This post will be the last in the section about race and the Priesthood restriction. I apologize for not getting this up sooner. My offline life has been a little crazy this summer, and I just didn’t have the time to do this post justice until today. It’s an important topic, and I wanted to make sure I was able to treat it with the respect it deserves.
The bulk of the conversation this week is about the idea that the prophets can never lead the Church astray:
- Follow the Prophet
The Church reminds us to give strict obedience to the prophet because he speaks for God and is incapable of misconduct.
No, the Church absolutely does not teach either of those things. If you run a search on the Church’s website for the phrase “strict obedience,” do you know what you find? A whole bunch of scriptures, talks, and lesson manuals advising strict obedience to the commandments of God and the covenants we make with Him. I went through several pages of search results and didn’t find a single entry teaching strict obedience to the prophets.
For my entire lifetime, multiple prophets and apostles have counseled us to pray over their words for confirmation from God that they’re speaking the truth. In fact, when I wrote my response to the CES Letter last year, I spent a decent chunk of one post listing multiple quotes by Brigham Young, saying that he fearedthat the Saints would trust him without bothering to ask the Spirit for confirmation that he was teaching them correct doctrine. 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)
- “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)
(And, just as a quick caveat, most of those were taken from the Journal of Discourses, so be careful about accepting them as word-for-word quotes.)
So, because of multiple statements just like these ones described here, I reject Faulk’s framing here. The prophets themselves tell us they’re fallible and that they want us to seek their confirmation from the Spirit that what they’re teaching us is true.
In fact, when President Spencer W. Kimball heard that Sister Elaine Cannon had taught the young women of the Church that when the prophet speaks, “the debate is over,” he was so alarmed that he met with her the very next day and asked her not to say things like that again. She explained what she actually meant, but he worried that people would think they wanted to take away their agency, because that wasn’t at all true.
Remember, it was Lucifer’s plan to leave us as choiceless automatons who did everything we were told to do. God’s plan was one of free will. And because we do have free will, none of us mortal humans are free from making the occasional error.
Faulk then quotes some statements about prophets never leading the Church astray:
- “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 programme. 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.” (President Wilford Woodruff, General Conference, October 1890)
- “Keep your eye on the Prophet, for the Lord will never permit his Prophet to lead this Church astray.” (President Ezra Taft Benson, General Conference, October 1966)
- “Follow your leaders who have been duly ordained and have been publicly sustained, and you will not be led astray. (Elder Boyd K. Packer, General Conference, October 1992)
- “Follow the prophet, follow the prophet, Follow the prophet; don’t go astray. Follow the prophet, follow the prophet, Follow the prophet; he knows the way.” (Children’s Songbook)
This quote was initially taken from Official Declaration 1, the Manifesto officially ending plural marriage in the Church.
However, it was a teaching that actually originated with Joseph Smith. In a 2014 post on the Ether’s Cave blog, Matthew Roper cited multiple accounts of people remembering Joseph and also Oliver Cowdery teaching that by following the majority of the church membership and the majority of the Twelve, who kept the records of the Church, a person would never be led astray into apostasy.
President James E. Faust elaborated that this is because the Twelve hold the Priesthood keys.
And in an excellent devotional given to students at Ensign College last year, Keith Erekson said:
“In its complete original context, Wilford Woodruff’s teaching emphasized that the prophet would not … lead people ‘astray from the oracles [or revelations] of God and from their duty.’ Prophets will not lead us away from their true witness of Jesus Christ, from His revelations or from the path, however hard it may be, to follow Him.
If you follow these thoughts to their natural conclusion, you arrive at President Woodruff’s statement in the Manifesto. If the main body of the Church was ever led too far astray, the Priesthood keys would be lost and removed from the Earth just like they were back during the Great Apostasy. Because the Lord has promised us that the Priesthood would never again be taken from the Earth, this means that the prophet and the majority of the apostles can’t lead us astray.
So, as you can see, the way that Faulk presents that line is not the way that the Church treats it. It’s not that prophets can never make a mistake. It’s that prophets can never lead the Church into such deep apostasy that the Priesthood keys will again be removed from the Earth.
In that same devotional cited above, Erekson also taught some wrong assumptions people have about prophets, which I think is worth repeating here. This is a bit long, but I thought it was important to share because we see all of these things throughout this letter:
Erekson asked his listeners what expectations they might have about prophets, how those expectations might be influenced by their upbringing and culture, and if they are assuming things that are incorrect.
