Some Prophets Seem to be More Equal than Others

November 17, 2004 | 49 comments
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We believe in prophets and have them in great abundance, but do we take all of them equally seriously? It seems like there are some unstated hierarchies going on among Mormons about prophets – ancient and modern – and their relative authority.

Theologically, I am not quite sure how to work this out. Among modern prophets, it seems that we have two of them that stand out as having special importance: Joseph Smith and whoever the current president of the Church is. Hence, the uncanonized statements of Joseph get greater doctrinal deference than say the uncanonized statements of George Albert Smith. Furthermore, there are some modern prophets that seem to come in for unusually high levels of dismissal or unusually high levels of authority. Thus, I think that most members feel comfortable dismissing much of what Brigham Young taught as “speculation,� preferring instead to lionize him as a man of action and administration rather than doctrinal insight. On the other hand, some prophets by dint of the sheer volume of their writing – Joseph Fielding Smith is the person that I have in mind but one might also include James E. Talmadge or Bruce R. McConkie – seem to enjoy some special pride of place as theologians and accordingly their opinions come in for some heightened deference.

Looking to ancient prophets, there are certainly some that get much more press internally within the scriptures than others. Isaiah would be the prototypical example here, with Christ affirmatively commanding in the Book of Mormon that we should study his words. There is no similar injunction that we ought to specifically seek out the inner meaning of Obadiah’s work. Other prophets that get lots of internal, scriptural attention would include Malachi and Elijah, and to a lesser extent Amos, Daniel, Ezekiel and Moroni. On the other hand, Ezra or Nehemiah – who were historically very important – get virtually no special attention.

Does anyone else see these hierarchies? Have I got them wrong? Finally, how is it that we go about setting up and justifying these hierarchies. Or do you focus an equal amount of your gospel study time on Lorenzo Snow’s sermons or the Book of Nahum and the teachings of Joseph Smith or Isaiah?

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49 Responses to Some Prophets Seem to be More Equal than Others

  1. Bryce I on November 17, 2004 at 11:51 am

    Is the traditional division of the OT prophets into “major” and “minor” a commentary on the importance of their writings? Or is the term merely a comment on the size of the books that we have? Or is there some other meaning? At any rate, you’re not the first to make these distinctions, it seems.

  2. a random John on November 17, 2004 at 12:16 pm

    If you consider how long it took for Brigham Young to be named “Prophet, Seer, and Revelator” it seems pretty clear that Joseph Smith was held as special and it wasn’t considered automatic at the time that the next president of the church be considered a prophet in the same way Joseph was.

  3. Nate Oman on November 17, 2004 at 12:21 pm

    RJ: That is true, but I don’t think that is what accounts for the special ease with which Mormons tend to dismiss BY. I suspect that it has more to do with the rather spectacular decline of Adam-God. Although few are currently aware of it, I think that there is some subconscous folk memory of the 1915 “The Father and the Son: A Doctrinal Exposition by the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve,” which is at least in part a careful and explicit repudiation of BY’s teachings about the nature of God. I don’t think that most members are fully aware of AG or the Doctrinal Exposition, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it gave rise to “BY’s teachings were speculation and have beeen rejected by the Church” comments that have perculated down through the generations.

  4. Nate Oman on November 17, 2004 at 12:22 pm

    BTW, I am waiting for Jim or Julie to launch into a defense of Obidiah from my calumny.

  5. clark on November 17, 2004 at 12:39 pm

    I think Elder McConkie’s position as theologian whose views are given such respect is fading. I just don’t hear him quoted in anything like the same way he was even in the 90′s, let alone the 80′s.

    I think the reason people are so quick to reject Brigham Young are because of some of the more goofy things he said.

    Talmage gets a lot of respect, but to be honest, doesn’t exactly innovate theologically.

    I tend to think that overall respect is given to those who best accord with what we already believe which tends to be more the “mainstream” lay theological views of the people. While people unfortunately discount FARMS theological influence, I really think it has affected how people view theology and scripture.

