Part 27: CES Letter Prophet Questions [Section A]
by Sarah Allen
In this section of questions/concerns, we’ll be talking about prophetic fallibility. Jeremy Runnells apparently has some set ideas about what it means to be a prophet that he won’t budge from. Yet again, as we’ve seen over and over throughout this Letter, when something doesn’t fit his very narrow definition of what “it’s supposed to be,” he throws the entire concept out the window instead of admitting that maybe his assumptions were wrong.
As we go through these items one by one, it’s becoming abundantly clear that he has a fundamental lack of understanding of many of these different concepts and doctrines. I don’t know if he became confused as he fell away from the Church or if he was always confused. D&C 76:5-10 teaches us that when we serve God in righteousness, He will teach and enlighten us with all of the mysteries of His kingdom and the wonders of the eternities. However, 2 Nephi 28:30 and Alma 12:9-11 state that when we fall away from the Gospel, even the light and knowledge we already had will be taken away until there’s nothing left. At that point, we become like those described in 1 Corinthians 2:14, who view the things of God as foolishness because they don’t have the Spirit needed in order to discern their truthfulness. So, it’s possible that’s what happened in this case. Or, it’s possible that Jeremy always had a poor understanding of these concepts, and that’s why he fell away from the Gospel. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know.
The reason behind the misunderstandings aren’t important, but the things he claims as fact due to those misunderstandings are. When we listen to those who don’t have the Spirit of Truth and can’t discern the things of God from the things of man, our own understanding begins to falter alongside theirs. We’re putting our own souls in jeopardy by letting them have any sway on our testimonies.
… I think I have learned that of myself I have no power, but my system is organized to increase in wisdom, knowledge, and power, getting a little here and a little there. But when I am left to myself, I have no power, and my wisdom is foolishness; then I cling close to the Lord, and I have power in his name. I think I have learned the Gospel so as to know, that in and of myself I am nothing.
Let a man or woman who has received much of the power of God, visions and revelations, turn away from the holy commandments of the Lord, and it seems that their senses are taken from them, their understanding and judgment in righteousness are taken away, they go into darkness, and become like a blind person who gropes by the wall.
… When men lose the spirit of the work in which we are engaged, they … say that they do not know whether the Bible is true, whether the Book of Mormon is true, nor about new revelations, nor whether there is a God or not. When they lose the spirit of this work, they lose the knowledge of the things of God in time and in eternity; all is lost to them.
Men begin to apostatize by taking to themselves strength, by hearkening to the whisperings of the enemy who leads them astray little by little, until they gather to themselves that which they call the wisdom of man; then they begin to depart from God, and their minds become confused.
… You have known men who, while in the Church, were active, quick and full of intelligence; but after they have left the Church, they have become contracted in their understandings, they have become darkened in their minds and everything has become a mystery to them, and in regard to the things of God, they have become like the rest of the world, who think, hope and pray that such and such things may be so, but they do not know the least about it. This is precisely the position of those who leave this Church; they go into the dark, they are not able to judge, conceive or comprehend things as they are.
… Those who leave the Church are like a feather blown to and fro in the air. They know not whither they are going; they do not understand anything about their own existence; their faith, judgment and the operation of their minds are as unstable as the movements of the feather floating in the air. We have not anything to cling to, only faith in the Gospel.
… God is at the helm of this great ship, and that makes me feel good. … Let those apostatize who wish to, but God will save all who are determined to be saved. … We want to live so as to have the Spirit every day, every hour of the day, every minute of the day, and every Latter-day Saint is entitled to the Spirit of God, to the power of the Holy Ghost, to lead him in his individual.
As he said, when we’re doing our best to follow God, we are entitled to be led by His Spirit in our daily lives, just as the prophets and apostles are entitled to be led by the Spirit as they guide the Church on Earth. The main difference between them and us is one of stewardship. They have the keys and authority to receive revelation on behalf of the entire Church, whereas we only have the ability to receive revelation for ourselves and our families or those under our stewardship in regard to our callings. But they still receive revelation line upon line, precept upon precept, just like we all do, and they sometimes make mistakes.
