Tuesday, March 1, 2016

When Does the Prophet Speak as a Prophet?

Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of posts by Dennis Horne, sharing portions of his book, Determining Doctrine: A Reference Guide for Evaluating Doctrinal Truth. You can read the first post here.

            Such is often the first question asked by a critic (who doesn’t believe in modern prophets/revelation), or, by someone who doesn’t want to follow/obey something a prophet has said. Yet the answer to this question also carries some value for people who have belief and faith and love for modern prophets. This is especially true when dealing with dusty old quotations from former apostles and prophets, usually dredged up by anti-Mormons, that might teach something incorrect. Elder Paul H. Dunn explained how President David O. McKay viewed the narrowed latitude he felt that he had in speaking to the Saints:

            This is President McKay’s response to Elder Dunn’s question of when a prophet speaks as a prophet. He had a notebook on his desk, and he wrote down “Joseph Smith.” He said, “In 1830 the Church on April 6 numbered six people. And it didn’t grow too rapidly” (although we think in rapid terms as we look back on it). He said, “Clear down to the time the Prophet was martyred in June 1844, do you know how large the Church was? Nine stakes and a little over twenty-six thousand people.”... And he said, “Everybody literally knew everybody. And when the Prophet Joseph Smith spoke, he often spoke before smaller groups. To the world it was just a small church in that part of the United States, and even when they moved west with Brigham Young, it was a western American church.” And he said, “all the way down to George Albert Smith people really didn’t care what the Saints believed other than polygamy, and we were just an unknown entity.” And he said, ”When the prophets in that era spoke, quite often they spoke personal opinion.” That’s why the Journal of Discourses, if you’re not careful, can present some difficulty for you….

            President McKay said to me, “The day the [prophetic] mantle fell on me (April 1951), it became very conscious in my mind that we had now arrived on the world scene. I took a silent oath and covenant not to speculate publicly.” And ever since then I have watched the prophets who have been very careful not to do that in public. Prior to David O. McKay, you have more homework to do, because they often speculated. (“Truth or Speculation?” Transcript of unpublished address given at Provo, Utah, Missionary Training Center, 1990, 3-4.)[1]

A sufficient knowledge of the basic principle that a prophet is only a prophet when acting as such can become a valuable personal protection for some people against certain treacherous arguments of the devil’s spokespeople.

            Although I should not be I am continually amazed when I hear of someone, who perhaps was once a faithful Latter-day Saint and knew (at least some) church doctrine, but has now left the Church, mistakenly talk or write about modern prophets as though they were/are fax machines or text message receiving robots. I can imagine such an erroneous notion entering the head of an atheist or evangelical, who have no conception of what a modern prophet really is, but it is harder to understand coming from a former Mormon who should now know better because they once did. But the scripture is proven true over and over again: “And therefore, he that will harden his heart, the same receiveth the lesser portion of the word; . . . And they that will harden their hearts, to them is given the lesser portion of the word until they know nothing concerning his mysteries; and then they are taken captive by the devil, and led by his will down to destruction” (Alma 12:11-12).

            On the other hand, spiritually experienced/mature people see little reason to question when a prophet speaks as a prophet. For the truly converted and perceptively loyal such considerations have little value; the real question becomes how to best follow the prophet’s counsel:

Marion G. Romney:

            I have never been very particular to determine when [Church leaders] were speaking as prophets of God and when they were speaking as men. It has never occurred to me that I had the ability to determine that. It has been the rule of my life to find out if I could, by listening closely to what they said and by asking the Lord to help me interpret it, what they had in mind for the Latter-day Saints to do and then do it. I am happy to say, not boastfully but gratefully, that I have never hesitated to follow the counsel of the Authorities of the Church, even though it crossed my social, professional, or political life. (Conference Report, April 6, 1941, 123.)

Russell M. Nelson:

            From time to time, I hear people speculate on the question “When does the prophet speak as a prophet, and when does he speak otherwise?” This query seems curious to me, as if one were presumptuous enough to sit in judgment on a prophet. To one asking such a question, my observations may be of interest. In my close associations with President Kimball spanning two decades and the spectrum from suffering to sublimity, I have never been forced to that question. The only question I have faced has been “How can I be more like him?” His saintly life has truly been an inspiration to me, for I have watched him carefully in virtually all circumstances to which one may be subjected. Nothing could bless me and my family more than for us to strive toward the degree of perfection and self-mastery he has achieved. I know that this man, as his predecessors, has been prepared, blessed, inspired, and preserved to preside over the Church as a living prophet. I know that he is directed by the Lord. I have seen it, and I have felt it. I know that Spencer W. Kimball teaches and testifies as a prophet, that he has suffered as have other prophets, that he serves as a prophet. He receives and responds to revelation as a prophet. He has the courage of a prophet, the kindness and concern of a prophet. He lives as a prophet and will die as have other prophets, sealing his testimony that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ and the head of his church. (From Heart to Heart: An Autobiography [Salt Lake City: Quality Press, 1979], 186.)

