Cover image via history.churchofjesuschrist.org.
In the current climate of historical figures being attacked, some have taken their aim at some of our early prophets and sought to vilify them for their perceived mistakes or weaknesses. But, how should faithful saints today look at possible mistakes of these inspired prophets of the past?
Many years ago, I was studying a doctrinal topic in the BYU Library when I came across an old discourse from an early church leader. As I read the talk, I quickly recognized that what I was reading was not doctrinally correct. I knew it was wrong because it contradicted the standard works and the teachings of living prophets. I was confused how this early Apostle, who was usually so inspired and instructive, could have taught something that was wrong. As I reflected on this and began to have critical thoughts of this good man, the Lord rebuked me. To my mind and heart came these words from the Spirit, “Mark, I called this man to be my Apostle. If you don’t condemn him for his mistakes, maybe I won’t condemn you for yours.”
I learned a powerful lesson. I learned that a prophet could be inspired and still make a mistake. I learned that our Church leaders are not infallible (as some other churches claim) but that their mistakes do not disqualify them from service or justify us in rejecting them. I realized that the Lord inspires imperfect men and women and uses them for his purposes to do his work despite their weakness (1 Cor. 1:27). In fact, their weakness dramatizes the fact that it is God’s work (e.g. David and Goliath). Ultimately, I learned they are called of God and we should sustain them because whatever mistakes they might make, “the Lord will never permit [them] to lead [the Church] astray” (Wilford Woodruff, Official Declaration 1 excerpt). Any errors in their teachings or directions will be corrected by their successors, so we can be confident in always following the living prophets.
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf expressed many of these same points when he taught, “to be perfectly frank, 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. I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes. … But in spite of this, the eternal truth of the restored gospel found in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not tarnished, diminished, or destroyed… This is the Church of Jesus Christ. God will not allow His Church to drift from its appointed course or fail to fulfill its divine destiny (Ensign, Nov. 2013).
This understanding has become increasingly valuable to me in the current age of “gotcha journalism” and “cancel culture.” The strategy of many modern critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to dig up an old quote from an early church leader that, although not usually controversial at the time, is now offensive to our modern sensitivities or out of harmony with our living prophets. These quotes are then thrown in the face of unsuspecting Church members on social media without the context or historical understanding to make sense of them. The hope of these critics is that the shock of this will destroy faith and undermine support of prophets. Unfortunately, it sometimes works.
So, what should our response be to quotes from past prophets that seem to contradict the teachings of our living prophets? Let’s begin by identifying how not to respond.
How NOT to respond
I have seen some Church members respond to discovering these quotes by joining the critics of the Church in publishing and spreading these errors and mistakes to the world. They have been deceived into thinking that “exposing” others to these quotes in this way will somehow be helpful to them and will force the church to change a policy they don’t like or take an action they desire.
What they don’t seem to recognize is that this is a form of apostasy. The General Handbook of the Church states that “Apostasy” includes, “repeatedly acting in clear and deliberate public opposition to the Church, its policies, or its leaders” and “showing a pattern of intentionally working to weaken the faith and activity of Church members” (126.96.36.199). Although some seem unaware of this, social media is a public forum and public criticism of the Lord’s servants—evil speaking of the Lord’s anointed—puts us on a dangerous path (see President Dallin H. Oaks, Ensign Feb. 1987).
The danger of this behavior was summarized powerfully by the Prophet Joseph Smith who taught, “It is an eternal principle, that has existed with God from all eternity: That man who rises up to condemn others, finding fault with the Church, saying that they [Church leaders] are out of the way, while he himself is righteous, then know assuredly, that that man is in the high road to apostasy; and if he does not repent, will apostatize, as God lives” (Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith p. 318). I have found this warning to be prophetic in every instance. And it applies to our treatment of all the prophets, living and dead. As Jesus Christ taught, those who attack the prophets in one day and age are no different from those who stoned and killed the prophets of another time period (Matt. 23:29-33).
So, how should we respond when we come across a quote from a former prophet that does not seem to be in harmony with our living prophets? It is important to remember that what the Lord gives in direction at one time, may be different from what he gives in another. The Lord said, “Wherefore, I, the Lord, command and revoke, as it seemeth me good” (Doctrine & Covenants 56: 4). When we see something we are unsure about from a former prophet, we should respond the way our living prophets do, with humility, fairness, patience, and faith. Let me explain.