“Admitting the errors in our own thinking is sometimes the most difficult part of understanding Church history because it takes humility to change our expectations and assumptions after we learn they are incorrect.” … Many oversimplify living prophets to a simple binary of being inspired or uninspired….
Many cultures have models of prophets. For some, a prophet is a sphinx, riddler or soothsayer who speaks in anonymous riddles. For others, a prophet is a “lone voice who speaks out against all evil and oppression” and denounces every wrong. Another model is that of a cable news pundit who pins the blame for tragedies on the sins of an enemy group, offering harsh condemnations.
Some Latter-day Saints come to expect prophets to act like these models. “Then, if prophets speak too clearly in favor of vaccination, or if they fail to stand with or against the internet’s outrage of the day, or if they offer kindness instead of criticism of refugees, some turn away in rage like Naaman,” Erekson said.
Another unhelpful expectation is a distrust in a person who is influenced by culture. Every human is shaped by the language, customs, knowledge and experiences of individuals, families and societies, making it impossible for anyone — including prophets — to not be influenced by culture….
“Prophets do not urge us to follow or imitate them, but to follow and imitate the Savior,” Erekson said.“Stated another way, the prophets do not teach us to follow them, but to ‘hear Him’!” …
Why do prophets need the grace of Christ? “For the same reasons that you and I depend on His grace — to forgive our sins, succor our infirmities, mitigate our shortcomings, expand our capabilities, turn weaknesses into strengths,” Erekson said.
Prophets make mistakes and they disagree. In extreme cases, their differing perspectives can lead to disputes. “Most of the time,” Erekson said, “the differences of opinion serve to bring all perspectives on issues into the discussion.”
The only person to ever live a mistake-free life was Jesus Christ. Prophets are aware of their own shortcomings, Erekson said, citing Moses who worried over his speaking inadequacies, Moroni who felt the same about his writing, and Joseph Smith who published his errors and divine rebukes. … Simply citing the many instances of when prophets disagreed, made mistakes or were tricked is incomplete, Erekson said, “without understanding that prophets serve ‘through the … grace of [our] Lord Jesus Christ.’ His grace is sufficient to bring them to unanimity, refine their souls and succor them.”
Prophets don’t know everything about the future. “While it is true that God reveals some of His secrets to prophets, and that some prophets including Moses, Enoch and Nephi received sweeping visions, that does not mean that every prophet knows everything about everything,” Erekson said. The things they do know are not always spelled out for them.
“As the ‘mouthpiece’ of the Lord, they do not simply open their mouths and the word of God flows out,” he said. “Sometimes revelation has come as dictated wording, but prophets also receive inspiration, feelings and impressions that they must put into words and actions. Sometimes they explore paths that don’t work out.” …
Prophets work to be inspired of the Holy Ghost because they don’t know everything, and they gain light and truth from the Lord line upon line…
“We should rightly expect prophets to be called through the will of God and the grace of Jesus Christ and receive ongoing guidance through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost,” Erekson said. “As we do so, we can, like Naaman, shed incorrect expectations and assumptions about prophets that both impede our ability to be blessed and prompt divisive anger.”
There are a lot of incorrect assumptions given about prophets and their roles and abilities in this section of the LFMW. We need to be able to spot them and to know how to challenge them, because if we don’t ward against this kind of manipulation, it’ll eventually infect our minds. It’s how we sway from righteous teachings and beliefs into unrighteous ones.
Today the Church says the past leaders were in error because their statements were just “theories”.
Not exactly. Church leaders today say that those statements were theories because they were speculative statements based on opinion and ignorance rather than revelation. They may have thought at the time that they were preaching revealed doctrine, but we know today that they were not.
It’s okay to make mistakes and to be wrong occasionally. Most of us know what it feels like to receive personal revelation from God. He doesn’t often appear to us in person and dictate word-for-word what we record in our journals. He points us in the right direction and nudges along, and He gives us inspiration and understanding, but He also often gives us the basics and lets us figure out the details. It’s how we learn and grow, by stretching ourselves and discovering how to recognize His direction. Sometimes, we get those details wrong, because we’re still learning how to recognize His voice and what He’s saying to us.
