Too often the Church’s critics try to define for Mormons what a prophet is to be and do and say. Modern prophets are often supposed by these detractors to be either inerrant fax machines, delusional fools, or con artists. They are instead humble, mortal, fallible, righteous (usually older) men who have great experience and ability in one all-important qualification: they know how to seek and receive revelation from Heaven; to obtain the mind and will of the Lord for His people.
Prophets and apostles have made mistakes, lost their tempers, used poor judgment on occasion, believed or taught a little errant doctrine, and so forth. “There have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine” explained President Uchtdorf. Elder Bruce R. McConkie gave an entire illustrative discourse on the humanness of general authorities. If everyone would read and internally digest and understand his explanations, no more would need to be said.
Those who cannot see beyond the foibles and imperfections common to mortals, including prophets, or who pursue a worldly social agenda above all else, lose the blessings and spiritual safety and betterment of their lives that following prophetic counsel would give them. They will receive their reward.
It is disagreeable to try to identify possible weakness or mistakes made by men holding apostolic office (or local stake and ward leaders for that matter) and we should refrain from speaking evil of the Lord’s anointed. President Lorenzo Snow shared this observation and counsel with his fellow apostles: “I saw Joseph Smith the Prophet do things which I did not approve of; and yet…I thanked God that he would put upon a man who had these imperfections the power and authority which he placed upon him…for I knew I myself had weakness and I thought there was a chance for me. These same weaknesses…I knew were in Heber C. Kimball [as well], but my knowing this did not impair them in my estimation. I thanked God I saw these imperfections.” This humble apostle recognized that the same human imperfections that were in him were also in others, but had the wisdom to use that knowledge to improve himself rather than criticize others.
I remember reading a historical anecdote shared by Elder Boyd K. Packer about President Brigham Young. Brother Brigham had selected what he thought was a suitable material to use in building the Salt Lake Temple. His counselors thought otherwise and were eventually able to persuade him that he was wrong and that granite should be the material used. President Young’s ability to change his mind based on sound counsel was commendable.
In the recently published minutes of the first organization of the Women’s Relief Society in the Church (the “Nauvoo Female Relief Society”), a difference of opinion arose between Emma Smith, who had just been elected as the first president of the new society, and her prophet-husband Joseph, and also John Taylor, as to whether the name of the Society should be “Relief” or “Benevolent.” Joseph and John thought it should be “Benevolent” but yielded to Emma’s reasoning and her choice remains the name to this day. Joseph knew he was fallible and could and did yield his judgment to that of others when occasion required or when he was not acting as a prophet.
During the 2004 October general conference, which took place after the passing of Elders David B. Haight and Neal A. Maxwell, President Thomas S. Monson, then a counselor to President Hinckley, arose to begin reading the names of church officers for a sustaining vote. In company with all assembled, he had just finished listening to a choir of sweet primary children’s voices and was obviously touched. Before he began to read the names for sustaining, he commented: “We miss today, of course, Elder David B. Haight, [&] Elder Neal A. Maxwell. I’m sure where they have been called to labor, there are children, just like the children here.” This incidental comment surprised me because I knew that the doctrine of the Church was that there are no children in the spirit world; that all departed spirits in the spirit world are adult in form and size (see Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 445). But I recognized it, as others may have, to be an off-the-cuff, extemporaneous comment at a tender moment, not meant to be viewed as announcing new doctrine. (The quoted comment was not included in the published report of the proceedings of the Conference in the church magazines or in the online text, but is available to view.)
We now let the prophets and apostles (and a couple others) speak for themselves on the question of infallibility:
Paul H. Dunn:
One day while I was sitting there [in his office], I said, “President McKay,…I’d like to come and talk to you and ask you some of the questions all these young people have been asking me for years…. He said, “Let’s talk.” So I tried to remember all those discussions for 13 years that I had had on those campuses with college and university students. I just started to ask him question after question. And half the time the President of the Church—the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator—he just sat there and said, “I don’t know, good question. The Lord’s never told me.” (“Truth or Speculation?” Transcript of unpublished address given at Provo, Utah, MTC, 1990, 2.)
