What It Means to Sustain a Mormon Prophet

Mette Ivie Harrison is a regular guest here at BCC and author of many books, including The Book of Laman.

I’ve struggled a lot lately with what it means to sustain a prophet within Mormonism, and if that is possible when I disagree strongly with policies which are given the status of “revelation” within Mormonism, including, for instance, The Proclamation on the Family, or the new policy demanding excommunication of same-sex married couples who are Mormon and the exclusion of their children from saving ordinances including baptism.

Mormons loudly proclaim that prophets aren’t perfect, and that they make mistakes. But we are also told that God will never allow a prophet to lead the church “astray.” And we are told that if we disagree with fundamentals of the church, we should pray until God tells us that we are wrong. The idea that God might tell us that we are right and that the prophets are wrong isn’t something that is often spoken of—presumably because the assumption is that this cannot and will not happen.

And yet the history of the church speaks to numerous and even constant situations in which prophets were wrong. One only has to read the church’s own essay on its website on “Race and the Priesthood” to begin to face the thorny ways in which prophets have indeed led the church astray in big ways, not just tiny personal defects.

If Brigham Young instituted a racist policy against blacks that was not originally intended by church leader Joseph Smith, then what does this mean? One could come to the conclusion logically that Brigham Young was not the proper successor to Joseph Smith and that either one of the other branches of Mormonism is correct or that none of them are. (In fact, there are many cases of former Mormons coming to precisely one of these conclusions.)

Apologists are eager to tell us that Brigham Young was a “man of his time,” and that he was still the prophet, though his mind was clouded when it came to this one policy, which is now loudly proclaimed not a doctrine, nearly as loudly as it was proclaimed a doctrine not only by Brigham Young but by nearly every succeeding prophet of the LDS church. Those who read the history of Mormonism cannot escape the nastiness of some of these quotes, no matter how apologist they are.

That curse [black skin] will remain upon them, and they never can hold the Priesthood or share in it until all the other descendants of Adam have received the promises and enjoyed the blessings of the Priesthood and the keys thereof. (Prophet Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, v. 7, pp. 290-291)

You see some classes of the human family that are black, uncouth, un- comely, disagreeable and low in their habits, wild, and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings of the intelligence that is generally bestowed upon mankind. (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 7:290-291, October 9, 1859)

If we are to hold to the promise that no prophet can lead the church astray, then how did God allow Brigham Young to say these things? Was this not leading the church astray? Furthermore, why didn’t other prophets recant what Brigham Young had said about the curse of Cain? Why did it take until 1978, when political pressure was at its peak, for the church to change this policy? Why did it take more than thirty years for the church to admit that this policy was never God’s will, despite many Mormons arguing for so long that it was simply the right time for the priesthood ban to end in 1978?

It’s painful for me as a Mormon to read the following quotes from prophets into the twentieth century:

There were no neutrals in the war in heaven. All took sides either with Christ or with Satan. Every man had his agency there, and men receive rewards here based upon their actions there, just as they will receive rewards hereafter for deeds done in the body. The Negro, evidently, is receiving the reward he merits. (Prophet Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, pp. 65-66.)

The privilege of obtaining a mortal body on this earth is seemingly so priceless that those in the spirit world, even though unfaithful or not valiant, were undoubtedly permitted to take mortal bodies although under penalty of racial or physical or nationalistic limitations. (Harold B. Lee, Decisions for Successful Living, pp. 165).

These quotes extend beyond racial bias and into disability. Though the church currently touts itself as believing in equality among the races and that those with disabilities will be healed in the resurrection and may be sent directly to the celestial kingdom because they are among the most noble and devoted of God’s children from the pre-existence, the prejudice against anyone not able-bodied and white seems clear here.

