A Prophet Is a Prophet Only

….when acting as such.

Well now that’s a fascinating tidbit of information concerning what a prophet is. (I wonder what Isaiah would have thought about it?)

Those of us familiar with this quotation from Joseph Smith are likely accustomed to seeing it deployed in defense of the view that those holding the calling of “prophet” do not always speak in an official capacity, thereby staving off criticism that everything a prophet says must be official and binding church doctrine. Further, this statement is said to illustrate that prophets are fallible human beings, “just like the rest of us.” 

The problem, of course, is that there are no explicit criteria that help us determine when a prophet is “acting like a prophet” and when a prophet is “not acting like a prophet.” When was the last time we can all agree that President Monson was not acting or speaking like a prophet? When he was at his last Utah Jazz game, politely yelling at Raja Bell to shoot another 3? What if he had been in the locker room with the players before the game and offered a prayer on their behalf, Notre Dame-style? Was he acting like a prophet then or just like a good praying man? Can the mantle be switched on and off at will? In other words, whatever we might say about this familiar quotation, whatever ways we deploy it as a defense against having to impossibly systematize our theology according to every word that comes out of a prophet’s mouth, and, finally, against the notion of prophetic infallibility, in practice we (or at least the vast majority of Mormons) automatically default to “a prophet is ALWAYS a prophet and his words are seen as non-binding or unofficial at our own peril. (If that’s not the case I couldn’t begin to decide which words I won’t listen to).” This is essentially the well-worn joke that papal infallibility is Catholic doctrine that no Catholic takes seriously and prophetic fallibility is Mormon doctrine that no Mormon takes seriously.

It is essentially impossible to suggest such distinguishing criteria because such criteria simply do not exist [1]. No prophet of which I am aware has offered the necessary clues. And virtually everything written on the subject is essentially a gloss on the above statement from Joseph Smith, itself not an official statement or scriptural in nature. Further, all of these glosses apportion the men who are called as prophets in somewhat artificial, non-human divisions: when a prophet makes an official statement undersigned by all the apostles or speaks by the Holy Ghost in an official capacity–in other words, when he is behaving in a non-human manner–he is a prophet. When he is acting like a human being (laughing, playing with his kids, relaxing, taking in a basketball game) he’s not a prophet. Such distinctions invite unnecessary and trifling efforts that essentially equate to absurdly trying to figure out what taxonomic genus of human President Monson can ultimately be classified as.

I’ll suggest here that a slight shift of emphasis in Joseph Smith’s statement might make more sense of what a Mormon prophet could be (Isaiah, I think, might be more than a little puzzled by our latter-day prophets; just the lack of prophetesses alone might be a dealbreaker). Instead of playing an impossible and nonsensical game of trying to figure out when prophets are not prophets, or of being disingenuous by claiming that prophets are flawed and human but treating them as semi-deities in public and private discourse, we instead should insist that if a prophet is in fact a prophet he is always a prophet. Well, yeah. Isn’t that what we basically already think? However, this almost trivially obvious proposition in fact suggests that we broaden our notion of what the word “prophet” could mean. Thus, a prophet is a prophet only when acting as such, but what being a Mormon prophet means (or could mean) is that part of what it means to be human is to prophesy. Mormon theology and cosmology somewhat famously, in fact, refuses to make distinctions that ontologically divide and subdivide. Heaven is not ontologically or qualitatively different from mortality. It is a continuum of eternal presences, the collapsing of the sacred into the mundane and vice versa.  The very earth on which we stand abides the law of heaven, of a celestial kingdom (D$C 88:25). A prophet, then, is not one who is simply charismatically overtaken by the Spirit and, helpless under the hypnotic will of God, makes pronouncements and declarations. A prophet is (or could be), in modern times, an ordinary person who testifies and prophesies like other “ordinary” (“ordinary” meaning no special or distinctive features, not that the average person prophesies or testifies like Mormons) people, one of whom it can be said, as it can be said of others, “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Rev 19:10). Mormonism, then, could be seen to take seriously Moses’ desire that that “all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them” (Numbers 11:29). The meaning of the word “prophet,” then, for Mormons, could mean that being a prophet means to be fully human in some way. To play with one’s children, revere a spouse, teach one’s children the gospel, be the best mother or father one can be, serve one’s neighbor, feed the poor, lift up the hands that hang down (as well as testify of Christ as a witness, perform saving ordinances, etc) all become the things that prophets do, not simply the mundane everyday activities of “ordinary”  people, in comparison with which there is a Prophet who makes official doctrinal statements. This doesn’t preclude the importance for Mormons of there being a “head” Prophet, one who is called to lead the Church and still make official statements and speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost and officially administer the Church with other Head Prophets. But no longer would a prophet need to be subdivided and classified. No longer would his Jazz game attendance be seen as a “non-prophetic” activity, engaged in only when he takes off his mantle and places it on the mantle-rack for the evening before he goes out with his wife for dinner. Instead, being a prophet could mean to value certain very human ideals and to point, as authentically as possible, to what it means to be human for a particular people.

