Question: If prophets are fallible, does this make spiritual epistemology unreliable?

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Question: If prophets are fallible, does this make spiritual epistemology unreliable?

Only when the prophet specifically claims revelation do we need to humble ourselves to it.

Some critics have claimed that, if prophets can be lead awry with their own biases and prejudices, then spiritual epistemology is unreliable.

The argument is useless when recognized that Latter-day Saints only need to bow to a prophet's revelation when he specifically claims that he has received revelation. We can also tell if a revelation is truly from God if it is canonized. Bruce R. McConkie taught:

With all their inspiration and greatness, prophets are yet mortal men with imperfections common to mankind in general. They have their opinions and prejudices and are left to work out their own problems without inspiration in many instances. Joseph Smith recorded that he “visited with a brother and sister from Michigan, who thought that ‘a prophet is always a prophet’; but I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such.” (Teachings, p. 278.) Thus the opinions and views even of prophets may contain error unless those opinions and views are inspired by the Spirit. Inspired statements are scripture and should be accepted as such. (D. & C. 68:4.) Since “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor. 14:32), whatever is announced by the presiding brethren as counsel for the Church will be the voice of inspiration. But the truth or error of any uninspired utterance of an individual will have to be judged by the standard works and the spirit of discernment and inspiration that is in those who actually enjoy the gift of the Holy Ghost.[1] Whether that happened or not, it illustrates a principle: that the Lord can move upon His people but they may speak on occasions their own opinions.[2]

Harold B. Lee was equally emphatic:

It is not to be thought that every word spoken by the General Authorities is inspired, or that they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost in everything they speak and write. Now you keep that in mind. I don’t care what his position is, if he writes something or speaks something that goes beyond anything that you can find in the standard works, unless that one be the prophet, seer, and revelator––please note that one exception––you may immediately say, “Well, that is his own idea!” And if he says something that contradicts what is found in the standard works (I think that is why we call them “standard”––it is the standard measure of all that men teach), you may know by that same token that it is false; regardless of the position of the man who says it.[3]

See here for more quotes regarding revelation.

Where the Critics Focus when Making this Argument

Some critics have applied this argument to different parts of Latter-day Saint discourse which we might need to address.

Adam-God Theory

Regarding Adam-God one of the most important things to know about is it’s actual status in Brigham’s mind and how he viewed his “revelation”. Matthew Brown wrote:

First of all, the question will be posed: ‘How did Brother Brigham compare himself, as a revelator, with his predecessor?’ There are two quotations that are of interest here. The second President of the LDS Church said, “I wish to ask every member of this whole community if they ever heard [me] profess to be a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator as Joseph Smith was. [I] professed to be an apostle of Jesus Christ.”[4] In the second quote Brigham Young says that he “did not receive [revelations] through the Urim and Thummim as Joseph [Smith] did.”[5] Hence, it can be ascertained that, at least in one sense, Brigham Young did not receive communications from heaven in the same direct manner that Joseph Smith did. And it is relevant to mention here that Brigham Young did, in fact, own a seerstone that was once utilized by Joseph Smith. Next, there is this lengthy quote from President Young which is well worth considering in its entirety. He rhetorically asked himself,
"Well, Brother Brigham, . . . . have you had revelations?” Yes, I have them all the time. I live constantly by the principle of revelation. . . . I have never received one particle of intelligence [except] by revelation, no matter whether [my] father or mother revealed it, or my sister, or [my] neighbor. No person receives knowledge [except] upon the principle of revelation, that is, by having something revealed to them. “Do you [Brother Brigham] have the revelations of the Lord Jesus Christ?” I will leave that for others to judge. If the Lord requires anything of this people, and speaks through me, I will tell them of it; but if He does not, still we all live by the principle of revelation. Who reveals? Everybody around us; we learn [from] each other. I have something which you have not, and you have something which I have not. I reveal what I have to you, and you reveal what you have to me. I believe that we are revelators to each other.[6]
Interestingly, there is some evidence that the ‘revelation’ claims for Adam–God ideology did not originate with Brigham Young, but rather with his close friend and associate Heber C. Kimball. There is one well-documented instance where Brother Kimball claimed that some of the concepts connected with the Adam–God Theory were revealed to him.[7] There are also two other statements that need to be taken into careful consideration. The first comes from Thomas Stenhouse’s book. It reads: “Brother Heber had considerable pride in relating to his intimate friends that he was the source of Brigham’s revelation on the ‘Adam deity.’”[8] Since Mr. Stenhouse was an apostate from Mormonism at the time he wrote this, some people might tend to discount his assertion. But the second statement seems to lend credence to it. This one comes from Elder Orson Pratt. He said that the notion of “Adam being our Father and our God . . .[was] advanced by Bro[ther] Kimball in the stand [or at the pulpit], and afterwards approved by Bro[ther] Brigham.”[9][10]

