Samuel the Lamanite and Who We Call a Prophet #BOM2016

We and the prophet have no language in common. To us the moral state of society, for all its stains and spots, seems fair and trim; to the prophet it is dreadful. So many deeds of charity are done, so much decency radiates day and night; yet to the prophet satiety of the conscience is prudery and flight from responsibility. Our standards are modest; our sense of injustice tolerable, timid; our moral indignation impermanent; yet human violence is interminable, unbearable, permanent…. The prophet’s ear perceives the silent sigh.—Abraham Heschel, The Prophets

I was well into my 30s before I realized that Latter-day Saints use the word “prophet” in places that most religious people don’t. For us, it is a specific office within a well-organized hierarchy. We rightly apply the term to the President of the Church and to the other fourteen members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. Someone is a “prophet” by virtue of their standing within an institution.

samuel-copyThere are people like this in the scriptures, and the Book of Mormon is full of them, prophets all: Nephi, Jacob, Mosiah, Alma, Other Alma, Heleman, and Other Nephi, to name just a few. These are all, in effect, presidents of stuff. Heads of the Church (and in some cases the state), and keepers of the plates, these fellows teach, preach, expound, and exhort with an authority that the Book of Mormon and modern revelation both label “prophetic.”

But there is another kind of prophecy at play in the Book of Mormon—one that comes much closer to the more traditional Jewish and Christian understanding of the term. Abraham Heschel’s 1962 classic The Prophets is a good place to get a basic understanding of this kind of prophecy, which almost never comes from people with positions of institutional power. Rather, it comes TO people of institutional power from people on the margins of society. And it uses a very different kind of language to speak in the Name of the Lord.,

Only two figures in the Book of Mormon fit this model of prophecy: Abinidai and Samuel the Lamanite, who frame the more-or-less contiguous narrative that constitutes the bulk of the Nephite story.(1) Of the two, Samuel is the more prophet-y. In fact, he is the best example that we have in the Book of Mormon of a “prophet” as the term is understood by biblical scholars. There are three areas where I think that this is significant.

Samuel is an alien
Foreignness is part of his very name, “Samuel the Lamanite,” and it is the first thing we learn about him when he is introduced in the Book of Mormon (Hel. 13:2). This is important because both literal and figural alienation are important to the standard definition of a prophet. Prophets frequently come from somewhere else (and very often they seem to come from nowhere at all), and, as Heschel argues, “the prophet is a lonely man. He alienates the wicked as well as the pious, the cynics as well as the believers, the priests and the princes, the judges and the false prophets.”

Prophets are cast out, as Samuel is cast out when he begins to preach, because they alienate everybody and nobody wants them around. The standard works give us no better symbol for the marginality and irreducible otherness of prophetic discourse than Samuel the Laminate, the despised Lamanite prophet, standing on the city wall and preaching repentance to those who have cast him out of their midst.

He forcefully criticizes the social structure of his society
The prophets of the Old Testament got angry about many things, but nothing roused their ire (and, if they are to be believed, the Lord’s) more than social injustices. Social structures that elevated the rich and abased the poor were (and are) fundamentally opposed to the justice of God, and they make it impossible to build the Kingdom of God, which requires a completely different view of material wealth. Thus, when. Samuel says things like this in Hel. 13:21, he is tapping into a very rich vein of prophetic material:

Behold ye, the people of this great city, and hearken unto my words; yea, hearken unto the words which the Lord saith; for behold, he saith that ye are a cursed because of your riches, and also are your riches cursed because ye have set your hearts upon them, and have not  hearkened unto the words of him who gave them unto you.

We should also note here that Samuel’s entire concern appears to be with the deep structures of society. He does not predict the immediate demise of the people because of their wickedness. The destruction that he sees is 400 years in the future (13: 5, 9), after the coming of Christ and a long period of righteousness. As a prophet, he sees this, but he also sees a cancer embedded deep in the social structure that will result in the destruction of the entire people.

He has no authority beyond his vision and his voice
For me, the strangest thing about Samuel is the role that the official Church plays in the story, which is to say that the official Church plays no role at all. This is not because it is absent from the world. Nephi, the official prophet and custodian of the plates, is extremely active at the time of Samuel, having just been given the sealing power and started (and stopped) a famine in the land. And yet, there appears to be no coordination between Nephi and Samuel. Neither one mentions the other, or suggests that people seek out the other, or hosts the other for a fireside or live Christmas broadcast. As did nearly all of the prophets of the Old Testament, Samuel works directly under the Lord and entirely outside of the existing ecclesiastical structures.

