by Sharon Lindbloom
11 July 2023
“Can a Prophet or an Apostle Be Mistaken?” This is the question LDS authors Duane Boyce and Kimberly White tackle in a July 2 (2023) article by the same name. Published online by Meridian Magazine, an independent magazine of interest to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the article begins by noting (with examples) that various leaders of the LDS church have seemed to take contradictory positions on the question.
Some prophets and apostles have made it clear that they are not infallible, that “they will make mistakes,” while others have taught that church leaders will never lead the church astray – God will not allow it. But, Boyce and White write, “the appearance of contradiction in these statements is actually an illusion.”
They explain, “There are actually two essential truths to keep in mind in thinking about prophetic leadership and the decision-making errors they might commit.”* The first one is that errors vary in magnitude. Some are “tiny,” and others, “if they were made,” would be huge. The authors argue that God will not allow His prophets and apostles to make any huge mistakes but will permit mistakes on a smaller scale if the matter is deemed by God to be “insignificant.”
The authors provide two examples of these kinds of insignificant errors that church leaders have made in the past:
- Mistakes in the Book of Mormon text; yet, they write, “the Book of Mormon is true despite its mistakes, because what is divine in it is far, far more significant than what is mortal in it.”
- The incorrect name of the early church; though “every reference to the name of the Church prior to 1838 was a mistake…that did not seem to matter to the Lord.”
Boyce and White write,
“Thus, while it would certainly be accurate to speak of errors, both in the Book of Mormon and in references to the Church’s name, it would just as certainly be trivial.”
Joseph Smith insisted, “by the power of God I translated the Book of Mormon from hieroglyphics, the knowledge of which was lost to the world…” (History of the Church 6:74). Men the LDS church recognizes as witnesses testified that God Himself declared the translation that Joseph produced “by the power of God…is correct” (History of the Church, 1:55). It’s hard to understand how, if these declarations are true, the book could be so riddled with errors.
Boyce and White characterize the errors in the Book of Mormon as trivial. But consider, for example, the first edition of the Book of Mormon that identified the “Lamb of God” (i.e., Jesus Christ) as “the Eternal Father,” and “the virgin” (i.e., Mary) as “the mother of God.” These crucial teachings about God stood as true for seven years; but they turned out to be mistakes. They were corrected in 1837 by adding new words (i.e., “the Son of”) to the original, ultimately changing the very identity of the revealed Christ (see 1 Nephi 11:18, 21, 32 and 13:40). According to the Book of Mormon, Nephi learned these things in a vision, by revelation; nevertheless, he got it wrong. Whose mistakes were these? Nephi’s? Joseph’s? God’s?
Similarly, Boyce and White suggest that it “did not seem to matter to the Lord” that the early LDS church had the wrong name for eight years (1830-1834 as The Church of Christ and 1834-1838 as The Church of the Latter Day Saints). It “was just not a priority for Him,” they write. This might be accepted as a reasonable theory if not for the proclamations of the current prophet on the name of the church. President Russell Nelson says that God is “offended” when the church is not called by its proper name, and that leaving the name of Jesus Christ out of the name of the church is a “victory for Satan” each time it happens. A mistake that offends God and grants victory to Satan strikes me as being far from trivial.
Boyce and White include a quote in their article by the fourth President of the LDS church, Wilford Woodruff. President Woodruff had just announced the end of the practice of polygamy and wanted to reassure the Saints that such a change was what God really intended. President Woodruff said, “the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as president of the Church to lead you astray. It is not in the program. It is not the mind of God.” However, this proclamation falls apart when considering a revelation received by President Woodruff’s predecessor.
The third President of the church, John Taylor, announced, “Thus sayeth the Lord… as I have heretofore said by my servant Joseph all those who would enter into my glory must and shall obey my law[.] And have I not commanded men that if they were Abraham’s seed and would enter into my glory they must do the works of Abraham. I have not revoked this law [of plural marriage] nor will I for it is everlasting and those who will enter into my glory must obey the conditions thereof, even so, Amen” (See the entire revelation at “John Taylor’s 1886 Revelation on Celestial Marriage”).
John Taylor’s revelation in 1886 proclaimed that those who hope to enter into eternal glory must obey the law or doctrine of plural marriage, a law that would never be revoked by God. Then four years later President Woodruff, after receiving a contrary revelation, ended the practice of polygamy. There’s a huge mistake here somewhere, a mistake that, if the 1886 revelation was true, would cost people their eternal lives. But was the mistake made when God allegedly revealed to John Taylor that the law of plural marriage was necessary for salvation and would never be revoked? Or was the mistake made when God allegedly inspired Wilford Woodruff to put an end to plural marriage? This thorny question leads to the second “essential truth” presented by Boyce and White:
“…just knowing, in principle, that mistakes can be made does not mean we are any good at identifying them. We really aren’t smart enough to know.”
As Boyce and White see the issue, rank and file Latter-day Saints (and others) can’t tell when mistakes have been made by LDS prophets and apostles, but Mormons can be comforted by the fact that when a mistake is made, it is necessarily insignificant and trivial to God; otherwise, God would not have allowed it. These “essential truths” presented by Boyce and White encourage Latter-day Saints to recognize that they have no basis for correcting (or, I would add, questioning) the decisions and pronouncements of their church leaders. Boyce and White conclude,
“We can thus proceed out of complete loyalty… we can leave the matter completely in the hands of the Lord, faithfully follow the Brethren, and be free of worry.”
This article has essentially taken the long way ‘round to give the same counsel expressed in a lesson published by the church in 1945: “When our leaders speak, the thinking has been done. When they propose a plan—it is God’s plan” (Improvement Era, June 1945, 354).
Boyce and White ask the question, “Can [LDS] prophets and apostles be mistaken?” Their answer is, “Yes, but it doesn’t matter.” This is woefully contrary to biblical truth, which says that, in fact, it matters very much.
It matters so much that God commands His people to test those who claim to speak for Him, to be able to discern whether those asserting they are His prophets really are what they say (see 1 John 4:1). God warns about false prophets all throughout His Word and directs His people to take care lest we be deceived (see Matthew 24:4; Jeremiah 29:8-9). He commands us to turn a deaf ear to false prophets and to remove them from the community of His people (see Deuteronomy 18:20-22; 13:1-5). God makes it absolutely clear that when a so-called prophet makes a mistake while claiming to speak for God, that person is revealed as a false prophet – and God stands against him (see Jeremiah 23:30-32; Ezekiel 13:8-9).
Boyce and White have demonstrated that LDS prophets, apostles, and scriptures all err. Not only that, but LDS prophets and apostles will continue to make undetectable mistakes, even as they purport to be led and inspired directly by God. If Boyce and White accurately represent Mormonism in this, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is, spiritually speaking, a very unsafe place to be.
“Beware of false prophets,
who come to you in sheep’s clothing
but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” (Matthew 7:15)
* In the article’s footnote viii the authors claim a distinction between the “decision-making errors” addressed in this article and “doctrinal mistakes” that they identify as “a related but separate topic.” However, since the examples of errors Boyce and White include in the article are doctrinal in nature, my analysis of their argument follows suit.
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