One of the tasks of Mormon theology, as I see it, is to re-interpret and broaden certain concepts and ideals that have come down as traditionally Christian. Mormonism is, in crucial ways, a critique of a given culture and also one of the means to reinterpret (and thereby redeem) that culture for the modern world. It doesn’t always do this, and has often not been very good at it. But the resources and the mandate to do so, in my opinion, are there. Re-defining what a prophet could be in the modern world is one of these hermeneutic tasks. Interestingly, in that light, Joseph’s Smith’s original famous quotation includes a key epilogue, just one sentence later and in the same journal entry that is almost never quoted: “At four in the afternoon, I went out with my little Frederick, to exercise myself by sliding on the ice.” (History of the Church 5: 265).

Prophetic words, indeed.

[1]  Certain authoritative voices like John Widtsoe (Evidences and Reconciliations) and J. Reuben Clark (“When Are Church Leaders’ Words Entitled to Claim of Scripture?” Church News, July 31, 1954) are among those church leaders who have offered their own criteria for distinguishing prophetically binding discourse, but of course their words are nevertheless offered as opinion and personal judgment only, as the contexts of their limited audiences and self-referential caveats make clear.


  1. I thought this is what we invented the correlation department for…

  2. Because its how I roll, the JS diary actually reads: “Visited with brethren & Sisters from Michigan ‘A Prophet is not always a Prophet’ only when his is acting as such.” I haven’t looked at this in depth and don’t know if he is talking about himself qua “The Prophet” or just people with the gift of prophecy generally. As there isn’t really any official position of “Prophet” in the church I generally like to frame things in terms of “the Church President” which is I think more easily reconciles this tension, which you outline.

  3. President Packer reminded us in this month’s worldwide training session that every man can speak in the name of the Lord (D&C 1).

    But when is a prophet a prophet? When the Holy Ghost works bears witness — if the Holy Ghost prompts a speaker to say something, and also prompts me to hear something, then there is revelation or prophecy to me.

  4. …I should add, that I really like the popularization of prophecy that you outline and think it works very well.

  5. J, I’m not sure how the diary entry is sufficiently different to change the meaning of the passage. In any case, of course it’s true that there is no position of “Prophet;” nevertheless Mormons know what is meant when we say “the Prophet” and commentary on this passage has, for the most part, referred to the Church President. It’s a good distinction for one to make personally but I was just trying to address how we speak about “the Prophet” and prophets generally.

  6. It really needn’t matter if a Prophet is ‘acting’ as a Prophet or not. The only thing we need to discern is if they are speaking truth or not or if they are acting righteously or not. We are not just to assume everything even Prophets say or do is automatically correct. Prophets have been wrong before & have taught falsehood many times & have contradicted each other time after time. Thus we have been taught that we are to discern truth from falsehoods & right from wrong & even ‘true’ Prophets from ‘false’ prophets, by if what they say & do is in harmony with what the scriptures teach or not.

    Not even Prophets can teach contrary doctrines from the scriptures or we will know they are teaching falsehoods. That is how we know. So we need to know our scriptures to be able to tell if a Prophet is teaching correct doctrine or not.

    Joseph Smith said to not accept anyone, even a Prophet, if he teaches anything contrary to what the scriptures teach.
    He knew that even he could not teach something different from what the scriptures say. They are the standard, especially the Book of Mormon, the most correct book.

    Prophets aren’t perfect & they can & have taught falsehoods throughout church history. God gives Prophets the agency to be deceived & to make mistakes & to error in judgment & even fall from grace & lead people astray.

    So it is up to us to be able to receive personal revelation & to prove all things that anyone, even Prophets teach, to see if it’s true or not by judging it against the scriptures. We can’t just rely only on our personal revelation or feelings that we think come from the Spirit, for it’s far too common to think something is coming from the Spirit when it’s actually more often coming from our own head or feelings or even from the Adversary. So the scriptures give us a concrete standard by which to judge anyone, even Prophets by or even to judge & prove our own personal revelation is right or not.

