Okay, guys, the topic this week is on failed prophecies from the latter-day prophets, but only one of these four quotes he gives is actually a prophecy, and it didn’t fail.
The author, Thomas Faulk, also uses an incorrect word as the title, so I corrected it. I won’t correct his usage going forward in the portions I quote from him, but I will be using the correct word myself. So, just to clear up any confusion this flipping between spellings may cause for those who don’t know the difference, “prophecy” and “prophesy” are two completely different words. A “prophecy” is a prediction from an oracle of God that has already been given, such as those given by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. To “prophesy” is to give that prediction in the present tense. It’s an action, something somebody is currently doing. There’s only one letter’s difference between them, but they have different meanings and different pronunciations. I’m not trying to beat up on him for the error, because Heaven knows I’ve made my fair share of typos in this series. But in this case, I think the distinction is important. Also, I really don’t want to confuse anybody by constantly flipping back and forth between the two words.
This one gets into the weeds a bit, particularly on the first quote. There’s also a lot of misunderstanding on what a prophecy is, and what prophets are, from how it looks to me. I may take next week to discuss the role of prophets and our expectations about them, because a lot of people seem to misunderstand what a prophet actually is. They expect every word out of their mouths to be correct in every situation, and that just isn’t the case. I think a discussion about the nature of prophets and prophecy would be pretty beneficial, so right now, at least, I’m leaning in that direction.
Anyway, Faulk introduces this section like this:
While reading through History of the Church, Journal of Discourses, books by past prophets and historical Mormon periodicals, I would occasionally come across prophesies that didn’t quite make sense.
I know I hammer on the reliability issues with things like the Journal of Discourses and History of the Church, but it really is important to understand what these collections are and how they were created.
The History of the Church was collected from mostly second- and thirdhand account that were then rewritten into Joseph Smith’s voice, as if he was the one saying them. This was started under the direction and oversight of Joseph himself, though not finished until well after his death, and it is a solid, reliable source overall. It was a common scribal practice of the day, and they weren’t doing anything without his permission and approval. There are problems with some of the content, and it’s not perfect. But overall, it’s a decent source. There are many things in it that Joseph did not personally say, but if you know that going into it and you know how and where to source the original documents being paraphrased, this history collection is a good starting point. It’s just not guaranteed to actually be Joseph’s words.
The Journal of Discourses is a bit different. Again, there is a lot of wonderful, true, beautiful doctrine contained inside. There is also a lot in it that isn’t accurate or true. The off-the-cuff sermons were transcribed word-for-word, then edited and altered according to the reporters’ wishes as they were prepared for publication. Sometimes, it was just a few sentences here and there that were reworded, removed, or added, but sometimes, it was lengthy passages. None of the sermons we still have the original transcripts for match 100% with what was published, and many of them have “significant” departures, to use the word of the woman who re-transcribed and compared all of them. Again, this was a common practice of the day, but the original speakers were often not given the chance to approve them before publication, and they did not always approve of the changes after reading the finished product, when it was too late to object. It’s a decent resource, but unless you have the original transcript to compare it to—and we don’t have many—you can’t assume that what you’re reading is actually the words of Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, or any of the other speakers. What you’re reading is often the words of the reporters instead.
Different time periods had different recording standards, and issues like these are common in historical documents. These people were using the common techniques from their day, and they didn’t do anything wrong according to what they were taught. But for us today, trying to look back on the past and cobble together an accurate understanding, it does create problems. Historians are trained on how to use sources like this and evaluate them for truthfulness and integrity. But the vast majority of us are not trained historians. I’m certainly not, so I had to learn all of this stuff as I went along.
I’m not saying these sources are wholly unreliable and untrustworthy. I think there’s real value in reading them. But when you do, understand going into it that you may not be reading actual words by actual prophets. You may be reading the inserted thoughts of someone you don’t know anything about, or you may be missing multiples paragraphs of context that would make it make more sense. It’s one of those instances when “caveat emptor” is sound advice.
So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at these quotes.