It works the same way for our prophets. They may occasionally hear God’s voice or meet with the Savior face to face, but most of the time, their spiritual experiences are just like ours. They need to figure out what their impressions and directions mean, the same way we do. Sometimes, that involves trial and error. Sometimes, it means making the wrong choice before correcting their mistake and making the right one. Sometimes, it means relying on assumptions and inferences that turn out to be incorrect once more light has been shed.
We’ve all been there. We know what it’s like. We know that we’re not perfect and that sometimes, we get things wrong even when we’re trying our hardest to get it right. So, we need to grant our prophets and apostles that same level of understanding and grace. They’re trying their hardest to get it right, too. And you know what? They usually do get it right.
But expecting perfection from fallen, mortal men is an exercise in futility. Why do we insist on holding our prophets and apostles to an impossible standard that even God Himself doesn’t hold them to?
When I ask this question, the response I usually get is, “They’re prophets of God. They’re supposed to be better/smarter/wiser/more attuned to the Spirit than the rest of us.”
Well, where did they ever get that idea? Have they ever even read the Old Testament? Those prophets surely made their fair share of errors.
Yes, there are many areas in which President Nelson is more knowledgeable than I am. He knows considerably more than I do about the way the human body works, particularly the heart and lungs. He also has nearly 60 more years of experience in recognizing and following the Spirit than I do. He has a lot to teach me.
But if I don’t allow him the chance to be human and to make mistakes sometimes, I do both of us a huge disservice. It holds him to an impossible standard he can’t possibly live up to. For me, it weakens my capacity for charity and gives me a distorted view of not only the Priesthood keys but also personal and prophetic revelation, and even the Atonement itself.
Another common refrain is, “What do you expect when the Church teaches us songs like ‘Follow the Prophet, he knows the way’?”
What we expect is that when we teach kids simple, black-and-white concepts, their understanding will expand and deepen as they grow older.
For example, we teach kids not to talk to strangers, but as they get older, we expect them to realize that sometimes, they have to converse with strangers. When you buy something at the store, you usually have to talk to the cashier. When your internet goes down, you have to talk to the guy who comes out to fix it. When you take your car in for repairs, you have to speak to the mechanics. You have to speak to strangers in job interviews. Some of us have to engage with customers at work. Etc.
We teach children by degrees, the same way that the Spirit teaches us. We give them basic concepts when they’re young, and as their maturity and understanding grows, so does the way we discuss these topics.
So, if your thinking on this particular topic hasn’t grown or expanded since you were four years old and singing simplistic songs in Primary, that’s a problem. You should probably talk to somebody about that, because that isn’t normal cognitive function.
Applying the idea that the priesthood ban on blacks was just a theory also doesn’t make much sense when considering what Pres. David O. McKay stated, “…discrimination by the Church toward the Negro is not something which originated with man; but goes back into the beginning with God.”
This is dishonest framing with a cherry-picked and cropped quote. If you read the full statement, a very different picture of President McKay’s words appears. I’ll quote the relevant portion here:
From the beginning of this dispensation, Joseph Smith and all succeeding Presidents of the Church have taught that Negroes, while spirit children of a common Father, and the progeny of our earthly parents Adam and Eve, were not yet to receive the priesthood, for reasons which we believe are known to God, but which he has not made fully known to man.
Our living prophet, President David O. McKay, has said, “The seeming discrimination by the Church toward the Negro is not something which originated with man; but goes back to the beginning with God…
“Revelation assures us that this plan antedates man’s mortal existence, extending back to man’s preexistent state.”
President McKay has also said, “Sometime in God’s eternal plan, the Negro will be given the right to hold the priesthood.”
Until God reveals his will in this matter, to him whom we sustain as a prophet, we are bound by that same will. Priesthood, when it is conferred on any man comes as a blessing from God, not of men.
We feel nothing but love, compassion, and the deepest appreciation for the rich talents, endowments, and the earnest strivings of our Negro brothers and sisters. We are eager to share with men of all races the blessings of the gospel. We have no racially segregated congregations.
Were we the leaders of an enterprise created by ourselves and operated only according to our own earthly wisdom, it would be a simple thing to act according to popular will. But we believe that this work is directed by God and that the conferring of the priesthood must await his revelation. To do otherwise would be to deny the very premise on which the Church is established….
We join with those throughout the world who pray that all of the blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ may in the due time of the Lord become available to men of faith everywhere. Until that time comes we must trust in God, in his wisdom, and in his tender mercy.