    We are warned over & over in the scriptures that today there will be many false prophets around us (which we are taught most people will fall for, even maybe many of the most righteous among us, because the false prophets will seem so wonderful & righteous) & thus we must be able to detect any false prophets, even in the Church. For Church history proves that there have been many false prophets in the church in the past & thus we must expect it’s possible that there are many in the present.

    The vital question for us all is, Can we detect them?

    Christ also gave us another clue for how to tell a true Prophet or disciple of his, by if they preach, practice & possess pure Christlike love. “By love shall all men know that ye are my disciples.” But ‘it takes one to know one’, so in order to tell if someone has such Charity & Christlike love, we ourselves must possess it also or we will be easily deceived by false prophets or false doctrine.

    True Prophets & true doctrine will never contradict previous scriptures or other true Prophets & other truth. All truth is harmonious with itself. All true Prophets will teach the very same doctrines, in every age or time, doctrine will never change, it always applies for all people throughout history. If Prophets ever contradict each other we can know that at least one of them is teaching falsehoods.

  7. The dilemma (at least for me) seems to be that whatever approach we take to that topic there will be problems.
    If we say the President of the Church is the Prophet and compare him to Isaiah etc., we should expect the same kind of works, which -frankly- I just don’t see, so in order to maintain that position one would have to redefine revelation/prophecy/etc. to such commonplace events that they lose their special meaning.
    If on the other hand we say that we go with the ‘everyone’s a prophet’-line, we again have no grounds on which to grant a special authority to the ‘Prophet’; we would have to regard him as a… well.. ‘mere’ President/Leader/Manager.
    Ok, sorry, if that went too much off topic; now that I think about maybe that’s only the dilemma I’m wrestling with: the perceived difference between our rhetoric and reality

  8. I love and agree completely with your use of human throughout, at least as far as I understand it.

    It seems to me that the anxiety that makes the question pressing lies in something like this other question: when am I to believe what “the Prophet” (meaning the 15 Apostles) say, in place of what I believe? I think the answer to this is – never. Belief and knowledge are an individual matter. I believe and know (wherever I situate that word) what I believe and know. The first trick to prophecy lies in desiring a thing that is both new and true. (Not so easy.) The second trick is to desire what is both those things, and is also just over the horizon. Discovering what is over the horizon entails attention, open ears, and keeping covenants. That attention ought to spread everywhere. The Apostles are in this same exact boat, only with responsibilities over administering to the whole. But everyone s/b the prophet of their own life – and this is where we fall down in our responsibilities.

  9. I don’t disagree with you Jacob. I was probably being needlessly fussy.

  10. Not needlessly fussy, J; I have a firm conviction that everyone who continues to quote from the HC should be hung by their toes.

  11. For me it’s a matter of stewardship…when the prophet, president of the church, is speaking to fulfill his stewardship as prophet…with the spirit…those words are from God.

    What he says to his family at family home evening…that may be from God, but it isn’t FOR the world, it’s for his family. What he says in casual conversation…not for the world.

    In my own mind if Isaiah and President Monson were driving somewhere and supposing President Monson lost his temper or mumbled about something driving related…I imagine Isaiah might have responded..you should try donkeys, in a classic in my day in the snow uphill both ways manner. or he may have whipped out his scroll and stylus and writtena nice note that President Monson should consider what he is saying and how it affects the men(and women) around him.

    Perhaps it’s why prophets are not valued in their own country. Some people think even their incidental contacts and recreation should be prophetic.

  12. Ben, here’s a suggestion for a project for you. Perhaps if it’s too big you can get J. to assist since the two of you are the most animated against quotes found in the HC or TotPJ.

    It would be useful if, as you say, the quotes in these two sources are inherently unreliable, you could go through an electronic version of both and next to each quotation, place a URL to source you see as more reliable containing the quote. It would be a useful resource and only when something like that exists will it be reasonable to take people to task for quoting from the HC or TotPJ. (Jacob might have no excuse but a typical Mormon does not necessarily have the ability to cite to reliable sources if HC and TotPJ are deemed unreliable. It’s just a matter of awareness and access.)

  13. I think we also hold up some really big standards when we assume that previous Prophets like Isaiah were completely pious all the time. We consider Lehi and Nephi prophets, and we have record of Lehi needing to be reminded by his son of what he should be doing and Nephi killing someone. How do we know, for example, that Isaiah didn’t like to dance, or often spoke about things that were only his opinion?

