It's not a comfortable question to be asked, and it can be equally uncomfortable to explain:
Mommy, where do babies come from?
Different explanations are offered for different levels of understanding: The stork, the baby store, the hospital, mommy's tummy, and eventually the biological realities of reproduction are explained when there is sufficient maturity to understand and use such knowledge properly.
Religion works in much the same way. We teach children simple truths, which they accept in simple faith, and as they mature, we increase the depth and breadth of teaching so they can gain a fuller understanding and exercise greater faith.
In the process, sometimes uncomfortable topics come up, requiring us to grapple with questions, doubts and fears. But this struggle is worthwhile, because, properly pursued, it produces a more informed, mature and powerful faith. This is the necessary process of spiritual growth. Said Paul:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. (1 Corinthians 13:11)Putting away childish things in our gospel understanding is absolutely necessary, though often uncomfortable. Ironically, receiving greater light and knowledge requires us to become more childlike; the more open we are, the more our hearts are soft and willing, the greater our capacity to understand truth. Being childlike in our openness is not the same as being childish in our understanding.
And so, we come to the topic of prophets. As Mormons, we unequivocally believe in prophets and prophecy, so it's worthwhile to study the topic. In doing so, we must let go of our preconceived ideas and biases so we can be soft hearted and open to truth, even when it's uncomfortable. The path to Christ's redemption was never designed to be comfortable, popular or easy.
No matter the stories we may tell our children, neither babies nor prophets are delivered by storks.
Do you Sustain the Prophet?
If you've ever had a temple recommend or priesthood interview, you've been asked the following questions:
Do you sustain the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the prophet, seer, and revelator and as the only person on the earth who possesses and is authorized to exercise all priesthood keys? Do you sustain members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators?These are interesting questions to ponder, particularly if you don't just answer with a knee-jerk "Yes!" reaction. It's worth considering what it means to "sustain" a man as a "prophet, seer and revelator." As with all questions affecting our salvation, we ought to take this question seriously.
Let's start with those three titles--Prophet, Seer, Revelator. They are first listed together in D&C 107, as follows:
And again, the duty of the President of the office of the High Priesthood is to preside over the whole church, and to be like unto Moses—Behold, here is wisdom; yea, to be a seer, a revelator, a translator, and a prophet, having all the gifts of God which he bestows upon the head of the church. (D&C 107:91-92)Now the first thing we have to get straight is this: The titles "prophet, seer, and revelator" do not refer to priesthood offices. You CANNOT ordain someone "prophet" or "seer" or "revelator." I've heard people talk about the President of the church being "ordained to be the prophet." This may be the colloquial usage among us Latter-day Saints, but it is not correct. The President of the church is ordained to be the President, which is an administrative office—not the Prophet, which is a spiritual gift.
The titles of prophet, seer and revelator all refer to spiritual gifts. And according to D&C 107, it is the duty of the President of the church to obtain and exercise these gifts.
There is no scriptural provision automatically bestowing these gifts on a man by virtue of the office he holds. But since so many people automatically associate the gifts with the office, it's worth looking at the process by which a man ascends to the office of President of the church. In our current practice, it happens in the following way:
- Upon the death of the current President, the next-most-senior apostle is automatically installed as the legal president of the corporation. There is no provision for discussion, dissent, or direction from God. It's written in the corporate charter and is legally automatic and instant upon death as part of the corporation's contract with the state, not God.
- Shortly thereafter, the new President is ordained to the office of President by the combined quorum of the Twelve Apostles (though in the past the ordination has also been performed by the Presiding Patriarch. And in some cases, there was never an ordination at all.)
- Sometime later, the new President is sustained by the vote of the church membership in General Conference. Being that the man is already legally installed, and ordained, the vote is merely symbolic. There is, in reality, zero chance that the vote would ever choose anything different than what has already been done, nor is there any procedure in place to change anything even if the vote did come out against what had been done.
- Having thus been legally installed, ordained and sustained in precisely backwards order from what it should be, the President is now obligated to seek and obtain the gifts of Prophecy, Seership and Revelation. It is his duty (D&C 107:91). He can be sustained by our vote, and ordained to an office, but this does not obligate the Lord to bestow any specific spiritual gift on that man. An office is no guarantee of any spiritual gifts at all. We cannot vote the gifts to descend upon the man. Only God can bestow the spiritual gifts the President is obligated to seek.
The Gift of Prophecy
It's a simple concept. By definition, a "prophet" or "prophetess" is one who has the gift of prophecy. (D&C 46:22). Such a person receives and delivers a message given them by God. Our common usage implies such a message will deal with future events, but the timing is not the defining characteristic of prophecy. Rather it is the source. Prophecy MUST originate with God.
There is no scriptural mandate that there be only one person with this gift at any given time, or that there only be specific leadership offices that enjoy this gift.
Rather, the gift is available to all, and at times, there have been many prophets simultaneously issuing prophecy. (1 Nephi 1:4, Enos 1:22) Moses desired that ALL the Lord's people would be prophets. (Numbers 11:29) We should all be prophets because "the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." (Revelation 19:10, Alma 6:8)
Jesus taught us to expect prophets, and discern false prophets from true prophets by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15-20) If the fruit of a prophet is his prophecy, then we ought to judge the prophet by the message he delivers.