Prophets don’t know everything, despite their ability to receive binding revelation on behalf of the Church. Heavenly Father does not direct them in all they do. They aren’t omniscient, and they aren’t magically gifted with a computer in their head when they’re called to the work. Just like each of us does, they only carry the knowledge and experience they already had with them when they’re set apart, and just like each of us, they do the best they can with what wisdom they do have. Just like us, they have to learn how to receive revelation on behalf of those in their stewardship, and how to magnify their callings, and how to live up to the responsibility they’ve been given. Sometimes, they stumble a little along the way.
A common joke we hear these days is that the Catholic Church teaches that the Pope is infallible, but no one believes that, while the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that its prophets are fallible, but no one believes that either. Prophets are not divine, however. They are mortal men who can and do make mistakes. Anyone paying attention to the scriptures should be well aware of that. That’s why so many of the prophets, from Joseph Smith onward, have encouraged us to receive our own revelation and to pray over the things they teach us.
Because so many of the issues coming up in this section are focused around things Brigham Young said or did, I wanted to highlight some of his other words in this post. Here are some of the things he had to say about blindly trusting your leaders:
- “Ladies and gentlemen, I exhort you to think for yourselves, and read your Bibles for yourselves, get the Holy Spirit for yourselves, and pray for yourselves.” (Source)
- “What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually.” (Source)
- “I do not wish any Latter–day Saint in this world, nor in heaven, to be satisfied with anything I do, unless the Spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, the spirit of revelation, makes them satisfied. I wish them to know for themselves and understand for themselves, for this would strengthen the faith that is within them. Suppose that the people were heedless, that they manifested no concern with regard to the things of the kingdom of God, but threw the whole burden upon the leaders of the people, saying, ‘If the brethren who take charge of matters are satisfied, we are,’ this is not pleasing in the sight of the Lord.” (Source)
- “… [S]eek diligently to know the will of God. How can you know it? In matters pertaining to yourselves as individuals, you can obtain it directly from the Lord; but in matters pertaining to public affairs, His will is ascertained through the proper channel, and may be known by the general counsel that is given you from the proper source.” (Source)
- “The First Presidency have of right a great influence over this people; and if we should get out of the way and lead this people to destruction, what a pity it would be! How can you know whether we lead you correctly or not? Can you know by any other power than that of the Holy Ghost? I have uniformly exhorted the people to obtain this living witness each for themselves; then no man on earth can lead them astray.” (Source)
- “It is your privilege and duty to live so that you know when the word of the Lord is spoken to you and when the mind of the Lord is revealed to you. I say it is your duty to live so as to know and understand all these things. Suppose I were to teach you a false doctrine, how are you to know it if you do not possess the Spirit of God? As it is written, ‘The things of God knoweth no man but by the Spirit of God.’” (Source)
- “… [B]e faithful, live so that the Spirit of the Lord will abide within you, then you can judge for yourselves. I have often said to the Latter-day Saints—’Live so that you will know whether I teach you 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 whether I tell the truth or not. That is the way we want all Saints to live. Will you do it? Yes, I hope you will, every one of you.” (Source)
- “Now, let me ask the Latter-day Saints, you who are here in this house this day, how do you know that your humble servant is really, honestly, guiding and counseling you aright, and directing the affairs of the kingdom aright? … [H]ow do you know but I am teaching false doctrine? How do you know that I am not counseling you wrong? How do you know but I will lead you to destruction? And this is what I wish to urge upon you—live so that you can discern between the truth and error, between light and darkness, between the things of God and those not of God, for by the revelations of the Lord, and these alone, can you and I understand the things of God.” (Source)
- “… ‘How are you going to know about the will and commands of heaven?’ By the Spirit of revelation; that is the only way you can know. How do I know but what I am doing wrong? How do I know but what we will take a course for our utter ruin? I sometimes say to my brethren, ‘I have been your dictator for twenty-seven years—over a quarter of a century I have dictated this people; that ought to be some evidence that my course is onward and upward.’ But how do you know that I may not yet do wrong? How do you know but I will bring in false doctrine and teach the people lies that they may be damned? Sisters can you tell the difference? I can say this for the Latter-day Saints, and I will say it to their praise and my satisfaction, if I were to preach false doctrine here, it would not be an hour after the people got out, before it would begin to fly from one to another, and they would remark, ‘I do not quite like that! It does not look exactly right! What did Brother Brigham mean? That did not sound quite right, it was not exactly the thing!’ All these observations would be made by the people, yes, even by the sisters. It would not sit well on the stomach … [i]t would not sit well on the mind, for you are seeking after the things of God; you have started out for life and salvation, and with all their ignorance, wickedness and failings, the majority of this people are doing just as well as they know how; and I will defy any man to preach false doctrine without being detected; and we need not go to the Elders of Israel, the children who have been born in these mountains possess enough of the Spirit to detect it. But be careful that you do not lose it! Live so that you will know the moment the Spirit of the Almighty is grieved within you.” (Source)
- “How often has it been taught that if you depend entirely upon the voice, judgment and sagacity of those appointed to lead you, and neglect to enjoy the Spirit for yourselves, how easily you may be led into error, and finally be cast off to the left hand?” (Source)
Now, that’s not to say that we should distrust everything a prophet says, because they do have the keys and Priesthood authority to speak for God on Earth. They’re right far more often than they’re wrong, and much of their counsel is backed up not only by the scriptures but by other prophets and apostles, and is taught consistently over time. They’ve lived long lives in the service of God, and that comes with wisdom and experience that many of us don’t yet have. They are led by the Spirit, and at this point in their lives, they’re able to recognize that Spirit and to usually understand what He’s teaching them.