    If all of our experience with Prophets are 2000+ years old, how do we know that our own interpretation of “what a Prophet should be” is correct? How do we know Isaiah wouldn’t take a look at the current Church, shrug his shoulders, and find a good place in a pew to listen?

  14. Perhaps a few ways to distinguish between speaking as a prophet and not is (1) whether the person actually claims to be doing such. For Joseph Smith, this line seemed to be at least clear at times. By casting his impressions into the first person voice of God, Joseph claimed to be acting as a prophet (regardless of whether or not he was *actually* doing so).
    (2), there is a certain boldness/baldness, audacity, and–dare I say–b@lls (I realize that this is loaded with masculinity, so forgive me) to claim to be speaking for God, as it almost always stands against popularity and acceptability–especially among followers. So even if (1) is lacking, then, for me at least, a prophetic voice is one that speaks with that boldness, audacity, and cajones. It is often met with skepticism and derision from those who expect the *prophet* to maintain their status quo as elect, privileged, and most righteous. A prophet has no place to call home, and thus a Mormon prophet would find the least acceptance from his/her fellow Mormons and Christians. By (2), if a person says something that is comfortable and agreeable to most of his followers, then it is hardly prophetic.
    (3) Tied to (2), a prophetic voice in the scriptures almost universally speaks on behalf of the oppressed.

  15. To me the great strength of Mormonism is that it really places the responsibility on each and every individual to find out what is from God or not and to find out when a prophet is acting as such. As others mentioned I tend to see this as a claim about prophecy in general – something of significance to every member. You have the right to find out if your Patriarchal Blessing was screwed up or if your home teacher was inspired when giving you a blessing. (And arguably those two are of more personal effect than most vague things in scriptures)

    I love that Mormonism adopts this thoroughgoing fallibilism in our theology. It’s the greatest strength of the Church (IMO). The grave danger and risk is it provides an easy way to discount uncomfortable truths prophesied by a prophet. There’s always a strong element of risk which is why we have to find out.

  16. Clark, by “Mormonism” are you referring to “The Church” or this greater nebulous thing/culture/religion/worldview that The Church is just a member of? I ask this because it is my experience that we are not asked to seek personal revelation about *whether* or *when* a leader is acting as a prophet, but rather we are asked to use personal revelation to learn *that* the prophet is, in fact, acting as a prophet.

  17. This could all be resolved by bringing “Thus saith the Lord” back. If there is a lack of confidence to use this terminology, then perhaps that is also a substantive statement.

  18. john f, except that when what that phrase really in use? It’s primarily in the later prophets of the OT and about 1/3 of the sections of the Doctrine & Covenants, but its use is certainly not universal.

  19. Narrator, that seems like a difference without a difference to be honest. But in any case I think it’s logically entailed by the fact so many past statements by prophets have been trumped. (Think Adam/God) I don’t think it’s that controversial. I think the reason it’s phrases “that” is because the Church is so conservative now (with a small c) that it’s pretty rare you get major statements. So the thrust is more on basic ethical things like pay child support, don’t view pornography, pay your tithing, etc. for which it’s pretty hard to see as wrong.

    Maybe others will disagree with me, but I find the idea that we have the right to know that the prophet is acting as such by the spirit to be fairly uncontroversial.

  20. Clarke, I see it in both ways. I think for most of us here we accept the responsibility to search, ponder, and pray about whether or not something The Brethren (TM) say is prophetic, with the very real possibility of it not being from God. However, I would argue that the general membership, instructed by the General Authorities, take a position that prayer will always result in us coming to know that The Brethren were speaking as prophets. For them it’s not a matter of *if* it’s a matter of *that*. (I was told countless times by stake presidents, bishops, members, and others that this was the case–especially with Prop 8, or more recently with my bishop with the question of whether or not they were acting as prophets at virtually all times).

  21. You can tell by their fruits and today they don’t have much to say.

  22. J, not needlessly fussy, necessarily. I just don’t see the substantive difference between how the quote appears in the JS diary and how HC renders it.

    Speaking of which, Ben P, see my responses to J. Not being a historian, I’m probably just familiar enough (though ex tempore) with recent Mormon historical studies to know the main reasons not to quote HC in general. But in this particular case it matters that distinctions be made which lead to significant differences, and here there doesn’t seem to be a distinction with a difference.

