Prophets Today? Prophets in the Bible and in the LDS Church
Quick-Look: Chapter 9 - Prophets -- A one page bullet-point summary of this article.
“Many people find it easy to believe in the prophets of the past. But it is much greater to believe in and follow the living prophet.”—Gospel Principles, 42.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rightly affirms that God has revealed essential truth about himself through the agency of prophets—human beings who speak his word. However, the LDS Church makes the controversial claim that it is led by a “living prophet” whose teaching all Christians should accept and obey. Mormons view the LDS Church President as that prophet. They believe that he has the authority to lead the only true church on the earth today and to interpret what all of the scriptures mean.
The LDS Church actually fosters a kind of devotion to its prophets. Several hymns in the LDS hymnbook extol the contributions of the living prophet in ways one never sees, for example, in the Book of Psalms. Gospel Principles (39) quotes one of these hymns: “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet” (#19). The hymn “We Listen to a Prophet’s Voice” (#22) concludes: “Attend, ye earth! The prophet speaks; come listen and obey. He is the man who holds the keys of priesthood pow’r today.” “We Ever Pray for Thee” (#23) addresses the prophet as “our prophet dear.” “God Bless Our Prophet Dear” (#24) uses the same language and speaks of the prophet’s “noble heart.”
The reference in hymn #22 to “the keys of priesthood pow’r today” expresses another crucial, controversial claim of the LDS Church. As Gospel Principles puts it: “A true prophet is always chosen by God and called through proper priesthood authority” (39). This means that every true prophet supposedly receives his authority to function as a prophet from another man who lays hands on him—and that man must likewise have had hands laid on him to receive his authority, and so on. In short, every true prophet must have his authority conferred on him in a ritual ordination involving the laying on of hands.
The best place to begin learning about prophets is from the Bible.
A. Prophets before Jesus
True prophets of God in the Bible generally spoke from one of two perspectives: either from before Christ’s coming looking forward to it or after Christ’s coming looking back on it. Prophets before the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ looked forward to his coming without knowing exactly what was going to happen. As that time approached, they spoke in gradually clearer terms about what the Messiah would do (see Luke 24:25-27, 44; John 5:39-47; Hebrews 1:1-2):
Abraham (ca. 2000 BC) was a prophet to whom God revealed that through his descendants—one of them in particular—God would bring blessing to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3; Acts 3:25-26).
Moses (ca. 1400 BC) was a prophet through whom God gave Israel its law covenant. He prophesied that in the future another prophet would arise from the Israelite people (Deuteronomy 18:15-19; Acts 3:18-24).
David (ca. 1000 BC) was a prophet whose songs (in the Psalms) implicitly described his descendant, the Messiah, dying and rising from the dead (Psalm 16:8-11; 22:1, 14-18; Matthew 27:35, 41-46; Acts 2:22-32).
Isaiah (ca. 700 BC) was a prophet who spoke about the coming Messiah as a Servant who would suffer and die for our sins (Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Acts 8:32-35).
Daniel (ca. 550 BC) was a prophet through whom God revealed a general timetable for when the Messiah would come, and specified that shortly after the Messiah died the temple would be destroyed for a second time (Daniel 9:24-27; Mark 1:15; 13:2, 14).
John the Baptist (AD 30) was the last prophet before Jesus. He prophesied that the Messiah was about to show up, and he warned that God was about to bring judgment on the Jewish religious establishment (Matthew 3:1-12; 11:7-15).
By the way, the Bible says nothing about any of these prophets receiving their authority to prophesy from another man, let alone in a ritual ordination ceremony. Samuel did anoint David (1 Samuel 16:13), but that ritual was to designate David as king, not as a prophet. Nor does the Bible ever teach the doctrine that a prophet must receive authority to prophesy from another man or in an ordination ritual. As a matter of fact, the Book of Mormon also says nothing about prophets needing such an ordination.
The prophets who lived before Jesus’ death and resurrection spoke the truth that God revealed to them. Jesus Christ himself affirmed the validity of what they taught (Matthew 5:17-18; 22:29; Mark 7:13) and treated the Old Testament Scriptures as the unfailing word of God (John 10:35). Not once did Jesus ever even hint that there was anything wrong with the Old Testament.
Yet the Scriptures those prophets left behind show that they did not know or understand the details about Jesus. Thus, the Old Testament prophets never referred to “Jesus” by name, and none of them gave the whole picture of who Jesus was and what he would do. Even John the Baptist, who had met Jesus, was uncertain enough about the details that at one point he sent a message to Jesus asking if he was the one (Matthew 11:2-6). The apostle Peter explains:
“Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look” (1 Peter 1:10-12 ESV).
