Should Mormons Follow Their Living Prophets?

By Sharon Lindbloom
24 May 2016

In an article titled, “‘The prophet will never lead the LDS Church astray,’ and other Mormon heresies,” LDS blogger Jana Riess argues that Mormons misunderstand the prevalent LDS tenet quoted in her blog title; in fact, LDS prophets can and perhaps have made mistakes, and to think otherwise smacks of “idolatrous fantasies.”

Wilford_WoodruffDr. Riess quotes fourth LDS Prophet Wilford Woodruff:

“The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.”

She then argues that “Believing that, de facto and without exception, no prophet will ever lead the church astray” contradicts a foundational doctrine of Mormonism known as “agency.” LDS.org defines agency as, “The Ability and Gift to Choose and Act for Yourself.” Thus, Church members must be free to think for themselves (i.e., hold an opinion that is correct though it may differ from what the prophet declares), and the prophet must be free to choose whether to do and speak the Lord’s will — or not.

Dr. Riess encourages Latter-day Saints to “recognize the power and resilience in the church’s flawed humanity from the prophet on down.” She suggests that they should understand that “when (not if) the prophet makes mistakes,” and the Church finds need to “err and repent and err and repent,” it is only because the Church is “true and living” and these things are but growing pains.

Therefore, Dr. Riess suggests, the proper way to understand, “The prophet will never lead the church astray,” may be, “The church will not be led astray because at the end of all things, it will be made one with God.”

For Mormons who struggle with the LDS requirement to follow the prophet no matter what, and for Mormons who have come face to face with the fact that, historically, LDS prophets have proven to be highly fallible, Dr. Riess’ ideas are surely comforting. But Dr. Riess is not a prophet, and in Mormonism, her ideas are just her ideas — unless they can be supported by authoritative teaching. And they can’t.

In Dr. Riess’ paradigm, the LDS Church’s claim of divinity is forgotten (see “Church Organization is Divine,” Ensign, July 2015, 10). The Mormon Church self-identifies as “God’s kingdom on earth,” led by prophets, seers, and revelators who receive a continuing flow of revelation from God, assuring that the Church will by no means stray from the narrow way – something Mormonism claims all dispensations have done in the past. Consider the words of late LDS apostle L. Tom Perry:

“Keys of authority are given to the Apostles, and as long as those keys are on the earth, we will be guided by the Lord Himself. This divine direction protects us and assures us that the Church will not vary from the truth. It will remain consistent because it is not directed by any earthly being. It is directed by the Lord.” (“The Priesthood: A Sure Anchor,” Ensign, April 2016, 75)

Of the sixteen men who have been LDS prophets throughout the Church’s history, eleven of them have directly stated that the prophet and other Church leaders cannot and will not ever lead the Church or its members astray, while two have stated this same idea indirectly. As far as I know, the remaining three did not contradict their fellow prophets on this matter. A few examples:

“If you will follow the leadership of the Lord, and those whom the Lord sustains, you will not fall away into darkness, lose the light, transgress the laws of God, and forfeit your privileges that he is so anxious that all of us should enjoy. There is only one pathway of safety for me in this day and that is to follow those whom the Lord has appointed to lead. I may have my own ideas and opinions, I may set up my own judgment with reference to things, but I know that when my judgment conflicts with the teachings of those that the Lord has given to us to point the way, I should change my course. If I desire salvation I will follow the leaders that our Heav­enly Father has given to us, as long as he sustains them.” (George Albert Smith, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith, 2011, 60)

“I think there is one thing which we should have exceedingly clear in our minds. 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.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, 2013, 159)

“This church is established on principles that are divine. From the day of its organization, it has been led by prophets, and I sol­emnly testify that the Lord Jesus Christ, whose church it is and whose name it bears, will never let any man or group of men lead it astray. His is the power to remove them if they should ever be found taking the wrong turn.” (Gordon B. Hinckley, “Bring Up a Child in the Way He Should Go,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 1993, 54)

“If you want to see the light of heaven, if you want to feel the inspiration of Almighty God, if you want to have that feeling within your bosom that your Heavenly Father is guiding you, then follow the prophets of God. When you follow the prophets, you will be in safe territory.” (Thomas S. Monson, “Follow the Prophets,” Ensign, January 2015, 5)

The authoritative teaching on this has been pretty clear throughout the history of the Mormon Church. The prophets have just been echoing what’s taught in LDS scripture, which states,

“Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his [the prophets] 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.” (Doctrine and Covenants 21:4-5; see also Doctrine and Covenants 1:38)

Even the current LDS missionary manual Preach My Gospel tells investigators,

“Those who listen to and follow the counsel of living prophets and apostles will not go astray. The teachings of living prophets provide an anchor of eternal truth in a world of shifting values…” (75)

To be clear, though the LDS Church functions as if its leadership cannot err in doctrine, and though LDS prophets have oft repeated that such is the case, the Church does not claim infallibility for its leaders. Even so, lds.org says that living prophets are “called to speak for the Lord,” that “Their teachings reflect the will of the Lord,” that “We can always trust the living prophets,” and that “Our greatest safety lies in strictly following the word of the Lord given through His prophets, particularly the current President of the Church. The Lord warns that those who ignore the words of the living prophets will fall (see D&C  1:14-16).” (See also “Follow the leaders, LDS Church tells its members in April [2016]“)

According to an older edition of an LDS teaching manual, revelation through a living prophet is the “heart and soul” of Mormonism (Teachings of the Living Prophets (1982), 16). But if the prophet makes mistakes, if the prophet can/does lead members of the LDS Church astray, if his teachings do not actually reflect the will, mind, word, voice, and power of God (see Doctrine and Covenants 68:4), “Then,” quoting one of Jana Riess’ readers, “why have a prophet in the first place?”

That’s a good question. Dr. Riess’ ideas notwithstanding, actually sustaining, believing, and following the latter-day prophet is part and parcel of the LDS Church; the declaration of a prophet who will not lead the Church astray is the heart and soul of Mormonism.

enoughFor people like Dr. Riess who understand that Mormonism doesn’t actually deliver on this promised trustworthy prophet, there is an option that is much better than spinning, redefining, and reinterpreting the Church’s clear teachings on the matter.

According to the Bible, Jesus is the living Prophet who leads His church. He leads it perfectly. He leads it truthfully. He leads it with no variation or shadow due to change (see James 1:17). No other so-called living prophet is warranted because Jesus is the Prophet (John 7:40). He is the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Therefore, wisdom urges Mormons to abandon Mormonism and its false prophets, and embrace biblical Christianity with the true Prophet instead. Jesus, the true and living Prophet, is more than enough.