    Frank, I don’t think anyone (including prophets) have ever been pious all the time. My point concerning Isaiah is that how Hebrew Bible prophets enacted their prophethood looks quite a bit different from modern day prophets, largely, at minimum, because of disparate cultures, languages, world conditions, etc. I agree with you that Isaiah shouldn’t have a problem sitting in the pew; whether he actually would is anyone’s guess.

    Narrator, you know I am eager to agree with you. However, part of my point in the post was that because of its position in modern culture and the particular historical and theological resources it has at its disposal, Mormonism can and should re-define what “prophet” can mean contemporarily. This may line up well with the prophethood of the Jews in the Bible (one would hope it would on a number of fronts) or it may not. Mormonism could theoretically undermine completely what it means to be a prophet in the modern world, in unanticipated ways that are not merely restorative of past epochs (but restorative of concepts and ideals generally). Of course one response is, “It already does, and badly” but I’m speaking in terms of a critically self-aware re-interpretation that understands itself to consciously be a critique or revision of modern culture. (Everything I wrote was wistfully contemplating a speculative future anyway, and one that is unlikely to ever be adopted).

    Also, both you and Clark confirm two of my points. 1) that it is indeed “Mormon” that each individual is, in some sense (or is meant to be) prophetic, and therefore the prophetic should be seen as universalizable; and 2) that as a matter of practical function Prophets and Apostles are for all intents and purposes always Prophets and Apostles. In theory, because of the egalitarian place of revelation and prophecy in church membership we can “know the truth” of what the Brethren preach and teach, but such knowledge amounts to just that, that it is true. There is no place given for someone to safely say, “I prayed about whether what the Prophet recently said in GC is true and was told that it wasn’t.”

  23. #19 If that is true about prop 8, why did the 1st presidency state that up front? Most local leaders took that as the prophet speaking as a prophet. A year later E. Holland came through our stake. He made the statement that we should regard the prop 8 drive as council from watcher on a tower seeing danger in the distance. This sounds like prophecy to me.

    As it is, the prop 8 thing has left a legacy because we are uncertain as to what is prophecy or not and who should be excluded for disloyalty.

  24. Sorry, misread. They said they were speaking as prophets. We, the disloyal, are SOL, as they say.

  25. True Prophets & true doctrine will never contradict previous scriptures or other true Prophets & other truth.

    Yet there the canon sits, completely contradicting this assertion multiple times over. :/

  26. Narrator (20) there are no doubt many people who treat the brethren with a de facto inerrancy. I’m pretty skeptical it’s the majority of people and I’m really skeptical it’s the majority of leaders since I’ve just heard too many (esp. GAs) say the opposite. That said in this case maybe they did have a revelation on this particular policy that told them Pres. Monson was inspired. I think from a pedagogical stance it’s better to present it the other way. However as I said there’s always that problem that we as people are awfully self-justifying. It’s much easier to assume your strongly held beliefs are correct.

    (For the record I’ve never prayed about Prop-8 and make no claims to its inspiration. Something can appear pointless yet be something the Lord wants done. So how effective and how damaging the Prop-8 fight was seems to have little or no connection to how correct it was to engage in)

  27. Well, we have actual examples of when prophets were not speaking as prophets. Brigham Young’s musings on Adam as God, for one. Joseph Field Smith’s insistence that man would never stand on the moon for another. The first had far greater consequences than the latter, to be sure, but it illustrates that not everything coming from a prophet’s mouth is in fact prophetic or even true. In my experience, I believe it is up to the individual to receive confirming, personal revelation that what the prophet says is true and in fact the mind and will of the Lord. In most cases, the presumption is the prophet is completely in sync with the will of the Lord. However, we need to do our part, which in my mind is part of sustaining our leaders, by actively seeking the Spirit and asking that they be led by the Spirit in all that they do.

  28. Clark your 26 parenthetical point is a good one. Perhaps God wanted Prop. 8 to pass so that it could be struck down maybe even eventually by the Supreme Court!

  29. Clark,

    Sorry but elder oaks recently made clear in conference that members can only receive revelation subordinate to church leaders and if it disagrees with them implied it’s from Satan. So yes they are held out as always being prophetic and if any of disagree it must be Satan influencing us.

  30. Rfb, why should we assume BY wasn’t prophetic as to Adam. He stated he was.

  31. So let me tell you my experience with propositions and revelation:

    Previously we had had prop 22 to keep California from recognizing same sex marriages performed outside of California. I was opposed to that measure also. There was a huge effort to get out the vote by the Church. I felt very strongly about this. I think I am a spiritual person and carried on a relatively one-sided conversation with God about this. My wife was not on the same page. One Sunday I found her telephoning for Prop 22 and felt profoundly disturbed. When I say profound, I mean revolted to the core. (Where did that come from?)