It is interesting to compare how the Old Testament prophets spoke about the coming Messiah with what we find in LDS scriptures supposedly written by prophets centuries before Jesus. Several of the books in the Book of Mormon are dated between 600 BC and the time of Jesus. These books refer repeatedly to Jesus, frequently calling him “Jesus Christ” (2 Nephi 25:19-20; 30:5; Mosiah 3:8; etc.) and even “the Lord Jesus Christ” (Mosiah 3:12; Alma 37:33; 38:8; 46:39; Helaman 13:6). Nephi, supposedly writing about the same time as Daniel, speaks about Jesus with “plainness” (2 Nephi 25:4, 7) never seen in the Old Testament:
“Behold, they will crucify him; and after he is laid in a sepulchre for the space of three days he shall rise from the dead, with healing in his wings; and all those who shall believe on his name shall be saved in the kingdom of God…. For according to the words of the prophets, the Messiah cometh in six hundred years from the time that my father left Jerusalem; and according to the words of the prophets, and also the word of the angel of God, his name shall be Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And now, my brethren, I have spoken plainly that ye cannot err” (2 Nephi 25:13, 19-20).
The Book of Mormon even claims that people living a century before Jesus’ death and resurrection called themselves “Christians” (Alma 46:13-16; 48:10).
This “plainness” with which the Book of Mormon “prophets” speak about Jesus Christ is simply not consistent with the way that God revealed truth about the coming Messiah through the prophets of the Old Testament. It is, however, consistent with the conclusion that the Book of Mormon actually originated in the nineteenth century when Joseph Smith—who of course knew about Jesus from the New Testament—published it.
B. Prophets after Jesus
People in Jesus’ day often referred to him as a “prophet” (Matthew 21:11; Luke 24:19; John 9:17; etc.). That description is correct though quite an understatement, since Jesus was so much more than a prophet. In a sense, he was the Prophet (see John 6:14; 7:40); he not only spoke the word of God, he was the Word of God in the flesh (John 1:1, 14). This means that the rise of any prophets after Jesus was bound to be something of an anticlimax: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2 NASB).
On the other hand, after Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, the early church needed to know the truth about Jesus, what he did, and what it all meant. That is why Jesus appointed apostles and authorized them to speak in his place after he had ascended to heaven (John 15:26-27; Acts 1:8, 21-26). It is why the early church had both apostles and prophets (1 Corinthians 12:28-29; etc.). The apostles and prophets of the early church played a foundational role in establishing the church (Ephesians 2:20; 3:5; 4:11).
Whereas the Old Testament prophets looked forward to Messiah’s coming without seeing how it all fit together, the New Testament prophets looked back on the coming of Jesus Christ with the benefit of hindsight as well as inspiration. They explained what his coming meant, interpreted the Old Testament Scriptures in light of Christ, and spoke about Christ’s future return in glory to consummate the salvation of his people and to bring the final judgment on the wicked.
Within less than a century after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the early church’s apostles and prophets passed from the scene. Before that happened, they had produced the body of writings that we know as the New Testament. For nearly two thousand years, those 27 books of the New Testament, combined with the 39 books of the Old Testament, have taught literally billions of people about Jesus Christ. In the Bible, God has given us a permanent, authoritative revelation of the gospel, putting the life, death, resurrection, ascension, heavenly ministry, and second coming of Christ into proper perspective.
Christians can and should be grateful to God that through the testimony and teaching of these individuals, we know who Jesus was, what he did, and what it all means. However, there is no biblical basis or precedent for the sort of devotion to “the prophet” that characterizes LDS religion.
C. Amos 3:7—a Promise of Prophets?
A basic element of Mormon doctrine is the belief that God has appointed men in modern times as prophets to lead and teach God’s people. In support of this doctrine, Mormons commonly cite Amos 3:7, “Surely the Lord GOD will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets” (KJV). Gospel Principles quotes this verse in its chapter on prophets (39). The LDS Old Testament Student Manual, commenting on Amos 3:7, quotes N. Eldon Tanner (a member of the First Presidency for twenty years) to explain its significance: “There are many scriptures which assure us that God is as interested in us today as he has been in all his children from the beginning, and thus we believe in continuous revelation from God through his prophets to guide us in these latter days” (citing Conference Report, April 1975, 52). Jeff Lindsay, a popular online Mormon apologist, explains Amos 3:7 this way: “God has always worked through apostles and prophets, and has not changed in that regard…. If there are no prophets, then something is missing.”