  6. M Doop on November 17, 2004 at 12:41 pm

    Ah, screw it all

  7. a random John on November 17, 2004 at 12:56 pm

    Nate,

    I don’t think that most members are aware that it took about 30 years for BY to become the prophet. I also don’t think that most members are aware of the Adam-God controversy, though I do think there is more awareness (but not understanding) of that. I agree that among informed members there is a feeling of “BY said some wacky things that we don’t worry much about,” without being able to give detailed examples. Is this unique to BY? If so, is it because he was so outspoken? Have others learned from his example and kept their speculation to themselves?

  8. John Mansfield on November 17, 2004 at 1:18 pm

    Since Brother Brigham was the one selected to kick off the Teachings of the Prophets series, it may be considered that his teachings are still well regarded.

  9. Derek on November 17, 2004 at 1:22 pm

    The prophets who ushered in each dispensation (Adam, Abraham, Moses, etc.) arguably had more on their plates than the other prophets. I think it’s only natural that they would therefore be held in higher regard after the fact.

  10. J. Stapley on November 17, 2004 at 1:27 pm

    Joseph Smith Jr. has special deference within the church because of his primacy. I believe the deference we give to other prophets is a function of the degree to which they contributed to the current orthodoxy.

    McConkie is a great example of this. For a long time his prominence was due to his contributions to the current standard works and his expositions on theological matters. His expositions were taken as icons of current (at the time) orthodoxy and as such he was lauded. Decades have passed and his ideas have fallen out of favor with current orthodoxy, and so we start to dismiss his ideas.

    I would argue that Joseph Fielding Smith, is starting to loose favor for similar reasons.

    BY is the great example of this. Virtually nothing of the orthodoxy of his time remains current.

  11. a random John on November 17, 2004 at 1:42 pm

    John M.,

    Some would argue that the Teachings of the Prophets series is more intended to create the illusion that BY (and other’s) teachings meet current standards of orthodoxy through careful editing than as an endorsement of all his teachings. The BY manual certainly wasn’t representative of his teachings.

  12. ed on November 17, 2004 at 1:45 pm

    I agree with random John…in my experience most members are just not aware of these issues and don’t think about it in these terms.

    I’m also suspicious of generalizations about beliefs among “informed” members. I wish we had some source that allowed us to think of this in a more systematic way. Anybody have any ideas how to do this?

    A related point: the current series of priesthood/RS manuals seems to imply that we should put a special weight on teachings of presidents of the church. This apparently includes things they taught before they became president. It is as if we give prophetic weight to their pronouncements retroactively once they ascend to the presidency, which I find interesting.

  13. Gilgamesh on November 17, 2004 at 1:55 pm

    Profundity is the key. The profound things of Brigham Young were more acts and deeds than speaking. Even he would agree that action is more important than thoughts. Actions, however, have a tendency to be lost in theological histories. Only those things that were said are repeated throughout the ages.

    That is why Jospeh Smith is more revered, his impact came through revelation and words which can be passed on to subsequent generations. They were new and profound becuae they showed the world in a different way. Prophets since have been repeating his teachings, but have not been able to have a profound impact the way Joseph did because their words are not new.

    Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, Joseph Smith, even the Psalms of David, each presented a new way to see God and the interactions of God with humanity. Therefore their impact is greater than the prophets that reiterated the revelations of their predecessors. Does that create a heirarchy? I would say in God’s eyes, no. In our eyes, yes.

    Another point, I have noticed that favorite prophets are those that you grew up with. For me Spencer W. Kimball holds a lot of sway as does Gordon B. Hinkley. Others may talk alot of David O. McKay or Heber J. Grant, because that was who they grew up with.

  14. John Mansfield on November 17, 2004 at 2:04 pm

    Brother random John,

    Going straight to Brother Brigham’s most contraversial sermons isn’t really representative of his teachings either. When I pick up a random volume of the Journal of Discourses and go through his talks, I find little that a modern saint would find strange or questionable. I particularly value his counsel on bonnets.

