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?