Brown then elaborates on the other most crucial point of the Adam-God History:

The records of the past indicate that Brigham Young’s teachings on Adam were met with steady opposition throughout the 1850s, 60s, and 70s; they were not automatically accepted by the general Church populace. Brother Young even complained on occasion about the amount of non-acceptance that was taking place. But the negative reaction seems to have caused the Church President to have a reaction of his own; one which, in the end, was beneficial to historians: he got more precise in describing the character of his Adam–God teachings. This is probably the most important point that can be made with regard to this intriguing, complex, and somewhat perplexing subject. When Brigham Young first introduced the public to his Adam–God teachings in April of 1852 he claimed that they would prove a person’s “salvation or damnation.”[11]Just two and a half years later his rhetoric changed dramatically. In General Conference, once again, he gave an Adam–God talk but this time he said, “I propose to speak upon a subject that does not immediately concern yours or my welfare. . . . I do not pretend to say that the items of doctrine and ideas I shall advance are necessary for the people to know, or that they should give themselves any trouble about them whatever.” After specifying that “these are my views with regard to the gods, and eternities” and saying, “I will tell you what I think about it” he used a very significant term—thirteen times. He said, “I will tell you what I reckon.” His exact words were: “I will tell you what I think about it, and as the [Southerners] say, ‘I reckon.’ And as the Yankees say, ‘I guess’; but I will tell you what I reckon.”[12] It should be pointed out here that Brigham Young was a northern Yankee from New York state—not a Southerner. He may have deliberately chosen to employ the term ‘reckon’ instead of ‘guess.’ And what did Brigham Young admit that he was guessing about in this sermon? The very elements of the Adam–God Theory that are the most problematic. Here is what he said: ● “I reckon that Father Adam was a resurrected being, with his wives.”[13] ● “I reckon our spirits and all the spirits of the human family were begotten by Adam, and born of Eve.”[14] ● “I reckon that Adam . . . himself planted [the Garden of Eden].”[15].

The bottom line is that the core principles of the Adam–God Theory were simply Brigham Young guessing or reckoning.[16][17]

Pre-1978 Racial Theories

Regarding racial teachings, there are several statements from the Brethren regarding their views on race and the restrictions. After a review of documents [18], there are none that claim an explicit revelatory origin for ideas. The strongest statements come from Brigham Young, the 1947 First Presidency, and the Lowry Nelson Letters[19]. It seems as though the teaching became more entrenched with the passage of time and authorities simply followed tradition. Nothing in the Latter-day Saint canon suggests that the theories were officially binding on the Saints.

Mark Hofmann Episode

Blood Atonement

Some charge that Blood Atonement was claimed to have come from revelation. The statement in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism is perhaps the most instructive on the subject:

The doctrines of the Church affirm that the Atonement wrought by the shedding of the blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is efficacious for the sins of all who believe, repent, are baptized by one having authority, and receive the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands. However, if a person thereafter commits a grievous sin such as the shedding of innocent blood, the Savior's sacrifice alone will not absolve the person of the consequences of the sin. Only by voluntarily submitting to whatever penalty the Lord may require can that person benefit from the Atonement of Christ.

Several early Church leaders, most notably Brigham Young, taught that in a complete theocracy the Lord could require the voluntary shedding of a murderer's blood-presumably by capital punishment-as part of the process of Atonement for such grievous sin. This was referred to as "blood Atonement." Since such a theocracy has not been operative in modern times, the practical effect of the idea was its use as a rhetorical device to heighten the awareness of Latter-day Saints of the seriousness of murder and other major sins. This view is not a doctrine of the Church and has never been practiced by the Church at any time.

Early anti-Mormon writers charged that under Brigham Young the Church practiced "blood Atonement," by which they meant Church-instigated violence directed at dissenters, enemies, and strangers. This claim distorted the whole idea of blood atonement-which was based on voluntary submission by an offender-into a supposed justification of involuntary punishment. Occasional isolated acts of violence that occurred in areas where Latter-day Saints lived were typical of that period in the history of the American West, but they were not instances of Church-sanctioned blood Atonement.[20]


Some critics charge that the Church has claimed to denounce evolution officially and have claimed to have done that by revelation. There are two places that they are usually attracted to when making this claim. The first is a 1910 statement about the subject from the First Presidency. The pertinent part of the statement reads thus:

It is held by some that Adam was not the first man upon this earth, and that the original human being was a development from lower orders of the animal creation. These, however, are the theories of men. The word of the Lord declares that Adam was "the first man of all men" (Moses 1:34), and we are therefore in duty bound to regard him as the primal parent of our race.[21]

This statement is generally correct. Evolution is a theory of man. Adam was also the first spirit child of our Heavenly Father making him the "first man" he is therefore the primal parent of our race. But some charge that this is an official pronouncement against evolution. The statement can be read as such. But take a look at a statement released by the same presidency only a year later.