  15. Ana on November 17, 2004 at 2:13 pm

    Another prophet who said a lot of things that were extreme and easy to dismiss: Ezra Taft Benson. And that wasn’t so very long ago. President Benson’s far-right political views more or less stopped coming over the pulpit once he became president of the Church. To me that indicates that he may have been advocating personal views rather than preaching doctrine in some cases. Although that’s not cut and dry; after all, we do sustain all the members of the Quorum of the Twelve as prophets, seers and revelators. (Ed, maybe that helps us understand why the teachings of the presidents of the Church from before their presidencies are included in the manuals?)

    I think even a lot of conservative LDS people would agree that President Benson taught some extreme things in his time. We don’t go back to those much — at least, the majority of the Church does not. Yet we still rely a great deal upon his words about the power of the Book of Mormon, among other things.They’re valuable, good teachings. It’s okay to be selective in our memory sometimes. The things that matter tend to stick.

    It’s also possible that at some point in the future we will go back to the teachings of a Lorenzo Snow or a George Albert Smith and find that they have applications we didn’t realize before. Maybe we shouldn’t consider our “favorites” to be a hierarchy of great prophets, but a group of prophets whose counsel seems most relevant to us right now.

  16. Rosalynde Welch on November 17, 2004 at 2:41 pm

    I also wonder whether certain prophets’ ministries are more time-bound than others: when I read BY, for example, I’d be more inclined to dismiss him because his utterances are so clearly intended to address the social particularities of his 19th-C audience than because of his crazy ideas. Could it be that those prophets who preside over a major ecclesio-politico-socio-theological convulsions of the nation/church tend to recede from historical view because their teachings are necessarily historically imbricated?

  17. a random John on November 17, 2004 at 2:44 pm

    John M.,

    I am not advocating going straight to the controversial sermons. I would however appreciate a text that is based on complete sermons (warts and all) rather than one in which disparate sermons on the same topic are spliced together into something that they never were.

  18. Clark Goble on November 17, 2004 at 3:15 pm

    I think that it is interesting that how important a prophet is, tend to be determined by how many of their texts we read. For instance the majority of modern scripture came through Joseph Smith. So he’s very important. Brigham Young is important for pragmatic meetings and for such quaint sayings as “there’s a time for prayer and a time for potatoes.” Plus Brigham Young is primarily seen as a modern version of the Moses narrative. I think the narrative about Joseph is pretty foundational too – although as many have pointed out that tended to come later in church history as the first vision became more and more important.

    But of the latter prophets, I personally think Woodruff and Grant are by far the most important. While teaching priesthood I always try to point out just how important Grant was, since we are reading his texts. But by and large his texts aren’t that exciting and he is primarily known for his oft repeated talk about learning to sing. Which I always remember because J. Golden Kimball after hearing the talk far too many times finally stood up and said, “I always thought he could use more practice.” But that talk of Grant’s is more a reworking of Emerson’s notion of self-reliance than anything uniquely Mormon. The important things he did are more of note to historians as the centerpoint of the move from 19th century Mormonism to modern Mormonism. But that’s hard for a lay member who hasn’t done a lot of reading to really understand.

    Woodruff is important because he got rid of that embarrassment of polygamy. (Well, I admit I’m embarrassed by it, even if I tend to accept it was of God. But it’s one of those things in our history you kind of wish wasn’t there all the same when talking with non-members) Woodruff also had that cool story about doing baptisms for the dead, even if most of the founding fathers had already had their work done.

    Unfortunately most of the 20th century figures aren’t well known by modern Mormons. Pres. Kimball is known if only because of his book Miracle of Forgiveness and some oft quoted talks. Pres Beson is remembered for a series of pretty impressive conference talks, along with his re-emphasis on the Book of Mormon. That talk on the Book of Mormon and his (apparently largely ghost written) talk on Pride are so good and so oft quoted, that he becomes important.

