capacity to and our mode of receiving revelation. Again, I am not arguing that it is desirable that Joseph Smith’s revelations be models for today or that we receive more revelations, but it intellectually troubles me. While I cannot pretend to know how our current leadership understands their unique callings as revelators (though I am eager for them to explain), analysis of their public addresses suggests that they more frequently couch their remarks as merely strong advice. They also tend to rely on citations of previous authorities or scriptures, suggesting that their role is more one of interpreting and preserving past revelations for our times than of revealing new principles.
Although I am sometimes puzzled by the lack of recent revelations– our knowledge of our divine purpose and God is far, in my mind, from complete – more recently I have begun to consider from a faithful perspective why such public revelations appear to occur at best infrequently. Central to the issue, I believe, is that the geography of the Church has fundamentally changed since Joseph Smith. Whereas in the early days of the Church members could access the prophet directly and he could receive revelation that pertained to majority of a very geographically and culturally limited membership, we are now too large, diverse, and removed from the central leadership to have principles and practices revealed in one area necessarily apply in another. While geographic spread amongst the membership does not explain our lack of revelation about questions pertaining to the nature of God, many of Joseph Smith’s original revelations touched upon matters pertaining to groups of individuals rather than theological questions.
In other words, as one of many possible and non-exclusive explanations, I’m suggesting that revelation amongst our leadership has not so much ceased as transferred in many cases from the general to the local level. It is at the level of wards and the personal that modern day revelation far more frequently occurs. Our focus on the importance of personal revelation – and the belief amongst many saints that personal revelation must confirm and can even trump principles suggested by General Authorities – is not so much an act of asserting the individual over the collective church (though it certainly can be that) as much as a necessary principle when the church becomes too big to govern from the top. Along with personal revelation, revelation received by bishops and other local leaders plays an increasingly important role not only in church governance but also in the faith-building experiences of the membership. Although God might be in principle the same everywhere, the way He manifests himself and the way His principles play out in practice are ever more contingent on local environments, because speaking for the “whole” Church is increasingly harder to do.
But why, then, if I accept that revelation occurs, albeit more frequently in a local context, do I still feel frustrated by my perception that our General Authorities rarely seem to reveal any communications from God? One problem, perhaps, is that while we still doctrinally adhere to the governance structure laid out by Joseph Smith – and presumably most members believe that this leadership structure is divinely appointed (though not necessarily applicable for eternity) — in practice the roles played by members of each office might have substantially shifted over time. There is, then, a disconnection between what the average member thinks leaders do and what they actually do caused by lack of information.
Rather than leaving us to speculate about the offices and roles that a current General Authority or even local leaders fills, and then leaving us to wonder why General Authorities don’t match our expectations for better or for worse, these leaders could discuss more frankly with us how they see their roles evolving and how they understand and receive their revelations for governing the Church. We could be more transparent and open about what the role of being a revelator means in this moment and about who can fill that role. Such transparency and openness would doubtlessly help members be more supportive of the leadership and foster expectations in line with reality. Every time I have had a glimpse of how leadership and inspiration — is that the same as revelation? — operates in practice, it has deeply affirmed my faith and challenged me to reconsider how I perceive the Church leadership that I have never had much contact with.