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Often when we think of revelation to prophets, we think of individual revelations like Joseph Smith’s First Vision or Lehi’s dream. But another way prophets throughout history have received revelation is in company with other prophets as they counsel together in councils. Understanding this incremental process can help us better understand and sustain prophetic decisions and policies in the Church.
In a revelation given through Joseph Smith to newly called Apostles, the Lord Jesus Christ instructed this new body of Church leaders to counsel together in councils to receive revelation and make inspired decisions. He explained:
“Every decision made by either of these quorums [of the First Presidency, Quorum of the Twelve, and Seventy] must be by the unanimous voice of the same; that is, every member in each quorum must be agreed to its decisions, in order to make their decisions of the same power or validity … The decisions of these quorums … are to be made in all righteousness, in holiness, and lowliness of heart, meekness and long-suffering, and in faith, and virtue, and knowledge, temperance, patience, godliness, brotherly kindness and charity; Because the promise is, if these things abound in them they shall not be unfruitful in the knowledge of the Lord.” (DC 107:27, 30-31).
What this means is that we sustain fifteen prophets, seers, and revelators as the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When these members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles come to unanimous decision, it carries “power and validity” (DC 107:27). This is because the Lord has promised that when these Church leaders counsel together “in all righteousness” that they will obtain “the knowledge of the Lord” (DC 107:31), or in other words, receive revelation. As Elder D. Todd Christofferson has explained, “the objective is not simply consensus among council members, but revelation from God” (Ensign, May 2012). Because these leaders constitute the “spiritual authorities of the church,” there can be “no appeal from their decisions” (DC 107:32). They are binding and authoritative to the Church.
This process of prophets receiving revelation through councils is apparently nothing new. The Lord explained that “anciently,” meaning in Old and New Testament times, he called First Presidencies to direct his Church and that they too received revelation in this same way (DC 107:29; see Moses 6:2-4, DC 7:7). In addition, we see evidence of larger councils in the Old Testament “company of the prophets” (1 Samuel 19:20; 2 Kings 2:3) and in the New Testament council in Jerusalem where the twelve apostles and other church leaders counseled together to determine church policy for gentile converts (Acts 15).
This practice continues in Christ’s restored Church today. President Henry B. Eyring has described his first experience participating in this revelatory process in these words:
When I first came as the president of Ricks college, I attended my first meeting that I’d ever been in watching the General Authorities of the church, the First Presidency and others, running a meeting. I had been studying for the ten years I was a professor at Stanford how you make decisions in meetings in groups, so I got a chance, here’s my chance to see the way the Lord’s servants do it (of which I now am one).
I looked at it with my Harvard and Stanford eyes and I thought. This is the strangest conversation I’ve [heard]. I mean, here are the prophets of God and they’re disagreeing in an openness that I had never seen in business. In business you’re careful when you’re with the bosses, you know.
Here they were just — and I watched this process of them disagreeing and I thought, “Good Heavens, I thought revelation would come to them all and they’d all see things the same way, in some sort of…, you know.” It was more open than anything I had ever seen in all the groups I had ever studied in business. I was just dumbfounded.
But then after a while the conversation cycled around. And they began to agree and I saw the most incredible thing. Here are these very strong, very bright people all with different opinions. Suddenly the opinions began to just line up and I thought, “I’ve seen a miracle. I’ve seen unity come out of this wonderful open kind of exchange that I’d never seen in all my studies of government or business or anywhere else.” And so I thought, “Oh, what a miracle!”
It was President Harold B. Lee who was chairing the meeting. It was a board of education meeting. I thought, now he’s going to announce the decision, because I’ve seen this miracle, and he said, “Wait a minute, I think we’ll bring this matter up again some other time. I sense there is someone in the room who is not yet settled.” And they went on to the next item. And I thought: that is strange. And then I watched somebody, one of the brethren, I think one of the Twelve, walk past President Lee and say, “Thank you, there’s something I didn’t have a chance to say.”
So I want you to know…. This is what it claims to be. This is the true Church of Jesus Christ. Revelation is real, even in what you call the business kinds of settings.
A great man whom I love and will always love, President Harold B. Lee, taught me a great lesson that says. Now, we can be open. We can be direct. We can talk about differences in a way that you can’t anywhere else because we’re all just looking for the truth. We’re not trying to win. We’re not trying to make our argument dominate. We just want to find what’s right.
Another description of this process of receiving revelation in councils has been shared by President Russell M. Nelson, who taught:
We sustain 15 men who are ordained as prophets, seers, and revelators. When a thorny problem arises—and they seem only to get thornier each day—these 15 men wrestle with the issue, trying to see all the ramifications of various courses of action, and they diligently seek to hear the voice of the Lord. After I fast, pray, study, ponder, and counsel with my Brethren about weighty matters, it is not unusual for me to be awakened during the night with further impressions about issues with which we are concerned. And my Brethren have the same experience.
The First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles counsel together and share all the Lord has directed us to understand and to feel individually and collectively. And then we watch the Lord move upon the President of the Church to proclaim the Lord’s will.
This prophetic process was followed in 2012 with the change in minimum age for missionaries and again with the recent additions to the Church’s handbook, consequent to the legalization of same-sex marriage in some countries. Filled with compassion for all, and especially for the children, we wrestled at length to understand the Lord’s will in this matter.
Ever mindful of God’s plan of salvation and of His hope for eternal life for each of His children, we considered countless permutations and combinations of possible scenarios that could arise. We met repeatedly in the temple in fasting and prayer and sought further direction and inspiration. And then, when the Lord inspired His prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, to declare the mind and will of the Lord, each of us during that sacred moment felt a spiritual confirmation. It was our privilege as Apostles to sustain what had been revealed to President Monson. Revelation from the Lord to His servants is a sacred process, and so is your privilege of receiving personal revelation. (Stand as true Millennials, Ensign Oct. 2016).