    Pres. Hinkley, while in many ways among the most influential of prophets, simply because he’s been in significant leadership positions while many presidents were disabled, and been in leadership for so many decades. Yet I don’t think he’s had that textual influence nor has he really given that “killer talk” that’ll make people remember him. Thus I think he’ll in future years unfortunately end up like Heber J. Grant, only less so. (Since there isn’t that whole apostate movement to quite the same degree, nor the radical shift in church structure as arose with correlation, nor a great talk about how he sang so poorly)

  19. mike on November 17, 2004 at 3:26 pm

    if you go to the FAIR message boards they will tell you that we only need to accept as doctrine statements canonized by the 1st presidency and quorum of the 12, or anything from the standard works. everything else can be considered their opinion or ruminations and thusly you are not required to accept it as doctrine (unless of course they say something to support the limited geography theory, then it’s gospel). so basically they argue for such a strict definition of what is official doctrine that they can easily discard a lot of the ugly stuff that various GA’s and presidents through the years have said or taught, since very few doctrines since the days of JS have been officially canonized according to their definition.

    however, as nate has brought up, this is not so cut and dry for the average member who encounters any of these crazy sermons or teachings. like others have said, we sustain all apostles and members of the 1st presidency as prophets, seers, and revelators, and as such there is an expectation among the general membership that what they say is divinely inspired. it is hard for the average member to think that god would allow BY to teach stuff like blood atonement or AGT for so many years (assuming that they are not true doctrine), since we are often taught that the prophets will not lead us astray. no matter what conclusion they come to, their expectations of what a prophet actually is will likely be altered.

  20. Nate Oman on November 17, 2004 at 3:49 pm

    “imbricated”

    Defined as:
    “v. tr. To overlap in a regular pattern. v. intr. To be arranged with regular overlapping edges.”

    A very cool word I did not know. It is like getting a new toy!

  21. J. Stapley on November 17, 2004 at 4:02 pm

    I think it is safe to say that there has been a reduction in the dynamism of church orthodoxy. This trend will continue coupled to the corporatization of the prophetic as lamented by Blake Ostler. The result: we will never again have a prophet that is remarkable decades later. That is unless things change as they are wont to do. In which case, I will look back on this post with hilarity.

  22. Jonathan Green on November 17, 2004 at 5:48 pm

    Nate, I feel much better to see that you didn’t know ‘imbricate,’ after having to look up ‘nihil obstat.’ Now let’s see how soon I can drop that phrase in casual conversation…

    On topic: I tend to have a dual mode of operation concerning Brigham Young. If he says something {that I agree with|that corresponds to current teaching}, I find him more authoritative than any prophet since. At the same time, I find it easier to peg his other statements as personal opinions.

    I really liked the Brigham Young priesthood/RS manual, and I like the subsequent volumes in the series. There’s a place for an anthology of those statements from earlier prophets that have the imprimatur…no, the nihil obstat of the current prophet (or the designated curriculum committee), and priesthood lessons are that place, I think.

  23. Geoff B on November 17, 2004 at 5:49 pm

    It’s probably safe to say that the importance of a prophet is not always immediately obvious to observers inside and outside the church. For example, Heber Grant could have been an extremely important prophet given the timeframe in which he served or in terms of the lives he touched in special ways that are not always obvious. Gordon B. Hinckley may be remembered as the great temple builder, or he may be remembered for individual acts that we are not aware of. BY’s statements — although not always doctrinely correct by our standards — may have been part of a testing process for his listeners at the time. By the same standard, Obadiah may have an importance about which we — looking 2500 years later — haven’t a clue. This whole business of judging the relative importance and seriousness of prophets is an extremely tricky thing.

  24. Ronan on November 17, 2004 at 5:51 pm

    As far as the biblical prophets go, it has more to do with whether what they say fits our own Gospel view today. You won’t hear Hosea 1 discussed much, nor much of what the Ecclesiast has to say.

    P.S. Obadiah does get a mention because of the “Saviours on Mount Zion” line. But read it in context and you’ll wonder how anyone could suggest this refers to Temple work! We pick and choose with the OT, then interpret the heck out of what we pick.

  25. John H on November 17, 2004 at 5:59 pm

    Nate,

    Do you think it could be as simple as publishing, in the case of modern leaders? Those who have more books available seem to be the most oft-quoted. Bruce R. McConkie, Joseph Fielding Smith, James E. Talmage, to a lesser extent, Widtsoe. B. H. Roberts has this odd popularity among those interested in Mormon studies, but is largely neglected by the rank and file (whoever that is) – perhaps because he was only a lowly seventy?