Even Spencer W. Kimball, who lifted the priesthood ban in 1978, spent much of his career defending a church policy against interracial marriage:

We are unanimous, all of the Brethren, in feeling and recommending that Indians marry Indians, and Mexicans marry Mexicans; the Chinese marry Chinese and the Japanese marry Japanese; that the Caucasians marry the Caucasians, and the Arabs marry Arabs. (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, p. 303)

As a Mormon who is trying to stay believing and who is trying to figure out how I can sustain prophets I think are partly “men of their times,” partly physically and mentally infirm (more and more over the last forty years of the church), and partly “inspired” and chosen leaders of God, what do I do? Does sustaining mean agreeing with everything they say? Does it mean never criticizing them publicly even if I privately disagree? Does it mean mindlessly following them and never asking myself if they are right or wrong?

Brigham Young had this to say about that final proposition:

What a pity it would be if we were lead by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are lead by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purpose of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders did they know for themselves by the revelations of Jesus that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves whether their leaders are walking in the path the lord dictates or not. This has been my exhortation continually. (Brigham Young February 12, 1862, Deseret News.)

Amen Brother Brigham!

But when I agree with this statement of his, how do I square it with my disgust at his racism? Is he only a prophet when he agrees with me? Do I ever take counsel from prophets and change my own opinions?

I don’t know the answer to this. I truly don’t.

In the end, I’m left with saying that I think that we don’t allow prophets to be human enough. We see them as too far above us. And we see ourselves as unable to get the same kind of revelation for ourselves as prophets do.

But this kind of rigid hierarchy isn’t the way that I see God working. One of the best things about Mormonism is the idea that a young boy, untutored and unauthorized, walked into a grove one day and prayed and received revelation from God. If we ask wisdom, we can ask and receive. We don’t have to wait for other people to tell us what’s right. We all have the light of Christ. We’re all commanded to do good things without God commanding us to do them.

To me, that means that sustaining the prophet means helping them do better. It means criticizing when I am led by answers to my own prayer and by my conscience. It means hoping for better when I see mistakes. It means being patient sometimes. It means being loving to those I see as wrong as I think Christ would be. It means remaining part of Zion. I acknowledge that this isn’t what others think of as sustaining a prophet, but it’s the best I’ve got right now.

Comments

  1. Your last paragraph encapsulates well how I feel on sustaining the prophet as well. Jethro sustained the prophet when the prophet was wrong, and still would have followed if the advice was not received.

    I don’t think the prophets have ever led the church “astray”. Certainly their own foibles and prejudices have hindered the work that could have been done otherwise, but it’s still directed by the one whose name it bears.

  2. So much to say! But I will restrain myself to two comments:
    1. “never permit me . . . to lead you astray” is almost always used in the breach, including in its first instance. Which means that it almost always requires careful interpretation and may not mean what a first reading suggests. .
    2. One version of “sustain” which has some currency is “think what you will, but don’t say it out loud.” We’ve seen that version reinforced by disciplinary action. Personally I reject that formulation. But then I’d go so far as to bucket civil disobedience under the ‘sustain’ heading. So not a good example for others.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    For me the key thought is “we don’t allow prophets to be human enough.” We think putting them up high, high on a pedestal where they can seemingly do no wrong is the best course, but if one falls off such a high pedestal bones will be broken! Prophets are humans with all the foibles of mortal man that come with that humanity, and it’s really unfair of us to pretend they are somehow above all of that.

  4. I do think that the Lord will not let the prophet lead us astray. He’s given the prophet 15 million people with the gift of the Holy Ghost to act as his collective conscience and guide. Common consent and the principled passion of faithful Saints will eventually bring Church leadership into line with the will of the Lord, as it did in 1978. (It just took too long. Much too long.)

    The injustice that we do to God, to ourselves, to the unjustly-treated, and to our leaders by this mindset of mindless obedience is that we make it more difficult for this divinely-ordained self-corrective method to operate. The inspiration of 15 million is *supposed* to be as strong as the judgment of 15 – “would that all the Lord’s people were prophets.”

  5. For me, the controlling scriptural account of “sustaining” is in Exodus 17, when the Israelites are fighting the Amalekites. Because Moses is magic, when he stands on top of a hill with his arms raised up, the Israelites win. When he puts his arms down, they start losing. So Joshua and Hur stand next to him and hold up his arms, lending him the strength that he needs to help everybody succeed. They sustain him, not because he is right, but precisely because he is weak.

