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Dead Prophets vs. Living Prophets

By Bill McKeever

Note: The following was originally printed in the November/December 2021 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.

According to sixth LDS president Joseph F. Smith:

The Latter-day Saints hold as a principle of their faith, that . . . the President of the Church is recognized as the only person through whom divine communication will come as law and doctrine to the religious body; that such revelation may come at any time, upon any subject, spiritual or temporal, as God wills; and, finally, that, in the mind of every faithful Latter-day Saint, such revelation, in whatsoever it counsels, advises or demands, is paramount (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph F. Smith, 226. Ellipsis in original).

As stated above, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints plays an extremely important role in what is believed to be the communication of God’s will to the church’s membership.

On February 26, 1980, then-apostle and later 13th president Ezra Taft Benson gave his famous “14 Fundamentals in Following the Prophet” talk at church-owned Brigham Young University. In fundamental number three, he told members that “the living prophet is more important to us than a dead prophet” and to beware of those who would set up the dead prophets against the living prophets, for the living prophets always take precedence.” This admonition was followed with point number four that reads, “The prophet will never lead the Church astray.

Thirty years later, Benson’s speech was revived in two conference messages given in October 2010. Claudio R.M. Costa (“Obedience to the Prophets,”) and Kevin Duncan (“Our Very Survival.”) each taught through the 14 points and concurred with what their former president had said.

One can (and should) ask why church members should abstain from pitting the teachings of their past LDS prophets with the current one. After all, if they are truly in “divine communication” with God, as stated by Smith, why would such caution be necessary? The answer is really quite simple. Mormon leaders such as Benson, Costa, and Duncan are fully aware that their prophets are not always in harmony with each other when it comes to doctrinal positions. Since this is the case, should members feel confident that their leaders will never lead their church astray?

This dilemma was brought to the forefront again in August 2021 when area seventy Richard Neitzel Holzapfel addressed two teenagers on the subject of repentance; when they told the area seventy that they were confused on proper repentance, he blamed their misunderstandings on faulty teaching, specifically mentioning The Miracle of Forgiveness, a book written in 1969 by then-apostle Spencer W. Kimball; four years later, Kimball became Mormonism’s twelfth president.

Holzapfel said, “We don’t want to go back to The Miracle of Forgiveness by President Kimball” and urged those in his audience to “drop the dead prophets and embrace the living.”

In making his case, Holzapfel referenced an article in the February 2021 issue of the LDS Liahona magazine written by Apostle Neil L. Andersen. He also endorsed Andersen’s book The Divine Gift of Forgiveness, though neither the article or book was actually mentioned.

Many believe Andersen’s book was written specifically to supplant Kimball’s book with a much softer tone. However, Andersen never criticizes nor contradicts what Kimball said when it comes to achieving “true repentance” according to LDS teachings. In an ironic twist, Andersen often cites “dead prophets” in his writing.

Though some members might find comfort in being told to ignore some of the more blunt and even controversial teachings of their past leaders, this is done by practically all of the leaders who speak or write in an official capacity. Many official church manuals officially vetted by the LDS First Presidency do exactly this! A classic example is the Teachings of Presidents of the Church series that had been utilized in adult gospel doctrine classes from 1997 to 2017.

The first book issued in this series was Teachings of Prophets of the Church: Brigham Young. In the introduction it states, “This book reflects the desire of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve to deepen the doctrinal understanding of Church members and to awaken within them a greater desire to know the things of God.” Every subsequent edition of this series that covers the teachings of fifteen LDS presidents is filled with quotations stated or written by “dead prophets.” Ironically, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Spencer W. Kimball included 67 citations from The Miracle of Forgiveness; its fourth chapter was even titled “The Miracle of Forgiveness”!

Fundamental number four in Benson’s 1980 speech concerned the impossibility of LDS leaders leading the church astray, which was stated previously by fourth President Wilford Woodruff. In Teachings of President of the Church: Wilford Woodruff, this quotation is found on page 199:

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.

To date, no death of any LDS prophet has been attributed to leading the Church astray. If this is the case, why should members be cautioned to only accept the words of living prophets over the dead ones? It seems that a lower-level leader like Richard Holzapfel realizes that there is rotten fruit hanging from his church’s prophetical tree.

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