As Latter-day Saints, we love prophets. We love the idea of God speaking to mankind through visions and revelations currently just as He did anciently. We rejoice that the heavens are open, and stand tall on the truth that mankind can know the will of God in any age. However, our unique claim to prophethood has provoked many relevant questions about their role and nature such as: “are prophets infallible?,” “how do we know when they’re speaking as prophets, or are just expressing a personal view/opinion?,” or “if the prophet doesn’t talk about it, is it even necessary for my salvation?” etc.
Though many classes, lectures, and articles have been dedicated to this topic, I actually don’t think it needs to be as complicated as we make it out to be. As with other gospel concepts, this one fits neatly inside a larger pattern of life and creation. When correctly understood, the questions we frequently ask lose their intrigue as they’re replaced by the simplicity of the bigger picture.
This post will hopefully be a chance to reframe and refine our understanding of prophets in light of the Lord’s larger plan of salvation.
Restoring Heaven to Earth
As noted here, all gospel concepts fall into their proper place when viewed through the lens of God trying to restore heaven to earth. In the beginning there was some overlap, as Adam and Eve could dwell in God’s presence. Because of the fall, they were cut off from His presence, and the world was no longer a place fit for the garden of Eden. Since that day, God has sent messengers (in the form of both angels and prophets) to declare His word so that a people might be prepared to again live in His presence.
The first people we have record of who attained such a state of holiness are those of the Zion, the city of Enoch. Enoch declared repentance, and because the people turned to the Lord in perfect faith and humility, they were made pure. The Lord dwelt with them as a result, and when the world became too wicked to hold them, they too were taken from the earth (Moses 7:69).
The second we have record of was the people of Salem, governed by a king named Melchizedek. They too, “wrought righteousness, and obtained heaven, and sought for the city of Enoch which God had before taken” (JST Genesis 14:34). They too ascended into heaven, the world not being prepared to keep them.
When God redeemed Israel from captivity in Egypt, He sought to establish the same thing among them. However, they hardened their hearts and rejected the Lord’s invitation. We read that Moses “sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God; but they hardened their hearts and could not endure his presence; therefore, the Lord in his wrath, for his anger was kindled against them, swore that they should not enter into his rest while in the wilderness, which rest is the fulness of his glory” (D&C 84:23-24; emphasis added).
The Lord’s highest priority is that His people enter into His rest (or presence; the fulness of His glory). He has sought this from the days of Adam onward, and has never deviated from this goal. This is how He plans to restore heaven to earth; first among individuals, then a people, then the world.
When Alma taught the Nephites, He recounted these same motives from the Lord: “Therefore, whosoever repenteth, and hardeneth not his heart, he shall have claim on mercy through mine Only Begotten Son, unto a remission of his sins; and these shall enter into my rest. And whosoever will harden his heart and will do iniquity, behold, I swear in my wrath that he shall not enter into my rest” (Alma 12:34-35; emphasis added).
Regarding those after the same order of Melchizedek/Enoch, Alma said, “Now they, after being sanctified by the Holy Ghost, having their garments made white, being pure and spotless before God, could not look upon sin save it were with abhorrence; and there were many, exceedingly great many, who were made pure and entered into the rest of the Lord their God. And now, my brethren, I would that ye should humble yourselves before God, and bring forth fruit meet for repentance, that ye may also enter into that rest” (Alma 13:12-13; cf. D&C 76:57).
This has been the Lord’s continual invitation ever since. He wants Israel to become a holy nation, the same the city of Enoch was. The way back to His presence follows a narrow course, and only by following His voice back to the source will we find it.
Example or Proxy?
The role of messengers, angels or otherwise, is to declare the word of God. It is to bring to the people the words that they cannot obtain from God on their own. If they receive those words, they are prepared for more. These messengers can be both seen and unseen, as the Holy Ghost is essentially conveyed by the ministering of angels (D&C 76:86-88). When they live by every word that proceeds forth from the mouth of God, they are prepared to enter into His rest. “Therefore he sent angels to converse with them, who caused men to behold of his glory” (Alma 12:29).