  6. Dylan Hansen says:

    I agree, Michael. The Old Testament contains many examples of sustaining the prophet that have nothing to do with mindless obedience. Other examples include the Shunamite woman sheltering Elijah and the widow woman feeding him. The English verb used in both cases is sustain. Likewise, one could include Amulek’s sustenance of Alma as a parallel case in the Book of Mormon.

  7. Dylan Hansen says:

    Joseph Smith taught that a prophet is only a prophet when acting as such. To most members I know, this means when acting in his ecclesiastical calling. To me, and a growing number of people, as you say, this means when prophesying, revealing, translating, or otherwise fulfilling the responsibilities of prophet irrespective of ecclesiastical calling. This interpretation seems more in line with the corpus of Joseph Smith’s teachings.

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Michael’s take is a good illustration of the meaning of the word sustain, which comes from Latin sub (up from under) and tenere (to hold), meaning “to hold up, to furnish with means of support.”

  9. Kevin, the problem isn’t just that we put our leaders on pedestals, it’s that they genuinely seem to enjoy that rarified atmosphere. And should a member step out line and try to bring them back down to earth, the reaction is often swift and brutal.

    The travesty of all of this is that many church members have been infantilized by this mindset to the point that they no longer care or worse—they no longer realize what is happening.

  10. The problem with how many members view “sustaining” the prophet is that it removes all their own need for a stake in the game. Surely we are all human, trying our best to suss out the will of God and make the best decisions we can. Abdicating responsibility for our choices to someone else, even who holds a lofty title and receives we-hope-inspiration, can’t be what God intends for his sons and daughters if they are to grow to become like heavenly parents. Who wants to live on a planet run by someone who can’t even make their own moral choices? Not me.

  11. I agree and would add that for me sustaining also means giving the prophet the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think I will ever change my mind about the November policy – and maybe that is my failing – but I can give the prophet/quorum the benefit of the doubt and not ascribe that policy to deliberate cruelty. I think everyone is trying hard to do what they think is right, even when we disagree about what that means.

  12. Cody Hatch says:

    My $0.02 is that we need to adjust the common use of “prophet” within the church. If we are going to say that prophetic pronouncements can be egregiously wrong (e.g., blacks and priesthood, Adam-God, interracial marriage, causes of homosexuality, women’s roles, contraception) because they were acting as men, then we might as well be the Catholic Church. They had leaders who claimed divine inspiration, were frequently wrong, yet leaned on their authority, claiming that sometimes people are people and fail. How is our claim any different?

    Alternatively, if we reserve the use of the term “prophet” for when someone actually prophesies, perhaps we’d avoid some confusion. Sure, our leaders can aspire to be prophets and we can support them in obtaining that gift, just as we do anyone else with a responsibility within the church, but how about we hold off calling them prophets until they actually prophesy. They can seek inspiration in their leadership, admit to the limits of such efforts, and we can support them in their job (which, I might add, allows for errors and missteps because we and they are just trying our best). Occasionally we might get someone who obtains the gift of prophesy and does some prophesying, and then we can legitimately refer to them as a prophet.

  13. “Does sustaining mean agreeing with everything they say?”

    For individual welfare and development, for realizing the measure of our creation, the answer must be no, that would be a mistake. (I suppose that’s a “see Angela C. above”).

    For the Church as an institution (which is what sustaining and “not lead astray” is mostly about), I would venture that two things only are required:
    (a) That there be enough competent adult men who answer yes to that question to fill the ranks of Stake Presidents and above.
    and
    (b) That the rest of us are not too loud or obnoxious in opposition, in ways that will affect too many others. (Acknowledging that the measure of “too much” and “too many” is subject to debate.)

  14. May I say that we ought not to be too preoccupied with sustaining the prophet? What I mean is that “sustaining the prophet” is a somewhat abstract thing compared to the activities that ought to be at the center of life as a follower of Christ. What our religious lives ought to be about most are prayer and contemplation; teaching and caring for our families; being kind neighbors, visiting teachers, and home teachers; worshiping together with the saints; giving offerings; and other things focused on our homes, communities, and personal devotion. Sustaining the prophet, to the extent that it is different from these activities, is at least one step removed from these most vital spiritual elements of our lives.

    I do not want to belittle the concerns of any who feel torn by their questions and disagreements about general authorities’ teachings. I understand that this can be a source of anguish and an obstacle to finding peace. However, I agree with the position that sustaining church leaders does not require us to agree with them in everything. To some who are suffering because that’s a sticking point, I’d suggest that they might be able to find peace by adjusting their understanding of what it means to sustain our leaders. Again, I understand that this is not a solution for everyone.

    It’s really important not to make (the strident forms of) “sustaining the prophet” a litmus test of commitment to the gospel or to the church. When we define our faith in terms of political tests, we marginalize the things that make religious life good. We end up telling ourselves that our political commitments are more important than (and take the place of) service and compassion. We draw political lines that divide the body of the church. We ought to resist these tendencies—and these tendencies come from all political directions.

    Finally, I have nothing against political commitments. We need them both in secular and religious struggles. The church gets better because of our commitment to making it better, and political commitments are part of that. But we have to sort our politics properly.

  15. pconnornc says:

    Farside – my experience is rare of those leaders who “enjoy the rarified atmosphere,” with “swift and brutal” reactions when they are corrected (though they definitely exist)…

    On the other hand, I constantly find members who enjoy the atmosphere of thinking themselves wiser than leaders and should a leader say something to them contrary to their opinion, their reactions are “swift and brutal.”

    Perhaps a measure of humility that “I may be wrong” is needed by everyone ;-)

  16. pconnornc says:

    For sustaining a prophet (or other leader) in general, I would suggest:
    o Magnifying my calling
    o Withholding criticism unless…
    – I can share a perspective they don’t see or haven’t heard
    – I personally am being impacted
    – There is present damage or danger
    – I feel the Spirit clearly and I feel motivated by love for the leader
    o Seek to see the positive in them
    o Be patient
    o And, assume that I might not understand all they do, see all they see or have the inspiration they have – and that I may be wrong

    I am doing him injustice, but I love the story a great African-American leader who joined the church around 1970 shares, that when he decided he would not join the church over the priesthood ban, he heard a clear voice. The voice told him “This is my church, I think you should join it.” He shares the voice did not tell him the ban was of God, it did not tell him the ban was wrong, it just said he should join.

    Often times we get that direction on leaders… They may not be right, we may not be right, but at the end of the day if we support them and the work, we will be blessed for it.

  17. Loursat, this is not an abstract question if you hold/renew a temple recommend. I thought long and hard about it before going to my last interview. On the whole I agree with your philosophy, though.

  18. That’s a good point, Marian. I think a person can hold a temple recommend in good faith without accepting the fundamentalist ideas about “sustaining the prophet” that some people want to foist on us. But you’re right that the temple recommend interview is not an abstract problem for people who can’t answer that particular question affirmatively.

  19. pconnornc: “Perhaps a measure of humility that ‘I may be wrong’ is needed by everyone.” I couldn’t agree more. And I am anxiously waiting for day when I hear a general authority sincerely utter those four words (but I am not holding my breath).

    And, for the record, your experience in dealing with church leaders and how the respond to those who have the temerity to question their words and actions is markedly different from my own and that of many others.

  20. I like the story Michael Austin cites from Exodus, but we don’t need to go back 3,000 years to find a scriptural explication of what it means to sustain. In D&C 107 we read that three presiding high priests, “upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church,” constitute the First Presidency. As a starting point, we can pray that the First Presidency will in fact receive the direction they need to lead the Church.