If they perhaps get it a bit wrong occasionally, so do each of us.
In recent years, Elder Christofferson, Elder Andersen, and President Oaks have all spoken during General Conference, outlining the difference between opinion, policy, and doctrine. One thing they all reiterated is that when something is taught one time, or hasn’t been taught for over a century, it’s not considered doctrine. It was speculation, opinion, or a policy that has since been replaced with something else.
Most of the things coming up in this section fall into one of those three categories—speculation, opinion, or an abandoned policy. Speculation over the pulpit used to be a common feature early in the Church, until the leadership realized that Saints immigrating from other countries and those in the rising generations weren’t used to the tactic and didn’t understand that everything coming out of the mouths of the speakers wasn’t revelation. Over time, they standardized their messages and stopped the free speculation that had run rampant in the early days.
Additionally, sometimes opinions were offered in the absence of revelation and passed around as fact instead of the opinions that they actually were. Sometimes, the Lord doesn’t tell us everything. Trying to figure things out on our own is one of the ways in which we learn and grow. It’s how we exercise our talents to become the people we were meant to be. Remember the parable of the talents found in Matthew 25:14-30. The slothful servant who hid up his talents and had to be instructed in all things had those talents taken away and given to the ones who took their limited instruction and went out and multiplied their talents. Sometimes, the Lord steps back to let us try, and waits until we either succeed or fail to step in and give us further guidance.
In some of the instances Jeremy is going to highlight, the servant went out to try to multiply their talents by filling in those gaps in revelatory knowledge, and they got it wrong. That’s when the Lord stepped in and gave us further guidance. Some of the things those leaders said are shocking by today’s standards, but were perfectly at home in their day. I don’t know what was in their hearts and minds, and I don’t know what life experiences led them to believe some of the things they believed. Maybe their hearts were in the right place and maybe they weren’t; I’m not their Judge. But getting things wrong occasionally is part of being human, and part of our learning experience is being humble enough to acknowledge when we mess up. It happens to all of us, even prophets called of God.
We all need to remember the very wise words of Elder Holland:
Brothers and sisters, this is a divine work in process, with the manifestations and blessings of it abounding in every direction, so please don’t hyperventilate if from time to time issues arise that need to be examined, understood, and resolved. They do and they will. In this Church, what we know will always trump what we do not know. And remember, in this world, everyone is to walk by faith.
So be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work. As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fulness is poured forth, it is not the oil’s fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can’t quite contain it all. Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving.
His words dovetail nicely with those of Moroni in Mormon 9:31:
Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.
If the prophets make an occasional mistake, we can learn from their examples. We can both avoid the same pitfalls they fell into and also watch the way in which they recover from the error.
