The problem was simple yet profound. How do I make sense of life? I remember thinking, “Is this it?” In the words of one of my favourite films, “Is this ‘as good as it gets’?” The Mormon answer seemed profound yet simple – “God speaks today!” Of course, with benefit of hindsight I can identify myriad problems with the Mormon message. But I remember the thrill of hearing that message for the first time, “God speaks today”, and the thrill of anticipation – what is God going to say to me?
The message of Mormonism centres on “living prophets”. John Taylor, third Mormon president, wrote,
“the principle of present revelation…is the very foundation of our religion” (Journal of Discourses, p.371).
Elder Joseph W. McMurrin was one of the First Seven Presidents of the First Council of the Seventy from Oct.5 1897. In a General Conference address in April 1902 he said:
“…the same divine authority, the same inspiration that came from God, our Father, which enabled the Prophet Joseph Smith to speak of the future history of this work, is with the Israel of God today. A Prophet of God stands in the midst of the people now, clothed upon with every gift, key, power, and authority, that was given to the Prophet Joseph Smith, and that same inspiration, that same power to penetrate the future, to comprehend the purposes of the Almighty, is with the Priesthood that is in our midst today.”
In 1977 Spencer Kimball, 12th Mormon president declared in a General Conference address,
“I bear witness to the world today that more than a century and a half ago…the heavens were once again opened, and since that time revelations have been continuous.”
The missionary discussions present it in this way:
“One important way God shows His love for us is by calling prophets, who are given the priesthood – the power and authority given to man to act in God’s name for the salvation of His children. Prophets learn the gospel of Jesus Christ by revelation. They in turn teach the gospel to others…The teachings of the prophets are found in sacred books called scriptures.
“Whenever people choose to disregard, disobey, or distort any gospel principle or ordinance, whenever they reject the Lord’s prophets…they distance themselves from God and begin to live in spiritual darkness. Eventually this leads to a condition called apostasy. When widespread apostasy occurs, God withdraws His priesthood authority to teach and administer the ordinances of the gospel.
“To end each period of general apostasy, God has shown His love for His children by calling another prophet and giving him priesthood authority to restore and teach the gospel of Jesus Christ anew…Such periods of time headed by prophetic responsibility are called dispensations.
“After the death of Jesus Christ, wicked people persecuted the Apostles and Church members and killed many of them. Without Apostles, over time the doctrines were corrupted…Without revelation and priesthood authority, people relied on human wisdom to interpret the scriptures…False ideas were taught as truth…The doctrines…became distorted or forgotten. This apostasy eventually led to the emergence of many churches.
“When the circumstances were right, Heavenly father once again reached out to His children in love. He called a young man named Joseph Smith as a prophet. Through Him the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ was restored to the earth….A living prophet directs the Church today” (Preach My Gospel, A Guide to Missionary Service, p.p.32-37, Pub. LDS Church, 2004).
That message still excites many today and fills them with the same anticipation I felt all those years ago. “What will the living prophet say?” The words of a Mormon hymn sum up well the typical Mormon’s attitude to it:
The morning breaks, the shadows flee; Lo, Zion’s standard is unfurled!
The dawning of a brighter day, Majestic rises on the world.
Testing the Prophets
Using the teaching in the missionary discussions we might profitably test the prophets.
“The teachings of the prophets are found in sacred books called scriptures”
The Mormon Scriptures include the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, the Doctrine and Covenants(D&C), and the Bible. The D&C is what concerns us since the other three, while being scripture, are also historical documents pertaining to God’s dealings with people in the past. The D&C however is viewed as evidence that the heavens are open once more and that the church is led by living prophets. As the missionaries clearly teach “The teachings of the prophets are found in sacred books called scriptures”. If God speaks through prophets today it is here, or in even more additional “sacred books” that we should look for evidence that he does.
The D&C ends in the 19th century, aside from section 138 which is purported to have been received in 1918 by Joseph F Smith, sixth Mormon Church president. The previous revelation in chronology, section 136, is dated January 1847, is given through Brigham Young, and concerns the organising of the saints to move westward. Young led the Mormons for another 30 years until his death in 1877, thirty of the most challenging and defining years in Mormon history, and yet nothing was added to the D&C to show that God was leading His people through a living prophet. There have been thirteen more prophets since then and yet no additional scripture is to be found, either in the D&C or any other additional work of “scripture”.