  21. Aussie Mormon says:

    The Moses example is a good one, since he broke a direct commandment by hitting the rock with his staff when the Lord told him to talk to it, and as such lost the privilege of entering the promised land (Numbers 20:8-12), but the Lord still saw fit to keep him around as prophet anyway.
    Having said that, Moses did have a bad run with the Israelites actually paying attention to what he was telling them.

  22. Leonard R says:

    While I know it is not the major point, I think the ban example does not (yet) work to support your premise that our leaders err in doctrine.

    You say, “Why did it take more than thirty years for the church to admit that this policy was never God’s will, despite many Mormons arguing for so long that it was simply the right time for the priesthood ban to end in 1978?”

    The church has not admitted this.

    The essay is written precisely to not say this – to say that all the theories around the policy were not inspired or of God, but not to ever admit that the ban itself was not.

    I know many, many – probably most – saints who believe exactly what you said – that 1978 was just the right time for it to end, but that the ban was of God. And among them, they will point to the essay and correctly note only connects the theories around the ban to racism, but not the ban itself.

    It was written so that it would further distance us from the ban, and to explicitly reject racist theories related to it. It even gives those members who want to reject it space to do so (preferably privately). But it was also written so as not to explicitly reject it – exactly so it would not cause the train of thought the rest of your post is making.

    We can’t pretend the essay isn’t designed to let the church have its cake and eat it, too.

  23. Kevin Barney says:

    People assume that when the Prophet speaks, everyone jumps. That’s our perspective from far away. But that is not true of the Q15. These are strong willed men, and their collective action is limited by the principle of unity, which gives every man in that group a veto. We don’t like to admit or think about it, but this is a political body; decisions are rarely crammed down by fiat, but have to be developed by discussion, argument, compromise, horse trading. The 1978 revelation is a good example; SWK spent a long time laying the ground work and greasing the skids for that to happen, and even then he only pulled the trigger when the two most recalcitrant apostles were not physically present.

  24. Kevin and Leonard make important observations. In a system that requires a certain amount of consensus (all the way to unity, depending on time frame), that doesn’t apologize (seemingly a principle, not just a practice), and that recognizes some level (tbd) of human limitation, we will always have a challenge of discernment. I strongly suspect that prophets don’t always know what their own prophecies mean and for how long or in what circumstances they apply.

  25. It used to be that disagreements among “the Brethren” were more public, which had its benefits and its negatives (though, personally, I think the benefits greatly outweighed the negatives. In fact, I’m not even sure what the negatives might be, but I’m sure they were there–something, perhaps about weakening their positions?)

    Anyway, I was both happy and disturbed to see this happen as recently as the April Conference when Pres. Nelson picked a fight with at least Elder Bednar: It is doctrinally incomplete to speak of the Lord’s atoning sacrifice by shortcut phrases, such as “the Atonement” or “the enabling power of the Atonement” or “applying the Atonement” or “being strengthened by the Atonement.” Clearly he feels he understands the atonement better and wants everyone else to get on board.

  26. The more I learn about early church history and of the actions of Joseph and Brigham, the only conclusion I can reach is that church level prophesy and high church leadership is independent of personal righteousness and humility. Perhaps being a prophet is more about the self confiddence to direct large groups of people. Some of our prophets seem as Christ like as the average person.

    I think that prophets are sometimes similar to generals. They are good at some things and lousy at everything else. They set the direction and we feel obligated to obey while inside we sometimes fume at their obtuse behavior.

  27. I get your well-made points, Mette. There is similarity between the priesthood ban and the gay member policy, as reflected in your post and the comments. Does it imply Brigham’s stated blind obedience if one accepts the policies while rejecting the conjectured or even the stated reasons for them? Is it possible to accept them as God’s will until further light and knowledge is given if one’s personal revelation tells him to do so? These are questions I wrestle with because I’ve read about the often heated policy discussions of the Q15 and it’s reasonable to conclude that the stronger faction wins out in a decision because they are stronger or that their rationale is more logical or just (or in some cases more merciful?) and not necessarily that it’s the Lord’s will. But is it possible that they arrive at a unanimous consensus without fully knowing the rationale, and they themselves have to accept it on faith?

