Speaking of Prophets

Continuing revelation is one of the fundamental tenets of Mormonism. Consequently, the Mormon church claims to be led by a prophet who conveys God’s will and true doctrine to the members. At the same time, the prophet Joseph Smith warned that a prophet is only a prophet when acting as such, which raises the question: how can a person tell the difference?

Solution 1. Say so

The obvious way would be for a prophet to preface his words in a way that makes it clear to his audience in which capacity he is about to speak, for instance:

“I had a direct revelation of this.  It was most perfect and complete.  If there ever was a thing revealed to man perfectly, clearly, so that there could be no doubt or dubiety, this was revealed to me, and it came in these words: As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be” (from a sermon by church president Lorenzo Snow, September 18, 1898)

This statement, made by a prophet in an official church setting sounds rather prophetic: “a direct revelation”, “revealed perfectly”, “no doubt”. Consequently, as is pointed out in a 1982 article in the church magazine Ensign, “this doctrine is accepted and taught by the Brethren” and “It is clear that the teaching of President Lorenzo Snow is both acceptable and accepted doctrine in the Church today”.

Unfortunately, it does not appear to be as simple as that. Despite the emphatic introduction of the statement that God was once a man by prophet Lorenzo Snow, his successor-prophet Gordon Hinckley in 1997 responded as follows to a question that was put to him by a journalist:

“Q: Don't Mormons believe that God was once a man? A: I wouldn't say that. There was a little couplet coined, As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become. Now that's more of a couplet than anything else”.

So, was Lorenzo Snow speaking as a man when he said he received a direct revelation that left no room for doubt? Was Gordon Hinckley speaking as a prophet when he said it was more of a couplet than anything else (such as an accepted church doctrine)? How can we tell the difference?

Solution 2. Ranking the prophets

Another solution was proposed by church president Ezra Taft Benson: “The living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet". This appears to be helpful when a living prophet wants to change a doctrine or policy but it doesn’t inform us that the new doctrine or policy is correct. Who’s to say that a next prophet isn’t going to change it?

This is what happened with the Mormon view on marriage:

  • The 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants contains the statement “that one man should have one wife; and one woman but one husband, except in case of death”. 
  • Then in 1852, the prophet Brigham Young formally introduced polygamy, a practice that had been secretly introduced by the prophet Joseph Smith a decade earlier. 
  • Next, in 1904 prophet Joseph F. Smith announced that polygamous marriages were prohibited again (source) and the current position of the Mormon church is that the proper definition of marriage is a legal union between one man and one woman.

Today, many countries have introduced, or are introducing, legislation that no longer requires marriage to be between persons of the opposite sex. The Mormon church, led by its current prophet Thomas Monson, is known for its strident opposition to this societal development but who is to say that a future prophet will not change the Mormon definition of marriage yet again?

Solution 3. The thinking has been done

To this question, another solution is sometimes proposed by Mormon church leaders: don’t worry about it, when the prophet speaks, the thinking has been done. The prophet cannot lead the church astray and even if he would, the principle of obedience outweighs the actual command that is being obeyed and it will be counted as righteousness by the Lord.

To an outsider, this reeks of blind obedience to infallible leaders, a principle which most Mormons would vehemently deny following. It is also moral relativism: whatever the current prophet says, goes. And moral relativism is as much anathema to Mormons as blind obedience, at least as far as lip service is concerned. Therefore, they sometimes propose a fourth solution.

Solution 4. Pray for personal confirmation

Mormons maintain they are not supposed to blindly follow their prophet but rather ponder and pray about his counsel, and seek confirmation from the Holy Ghost that it is from God. This sounds good in theory but what would happen if prophet Monson says one thing and personal revelation says another?

This was a problem Joseph Smith ran into very early on in his career as a prophet, when Hiram Page tried his hand at seeing stuff in magic stones. The solution? Only the prophet can see stuff in magic stones that are binding on the whole church. In the modern church, this is generalized in the principle that a person can only receive revelation for their own sphere of authority: a father can receive revelation for his family, a bishop for his congregation and a prophet for the whole church.

Of course, this renders solution 4 moot: if the prophet announces a revelation for the whole church, a mere member cannot receive a spiritual witness that contradicts it since only the prophet can speak for the whole church. It's a variant of that old joke:

  • Rule 1. The prophet is always right;
  • Rule 2. If you receive a personal witness that the prophet is wrong, rule 1 applies.

Solution 5. Believe what you want but don’t talk about it to anyone

To make the blind obedience and moral relativism of solution 3 more palatable, the official rule in the Mormon church is solution 5: a person may believe whatever they want, as long as they don’t talk about it when it contradicts current church policy. You may doubt the historicity of the Book of Mormon but if you talk about it, you get excommunicated. Ask John Dehlin. You may believe that women should get the priesthood but if you talk about it, you get excommunicated. Ask Kate Kelly.

Ask Michael Quinn. Ask Sonia Johnson. Ask Fawn Brodie. Ask William Godbe. Ask David Whitmer. Ask anyone who ever opposed a Mormon prophet. From Joseph Smith to Thomas Monson, expressing dissent in the Mormon church inevitably leads to excommunication.

The answer, then, to the question how you can tell the difference between men speaking as men or as prophets is this: you can't because there is no difference. Your choice is either to obey or to (be forced to) leave the group. Such is the life of an authoritarian follower.