Some students of the scriptures believe that early in this dispensation the Lord warned about prophets’ ability to make serious and long-lasting errors in leading the Church. They conclude this based on a passage in D&C 21, where the Lord says this (speaking of Joseph Smith but which naturally applies to his successors):
- Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me;
- For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith.
Some have focused on the last phrase in this passage, where the Lord says to receive the prophet’s word “in all patience and faith.” They conclude from this that prophets must make errors, both many and large, since otherwise there would be no need for the Lord to say it would require “all patience and faith” to follow them. They believe members should recognize the reality of serious prophetic errors and, as the Lord himself says, simply muster all their faith and patience in order to bear with them.
Why this Interpretation is a Mistake
The problem with this thinking, however, is that it only makes sense if we don’t read verse 4. The Lord says there: “Thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them.” In verse 5, then, when the Lord speaks of receiving prophets’ words “in all patience and faith,” he has already told us exactly what words he is talking about: the words they have received from him. In fact, the Lord re-states this same context in verse 9, where He speaks again of believing Joseph’s words “which are given him.”
So in talking about “all patience and faith,” the Lord is clearly not talking about our response to prophets’ mistakes; he is talking specifically about our response to prophets’ revelations. He is saying that it takes patience and faith to follow those, because doing so will entail hardships—a reality that is evident throughout history, from Moses to John the Baptist to Joseph Smith to today.
“As If From Mine Own Mouth”
Verse 4 also helps clarify the Lord’s instruction, also in verse 5, that we are to receive prophets’ words “as if from mine own mouth.” Some have taken this phrase to be ambiguous. Rather than reading it as meaning we should take prophets’ words as accurately reflecting the Lord’s messages, they take the phrase to mean simply that prophets are authorized representatives of the Lord and that, because of this representative status, what they say is technically equivalent to the Lord himself saying it. Thus, because He has officially delegated His authority to them, what these prophetic leaders say—even in error—is still to be received “as if” from the Lord’s own mouth. This, it is supposed, is the specific reason the Lord emphasizes that we are to follow prophets “in all patience and faith”: although they can make serious and long-lasting errors, (1) they are still the authorized servants of the Lord, which means (2) that we must still sustain them and bear with their errors, and (3) that some of the time this is going to require a lot of patience and faith.
The problem with this interpretation, however, is—again—that it overlooks verse 4. That verse tells us specifically what we are to receive “as if from mine own mouth”—namely, “his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them.” In other words, it is the revelations the Lord gives to His prophets that we are to follow as if from the Lord’s own mouth.
So the Lord is clearly not referring to prophets merely as His authorized servants—i.e., as representatives who, because they are delegates for Him, speak for Him in a technical sense. Rather, He is speaking about them explicitly as recipients of revelation. His topic is not the technical authority He delegates to His servants; His topic is explicitly the direction He gives to them.
The Message of D&C 21:4–5
What we see, then, is that D&C 21 is not talking about prophets’ human weaknesses at all. Nor is it talking about just any words prophets happen to say. It is talking specifically about prophets’ revelations and how we are to respond to those. The message is: Have patience and faith in following my prophets . . . because what I direct you to do through them isn’t going to be easy.
That was true when Isaac followed Abraham to the altar. It was true when the children of Israel followed Moses as he confronted Pharaoh. It was true when, in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball fulfilled their calls to serve missions in England. And it was true when the Saints were driven from one location to another and finally settled in the Rocky Mountains.
Each of these episodes—and many more—required the Lord’s followers to exercise “all patience and faith.” It was exactly as the Lord, in D&C 21, has told us it would be.
So here’s what we see. The Lord’s words in D&C 21:4–5 really are a warning. It’s just that they are not a warning about prophets’ mistakes; they are a warning about prophets’ revelations. Rather than a reason to bemoan prophets’ “errors,” the passage is actually a reason to celebrate the Lord’s announcement that He is leading them. Which He is.
Duane Boyce and Kimberly White are father and daughter. Learn more about modern prophets in their new book, The Last Safe Place: Seven Principles for Standing with the Prophets in Troubled Times.