Yearning for God, Trying to Love My Neighbor, Making Theatre and Beauty, Building a Life...

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Expectations of a Prophet: Keeping the Faith Series, Part Two

There's an old joke or maxim someone once told me which has stuck with me: "Catholics say the Pope is infallible, but don't really believe it. Mormons say the Prophet is fallible, but don't really believe it." It's a bit of glib saying, and stereotypes both groups, but there are some underlining principles in the thought that have been helpful to me in my life.

When I talk to Mormons who are struggling with their faith, a reoccurring theme strikes me. What we were talking about could be centered on Joseph Smith, or Brigham Young, or Boyd K. Packer. The surface concern could be Joseph Smith practicing polygamy, one of the myriad of peppered and explosive things Brigham Young said (or the speculative theologies he advocated, whether it was Adam-God theory or what not), or the recent brouhaha over Elder Packer's seemingly insensitive remarks during Conference about homosexuality. But underneath all those concerns is a deeper root that gnaws on all these people... prophets are flawed. And if they are flawed, can they truly be prophets?

Now to me these days, understanding that these good leaders are flawed is a kind of a "no duh" moment. I don't say that flippantly or insensitively, because in Mormon culture that's a real issue people have to struggle with, and we've cultivated this image of a prophet as this kind of stainless demi-god. Not quite celestialized, but as close as one can possibly get in this life, as if the angels are just standing by just in case they get that call to teleport him to the City of Enoch. Rather I call it a "no duh" moment, for myself, because I have steeped myself in studies of Church History (both the early Church and the more modern Church) the past several years, and if you want to keep your faith in that exercise, you have to start altering that perception because one thing is sure: you are going to discover the flaws. Even the contradictions. When you start finding one prophet saying one thing and another flatly contradicting him, or making an obvious error, or being less than Christ-like in a heated moment, then you hit a tail spin and lose your bearings for a bit. You ask, "Wait, is this really part of the program?"

Now when I first encountered this, really encountered it on a larger scale, I was lucky. I had helpful stories I had heard rattling in my head, like the one Truman G. Madsen recounts (and I'm paraphrasing and dramatizing from memory, since I don't have Madsen's lectures about Joseph Smith on hand):

There is a boat on converts coming to Nauvoo from England. These converts are starry eyed and enthusiastic, and Joseph Smith goes down to meet them. However, Brother Joseph has done something odd. He has dressed in old, raggedy clothes, made himself look rough and unkempt. He goes up to one of these new converts, not declaring who he is, and says, "Are you one of those Mormons?" The convert looks him straight in the eyes, unflinching, and says, "Yes, sir." "Well," Joseph replies antagonistically, "What do you think of that ol' Joe Smith?" The convert, still steely and brave, replies, "He is a prophet of God." Then, with a sly smile, Joseph retorts, "Well, what would you say if I told you I was Joseph Smith?" The man, still strong, says, "Well, then I would say that you were a Prophet of God." Pleased, but still intent on making his point, Joseph states, "Well, I am Joseph Smith. But if you're expecting anything other than a man, then you might as well get back on that boat."

Joseph Smith was constantly doing this, trying to break down the preconceptions people had of what a prophet should behave and look like. There's a similar story where Brother Joseph pretends to be drunk (and brings Willard Richards in on the joke) to test Dan Jones' loyalty. When pressed, Dan Jones replied rightly, "Well, I'd prefer to have a drunk prophet than no prophet at all." Joseph Smith didn't put on an air of sanctimony or formality, he didn't "play" the part, like an actor reading from a script. And this jostled people. People don't like to have the world of expectations they've created around themselves popped. Which leads me to believe that these nearly perfect expectations we demand of our poor leaders are not cultivated by the Church nearly as much as its cultivated by its members.

Let's take a look at the expectations we create for our prophets. We put up pictures of the prophets and apostles in our homes (I've noticed a full set of the pictures of the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles is reserved a prominent place in our seminary classrooms, at the front of the class, right next to the Savior). We reserve at least one Priesthood/ Relief Society lesson a month to a General Conference talk, and many, if not most, Bishoprics center their assignments for Sacrament Meeting talks around Conference talks as well. Without any doctrinal or scriptural backing, we treat the Brethren's words as if every utterance is doctrine, as if every word in every session (or even spoken in an interview or off the cuff) is canonical. Although I don't think many of these things are flat out wrong... becoming familiar with the faces and words of our leaders I believe is a very good thing, and I believe its pivotal to keep a focus on the reality of modern revelation. However, I do believe we need to tread carefully and be very, very aware that we don't let such practices lapse into idol worship. We can't substitute our preconceived image of the prophet, for the prophet himself. And we certainly can't substitute the Lord's servants for the Lord himself. From what I've studied about Joseph Smith, I believe that this is the type of attitude that he found absolutely frustrating and that he on many occasions openly criticized.