Obviously, such messengers must first be pure enough themselves to stand in God’s presence. It’s vain to try and bring someone to a point beyond where you are yourself. Once you’ve walked the narrow path, you can declare the way. Joseph Smith said,
“Salvation cannot come without revelation; it is in vain for anyone to minister without it. … No man can be a minister of Jesus Christ except he has the testimony of Jesus; and this is the spirit of prophecy. Whenever salvation has been administered, it has been by testimony. Men of the present time testify of heaven and hell, and have never seen either; and I will say that no man knows these things without this.”
The goal of these messengers (and the goal of any missionary on any level), is to bring others up to the point that they’re at. The same way a father seeks to bring his son up to adulthood, so the role of a prophet is to make other prophets. Hence, it was not enough for Enoch to be a seer; he sought to bring his entire people into the presence of the Lord. It was not sufficient for Moses to have communed with God, the Lord wanted all Israel to be a holy nation.
I believe the relationship between Lehi and Nephi is the perfect prototype for how these things are intended to work.
Lehi received revelation for himself and his family. Nephi prayed to know whether or not it was true, and the Lord softened his heart (1 Nephi 2:16). As Nephi persisted in the truth he had, the Lord revealed things to him directly. When Lehi told his sons that the Lord commanded them to retrieve the brass plates, Nephi knew it came from God. When Lehi shared his vision about the tree of life, Nephi sought to know and see those things for himself. That vision was not on reserve for Lehi alone, and as Nephi experimented on the word presented by his father, he obtained the same fruits.
Laman and Lemuel, on the other hand, did not seek to know for themselves, believing that “the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us” (1 Nephi 15:9). As they continually hardened their hearts, they received a lesser portion of His word, until they eventually knew nothing regarding His will (Alma 12:11; cf. 2 Nephi 28:30).
Laman and Lemuel hardened their hearts in the same manner that the children of Israel did at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Because they would not receive what Moses had, they received a lesser portion of the word (a lesser law). Specifically, they wanted Moses to stay as their go-between before God: “And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking: and when the people saw it, they removed, and stood afar off. And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die” (Exodus 20:18-19; emphasis added).
The middle-man arrangement proposed by the children of Israel was not what the Lord had in mind for His people. Moses’s primary role as a prophet was to lead them in an exodus from “the world” and into the presence of God. That was Plan A. Instead of becoming prophets and high priests themselves by rising up to the invitation to enter the Lord’s presence, they were content to have someone go on their behalf.
Make no mistake, in neither their day nor ours did God intend for His people to stay at an arm’s length. The reason the higher (Melchizedek) order of the priesthood was restored to the earth was to renew the invitation to Israel to come into the Lord’s immediate presence. In D&C 107, we read:
“The power and authority of the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood, is to hold the keys of all the spiritual blessings of the church—To have the privilege of receiving the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, to have the heavens opened unto them, to commune with the general assembly and church of the Firstborn, and to enjoy the communion and presence of God the Father, and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant” (D&C 107:18-19).
Are we, as the covenant people of the Lord, embracing the invitation to flee “the world” and come into the rest of the Lord, that we might enjoy communion with Him? Are we seeking the very thing to which the temple endowment points? Are we following the pattern so that we too may be found true and faithful in all things, and pass through the veil into God’s presence?
Many of us in the Church rejoice at the idea of modern prophets; do we rejoice because we desire to be led into the presence of the Lord, or rather because the pressure of obtaining personal revelation has been “alleviated?” Don’t we frequently hear people dismiss the need to give greater diligence to learning the mysteries of God, assuming that if it was in fact necessary, they’d hear about it at General Conference? Are we outsourcing our need to learn from God directly? Are we depending on the prophet for revelation rather than inquiring of the Lord for ourselves? Do we assume, like Laman and Lemuel, that “the Lord maketh no such thing known unto us?”