They were in error regarding the Priesthood restriction coming from the days of Joseph Smith, but these are not the words of hateful racists trying to hold Black people down. They believed they were following the direction of God, and we can’t say for certain that they weren’t.
Brigham Young said that this was ordained/decreed by the Lord and that he could not change it until the Lord Himself did. We don’t know if that belief came from a direct revelation or not, because Brigham believed that all knowledge or belief was revelation from God, whether it actually was or not. That muddies the water and makes it very difficult for us to figure out exactly what happened.
It does seem clear that however it began, the Lord did need to reverse it by revelation. Remember, President McKay told a room full of witnesses that he prayed for it repeatedly until the Lord told him to stop asking because, while it would change someday, it wouldn’t be under his tenure.
After that experience, I think the First Presidency was justified in saying in the statement above that it needed to be changed by revelation and that they couldn’t do it themselves. Whether that was just the Savior using a man-made policy for His own purposes or not, I don’t know.
I can’t say that the Priesthood restriction came about because of a revelation, and I can’t say that it didn’t come about because of a revelation. There’s conflicting, unclear information. What I can say for certain is that before 1978, multiple prophets believed it came from revelation and that the Lord would not allow them to change it.
If prophets claim to speak the will of Heavenly Father when their words can be later disavowed, then how was it that they were prophets at all?
What makes someone a prophet is not their ability to reason, to be infallible, or to always say everything exactly the way God would say it. A prophet is a prophet because he was called of God and holds all of the Priesthood keys to direct God’s church on Earth.
Part of a prophet’s job is to correct misunderstandings that have crept in—even if those misunderstandings came from a prior prophet who shared information that he believed was true before more light and knowledge was given to clarify the situation.
Prophets preach the Gospel according to their own understanding of the scriptures and their personal revelation. They go into their new calling the same way we all do, with our prior knowledge and beliefs backing us up. They aren’t suddenly gifted with infinite knowledge and wisdom when they’re set apart.
We can trust that these are men who love the Lord and are doing their utmost best to serve Him the very best they can. We can’t trust them to be perfect in all they say or do or think, but we can trust that they take their callings seriously and are doing the very best they can with the knowledge and light they have.
I trust them, and that’s why I’m willing to follow them. I don’t do it blindly, but I choose to do it, even knowing that they may make an occasional mistake.
This completely undermines the ‘prophet will never lead us astray’ principle.
No, it doesn’t, because “the prophet will never lead us astray” does not mean “the prophet will never make a mistake about anything.”
As we discussed above, that statement was regarding Priesthood keys and prophets leading the Church into widespread apostasy to the point where those keys were taken again from the Earth.
What doctrines currently attributed to God by today’s prophet can be discredited as just “theories” by future general authorities?
I guess we’ll find out, won’t we? That’s the beauty of a church led by modern-day prophets and ongoing revelation. As more revelation comes to light, older beliefs are clarified and corrected or deepened, depending on the situation.
We’re not members of a church that clings to revelation given to a specific group of people 5,000 years ago pertaining to their specific circumstances. Universal truths are still taught in every dispensation, but for revelation specific to our society and world today, we look to our current-day prophet. We don’t look to prophets who have been dead for decades, centuries, or millennia.
That’s a feature of our church, not a bug. If new light, knowledge, and understanding wasn’t waiting to come into the world, we wouldn’t have needed a single prophet since Adam.
It’s weird that Faulk is pushing the idea that revelation shouldn’t change over time. Do you see how manipulative that is? If he can cement that idea into your head, and you think about it for even two seconds, you start wondering what the point is of having prophets at all. Don’t fall into that trap. You’re smarter than that.
God sends us prophets because He still has much, much more to teach us. We just need to open ourselves up to embrace it. If we refuse to listen to our current prophets because we prefer the teachings of dead ones, He won’t give us any new revelation. If we don’t read the scriptures we already have, He won’t give us the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon or any other records He has waiting in the wings for us. If we won’t embrace His way of teaching us line by line, He won’t continue to teach us anything.
I’m not personally willing to give that up for Thomas Faulk or Jeremy Runnells, or any of the other ex-Mormon “prophets” out there. I prefer to listen to real ones.
Sarah Allen is relatively new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. An avid reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her friends lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises. That’s when she began sharing what she’d 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.