Note that Jesus DID NOT say we could recognize a prophet by office, title, position, credentials, family, education, wealth, power, achievements, honors of men, success, accolades, or even common consent. These are all false standards, valued by this fallen world, but completely irrelevant to heaven. God chooses whom He will, and teaches that person. This is the only credential a prophet needs. The message is both the credential and the fruit of that prophet. If someone delivers a message from God, the message is all the authority needed. Such a messenger is, in delivering that message, a prophet.
Therefore, if we are to judge by fruits, we must examine the prophecy of the prophet to discern a true prophet from a pretender. If a man has never issued prophecy, there is nothing by which to judge.
In that case, it's much like claiming to be a dentist, without ever having actually looked in someone's mouth. If you can't do it, you can't claim it. And it doesn't matter how many people may call you a dentist and testify that with every fiber of their being they KNOW you are God's chosen dentist and his mouth-doctor on earth. Until you fill the cavities, you haven't demonstrated you're anything but a title.
A prophet, then, has the obligation to make it clear when he is prophesying, or delivering a message given him by God so we will know it is prophecy and not just a good talk. "Thus saith the Lord" is a common scriptural marker. Or "the word of the Lord came unto me saying..." Others express it in other ways. King Benjamin made it known that he received his message from an angel. Jacob said he obtained his errand from the Lord. The key to remember here is that prophets clearly identify their prophecy as originating with God. We are never left to guess or make claims on their behalf that they do not make.
Joseph Smith said a prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such (DHC 5:265). This means that everything coming out of the prophet's mouth is NOT prophecy, and may also include opinions, teachings, and administrative pronouncements. In fact, the majority of what such a person speaks will NOT be prophecy.
An example would be when Joseph Fielding Smith, at the time President of the Quorum of the Twelve, stated over the pulpit in 1961 that man would never go into space or reach the moon. Obviously, he was expressing his own opinion, later proven to be erroneous. The fact that he said it "in the name of Jesus Christ" and over the pulpit did not change the fact that it was mere opinion. And it's OK—he, like all men, is entitled to hold opinions and make mistakes. He did not say the Lord said it; he was not issuing prophecy.
And yet, if everything coming out of a prophet's mouth were prophecy, such errors would be hugely problematic and faith destroying. Therefore the prophet must identify clearly that which is, indeed, a message coming from the Lord. Unless a statement is identified as prophecy, the only safe course is to assume it is not.
Ask yourself, then: When is the last time you heard such a message identified and delivered by a living prophet (or heard it read to you from a teleprompter)? Who is the last man you know of who openly claimed to have met the Lord or an angel and to subsequently deliver a message from God? Or have you ever heard of such a message in your lifetime? Joseph Smith made it clear when he was delivering God's word. He was unquestionably a prophet. Do we hear such a voice today?
Or have we changed the definition of "prophet" and "prophecy" to conform to our current situation?
The Gift of Seership
The best way to think about a Seer is as a "see-er," or one who "sees." A seer is shown visions by God. Ammon gives an excellent summary:
But a seer can know of things which are past, and also of things which are to come, and by them shall all things be revealed, or, rather, shall secret things be made manifest, and hidden things shall come to light, and things which are not known shall be made known by them, and also things shall be made known by them which otherwise could not be known.
Thus God has provided a means that man, through faith, might work mighty miracles; therefore he becometh a great benefit to his fellow beings. (Mosiah 8:17-18)Therefore, it's a fairly simple proposition for us rank-and-file church members to recognize a seer. He or she will have visions that reveal things that otherwise could not be known, and will make those things known unto us. Joseph Smith is a great example: His First Vision opened this dispensation, and he had, and revealed, other visions throughout his life, up to and including the night before he died. Joseph Smith was unquestionably a seer.
If we are looking for modern seers, we should identify them by the visions they receive and make known. And so we're right back to our dental analogy: Calling someone a seer who has never looked into heaven is like calling someone a dentist who has never looked into a mouth. If you can't do it, you can't claim it. Calling someone a seer doesn't make him one.
Who is it today that looks into heaven and tells us what he sees? What visions of Heaven have been delivered to the LDS people? When was the last such vision given?
The Gift of Revelation
The word "revelation" is based on the word "reveal," which means to make known what was previously unknown. Or, as Noah Webster put it in 1828, "The act of disclosing or discovering to others what was before unknown to them."
Therefore a revelator, by definition, reveals unknown truths, given by God. Here's how God put it:
If thou shalt ask, thou shalt receive revelation upon revelation, knowledge upon knowledge, that thou mayest know the mysteries and peaceable things—that which bringeth joy, that which bringeth life eternal. (D&C 42:61)And what "bringeth life eternal?" Knowledge upon knowledge, the mysteries, the peaceable things: ultimately the knowledge of God.