Take Peter, for example. One early Christian tradition has it that Peter is the one who commissioned Mark and others to record the apostles’ stories in what would later become the Gospels and the book of Acts. Those books occasionally show Christ harshly rebuking Peter, as well as Peter’s deepest regret, denying the Savior. They show Paul publicly correcting him and pointing out that the Gentiles were not Jewish and didn’t need to follow Jewish law. They show Peter’s impetuousness and his stubbornness, and they show him making many missteps along his journey. But they also show him having such incredible faith, he was the only fully mortal man ever to walk on water, albeit temporarily. They show his fierce loyalty and his eager willingness to defend the Savior and the Gospel. They show him acknowledging his mistakes and correcting them. They show him growing from an unlearned follower into a great leader. He was a man who was so full of love and respect for his Savior, legend has it that he was crucified upside-down because he didn’t feel worthy to be executed in the same way Christ was.
For all of his faults, Peter is a wonderful example of what a prophet can and should be, and he’s an example for all of us to follow in allowing the Atonement to transform our lives and purify us into something holier than we were before. And if he really did ask people to record his greatest triumphs alongside his deepest regrets so that millions upon millions of people could learn from that example, the humility of that gesture leaves me in awe. But we wouldn’t be able to learn from his example if he was already perfect.
Becoming the head of the Church did not make Peter all-knowing. He continued to make mistakes as he found his footing. That doesn’t diminish his calling, and it doesn’t take away from the fact that he was the man the Savior personally appointed to lead His church on Earth after His resurrection.
I know this has been a long introduction to this set of questions/concerns, but it’s so important that we understand this concept. If someone were to take a record of everything you said and did, there would be plenty of times when you fell short, or when you said or did or thought something that turned out to be wrong. And that’s okay, because you’re human and you can’t be perfect yet. You’re going to make plenty of mistakes. But you’re trying, and that’s the important part, right? You don’t expect perfection of yourself yet. So why, then, would you expect it from your leaders?
For many of us, the answer is simple: we don’t. But for others—including, it seems, Jeremy Runnells—they do.
One common refrain I often hear from critics is, “They’re called of God, so they should be better than other men of their day.” But where on Earth did the Lord ever say He calls the best men of their day to lead? He calls the men He needs in the moment, and helps them rise to the occasion. Joseph Smith was a 14-year-old farm boy. So was David (or roughly thereabouts in age). Samuel was a child who, according to Josephus, was only 12 years old. President Monson was younger than I am now when he was called as an apostle. Enoch and Moses had trouble speaking, whether that was due to speech impediments or difficulty in speaking a language they were unfamiliar with or something else. Peter, James, and John were fishermen in a tiny village. Paul persecuted Christians to the point of aiding in their executions. Alma the Younger was the Jeremy Runnells of his day, deliberately leading as many people away from the Church as he could. And yet, they were all called to the work anyway.
The remarkable thing about this Gospel is that it transforms us. As we learn and grow in our callings, we become better people. As we lean on Christ and His Atonement, our faith deepens. As we go through the refining fire of life, all of our impurities burn away. We begin as that rough stone rolling down a mountain described by Joseph Smith, and as we go along, all of our edges are chipped away until we become smooth and polished. That happens to God’s prophets and apostles too, and it also happened to our Church as an organization. It started out from scratch, rough and unpolished, full of equally rough and unpolished people. And over time, those rough edges have started chipping away and smoothing out.
All we can ever do is our best, and in some areas, my best is not going to be as good as your best. In other areas, your best won’t be as good as mine. That’s a universal truth in this life, and that goes for our prophets as well. The most important thing we can remember is that they are trying their best to follow the will of God. They’re trying their best to follow the Spirit and to receive revelation. They may not always get it exactly right, but they are doing their best.
Jeremy begins this section with quotes from President Woodruff and President Ballard, followed by a quote from the Church’s essay on Race and the Priesthood. Again, he likes to prime you to expect the truth by quoting figures you already trust, and then tries to drop a bomb on your testimony by quoting something else that supposedly contradicts it. But again, he frames it dishonestly.
He starts by quoting President Woodruff:
“… The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of the 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.” — PRESIDENT WILFORD WOODRUFF, WILFORD WOODRUFF: HISTORY OF HIS LIFE AND LABORS, P.572
This is a common quote you often hear passed around when discussing prophets. It’s also not meant the way Jeremy implies it was meant. It’s not talking about individual policies, practices, opinions, speculations, or even doctrines. It’s talking about the direction of the Church as a whole. This comment was given while releasing the Manifesto declaring to the Saints that the Church would no longer practice plural marriage. He was telling the people that the direction the Church was taking would not lead to its destruction.
