by Sharon Lindbloom
18 January 2023
At a BYU-Hawaii devotional event last November (2022), inspirational speaker Sherri Dew, from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, focused her remarks on the prophets, seers, and revelators that lead her church. “Prophets can see around corners,” she said. Her overarching message was that prophets can see (via revelation) what’s coming, so Latter-day Saints who heed and follow LDS leadership will be safe – both spiritually and temporally.
Ms. Dew provided some anecdotal evidence for her claim (e.g., missionaries being given cell phones before the pandemic, members encouraged to get out of debt ten years ahead of a recession, etc.), but noted that most of the world, including some Mormon church members, reject those sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators (aka apostles) in the LDS church.
To illustrate this point, Ms. Dew told the story of a young woman who came to her upset by something an LDS apostle had said. This young woman’s friends told her that prophets make mistakes. She asked Ms. Dew, “Do you think prophets are infallible?” Ms. Dew answered,
“If infallible means perfect, then no, I don’t think prophets are perfect. Only one perfect being walked this earth and he was God. Prophets are mortal and are being tested just as we are. Being ordained as special witnesses of Jesus Christ gives them unique spiritual privileges but it does not magically absolve them of human weakness.” (“Prophets Can See Around Corners,” 9:35)
This is an interesting answer because the young woman asking about prophetic infallibility was not asking about the personal flawlessness of prophets. She seemed to be specifically asking about the things prophets say in their capacity as prophets. But Ms. Dew gave a response that side-stepped the question. She was able to easily dismiss it by mis-defining the term (this is a great example of a strawman fallacy, by the way).
The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms defines “infallibility” as “That which will not deceive or lead to error.” Prophetic infallibility, then, does not refer to a general idea of human perfection as Ms. Dew suggests. It has a specificity to it that speaks to the prophetic pronouncements made by one claiming to speak for God. That is, the prophet will not deceive or lead people into error by that which he claims to speak prophetically.
Merriam-Webster’s more general online definitions support the same idea: “1: incapable of error: unerring 2: not liable to mislead, deceive, or disappoint… 3: incapable of error in defining doctrines touching faith or morals.”
I’m not sure what human weakness Ms. Dew may have had in mind as she dismissed the idea of LDS prophetic infallibility, but judging by the remainder of her talk, she seems to support the idea that LDS prophets cannot make prophetic mistakes.
For example, according to the dictionary, an infallible prophet is “not liable to mislead or deceive.” Ms. Dew addressed this point when she told her audience,
“I promise you that no leaders on earth are more honest with you than prophets are, and no leaders care more about you and your future.” (16:28)
In other words, they will not deceive or mislead those who follow them.
Another dictionary definition indicates that infallibility means the person or thing is “incapable of error in defining doctrines touching faith or morals.” Ms. Dew addressed this idea when she provided what she called a “crucial truth” about LDS prophets:
“Because this is the Lord’s church and Jesus Christ is the one who chooses and directs his prophets, the Savior will never let the prophet lead the church astray, period.” (19:35)
Ms. Dew does not stand alone here. Nearly every prophet throughout the church’s history has claimed that the prophet will never lead, or be allowed to lead, the church or its members astray. One example is 4th church President Wilford Woodruff who said,
“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.” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff, 199)
Lots of church leaders have agreed, teaching that if the prophet went astray, God would “remove” him from being head of the church. This at least leaves the door open for the possibility that the prophet could be fallible and err in doctrine (or fail in seeing accurately around the corner); but in that case God would not allow him and his errors to continue.
Sherri Dew goes a step beyond this idea. Her teaching on prophets is this:
“…even the prophet is not the head of this church. Jesus Christ is, and He is perfect. Prophets take their instructions from Him who knows all, sees all, and understands all things. When we follow the prophet, we are actually following and placing our trust in Jesus Christ.” (11:37)
This sounds like prophetic infallibility to me. The LDS prophets are stand-ins for Jesus Christ. They cannot err in their capacity as prophets because they take their instructions from one who cannot err – one who is perfect. This dovetails well with LDS scripture which says, “whether by mine own voice [i.e., God’s voice] or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (D&C 1:38). The prophet is said to be speaking God’s very own words. So unless God Himself makes mistakes or willfully deceives (an idea Sherri Dew has already spoken against), His prophet’s prophetic pronouncements will be infallible.
But why would Sherri Dew deny prophetic infallibility and then go on to insist that the principles of prophetic infallibility are true for LDS prophets? I think she’s caught between a rock and a hard place. On one hand she needs to deny LDS prophetic infallibility because too many Latter-day Saints know their prophets have made mistakes in their alleged revelations and inspired leadership (consider the copyright revelation, the polygamy revelation, the baptismal exclusion of certain children, to name but a few). Yet on the other hand she needs to confirm that prophets can be, and must be, trusted and followed because “revelation through a living prophet [is] the heart and foundation” of Mormonism; or, as stated by 15th LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley, “We either have a prophet or we have nothing; and having a prophet, we have everything.” (Teachings of the Living Prophets (1982), 16).
In addition to Sherri Dew’s position being incongruous, it’s unbiblical. The Bible teaches that true prophets are indeed infallible as prophets. When they claim to speak for God, “if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously.” The men exposed here, presumptuously speaking in God’s name, are to be recognized as false prophets and abandoned by the people of God (Deuteronomy 18:20-22). Furthermore, when a self-proclaimed prophet leads people to follow a different god (as in Joseph Smith’s King Follett Discourse or Brigham Young’s Adam-God doctrine), these false prophets are to be rejected (Deuteronomy 13:1-5).
In her talk, Sherri Dew said, “the question of fallibility leads us down a side road that I think misses the point of who prophets really are” (12:36). But, in fact, the question of prophetic infallibility is the very tool that God has provided for us to answer the question, “How may we know the word that the LORD has not spoken?” Put another way, how may we know who the presumptuous (false) prophets really are? All throughout scripture God warns against false prophets and commands us to test those speaking in His name to be sure they truly represent Him. (For examples, see Matthew 24:4, 11; 1 John 4:1-2)
Whether we use Ms. Dew’s definition, the dictionary definition, or the biblical definition, we find that LDS prophets are not infallible in the inspiration and revelations they claim to have received from God. Therefore, as God makes clear, “…you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 13:3). God’s biblical test reveals whether we will love and follow Him or will choose instead to follow the false prophets. May each of us pass that test, loving and trusting the one true God with all our hearts and souls.
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