            Today’s prophets and apostles know how to seek and receive revelation—but just because they do doesn’t necessarily mean that today’s new, inexperienced, or doubting members know how that process works, either for prophets or for themselves. For some, it is beyond their understanding how pure intelligence can flow into the mind of a righteous man or woman and impart eternal truth or direction or confirmation or actual words to be remembered or written, or whatever else is needed. Visions and visitations and the voice of the Spirit (all gifts of the Spirit) are beyond the experience of the generality of mankind and also unfortunately outside the experience of many in the Church as well.

On the other hand, all that truly faithful and spiritually attuned Latter-day Saints need to do to understand what it means for a prophet to speak as a prophet is for them to ponder on their own spiritual experiences, such as some past event when they gained/strengthened their testimony or received an answer to prayer (see D&C 6:22-24). During these precious times they can glimpse a measure of what a prophet knows and receives from Heaven. Such sacred experience may be magnified in one who holds the keys and carries the mantle and guides the Church under its Head, but nonetheless it is the same process involved; and the faithful and valiant know the Spirit.

The below quotations (from Determining Doctrine) explain when a prophet speaks as a prophet.

J. Reuben Clark:

            The very words of the revelation recognize that the Brethren may speak when they are not "moved upon by the Holy Ghost," yet only when they do so speak, as so "moved upon," is what they say Scripture. No exceptions are given to this rule or principle. It is universal in its application.

            The question is, how shall we know when the things they have spoken were said as they were "moved upon by the Holy Ghost?"

            I have given some thought to this question, and the answer thereto so far as I can determine, is: We can tell when the speakers are "moved upon by the Holy Ghost" only when we, ourselves, are "moved upon by the Holy Ghost."

            In a way, this completely shifts the responsibility from them to us to determine when they so speak. ("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], 95.)

Harold B. Lee:           

            When does a person [prophet] speak as a prophet? Do you recall the revelation in which the Lord said:

            “And, behold,…this is an ensample unto all those who were ordained unto this priesthood (he is talking to General Authorities), whose mission is appointed unto them to go forth…

            “…they shall speak as they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost.

            “And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.” (D&C 68:2-4.)

            This is so when that authority is speaking by the power of the Holy Ghost. As someone has rightly said, it is not to be thought that every word spoken by our leaders is inspired. The Prophet Joseph Smith wrote in his personal diary, “This morning, I…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). It is not to be thought that every word spoken by the General Authorities is inspired, or that they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost in everything they speak and write. Now you keep that in mind. I don’t care what his position is, if he writes something or speaks something that goes beyond anything that you can find in the standard church works, unless that one be the prophet, seer, and revelator—please note that one exception—you may immediately say, “Well, that is his own idea.” And if he says something that contradicts what is found in the standard works (I think that is why we call them “standard”—it is the standard measure of all that men teach), you may know by that same token that it is false, regardless of the position of the man who says it. We can know that they are speaking under inspiration if we so live that we can have a witness that what they are speaking is the word of the Lord. There is only one safety, and that is that we shall live to have the witness to know. President Brigham Young said something to the effect that “the greatest fear I have is that the people of this Church will accept what we say as the will of the Lord without first praying about it and getting the witness within their own hearts that what we say is the word of the Lord.” (“The Place of the Living Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,” Address to Religious Educators, 8 July 1964; cited in Charge to Religious Educators, 2nd ed. [Salt Lake City: Church Educational System and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982], 111.)

Harold B. Lee:

            We have the standard Church works. Why do we call them standard? If there is any teacher who teaches a doctrine that can't be substantiated from the standard church works—and I make one qualification, and that is unless that one be the President of the Church, who alone has the right to declare new doctrine—then you may know by that same token that such a teacher is but expressing his own opinion. If, on the other hand, you have someone teaching a doctrine that cannot be substantiated by the scriptures, and more than that, if it contradicts what is in the standard Church works, you may know that that person is teaching false doctrine, no matter what his position in this church may be. The President of the Church alone may declare the mind and will of God to His people. No officer nor any other church in the world has this high and lofty prerogative. When the President proclaims any such new doctrine, he will declare it to be a revelation from the Lord.

