Sunday, May 6, 2012

When the Prophet Speaks

A reader named Amber wrote in a response to a previous post: "So your suggesting we should discount Kimball's and Woodruff's first hand account of what happened and go with Willard's "edits" some years later? Really? I think I'll believe the first hand accounts that a prophet received revelation on the matter and it was recorded by Heber C.Kimball and Wilford Woodruff. One could hardly ask for more reliable and accurate sources. In this post you are discrediting 3 prophets and base your argument on one historian's simple omission. No offense but, I don't think I'll read anymore of these posts. Thanks, anyways."

First of all, Willard Richards was not simply "omitting" something from the historical record. He was called by Joseph Smith, worked as historian while Joseph was the living prophet, and under his sole direction. That Richards, who was also an apostle and private secretary to Joseph Smith, and later a member of the First Presidency under Brigham Young, changed this information under Joseph Smith's "guidance" or "acknowledgement" is most likely, for the priesthood, especially at that level, does not work  independently, but under direction, approval, and reporting back of their assignments.

Secondly, though, and more importantly, Joseph Smith, during Zion's Camp when the remains of the man he called Zelph were found, was not uttering a revelation about the location of the Book of Mormon lands. Nor were Heber C. Kimball or Wilford Woodruff making statements of Church doctrine in their journals when they recorded the event of uncovering the white Lamanite.

Left: Joseph Smith writing in his Journal; Right: Brigham Young

Thirdly, the Church, then and now, has not and does not offer an opinion, statement, or comment on the location of the Book of Mormon lands. Individuals, including Church Leaders over the years have offered their opinion occasionally on the subject, but it is just an opinion.  In fact, many members today consider everything Joseph Smith said as revelation and that he was speaking as a prophet at all times. However, in his own Journal, under the date of January the 8th, the prophet Joseph Smith wrote:

"This morning I read German, and 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.' That is to say, when acting officially and delivering the word and will of God--speaking ex cathedra."

Ex cathedra means "from the chair" as when in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of his flock, members, or church, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority.

Continuing in his Journal regarding not only himself but Church Leaders, Joseph Smith wrote:  "As to the printed discourses of even leading brethren, the same principle holds. They do not constitute the court of ultimate appeal on doctrine. They may be very useful in the way of elucidation and are very generally good and sound in doctrine, but they are not the ultimate sources of the doctrines of the Church, and are not binding on the Church; The rule in that respect is--What God has spoken, and what has been accepted by the Church as the word of God, by that, and that only, are we bound in doctrine. When in the revelations it is said concerning the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator that the Church shall 'give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them--for his word ye shall receive as if from mine own mouth in all patience and faith' (D&C 21)--it is understood, of course, that this has reference to the word of God received through revelation, and officially announced to the Church and not to every chance word spoken."

Every "chance word spoken" is a matter for our understanding, for prophets, Church Leaders, and members often make statements that are their opinions on a subject, and not necessarily the doctrine of the Church. We need to know, of course, the difference, and the prophet told us how:

Joseph Smith continued: "And when it is further said, as it is in one of the revelations, that whatsoever the elders of the Church 'shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost, shall be the mind of the Lord and shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation'--it is to be precisely noted that this is 'when' the elders 'speak as moved upon the by the Holy Ghost,' and not otherwise; and as the elders do not always speak as moved upon by the Holy Ghost, the church does not admit their utterances as on the same level for deciding upon Church doctrine as the four books that have been mentioned." (This entire statement is found in Liahona: The Elder's Journal, Vol 19, p 69. A briefer statement is found in Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p 278, The Improvement Era, vol 24, p 797, and History of the Church, vol 5, p265).

We need to keep in mind that when prophets speak, they are not always speaking as a prophet. Sometimes they are giving an opinion and their own view. The difference is extremely important, and as Joseph Smith said, you can tell the difference by the fact that if it is a revelation and they are speaking for God, then it will be delivered ex cathedra, that is, speaking officially for the Church, delivered to the Church, accepted by the Church, and we are then bound by that doctrine.

This does not belittle the role of prophet in any way--for "surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7). However, Joseph Smith has taught us an important lesson, which allows members to know and understand what is the word and will of God as opposed to the ideas and opinions of men.

In a recent General Conference talk, the story of Brigham Young was mentioned regarding this subject, about how he spoke in the morning session in the tabernacle when the U.S. Army was threatening to attack Salt Lake City, in which he called for the brethren to take up arms. However, in the afternoon session, he said, "This morning you heard from Brigham Young. This afternoon is the Lord speaking." He went on to say just the opposite of what he had intoned in the morning.

It is important for us to know the different between a leader's opinion and the revelations spoken of by the prophet. While I would rather err on the side of a member of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, I have never found any of them uttering opinions that are in opposition to the revealed word of the Lord in the form of the scriptural record of the Book of Mormon. Thus, it is safe to accept the scripture as the Word of God without expecting anything contradictory coming out of Church Leaders.


  1. I am surprised at the reaction of some of the Saints who sometimes become mindless sheep. I thank you for quoting this statement by Joseph. I believe there are others that reflect the idea that we are NOT to follow the Prophet blindly but to do it by much prayer and fasting... receiving personal revelation from the Holy Ghost to the truthfulness of the situation.

    For those wanting more info, there is a wonderful article on the FAIRLDS website entitled “Well Nigh as Dangerous”: Latter-day Prophecy and Revelation; Infallibility and Blind Obedience. Just Google the title.

    by McKay V. Jones

  2. Thanks. A good read. Would that all LDS understand these basic and simple concepts.