Even in his capacity of record keeper, Nephi fails to take Samuel’s prophecies seriously. This, at least, is the judgment of Jesus Christ in 3 Nephi 23: 9-12, when he asks to see the records and wonders why they do not include things that Samuel was clearly instructed to say. Nephi sheepishly admits that these portions of Samuel’s prophecy were not written down (it is unclear whether or not Samuel’s words were recorded at all). Jesus tells him to fix it.

This omission should not surprise us. As I said at the start, there have always been two different kinds of prophets in the LDS scriptural tradition. Prophets like Alma and Nephi come from the center of their social world. They lead a Church organization and exercise authority as a function of their institutional position. But we have also always had prophets like Samuel, who come from the margins and speak with an urgency inspired by their vision and an authority derived only from the power of their voice.

Those of us who covenant to follow the prophets would do well to glance from time to time at to the outskirts of our communities to see what despised and disturbing figures might be standing on a wall and shouting at us with a voice and a vision that come directly from God.


[1] A third figure, Lehi, is a prophet in this sense in Jerusalem, before the BOM narrative begins, but he operates differently way in the text itself.


  1. Amen, Brother – great analysis. In addition to Heschel, who is fantastic, I would also highly recommend Walter Breuggemann. Start with The Prophetic Imagination.

  2. I have for a couple of years now been intrigued by Samuel the Lamanite’s story. It occurred to me that after the 300th reading, “Wait, where is Nephi while all this is happening?” And it turns out that Nephi is there, but has been unable to reach the people that Samuel, this alien Other, has reached. These people knew about Nephi. They just didn’t care, until Samuel somehow got to them in ways that the institutional church could not. Once these people recognized their sins, they sought out Nephi for baptism and, apparently, further direction. I had not carried this all the way through to the conclusions that you have. so thank you for more enrichment of this ever more interesting story of competing, or shall we say, complementary, prophets.

  3. It’s relevant to point out that Samuel was leading people toward Nephi, not away from him. He wasn’t out there preaching that Nephi was wrong. Samuel had his role. Nephi had his role. And those roles, those messages, didn’t conflict.

    Helaman 16:1 – “And now, it came to pass that there were many who heard the words of Samuel, the Lamanite, which he spake upon the walls of the city. And as many as believed on his word went forth and sought for Nephi; and when they had come forth and found him they confessed unto him their sins and denied not, desiring that they might be baptized unto the Lord.”

    So when you’re wondering if someone is a Samuel-like prophet, ask yourself if they are leading you toward our Nephi-like prophets or away from them. If away, then they’re no Samuel.

  4. I’m with CSC on this one. I’ve heard the Samuel story used to defend all sorts of characters who oppose the Church’s leadership in some way (from Dehlin on one end of the spectrum to Snuffer on the other), but that’s not what Samuel was doing at all.

  5. CSC, that may be true that Samuel’s message turns (some) people’s hearts and minds to the established religion, but that kind of turning is completely absent from his actual preaching. He doesn’t tell the people that they need to return to the church, or that they need to find Nephi. He tells them that they need to repent or that they’ll be destroyed.

    Per the text, that message resonated with certain groups in a way that turned them to Nephi and the official ecclesial structure of the day, but, as Mike points out, that doesn’t seem to have been a concern of Samuel’s.

  6. I really liked this post though. I’d consider young Joseph Smith a “classical” prophet as well.

  7. Sam, “And as many as believed on his word went forth and sought for Nephi”. It doesn’t seem like there was any confusion on their part what his words were leading them to do.

  8. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    But didn’t Samuel, Lehi, and Nephi disappear together and take on the names of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar as they booked it to Jerusalem to witness the Christ child?

  9. Let me add to what I said earlier and then I’ll bow out. I’m aware of no evidence in the text of any Nephites who believed Samuel the Lamanite’s words yet weren’t led by those words toward Nephi. In the context of the Nephite audience to whom he was preaching, there was apparently nothing else Samuel needed to say to achieve that end.

    But when it comes to Samuel the Lamanite and this post, here is the bottom line: Samuel didn’t contradict Nephi. Samuel didn’t preach that Nephi was wrong. Everything Samuel preached was complementary to what Nephi was preaching, so much so that, according to the text, everyone who believed him was baptized by Nephi.

  10. I am with CSC on this. I would also add that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy,” and we see both Samuel and Nephi exemplifying that.

  11. Matt Jacobsen says:

    The notion that Samuel, Lehi, and Nephi were among the magi is probably the coolest thing I learned in seminary. After all, Nephi and Lehi were able to travel from group to group by Spirit. Who needs a boat!

  12. Matt Jacobsen says:

    More on topic, the words of Samuel were written down about 40 years after the fact. The actual words and actions of those involved may have received some editorial touches by the same record keepers (or his son) who ignored him the first place.