- Joseph Smith
- Reflecting on a revelation given to him in Sec. 130 of the Doctrine and Covenants:
“There are those of the rising generation who shall not taste death till Christ comes… I was once praying earnestly upon this subject, and a voice said unto me, “My son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years of age, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man.” I prophesy in the name of the Lord God, and let it be written—the Son of Man will not come in the clouds of heaven till I am eighty-five years old. Then read the 14th chapter of Revelation, 6th and 7th verses—”And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, saying with a loud voice, Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment is come.” And Hosea, 6th chapter, After two days, etc.,—2,520 years; which brings it to 1890.” (Joseph Smith, History of the Church, vol.5, p.336)
Joseph’s prophecy was mistaken in two ways: he did not live to be 85 years old and Jesus did not return in 1890.
There are a few different things being quoted and summarized, here. The first is D&C 130:14-17, which says:
14 I was once praying very earnestly to know the time of the coming of the Son of Man, when I heard a voice repeat the following:
15 Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter.
16 I was left thus, without being able to decide whether this coming referred to the beginning of the millennium or to some previous appearing, or whether I should die and thus see his face.
17 I believe the coming of the Son of Man will not be any sooner than that time.
Right off the bat, before we even look at the other sources, there are a few things worth pointing out. The first is that this is a conditional prophecy: if Joseph lives until he’s 85, he’ll see the face of Christ. Joseph didn’t live until he was 85, so the prophecy is moot. The second is that even Joseph didn’t know exactly what it meant. Did it mean that the Second Coming would happen when or after Joseph was 85, was it referring to a previous appearance he’d already had, or would Joseph die and then see Christ’s face? He didn’t know. The prophecy could have meant several different things, and Joseph wasn’t sure which one it was.
The second thing being quoted is the History of the Church, volume 5, pages 336-337:
Were I going to prophesy, I would say the end [of the world] would not come in 1844, 5, or 6, or in forty years. There are those of the rising generation who shall not taste death till Christ comes.
I was once praying earnestly upon this subject, and a voice said unto me, “My son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years of age, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man.” I was left to draw my own conclusions concerning this; and I took the liberty to conclude that if I did live to that time, He would make His appearance. But I do not say whether He will make his appearance or I shall go where He is. I prophesy in the name of the Lord God, and let it be written—the Son of Man will not come in the clouds of heaven till I am eighty-five years old. Then read the 14th chapter of Revelation, 6th and 7th verses—”And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, saying with a loud voice, Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment is come.” And Hosea, 6th chapter, After two days, etc.,—2,520 years; which brings it to 1890. The coming of the Son of Man never will be—never can be till the judgments spoken of for this hour are poured out: which judgments are commenced. Paul says, “Ye are the children of the light, and not of the darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief in the night.” It is not the design of the Almighty to come upon the earth and crush it and grind it to powder, but he will reveal it to His servants the prophets.
Judah must return, Jerusalem must be rebuilt, and the temple, and water come out from under the temple, and the waters of the Dead Sea be healed. It will take some time to rebuild the walls of the city and the temple, &c.; and all this must be done before the Son of Man will make His appearance. There will be wars and rumors of wars, signs in the heavens above and on the earth beneath, the sun turned into darkness and the moon to blood, earthquakes in divers places, the seas heaving beyond their bounds; then will appear one grand sign of the Son of Man in heaven. But what will the world do? They will say it is a planet, a comet, &c. But the Son of Man will come as the sign of the coming of the Son of Man, which will be as the light of the morning cometh out of the east.
Look at what Joseph is actually saying. He’s saying that, if he had to guess, it meant that the Second Coming would not happen before the year 1890, because there was too much still that needed to happen first. He also said that when it was coming, the prophets would be able to warn the valiant members of the Church to prepare for it, even if they didn’t know the exact hour. Well, he was right. The Second Coming didn’t happen before 1890. The signs haven’t all been fulfilled yet.
What did he mean when he said that some of the rising generation wouldn’t taste of death until Christ came? Well, we don’t know for sure. Maybe the Second Coming would have happened much sooner had Joseph actually lived until he was 85. Or maybe we don’t know what Joseph actually meant by “rising generation.” Did he mean the youth who were already alive at the time, or did he mean a coming generation? He didn’t specify. The idiom typically means those who are currently in their youth, but can we say with 100% certainty that’s how Joseph meant it? No. Can we say that this comment wasn’t also conditional on his surviving until he was 85? Nope.
The last thing quoted in Faulk’s comment was Hosea 6:1-3:
1 Come, and let us return unto the Lord: for he hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up.
2 After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight.
3 Then shall we know, if we follow on to know the Lord: his going forth is prepared as the morning; and he shall come unto us as the rain, as the latter and former rain unto the earth.