            There have been times when even the President of the Church has not been moved upon by the Holy Ghost. There is, I suppose you'd say, a classic story of Brigham Young in the time when Johnston's army was on the move. The Saints were all inflamed, and President Young had his feelings whetted to fighting pitch. He stood up in the morning session of general conference and preached a sermon vibrant with defiance at the approaching army, declaring an intention to oppose them and drive them back. In the afternoon he rose 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 exact opposite of the morning sermon.

            Whether that happened or not, it illustrates a principle: that the Lord can move upon His people but they may speak on occasions their own opinions. (Stand Ye in Holy Places [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1974], 109-10.)

Mark E. Petersen:

            Now I would like to come to the matter of guidance through the General Authorities. That is a much disputed subject among some of the Latter-day Saints, and I am going to talk to you very frankly about it.

            The Prophet Joseph Smith wrote, “This morning I…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).

            And then I have selected this from section 68: “And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto Salvation” (v. 5).

            I would like you to know that the General Authorities are entitled to the exercise of free agency, just as much as anybody else. I would like you to know that they are entitled to the guidance of the light of Christ just like anybody else, and that they are entitled to the whisperings of the Spirit as a result of their having received the gift of the Holy Ghost, just like other members of the Church. And I would like you to know that because the General Authorities have their agency, if anyone of them so desired they could exercise that agency to violate all the rules of the Church. Some of them have in the past, especially in early days….

            But as I say, we all have our free agency. God doesn’t rob anyone of that. And sometimes even a General Authority has used his agency in a wrong direction. Some of them turned traitor and some allied themselves with those who helped to kill the Prophet Joseph Smith.

            Now, a General Authority might speculate, I suppose. We have had speculation, for instance, on the part of some with respect to Book of Mormon geography, and it is plain, unadulterated speculation and not doctrine. And if a General Authority has speculated on Book of Mormon geography he did not represent the view of the Church while doing so. (“Revelation,” Address to religious educators, 24 August 1954; cited in Charge to Religious Educators, 2nd ed. [Salt Lake City: Church Educational System and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982], 136-37.)

Mark E. Petersen:

            The President of the Church is a prophet, seer, and revelator. His word we shall receive as “if from mine own mouth in all patience and faith,” says the Lord. Now, that doesn’t mean that the President of the Church is speaking prophecy every minute. He might like to go to a ball game, and he isn’t acting as a prophet there. But when he acts in the power of his office, he is the prophet and mouthpiece of the Almighty. (“Revelation,” Address to religious educators, 24 August 1954; cited in Charge to Religious Educators, 2nd ed. [Salt Lake City: Church Educational System and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982], 137.)

Bruce R. McConkie:

            Not every word that a man who is a prophet speaks is a prophetic utterance. Joseph Smith taught that a prophet is not always a prophet, only when he is acting as such (Teachings, p. 278). Men who wear the prophetic mantle are still men; they have their own views; and their understanding of gospel truths is dependent upon the study and inspiration that is theirs. (Mark L. McConkie, ed., Doctrines of the Restoration: Sermons & Writings of Bruce R. McConkie [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989], 231.)

[1] I am aware that Elder Paul H. Dunn, near the end of his life, experienced some personal difficulties due to public exposure for his use of poor judgment in some matters. It was found that he embellished and exaggerated certain stories from his eventful life in his public speaking. He also unwisely lent his name to some failed investment schemes. His and the Church’s detractors have tried to use this information to discount and nullify everything he ever said; such wholesale disregard is certainly not warranted and is an offensive and dishonest effort to discredit all the good he did as a general authority. During the 1970s and 80s Elder Dunn was easily the most popular speaker in the Church and he positively influenced many thousands. He publicly and privately took formal censure and full responsibility for his errors and he was placed on emeritus status slightly earlier than would normally have been the case. However, having recognized these unfortunate matters, the point he makes in the personal experience quoted herein is valid in relation to our subject.
The quotation is taken from a typescript of a talk he gave in 1990 to missionaries at the MTC in Provo, Utah. Upon investigation I found that the audio tape created and sold by a commercial company was the only distribution of this talk; no Church-approved (or otherwise) printed version was ever created. I therefore made my own transcription for selective use in my book, Determining Doctrine, since it was so completely and harmoniously aligned with the subject. I also gave a copy to Elder Dunn’s wife at the time; she has long since passed away.

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