    It’s harder to say with Biblical prophets. It may just be that our own leaders have assigned importance to them by giving them a larger context in Mormon doctrine – Moses, Noah, Adam, Malachi, etc. Though I defy anyone to not call Moses your favorite after hearing Charlton Heston cry out, “Let my people go!”

  26. Susan on November 17, 2004 at 9:35 pm

    Profundity=he agrees with me

  27. Ethesis (Stephen M) on November 17, 2004 at 9:45 pm

    merely a comment on the size of the books that we have Yes, it is a function of size of ouvre, not importance or prophetic force (cf Elijah).

    For Brigham Young, he did some fun speculation and rumination — see his discussions of pork. He could never decide whether or not every family should have a few pigs in the back yard or if even donuts cooked in pig fat were suspect as food. Not to mention, when he told everyone to start bathing again, those who refused were blanket excommunicated and then rebaptized when they covenanted to bathe regularly. Vs. some of his other doctrinal expositions where one could refuse to publish them, contradict him in public, etc. without any authoritative correction.

  28. Sean Harrison on November 17, 2004 at 10:05 pm

    Speaking of Brother Brigham, I saw a brief reference to the final state of sons of perdition that intrigued me. I’ve not the time nor patience to wallow through the whole Journal of Discourses to find it so if someone is familiar with the reference please help me out.

    Rosalynde,

    In terms of ecclesio-politico-socio-theological moments in history, I would suggest that the pragmatic approach of Hinckley to setting in order the affairs of the modern church is just such a time. He is finely attuned to the intricacies of the the press and is exceptionally dextrous in working with them.

    He is also enormously practical in dealing with the details of managing the global church in all its magnitude. Perhaps this will be at the heart of his prophetic legacy.

    What’s next?

    Monson gets to grapple with the financial reality of a geometrically growing church membership while attempting to finance said growth with an arithmetically increasing tithing base. I doubt he will be remembered for the profundity of his doctrine but rather for his financial acumen.

    True story (I know his sons pretty well). Several years ago someone asked President Monson’s eldest son a deep doctrinal question and requested that he present the problem to his father. He responded: “How would my dad know? He’s a business man.”

  29. Clark Goble on November 17, 2004 at 11:19 pm

    Sean, Brigham said that they’d be reduced to their fundamental state and then be reformed. I have one of the many quotes to this here on my blog.

    John, I think B.H. Roberts was neglected because most of his writings have only recently been republished, and then not is mass editions by Deseret Books. Further the Signature Books versions will be suspect to many people. (Which I think is silly, but we’ll leave that for that other thread) Also, Roberts isn’t quoted in official church sources the way McConkie, Talmage or others are.

  30. Brian Duffin on November 18, 2004 at 8:33 am

    I was once chided for excessive frivolity and jocularity while posting on an old-style web board at a community college. The moderator of the ‘LDS Forum’ quoted something Brigham Young told the pioneers about the Lord being displeased with them for having too much fun while travelling to SLC. But I digress!

  31. a random John on November 18, 2004 at 9:59 am

    John H.,

    I would suppose that some of the neglect of BH Roberts is due to his lengthy battle over evolution with Joseph F. Smith. After the First Presidency told them to both knock it off and stop preaching about it publicly many of JFS’s comments on the subject were published (and are still published) making it look like he was right and discrediting BH in the eyes of church members. This is truely a shame.

  32. a random John on November 18, 2004 at 11:05 am

    John H.,

    I tried to post this, doesn’t seem to have shown up. Anyhow…

    It might be that BH is not as popular as he might be because of his protracted battle with Joseph F Smith over evolution. Then the First Presidency held the hearing and then told them both to stop promoting their own views. Oddly, JFS’s sermons on the topic were later published and continue to be published and quoted. Thus it appears to readers that BHR was discredited and that JFS’s thinking was right. I think this has had the effect of reducing BHR’s credibility in the eyes of many. This is very unfortunate and I am happy to see the attention that BHR has received in recent years.

  33. Sean Harrison on November 18, 2004 at 11:42 am

    Clark,

    How’s this for a theory? I have always thought that Outer Darkness were black holes. The description in the 76th section fits very well with our current scientific understanding of holes. Recently Steven Hawking has postulated that matter in black holes is not destroyed, nor kept there eternally, but after some impossibly long time (billions of years) is spewed back into space in its most elemental form.