Joseph Smith knew what his role was, and he knew what his role wasn't and he didn't want people confusing the two. Brother Joseph wrote: "[I] visited with a brother and sister from Michigan who thought that 'a prophet is always a prophet;' but I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such" ( History of the Church 5:265). There are many other instances where Joseph Smith said similar things, stating that he didn't want people to think he was perfect and that he was "subject to passions," and that he could make mistakes. He even went so far to say:
"I told them I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect; if they expected perfection from me, I should expect it from them; but if they would bear with my infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, I would likewise bear with their infirmities" ( History of the Church 5:181; Also see John A. Tvedtnes' excellent article which I'm drawing a lot from for some of these quotes, "The Nature of Prophets and Prophesying").
President Joseph Fielding Smith also stated something similar, pointing up the fact that prophets often have their own opinions, which can even contradict actual doctrine:
It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear. We have accepted the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man's doctrine. You cannot accept the books written by the authorities of the Church as standards in doctrine, only in so far as they accord with the revealed word in the standard works. ( Doctrines of Salvation 3:203)
The fact that the Church edited President Packer's recent talk about homosexuality in the written edition I think is telling concerning this principle. There were some things which President Packer said which the Church excised or changed to make it more in step with other (more compassionate and helpful) talks and statements given by Elder Oaks and Elder Holland. This, in turn, brought President Packer's words more in step with the more recent clarifications by the Church as to what its policy is regarding homosexuality... and what it's policy is not. I believe the Church sent out a very clear message about what statements that President Packer was saying that which were doctrinal, or at least in step with Church policy, and which statements were his opinion. Some of the changes were cosmetic in nature, while some were very telling about the Church's increasingly compassionate stance on the issue.

Now I know this flies in the face of people's preconceptions. I, like many of you, had the idea re-enforced growing up that General Conference talks were canonical, word for word. And, I dare say, many of them are. But I think the principle I'm talking about is very important to internalize, for if we create unrealistic expectations of our leaders, then it will, in the long run, be more damaging to our faith than nurturing of our faith. When we expect our leaders to be near perfect, we will, one day or another, be disappointed. And that disappointment will be fiercer, more fiery, more pained, and with more sense of betrayal than I think any one would guess from the outset. I have seen this disillusionment be the the base impetus for more lost testimonies than I would like to count. We need to, by increments if needed, adjust our eyes to the light of truth and fact, instead of letting our eyes and bodies (Gollum like) simply accept the darkness and become pale, emaciated creatures who are tortured by the light when we are finally thrust into it.

I earnestly believe that if we were more honest with the history and facts surrounding the faith of our fathers, the Gospel of our Lord, then we won't be derailed when we come across the flaws or failings of our leaders. For at that point, we expect those flaws, just as we expect them in ourselves. Knowing that they our leaders are not perfect shouldn't diminish the mantle they carry in our minds. Wilford Woodruff once said that he saw the flaws in Joseph Smith, but rather than letting them separate him from the Church and criticize the Prophet, he rejoiced. Why? Because if Joseph Smith had faults, "it gave hope for me."

I've thought a lot about J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings in regard to this subject. In Return of the King Tolkien makes use of the Lord's use of the word steward in his parables (and the subsequent medieval use of it) and establishes a kingdom in which the management of the Kingdom's affairs are handled by a Steward. This line of Stewards are not the rightful rulers, but are only filling the place of the true King. These stewards are generally very faithful and strive to serve the people of the King, but they are a far cry from the ideal of the true King embodied by Aragorn (especially in the flawed, tragic case of the steward Denethor II). But even when the Stewards make mistakes, the Kingdom they serve, and the King who is to Return, are very real and good. Tolkien, being the faithful Catholic that he was, probably would have been more comfortable applying this model to the Catholic Church and its history of flawed Popes. It, however, serves Mormonism equally as well.

In the history of the scriptures, we have a whole history of the Lord's "stewards" being far from perfect. From Jonah's reluctance to David's lust to Nephi's anger to Israel's favortism to Peter's fear to Paul's chauvinism, we see that each servant of the Lord has their own "thorn in the flesh." Why should it be any different with our modern prophets?