The problem is that Amos 3:7 does not say that God always works through prophets; it says nothing about revelation from God coming on a continuous basis in all periods of history. What Amos 3:7 is saying is that God will not bring about any sort of major change in his dealings with his people without first warning them through his prophets. In context, God is warning the northern kingdom of Israel (the tribes that had broken away from the rule of David’s descendants in Jerusalem) of coming judgment. In other words, Amos 3:7 means that God gives Israel fair warning before he brings judgment on them. It does not mean that God’s people will always have living prophets to speak to them or to lead and guide them. In fact, Amos flatly contradicts this claim when he warns in the same short book that a time was coming when the northern kingdom would not have prophets bringing them God’s word:
“Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God,
that I will send a famine in the land,
not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water,
but of hearing the words of the Lord:
And they shall wander from sea to sea,
and from the north even to the east,
they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord,
and shall not find it.”
Amos 8:11-12 KJV
Ironically, Mormons also misunderstand this passage in Amos, claiming that it refers to the “Great Apostasy” that supposedly shrouded Christianity in darkness from about AD 100 until Joseph Smith in 1830. In fact, Amos was referring to the fact that the time was coming when God would stop sending prophets to the northern kingdom and they would receive no divine message of comfort or reconciliation. But whenever that “famine” of hearing God’s word was to take place, Amos 8:11-12 clearly contradicts the claim that God always has prophets through whom he speaks to people. If Mormons are right about the Great Apostasy, there were no prophets leading God’s people on earth for well over a millennium!
D. Do We Need Living Prophets Today?
According to the LDS manual Gospel Principles, people who do not have living prophets on the earth to guide them live in darkness: “Many people live in darkness, unsure of God’s will. They believe that the heavens are closed and that people must face the world’s perils alone. How fortunate are the Latter-day Saints! We know that God communicates to the Church through His prophet” (39). This is a pretty hard slap coming from a religion that repeatedly claims that they never criticize other faiths. Yet these statements express a common criticism that the LDS Church makes of Christians who consider the Bible a sufficient revelation of the truths of the Christian faith and who do not believe that the church needs prophets living on the earth today. Are these fair criticisms of evangelical, Bible-believing Christians?
Absolutely not. First of all, Christians who know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior do not “live in darkness.” Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). In order not to “walk in darkness,” all we need is to follow Jesus. Everyone who truly believes in him has come out of the darkness (John 12:46). The gospel of Christ has not changed in two thousand years. What the apostle Paul said has been true in every generation since his day: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
Second, characterizing evangelical Christians as believing that “the heavens are closed” begs the question. If the LDS Church is right, there was a “Great Apostasy” that lasted for some seventeen centuries, from the death of the New Testament apostles (ca. 100) to the institution of the LDS Church (1830). (For more on this subject see the article on the Great Apostasy.) Mormons do not recognize any individual in church history during those seventeen centuries as a true prophet. So, isn’t it the LDS Church that teaches that “the heavens were closed” for all those centuries?
Third, saying that evangelicals believe that “the heavens are closed” is not only a prejudicial way of describing our belief, it misses something vital. In a sense, we maintain heaven has been “open” to believers more than ever before, ever since the New Testament era—even without living prophets. Because of our spiritual connection to Jesus Christ, we have the glorious privilege of direct fellowship with God without earthly intermediaries. We may “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace” (Hebrews 4:16) with no one other than Jesus Christ as our mediator (see also 1 Timothy 2:5-6). Under the old covenant instituted through Moses, Israelites offered sacrifices when they sinned but could still not come clean into God’s presence, because “it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Christ’s atoning blood sacrifice on the cross was different, “for by one offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:12). On the basis of that sacrifice, we may come directly and confidently to God with the full assurance of his forgiveness and acceptance; “we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19). The heavens are closed? No, they are open as never before!
Finally on this issue, Christians who truly know Jesus Christ do not “face the world’s perils alone.” If we love Christ, he and the Father make their abode with us (John 14:23). Through trusting in Christ alone as our Savior, we experience God’s love in our hearts by the Spirit who dwells in us (Romans 5:5). Thus, true Christians have “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 13:14). We are not alone! God is with us, his Spirit dwells within us, and we are secure in his love.
E. True Prophets Tell the Truth
Gospel Principles asserts very strongly that members of the LDS Church should follow whatever its prophet (specifically its President) says, on the assumption that the prophet will not and cannot lead them astray. “We should do those things the prophets tell us to do…. We should follow his inspired teachings completely…. The Lord will never allow the President of the Church to lead us astray” (41, 42). Unfortunately, several Presidents of the LDS Church proved themselves to be unreliable by the outright falsehoods they told and the confusion their teaching sometimes created.