Responding with Humility
A beautiful example of responding to prophetic mistakes with humility was shared by Elder Neal A. Maxwell. It comes from the life of President Lorenzo Snow, who was close enough to see the flaws and mistakes of the prophet Joseph Smith. His reaction to these errors is inspiring. “I can fellowship the President of the Church,” he said, “if he does not know everything I know … I saw the … imperfections in [Joseph Smith] … I thanked God that He would put upon a man who had those imperfections the power and authority He placed upon him … for I knew that I myself had weakness, and I thought there was a chance for me … I thanked God that I saw these imperfections” (quoted by Elder Neal A. Maxwell, Ensign, Nov. 1984).
The tragic contrast to this example is the story of Symonds Ryder, whose name was misspelled in a revelation received through Joseph Smith. Incensed by this mistake, he concluded that Joseph Smith was not a prophet of God. He left the Church and lost his soul. Sadly, too many today follow the path of Symonds Ryder instead of Lorenzo Snow.
Expanding on this counsel to respond with humility and kindness, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland taught, “Be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work. As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fulness is poured forth, it is not the oil’s fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can’t quite contain it all. Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving.” (Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, May 2013 Ensign, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2013/04/lord-i-believe?lang=eng)
Responding with Fairness
To respond with fairness means that we try to understand historical statements fairly, in the context in which they were originally given. Understanding the original tone, circumstances, or cultural setting of a statement helps us understand it better. Often the context can completely change the meaning. In fact, this is precisely why Church critics leave the context out! They want the statement to be misunderstood.
President Dallin H. Oaks learned a valuable lesson about this in his own research into Joseph Smith’s death in Carthage Jail. He discovered that prior to the 14th amendment, destroying a press like the Nauvoo city council did, was not an illegal practice and had significant legal precedent. At that time, it was not considered a threat to free speech as it would be interpreted in our day. He explained, “The lesson I drew from this scholarly research and publication has made me a life-long opponent of the technique of presentism—relying on current perspectives and culture to criticize official or personal actions in the past. Past actions should be judged by the laws and culture of their time” (Oaks, March 2020 Church Newsroom). As this example illustrates, it is unfair to judge history through present cultural standards. In many ways, studying history is like visiting a foreign country, and to understand it, we must view it through the cultural lens and historical context of that day rather than our own.
Responding with Patience
To respond with patience means that we recognize that revealed truth often comes slowly, line upon line, and so we must be patient with those prophets from the past who did not have the greater light and knowledge that God has revealed to us. They were still waiting and praying for what we have already received. In addition, the scriptures teach that false cultural traditions can actually take away light and give us spiritual blind spots that make it difficult to perceive a cultural evil all around us (D&C 93:39). Rather than be offended by this, we should be patient with them and grateful for the light that we have. Otherwise it is like standing on your dad’s shoulders and then criticizing him for not being able to see as far as you can.
One example of this is with regards to prophetic statements on race and the priesthood. Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained, “There are statements in our literature by the early brethren which we have interpreted to mean that [black men] would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things…. All I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world. We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness, and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more. It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about [this] matter before the first day of June of this year ” (All Are Alike Unto God, BYU Aug. 1978).
As Elder McConkie explained, when this additional light came it required many Church members to repent or change their minds on this issue. (Repentance in Greek literally means “a change of mind,” see LDS Bible Dictionary). Implied in this statement is that those who changed their minds included former prophets and apostles who had taught things contrary to this new revelation. Gratefully, we believe in repentance, even after death (D&C 138), and can be confident that prophets and saints of the past have repented of any racism that ever existed in their hearts. As a result, we can be sure that if they were alive today, they would be teaching the same things the prophets today are teaching. We must be patient and recognize that hearts have changed, and will continue to change, as more light comes on both sides of the veil. Instead of worrying about them, we should be worrying about ourselves and repenting of any lingering racism we have in our own hearts, just as we have been invited to do by our living prophet, President Russell M. Nelson (Facebook post June 1, 2020).