This seems to be about repenting before the Messiah comes. Joseph’s quote appears to be equating the three days mentioned with 1,000 years each, the way the scriptures say. He said that 2,520 years after that prophecy was given would be the year 1890.
I don’t know the significance of it being 2,520 years, unless it’s referring to a prophecy by a Baptist minister named William Miller which some more fringe Christians believe in. Most do not—with good reason—but for a while between 1840-1845, it was quite the national craze in the United States. It was similar to Y2K, for those who remember what that was like. So, it would make sense that is in fact what Joseph was referring to, since it was a common theory of the day.
Discussion of this prophecy opens a can of worms I don’t really want to get into. I don’t want any mention of it by me to be seen as an endorsement either by myself or by FAIR, because it’s some extreme stuff. I’ll give a brief overview of the idea, but I want to be clear that I do not put any stock into this theory and I’m actually kind of surprised to see Joseph Smith alluding to it.
The basic gist is that there is some Biblical numerology that points to the number 2,520 as being indicative of the date of the Second Coming. This math is based on obscure passages from the books of Leviticus and Daniel. It claims that every 2,520 years, there’s a major event in Jewish history, such as the destruction of Jerusalem, etc., and that the final 2,520 year will culminate in the Second Coming of Christ to the Earth.
In Daniel 5, King Belshazzar and his cronies stole the temple wine and got drunk off of it, and praised their false gods at the expense of the God of Israel. Belshazzar then saw the hand of God writing the words “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin” on the temple wall. Daniel interpreted that writing as basically meaning the end of the king’s reign, which happened immediately. The idiom “seeing the writing on the wall” for the moment you realize the inevitable end of something comes from this story. This is also where the phrase “you have been weighed, measured, and found wanting” comes from. That’s a rough translation of the phrase that over time, entered into colloquial speech.
However, the words are also a math equation. “Mene” is from “mina,” which is a weight of measurement equal to 50 shekels. So, “mene, mene” is 100 shekels. Tekel or “teqal” is another word for shekel, so it’s equal to 1 shekel. And “upharsin” means “to divide.” Half of 50 is 25. Therefore, the total amount of this equation is 126 shekels (50+50+1+25). Ezekiel 45:12 tells us that 1 shekel is worth 20 gerahs, so 126 x 20 = 2,520.
These two instances combined together have been taken by some to indicate that in the Bible, the number 2,520 means the end of an era, or sometimes being a portent of doom and destruction. So, in fringe circles, this can be a prophecy of the end of times or the Apocalypse. This is not mainstream today by any means, though in the early 1840s, it was.
This minister, William Miller, used this equation to predict the end of the world in early 1843. People across the country freaked out over the idea. When the Apocalypse didn’t happen, people began using other equations to extend the deadline every few months until the end of 1844. When it still never came, most people largely abandoned the belief and there are not many at all who still hold to the idea today.
What Joseph seemed to be saying in this quote from History of the Church is that not only was Miller’s math wrong, but that Christ would definitely not come in 1843 or 1844, and would actually not come until at least 1890. To me, it’s clear he wasn’t saying he believed this 2,520 prophecy. I think he was actually saying, “No, he’s wrong. Don’t panic because it’s not happening. When it does happen, the prophets will know it and I’ve been told it won’t happen this quickly.”
So, that is not a failed prophecy by any means. Miller’s prophecy is failed, but Joseph’s was fulfilled. The Second Coming did not happen in 1843-44, just like he promised it wouldn’t. And because Joseph died well before he reached the age of 85, the conditions placed on the verses in D&C 130 could not be fulfilled. That prophecy was rendered void the moment Joseph was murdered.
- Prominent early saint, Elder Oliver B. Huntington, lived with Joseph Smith in Kirtland, OH and served four missions for the Church. He wrote an article for The Young Woman’s Journal, the official magazine for the Young Ladies Mutual Improvement Association of the Church, recounting a teaching by Joseph Smith.
Oliver B. Huntington is the brother of Dimick and Zina Huntington, two other prominent early Latter-day Saints. He’s also an interesting character in his own right, and his autobiography is kind of a cool read.