  28. “But when I agree with this statement of his, how do I square it with my disgust at his racism? Is he only a prophet when he agrees with me? Do I ever take counsel from prophets and change my own opinions?
    I don’t know the answer to this. I truly don’t.”

    Isn’t there a meaningful distinction to be made between an opinion and a conviction? Certainly a prophet has influenced or changed your opinions. Just by listening to conference or reading the LDS Newsroom, you experience those subtle shifts of opinion, whether negative or positive.

    But why would we want or expect church leadership to change our convictions? Isn’t that more likely the job of deity itself? Which maybe, occasionally, uses the leadership as an instrument. But just as often might use a homeless fellow or a political scene or an ancient scripture or a fierce, profound, internal struggle to accomplish the same purpose.

    We emphasize the human fallibility of the leadership. What about the inverse, though? Why not emphasize the spiritual infallibility of the very best slice of the human soul? What about being guided by the godly, infallible, eternal, and divinely individual spirit inside each of us lowly, common, rank/file, non-leadership members? I’m referring to something a little more oceanic than the term “personal revelation” usually captures. I mean the source of moral conviction.

  29. Kevin Christensen says:

    Several years ago, my wife and I took the extraordinary step of looking up “sustain” in a good dictionary.

    Sustain

    1. To keep up; keep going; maintain. Aid, assist, comfort.
    2. to supply as with food or provisions:
    3. to hold up; support
    4. to bear; endure
    5. to suffer; experience: to sustain a broken leg.
    6. to allow; admit; favor
    7. to agree with; confirm.

    Personally, I think it is a super word, just right, just what a covenant community consisting of imperfect people needs to cope with one another.

    Besides providing room for dealing with, for example Brigham Young’s imperfections and occasional offensive statements, this definition does not require me to ignore the many inspiring and insightful statements he left. (For a good sample, read Nibley’s Brigham Challenges the Saints, and the Brigham Young Priesthood manual, and Eugene England on Brigham Young as an Intellectual and Orator.) It also helps me deal with well meaning Saints who “quote mine” for effect while not bothering to mention the nature and extent of the historical context and balance that I see as crucially relevant. Kevin Barney even did a apt blog post not long ago on this important essay:

    https://byustudies.byu.edu/content/curse-ham-race-and-slavery-early-judaism-christianity-and-islam-noahs-curse-biblical

    Brigham did not invent racism, but rather inherited it, and knowing that makes it much easier for me to sustain him without having to agonize over it. I learned from Thomas Kuhn that “anomaly emerges against a background of expectation,” and I learned from my own efforts to comprehend the restoration that if I run across something I did not expect, I should pause and explore the issue of “What should I expect?” And it also happens that I wrote a detailed essay on Biblical Keys for Discerning True and False Prophets for FAIR. That taught me better what to expect from prophets, saints, and critics, and the realize that “By their fruits shall ye know them” does not involve a purely subjective decision about what is good, but rather, what set of characteristics I should expect from a true prophet, and that understand that even a bruised or wormy grape signifies a grape vine, whereas even a perfect thorn or a popular thistle does not signify either grape or fig. One of the key aspects is that discernment involves checking ones own eye for beams first in order to see clearly. I also have learned from doing 12 step recovery and helping others do so for over a decade is that unrealistic expectations for other people, can be “pre-meditated resentments.”

  30. multi-faceted-sustainer says:

    Yeah, it’s a super word because it allows those members who merely suffer or endure some of our “prophets, seers, and revelators”‘s pronouncements to “sustain” them, just as those do who agree with them. It allows all to aid and assist them whether by agreement or criticism — and to do so without requiring agreement as to which of their priorities are “prophetic” in the sense of divinely inspired. It even allows “sustaining” them merely by prayers that they will come to see the mistakes some of them acknowledge being made — at least in the abstract. It is indeed “just what a covenant community consisting of imperfect people needs to cope with one another,” but it works best in that way if people actually use a good dictionary. Is that really an “extraordinary step” to take?

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