Do Mormons really believe in prophet fallibility?

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For family scripture study this past week, we’ve been reading in 1 Corinthians, and a few things Paul wrote prompted a discussion on the fallibility of prophets. I’ve been reflecting on this over the last few days, and I wanted to write my thoughts down to help me think through things.

For example, consider 1 Corinthians 11:4–9:

Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonoureth his head.

But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven.

For if the woman be not covered, let her also be shorn: but if it be a shame for a woman to be shorn or shaven, let her be covered.

For a man indeed ought not to cover his head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.

For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man.

Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.

I think you would be hard pressed to find a Mormon who takes this counsel literally. I bet that a more common reaction would be, “Oh, that Paul.” I don’t think it’s difficult for Mormons to dismiss words of an ancient prophet that seem incongruous with our current society (secular and spiritual) paradigms.

What about more recent prophets?

Well take a look at this quote from Brigham Young:

“Who can tell us of the inhabitants of this little planet that shines of an evening, called the moon? When we view its face we may see what is termed “the man in the moon,” and what some philosophers declare are the shadows of mountains. But these sayings are very vague, and amount to nothing; and when you inquire about the inhabitants of that sphere you find that the most learned are as ignorant in regard to them as the most ignorant of their fellows. So it is with regard to the inhabitants of the sun. Do you think it is inhabited? I rather think it is. Do you think there is any life there? No question of it; it was not made in vain. It was made to give light to those who dwell upon it, and to other planets;” (Journal of Discourses. 13:31. P. 271)

Again, I think you’d have a hard time finding Mormons who take this literally. In fact, I’m confident most would do their best to dismiss it (as opinion, popular belief at the time, or some other rationalization).

Speaking of Brigham Young, what about the Adam God Theory that he taught, along with Heber C. Kimball, Franklin D. Richards, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff? I don’t think most members accept this teaching as doctrine.

Or how about this teaching of Joseph Fielding Smith:

“There is a reason why one man is born black and with other disadvantages, while another is born white with great advantage. The reason is that we once had an estate before we came here, and were obedient, more or less, to the laws that were given us there. Those who were faithful in all things there received greater blessings here, and those who were not faithful received less. . . . There were no neutrals in the war in heaven. All took sides either with Christ or with Satan. Every man had his agency there, and men receive rewards here based upon their actions there, just as they will receive rewards hereafter for deeds done in the body. The Negro, evidently, is receiving the reward he merits.” (Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 1, pp. 66–67)

This doctrine still has staying power, as I have come across a few members (by no means a majority) who still believe this. Despite its lingering nature, it’s been denied as a doctrine by the current church:

Today, the Church disavows the theories advanced in the past that black skin is a sign of divine disfavor or curse, or that it reflects unrighteous actions in a premortal life; that mixed-race marriages are a sin; or that blacks or people of any other race or ethnicity are inferior in any way to anyone else. Church leaders today unequivocally condemn all racism, past and present, in any form.

It seems to me that, in theory, members of the LDS church support the idea of prophet fallibility. In fact, it seems many live it. At least when it comes to dead prophets.

I wonder, however, what would happen if someone suggested that a statement of Thomas S. Monson was problematic in some way.  I could be wrong, but I get the impression that most Mormons would view that as a sign of apostasy or at least ill speaking of the Lord’s anointed. Assuming this is true, then why is it okay for Mormons to claim fallibility in dead prophets but risk church discipline if they claim it in living prophets?

20 thoughts on “Do Mormons really believe in prophet fallibility?

  1. I am teaching the RS lesson on following the prophet in a couple of weeks, and I’ve been struggling with this same question. The manual gives the classic, “The prophet can never lead the church astray” quote, yet there are several examples, some of which you listed, that I think definitely apply as “leading astray.” I am not saying that I think our current prophet is leading us astray, but at the same time, I wish that we could have that discussion without the threat of apostasy. I’m still trying to figure out how to present my lesson to include fallibility, while still keeping with our doctrines. But you can bet I won’t be using that quote.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. It is readily obvious that “mormons” do not believe in the infallibility of current or past prophets. All one has to do is to scan the Mormon Archipelago, especially after a General Conference and a litany of views will be found expounding how wrong this GA or that GA was on this or that point. (Most of them seem to still be members in fairly good standing.)

    Glenn

  3. “Follow the prophet, follow the prophet,
    follow the prophet, he knows the way.”

    To me, the answer to the to the question of whether most active LDS’s see the current prophet as infallible is: well…kinda. And I definitely agree with your concluding paragraph.

    Whenever I watch news stories on the FLDS and their blind obedience to Warren Jeffs I want to scream out “are you daft?”. Yet, I will hear phrases when the occasional follower will go on record and speak as to why they continue their obedience to their “living prophet” that are eerily familiar with rhetoric from LDS faithful. Their belief that the persecution from the “world” validates their righteous stance has been echoed throughout the centuries by besieged religious groups, including 19th century Mormons. It has a tendency to draw the group members in closer around their chrismatic figure.

