The President of the Church and the Prophet to the Church.

In July of 1843, in Nauvoo, Joseph Smith said something that observers interpreted as a proposal to call his brother Hyrum as Prophet in his place. He was reportedly confronted by church members who protested on the basis that he, not Hyrum, enjoyed the gift of prophecy. A week later, Joseph explained that he had said it “ironically,” or “to try the church members’ faith.” He explained that “the spirit of prophecy is the testimony of Jesus,” quoting the Book of Revelation, and referred to the promises of the melchizedek priesthood. [1]

These statements are open to some interpretation, but I believe Joseph Smith was getting at two things: First, his reference to the priesthood suggests that the gift of prophecy he enjoyed was something that the Lord promised not to him alone, but to all those ordained to the melchizedek priesthood. [2] But second, even more radically democratic, his reference to the “testimony of Jesus” as the spirit of prophecy suggests that prophecy was a gift promised not just to melchizedek priesthood holders, and not even just to baptized members of the church, but to any person with a testimony of Jesus. 

The concept underlying both of these is an understanding that the gift of prophecy is not something that is inherently, uniquely personal to the man that the saints recognized as the prophet. That concept is important to how we understand the role of prophets, and the prophet, in the church today. This post is an attempt to put together a few thoughts on that role.

In colloquial speech, we often use prophet and president synonymously. We call the president of the church “the prophet.” I don’t object to that, but I want to suggest that the office of president of the church and the role of prophet to the church are not the same thing (even though the same man holds both): The president of the church is an office in the church, but prophet to the church is a mission or role that the president of the church fills.

All the members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators, but only one is sustained as the president of the church, and he is the only one authorized to exercise the gifts of prophecy and revelation for the entire church. [3] So colloquially, we call him “the prophet” out of recognition that while many church leaders (and members) are blessed with the gift of prophecy, the president of the church is the only one authorized to exercise the that gift on the entire church’s behalf, but the president of the church is not the only church leader, or church member, blessed with the gift of prophecy.

How does the president of the church become the prophet to the church?

According to tradition, the senior apostle becomes the president of the church after a church president dies. So how does the senior apostle become the president of the church, and how does he become the prophet to the church? Well, because one is an office and the other is a role filled by the holder of that office, I think the technical answers to those questions are different.

How does he become the president of the church? Others have written about the mechanics of succession the presidency, including the development of the tradition that the presidency passes to the senior apostle. But the tradition does not make him the president. He becomes the president of the church by being called by the quorum of the twelve apostles (the governing quorum of the church when the former church president dies), set apart by the laying of hands under that quorum, and sustained by the membership of the church. [4] Tradition guides how the apostles select the man to call and ordain as church president, but it is the calling and ordination, and sustaining, not the tradition, that actually makes him the president.

But how does he become the prophet? Does becoming the president of the church automatically make him the prophet? Well, I guess that depends on what we mean by prophet. If we mean that he is the highest mortal authority in the church, then yes. If we mean that he holds all the keys and authority that currently exist in the institutional church, then yes. If we mean that nobody else is authorized to receive revelation for the entire church, then yes. But if we mean that he has the gift of prophecy, I believe that prophecy is not automatically conferred with ordination, but is a spiritual gift that comes only from God.

It is by calling, ordination, and sustaining that the senior apostle becomes the president of the church, But it is only by God’s grace that he becomes the prophet to the church.

But what if the President  of the Church doesn’t enjoy the gift of prophecy?

Joseph Smith’s rejection of the notion that a prophet is always a prophet [5] suggests that even if a prophet is blessed with the gift of prophecy, he may not enjoy that gift at all times. A gift of grace can be promised through ordination, but it can’t be controlled by ordinances alone (see also D&C 121:36-37). The spirit blows where it wants.

But let me be clear: In drawing this distinction between the office of the president of the church, which is conferred by calling, ordination, and sustaining, and the role of prophet to the church, which is strictly a gift of God, I am not saying that we as modern church members should set ourselves up to judge whether the duly ordained and sustained church president enjoys the gift of prophecy or not, and then base our decision to recognize his authority based on that. By sustaining him as a prophet, we recognize his authority in the church, and I believe we commit to act, when in doubt, as though he does enjoy that gift (D&C 21:4-5).