I am not saying these things to give people excuses not to follow inspired counsel from our leaders, or to give people license to pick and choose which commandments to live by. Rather, I'm setting up a standard for this series of posts, so that people don't lose their bearings when confronted with difficult information. I believe that "evil speaking of the Lord's anointed" truly is a sin, just as it is a sin to be judgmental towards any of our Heavenly Father's children. The twig like finger of scorn will catch fire by its own sins one day, so it's better not to feed on the faults of others... our own, our leader's, or our neighbor's. If we can cultivate this attitude of open minded forgiveness, and realistic expectations, then I don't believe there is anything in Church History or policy that will knock us down for good.

Before closing, I'd like to relate a very powerful and vivid dream I once had in high school which I believe relates to this topic. It has stuck with me in great clarity ever since, and I feel moved to share it:

In the dream I was in Nauvoo, in the weeks following the martyrdom of Joseph Smith. A group of men had gathered on the outskirts of the city. I went to them to hear their discussion, and they were talking about Brigham Young and about whether they ought to go West. Most of them were talking in very doubtful, skeptical terms, as if they they very much doubted Brigham Young and his capacity to lead. I listened, giving credence to their ideas.

Then, standing in a nearby wheat field, I looked over and saw a man holding a portrait. The portrait was of Joseph Smith, very similar to the idealized renditions we see in the Church today, a noble, spotless version of Joseph Smith, with sun setting and trails of glory streaking across the clouds in the sky. The man holding the portrait was smiling at it, almost smirking in a good natured satire, and dared me to make the comparison between him and the portrait. It was then that I realized the man who was holding the portrait WAS Joseph Smith!

I turned to the companions I had gathered with and said, pointing to Joseph Smith, "There's Joseph Smith!" The men in the circle didn't even bother looking and said, in contemptuous tones, "Joseph Smith is dead."

It was then I knew that I had gathered with a company of doubters and cynics, and I turned to run towards Joseph Smith into the wheat field. I ran after Joseph Smith, but then he ran farther into the field at a speed that seemed absolutely inhuman. He changed directions, I felt towards the Spirit World, and I felt that I was to go into a different part of the field to do my labors, so I went in that direction and then I woke up.

This dream has meant a lot to me, and has been a strong guide for me in which voices to listen to. The contrast between the idealized Joseph Smith and the real one was striking, and I must say that I very much preferred the real one to the plastic-like version. The group of cynics will deride the human frailties of our leaders, but that should not be our focus, that is not the company we should keep. Rather, we should be working in the field, all ready to harvest.

Isaiah gives a keen and sharp reminder about those who feed on the faults of others as an excuse not to participate in the good work:
For the terrible one is brought to nought, and the scorner is consumed, and all that watch for iniquity are cut off; That make a man an offender for a word, and lay a snare for him that reproveth in the gate, and turn aside the just for a thing of nought. But when he seeth his children, the work of mine hands, in the midst of him, they shall sanctify my name, and sanctify the Holy One of Jacob, and shall fear the God of Israel. They also that erred in spirit shall come to understanding, and they that murmured shall learn doctrine (Isaiah 29: 20-24).
It's as President David O. McKay pled, "We need your help, not your adverse criticism." Yes, I believe that the prophets are imperfect, and that there have been times when they have made mistakes, sometimes serious ones which have had long repercussions in the Church. But the Stewards are striving to serve their King, and when that King returns and puts his house in order, he shall reward those Stewards despite their mistakes. I hope in that day to have not been one to "make a man an offender for a word," but rather to strive to help the Stewards prepare for the return of the King. In that day, all wrongs shall be righted that transpired in His name, and the effectual Atonement will cover all those that have been loyal followers and leaders in His Kingdom.


  1. Thanks for the post, Mahonri. I would add, to strengthen your point on not speaking evil of the Lord's anointed or anyone else, that we always interpret "Lord's anointed" to mean "priesthood leaders." Your more encompassing definition probably includes more of the "Lord's anointed" like anybody who's been through the temple, or who may go through the temple some day (HINT: That would be everybody).

    Thanks again.

  2. Well said! I am grateful that you shared those things, Mahonri. It was good for me to hear them. I really enjoy your blog. THANK YOU so much for not being afraid to talk about the issues in a forthright manner, it is so refreshing and needed. It is interesting how we make certain topics taboo when that is precisely the opposite of what they should be.
    -Mike Magee

  3. Mahonri, although I think this appropriate and healthy view, I think it's worth pointing out that this approach can make it fairly difficult to find the balance between accepting our prophets as fallible, while still giving their words proper devotion and heed. This is especially difficult when considering a talk such as President Benson's from many years ago (, which was quoted twice at the last general conference. I think the take away message is that we do as our prophets ask, understanding that even if they err we will be blessed for our obedience.