Note: The following essay was authored by reader and contributor Hal Mitchell. The author can be communicated with by writing a comment at the end of his essay.
In 1980, Mormon Church apostle Ezra Taft Benson gave a speech at Brigham Young University titled, The 14 Fundamentals in Following a Prophet. This speech has been oft-quoted, and repeated en toto more than once by other LDS church general authorities. It has been 37 years since the talk was originally given, and it is now a sort of sacred motto-exhortation within Mormonism to “follow the prophet.” In Mormonism, the term “the prophet” refers exclusively to the current president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A man becomes the prophet automatically upon his ordination to be the church’s next president. “The prophets” is a more general term usually referring to the twelve apostles and three members of the First Presidency of the church collectively, and twice a year in General Conference, these fifteen men are all sustained as “prophets, seers and revelators” by the general membership of the church in attendance. Otherwise, in gospel discussions sometimes denoting all prophets down through the ages. Most Mormons likely also consider “follow the prophet” to be a scriptural mandate, although it isn’t actually found in the canonical works. Following the prophet is heavily emphasized in the first lesson of the LDS church’s missionary training manual Preach My Gospel.1
Is this the way God intends us to foster loyal obedience to one particular church leader? An apostle gives a talk, other church leaders like what was said and quote it a few times, and then they get used to it, and then it becomes a sacred responsibility? Should we not first ascertain whether becoming president of the Mormon church purely by seniority, which is the way presidents are always chosen in Mormondom, automatically means they’ve become a prophet to be followed? Did they suddenly become incapable of teaching errors, just because the most senior LDS apostle ahead of them just died? A prophet establishes him/herself by accurately foretelling future events, or by declaring divine revelations from God that the people previously not received. If a person has been successful in that capacity, he/she will have a voluntary following, and should not need to command followers.
Since 1980, in the Mormon church, members are frequently taught that they can confidently adhere wholly to what the prophets and apostles say, because the saints cannot be led astray. This is another saying that has been repeated so often that it has now become doctrine. It was stated by Wilford Woodruff in his comments after issuing the Manifesto [banning polygamy] in 1890:
The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.
(Sixty-first Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, October 6, 1890, Salt Lake City, Utah. Reported in Deseret Evening News, October 11, 1890, p. 2.)
In Ezra Taft Benson’s talk, his second fundamental is that the word of a prophet can refute the standard works.
So Mormon prophets have such faith in their abilities, they believe they can refute established scripture, which has been revealed to mankind by miraculous means. Ironically, in 1986 (six years after his Fundamentals talk), Benson gave another famous speech regarding how the saints trifle with the Book of Mormon:
Finally, the Book of Mormon is the keystone of testimony. Just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. The enemies of the Church understand this clearly. This is why they go to such great lengths to try to disprove the Book of Mormon, for if it can be discredited, the Prophet Joseph Smith goes with it. So does our claim to priesthood keys, and revelation, and the restored Church . . .
Yes, my beloved brothers and sisters, the Book of Mormon is the keystone of our religion—the keystone of our testimony, the keystone of our doctrine, and the keystone in the witness of our Lord and Savior.
Many members who read or heard these words could be justifiably confused. Which is a standard truth, the Book of Mormon or the teachings of prophets? First Benson says a prophet can override the standard works of the church, but then he says six years later that if the if the Book of Mormon is not true, it being the keystone of the religion, then prophets, priesthood, testimony and all that Mormons believe is not true.
So again, which Ezra Taft Benson was correct? He was accepted by Mormons as a prophet, seer and revelator when he made both statements. How does one discern when we rely wholly upon human leaders? In which talk was he never leading us astray?
While President of the church, and thus considered a prophet, Brigham Young emphatically declared: “I never preached a sermon that could not be considered scripture.”2 (Emphasis added.)
He also emphatically declared his Adam God theory from the pulpit in the LDS General Conference on April 9, 1852 that Adam was “ . . . our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do.” He also stated that Jesus was begotten of Adam, and that he was our Father in Heaven. This sermon became famously known for its “Adam-God theory,” and caused much controversy because it was scripturally unfounded.
In his book Doctrines of Salvation, then-apostle Joseph Fielding Smith stated: “In all probability the [Adam /God sermon] was erroneously transcribed.”3
In a 1976 session of General Conference, Spencer W. Kimball, the then-current prophet, bluntly referred to Brigham Young’s Adam-God theory as “false doctrine.” He said:
We warn you against the dissemination of doctrines which are not according to the scriptures and which are alleged to have been taught by some General Authorities of past generations, such, for instance is the Adam-God theory. We denounce that theory and hope that everyone will be cautioned against this and other kinds of false doctrine.