    Does this not fit in with what Brother Brigham taught?

  34. a random John on November 18, 2004 at 2:27 pm

    Sean,

    My (admittedly limited) understanding of what was taught was a sort of cosmic recycling in which a spirit would be reduced to component intelligences and those would available for other uses. Obviously this isn’t a well-publicized or mainstream idea.

  35. Clark Goble on November 18, 2004 at 2:46 pm

    I tend to get nervous when physical theory is used to deal with vague theological constructs. Occasionally physical theory or speculation is necessary as to explain how a theological notion is possible. i.e. Linde multiverses to explain how space and time can be infinite despite the Big Bang.

    I think Brigham just felt you were broken up into what you were made out of and that there was something fundamental you were made of that was eternal and not a soul. I don’t think we need postulate that God needs black holes to do this. Indeed I think there compelling reasons to think he must be able to do it without black holes.

    John, that might be the case, or it might simply be that because JFS eventually became president that his writings were more praised. McConkie’s strength came from the fact Mormon Doctrine functioned like a nice brief overview and reference book for Mormon theology. It was something that I think many people, especially new members, wanted. The fact that it took as dogma many things that were McConkie’s speculations was unfortunate. The recent Mormon Encyclopedia attempted to fill the same void (although far less successfully). However since the ME was much more open theologically and had a stronger stamp of approval by the First Presidency, I think it has been the main cause for the devaluation of McConkie of late. (That and FARMS, I think)

  36. ed on November 18, 2004 at 3:16 pm

    Sean writes: “Monson gets to grapple with the financial reality of a geometrically growing church membership while attempting to finance said growth with an arithmetically increasing tithing base.”

    I don’t know anything about the financial condition of the Church, but the I don’t think the Church is growing geometrically. Total number of converts per year has been flat or declining since around 1990, and growth of units has declined sharply since the mid 1990s.

  37. Rosalynde Welch on November 18, 2004 at 3:21 pm

    J. STapley wrote: “I think it is safe to say that there has been a reduction in the dynamism of church orthodoxy. This trend will continue coupled to the corporatization of the prophetic as lamented by Blake Ostler.”

    My instinct is to agree with Stapley’s and Ostler’s complaints; Ostler’s observation (on another thread, I think) that D&C-style revelation is being replaced with PR-style press-release copy is trenchant.

    On the other hand, “For behold thus saith the Lord, verily, verily … &co” is no less a culture-specific sociolect than, say, “The Church accordingly favors measures that … & co.” I think we can safely assume that neither represents God’s mother tongue; both are probably at roughly equal human removes from divine utterance. Whether the former fosters theological dynamism, whether the latter stifles it, (or whether either is a good thing,) remains to be seen.

  38. Steve Evans on November 18, 2004 at 3:29 pm

    “neither represents God’s mother…”

    Rosalynde, people have been excommunicated for saying less than that!

    But seriously folks, I disagree with Rosalynde, because “thus saith the Lord” is still valid usage; its rarity is not necessarily indicative of its replacement. True, that neither is repeating back God’s words verbatim; however, “thus saith” pretends to be a direct edict from the Lord, while the PR makes no such pretension. You’re aware of this too, which is what makes your comment curious — you seem to say that all human voices are equal in this context, and it ain’t so.

  39. a random John on November 18, 2004 at 3:30 pm

    Clark,
    Actually I think McConkie’s use of JFS (they are related by marriage, right?) to continue to bash BHR long after both were dead contributed to the lack of use of BHR’s writings.

  40. Steve Evans on November 18, 2004 at 3:30 pm

    “neither represents God’s mother…”

    Rosalynde, people have been excommunicated for saying less than that!

    But seriously folks, I disagree with Rosalynde, because “thus saith the Lord” is still valid usage; its rarity is not necessarily indicative of its replacement. True, that neither is repeating back God’s words verbatim; however, “thus saith” pretends to be a direct edict from the Lord, while the PR makes no such pretension. You’re aware of this too, which is what makes your comment curious — you seem to say that all human voices are equal in this context, and it ain’t so.