In 1830, Joseph Smith taught that “the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are one God” (D&C 20:28). In 1844, he claimed that he had always taught that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost “constitute three distinct personages and three Gods” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 370). (See our article on Mormon Doctrine and the Trinity for more on this point.) His claim that he had always taught this doctrine of three Gods is simply false.
Joseph not only lied about matters of theology, he also lied about the issue of polygamy. Various Mormon sources report that Joseph had extramarital relationships and was privately claiming to have received a revelation mandating these relationships as early as 1831, the year after he founded the Church. In 1835, Joseph had a statement on marriage placed in the LDS scripture Doctrine & Covenants that acknowledged the accusation and that affirmed the Saints’ belief in monogamy: “Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication, and polygamy; we declare that we believe that one man should have one wife; and one woman, but one husband, except in the case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again.” By the end of 1841, Joseph had at least three wives in addition to Emma, and he took at least eleven more women as wives in the first eight months of 1842. Yet in August 1842 Joseph published an article in the Mormon newspaper Times and Seasons quoting the D&C statement as an answer to the accusation of polygamy. (The statement was later removed from D&C.) Joseph took at least sixteen more wives in 1843, bringing the total number of women whom Joseph claimed as wives besides Emma to thirty. That same year, Joseph wrote a revelation affirming the practice, but it was not made public until 1852 and was not officially added to D&C until the 1870s. Right up to the end of his life, Joseph publicly denied having more than one wife. A month before he died, Joseph gave a speech in which he said, “What a thing it is for a man to be accused of committing adultery, and having seven wives, when I can only find one” (History of the Church 6:411).
Joseph Smith also taught that Adam was both Michael the Archangel (D&C 27:11; 107:54; 128:21) and the “Ancient of Days” (D&C 27:11; 116:1; 138:38), while Brigham Young taught that Adam was our Father and God, and (apparently) that Adam was the father of Jesus Christ in the flesh (Journal of Discourses 1:50-51). What President Young meant by these remarks remains debated to this day. LDS theologian Stephen Robinson admits that “the Latter-day Saints have never been able to understand” Brigham’s statements on the subject (Robinson, Are Mormons Christians? [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1991], 19). (We discuss these issues in the article on Adam, Michael, and God.) Mormons do not believe that Adam is God, but they do believe that Brigham Young was a true prophet of God. Could a true prophet, however, teach such confusing and apparently off-base doctrinal ideas, not about some side issue, but about God?
In September 1857, a wagon train of people traveling from Arkansas were passing through the Mountain Meadows mountain pass in southern Utah on their way to California when a party of Mormons led by John D. Lee attacked them. After a five-day siege, Lee entered the wagon train camp on September 11 with a white flag and promised to escort the people safely through the pass if they gave up their arms. Instead, Lee and his party massacred the men, while a group of Paiute Indians killed the women and all but the youngest children. A total of about 120 people were slaughtered in this event known as the Mountain Meadows massacre. Brigham Young did not authorize the massacre, but he did try to cover it up. In a sworn deposition in 1875, Young claimed that Lee had tried to tell him about the massacre “some two or three months” later but that Young had refused to hear his report: “I did not wish my feelings harrowed up with a recital of details.” According to Lee, however, he gave Young a full account of the event, and Young told him to write a report “laying the blame on the Indians” (Will Bagley, Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows [Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002], 178). Young maintained this deception for years, as when he claimed in a sermon in 1863 that of those killed in the massacre, “Nearly all of that company were destroyed by the Indians” (Journal of Discourses, 10:109-10).
According to Gospel Principles, “The Lord will never allow the President of the Church to lead us astray” (42). In support of this claim, the manual quotes the following statement from Wilford Woodruff, the fourth President of the LDS Church:
“The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff , 199, quoted in Gospel Principles, 42).
The occasion of President Woodruff’s confident claim is especially ironic. He made this statement in the General Conference in October 1890 in the context of asserting his authority to end the LDS Church’s practice of plural marriage. Joseph Smith and Brigham Young had both not only practiced polygamy but had asserted that God had commanded the Saints to practice polygamy if they wished to attain exaltation. President John Taylor and then-Apostle Woodruff repeatedly declared that polygamy could not be abandoned. After becoming President of the LDS Church, Woodruff announced an end to the practice only when it became clear that the federal government would imprison him and the rest of the LDS leadership and seize all of the religion’s property, including its temples, if they did not comply. He said as much in the speech quoted above, excerpts of which are included along with the LDS Church’s “Official Declaration 1,” the official explanation for the decision signed by Woodruff and appended to Doctrine and Covenants as scripture. Gospel Principles says nothing about this matter, even though this context is crucial to understanding President Woodruff’s remarks.