(Church News, 10/9/76).
Kimball’s statement puts him at odds with not only Brigham Young, but also makes obvious his disagreement with Joseph Fielding Smith’s opinion that Brigham Young’s quote was transcribed incorrectly.
In his April 9th 1852 Adam/God address, President Young ended with the the following words: “Now, let all who may hear these doctrines, pause before they make light of them, or treat them with indifference, for they will prove their salvation or damnation.”
So now the orthodox Mormon must choose whom to follow and whom to ignore as a faithful follower of prophets. Is one damned by not agreeing with Brigham Young, or for not following Spencer Kimball, or agreeing with Joseph Fielding Smith? Which is right? All have been ordained as prophets, seers and revelators, and in the eyes of Mormons, all three carried the mantle of the living oracle.
In case there be doubt again of a potential misquote, as Smith suggested, other apostles, namely Heber C. Kimball, on June 6, 1856 and Wilford Woodruff on June 29, 1854 wrote in speeches and in journals respectively that Brigham Young taught that Adam was God the Father.
Isn’t it better to follow God’s words in scripture than the theories and opinions of successive church presidents?
Brigham Young said in 1852 that blacks should not hold the priesthood and ten prophets agreed with him over the years. (See “Race and the Priesthood” essay published by the LDS church at lds.org.)
The most well known of these was the statement made by Bruce R. McConkie in his book Mormon Doctrine. McConkie offered the following opinion:
Those who were less valiant in the pre-existence and who thereby had certain spiritual restrictions imposed upon them during mortality are known to us as the negroes. Such spirits are sent to earth through the lineage of Cain, the mark put upon him for his rebellion against God and his murder of Abel being a black skin…but this inequality is not of man’s origin. It is the Lord’s doing, based on His eternal laws of justice, and grows out of the lack of spiritual valiance of those concerned in their first estate.4
On the LDS Church’s website it states:
Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.
(Essay “Race and the Priesthood” at lds.org)
Does this mean the LDS church condemns and refutes past prophets, seers and revelators?
On the privately owned and operated apologist website fairmormon.org, it is mentioned that the most unfortunate legacy of the ban of blacks from the priesthood is perhaps an aspect that was least intended. Many members were sincerely concerned about the justice of the ban. Many sought to explain it through a variety of hypotheses. Such doctrinal folklore was never official (it is claimed), but became widespread as members sought to reconcile their ideas about the justice and mercy of God with the ban’s reality. But this doctrinal folklore, as implied by FairMormon, was not just taught by “many members,” but men like George Albert Smith, David O. Mckay, J. Reuben Clark, Bruce R McConkie, all whom Mormons had sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators. See the following quotes:
“From the days of the Prophet Joseph Smith even until now, it has been the doctrine of the Church, never questioned by Church leaders, that the Negroes are not entitled to the full blessings of the Gospel.” (“Statement of The First Presidency on the Negro Question,” July 17 1947)5
The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time.
(The First Presidency on the Negro Question, 17 Aug. 1949)
The position of the Church regarding the Negro may be understood when another doctrine of the church is kept in mind, namely, that the conduct of spirits in the pre-mortal existence has some determining effect upon the conditions and circumstances under which these spirits take on mortality, and that while the details of this principle have not been made known, the principle itself indicates that the coming to this earth and taking on mortality is a privilege that is given to those who maintained their first estate; and that the worth of the privilege is so great that spirits are willing to come to earth and take on bodies no matter what the handicap may be as to the kind of bodies they are to secure; and that among the handicaps, failure of the right to enjoy in mortality the blessings of the priesthood is a handicap which spirits are willing to assume in order that they might come to earth. Under this principle there is no injustice whatsoever involved in this deprivation as to the holding of the priesthood by the Negroes . . .
Man will be punished for his own sins and not for Adam’s transgression. If this is carried further, it would imply that the Negro is punished or allotted to a certain position on this earth, not because of Cain’s transgression, but came to earth through the loins of Cain because of his failure to achieve other stature in the spirit world.
(Official Statement of First Presidency issued on August 17, 1951)
Whom do we believe? Was Spencer W. Kimball wrong and the others right? Either way, if early church presidents speak for God, why would God change his mind?