Remember, the Saints had already lived this practice and suffered heavily for it for half a century at this point. A great deal of the Church’s identity was wrapped up in the practice. It was something they had vigorously defended. The choice was now between leaving their home in the Rocky Mountains and the United States and abandoning their temples, or abandoning the practice of plural marriage. They were facing imprisonment and the confiscation of all of the Church’s resources. Immigrants were being denied citizenship simply because they were Latter-day Saints, voting rights were stripped from the Utah territory, and they had little legal recourse for any of it.
But the Manifesto rocked the Saints, including many of the apostles. President Woodruff was assuring them that God would not allow him to lead the Church into ruin. Part of his calling was to ensure that the Church would not be destroyed under his leadership, so God would not permit him to lead the Church into physical or spiritual destruction. He wasn’t saying he wouldn’t ever get things wrong. He was saying that Church would be on the right path and continue to have the fulness of the Gospel and the authority of the Priesthood. The Church as a whole had not fallen into apostasy, and he would not be permitted to lead it there.
Jeremy continues with this quote from Elder Ballard:
“Keep the eyes of the mission on the leaders of the Church. … We will not and … cannot lead [you] astray.” — ELDER M. RUSSELL BALLARD, STAY IN THE BOAT AND HOLD ON!, OCTOBER 2014 CONFERENCE
This is only part of the point President Ballard was making. The full point is this:
“Keep the eyes of the mission on the leaders of the Church. … We will not and … cannot lead [you] astray.
“And as you teach your missionaries to focus their eyes on us, teach them to never follow those who think they know more about how to administer the affairs of the Church than … Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ do” through the priesthood leaders who have the keys to preside.
“I have discovered in my ministry that those who have become lost [and] confused are typically those who have most often … forgotten that when the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve speak with a united voice, it is the voice of the Lord for that time. The Lord reminds us, ‘Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same’.”
In the height of irony, President Ballard was telling people to focus on the united teachings of the leaders of the Church rather than those outside voices like Jeremy’s trying to coax them onto a different path.
He then quotes from the Race and the Priesthood essay and follows it up with a rather telling comment of his own:
“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 unrighteous actions in a premortal life….” — 2013 RACE AND THE PRIESTHOOD ESSAY, LDS.ORG
(2013 “Prophets, Seers, and Revelators” throwing yesterday’s “Prophets, Seers, and Revelators” under the bus over yesterday’s racist revelations and doctrines)
First of all, those theories were just that, theories. They were not revelations or doctrines, they were speculation in the absence of revelation or doctrine. They were people with limited, mortal understanding trying to make sense of a policy they found increasingly senseless unless there was a legitimate reason behind it, so they tried to find an explanation. None of those theories were ever officially endorsed by the Church, though some of them came from people with varying degrees of authority in the Church hierarchy.
Second, no one is being “thrown under the bus.” The essay is clarifying that those explanations people came up with were never doctrine or revelation, they were personal opinions that the Church leadership believes were incorrect. Because dishonest actors were passing those comments off as official Church doctrine, the way that Jeremy is doing here, they needed to make an official statement saying otherwise. So, they did.
Third, note how he puts “Prophets, Seers, and Revelators” in scare quotes like that. It’s derisive on purpose to cast doubt on the idea that these men were indeed called to be Prophets, Seers, and Revelators just because they aren’t perfect. He’s sneering at them. If he was going for a kinder, gentler tone this time around, he didn’t edit this section very well because those tone problems he was worried about are all over this section.
Next week, we’ll dive into the actual content of this section, which holds some of the weird and/or controversial things in our Church’s history. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be tackling subjects like the Adam-God theory, Blood Atonement, the Priesthood Ban, Mark Hofmann’s forgeries, etc., so it’ll be an interesting section! Much of Jeremy’s concerns are discussed in this same hostile, sarcastic tone, though, so be prepared for that.
In closing out this portion today, I want to leave you with one more thing Brigham Young said:
“There is nothing the Saints can ask, or pray for, that will aid them in their progress…that will not be granted unto them, if they will only patiently struggle on.”
Whatever questions you’re wrestling with, whatever knowledge you’re trying to achieve, if you keep patiently asking, praying, and studying, the light will eventually come. It may take you some time or it may come immediately, but either way, illumination will come.
Sources in this entry:
Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.