Sign up for Meridian’s Free Newsletter, please CLICK HERE
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 14 (2015): 7-32 and appeared in Meridian later that same year. We are running it again, in three parts over three days, with a few edits of the original.
The following is part two in a series. To read part one, click here.
The Brethren Receive Revelation from the Lord
The presiding Brethren receive revelation from the Lord continually. For instance, Elder Spencer W. Kimball, speaking of President David O. McKay, said:
He is a prophet. He does not just occupy a prophet’s chair; he does not just have a title of prophet, he is a real prophet and he is responsible for … more revelations in his fifteen years of leadership than are in all the Doctrine and Covenants. … I could take time to tell you of these revelations — temples that have been appointed, people who have been called, apostles who have been chosen, great new movements that have been established, great new eras, great new challenges. … They came by revelation. I want you to know he is a prophet. Don’t you question it. I do not know who will be his successor, but whoever it is will be a great prophet, and you need not ever worry.18
Speaking of the spirit of revelation in the Church, President James E. Faust said: “I can testify that the process of continuous revelation comes to the Church very frequently. It comes daily.”19 And Elder Dallin H. Oaks remarked: “Visions do happen. Voices are heard from beyond the veil. I know this.” He explained that recipients of such experiences “rarely speak of them publicly because we are instructed not to do so.” He further explained that most revelation is not so dramatic but comes through the still, small voice, and added: “I testify to the reality of that kind of revelation, which I have come to know as a familiar, even daily, experience to guide me in the work of the Lord.”20
President Gordon B. Hinckley reported:
There has been in the life of every [prophet and apostle I have known] an overpowering manifestation of the inspiration of God. Those who have been Presidents have been prophets in a very real way. I have intimately witnessed the spirit of revelation upon them. … Each Thursday, when we are at home, the First Presidency and the Twelve meet in the temple, in those sacred hallowed precincts, and we pray together and discuss certain matters together, and the spirit of revelation comes upon those present. I know. I have seen it.21
President Spencer W. Kimball remarked, regarding his own experience as the prophet:
I say, in the deepest humility, but also by the power and force of a burning testimony in my soul, that from the prophet of the Restoration to the prophet of our own year, the communication line is unbroken, the authority is continuous, and light, brilliant and penetrating, continues to shine. The sound of the voice of the Lord is a continuous melody and a thunderous appeal … the Lord definitely calls prophets today and reveals His secrets unto them as He did yesterday, He does today, and will do tomorrow: that is the way it is.22
Similarly, President Harold B. Lee said, speaking as President of the Church: “I bear you my solemn witness that it is true, that the Lord is in His heavens. … You ask when the Lord gave the last revelation to this church. The Lord is giving revelations day by day, and you will witness and look back on this period and see some of the mighty revelations the Lord has given in your day and time.”23
Boyd K. Packer summarizes: “Revelation continues with us today. The promptings of the Spirit, the dreams, and the visions and the visitations, and the ministering of angels all are with us now. And the still small voice of the Holy Ghost ‘is a lamp unto [our] feet, and a light unto [our] path’” (Psalms 119:105).24
The First Presidency Is the Highest Authority in the Church
The Standard Works constitute the doctrinal foundation of the Church.25 Others in general leadership, of course, make declarations routinely. That is the nature of their ministry, and such declarations come in various ways.
The statements and guidance carrying the highest authority are those issued by the First Presidency, including those in which they are joined by the Twelve. Joseph Smith said:
The Presidents or Presidency are over the Church; and revelations of the mind and will of God to the Church, are to come through the Presidency. This is the order of heaven, and the power and privilege of this Priesthood. 26
In the same spirit, President Joseph Fielding Smith taught:
An individual may fall by the wayside, or have views, or give counsel which falls short of what the Lord intends. But the voice of the First Presidency and the united voice of those others who hold with them the keys of the kingdom shall always guide the Saints and the world in those paths where the Lord wants them to be.27
It is customary to speak of “following the prophet,” but this is actually a sort of verbal shorthand. To be precise, the highest authority is the full First Presidency. In the Doctrine and Covenants we are told explicitly that “every decision made by [any of the presiding quorums, including the First Presidency] must be by the unanimous voice of the same; that is, every member … must be agreed to its decisions. … Unless this is the case, their decisions are not entitled to the same blessings which the decisions of a quorum of three presidents were anciently” (D&C 107:27, 29).