When Bruce R. McConkie wrote his book, Mormon Doctrine, he did it without the knowledge of the First Presidency. He was not an apostle, or what the church designates as a prophet, seer and revelator at that time. Mark E. Peterson and Marion G. Romney (both apostles) were asked to review his book and give an official report to the prophet David O. Mckay. Peterson and Romney found over 1000 errors in doctrine in the book. and David O. McKay asked McConkie not to pursue the project.
From David O. Mckay’s office journal, we learn:
THURSDAY, January 7, 1960
10:15 to 12:45 p.m. Re: The book—‘Mormon Doctrine’
The First Presidency met with Elders Mark E. Petersen and Marion G. Romney. They submitted their report upon their examination of the book ‘Mormon Doctrine’ by Elder Bruce McConkie. (sic)
These brethren reported that the manuscript of the book ‘Mormon Doctrine’ has not been read by the reading committee; that President Joseph Fielding Smith did not know anything about it until it was published. Elder Petersen stated that the extent of the corrections which he had marked in his copy of the book (1067) affected most of the 776 pages of the book. He also said that he thought the brethren should be under the rule that no book should be published without a specific approval of the First Presidency.
I stated that the decision of the First Presidency and the Committee should be announced to the Twelve.
It was agreed that the necessary corrections are so numerous that to republish a corrected edition of the book would be such an extensive repudiation of the original as to destroy the credit of the author; that the republication of the book should be forbidden and that the book should be repudiated in such a way as to save the career of the author as one of the General Authorities of the Church. It was also agreed that this decision should be announced to the Council of the Twelve before I talk to the author.
Elder Petersen will prepare an editorial for publication in the Improvement Era, stating the principle of approval of books on Church doctrine.
All of these men were prophets seers and revelators. Technically McConkie was not yet an apostle when he wrote the book, but the prophet told him to stop pursuing the project. Since the prophet instructed that the book McConkie had written be “forbidden,” who received the revelation that it should be pursued and continue to be a reliable church doctrinal resource? It is still quoted in LDS Seminary curricula and other Church manuals. Whom do we believe? Which prophet do we follow? Which prophet is inspired and speaking with the endorsement of the Holy Ghost? Which side is the one that will never lead us astray?
In the introductory heading of the LDS canon Doctrine and Covenants Section 132, it states:
Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Nauvoo, Illinois, recorded July 12, 1843, relating to the new and everlasting covenant, including the eternity of the marriage covenant and the principle of plural marriage. Although the revelation was recorded in 1843, evidence indicates that some of the principles involved in this revelation were known by the Prophet as early as 1831.
On May 7, 1831, section 49 was revealed, and in verses 15 and 16 the Lord is quoted as declaring:
“15 And again, verily I say unto you, that whoso forbiddeth to marry is not ordained of God, for marriage is ordained of God unto man. 16 Wherefore, it is lawful that he should have one wife, and they twain shall be one flesh, and all this that the earth might answer the end of its creation . . .”
So now we have two conflicting scriptures, allegedly from the Lord, giving two opposite commandments, one endorsing polygamy, and the other saying men should have one wife.
How do we know what is from God, and what is from man, when we get two opposing commandments in the same few months of 1831?
Doctrine and Covenants (hereafter D&C) 137 is an interesting account of Joseph Smith’s vision of the Celestial kingdom.
5 I saw Father Adam and Abraham; and my father and my mother; my brother Alvin, that has long since slept;
6 And marveled how it was that he had obtained an inheritance in that kingdom, seeing that he had departed this life before the Lord had set his hand to gather Israel the second time, and had not been baptized for the remission of sins.
7 Thus came the voice of the Lord unto me, saying: All who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God;
8 Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom;
9 For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts.
The clearly states that temple ordinances for the dead are not necessary. That was the question Joseph Smith says he took to the Lord, and the Lord answered it clearly and simply. Joseph even implied that only baptism, not additional temple ordinances, is required to inherit the Celestial Kingdom, since Joseph had previously believed Alvin’s mere lack of a baptism had prevented his inheritance of the Celestial Kingdom. Why, then, does the church persist in beliefs when a book accepted as scripture refutes a doctrine? According to this revelation, in the eyes of the Lord, if a person died who would have been receptive to the gospel, that person is going to the Celestial Kingdom . . . just like Alvin and Joseph’s parents. So whom does one believe, modern church doctrine or past Joseph Smith visions? What is the purpose of temples, if ordinances are not necessary for entrance into the Celestial Kingdom?