From the minutes of a Relief Society address in 1842, we read: “President Joseph Smith read the 14th chapter of Ezekiel–said the Lord had declared by the Prophet, that the people should each one stand for himself, and depend on no man or men in that state of corruption of the Jewish church–that righteous persons could only deliver their own souls–applied it to the present state of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints–said if the people departed from the Lord, they must fall–that they were depending on the Prophet, hence were darkened in their minds, neglecting the duties devolving upon themselves…” (TPJS p. 238).
I get slightly concerned when I hear catchphrases like “follow the prophet,” because I believe it reinforces a wrong idea. For one, it’s not a phrase or concept to be found anywhere in the scriptures. We certainly “give heed” to the words of the prophets and apostles (D&C 1:14), but to say we “follow the prophet,” I’m afraid overstates the case (at least it seems many take this to an extreme). The emphasis ought not be on the messenger, but on the message. Nephi didn’t follow Lehi, he followed the Lord (1 Nephi 2:16-20). Laman and Lemuel did follow Lehi because they didn’t go and inquire for themselves.
We are each expected, like Nephi, to go and learn these things for ourselves. Men like Lehi are sent to declare the word of God – to shine light on the path – but none of us are exempt from going and doing the exact same thing ourselves. We must live the way the prophets live; we must know the things the prophets know. “…for God hath not revealed anything to Joseph, but what He will make known unto the Twelve, and even the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to bear them…” (TPJS p. 150).
When the Spirit fell on two men in the Israelite camp who went about prophesying, a young man ran to Moses expecting he would be outraged and would put a stop to what was happening. His response? “Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Numbers 11:29).
Dealing with Falliability
There’s a joke that Catholics say the Pope is infallible, but they don’t actually believe it – and that Mormons say the President of the Church is fallible, but they don’t actually believe it.
People spend far too much time trying to dissect what’s opinion and what’s doctrine so they can know what to lean on. The truth is, you shouldn’t be “leaning” on any of it until the Lord has revealed or confirmed it to you himself. Brigham Young and Orson Pratt disagreed on a variety of doctrinal issues. How do you know who to trust? You seek the Spirit of revelation, like Joseph Smith did, and humble yourself so that the Lord can reveal it to you directly. It’s the Lehi-Nephi model.
Brigham Young counseled, “I have often said to the Latter-day Saints – ‘Live so that you will know where I teach you the truth or not.’ Suppose you are careless and unconcerned, and give way to the spirit of the world, and I am led, likewise, to preach the things of this world and to accept things that are NOT of God, how easy it would be for me to lead you astray! But I say to you, live so that you will know for yourselves where I tell the truth or not. That is the way we want all Saints to live” (JD: 18:248).
From J. Rueben Clark: “We can tell when the speakers are moved upon by the Holy Ghost only when we, ourselves, are moved upon by the Holy Ghost. In a way, this completely shifts the responsibility from them to us to determine when they so speak” (CN-7/31/54).
One important principle to note is that leadership positions in the Church do not magically change a person. Just as a missionary or bishop being set-apart does not guarantee they will exercise power in their assignments, so the same applies to every calling in the church, apostleship included. Being called and set-apart is an invitation to the individual to rise up and become what the calling requires of them.
In D&C 107, we read, “And again, the duty of the President of the office of the High Priesthood is to preside over the whole church, and to be like unto Moses—Behold, here is wisdom; yea, to be a seer, a revelator, a translator, and a prophet, having all the gifts of God which he bestows upon the head of the church” (D&C 107:91-92). It is the responsibility of the Presiding High Priest to preside over the Church like Moses did (like a prophet, seer, and revelator).