One would have thought, perhaps, that many volumes might exist by now showing that since the time of Joseph Smith “revelation has been continuous”. The Journal of Discourses (JOD), a 26 volume veritable encyclopaedia of early Mormon sermons and writings, seems to have been once regarded as filling the role. The Mormons refer to their official scriptures as Standard Works and the eight volume of the JOD (pub.1861) is prefaced with the following, written by George Q Cannon, ordained an apostle 1860:
“The Journal of Discourses deservedly ranks as one of the standard works of the church, and every right-minded Saint will certainly welcome with joy every Number as it comes forth from the press as an additional reflector of ‘the light that shines from Zion’s hill’.
We rejoice, therefore, in being able to present to the Saints another complete Volume – the Eight in the series; and, in doing so, we sincerely commend the varied and important instructions it contains to their earnest consideration.”
As time has passed the Mormon leadership has found the contents to be more embarrassing than instructional and it has been relegated to the role of historical curiosity. A recent correspondent, commenting on our use of the Journal, referred to it as “an obscure historical source”. It seems that the Mormon idea of continuous revelation being recorded in scripture has, itself, been relegated to history.
“A living prophet directs the Church today”
The current prophet of the Mormon Church is Gordon B Hinckley. He has been prophet since March 1995, ten years in fact. In that time he has led the saints through a remarkable period of activity and growth, visiting members all over the world, more than doubling the number of temples, and raising the profile of the church. He has been the busiest and most productive prophet the church has had for years. How does his record stand as prophet?
We are told that a key role of the prophet is teacher. What can president Hinckley teach us about LDS doctrine?
“‘Brigham Young said if you went to Heaven and saw God it would be Adam and Eve. I don’t know what he meant by that.’ Pointing to a grim-faced portrait of the Lion of the Lord, as Young was called, Hinckley said, ‘There he is, right there. I’m not going to worry about what he said about those things.’ I asked whether Mormon theology was a form of polytheism. ‘I don’t have the remotest idea what you mean,’ Hinckley said impatiently”. – Hinckley Interview in “Lives of the Saint”, New Yorker, January 2002
“Question: ‘There are some significant differences in your beliefs [and other Christian churches]. For instance, don’t Mormons believe that God was once a man’
“Hinckley: ‘I wouldn’t say that. There was a little couplet coined, “As man is, God once was. As God is, man may become.” Now that’s more of a couplet than anything else. That gets into some pretty deep theology that we don’t know very much about.'” – Interviewing Gordon B. Hinckley, San Francisco Chronicle, April 13, 1997, p 3/Z1
“Question: ‘Is this the teaching of the church today, that God the Father was once a man like we are?’
Hinckley: ‘I don’t know that we teach it. I don’t know that we emphasize it. I haven’t heard it discussed for a long time in public discourse. I don’t know. I don’t know all the circumstances under which that statement was made. I understand the philosophical background behind it. But I don’t know a lot about it and I don’t know that others know a lot about it.‘” – Interviewing Gordon B. Hinckley, Time Magazine, Aug 4, 1997.
From a interview Jan 29th, 2002 conducted by reporter Helmut Nemetschek, ZDF television, Germany, at Salt Lake City, Utah, in the Church Administration Building:
“Question: ‘Until 1978 no person of color attained the priesthood in your church. Why it took so long time to overcome the racism?’
“Hinckley: ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. (long pause) I can only say that. (long pause) But it’s here now. We’re carrying on a very substantial work on Africa for instance and in Brazil. We’re working among their people developing them.’
“Question: ‘Now, Mr. President, one question which is a little bit complicated for me to understand but I heard it and one colleague asked me to ask you. What will be your position when DNA analysis will show that in history there never had been an immigration from Israel to North America? It could be that scientists will find out?’
“Hinckley: ‘It hasn’t happened. That hasn’t been determined yet. All I can say is that’s speculative. No one really knows that, the answer to that. Not at this point.’ – Interview Jan 29th, 2002 conducted by reporter Helmut Nemetschek, ZDF television, Germany, at Salt Lake City, Utah, in the Church Administration Building.