    I personally believe that Thomas S. Monson is a man of great wisdom and sweetness. Someone with Christ-like qualities that I desire to emulate. I don’t see him as infallible. Does that put me above others? Heavens no! I hear “daft” things all the time muttered in SS as having come from this or that authority and I quietly sit back and let it go unchallenged by assuring myself that whatever has been said is inconsequential. So I guess I’m just a sheepish, little follower of the prophets.

  4. Kim Siever said “That may be true, but that a small subset of Mormons. I doubt that’s typical of most wards.”

    Aren’t you overgeneralizing a bit? I have heard this topic come up in I don’t know how many Priesthood quorums and Gospel Doctrine classes over the years. I have not been a member of any “blind sheep squadrons” that I can recall.

    I don’t want to stand here and judge all of those that I have not attended either way.

    Glenn

  5. Kim.
    My original comment was pretty much tongue-in-cheek. (I bite my tongue a lot that way.) I was mostly responding to your final comment ” Assuming this is true, then why is it okay for Mormons to claim fallibility in dead prophets but risk church discipline if they claim it in living prophets?”

    Glenn

  6. Just one comment on your post. You say that nobody follows Paul literally regarding the covering or uncovering of the head. I don’t know that Paul was so much wrong as he was speaking for those people at that time. In a way, a prophet’s job (and we can argue whether Paul was a prophet or the prophet) is to help convey God’s will to His people for their time. This is why President Benson says living prophets are more valuable than dead prophets.

    We live in a fallen world and it seems dangerous to treat all scripture as literal and inerrant for all time. As much as truth is eternal there is also some duty on us to treat God’s word with some wisdom and discernment.

    The other question for me is, if I knew a prophet was wrong, would I follow his advice? I have followed leaders I disagreed with out of loyalty, or respect. There have been other priesthood leaders, (not prophets yet) who I disagreed with an did not follow.

    Clearly, as Pres. Uchdorf has admitted, mistakes have happened in the past. They likely are currently being made and will continue to be made. However, I think things are getting better, not worse. But how do we act if we disagree? The typical Book Of Mormon Response is to murmur. Moroni incorrectly censures Pahoran for his mistakes but it all works out in the end.

    There is danger on both sides of following blindly and not following out of rebellion. Only a Wallenda can walk such a tight-rope well. By nature sheep are more likely to follow blindly. Should we be like sheep?

  7. I’m yet to see a prophet or an apostle teach something other than the fullness of the gospel. The fullness of the gospel can be found in one simple chapter in the BOM. 2 Nephi 31. Prophets and apostles can have different views and ideas about doctrinal questions, but when they start teaching against the gospel of Jesus Christ I will be concerned.

  8. Your arguing about points of the principles of the Doctrine of Christ. Adam-God theory has no relevance to my personal salvation, whether I accept it or not or whether it is correct or not. Like I said, when the prophets start to teach against or contrary to the Gospel of Christ I will be concerned.

    A good example I use to teach this is thus: Draw a large circle on a piece of paper. This represents the churches teachings. Now draw a smaller circle inside and center of the large circle. This represents the Gospel of Christ. Everything outside the small circle, but still inside the larger one is the “fluff”. Good to know but not relevant to salvation. Put a few points in this area. One can represent Adam God Theory. Another can represent covering heads, and so forth.

    Now put some points inside the smaller circle. One can be baptism. Another can be faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ. Have any of the prophets ever been fallible on these points, or rather, about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I will argue til the end of days that the answer is NO.

    I wish everyone who criticizes our leaders would understand that prophets are here to teach the Gospel of Christ, and not the fluff. The fluff can and will change as societies change, as we get further light and knowledge, and according to how leaders interpret as individuals the scriptures.

  9. I never said that. Question for you. Has a prophet ever taught something that has negatively affected your own salvation? And if so, what are they teaching that if you would do it, would keep you out of exaltation? Or are they infallible in that aspect?

    1. So, it’s okay for them to teach principles and ideas outside of the Gospel of Christ?

      Regarding teachings that affect my salvation, well, going back to the Adam God theory, Brigham Young and several of the 12 at the time taught that Adam was the only God with whom we should deal with. That would seems to have significant implications on my salvation.

  10. How so? If you accept that theory as true, will you not be exalted? If you accept it as false, will you not be exalted? What if you’re still waiting for further light and knowledge. Will you not be exalted?

    You are trying to argue about 1 point of 1 principle (faith in God the Father) of the Gospel of Christ. From my understanding we need to know and have faith in His attributes and characteristics, not whether he is Adam or not. Is He unchanging? Is He omnipotent? Is He all-knowing? You are getting caught up in the fluff.

    I can’t yet figure out why you are writing these posts. Are you a wolf in sheep’s clothing trying to sow the seeds of doubt among members. Or do you just like sensational topics as a type of propaganda to draw people to your blog? Or do you honestly believe the prophets will lead us away from God?

    Whatever your reasons, I will put my trust in President Monson; that his teachings will guide my journey on this earth.

    1. I’m not getting caught up in the fluff. I’m trying to determine what we need to do with the fluff? Are we free to ignore it? Are we obliged to accept it?

  11. One last comment. I do not believe Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Ezra Taft Benson, or any other modern day prophet is fallible in regards to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

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