Diversity of opinion does not necessitate intolerance of spirit, nor should it embitter or set rational beings against each other. The Christ taught kindness, patience, and charity.

Our religion is not hostile to real science. That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy; but vain philosophy, human theory and mere speculations of men, we do not accept nor do we adopt anything contrary to divine revelation or to good common sense. But everything that tends to right conduct, that harmonizes with sound morality and increases faith in Deity, finds favor with us no matter where it may be found.[22]

They are correct. Our religion embraces real science (D&C 88:77-79) and we shouldn't accept anything that goes against divine revelation. The Church is neutral in regards to evolution and has been officially for sometime while some have been staunchly against it and others in favor of it. For those looking for a way to reconcile evolution with Latter-day Saint scripture, see here for an off-hand disquisition and reconciliation of the most pertinent texts.


  1. Bruce R. McConkie, “Prophets,” in Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, Inc., 1966), 608.
  2. Teachings of Harold B. Lee, 542.
  3. Harold B. Lee, “The Place of the Living Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,” Address to Seminary and Institute of Religion Faculty, BYU, 8 July 1964; see Teachings of Harold B. Lee, 541.
  4. JD, 6:319, President Brigham Young, 7 April 1852, general conference address, Salt Lake City, Utah, Tabernacle.
  5. Salt Lake School of the Prophets Minute Book, 9 June 1873, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah.
  6. JD, 3:209, President Brigham Young, 17 February 1856, discourse delivered in the Salt Lake City, Utah, Tabernacle.
  7. “The Lord told me that Adam was my father and that he was the God and father of all the inhabitants of this earth” (Memorandum, 30 April 1862, cited in Stanley B. Kimball, ed., On the Potter’s Wheel: The Diaries of Heber C. Kimball [Salt Lake City: Signature Books and Smith Research Associates, 1987], 176, n. 3). There is a reported instance of Heber C. Kimball supposedly writing something similar in another manuscript but since this information was relayed by J. Golden Kimball (Heber’s son) to another person it is a third-hand account.
  8. Thomas B. H. Stenhouse, The Rocky Mountain Saints (London: Ward, Lock, and Tyler, 1874), 561 n. 2. If Heber C. Kimball was indeed the person who introduced the Adam–God idea to President Brigham Young and (as evidenced in the previous endnote) claimed divine revelation for that knowledge then there was, at the very least, a violation of the order whereby revelation is ordained to be received for the Church. Institutional revelations are never vouchsafed to a counselor in the First Presidency when the President has the capacity to receive them. Only the President of the LDS Church receives revelation for the entire institution. As Joseph Fielding Smith taught, “There is but one [person] at a time who holds the keys and the right to receive revelation for the Church, and that man is the President of the Church. . . .[W]henever [the Lord] has a revelation or commandment to give to His people . . . it will come through the presiding officer of the Church” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1999], 1:283–84).
  9. 5 April 1860, meeting of the Twelve at the Church Historian’s Office, Salt Lake City, Utah, cited in Gary J. Bergera, Conflict in the Quorum: Orson Pratt, Brigham Young, Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2002), 194. There does not appear to be any rebuttal of this statement from Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, or anyone else. On 23 September 1860 Orson Pratt stated with reference to ideas about godhood, “I do not believe as Brother Brigham and Brother Kimball do in some points of doctrine and they do not wish me to acknowledge to a thing that I do not believe” (Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 5:507, Salt Lake City, Utah, Historian’s Office).
  10. Matthew Brown "Brigham Young's Teachings on Adam" <> (accessed 13 March 2019)
  11. The “salvation or damnation” statement may simply be Brigham Young’s rephrased expression of the ideology found in John 17:3 (a scripture he often connected with his Adam– God teachings)—“And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God.”
  12. Campbell, The Essential Brigham Young, 86, 87, 97.
  13. Ibid., 97. As a member of the First Presidency Charles W. Penrose responded in print, in a Church periodical, to the following question: “Do you believe that Adam had more wives than one, either in this world or in the spiritual world?” His answer was, “We do not know of any wife of Adam excepting Mother Eve” (Improvement Era, vol. 15, no. 11, September 1912, 1042).
  14. 75. Campbell, The Essential Brigham Young, 97.
  15. Ibid. This statement matches another one found in the same discourse: “Adam planted the Garden of Eden” (ibid., 98). This is in conflict with information found in the Bible (see Gen. 2:8), the Book of Moses (see Moses 3:8), and the Book of Abraham (see Abraham 5:8) which state that it was God(s)—not specifically ‘Adam’—who “planted” the garden.