Harold B. Lee:
President George Albert Smith was on his way over to the Hawaiian Islands a few years ago and there were a hundred or so members of the church on board and of course here was a glorious opportunity with four or five days to ask all the questions that they had been reserving for somebody. So they came, two or three sisters, and they sat down beside Brother Smith and he listened very kindly until they got their question all asked and he said, “Well, I don’t know the answer to that question, but Brother [Henry D.] Moyle is here, suppose you go talk to Brother Moyle about it.” (“But Arise and Stand upon Thy Feet—and I Will Speak with Thee,” Address to the Brigham Young University Student body, 7 February 1955, 11.)
Joseph Fielding McConkie:
All prophets preach the same doctrine. That is not to say that they all share the same depth of understanding. Some, a Joseph Smith for instance, have a much greater endowment in the realm of spiritual understanding than do others. And the difference between what is taught by divinely commissioned messengers in various ages is dictated in large measure by the spiritual maturity of those to whom they have been sent. "It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God," Alma said, "nevertheless they are laid under strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him" (Alma 12:9). Men are given only such portion of the mind and will and word of the Lord as their spiritual stature entitles them to receive. (Here We Stand [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995], 127-28.)
From the Doctrine and Covenants:
Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.
And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known;
And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed;
And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent;
And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time. (D&C 1:24-28.)
Richard L. Evans:
All the answers aren’t in. The Lord God hasn’t told us all he knows. I would much rather tell one of my sons that I don’t know, or speculate a bit with him frankly, and say “These are some things that men think might be possible, but there is all eternity ahead.”… When it serves [the Lord’s] good purpose to do so, he will tell us what we cannot find out by research positively and conclusively and what he has not given us by revelation. Just work on what he has given us…. Do not smother your curiosity, but keep an open mind and a simple faith. Remember, there is all eternity to find the answers. (“The Unanswerable Questions,” Address given to Church History and Philosophy 245—Advanced Theory,
June 29, 1956, 8.)
I recollect a gentleman from
who was tarrying in this city for the benefit of his health, but was called
home on business, who said he believed the Bible and believed all, as far as he
had learned, with regard to the doctrines of the Latter-day Saints. Said he,
one day, when visiting me for the last time, "Mr. Young, am I to
understand that you consider yourselves perfect?" I said to him,
"Such an idea with regard to us is a mistaken one, and if you entertain it
you have not got the matter placed correctly in your mind. Let me correct you,
so that when at home you may meditate upon it. The doctrine that we preach is
perfect; but our lives are very imperfect. To say that a human being is
perfect, that he has no errors, would say that he is divine—a God or a holy
angel. But we are in a world of sin and darkness, a world that knows not God;
in a world where error dwells and reigns supreme. Now," said I,
"remember this. The doctrine that we preach is from God; this doctrine is
pure and holy; it is without spot or blemish; and it is the doctrine of the Son
of God, the Savior of the world." (Journal of Discourses, 26 vols.
[London: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1854-86], 13:270-71.)
Joseph Fielding McConkie:
Years ago I read a book about a man who had been a prominent leader in the Church. In doing so I was quite surprised to learn about his attitude on a number of things. His feelings on these matters were not in accord with what I understood the standards of the Church to be. I mentioned the matter to my father [Bruce R. McConkie], from whom I then learned a valuable lesson. Everyone, he explained, is responsible for what he believes and for what he chooses not to believe. That someone in a position of leadership made some poor choices in what he believed or did in no way excused the same kind of choices on my part. Each of us, my father reminded me, will stand alone at the Day of Judgment. (Answers: Straightforward Answers to Tough Gospel Questions [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1998], 14-15.)