Also, in Alma 40 of the Book of Mormon, Alma is counseling his son Corianton and describes to him what happen to souls after they die. He never mentions a spirit prison, or souls waiting for relatives to get their temple work done so they can enter into God’s presence. Who came up with this idea when it is clearly negated in these two scriptural locations? Whom is one to believe, scriptures, or nonscriptural sources of unknown origin that eventually evolve into doctrine by no known inspiration or documentation?
In Joseph Smith’s April 1844 King Follet sermon he taught the doctrine that God is an exalted man and that man can somehow become God. This is a radical doctrine that most of Christianity rejects. But is it true? Lorenzo Snow, a future prophet, said the famous couplet as quoted from The Teachings of Lorenzo Snow: “As man is now, God once was. As God is now, man may be.”6 But in an August 1997 Time Magazine article, Gordon B. Hinckley was asked about this concept established by two of his previous fellow prophets. The Time Magazine reporter asked the following question:
Q: …about that, God the Father was once a man as we were. This is something that Christian writers are always addressing. Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?
President Hinckley’s complete response was:
A: I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don’t know. I don’t know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.
Is this disturbing on several levels? Why would the acting oracle of God on the earth say he didn’t know when asked about what is being taught in the church over which he presides? Is he denying that it is taught? Is he implying it may be a false doctrine? If something is no longer taught, does that mean it is no longer true? If it is a doctrine taught by Joseph Smith and Lorenzo Snow about the nature of God, shouldn’t it be endorsed if two other predecessors emphatically stated it was true? And if it is not taught shouldn’t there be a solid reason for why it is not? If you are a prophet, why do you provide such a vague, meaningless answer?
In the next General Conference of 1997 he stated, possibly trying to redeem himself:
The media have been kind and generous to us. This past year of pioneer celebrations has resulted in very extensive, favorable press coverage. There have been a few things we wish might have been different. I personally have been much quoted, and in a few instances misquoted and misunderstood. I think that’s to be expected. None of you need worry because you read something that was incompletely reported. You need not worry that I do not understand some matters of doctrine. I think I understand them thoroughly, and it is unfortunate that the reporting may not make this clear. I hope you will never look to the public press as the authority on the doctrines of the Church.
What a puzzling response. It is strange that if he feels he was misquoted, and he has a forum to clarify the misinterpretation to faithful followers of whether or not the church accepts, teaches, or believes what other prophets have said, why doesn’t he take the opportunity to do it? Why can’t Mormons hear hear his thoughts so they can discern, as he does, what the press is allegedly misconstruing? It’s again unclear who is inspired, President Hinckley or Joseph Smith and Lorenzo Snow.
The temple endowment ceremony is considered doctrine in the Mormon faith. It is unknown exactly who received the inspiration that established the things taught there, but it is doctrine. It also is continually changing. Words, rituals, etc. are changing as the years go by. The first endowment in the temple took eight hours. Who received the revelation to alter the ceremony and its doctrines over the years? Mormons aren’t taught that it comes from God or any other source. They’re taught nothing on that topic. One just goes to the temple and sees the endowment ceremony has been modified again. Why is it massively modified, if the author of truth is God? Does God need to correct his words for any reason?
According to Section 111 of the D&C, Joseph Smith was inspired in a revelation from God to go to Boston to get money for the church. He and those church leaders he took with him came back having accomplished nothing the Lord supposedly sent them there to do. The purported revelation was filled with misinformation from the beginning. The details of this are laid out in another article on this website devoted to D&C 111. Are we to believe that God erred, or just likes to play tricks, or did Joseph just report a non-revelation as a divine revelation? If the revelation was from God, why would it result in a wild goose chase?
D&C Section 103, another purported revelation which inspired the trek called “Zion’s Camp” to Missouri by a large group of Mormon men to defeat the church’s enemies there and reclaim lost land, is another example. Mormons teach that there were great lessons, and great examples of courage from Zion’s Camp. Here are the actual words the Lord supposedly said to the Joseph Smith:
13 Behold, this is the blessing which I have promised after your tribulations, and the tribulations of your brethren—your redemption, and the redemption of your brethren, even their restoration to the land of Zion, to be established, no more to be thrown down . . .
16 Therefore, I will raise up unto my people a man, who shall lead them like as Moses led the children of Israel.
17 For ye are the children of Israel, and of the seed of Abraham, and ye must needs be led out of bondage by power, and with a stretched-out arm.