  16. 77. Statements by Brigham Young indicating that certain Adam–God Theory principles only represented his personal opinion: 24 July 1853 – “I believe the Father came down from heaven, as the apostles said He did, and begat the Savior of the world, for He is the only-begotten of the Father, which could not be if the Father did not actually beget Him in person. . . . I believe the Father came down in His 24 tabernacle and begat Jesus Christ. . . . I believe He has a tabernacle, and begat Jesus Christ . . . because the Bible expressly declares it. . . . I believe the Father begat the Son” (JD, 1:238, emphasis added, President Brigham Young, 24 July 1853, Salt Lake City, Utah, Tabernacle). 23 October 1853 – “You believe Adam was made of the dust of this earth. This I do not believe, though it is supposed that it is so written in the Bible; but it is not, to my understanding” (JD, 2:6, emphasis added, President Brigham Young, 23 October 1853, Salt Lake City, Utah, Tabernacle). 8 October 1854 – “I propose to speak upon a subject that does not immediately concern yours or my welfare. . . . I will tell you what I believe . . . I do not pretend to say that the items of doctrine, and ideas I shall advance are necessary for the people to know, or that they should give themselves any trouble about them whatever . . . . These are my views with regard to the gods, and eternities . . . . I will tell you what I think about it, and as the [Southerners] say, ‘I reckon,’ and as the Yankees say, ‘I guess’; but I will tell you what I reckon. I reckon . . . . I reckon . . . . I reckon it. And I reckon . . . . and I reckon . . . . I reckon . . . . I reckon . . . . I reckon . . . . I reckon . . . . I reckon . . . . tell you what I reckon” (Campbell, The Essential Brigham Young, 86, 87, 90, 97, 98, 99, 100). 25 April 1855 – “apparently I understand . . . . It appears to me I understand . . . who [Jesus Christ] came from . . . . this is for you to believe or disbelieve as you please, for if I were to [express my thoughts] I have no doubt but there would be many that would say, ‘Perhaps it is so and perhaps it is not’ . . . . If I should undertake to tell the people what I believe in my heart and what seemeth to me (I do not say it is so) but what seemeth to me to be eternal truth, how would they know unless they had the spirit of revelation to say to them whether it was a truth or an untruth? . . . . I do not design to go into any mysteries or to take up worldly sciences [such as the ‘science of theology’ – see p. 3] to any great extent but suppose I were to take up a few of them, I should be like the rest of you: tell what I know according to what I understand and believe. And then if I am wrong I should be glad if God or some man upon the earth would correct me and set me right and tell me what it is and how it is. . . . communicate to you my ideas upon the subject. . . . as I understand pertaining to Him with whom we have to do . . . . I will tell you what I think . . . . It is a subject I am aware that does not appear so clear to our understandings at present as we could wish it . . . it is [a subject] that should not trouble us at all. . . . I tell you this as my belief about that personage who is called the Ancient of Days . . . . I do not tell it because that I wish it to be established in the minds of others . . . . To my mind and to my feelings those matters are all plain” (Elden J. Watson, comp., Brigham Young Addresses, unpublished collection, vol. 3, 1855– 1859, volume compiled in 1980, sermons individually paginated, information found on pp. 3, 4, 5 – this was an address to the Deseret Theological Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah). 8 February 1857 – “I understand in part, see in part, and know and am acquainted with [my Father] in part . . . . That is my opinion about it, and my opinion to me is just as good as yours is to you” (JD, 4:218, President Brigham Young, 8 February 1857, Salt Lake City, Utah, Tabernacle). 7 October 1857 – “I believe our God to be so near to us as Father Adam . . . . those are ideas which do not concern us at present” (JD, 5:331–32, President Brigham Young, 7 October 1857, Salt Lake City, Utah, Bowery). 25 9 October 1859 – “Adam and Eve are the parents of all pertaining to the flesh, and I would not say that they are not also the parents of our spirits” (JD, 7:290, President Brigham Young, 9 October 1859, Salt Lake City, Utah, Tabernacle).
  17. Ibid.
  18. Found in Russell Stevenson, "For the Cause of Rightousness" (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2014)
  19. Transcripts will be posted at a later time. This line written 19 March 2019. The Lowry Nelson letters do contain strongly affirmative language regarding the restrictions yet these were simply relying on statements from Brigham Young and others that weren't official pronouncements and did not claim to come from direct revelation or scripture.
  20. Lowell M. Snow "Blood Atonement" in Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York, NY: MacMillan Publishing, 1992) off-site
  21. Improvement Era 13 (Nov 1909) :75–81
  22. "Words in Season from the First Presidency," Deseret Evening News (17 December 1910), part 1: 3.