  13. codyhatch says:

    CSC, if Samuel advocated that the people visit Nephi to further act upon his message, it is absent from the narrative, leading me to believe it wasn’t part of his message. What seems more probable to me is that the people, after hearing Samuel’s prophecy, turned to a person who preached a similar message – a person with whom they were familiar: Nephi. Had they been familiar with Samuel, they likely would have sought him out.

    The Lord can authorize whomever He choose. I think the experience of Saul of Tarsus is somewhat analogous.

    Also, for what it’s worth, I think Lehi fits the mold the OP mentioned, as a prophet from outside the established structure.

  14. “He has no authority beyond his vision and his voice”.

    I think you really have to want this to be true to come to this conclusion based on the text. The intro of Samuel in Helaman 13 makes it much more likely that he’s an authorized itinerant preacher. We’re told he’s coming from a righteous community, and we know where that community received its priesthood authority from even if we don’t know exactly how that was structured under their application of the Law of Moses. I don’t know quite what you’re arguing for, but it doesn’t seem to have much applicability to people like Samuel who only echoed exactly what the authorized prophets had been teaching that people all along. So I should listen to a visiting GA at my stake conference? Thanks for the memo.

  15. As Owen said, Helaman 13:1 tells us that Lamanites were observing the commandments more strictly at that time. And already in Helaman 6 we read that Lamanites were doing missionary work among Nephites. This combined with the response of the people to go to Nephi to be baptized, suggest to me that Samuel came within the organization of the church.
    That said, this makes Samuel by no means less of a prophet. And as a prophet, he was preaching the gospel of Christ, not just proselytizing for a church.

  16. But did Samuel contradict Nephi and the church authorities, did he say ‘Hers where we disagree…” or did his preaching fall in line with current and past authorities (even if the emphasis was different)?

    I think that important fact is key in remembering Samuel’s ‘outsider’ applicability.Further, did he have the gift of the Holy Ghost? Ie was he baptized? I think evidently so.

    So this Samuel-precedent of looking to outsiders I’m our community would suggest that we should look to our brothers and sisters in the church from elsewhere; say from Africa.

    Which proves my point in that in a modern situation, I can’t imagine a faithful African saint preaching contrary to the Apostles (further you can and should make the claim that the Lord hadn’t organized his church at that time of Samuel with the formal calling of the 12).

    Interestingly, on social morality issues, what do you think our ‘outsider’ brothers and sisters might in fact come to say to a group such as this? Would they tell you to repent of your personal disagreements about church policy and stances on marriage and sexual morality?

    Do you cast rhetorical stones and arrows at such when outsiders stand on your comment walls and reveal the mind of God? Do you chase them out or invite them in for further learning and repenting opportunity?

  17. Everybody, Michael never said that prophets will preach against church leaders. Y’all are sounding a bit overly defensive/paranoid.

  18. I think you’re reading way too much into Jesus’s words. It does not say that Nephi failed to write any of Samuel’s prophecies. Jesus only calls him out about failing to write down one specific prophecy. In fact, it sounds more like Nephi didn’t fail to write down the prophecy but failed to write that it was fulfilled. If Nephi had truly failed to write down all of Samuel’s prophecies then why didn’t Jesus remind Nephi about it instead of just one specific prophecy?

    This also bothers me when people use this section to claim that Nephi was racist against the Lamanites. Leaving out the fulfillment of one prophecy but including everything else hardly seems like racism.

    I also agree with the other posters that since the church was well established within the Lamanites, Samuel was probably in some position of authority among them.

  19. BlueRidgeMormon says:

    “The notion that Samuel, Lehi, and Nephi were among the magi is probably the coolest thing I learned in seminary. After all, Nephi and Lehi were able to travel from group to group by Spirit. Who needs a boat!”

    Wait, what? 45 years in the church and I have never heard of this once. Can someone expound?

  20. BlueRidgeMormon:
    You have to remember that Seminary class contains more Gospel Speculation than High Priest’s Group, Elder’s Quorum, and a missionary Zone Conference combined.

    I once saw an exhibit at the Smithsonian called “Circa 1492”, a worldwide review of everything that was going on with art in the period 1480-1510. Truly breathtaking exhibit with every culture on the planet represented. One of the paintings was a group of Magi visiting the Christ Child, and one of them was a Brazilian native in full tribal dress, painted with such precision that they could identify the tribe he was from. Parrot feathers, loincloth, the whole nine yards. So, speculation that people from the Americas may have made the journey to Bethlehem or Nazareth isn’t strictly limited to an LDS point of view.