  41. Steve Evans on November 18, 2004 at 3:31 pm

    …and my point was so important, I had to say it twice.

  42. Blake Ostler on November 18, 2004 at 3:37 pm

    Rosalynde: I think that you are correct that revelation is adapted to the language that we are willing to hear – and maybe PR statements are all that we are willing to hear at this point. However, it takes something remarkable to utter: “Thus saith the Lord ….” It seems to me that it takes a confidence and embodies a recognition that is absent in PR statements. It states with confidence that God has spoken and it isn’t just corporate thinking and it embodies revelation in way that PR statements never can.

    I would also add that there is good reason to give less weight to some prophets’ statements than others. The prophet’s statements have two types of authority (at least) it seems to me: (1) corporate authority; (2) the authority of speaking as one who knows from revelation received from one who actually knows and has the authority (of love) to command obedience. The PR statements and thoughts of the prophets always carry the first type of authority, but only those statements given as and accepted as revelation carry the second. It seems to me that JS had a lot more of the (2) authority than BY, and BY had more than George Albert Smith just given the self-reporting of whether they had received revelations.

    I don’t advocate ever rejecting what the prophet says — but I recommend taking with a strong dose of salt anything resting solely on the (1) authority. If a prophet speaks, then he speaks as a man unless otherwise indicated as far as I can see — and I have the authority of speaking as a man who receives inspiration as well as the Primary President in my word (who is particularly inspired). I simply lack the corporate authority. So explain to me why I should give any more weight to what Pres. Hinckly says than accepting that he speaks as one who knows God, has lived a good life and who has authority to ask of me my devotion because I am covenant bound to do so. I don’t take his statements as authoritative statements of truth from God — unless and until otherwise indicated.

  43. Blake Ostler on November 18, 2004 at 3:38 pm

    Rosalynde: I think that you are correct that revelation is adapted to the language that we are willing to hear – and maybe PR statements are all that we are willing to hear at this point. However, it takes something remarkable to utter: “Thus saith the Lord ….” It seems to me that it takes a confidence and embodies a recognition that is absent in PR statements. It states with confidence that God has spoken and it isn’t just corporate thinking and it embodies revelation in way that PR statements never can.

    I would also add that there is good reason to give less weight to some prophets’ statements than others. The prophet’s statements have two types of authority (at least) it seems to me: (1) corporate authority; (2) the authority of speaking as one who knows from revelation received from one who actually knows and has the authority (of love) to command obedience. The PR statements and thoughts of the prophets always carry the first type of authority, but only those statements given as and accepted as revelation carry the second. It seems to me that JS had a lot more of the (2) authority than BY, and BY had more than George Albert Smith just given the self-reporting of whether they had received revelations.

    I don’t advocate ever rejecting what the prophet says — but I recommend taking with a strong dose of salt anything resting solely on the (1) authority. If a prophet speaks, then he speaks as a man unless otherwise indicated as far as I can see — and I have the authority of speaking as a man who receives inspiration as well as the Primary President in my word (who is particularly inspired). I simply lack the corporate authority. So explain to me why I should give any more weight to what Pres. Hinckly says than accepting that he speaks as one who knows God, has lived a good life and who has authority to ask of me my devotion because I am covenant bound to do so. I don’t take his statements as authoritative statements of truth from God — unless and until otherwise indicated.

  44. Blake Ostler on November 18, 2004 at 3:38 pm

    Rosalynde: I think that you are correct that revelation is adapted to the language that we are willing to hear – and maybe PR statements are all that we are willing to hear at this point. However, it takes something remarkable to utter: “Thus saith the Lord ….” It seems to me that it takes a confidence and embodies a recognition that is absent in PR statements. It states with confidence that God has spoken and it isn’t just corporate thinking and it embodies revelation in way that PR statements never can.