    We voted early because we were traveling. We went down to the courthouse to cast an early ballot. With my ballot in hand, marked against prop 22, a clear voice said something to the effect, “You do not have to vote against prop. 22.” I was astonished because I do not normally hear voices like this. I recognized immediately that this was the most intimate form of revelation and a warning. I realized that there might be negative consequences to voting. I became indignant. I said, in my mind, something like, “You know it is wrong. I am not going to compromise my morality because you say it is OK.” I got a shrug back. With that I cast my no vote. (When God makes a suggestion, I suggest you follow! But I took it as a test… ugh.)

    I was an assistant in the HP group. The teacher and the leader were absent the next Sunday. So I said I would do the lesson, and opened the manual to the lesson, “Following the Brethren.” I knew then I had been had. I had a stark choice, just teach the lesson and be a hypocrite, or come clean. Being crazy I did the latter. There were stares of pure hatred coming form the group, the worst coming from our present bishop.

    I tried to justify my vote as an argument with God, who made gays and lesbians, and, who was I to deny them the rights and happiness that life can bring as a loving couple. This argument was too subtle. I do not think I brought up my experience in front of the ballot box because it was too personal and too sacred to be shredded in front of an unfriendly group. A friend saved me when I told the group that I was in a mine field and did not want to blow up. He spoke up and said that it was probably OK for me, knowing who I was.

    It took several years to be rehabilitated in Church circles. With prop 8 the rehabilitation was demolished.

    I count my conversation in front of the ballot box as revelation. The voice (I have heard the voice several times since and know the divine source) could have said, “Stop, you are committing a sin!” or any number of things. For me it was a friendly warn-off that I was wading into deep water which I would find uncomfortable. I count this as a divine confirmation, with a warning, of my position. It made the subsequent shunning a little easier to take because I had been warned. I cannot come back at God and blame him for my difficulties. The voice, however, has raised many questions in my mind about discordant revelations. At the present time I have resigned myself that it is not my church, it is theirs, and they can do with it as they please, drive it over a cliff if they wish. I am honored, however, that God would have this little conversation with me in front of the ballot box.

  32. I do not regret my vote on either proposition.

  33. RW,
    A close gay friend was inactive but still tied to the church through emotion and some level of belief. When we were asked to campaign for Prop. 8 I prayed for guidance because I didn’t want to distance this person and I was prompted to step back from active campaigning. The Spirit customizes our individual mentoring and contrary to brother Oaks suggestion we are not always prompted in precise alignment with the brethren.

  34. While a subordinate, I like to think of the boss as always the boss, regardless of circumstances, surroundings, or topic.

    On a different note, I like what John E. Clark said and expand it: I give different weight to different statements from the same person.

  35. Josh,

    Thinking the boss is always the boss works most of the time except when the boss tells you to do something immoral like shooting Jews.

  36. it's a series of tubes says:

    At the present time I have resigned myself that it is not my church, it is theirs

    Are you planning on it being your church at some point in the future? :)

  37. IASOT, (is everything connected?)

    This is a statement of ownership. As my wife says, the Priesthood power is real. I have also learned to listen to God here. I know what revelation means because of this Church. I have been blessed with the association of wonderful friends and the association with two of the best women in the world, forever.

    I am on the bus. They, the bosses, own the bus, I do not. I am riding on their bus. I am not steering. They also get to choose the riders. Riding on this bus is certainly a mixed blessing with huge positives.

    Along with the lack of ownership comes a certain distance. If I were a Giants fan, they would be “my team.” With fan-hood comes a certain non-critical, emotional, ownership. I am not much of a fan of anything.

    So, in my office is a really good man who is a part time teacher/preacher in the Lutheran (Evangelical) Church. I am telling him about our gospel and its power. It is not a missionary discussion. I ask his opinion. The rest, as they say, is in God’s hands. (His opinion about gays is “biblical.” It agrees with the Mormon Church.) I have born heartfelt testimony to the atonement as only Mormons can.

  38. Elder Oaks in last November’s conference gave a great talk outlining the need for both PERSONAL and PRIESTHOOD lines of revelation/communication in our lives. It’s supposed to be a bit challenging – the Lord expects us to be both obedient and wise in our obedience.