  21. John Mansfield says:

    Panaca, Nevada, 170 miles north of Las Vegas and 80 west of Cedar City, with 900 people and two LDS wards, is an old Mormon town going back to 1864. Three years ago the Panaca Nevada Stake was reorganized by Elder Sitati. The Lincoln County Record reported:

    “It is not every day that around 1,000 Lincoln County residents welcome new county-wide, religious leadership. It is also not every day the county receives visitors from Kenya, Africa.

    “Both rarities occurred on Sunday morning in Panaca at the Panaca Stake Center on Main Street. The building was filled to capacity as members of the Panaca, Nevada Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sustained Paul Mathews of Panaca as their new stake president.

    [ . . . ]

    “Attendees also listened to addresses by Elder Joseph W. Sitati and his wife Gladys, from Bungoma, Kenya, Africa, and Elder Michael L. Southward of Cleveland, Okla. Elders Sitati and Southward are part of the general leadership of the Church. Both said it was their first visit to Lincoln County.”

    It is kind of nifty that Elder Sitati, a convert from the other side of the globe, was given authority to come in and select the stake president for an old, settled Mormon community, a sort of complement to the Utahns sent abroad to do similar things.

  22. Fred the Ephraimite says:

    “Those of us who covenant to follow the prophets would do well to glance from time to time at to the outskirts of our communities to see what *despised and disturbing figures* might be standing on a wall and shouting at us with a voice and a vision *that come directly from God*.”

    JKC, no one is being paranoid or overly defensive. The natural reading of this piece is that Michael is comparing Samuel the Lamanite to people the church has excommunicated or declared as apostates. Michael hasn’t had the guts to come out and say who he means, but he clearly has someone in mind that the church isn’t listening to but should. And we’re not just being encouraged to be charitable and try to understand where people are coming from, we’re being told by Michael that these people are prophets with “visions that come directly from God.”. If Michael wants our minds to jump to Snuffer and Dehlin and Kelly and gay marriage proponents, he should suggest some examples to get us thinking differently.

  23. Fred the Ephraimite says:

    …wants our minds *NOT* to jump…

  24. Clark Goble says:

    I’d second Niklas that likely Samuel was more parallel to Alma when Alma gave up the judgeship to travel and try and build up the lands. i.e. I’m skeptical we should see Samuel in terms of what some portray the pre-exilic prophets to have been like. I’d add that our picture of the pre-exilic prophets is very colored by editing and redacting during and after the exile. There are some reasons to suppose that structures may have been more complex than it first appears. The whole issue of priesthood in the Book of Mormon and especially Alma 13-14 make me a bit more cautious to say what’s going on.

    It seems to me the real issue with Samuel is that we don’t know the sources Mormon is using for his summation of what happened. Kevin raises a pretty interesting point too. I’d always taken 3 Nephi 23 to imply Samuel was neglected but he’s right that Christ just specifies that it was about the resurrected people appearing.

    To me the bigger mystery than Samuel, who I bet was simply a major figure from the Lamanite city-states and not independent of heirarchy, is Abinadi. Part of the problem there is the missing 116 pages tell a pretty major piece of history that simply isn’t in our Book of Mormon – the move of the Nephites presumably due to Lamanite attacks. Abinadi appears out of nowhere from no known community but I bet had we the 116 pages it’d make more sense.

  25. “Fred the Ephraimite” writes,

    “The natural reading of this piece is that Michael is comparing Samuel the Lamanite to people the church has excommunicated or declared as apostates. Michael hasn’t had the guts to come out and say who he means, but he clearly has someone in mind that the church isn’t listening to but should.”

    Actually, I don’t. Not at all. I think it is worth pointing out that the BOM recognizes two different kinds of things as “prophecy,” and we often assume that there is only one. If I had anyone specific in mind, I would tell you, using my real name. This is not one of those “guts” issues.

  26. Michael, I very much appreciate what you’re trying to do with posts like this one, which as I see it is to use your training as a literary scholar and critic to improve our (often shallow and unsophisticated) understanding of the Mormon scriptures. That in itself takes guts.

  27. I am certain Michael didn’t have anyone specific in mind, as he says.

    Here’s one very clear example from recent history: Martin Luther King, Jr. His preaching on civil rights and the human dignity of African Americans, and the Gospel mandate to introduce equal treatment and remove segregation, brutality, and racism from our religious and social lives was most definitely a prophetic godsend. He was very definitely widely despised by many or most white people in America, especially among those who defined themselves as politically and/or religiously conservative, including many or most Mormons at the time. He was most definitely an outsider to such communities. But he was preaching truth straight from God, and issuing a call to repentance valid toward all listeners, whether thought or opinion leaders — or ecclesiastical leaders — in other Christian churches or the Mormon Church.