And beyond that, based on my own experience, I don’t believe spiritual gifts are an on/off switch, but more like a dimmer switch. In other words, I don’t think it makes much sense to think of any church leader as enjoying a spiritual gift or not; instead, I think we all enjoy spiritual gifts to greater or lesser degrees. And while personal righteousness obviously plays a role in whether a anyone enjoys a spiritual gift, I don’t believe that’s the only factor. Particularly when it comes to church leaders, I think the Lord will bless the church with the gift of prophecy to the degree that the church exercises faith to receive that gift. So even if a church leader is personally blessed with the gift of prophecy, I believe that it is the faith of the church members that enables him to exercise that gift for the church, and I’m not sure that he would be able to exercise it on behalf of a church that lacked faith. Conversely, even if a church leader were not personally blessed with the gift of prophecy, I believe that the Lord could give him that gift to the extent that we as church members had the faith to receive it.

In other words, it is the church’s responsibility to “uphold [the church president] before me by the prayer of faith” (D&C 43:12). If we want a prophet, we have to have the faith to receive prophecy.

What does it mean to sustain the President of the Church as the Prophet?

When we, the church, acting through our apostolic leaders, call and set apart the senior apostle to be our president, and we the church, acting in a solemn assembly, sustain that action, then he is the president of the church and the only one that God will allow to exercise all the keys and authority of the institutional church.

But I want to suggest that the act of sustaining the president of the church as a prophet,  is more than just recognizing his institutional authority. It certainly includes that recognition, and when Mormons speak colloquially of someone failing to sustain the prophet, we usually mean that person is failing to recognize his institutional authority.

But that’s a pretty narrow view of sustaining. I want to suggest that to sustain a prophet is broader than to just passively consent to his authority. Broader, even, than enthusiastically supporting all his words and actions. I believe it means, among other things, to commit to pray for the Lord to give him—and continue giving him—the gift of prophecy so he can be the prophet to the church as he is the president of the church.

For that matter, sustaining a church leader as a prophet is not something we should limit to the president of the church. Sure, only the president of the church is the prophet, but that doesn’t mean that he’s the only one with the gift of prophecy, it just means that he’s the only one authorized to exercise that gift for the whole church. Other church leaders may have that gift and they are authorized to exercise it in the church within the scope of their callings. So while we will soon sustain President Nelson for the first time as the president of the church, we have long sustained him, along with the other apostles, as a prophet. When we sustain any apostle, I think we should think of it not just as an acknowledgment of their ecclesiastical authority, but as a petition for the Lord to give them the gift of prophecy.

I’m not blind to the fact that President Nelson’s personal advocacy against gay marriage and involvement with related issues having to do with the place of gay members and their families in the church, including his defense of the policy excluding minor children of parents in a gay marriage has made it especially hard for many church members to recognize him as the highest authority in the institutional church even while they believe in the restoration and want to be active, participating members of the church. I don’t want to be dismissive of that pain. I hope that praying for the Lord to bless him with the gift of prophecy is a way to sustain the president of the church that we can all get behind, whether we personally experience that pain or not. I hope that this may be a way for us to be united in sustaining church leadership even though our experiences and feelings may be vastly different.

So as we prepare to meet as church members in a solemn assembly in April to sustain the new first presidency, and the other general authorities as prophets, seers, and revelators, let’s pray for the Lord to bless President Nelson with the gift of prophecy, so that he can be the prophet to the church as well as the president of the church. And let’s pray for the Lord to bless all the apostles, both those that serve in the First Presidency and those that serve in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, with the gift of prophecy so that they can be prophets to the church.

 


 

[1] Here is the Joseph Smith diary entry for July 16, 1843, when he proposed sustaining Hyrum as “prophet.” WVS’s “Parallel Joseph” is, in my opinion, one of the handiest resources for comparing the diary to other contemporaneously-recorded versions of Joseph Smith’s sermons. Here is the entry on July 16, 1843.