When Joseph called twelve apostles, they were all charged to seek the face of Christ, and were assured that their ordination was incomplete until Christ Himself laid hands on the them. The following conference, Joseph in turn sustained them as “prophets, seers, and revelators,” although none of them had necessarily attained those things yet. His sustaining vote (and ours) is an acknowledgment to God and the Church that we are going to assist them in their efforts to become what their callings require of them.
It should be no concern to our faith if those called to any position in the Church should stumble. There came a time when even Lehi complained against the Lord for want of food (1 Nephi 16:20). Though I’m sure those who put their trust in Lehi were shaken by his weakness, Nephi had properly been inquiring of the Lord for himself all along. He knew, independent of his father, that the Lord would provide for them if they exercised faith.
Seeking to support his father in the responsibilities of his calling, Nephi fashioned tools for hunting and asked him, “Whither shall I go to obtain food?” This inspired Lehi enough to inquire of the Lord on his behalf (1 Nephi 16:23-24). Having spoken many things “in the energy of my soul,” his family humbled themselves before God, and were chastened by Him as He saw fit.
We see this attitude reflected in George Q. Cannon’s words: “Do not, brethren, put your trust in man though he be a bishop; an apostle, or a president; if you do, they will fail you at some time or place, they will do wrong or seem to, and your support be gone; but if we lean on God, He never will fail us. When men and women depend on God alone, and trust in Him alone, their faith will not be shaken if the highest in the Church should step aside” (“Need For Personal Testimonies,” 2/15/1891).
The only reason we spend any time trying to draw careful lines around what’s “opinion,” “policy,” or “doctrine,” etc., is because we are hardening our hearts by not inquiring of the Lord ourselves. He has promised, “If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you” (1 Nephi 15:11). Because Nephi inquired of the Lord for himself, he could explain to his brothers the things his father taught. Because he had the same vision, he even picked up on things Lehi didn’t notice (1 Nephi 15:27). The only one who could truly sustain and support Lehi at any point in their journey (including Lehi’s own hour of weakness) was the son who didn’t rely on his father’s faith, but rather used it as a catalyst to develop his own.
Now, as a final thought on fallibility, it’s important to note that the Lord allows those he calls in any capacity to apostatize or walk away from their ordained path. This is not something uncommon in scriptural history, or even the history of our dispensation – nor is it unprecedented for someone to apostatize while maintaining their calling (Isaiah 28:7; Jeremiah 23). Though I do believe such characters will eventually come to naught, the Lord makes no indication that He will intervene to prevent them from using their agency. As He told the Nephites, “if it be not built upon my gospel, and is built upon the works of men, or upon the works of the devil, verily I say unto you they have joy in their works for a season, and by and by the end cometh, and they are hewn down and cast into the fire, from whence there is no return” (3 Nephi 27:11). He allows them to have “joy” in their works for a season; He allows them to test and try His people, but “by and by” something that is contrary to truth will die (see King Noah &co; cf. Mosiah 12:10). Even Judas was permitted to remain among the twelve up until the very moment He gave Christ into the hands of Rome.
This isn’t something that should be of great concern. If we are continuing to lean upon and inquire of the Lord for ourselves, He will direct our paths. There is a profound quote from Ezra Taft Benson on the subject of fallibility:
“Six of the original twelve apostles selected by Joseph Smith were excommunicated. The three witnesses to the Book of Mormon left the Church. Three of Joseph Smith’s counselors fell–one even helped plot the Prophet’s death. A natural question that might arise would be, if the Lord knew in advance that these men would fall, as he undoubtedly did, why did he have his prophet call them to such high office? The answer is, to fill the Lord’s purposes. For even the Master followed the will of the Father by selecting Judas. President George Q. Cannon suggested an explanation, too, when he stated, ‘Perhaps it is His own design that faults and weaknesses should appear in high places IN ORDER THAT HIS SAINTS MAY LEARN TO TRUST IN HIM and NOT in ANY man or men.’ And this would parallel [Nephi’s] warning: ‘put not your trust in the arm of flesh’ (2 Nephi 4:35)… It is from WITHIN the church that the greatest hindrance comes. And so, it seems, it has been.