    (To think that one has no need to repent because one is a Mormon church leader or that it is beyond the pale to refer to someone who is not a Mormon church leader being capable of issuing a call to repentance where things are clearly not right has to be a prime example of crippling pride.)

    MLK’s message of repentance on these issues pricked the consciences of millions of white Americans who deep down knew their beliefs and behaviors toward black people based on skin color and the accretion of cultural and religious justifications for the unequal treatment (curse of Cain mythology) were not right with God. Mormons hearing the message needed only repent of their actions and views and seek to remedy the situation. In other words, nothing in MLK’s prophetic mission needed to drive anyone away from the authority structures of the Mormon Church in implementing the righteousness of human dignity that he was preaching.

    He’s a very, very good parallel for Samuel the Lamanite, though of course no analogy is ever perfect and will always break down under the obvious differences.

  28. I should add that the bald fact that many Mormons, even today, will strenuously resist calling Martin Luther King, Jr. a “prophet” merely because he wasn’t within the hierarchy of the Mormon Church very clearly illustrates the issue/problem that this post addresses.

  29. 2 John 1: 9-11 “Who transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God….If there come any unto you, andbring not this doctrine, receive him not…neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.”

    In 3 Nephi 11 the doctrine of Christ is explicitly defined. Our desire to belong to a religion and defend our beliefs about that religion sometimes become more important that paying attention to and believing what the scriptures explicitly say. Our support of any religion or belief system made of the philosophies of men mingled with scripture damns us.

    It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else does, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else says. What really matters is who you are inside, and validation or expectation from any other mortal doesn’t and shouldn’t make any difference in what you say or do or how you act in your daily walk.

    Best thing to remember is God has given us Free Will. He lets us choose our course and our thoughts. We can choose to act, or be acted upon by outside influences (ie people and situations).

    Three things to think about: 1) consider yourself a fool before God, and know that He will give you wisdom if you sincerely ask Him, 2) give love by following the Golden Rule and the new commandment to love that Christ gave in John 13, and 3) follow your innermost heart. Until and unless God tells you in detail what to do, go after what the best part of yourself guides you to do.

  30. Kevin Barney says:

    I think the comments actually demonstrate Michael’s point that we have a very stereotyped and bureacratic understanding of what a “prophet” is. I’m kind of surprised so many feel threatened that there can be other types of prophets (like a Samuel).

    It’s always fun to see people’s heads explode when they learn Isaiah walked around naked for three years (Isa. 20:3). That’s so far out of our experience and understanding of what a prophet would do. I suggest our experience and understanding of what prohets are historically is on the narrow side.

  31. I like this post more and more the more I reflect on it, Michael.

    It seems to me possible that Nephi and other official church leaders of that time perhaps observed Samuel the Lamanite’s preaching somewhat condescendingly, thinking oh that’s nice what he’s saying definitely has some merit — but he’s not a representative of our official church hierarchy here in this city or in our Nephite civilization more broadly so if what he says inspires some people that’s nice but he’s not the real deal. And consistent with this attitude, Nephi, the record keeper and leader of the Church, does not even record the preachings of Samuel the Lamanite as part of his official record keeping job. Why should that itinerant street preacher’s words be recorded in the Church’s official records? He wasn’t an official Church leader! Of course, Jesus Christ himself corrects Nephi’s error on this point, asking to inspect the records and pointing out specifically that the prophecies of Samuel the Lamanite, who was a contemporary of Nephi himself, not some long distant past prophet, were noticeably absent.

    If Jesus Christ were to come tomorrow, would he meet with the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in the Salt Lake Temple and ask to inspect our scriptures? In flipping through our current D&C, would he ask President Monson specifically “where are the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr.”? “I sent him as a prophet among your generation and his message supplemented, complemented, and even corrected in some points your own, and they are of utmost importance in this nation and for many others.” (Monson was ordained an apostle in 1963 by the time MLK was preaching his most important sermons.)

    I really don’t think that’s very far-fetched, especially if we take seriously the idea that the Book of Mormon was written specifically for our day and provides types and shadows of things relevant for us.

  32. Kevin, bingo — or Ezekiel begging God not to make him eat dung as he had been initially instructed as part of his message.

  33. Kevin, Yes. As an exercise in working through some of the questions raised by this post, I used to ask my Bible as Lit students to discuss whether Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” is a work of prophecy. Howl, ye ships of Tarshish!

  34. John, MLK is a wonderful example of the sort of prophet I am talking about. At the risk of naming names and invalidating my “I didn’t have anyone in mind” post, I will say that another would be Vandana Shiva, the Indian ecologist who has been taking the Western world to task for years over the ways that our consumption habits have effected the developing world (and, of course, the earth). There are a lot of people in our walls that we need to pay attention to before it is too late.

    Mazel, of course Ginsburg was a prophet. One of the best.