This passage was emphasized by Elder Boyd K. Packer, specifically in contrasting a statement made by the prophet, acting alone, with statements by the full First Presidency on the same subject.28 The same principle applies in President Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s observation that “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.”29 On one occasion Elder Packer explained in some detail how the First Presidency and Twelve work together and said: “That is how we work — in council assembled. … I have a deep, even a sacred, regard for councils; inspiration is evident in them. If ever another course has been followed, trouble has followed as surely as night follows day.”30 He also said in General Conference that, despite individual weaknesses, they are counterbalanced by “councils and counselors and quorums.”31
Speaking of his own experience in the First Presidency, President Gordon B. Hinckley said: “Even the President of the Church, who is Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and whose right and responsibility it is to make judgments and direct the course of the Church, invariably consults with his counselors to determine their feelings. If there is a lack of unity, there follows an absence of action.”32 And in emphasizing that it is not one particular “Brother” in Church leadership that we follow, but the Brethren, Elder Packer said: “There is only one ‘Brother’ to follow, and that is our Prophet President. But even he does not act alone, for he has counselors.”33
In short, while it is common to speak of “following the prophet,” we actually mean something extremely robust by this. Although the prophet holds the highest spiritual office in mortality and presides over all those who hold the apostolic keys with him, it is important to remember the Lord’s requirement of unanimity—a requirement that the Brethren faithfully observe. To follow the prophet is thus to follow the combined voice and weight of all those who hold the keys of the holy apostleship—particularly the First Presidency—with the prophet at the head. (Even when a President of the Church says something that does not represent the understanding and views of all the other prophets, seers, and revelators, it is not official, but personal, and is not binding on the Saints. Occasions of this sort have been extremely rare, however.) 34
So it is not the general membership that possesses authority to guide the Church. Nor does any particular individual — whatever his authority — act alone. Instead, under the direction of the Lord, the Church is ultimately governed by the council of the First Presidency, presided over by the living prophet. Significantly, the Lord said of this council that “whosoever receiveth me, receiveth those, the First Presidency, whom I have sent” (D&C 112:20).
Teachings of Individuals Are Not Binding
President J. Reuben Clark explained the endowment that attends the teachings of those who hold the Apostleship:
Some of the General Authorities have had assigned to them a special calling; they possess a special gift; they are sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators, which gives them a special spiritual endowment in connection with their teaching of this people. They have the right, the power, and the authority to declare the mind and will of God to His people, subject to the overall power and authority of the President of the Church. Others of the General Authorities are not given this special spiritual endowment.
He specified that this limitation “applies to every other officer and member of the Church, for none of them is spiritually endowed as a prophet, seer, and revelator.”35
However, despite the significance of apostolic statements in general, we’ve already seen that personal statements by those who are sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators—i.e., statements that do not represent the unanimous view of all the Brethren—are not binding on the Church. (This includes, in a very few cases, remarks by a President). For instance, the First Presidency formally issued statements condemning and correcting teachings by Elder Orson Pratt, and Elder Pratt expressly disavowed his authority to contradict or go beyond the teachings of those who held the keys.36 Similarly, Elder Boyd K. Packer once said that he knew by personal revelation that man did not evolve from animals,37 but qualified his remarks by placing the following caveat at the beginning of the printed version:
Only the Standard Works and statements written under assignment of the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles are considered official declarations by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The talk which follows was given without such assignment and no such approval has been sought or given. The author alone is responsible for the views set forth therein. They do not necessarily represent the Church.38
His announcement that he knew this matter by revelation still did not make it official or binding on the Church.