As President Nelson explained, this revelatory process of counseling in councils is how so many of the important decisions in Christ’s church are made. Even major revelations, like the revelation extending priesthood and temple blessings to all races, and inspired proclamations, like The Family: A Proclamation to the World, are revealed through this inspired pattern (see President Gordon B. Hinckley, Ensign Oct 1988; and Dallin H. Oaks Ensign Nov. 2017). There is power when fifteen prophets, seers, and revelators unite in faith to seek revelation from the Lord!
Not only is there power in this process but there is also protection in their unanimous decisions. As President Russell M. Nelson explained, “The calling of 15 men to the holy apostleship provides great protection for us as members of the Church. Why? Because decisions of these leaders must be unanimous. Can you imagine how the Spirit needs to move upon 15 men to bring about unanimity? These 15 men have varied educational and professional backgrounds, with differing opinions about many things. Trust me! These 15 men—prophets, seers, and revelators—know what the will of the Lord is when unanimity is reached!” (Nelson, Ensign Nov. 2014). As a result, we can trust the united voice of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles—Fifteen united prophets will never lead the Church astray! (See Official Declaration 1 Excerpt).
How can policies change? Does it mean past prophets were wrong?
Over time we can expect that more light and knowledge will come from the Lord which will often require adjustments to Church policies and past prophetic decisions. These adjustments are not fundamental changes to the eternal truths that constitute church doctrine, but adaptations to meet changing circumstances. As the Prophet Joseph Smith explained, “This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed” (Teachings p. 256).
Although such adjustments should be expected in a living Church directed by revelation, critics of the Church often exploit these adjustments to make it appear that past prophets must have been wrong or uninspired and that the inspiration of current prophets should also be doubted. Sometimes these attacks can even cause faithful members of the Church to be confused. But this overly simplistic view of the process of revelation misunderstands how revelation often comes incrementally, line upon line.
Elder David A. Bednar has taught, “Let me suggest that many of us typically assume we will receive an answer or a prompting to our earnest prayers and pleadings. And we also frequently expect that such an answer or a prompting will come immediately and all at once. Thus, we tend to believe the Lord will give us A BIG ANSWER QUICKLY AND ALL AT ONE TIME. However, the pattern repeatedly described in the scriptures suggests we receive “. . . line upon line, precept upon precept . . .,” or in other words, MANY SMALL ANSWERS OVER A PERIOD OF TIME. Recognizing and understanding this pattern is an important key to obtaining inspiration and help from the Holy Ghost” (Bednar BYU-I Devotional Sept. 11, 2001, emphasis in original).
One example of incremental revelation from the Book of Mormon is when Nephi and his brothers are sent by the Lord to get the brass plates. Their first effort to ask Laban for the plates failed. The second attempt to purchase them with their family’s wealth also failed. However, this does not mean that those first attempts were wrong or uninspired. As Elder David A. Bednar taught, “The Lord’s pattern for learning is incremental, line upon line, precept upon precept. Nephi had to go to Jerusalem three times to get the brass plates. Now, it didn’t work out the first time [or the second] … Was he out of tune, was he not receiving impressions from the Spirit? My belief is he couldn’t have gone the third time and made it and done it if he hadn’t learned the lessons the first two times” (Bednar, A Conversation on Leadership, Feb. 24 2010).
Nephi would not have been prepared for the drastic measures it took to get the brass plates unless he knew it was his only option. He learned this valuable lesson from his first inspired, but failed attempts. This important account shows us that incremental revelation is often part of a larger learning process.
Another example of this process of incremental revelation is found in a story from the life of Elder Jeffrey R. Holland: “Returning from an exploring trip on backcountry roads, he and his father came to an unexpected fork and could not remember which road to take. It was late in the day, and darkness would soon be enveloping them. Seizing a teaching moment, Jeffrey Holland asked his son to pray for direction. Afterward, he asked his son what he felt, and [his son] Matt replied that he felt strongly they should go left. Replying that he had felt the same way, his father turned the truck to the left. Ten minutes later, they came to a dead end and returned to take the other route.
“Matt thought for a time and then asked his father why they would get that kind of answer to a prayer. His father replied that with the sun going down, that was undoubtedly the quickest way for the Lord to give them information—in this case, which one was the wrong road. Now, though the other road might not be familiar and could be difficult in places, they could proceed confidently, knowing it was the right one” (Ensign Dec. 1994).
Because revelation often comes incrementally, the path we follow may sometimes include some misdirections and dead ends. This does not mean that we are not following revelation. On the contrary, sometimes these inspired initial directions and even mistakes can teach us the very lessons the Lord needs us to learn to prepare us for the revelation he will yet give us in the future. Following revelation can often be like the love song that affirms, “God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you.”
An analogy that has helped me understand this process of revelation comes from an early life experience. As a child, I would often observe my dad as he drove us in the car. As he drove forward, I noticed that he would turn the steering wheel slightly to the right and then slightly to the left, then back to the right, and so forth. From my childish perspective it looked like he was always getting it wrong! “Why couldn’t he just keep the steering wheel still and drive straight?” I wondered. When I grew up I began to understand that effective driving always requires those kinds of adjustments to meet the circumstances of the road. They are not mistakes or evidence that you are driving wrong. Only a child would fail to see that even when the steering wheel is moved a little to the right or a little to the left, the car is still moving forward on the correct path. So it is with the Church. It is on the right path to the celestial kingdom of God. It is being steered by the Lord through revelation to living prophets. As they counsel together, inspired adjustments are made now and then so we can move forward on the correct path. May we stay the course and follow prophets to eternal life.