  35. it's a series of tubes says:

    Michael, in an attempt to put an aside above to bed, would you be willing to state that you don’t consider Snuffer, Dehlin, Kelly, et al. to be “despised and disturbing figures [that] might be standing on a wall and shouting at us with a voice and a vision that come directly from God”?

  36. Glady. I do not consider Snuffer, Kelly, or Dehlin to be prophets of any kind.

  37. Clark Goble says:

    John F (10:34) It seems to me the main argument for that view of Samuel vs. the Lamanites is Christ’s comments on Samuel. If we read them as indicating a neglect of Samuel then I suspect there’s reason to think that was so. If we read them more narrowly as Kevin noted (which is pretty persuasive now that I reread it) then I don’t think we have a lot of evidence for that conflict.

    The second reason for thinking Samuel wasn’t as neglected is that the disciples in 3 Nephi seem pretty familiar with him. Also 3 Nephi 1 suggest Samuel was paid attention to, as does 3 Nephi 8. In particular 3 Ne 1:6 suggests a pretty big divide within the Nephites over Samuel.

    I think we have to take the Nephite region of city-states as pretty divided and diverse at this point. Some don’t like Samuel. But they also don’t like the Nephite priests too much too to be frank. In particular we have a threatened purge in 3 Ne 1:9 with Nephi the son of Nephi part of this. So far from thinking Samuel is uniquely treated I think there’s a lot of evidence to suggest he was treated the same as a lot of the heirarchy. There’s even a similar trope – Samuel disappears in Hel 16:8 but then Nephi disappears shortly after in 3 Ne 1:3. I’d like to imagine Samuel and Nephi chilling on the Carribean coast taking a retirement from prophesy, eating chocolate and drinking virgin pina coladas.

  38. Clark Goble says:

    Michael (10:44), while I’m sympathetic to the point you are making I think we have to be careful. For instance it is common belief that the founding fathers were inspired to set up the country. Yet many of the key founding fathers didn’t really believe in Christ in any strong way. And many of their personal lives were well out of harmony with what we’d imagine a prophet to be doing. I’m fine thinking many reformers, scientists and so forth are inspired. Yet it seems that’s quantitatively different from what Lehi, Jeremiah, Abinadi or Samuel are doing.

  39. John Mansfield says:

    Oh, there are quite a number of outside-the-church figures that a large number of LDS consider important voices of warning doing the work of God. The recently deceased Phyllis Schlafly, for example.

  40. Ask the official religious leaders of the day what it was that Lehi or Jeremiah, for example, were doing.

  41. Clark, perhaps my major point is that we have a very impoverished understanding of what a prophet should be doing. If we take the OT into account, we must acknowledge that they were not always pleasant or decorous fellows.

  42. John Mansfield says:

    “not always pleasant or decorous fellows”

    Would any prophets remind us of forgotten, derelict soldiers still fighting the last war? Any bigoted homophobes saying true things in ugly ways?

  43. Maybe it’s just me, John, but I can’t disconnect prophecy from a certain kind of literary and rhetorical power. People remember the prophet’s words even when they no longer agree with the social vision. Simply being an effective political operative is not enough. So MLK, yes, Phyllis Schlafly no. There might be some people out there speaking with a genuinely prophetic voice against gay rights, etc., but I can’t think of any right offhand.

  44. As a personal note (because I can’t prove anything and certainly wouldn’t preach it) I have long believed that most of the prophets of the margin in my life experience and society are labeled “poet” or “songwriter.”
    I would add a handful of preachers at their best, including MLK. Also, there are a couple of speeches by an American president in the last 60 years that I might put in this category looking at the speech as a text, but I’m not sure where to place a U.S. president in the center vs margin dichotomy.
    As far as I can tell, my personal pantheon is based on voice–the words and the message, and is completely unrelated to life-style and affiliation, including any religious and political affiliations.

  45. so, substance over form, CK. I think that’s a good approach.

  46. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Well, it seems clear from the narrative that Nephi didn’t have any clue that Samuel would be on the wall. If Samuel was part of any organized Church among the Lamanites, there seems to be no coordination between the two Churches – to the extent that it becomes possible (though not necessary) to envision these as two separate Churches, rather than branches of a singular Church. Also, tellingly, Samuel makes no mention of any organization, either among his Lamanites, or among the Nephites. He doesn’t tell them to seek out their own religious leaders, doesn’t make reference to Nephi, doesn’t exhort them to membership or to obedience of local religious policies. He was sent to deliver a message, and that message had nothing to do with an organization. Yet, he is unquestioningly described as a prophet.