And, of course, an announcement this declarative is rare in any event. It is not unusual for different leaders to see matters in different ways with different conclusions. We see this on topics ranging from evolution to Book of Mormon geography to the date of Christ’s birth.39 Nevertheless, from the fact that individual apostolic statements are not binding, it does not follow that no such statements are true. It is customary for the Lord to speak so that only those with ears to hear will actually receive the intended message, 40 and on this basis one can imagine that individual statements sometimes play the role of saying to the Saints something that is true but that would not be wise for the First Presidency itself to say. To each hearer is left the burden to listen and carefully consider the merits of such statements on their own.
The Lord Gives More Instructions Than Explanations
A curious fact about revelation is that the Lord rarely reveals the reasons behind it. For example, President Gordon B. Hinckley, recalling the period during which he was both a counselor in the First Presidency and its sole healthy member, spoke of wrestling with a matter that seemed very serious and that seemed to require action on his part. Yet as he went to his knees in prayer, wanting to follow the proper course, there came into his mind a feeling of peace and the words of the Lord, with the simple message: “Be still and know that I am God.” Apparently what seemed urgent to him did not seem so urgent to the Lord — and yet President Hinckley received no explanation to help him understand why. The Lord told him to relax, but gave no insight into why he should relax.
Out of this experience President Hinckley bore this witness: “God is weaving His tapestry according to His own grand design. All flesh is in His hands. It is not our prerogative to counsel Him. It is our responsibility and our opportunity to be at peace in our minds and in our hearts, and to know that He is God, that this is His work, and that He will not permit it to fail. We have no need to fear. We have no need to worry.”41
This is reminiscent of the Prophet Joseph’s experience of being told, after praying earnestly to know when the Second Coming would occur:
Joseph, my son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years old, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man; therefore let this suffice, and trouble me no more on this matter. I was left thus, without being able to decide whether this coming referred to the beginning of the millennium or to some previous appearing, or whether I should die and thus see his face. (D&C 130:15–16)
President George Q. Cannon once said of the First Presidency:
We can see a certain distance in the light of the Spirit of God as it reveals to us His mind and His will, and we can take these steps with perfect security, knowing that they are the right steps to be taken. But as to what the result will be, that is for the God of Israel to control. That is the way in which the Church of God has always been led, and it will always be led in that way until He comes who is our King, our Lawgiver and our President, even Jesus Christ. 42
Speaking of their own lack of complete knowledge of the Lord’s designs in the instructions He gives, President Cannon said: “It is just as necessary that the Presidency and the Apostles should be tried as it is that you should be tried. It is as necessary that our faith should be called into exercise as that your faith should be called into exercise.”43
The Brethren can thus be in the position of knowing what is right and yet not being able to say fully why it is right. In the words of Elder Neal A. Maxwell: “I have found that the Lord gives more instructions than explanations.”44 In the same spirit Elder Dallin H. Oaks said:
If you read the scriptures with this question in mind, “Why did the Lord command this or why did He command that,” you find that in less than one in a hundred commands was any reason given. It’s not the pattern of the Lord to give reasons. We [mortals] can put reasons to revelation. We can put reasons to commandments. When we do, we’re on our own.45
At times the Lord helps His leaders and the Saints understand the reasons for one decision or another — as he did in the case of the Manifesto, for instance46 — but this appears to be far from universal. While Mormon, for example, was instructed to include the small plates of Nephi in his record, he was not told why he was commanded to do so, and the reason did not become clear until centuries later. This is reminiscent (among many scriptural incidents) of Abraham, who was told to sacrifice Isaac but not why he should do so, and of Lehi, who was told to leave Jerusalem but not where his journey would lead or when it would end. Precedents like these should lead us to expect that the reasons for the Lord’s decisions will not always be immediately evident, and may not be evident even in our lifetimes. The Lord’s pattern is to require his children to live and act in response to the Spirit without complete information because the very purpose of life is to grow in the Spirit.47
Watch for part three of this series in tomorrow’s issue.