J. Reuben Clark:
To this point runs a simple story my father told me as a boy, I do not know on what authority, but it illustrates the point. His story was that during the excitement incident to the coming of
Johnston's Army, Brother
Brigham preached to the people in a morning meeting a sermon vibrant with
defiance to the approaching army, and declaring an intention to oppose and
drive them back. In the afternoon meeting he arose and said that Brigham Young
had been talking in the morning, but the Lord was going to talk now. He then
delivered an address, the tempo of which was the opposite from the morning
I do not know if this ever happened, but I say it illustrates a principle-that even the President of the Church, himself, may not always be "moved upon by the Holy Ghost," when he addresses the people. This has happened about matters of doctrine (usually of a highly speculative character) where a subsequent President of the Church and the people themselves have felt that in declaring the doctrine, the announcer was not "moved upon by the Holy Ghost." ("When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?" second part of an address delivered 7 July 1954 at Brigham Young University; cited in David H. Yarn, ed., J. Reuben Clark: Selected Papers, vol. 3 [Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 1984], 102.)
J. Reuben Clark:
But this matter of disagreements over doctrine, and the announcement by high authority of incorrect doctrines, is not new….
Supremely great is the calling of a Prophet of God to declare the mind and the will of God touching the trials, the vicissitudes, the grievous persecutions that follow the righteous of the children of men, and then to proclaim the glories of the infinite goodness of God, his mercy and love, his forgiveness, his unbounded helpfulness, his divine purposes, his final destiny of man.
Yet we must not forget that prophets are mortal men, with men's infirmities.
Asked if a prophet was always a prophet, Brother Joseph quickly affirmed that "a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such." (DHC, vol. V, p. 265.)
He pointed out that James declared "that Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, yet he had such power with God, that He, in answer to his prayers, shut the heavens that they gave no rain for the space of three years and six months; and again, in answer to his prayer, the heavens gave forth rain, and the earth gave forth fruit." (James 5:17-18; DHC vol. II, p. 302.)
On another occasion Joseph quoted the saying of John that "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Rev. 19:10) and declared: "… if I profess to be a witness or teacher, and have not the spirit of prophecy, which is the testimony of Jesus, I must be a false witness; but if I be a true teacher and witness, I must possess the spirit of prophecy, and that constitutes a prophet." (DHC, vol. V, pp. 215-16.) ("When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture?" second part of an address delivered 7 July 1954 at Brigham Young University; cited in David H. Yarn, ed., J. Reuben Clark: Selected Papers, vol. 3 [Provo, UT: BYU Press, 1984], 110-11.)
Bruce R. McConkie:
With all their inspiration and greatness, prophets are yet mortal men with imperfections common to mankind in general. They have their opinions and prejudices and are left to work out their own problems without inspiration in many instances. Joseph Smith recorded that he "visited with a brother and sister from
Michigan, who thought that 'a prophet is
always a prophet'; but I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he
was acting as such." (Teachings, p. 278.) Thus the opinions and views even
of prophets may contain error unless those opinions and views are inspired by
the Spirit. Inspired statements are scripture and should be accepted as such.
(D. & C. 68:4.)
Since "the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets" (1 Cor. ), whatever is announced by the presiding brethren as counsel for the Church will be the voice of inspiration. But the truth or error of any uninspired utterance of an individual will have to be judged by the standard works and the spirit of discernment and inspiration that is in those who actually enjoy the gift of the Holy Ghost. (Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. [
Salt Lake City:
Bookcraft, 1966], 608.)
Bruce R. McConkie:
Though general authorities are authorities in the sense of having power to administer church affairs, they may or may not be authorities in the sense of doctrinal knowledge, the intricacies of church procedures, or the receipt of the promptings of the Spirit. A call to an administrative position of itself adds little knowledge or power of discernment to an individual, although every person called to a position in the Church does grow in grace, knowledge, and power by magnifying the calling given him. (Mormon Doctrine, 2nd.ed. [
Salt Lake City:
Bookcraft, 1966], 309.)