    The best explanation I’ve ever found was by Elder Holland in the 2008 World Wide Leadership Training. He said:

    “We who are General Authorities and general officers are called to teach His general rules. You and we then lead specific lives and must seek the Lord’s guidance regarding specific circumstances. But there would be mass confusion and loss of gospel promises if no general ideal and no doctrinal standard were established and, in our case today, repeated. We take great strength in knowing the Lord has spoken on these matters, and we accept His counsel even when it might not be popular.”

    So our job is to find the pattern in our life. We all need certain common things – baptism, the sacrament, temple ordinances, etc – but then our STRAIGHT (meaning closely confined) and narrow paths can vary greatly from one person to another.

    I kind of think of it kind of like slalom skiing: In order to win, the skier has to make all the gates – but the path he takes to get to those gates is individually up to him. Now obviously there is only so much leeway – if you are miles away from a necessary gate, you won’t make it. So the challenge is to learn to make your own way from gate to gate without allowing yourself to get lost along the way.

  39. RW, didn’t mean that as a statement for people to just suck up their disagreements. Just as a note that even if we saw the prophet in this new light, he nevertheless will have some teeth that we won’t. And that that will still make for interesting dynamics even if we try to see the prophet a little differently.

  40. Ron Madson says:

    #38, Elder Oaks said the following:
    “Unfortunately, it is common for persons who are violating God’s commandments or disobedient to the counsel of their priesthood leaders to declare that God has revealed to them that they are excused from obeying some commandment or from following some counsel. Such persons may be receiving revelation or inspiration, but it is not from the source they suppose. The devil is the father of lies, and he is ever anxious to frustrate the work of God by his clever imitations.” This is a quote from Elder Oaks Conference Address on “two lines of personal revelation.”

    I found Elder Oaks’ statement that if we receive personal revelation or inspiration that causes us to no “follow some counsel” of our priesthood line/leaders then it is “not from the source they suppose” followed by the “devil is the father of lies” to not only be condescending but simply not unequivocally true as he implies. This paragraph taken as a whole also suggests that if one deviates from priesthood counsel then one is violating God’s commandments. Need I give obvious examples of why this statement is simply not true at all times and circumstances?

  41. What Ron Madson said.

  42. Elder Oak’s opinion about ‘personal revelation not being from the right source if it contradicts a church leaders counsel or revelation’, seems based upon the belief that it’s impossible for there to ever be false prophets in the Church leadership or even that local leaders can’t ever be wrong. Which we know is not true. The scriptures & church history is full of prophets & local leaders being wrong & teaching false doctrine.

    Ancient prophets who saw our day have warned us over & over about watching out for false prophets in the church in these last days. We must use our personal revelation & our discernment, to judge & compare all leader’s teachings & revelation & actions by what the scriptures say, to make sure they aren’t teaching or acting contrary to the holy scriptures or we will know they are wrong.

    Why would Elder Oaks want us to believe that local leaders or even apostles & prophets can’t fall or lead us astray? Especially when so many in the past & present have & do? Why would Elder Oaks think we can’t be deceived by false prophets in the Church, just as early saints were deceived many times by false & fallen prophets in Joseph Smith’s day? Surely he knows Church history. So why would he say this? Why would he teach that church leaders can never be wrong?

  43. I don’t believe that he is saying that church leaders can never be wrong. His quote says that members who are choosing to break commandments leave themselves open to be deceived into thinking that correct counsel from the Lord is not inspired. I think that he is reminding us that we have to be careful – with ourselves and our personal conduct foremost – so that we will not be deceived by ANYONE in or out of the church who is teaching things contrary to Heavenly Father’s will.

    We do have the obligation to recognize correct counsel when we receive it – or at least to be worthy of the spirit’s confirmation that correct counsel IS correct as we sort through our doubts and seek the Lord’s truth.

  44. mks,

    When Elder Oaks teaches that if our revelation differs from a church leader’s revelation or counsel, then that means ‘ours’ is wrong, then that is the same as teaching that leaders can never be wrong & that we should never disagree with their counsel & revelation.

    He never mentioned the rampant possibility that leader’s can & have often been wrong, so that gives the impression that he unbelievably thinks & teaches that leaders can’t ever be wrong.

  45. But that isn’t what he said. He was talking about a specific circumstance where the leader is counseling correctly and in righteousness. The one who is opposed to the leader’s counsel isn’t living his life in harmony with the Lord’s commandments and is looking for an excuse not to have to follow the leader’s direction. All Elder Oaks is saying is that THAT person has opened up him or herself to receive false revelation that the commandment or counsel given doesn’t apply to them.