Responding with Faith
Responding with faith means we give prophets the benefit of the doubt and focus on their many inspired statements rather than the few uninspired ones. This helps us see “that the man was a prophet” (President Boyd K. Packer, BYU Aug. 1981). This does not mean we ignore these questionable quotes or whitewash our history. As President M. Russell Ballard has explained, “Gone are the days when students were protected from people who attacked the church” and we could “avoid the issue” (Ensign, Dec. 2016). But if we are to truly understand a prophet, we must not focus so much on his mistakes that we fail to see his inspiration. To do this would be like going to see a work of art and not appreciating its beauty because all you can see is a perceived scratch on it.
Elder David A. Bednar explained, “Some individuals may wrestle with their faith or testimony, for example, because of concerns about episodes in Church history or because of unpleasant interactions with priesthood and auxiliary leaders. I believe the answer is to consider those historical events and interpersonal experiences in the totality of all things gathered together in one—and not allow an incident about which we may not or cannot know the complete context or an uncertainty to obscure the view of the comprehensive majesty of this work. … To focus upon human frailties so evident in all of us is … injudicious. I am not suggesting that we summarily dismiss or ignore challenging aspects of Church history or condone inappropriate behavior. Rather, I am recommending we look at the larger gospel perspective for greater context and deeper understanding” (Bednar, Religious Educator, 2011).
Similarly, President Gordon B. Hinckley offered these thoughts, “We recognize that our forebears were human. They doubtless made mistakes. Some of them acknowledged making mistakes. But the mistakes were minor when compared with the marvelous work which they accomplished. To highlight mistakes and gloss over the greater good is to draw a caricature. Caricatures are amusing, but they are often ugly and dishonest. A man may have a wart on his cheek and still have a face of beauty and strength, but if the wart is emphasized unduly in relation to his other features, the portrait is lacking in integrity” (Ensign April 1986, https://www.churchofjeåsuschrist.org/study/ensign/1986/04/the-continuing-pursuit-of-truth?lang=eng)
An example of responding in faith was shared by Elder Dale G. Renlund with Church educators. He explained, “We met [a woman] in Lubumbashi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Her name is Angelique. She was a faithful returned missionary. She had a strong testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith. She loved the Book of Mormon. She loved everything about the Church. When we met her, she was reading a book written by one of the Church’s leaders before he became the President of the Church. The book was written before the revelation on the priesthood in 1978 and suggested that, because of some things done in the premortal existence, those of African descent would not be exalted. Angelique asked for some help to understand why this would be the case. She was told by a current member of the Quorum of the Twelve that this former leader of the Church was wrong, plain and simple, and that he had simply stated his opinion, an opinion that was incorrect. Angelique was satisfied with the explanation. She acted in faith by remaining on the covenant path and trusting God” (CES talk, August 2018, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/broadcasts/miscellaneous-events/2018/06/doubt-not-but-be-believing?lang=eng)
President Harold B. Lee taught “That person is not truly converted until he sees the power of God resting upon the leaders of this church, and until it goes down into his heart like fire” (President Harold B. Lee, April 1972 Conference). We can see this power rest upon our leaders, past and present, even if they are not perfect.
Years ago, Karl G. Maeser led a group of missionaries across the Alps. As they looked back, he saw a row of sticks stuck in the snow to mark the path of safety through this dangerous trail. Pointing to these sticks, he turned to the missionaries and said, “Brethren, there stands the priesthood [of God]. They are just common sticks like the rest of us, … but the position they hold makes them what they are to us. If we step aside from the path they mark, we are lost” (see President Boyd K. Packer, May 1985).
To continue this analogy, I am sure if you looked closely enough at those sticks there would be some rough edges and probably several splinters. But that doesn’t change the fact that they mark the path we should follow. If we were to reject them for these imperfections and toss them aside, we would be lost. Furthermore, as Elder Dale G. Renlund has explained using a similar analogy, what we consider to be flaws “may turn out to be divinely sanctioned and divinely directed from an eternal perspective. The Lord has either had a hand in these [flaws] or he uses them for his own purposes” (Elder Dale G. Renlund, Jan. 2019 devotional). Thank God for choosing those sticks, flaws and all, and placing them where he has! May we always be wise enough to follow them and appreciate them! May we always be among those who are loyal to the prophets of God! (D&C 122:1-3)