Duane Boyce earned a Ph.D. from BYU and conducted his postdoctoral study in developmental psychology at Harvard University. He has authored or co-authored several books, as well as publishing academic articles in BYU Studies Quarterly, Interpreter, Journal of the Book of Mormon and Other Restoration Scripture, The FARMS Review, and The Religious Educator. Among other callings, he has served as a bishop and a stake president and with his wife in the Russia Moscow mission.
He is co-author, with Kimberly White, of the forthcoming book: The Last Safe Place: Seven Principles for Standing with the Prophets in Troubled Times (Meridian Publishing, 2021). The Last Safe Place treats the themes in this three-part article in greater detail. It also includes much more information about who prophets are, how they work, and how we can embrace them in furthering the Lord’s glorious work of the last days.
18.The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982), 447.
19. James E. Faust, “Come Out of the Darkness into the Light,” CES Fireside for Young Adults (8 September 2002), The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Media Library,https://www.lds.org/media-library/video/2002–09–05-come-out-of-the-darkness-into-the-light?lang=eng(accessed 9 January 2015).
20. Dallin H. Oaks, “Teaching and Learning by the Spirit,” Ensign, March 1997, 14.
21. Gordon B. Hinckley, The Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997), 71, 555.
22. Spencer W. Kimball, “Revelation: The Word of the Lord to His Prophets,” April 1977,https://www.lds.org/general-conference/1977/04/revelation-the-word-of-the-lord-to-his-prophets?lang=eng(accessed 2 January 2015).
23. Lee, “Admonitions for the Priesthood of God,” 108.
24. Boyd K. Packer, “Revelation in a Changing World,”Ensign, November 1989, 16. In this connection Elder Russell M. Nelson shares this interesting experience: “On the morning of the [Washington D.C.] temple dedication, President [Hugh B. Brown] greeted me with the news that he had been visited during the night by President Harold B. Lee (who had died the year before). Elder Brown described it as a glorious visit that meant much to him, for President Lee had been aware of some of the difficulties encountered by President Brown in the decisions that led to the construction of the temple in Washington, D.C. Later that morning, as we took President Brown to breakfast, Sister Harold B. (Freda Joan) Lee approached us. As we exchanged greetings, President Brown said to her, ‘I had a glorious visit with Harold last night. He is just fine. It was so good to visit with him.’” Russell M. Nelson,The Gateway We Call Death (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995), 100–101.
25. In addition, the teachings of Joseph Smith are of central importance. Elder Bruce R. McConkie explained: “The answers to nearly all important doctrinal questions are found in the standard works or in the sermons and writings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. If they are not found in these sources, they probably are not essential to salvation.” Mark L. McConkie, ed.,Doctrines of the Restoration(Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 229. He also said: “The Lord said to Joseph Smith: ‘This generation shall have my word through you’ (D&C 5:10). What this means is that if we are going to receive the knowledge of God, the knowledge of truth, the knowledge of salvation, and know the things that we must do to work out our salvation with fear and trembling before the Lord, this must come in and through Joseph Smith and in no other way. He is the agent, the representative, the instrumentality that the Lord has appointed to give the truth about Himself and his laws to all men in all the world in this age.” Ibid., 19.
26.Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1837), 111. In another place, the Propeht taught: “Look to the Presidency and receive instruction.” Ibid., 161. Cf.The Words of Joseph Smith, eds. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1980), 11 (Before 8 August 1839).
27. Joseph Fielding Smith, “Eternal Keys and the Right to Preside,”Ensign, July 1972, 88.
28. The subject was evolution and Elder Packer was speaking of a statement in a personal letter by President David O. McKay to a member of the Church. In Elder Packer’s view, President McKay’s statement was “in conflict with the two official declarations, each signed by all members of the First Presidency.” He then referred to the passage in D&C 107. See Boyd K. Packer, “The Law and the Light,” inJacob through Words of Mormon: to Learn with Joy: papers from the Fourth Annual Book of Mormon Symposium, eds. Monte S. Nyman and Charles D. Tate (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University; Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1990),https://rsc.byu.edu/archived/book-mormon-jacob-through-words-mormon-learn-joy/law-and-light (accessed 3 January 2015), 22–23.
29. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join with Us,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/come-join-with-us?lang=eng. President Uchtdorf’s observation regarding “members or leaders” is broad enough that it could apply to practically anyone, from an elders quorum president or bishop to the president of the Church. Certainly it applies to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which was perpetrated by members of the Church, including a stake president. See Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr, and Glen M. Leonard,Massacre at Mountain Meadows(New York: Oxford, 2008). It also applies to the explanations of Brigham Young and others about the former restrictions on the priesthood, since these explanations have now been explicitly disavowed by the Church. See “Race and the Priesthood,” https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng (accessed 15 March 2015).
30. Boyd K. Packer, “I Say Unto You, Be One,” BYU Devotional (12 February 1991), reproduced inBYU Devotional and Fireside Speeches, 1990–1991 (Provo, Utah: University Publications, 1991), 83–84. A particularly tragic example of Elder Packer’s observation is the Mountain Meadows Massacre, mentioned above. The decision of a local council of Church and community leaders was to let the emigrants pass without interference or harm. It was individuals meeting after the council who embarked on a different path, leading to the ensuing massacre. See Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr, and Glen M. Leonard,Massacre at Mountain Meadows (New York: Oxford, 2008), 155–57; see also 178.
31. Packer, “Revelation in a Changing World,” 16. A friendly disagreement between Elder David B. Haight of the Twelve and President Gordon B. Hinckley provides a humorous insight into the character of the highest councils of the Church. In the course of their disagreement, Elder Haight, 96, turned to President Hinckley, 93, and remarked: “That’s OK, Gordon. I used to think like that when I was your age.” Lawrence Flake, reported in Tad Walch, “Tales of LDS Leaders’ Wit a Big Draw at Ed Week,”Deseret Morning News, 21 August 2003,https://www.mission.net/missouri/independence/Photo006Flake03.htm(accessed 28 February 2015). It is hard to imagine that a conversation of this sort would occur in a system that consisted of a single leader simply giving instructions to subordinates.
32. Gordon B. Hinckley, “In … Counsellors There is Safety,”Ensign, November 1990, 50. Here is his full statement: “No president in any organization in the Church is likely to go ahead without the assurance that his counselors feel good about the proposed program. A man or woman thinking alone, working alone, arriving at his or her own conclusions, can take action which might prove to be wrong. But when three kneel together in prayer, discuss every aspect of the problem which is before them, and under the impressions of the Spirit reach a united conclusion, then we may have the assurance that the decision is in harmony with the will of the Lord. I can assure all members of this church that in the First Presidency we follow such a procedure. Even the President of the Church, who is Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and whose right and responsibility it is to make judgment and direct the course of the Church, invariably consults with his counselors to determine their feelings. If there is a lack of unity, there follows an absence of action. Two counselors, working with a president, preserve a wonderful system of checks and balances. They become a safeguard that is seldom, if ever, in error and affords great strength of leadership.”
33. Packer, “I Say Unto You, Be One,” 84.
34. Thus, while President Ezra Taft Benson spoke of fourteen fundamentals in following the prophet, he emphasized that it is the First Presidency — “the living prophet and the First Presidency” — that we follow. Ezra Taft Benson, “Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet,” address to Brigham Young University, 26 February 1980; reproduced inLiahona,June 1981,https://www.lds.org/liahona/1981/06/fourteen-fundamentals-in-following-the-prophet?lang=eng. Similarly, Joseph Fielding Smith begins his statement on following the Brethren by saying, “neither the President of the Church, nor the First Presidency, nor the united voice of the First Presidency and the Twelve will ever lead the Saints astray or send forth counsel to the world that is contrary to the mind and will of the Lord,” but in his next expression, he emphasizes not the President of the Church, but the full First Presidency: “An individual may fall by the wayside, or have views, or give counsel which falls short of what the Lord intends. But the voice of the First Presidency and the united voice of those others who hold with them the keys of the kingdom shall always guide the Saints and the world in those paths where the Lord wants them to be.” Joseph Fielding Smith, Ensign, July 1972, 88; emphasis added.