    There are definitely times when leader’s make mistakes, and we very much need to know for ourselves how to receive revelation for our own circumstances. It’s just imperative that we live our lives in harmony with Christ’s gospel so that we can be sure that our revelation is coming from the right source.

  46. Jacob,

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post. I’m coming late and planning to follow a tangent–two strikes–but I wished to make a few comments in defense of J. and Ben, neither of whom asked for nor need defending. This particular JS quote that you use to introduce your post provides a rather perfect example of the dysfunctional relationship between the History of the Church and its urtexts.

    The first trap that readers of the HC run into is the erroneous belief that JS was the immediate author of the history–that these entries are in any way “journal” entries. The presentation practice of the HC’s compilers to transform accounts by JS’s colleagues to his first person makes it natural for readers to read insights into the prophet’s personality that the underlying documents may not support. The “key epilogue” about JS sledding with his son that you identified as coming “just one sentence later and in the same journal entry” is related to JS’s earlier message to the Michigan visitors only by your own identification of the proximal relationship in the HC between the two sentences. In the original, the events, observed and recorded by JS’s journal-keeper Willard Richards, and not by the prophet himself, are more clearly differentiated. Rather than being separated by one sentence, there is a report of a conversation about Nauvoo’s chartered rights, which the IL legislature was considering revoking. There is a recounting of a joke by William Smith. There is a separate discussion of John C. Bennett’s expulsion from the church. Then follows the account of JS’s afternoon sledding activity. Of course, none of this invalidates your juxtaposition of JS’s concern for his family and his statement of fallibility.

    J. raised the question of whether JS was talking about himself or about the gift of prophecy generally. I agree with your introductory paragraph claim that this “statement is said to illustrate that prophets are fallible human beings, ‘just like the rest of us.'” This appears to be the way JS used the statement himself. The quotation marks that J.’s transcription includes–which you dismissed as not substantively different than the version you quoted–actually could have been used to strengthen your discussion of JS’s views of the fallibility of prophets. They indicate that Richards considered this one of JS’s familiar phrases. And indeed, this does seem to have been part of a canned speech that JS gave to newcomers to Nauvoo. Compare his comments to a group of saints that arrived from New York on the morning of 29 October 1842: “He said he was but a man and they must not expect him to be perfect; if they expected perfection from him, he should expect it from them, but if they would bear with his infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, he would likewise bear with their infirmities.”(JS journal entry, 29 October 1842, recorded by William Clayton). This was not a once-off quote from JS–similar messages from him are recorded elsewhere, including a sermon on 21 May 1843, and in a letter from Clayton to the saints in England, 10 Dec. 1840. You said that this quote from JS is “not an official statement or scriptural in nature,” but I am left wondering how it might have been more official. He reiterated the sentiment from the stand at general conferences, he seems to have included it as a regular feature of his welcoming statements to new members of the church–he gave it frequently enough that his clerk put it in quotes. It seems to have been of primal significance to him (which of course, only bolsters your argument).

    Unfortunately, the HC presentation of this quote artificially limits the significance of the message through fabricated contextualization. Compare the HC version, written years after the fact, with the original that J. quoted: “This morning, I read German, and visited with a brother and sister from Michigan, who thought that “a prophet is always a prophet.” The “breth[r]en & Sisters” are reduced to a “brother and sister,” and your famous quote from JS becomes nothing more than a reply, a response, a rebuttal to two confused siblings who have somehow come to believe that a prophet is always a prophet. Gone is the context of out of state visitors migrating to Nauvoo. Missing is the context that JS regularly gave this same speech. Joseph’s strong statement that a prophet is not always a prophet is recast in positive language as a fictitious fallacy. Are the actual context and quote significantly different? Perhaps not enough to alter your usage of the quote to write an insightful essay, but I would argue that much is lost in the HC account.

    John F. raised the question of accessibility of the HC urtexts. Well, in the case of this particular quote Scott Faulring’s American Prophet’s Record and the most recent Joseph Smith Papers volume (Journals 2, which J. recently reviewed)–both of which are reasonably available–have JS’s original journal entry for this day.

    My sincere apologies if my length or content of my comments detract from your thoughts, which I found insightful and compelling. I believe that the context of the JS quote you used makes it an even more relevant contrast with your description of how LDS prophets are viewed by members of the church today.

  47. Wow. Thanks Alex. That’s a bit of fascinating historical context. And it does, in fact, bolster what I was trying to say.

  48. I heart Alex S’s tangential responses; nowhere else is so much fascinating stuff packed into blog comments.