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. (John 17:3)Therefore, if there is a revelator among us, he will reveal unknown knowledge. Mysteries. The truths of God. This is not the same thing as giving a good sermon by telling stories, quoting poets, or even teaching from the scriptures. You and I can do that. General authorities do that. TV evangelists do that.
Many preachers of many different faiths teach great truths and give good advice. This is NOT revelation, even when it is based on scripture, because this is only expounding on principles that are already known and sitting in front of us in scripture.
However, from Joseph Smith's first vision to his last, he revealed NEW truths from God. Joseph most certainly had the gift of revelation.
The Gift of Translation
D&C 107:92, quoted above, also requires the President of the church to be a translator. In fact the title “translator” appears every time this list is applied to Joseph Smith (D&C 107:91-92, 124:125), though for some reason we choose to ignore that particular gift when referencing the current President of the church.
Why is that? I suspect it’s because nobody has translated anything since Joseph, and it feels ridiculous for us to call our leaders translators when they clearly don’t translate.
For example, when the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants have been translated from English into other languages, it has been by committees and scholars, not by “prophets, seers, revelators and translators.” Similarly, when various groups have approached the First Presidency with purported ancient records to be translated, the First Presidency has declined to do so.
This is food for thought. In our day, the church either doesn’t believe in the gift of translation, or doesn’t have it. It’s one or the other. Either way, when the church needs translation, it's the scholars, not the prophets, who do the work.
Who has These Gifts?
The scriptural references to prophet, seer, revelator and translator all applied to Joseph Smith, who had, and amply demonstrated, those gifts. It was Joseph, specifically, who was to speak for the Lord (D&C 5:9-10, D&C 21:4-5). There is no mention of a successor in that capacity. In fact, the Lord specifically declares that no other man can act in this capacity (D&C 28:2, D&C 43:1-5) unless Joseph appoints him. Incidentally, Joseph did in fact appoint his successor by revelation while he was alive. It was Hyrum.
But the question of succession necessarily brings up the question of gifts. Remember, you cannot "ordain" someone to these gifts. You cannot vote them these gifts by common consent. Rather, these gifts must be obtained by the individual, directly from God.
Nevertheless, we now apply these titles to the current President of the church, and cite section 107 as the reason. Let's look again at the verses in question:
And again, the duty of the President of the office of the High Priesthood is to preside over the whole church, and to be like unto Moses—Behold, here is wisdom; yea, to be a seer, a revelator, a translator, and a prophet, having all the gifts of God which he bestows upon the head of the church. (D&C 107:91-92)So the President of the church is to:
- Preside over the whole church. Simple enough. He’s the highest authority.
- Be like unto Moses. This is a discussion of several hours, but here are some of the highlights:
- Moses spoke with God face to face (Moses 1:2)
- Moses met and resisted the devil (Moses 1:12-22)
- Moses was in similitude of the only Begotten Son (Moses 1:6)
- Moses delivered his people by working many, mighty miracles
- Moses sought diligently to sanctify his people so they could behold the face of God as Moses had (D&C 84:23)
- But the people hardened their hearts and refused, so they were given a lesser law and they lost the fulness of the priesthood (84:24-26; see also D&C 124:28)
Notice the dash after “like unto Moses—“ which indicates a continuation of the thought—and a wise one at that. "Here is wisdom; yea, to be a seer, a revelator, a translator, and a prophet."
These are listed as duties of the office. Or alternatively, we could take it to mean that the only person eligible for the office of President is one who has obtained and demonstrates these gifts, and such a person should be sought and installed by common consent.
Either way, there is no basis to claim from scripture that anyone automatically obtains the gifts of the spirit simply because of office alone.
And now, let's look at the final portion of that passage:
"having all the gifts of God which he bestows upon the head of the church."Some have claimed this passage means that God automatically bestows these gifts on the President of the church. But I have a question. Who is the head of the church?
Jesus Christ. (Ephesians 5:23)
Therefore, a valid way to read this passage is that we would be wise (hence “wisdom”) to choose men who are prophets, seers, and revelators to be our leaders. In fact, we should choose men like Christ, having all the spiritual gifts, if we can find such men. Such would be "like unto Moses" indeed, who was in similitude of Jesus Christ. This would fit the scriptural pattern the Lord has stipulated.
And such leaders wouldn’t have to rely on public-opinion polling, high-priced marketing firms, lawyers and image consultants to determine doctrine and change ordinances. (oh, I wish I were exaggerating.) But sadly, we’ve established an order of legal succession (not in scripture) and we don’t dare depart from it, all the while telling ourselves we really didn’t lose anything when we lost our prophet, seer, revelator and translator, Joseph Smith.
Other men claim those titles today, and therefore we have the obligation, imposed directly by Jesus Christ, to know them by their fruits. Similarly, such men have the obligation to provide those fruits—revelations and prophecy that can be examined by us, taken to the Lord, ratified by the Holy Ghost, and accepted by the membership.
So in the next part of this series, we'll do as Jesus directed, and examine the fruits. We'll also talk about what it means to "sustain" our leaders.
Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
¶Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits.