By Eric Johnson
We at Mormonism Research Ministry and other like-minded groups have adamantly maintained that Joseph Smith was a false prophet based on his prophecies which did not take place as he said they would. One common LDS response which we have repeatedly hear is: “If Joseph Smith was a false prophet, then the prophet Jonah must have been a false prophet as well. He predicted the destruction of Nineveh yet the Bible tells us that city was spared.”
Was Jonah a false prophet? The idea that biblical prophets could make errors in their prophecies is contrary to the Bible; it clearly shows that a true prophet will not make errors when giving a message from God.
Deuteronomy 18:22 says, “When a prophet speaketh in the name of the Lord, if the thing follow not, nor comes to pass, that is the thing which the Lord hath not spoken, but the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.”
As recorded in the short four-chapter Old Testament book named after him, Jonah was commanded by God to “go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me” (1:2). Instead of going to Nineveh to preach the destruction of the city, Jonah disobeyed and attempted to run away from God.
It took near-death experiences on a ship and inside a fish before Jonah could be persuaded to deliver the ultimatum (3:3). When he finally proclaimed that the Assyrians would be doomed within 40 days, “the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them” including the king of Nineveh. The Ninevites changed their ways hoping to have God “turn away from his fierce anger” (3:4-5,9).
Although God fully intended to inflict destruction upon the city of Nineveh, He relented based upon their God-fearing response. Jonah 3:10 says, “And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not.”
The righteous nature of God allows for pardon on the condition of repentance. Jeremiah 18:8 states: “If that nation against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.”
There is little doubt that Nineveh would have been destroyed if its inhabitants had not responded to Jonah’s message. Even Jonah himself understood that there was a possibility the destruction of Nineveh might not come to pass when he told God, “I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil” (4:2).
While many Mormons may attempt to use the “Jonah defense” to defend their faith’s first prophet, we have been unable to locate this apologetic argument from the many LDS general authorities whose writings we have researched. Instead, we have found numerous statements from LDS leaders which concur with the thought that Jonah was a prophet sent by God to deliver a conditional message.
Speaking of the Ninevites, former LDS Apostle Orson Pratt taught that “…they all turned and repented of their sins, and the Lord had compassion and did not execute the judgment on them because of their repentance” (Journal of Discourses 14:260-1).
Third LDS Prophet John Taylor said in an 1884 sermon: “Jonah was sent to the city of Nineveh, to tell the people to repent and that if they did not repent they would all be destroyed. But they listened to the voice of the Prophet …The Lord forgave them” (Journal of Discourses 23:36).
Meanwhile, former LDS Apostle John Widtsoe wrote that “there are prophecies which in reality are statements of cause and effect. If certain things are done, certain results will flow therefrom” (Evidences and Reconciliations, pg. 92).
The problem with equating Joseph with Jonah is that many of Smith’s prophecies did not come to pass even after all the proper conditions were met. Therefore we have no other alternative than to declare Joseph Smith a false prophet according to Deuteronomy 18:22.