“Nearly all the discoveries of men in the last half century have… contributed to prove Joseph Smith to be a prophet. As far back as 1837, I know that he said the moon was inhabited by men and women the same as this earth, and that they live to a greater age than we do – that they live generally to near the age of a 1,000 years. He described the men as averaging near six feet in height, and dressing quite uniformly in something near the Quaker style.” (Joseph Smith – The Young Woman’s Journal, vol. 03, no. 6, March 1892. http://contentdm.lib.byu.edu/cdm/ref/collection/YWJ/id/11651)
This is not a prophecy, and there’s no way to attribute it to Joseph Smith. Huntington first wrote this down in his journal in 1881, and his source was not Joseph. It was Philo Dibble. So, not only was it first recorded 44 years after it was supposedly said, but he didn’t even hear it from the actual source. This article that Faulk cited is a thirdhand record that was given 55 years after the comment was supposedly originally made, and 11 years after Huntington first recorded mention of it in his journal. We have no idea whether Joseph actually said it or not.
If he did, it’s still not a prophecy. A prophecy, as we already discussed, is a prediction of a future event. This is just a statement of the possible present.
The article quoted goes on to mention that Huntington’s patriarchal blessing, which he says was given by Joseph Smith, Sr., said that one day he might serve a mission on the moon. The FAIR article cited above, however, quotes part of the blessing:
“[T]hou shalt have power with God even to translate thyself to Heaven, & preach to the inhabitants of the moon or planets, if it shall be expedient.”
We don’t know if that means literally that they were incorrectly talking about inhabitants of our moon or whether they were referring to an unnamed celestial body such as the spirit prison or the place where God dwells, or whether it was a metaphor of some kind, or what.
And according to Dan Vogel, who arrives at poor conclusions in my opinion but who is a solid researcher nonetheless, that blessing was given by Huntington’s father, not Joseph’s.
So, there’s at least one discrepancy in his recollections, which is to be expected half a century later. It’s entirely possible that Philo Dibble had discrepancies in his recollections too, when he passed them on to Oliver Huntington.
It was a fairly common belief at the time that the moon was inhabited. Hyrum Smith apparently believed the moon was inhabited, and Brigham Young apparently believed the sun was. So, it’s entirely possible that Joseph said it, and it’s entirely possible that he didn’t. Maybe he was talking about the inhabitants of the Celestial Kingdom or the city of Enoch. We don’t know enough about whatever prompted this memory of Dibble’s to say whether this was speculation on Joseph’s part, an actual vision that Dibble mistook for being the moon when it was really something else, or a false memory of Dibble’s that was distorted by time.
Either way, though, there is a very big difference between speculation and prophecy.
- Brigham Young
- “So it is with regard to the inhabitants of the sun. Do you think it is inhabited? I rather think it is. Do you think there is any life there? No question of it; it was not made in vain. It was made to give light to those who dwell upon it, and to other planets’ and so will this earth when it is celestialized.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol.13, p.271)
This one is just silly. The usual caveats about the Journal of Discourses aside, “Do you think it’s inhabited? I rather think it is,” is not prophecy. That is pure speculation. There’s no debating that. Brigham was giving an opinion, which he was allowed to do. He was not declaring a fact or announcing a new revelation or making a future prediction under the mantle of prophethood. We all have opinions, and some of those opinions are objectively wrong. That happens to all of us occasionally.
I will tell you who the real fanatics are: they are they who adopt false principles and ideas as facts, and try to establish a superstructure upon, a false foundation. They are the fanatics; and however ardent and zealous they may be, they may reason or argue on false premises till doomsday, and the result will be false. If our religion is of this character we want to know it; we would like to find a philosopher who can prove it to us. We are called ignorant; so we are: but what of it? Are not all ignorant? I rather think so. Who can tell us of the inhabitants of this little planet that shines of an evening, called the moon? When we view its face we may see what is termed “the man in the moon,” and what some philosophers declare are the shadows of mountains. But these sayings are very vague, and amount to nothing; and when you inquire about the inhabitants of that sphere you find that the most learned are as ignorant in regard to them as the most ignorant of their fellows. So it is with regard to the inhabitants of the sun. Do you think it is inhabited? I rather think it is. Do you think there is any life there? No question of it; it was not made in vain. It was made to give light to those who dwell upon it, and to other planets; and so will this earth when it is celestialized. Every planet in its first rude, organic state receives not the glory of God upon it, but is opaque; but when celestialized, every planet that God brings into existence is a body of light, but not till then. Christ is the light of this planet. God gives light to our eyes. Did you ever think who gave you the power of seeing? who organized these little globules in our heads, and formed the nerves running to the brain, and gave us the power of distinguishing a circle from a square, an upright from a level, large from small, white from black, brown from gray, and so on? Did you acquire this faculty by your own power? Did any of you impart this power to me or I to you? Not at all. Then where did we get it from? From a superior Being. When I think of these few little things with regard to the organization of the earth and the people of the earth, how curious and how singular it is! And yet how harmonious and beautiful are Nature’s laws! And the work of God goes forward, and who can hinder it, or who can stay His hand now that He has commenced His kingdom?