“Beyond the wonderful and descriptive words found in sections 76 and 137 [D&C 76; D&C 137] we know relatively little concerning the celestial kingdom and those who will be there. At least some of the rules of eligibility for acceptance into that kingdom are clearly set forth, but other than that, we are given little understanding.
“The next question you ask is why Eve was created from Adam. I can only respond that an all-wise Creator did it that way…
“Now, Virginia, you call attention to the statement in the scriptures that Adam should rule over Eve. (See Gen. 3:16.) You ask why this is so. I do not know.” – The Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, November 1991 Young Womens Conference, “Daughters of God,” (Ensign, Nov. 1991, Page 97)
Prophet, Seer, Revelator
A prophet is also one who “foretells the future”. What is the record of president Hinckley?
“I hope that prayer will take on a new luster in our lives. None of us knows what lies ahead. We may speculate, but we do not know.” – The Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, October 2001 General Conference “Till We Meet Again,” (Ensign, Nov. 2001, Page 89)
“Now we are at war. Great forces have been mobilized and will continue to be. Political alliances are being forged. We do not know how long this conflict will last. We do not know what it will cost in lives and treasure. We do not know the manner in which it will be carried out. It could impact the work of the Church in various ways.
“No one knows how long it will last. No one knows precisely where it will be fought. No one knows what it may entail before it is over. We have launched an undertaking the size and nature of which we cannot see at this time.
“I do not know what the future holds. I do not wish to sound negative, but I wish to remind you of the warnings of scripture and the teachings of the prophets which we have had constantly before us.
“Now, I do not wish to be an alarmist. I do not wish to be a prophet of doom. I am optimistic. I do not believe the time is here when an all-consuming calamity will overtake us. I earnestly pray that it may not. There is so much of the Lord’s work yet to be done. We, and our children after us, must do it. I can assure you that we who are responsible for the management of the affairs of the Church will be prudent and careful as we have tried to be in the past. The tithes of the Church are sacred.” – The Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Times in Which We Live,” October 2001 General Conference (Ensign, Nov. 2001, Page 72)
“Months ago I was invited to be interviewed by Mike Wallace, a tough senior reporter for the CBS 60 Minutes program, which is broadcast across America to more than 20 million listeners each week. I recognized that if I were to appear, critics and detractors of the Church would also be invited to participate. I knew we could not expect that the program would be entirely positive for us. … I concluded that it was better to lean into the stiff wind of opportunity than to simply hunker down and do nothing. It has been an interesting experience…
“We have no idea what the outcome will be-that is, I don’t. We will discover this this evening when it is aired in this valley. If it turns out to be favorable, I will be grateful. Otherwise, I pledge I’ll never get my foot in that kind of trap again.” – The Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, “Remember Thy Church, O Lord,” Spring 1996 General Conference, Ensign, May 1996, Page 82
The missionaries teach that, “Without revelation and priesthood authority, people relied on human wisdom.” What is the Mormon Church of today relying upon?
‘At the close of one particularly difficult day, I looked up at a portrait of Brigham Young that hangs on my wall. I asked, “Brother Brigham, what should we do?” I thought I saw him smile a little, and then he seemed to say:”‘In my day, I had problems enough of my own. Don’t ask me what to do. This is your watch. Ask the Lord, whose work this really is” And this, I assure you, is what we do and must always do.”
“As I reflected on these matters that recent difficult day, I opened my Bible to the first chapter of Joshua and read these words: ‘Have not I commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee’ (Joshua 1:9). I said to myself: ‘There is never reason to despair. This is the work of God. Notwithstanding the efforts of all who oppose it, it will go forward as the God of heaven has designed it should do.'” – The Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley, Autumn 2003 General Conference, Sunday Morning Session
I can open my Bible and read what God has to say. I can comfort myself with biblical assurance. The question is “What has the living prophet got to say to me – today”? More to the point, what does God have to say to me today? Would it surprise you to find that the answer is found in the Bible?
“But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:14-17)
Go to the Word and seek God’s wisdom (James 1:1-5).
This article appeared originally in the Summer 2005 Reachout Quarterly