35. Cited by Boyd K. Packer, “The Twelve Apostles,”Ensign, November 1996, 6.
36. See, for example, James R. Clark, comp.,Messages of the First Presidency, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965–1975), 2:229–35.
37. Packer, “The Law and the Light,” 25–26. He commented: “I said I would give six reasons for my conviction [i.e., that ‘the theory that God used an evolutionary process to prepare a physical body for the spirit of man … is false’], and I have listed only five. The sixth ispersonal revelation” (emphasis in original).
38. Packer, “The Law and the Light,” 1.
39. For a range of statements on evolution, a good starting place is FairMormon Answers Wiki, “Statements Made by Church Leaders Regarding Evolution,”https://en.fairmormon.org/Primary_sources/Evolution(accessed 6 January 2015); on Book of Mormon Geography; see Matthew Roper, “Limited Geography and the Book of Mormon: Historical Antecedents and Early Interpretations,”FARMS Review 16/2 (2004): 225–76; and “Joseph Smith, Revelation, and Book of Mormon Geography,” FARMS Review 22/2 (2010): 15–85; on the date of Christ’s birth, see Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “Dating the Birth of Jesus Christ,”BYU Studies 49/4 (2010): 5–38. On evolution in particular, it can be difficult to categorize different leaders’ views because the term itself is often used ambiguously. In avowing “evolution” one can mean any number of things — for example, that: (1) all forms of life developed by evolutionary mechanisms through blind chance, without divine guidance; (2) all forms of life developed by evolutionary mechanisms through blind chance, without divine guidance, except for humans whose evolution was guided; (3) all forms of life developed by evolutionary mechanisms, but this process was not blind, but divinely guided for them all; (4) all forms of life developed by evolutionary mechanisms through blind chance, except for humans, who were created apart, in a special creation; or (5) all forms of life developed by guided evolutionary mechanisms, except for humans, who were created apart, in a special creation. If speakers don’t say much about what they mean by “evolution,” it is impossible to be certain what they mean when they avow or disavow it. For this reason, readers need to be careful when comparing leaders’ views on the subject.
40. See, for example, Matthew 11:7–15; 13:3–9, 23–43; Mark 4:3–9, 13–23; 7:14–16; Luke 14:34–35.
41. Gordon B. Hinckley, “He Slumbers Not, Nor Sleeps,” Ensign, May 1983, 6.
42. Cannon, Gospel Truth, 1:346.
44. Bruce C. Hafen, A Disciple’s Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2002), 413.
45. Dallin H. Oaks, Life’s Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 68–69.
46. See, e.g., “Excerpts from Three Addresses by President Wilford Woodruff Regarding the Manifesto,” following “Official Declaration–1” in the current edition of the Doctrine and Covenants.
47. Elder Charles W. Penrose explained that to see a glorified man, as our Heavenly Father is, is to see someone who is “quickened by [the] spirit in its fullness.” Charles W. Penrose, inJournal of Discourses, 26:21,https://en.fairmormon.org/Journal_of_Discourses/26/3#21 (accessed 28 February 2015). One way to think of the plan of salvation, then, is to see it as the path by which we develop this same fullness of the Spirit. We grow in Christ until we are eventually glorified in Him as He is glorified in the Father, and we receive of the Father’s fullness (D&C 93:13–20; 76:50–59, 92–95). Thus, we are told that “light is Spirit” (D&C 84:45) and that “he that receiveth light, and continueth in God, receiveth more light; and that light growth brighter and brighter until the perfect day” (D&C 50:24).