Adding to the irony, the LDS Church continued to permit polygamy for years to come. Both the Official Declaration (also known as the Manifesto) and Woodruff’s General Conference speech were carefully worded to make it appear that the Mormons were discontinuing polygamy altogether. In fact, the Manifesto only “advised” members not to enter into illegal marriage contracts. Despite statements made under oath by Woodruff and other LDS apostles in 1891 that polygamy had ceased in the LDS Church, historians have documented over 150 polygamous marriages enacted between 1890 and 1910 (B. Carmon Hardy, Solemn Covenant: The Mormon Polygamous Passage [University of Illinois Press, 1992], 389-425). Woodruff himself entered into a plural marriage in 1897, seven years after the Manifesto, to Madame Lydia Mary Mountford aboard ship on the Pacific Ocean. Congressional hearings finally forced the LDS Church in 1904 to stop the practice and begin excommunicating those who did not comply.
F. Testing the Prophet
If God really is speaking in modern times through inspired prophets whose teachings faithfully communicate God’s truth, of course we should want to know about it and accept whatever those true prophets say. On the other hand, if men claim to speak for God as his prophets but teach contradictory, confusing, and false doctrines, we gain nothing by following them. Questioning or doubting that a particular human being is a true prophet of God is not the same thing as doubting or questioning God. If you have doubts about the LDS prophet, it does not mean you are doubting God. The Bible actually encourages us to test what prophets say and to discern whether someone who claims to speak for God is a true prophet of God or not. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).
The Bible gives us some simple tests that we can use to evaluate someone’s claim to be a prophet of God. 1. The God test: Does the prophet faithfully lead people to the true God, or does he try to lead people to believe in other gods (Deuteronomy 13:1-5)? We have already touched on this test in reference to Joseph Smith’s changing doctrines about God and Brigham Young’s teaching that Adam was our God. 2. The prophecy test: Does the prophet make predictions in the name of the Lord that come true, or do his predictions in God’s name turn out to be false (Deuteronomy 18:20-22)? Joseph Smith made a number of predictions that failed, perhaps most notably his Missouri temple prophecy. 3.The consistency test: Does the prophet’s teaching agree with the teaching of what we already know to be Scripture (Acts 17:11)? In particular, does it agree with the gospel of Jesus Christ that we have already received from God’s word (2 Corinthians 11:4; Galatians 1:6-9; Jude 3)? This test is the focus of this Gospel Principles Scripture Study Guide, along with other resources examining LDS doctrine available on our website.
We have a growing number of resources on our site designed to assist people in testing the claims of the LDS prophets in a way that is biblical, fair-minded, and respectful. Each of us must decide, though, if we are willing to put these prophets to the test. Some people are reluctant to do so, fearing that they will lose something precious to them if they discover that these men are not true prophets of God. If Mormonism is true, there is nothing to fear from an honest examination of the evidence. If it is not true, what people should fear is what they might lose by choosing to hold on to falsehood.
In the end, we lose nothing of eternal value by returning to the genuine word of God in the Bible and following Jesus Christ as the Bible presents him. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain by holding on to “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3).
For Further Reflection
- Did prophets living before Jesus came know his name and exactly what he was going to do for our salvation?
- If Jesus did not think there was anything wrong with the Old Testament Scriptures, what should we think about claims that they are unreliable?
- Did Old Testament prophets receive authority to prophesy through a ritual ordination of laying on of hands?
- What important function did prophets who came after Jesus perform?
- Does Amos 3:7 mean that we should look for a living prophet to follow today?
- Is it true that Christians who don’t accept the LDS prophets “live in darkness”?
- Why is it essential to the New Testament gospel to affirm that we can have a relationship with God without any earthly intermediaries?
- Have the LDS prophets reliably told the truth?
- Does it matter to you whether they have or not?
- Is it wrong to test prophets to see if they are from God?Should we apply biblical tests to the LDS prophets?
For Further Study:
Joseph Smith Page. Here you will find collected together our resources on Joseph Smith and his claim to be a prophet of God.
Where Does It Say That? Numerous images from original LDS publications that document contradictory and problematic teachings of LDS leaders about God, Adam, polygamy, and other matters.
Robert M. Bowman Jr., “Amos 8:11-12 and the LDS Doctrines of Apostasy and Restoration.” Thorough study of Amos 8:11-12, showing that it does not refer to the supposed Great Apostasy in Christianity.