  47. This is off the main topic, but no one has mentioned that Samuel was probably very familiar with Nephi and his message because it was Nephi and Lehi’s successful missionary work among the Lamanites that led to the widespread conversion of that group of people (including former Nephite dissenters). If you recall, it was after returning from that work that Nephi was accused of murder by the corrupt judges in his home city who objected to his public declaration of their wickedness.
    If anything, the news that a faithful Lamanite convert had come among the Nephites would reinforce for Nephi that his missionary work was not a failed effort, even though the Nephites were mostly unrepentant. Since we hear nothing about Lehi, he might have still been with the Lamanites, similar to the way Ammon adopted his converts to continue strengthening them in their newfound commitment to Christ.
    I see no reason why Samuel would need to turn people to Nephi. His intent (and that of Nephi) would have been to turn people to Christ, not to accumulate followers.

  48. just so, Turtle and Ranae.

  49. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    Wait, what? 45 years in the church and I have never heard of this once. Can someone expound?

    I heard it in a gospel doctrine lesson in a ward I was just visiting. A teacher who made it clear that it was conjecture and not from the manual.

  50. heard what in a gospel doctrine lesson? what did the teacher make clear was conjecture and not from the manual?

  51. Fred the Ephraimite says:

    john f., your MLK example is excellent and leads Michael’s post in a better way.

    Michael, calling Alan Ginsberg a prophet of any kind is offensive. All great men have flaws, but Ginsberg was an honest to goodness degenerate who dragged souls down to hell. The NAMBLA connection alone is enough to wipe out any good he might have done.

    A couple of comments here have seemed to suggest that fair words are a significant aspect of prophecy. I wonder if we could find anything in the scriptures that directly contradicts that notion…

  52. Clark Goble says:

    Michael (11:13) I think that’s right although I’d add that a lot of that is also tied to a radically different culture. Nearly everyone was illiterate. There was poor communication. To put it mildly a bit more dramatic presentation was necessary to get the message repeated. Add in that even from an LDS perspective there were huge differences in pre-exilic Israel due to rejecting the higher law and having the Law of Moses and it’s undoubtedly different. Even a casual read of the Old Testament (something few do despite the reading schedule) one comes away feeling it an alien world.

    My point is more that the more I learn of the Old Testament the more suspicious I become of it. I really think a lot of the history is untrustworthy. So much was revised and deleted during and after the exile that it’s hard to say too much about the details of what was going on.

    Fred & John. My problem with treating great men (and women — too much neglect in this thread and elsewhere) as prophets is that God seems quite willing to use evil men to achieve his ends. King Cyrus comes immediately to mind. I’m certainly fine with that and in particular Evangelicals have a theology of prophets where they’re more fine with extremely flawed people as prophets. (As an aside Robert Duvall’s The Apostel is a great movie about that theology) I think Mormons see prophets as being something a bit more than that. In one sense of course anyone with a testimony is a prophet. In an other even in the Old Testament model there seems something more going on. (Think say Isaiah’s purification in Isaiah 6) Now how they acted may be more complex and lurid given their audience. I’m also fine with the structure of prophetic calls being more complex given the reality of life under the Law of Moses with Kings/Judges, Priests and then others in a complex tension. Although we should note Elijah’s school of the prophets not to mentions questions raised about the Sons of Moses. Again Alma 12-14 is worthwhile here if only to raise questions about pre-exilic structures.

  53. Fred, you now have Michael’s assurance that he wasn’t calling Snuffer, Dehlin, and Kate Kelly prophets. MLK is the obvious example of a prophet outside of church hierarchy. Why your mind went to Snuffer, etc. first, rather than to MLK is beyond me, but it sure wasn’t based on anything that Michael said.

    To me, what makes non-hierarchical prophet primarily is declaring a message of repentance. MLK fits that description well. Ghandi, Mandela, and Desmond Tutu also. Handsome Lake and Deganawida are others. Bartolome de les Casas. But perhaps rather than trying to identify a person as a prophet, it is better to identify messages as prophetic messages. The Lord can inspire even an otherwise wicked person to deliver a prophetic message, and we dismiss the message because of the messenger’s wickedness rather than the merits of the message at our peril–as many did with MLK for example, because of his marital infidelities, or with Joseph Smith because of his marital innovations.

  54. I’ll add one more Prophet in the sense that Michael is using the word, Eugene England. He probably had more influence on my staying with the church and committed to it during my early adult years than anyone else, with his personal essays and “speculative theology.” He got me to thinking more deeply, and beyond the somewhat narrower and more shallow testimony of my youth. I understood for the first time that there was such a thing as “big tent Mormonism,” although that is not a perfect description of what I have come to understand about our LDS culture. And while he was always committed to following the leadership of the church, he frequently found himself at odds with many in church leadership. Time I think has vindicated his sense that we needed to repent of our racist background, our lack of compassion for the poor and helpless, and a fear of scholarly thinking about the gospel. We still have a way to go, as I do, but for me, he was a pillar of my faith that kept me involved and anchored in the gospel.