“Now the question arises, WILL WE STICK WITH THE KINGDOM AND CAN WE AVOID BEING DECEIVED?… Brigham Young said: ‘The Adversary presents his principles and arguments in the most approved style, and in the most winning tone, attended with the most graceful attitudes; and he is very careful to ingratiate himself into the favour of the powerful and influential of mankind…Such characters put on the manners of an angel, appearing as nigh like angels of light as they possibly can… The good which they do, they do it to bring to pass an evil purpose’…
“Those of us who think ‘all is well in Zion’ in spite of Book of Mormon warnings might ponder the words of Heber C. Kimball, who said:… ‘the time is coming when we will be mixed up in these now peaceful valleys to that extent that it will be difficult to tell the face of a Saint from the face of an enemy to the people of God. Then, brethren look out for the great sieve, for there will be a great sifting time, and many will fall; for I say unto you there is a test, a Test, a TEST coming.'” (Ezra Taft Benson: God, Family, Country p. 335 – 337)
The presence of a prophet has never relieved our personal responsibility to receive revelation; we must inquire of the Lord for ourselves. Prophets are intended to show the way – to shine light on the path – but we must each learn for ourselves, by revelation, the truths that they declare. Moses, like the prophets before him, sought diligently to sanctify his people that they might behold the face of God. This is the role and goal of any prophet. As stated clearly in the Lectures on Faith:
“…the extent of their knowledge, respecting [God’s] character and glory, will depend upon their diligence and faithfulness in seeking after him, until like Enoch, the brother of Jared, and Moses, they shall obtain faith in God, and power with him to behold him face to face.
“We have now clearly set forth how it is, and how it was, that God became an object of faith for rational beings; and also, upon what foundation the testimony was based, which excited the enquiry and diligent search of the ancient saints, to seek after and obtain a knowledge of the glory of God: and we have seen that it was human testimony, and human testimony only, that excited this enquiry, in the first instance in their minds—it was the credence they gave to the testimony of their fathers—this testimony having aroused their minds to enquire after the knowledge of God, the enquiry frequently terminated, indeed, always terminated, when rightly pursued, in the most glorious discoveries, and eternal certainty” (Lectures on Faith 2:55-56; emphasis added).
The role of a prophet is to make other prophets. Hence Joseph’s creating “the school of the prophets” for the early Elders of this dispensation. Hence the pattern of the Temple endowment today. Hence the building up of Zion, the second coming of the Lord, and the millennial day wherein He reigns personally upon the earth. Hence at the day, all shall know Him from the least to the greatest (Jeremiah 31:34).
If or when a leader is not fulfilling their role, whether it be a bishop, a stake president, or an apostle, it should not be something that causes us to stumble. As was suggested by Elder Cannon, the very reason the Lord allows such people to occupy those roles is to teach us not to idolize the men who fill them. Whether God’s children are in a position like Nephi’s, with a prophet to declare the path in righteousness, or like Samuel’s, in a day with “no open vision” (1 Samuel 3:1), the responsibility is the same. As we humble ourselves before God, He will soften our hearts and reveal the truth to us personally (1 Nephi 2:16).
Should we begin to live as the prophets live, and seek to know all the prophets know, we would become a holy nation and a kingdom of priests; we would rise to accept the invitation our ancestors rejected and enter into the Lord’s rest.
3 thoughts on “The Purpose of Prophets”
Thank you! Well stated.
Bro, I gotta ask…is this in reference to President Nelson’s remarks on the vaccine or Holland’s remarks on the LGBTQ+ community??
It’s not in direct reference to either, though this is certainly becoming more and more relevant. Both prophecy and our natural trajectory suggest it will become an increasingly relevant topic in years to come—hence we must all learn now that we cannot live on borrowed light.