18 And as your fathers were led at the first, even so shall the redemption of Zion be.
19 Therefore, let not your hearts faint, for I say not unto you as I said unto your fathers: Mine angel shall go up before you, but not my presence.
20 But I say unto you: Mine angels shall go up before you, and also my presence, and in time ye shall possess the goodly land.
Despite being allegedly told by God, “ye shall possess the goodly land . . .”, that never happened to Joseph Smith. Why did the Lord make promises if they were never to come true? In any other scripture does the Lord make promises that don’t come true? Sometimes he will offer a contingency of righteousness or wickedness to prophecies, but he did not in this case. This revelation clearly did not come from the Lord. The Saints never have possessed the “goodly land.” Joseph Smith was not like unto Moses leading them to Zion. The mission failed. There is nothing wrong with being wrong and admitting to it, but we need to question the notion that a Mormon prophet can never lead us astray. Pretending what happened was all the Lord’s will, which is a position taken by church Sunday School manuals, when God proclaimed the opposite according to Joseph’s revelation, is being deceitful.
According to Ezra Taft Benson in his Fundamentals talk, the prophet can authoritatively speak on any topic without specific training.
Joseph Fielding Smith and James Talmage both wrote on the subject of evolution. Talmage and Smith disagreed widely in their views despite the fact that they both were prophets, seers and revelators. Both are entitled to their opinions, but they cannot both be right. Smith wrote Man’s Origin and Destiny, and Talmage wrote The Earth and Man, after Smith’s book was published, to counter Smith’s opinion. David O. McKay gave a third opinion, stating that on the topic of evolution, the LDS church has no opinion. Which prophet, seer and revelator is right?
There has been, and will continue to be errors in judgment and false revelations due to the fact that we are led by men. Can the prophets, seers and revelators lead us astray despite their promise not to?
We are clearly not taught in any scripture to follow a prophet, but instead the Book of Mormon and the Bible clearly instruct mankind to follow Jesus. He did tell his disciples to come and follow him. If we do this, we are promised the kingdom of God.
Is it better to follow a prophet which Jesus never asked us to do, or is it better to just follow Jesus as Jesus asked us to do? Why do Mormons try to place someone in between Christ and his disciples?
Reading the Book of Mormon should cure any one of such notions. The brother of Jared story and the story of Enos are tales included in scripture to show us what happens when we put our faith in Jesus. Mormons rarely, if ever, get to sit and speak personally to a prophet, seer and revelator. But Jesus asks us to offer up prayers from our hearts daily. Why does he do this? Because if we are sincere, he will use our prayers to start building our faith. With greater faith, we have greater insight into our spiritual natures and we have greater capacity to understand God’s ways, and therefore we draw closer to him. Must this direct process be interrupted by a prophet, when we know from countless examples they are often in error?
In the story of the brother of Jared found in the Book of Ether in the Book of Mormon, the Lord chastised the brother of Jared for not praying to him in a very long time. It is mentioned that after being rebuked, the brother of Jared and God spoke to each other for three hours. I believe the sacred scripture is written for us, for our times, and for every time. There is a message to be learned. The brother of Jared had been labeled by the Lord as someone whose faith was greater than any other’s (Ether 3:9). The Lord wants to hear the prayer of a person who has much faith. There are probably relatively few such people, and God looks forward, I imagine, to blessing that soul who believes mightily in him. Did the Lord actually miss the Brother of Jared, and does he miss us, when we don’t pray to him from our hearts? I believe the brother of Jared is no different than any other of God’s children. The Lord is always inviting us to have faith in him, to believe in him, to pray to him and to follow him. Is there anywhere a single verse of scripture that suggests that presidents of the church have superior understanding of God’s teachings, and sensitivity to the Holy Ghost, than any other sincere follower of Christ? Does God want us to follow a prophet who obviously can, and occasionally will, lead us astray, whether intentionally or unintentionally? I believe the Bible and Book of Mormon are filled with invitations for Jesus’ disciples to follow him only.
1. Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004), 31-46.
2. Journal of Discourses, Vol.13, p.95, Brigham Young, January 2, 1870
3. Doctrines of Salvation: Sermons and Writing of Joseph Fielding Smith, compiled by Bruce R. McConkie (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954) vol. 1, p. 96.
4. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966) p. 527
5. John J. Stewart, Mormonism and the Negro (Orem, Utah: Bookmark/Community Press Publishing Co., 1960) 46-47.
6. Lorenzo Snow, as quoted in LDS lesson manual Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow (Salt Lake City: Intellectual Reserve, 2011), p. 83