    I agree with Michael’s point that sometimes we need to hear something or someone different to make us change. To that extent, even though Nephi was the head of the church at that time, he was obviously failing among the people of Zarahemla, who would no longer listen to his words. The Lord sent someone outside the mainstream to preach repentance, aka MLK Jr, and at first, the people tried to kill him. When that failed, they began to listen. And some of them, who previously were immune to the miracles, preaching, and service of Nephi in Zarahemla, repented and sought him out, But Samuel leaped down from the wall, and was never heard from among the Nephites again (Hel.16:8). Whatever Samuel’s status among the Lamanites, it does not appear he was part of the central church hierarchy, based on what we read in the BOM. It would appear that his Otherness, of not being a part of the Nephite culture and society, played a significant role in the success of his mission.

  55. Ilan Leibowitz says:

    The following lecture mentions alot on Mormons! My question How much was Joseph Smith influenced by the teachings
    of the zohar and Kabbalah?

    [audio src="" /]

  56. This post reminds me of Alma 29. At the end of Alma’s lamentation, he mentions in verse 8:

    “For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true.”

    I realize that Alma does not specifically identify those of “their own nation and tongue” as prophets, and I think that most LDS agree that the ideas and actions of many men and women through history are indeed inspired. Nothing new here. However, I have always interpreted Alma as referring to men and women whose calling and influence represents something more than the spark of inspiration.

    As to MLK, perhaps the nation and tongue was black America, not white America.

    I don’t personally feel that we should be troubled that a prophet should be raised up who does not come with customary credentials. I am certainly not troubled by this especially in light of Orson F. Whitney’s teaching that (paraphrased) the Lord deliberately places individuals outside of the Church because that is where they can do the most good.

  57. Bob Marley poet and a prophet – RHCP (also prophets in their own right)

  58. I would like to submit the name of Malala as a modern prophet in the sense you are describing, as well as the current Dalai Lama. I feel we can say this and still respect and uphold President Monson as PSR. This has been a fantastic blog post to read and the comments.

  59. @CSC The only problem with your analysis is that Nephi had the sealing power of God given to him by God himself. Pres. Monson has none such experience or power given to him by God, but inherited as president. Nephi also is not requiring the people to take an oath like sustaining to himself. Big, huge difference.

  60. Clark Goble says:

    jSmith, why do you think Nephi was given the sealing power directly from God? I confess I don’t see that. Likewise how do you know what Pres. Monson has or has no experienced?

    I’d say my own theory is that Alma 12-14 suggests there was a rival priesthood to the aaronic that was held by the Lehites. Probably tied into the deuteronomist and priestly reforms that start with Josiah and culminate in the period after the exile. There are various hints of this in the Old Testament with the idea of the Sons of Moses and well as non-Aaronic priests. Lehi of course does sacrifices outside of the temple and without claiming to be of Aaronic descent.

  61. I think we’re getting a little far afield in who we call prophets when comparing to Abinidi and Samuel. In both cases, their prophecies were completely embraced by the Church at the time. This assertion in the post is incorrect:

    “Even in his capacity of record keeper, Nephi fails to take Samuel’s prophecies seriously. This, at least, is the judgment of Jesus Christ in 3 Nephi 23: 9-12, when he asks to see the records and wonders why they do not include things that Samuel was clearly instructed to say.”

    First, it’s a different Nephi. The Nephi when Jesus came is the son of the Nephi when Samuel prophesied. Second, there is absolute evidence that Nephi took the prophecies -completely- seriously. Nephi and the members of the Church were willing to die based on Samuels prophecies. Everyone believed Samuel so much they had a specific date based on his prophecy.

    We really have no idea why it wasn’t written down by either Nephi. I lean toward racism as it’s a failing I can accept of Prophets in the past without thinking less of them as Prophets. Like sexism, it’s not a failing I like, but knowing some of my own failings, I’m glad God chooses to work with flawed people. You can’t get a perfect prophet out of an imperfect people. Could we have done better? Abso-freakin-lutely. Getting rebuked by the Savoir can’t be a pleasant experience, and I imagine that all Prophets have been at some point when they have met Him, but I also hope they have done their work as well as they could.

  62. How surprised will we be when the Savior comes again, and we discover (much to our horror and astonishment) that the Samuel-like prophets were, in fact, our home teachers? Or that annoying Sunday School student who derails the lessons? Or that they were teaching in primary? Or that they were our very own spouses or children, and we never noticed?

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