Here is the Joseph Smith diary entry for July 23, 1843, when he explained that his proposal to sustain Hyrum was “ironic.” Here is the entry in manuscript history of the church, which explains that it was to try the members’ faith. Both sources include the references to the quote from Revelation 19:10 and to the melchizedek priesthood.

[2] Personally, I read the reference to the priesthood as an echo of the promises made to those ordained to the “order of Enoch” in the revelation on Enoch that Joseph Smith received during his translation of the bible (see JST, Genesis 14:30-32). Some sources seem to suggest that he was talking about the ordinances of the temple, as much as he was about ordination to the melchizedek priesthood. Of course, the priesthood and the temple are closely connected, and by 1843 it’s probably a mistake to think of references to the melchizedek priesthood as referring exclusively to priesthood ordination without the endowment. And if the reference is not just to melchizedek priesthood ordination, but to the endowment, that’s even more democratic because unlike priesthood ordination, the endowment becomes available to women as well as to men, and by the time Joseph Smith dies Brigham Young is supervising the temple ordinances, there is a push to give access to all worthy church members rather than to a small trusted circle. But in any case, linking the gift of prophecy to either the temple or to priesthood ordination democratizes the gift of prophecy, and reinforces the idea that prophecy is a gift that is not uniquely personal to a prophet, but is a gift that any qualified saint can potentially exercise.

[3] Some presidents, like President Hinckley, have insisted on being sustained as the presiding high priest and president of the high priesthood of the church–which is the scriptural language from section 107–others have been sustained simply as president of the church. (Note, I’m going by memory here, I thought I remembered reading an article about this a few years ago, but I couldn’t find it, so somebody correct me if I’m wrong.) I will be paying attention to see what language President Nelson chooses. But in any case, they are sustained as the president, but only one of many prophets, seers, and revelators. [Nope. Looks like my memory was off on this.]

There are other fun historical details about sustaining. The presiding patriarch used to be sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator until the 1970s. And the earlier presidents of the church were sustained not just as prophets, seers, and revelators, but also as “translators.”

[4] The tradition of apostolic succession is an efficient and convenient way to select a new church president. As far as I can tell, it is only a tradition. It’s certainly not required by any canonized revelation. I don’t doubt, for example, that the Lord could inspire the apostles to set apart someone other than the senior apostle if he chose to. You could imagine other ways of doing it. It could be done by counseling and deliberation, the way many other callings in the church are done. The apostles in the new testament drew lots to select a new apostle. The much-touted advantage of our tradition of apostolic succession is that it avoids the sort of politicking that is said to have been an issue with the election of the renaissance popes, for example, but even more important to our own history is the fact that it provides stability and thus avoids the kind of competing claims and succession crises that followed Joseph Smith’s death. Given our history, it’s not hard to see the advantages. I’m not questioning the legitimacy of the tradition as a way to select the new president of the church, but in the interest of accuracy, I think it’s important to note that that it is a tradition, not a requirement of a canonized revelation.

[5] Here is the Joseph Smith diary entry for this. Here is the manuscript history of the church entry.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful piece. Spot on!

  2. Thank you. I needed to read this. After the disappointing news conference and the heaviness of heart it left me with, your words have provided me with a way to sustain the prophet with sincerity.

  3. Thanks, Debs. That means a lot to me.

  4. Conner Van Liew says:

    Jared, this post is amazing! I hope you and the family’s doing well!

  5. I enjoyed the article. I am having trouble, however, locating a source for your claim in footnote 3: “Some presidents, like President Hinckley, have insisted on being sustained as the presiding high priest and president of the high priesthood of the church.” Is there a source you could direct me to? President Hinckley’s solemn assembly in April 1995 doesn’t make use of this language.

  6. Geoff - Aus says:

    My understanding is that revelation comes in response to request from the Prophet, so we can pray that he ask the lord for direct revelation.
    Elder Nelson, has described what he thought was revelation on the pox, and it sounds more like inspiration, which is easier to filter through his prejudices.
    The 1978 caused the prophet to question his prejudices, but not a face to face revelation.
    So how night the new Prophet define revelation?