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.
There 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.
 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.