He’s pretty clearly saying that God created everything for a purpose and that it didn’t happen by chance. Those who refuse to see God’s hand in the universe and the way everything works together are blind to reality. But he never declared it was a fact that people lived on the sun or the moon. He just said he “rather thinks” so.
Personally, I “rather think” that Thomas Faulk is a dishonest actor stretching words far beyond their definitions in an attempt to discredit the prophets of God. But again, that’s just opinion, not a declaration of fact or a future prediction given under the mantle of prophethood.
- Joseph Fielding Smith
- “We will never get a man into space. This earth is man’s sphere and it was never intended that he should get away from it. The moon is a superior planet to the earth and it was never intended that man should go there. You can write it down in your books that this will never happen.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 1954, vol.3, p.203)
On July 20, 1969 U.S. Astronauts are the first men to walk on the moon.
Yep, he said that at a stake conference in Hawaii, although it’s not in Doctrines of Salvation, volume 3. That’s because volume 3 was published in 1956, not 1954, and the statement in question was given in 1961.
Again, though, sloppy sourcing aside, this was clearly opinion, not prophecy. He believed it would diminish faith if men were to ever reach the moon.
There are two other things worth noting about this opinion. First, it was given in 1961, as I said. Joseph Fielding Smith did not become the President of the Church until 1970, nine years later. He was an apostle in 1961, and was called as a prophet, seer, and revelator, but he was not the leader of the Church. He was not authorized to give binding prophecies on behalf of the Church unless it was in agreement with the other members of the Quorum of the Twelve.
Second, when he was later asked about this after the moon landing, he reportedly said, “Well, I was wrong, wasn’t I?”
It is important to note that the report of his response came 40 years after it was supposedly given, and was a personal reminiscence of someone who was there. This reply is something we can’t definitively source, so take it with a grain of salt. He may well not have ever even said it. Just like with some of the other statements coming decades later as secondhand recollections, we do need to be cautious with accepting it as fact when we can’t confirm it. But, if true, it shows that he didn’t consider it a prophecy any more than I do.
So, of these four supposedly failed prophecies by prophets of the Church, only one was actually a prophecy, and it wasn’t failed. If taken to literally mean that the Second Coming would take place in 1890 if Joseph lived until that time, it was a conditional prophecy whose conditions were not met and was therefore not binding. If taken to mean that the Second Coming would not occur until after 1890, well, that’s a fulfilled prophecy because it hasn’t happened yet and we’re well beyond 1890. The other three quotes were opinion, and opinion, even when given by an apostle or prophet, is not binding on the members of the Church.
I know this post wandered off into some conspiracy theory content, and I know it got kind of weird. But I do think the context of the tangent was necessary to explain what Joseph was trying to say with that first quote. Otherwise, it’s easy to misunderstand the point the same way that Faulk did.
There are a lot of things that Heavenly Father and the Savior leave for us to work out on our own, after giving us the basics. This can naturally lead to speculation when we’re trying to fill in the gaps. Prophets and apostles are not immune to that tendency. In recent decades, our leaders have abandoned open speculation over the pulpit precisely because people were mistaking opinion for prophecy or settled fact. They’ve also taken great pains to clarify repeatedly what constitutes official doctrine and what does not.
Our critics constantly use that speculation by prior Church leaders as evidence that our church is not true. Please do not fall into the same trap that our critics do and mistake their opinion for revelation. We have to remember that they’re fallen human beings just like we are, and sometimes, they make mistakes. If we don’t allow them the grace to make those mistakes, it can do real harm to our testimonies when those mistakes happen. But the Atonement of Christ is bigger than that. It applies to prophets just as much as to the rest of us. Don’t hold these men to impossible standards they can’t possibly live up to. That isn’t fair to them, and it isn’t fair to you.
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.