    I would also add that there is good reason to give less weight to some prophets’ statements than others. The prophet’s statements have two types of authority (at least) it seems to me: (1) corporate authority; (2) the authority of speaking as one who knows from revelation received from one who actually knows and has the authority (of love) to command obedience. The PR statements and thoughts of the prophets always carry the first type of authority, but only those statements given as and accepted as revelation carry the second. It seems to me that JS had a lot more of the (2) authority than BY, and BY had more than George Albert Smith just given the self-reporting of whether they had received revelations.

    I don’t advocate ever rejecting what the prophet says — but I recommend taking with a strong dose of salt anything resting solely on the (1) authority. If a prophet speaks, then he speaks as a man unless otherwise indicated as far as I can see — and I have the authority of speaking as a man who receives inspiration as well as the Primary President in my word (who is particularly inspired). I simply lack the corporate authority. So explain to me why I should give any more weight to what Pres. Hinckly says than accepting that he speaks as one who knows God, has lived a good life and who has authority to ask of me my devotion because I am covenant bound to do so. I don’t take his statements as authoritative statements of truth from God — unless and until otherwise indicated.

  45. Rosalynde Welch on November 18, 2004 at 3:40 pm

    Steve, you’re right that the voicing is more layered in the PR statements; the First Presidency probably figures (and I tend to agree) that “And the Lord says” won’t play so well in newsprint and airwaves, which is the way that these statements tend to get distributed. Most of the PR statements (I’m thinking of the Proclamation, and the recent statement on same-sex marriage), though, begin with some sort of declaration along the lines of “We, the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, do solemnly…..” From there it’s not so difficult to get to the Lord’s voice via “whether by mine own voice, or by the voice of my servants…” The point is that the PR statements do make (admittedly indirect) claims to revealed status.

    And D&C-style revelation has its own voicing difficulties: by seeming to provide such unmediated access to the Lord’s voice, it can obscure the role of the revelator in transmission.

    My point is that a certain drift in revelatory style is to be expected, and I don’t know that any *one* style is preferable. (Gangsta rap doesn’t come to mind, I must admit.)

  46. Rosalynde Welch on November 18, 2004 at 3:52 pm

    Blake, I agree that certain prophets are more gifted revelators than others–that is, they are endowed with a richer measure of the second kind of authority you identify. (This is not to imply criticism of other prophets; as many have noted, the Lord requires expertise of all sorts to lead the Church.)

    I guess I would broaden the parameters under which I presume revealed status: President Hinckley’s mainstream book, what was it called? “Stand For Something?”, for example, I read as the utterances of a man “who knows God, has lived a good life and who has authority to ask of me my devotion because I am covenant bound to do so”–not as a revealed document directly from the Lord. But the First Presidency statements seem, in my mind, intended to be received as revelation–not newly revealed doctrine, of course, but a newly-obtained reaffirmation of the Lord’s will.

  47. Clark Goble on November 18, 2004 at 4:03 pm

    I’m not convinced we ought to treat all First Presidency statements to be the mind and will of the Lord as revealed. A lot of it might be the mind and will of the Lord as seems rather obvious to the Presidency and which they feel needs stated. But I don’t have any problem with the Presidency also issuing statements which reflect more policy which they arrive at with some inspiration, but largely within the freedom they have within their authority. I don’t think those need to be inspired any more than who the Bishop calls to open the opening prayer needs to be inspired. Part of having the authority to run the church is being allowed to do just that. (IMO)

    I’d also suggest that just because many things aren’t revealed before the world to the church doesn’t imply things aren’t said. I’ve heard too many tales from Solemn Assemblies the last decade or two or other such matters to believe that they aren’t actively receiving revelation. I’d note, as well, that in Nauvoo there was a lot of revelations being received that most in the church didn’t learn of until years later in Utah.

  48. Ethesis (Stephen M) on November 18, 2004 at 9:41 pm

    However since the ME was much more open theologically and had a stronger stamp of approval by the First Presidency, I think it has been the main cause for the devaluation of McConkie of late. (That and FARMS, I think)

    There is a lot ot be said of the BH/Talmage/Nibley legacy that seems to have triumphed in the institutionalization of FARMS.

    Of course that tends to make FARMS look like a liberal movement, but ….

    Well worth considering.

  49. John Mansfield on November 19, 2004 at 7:15 am

    Some parts of this entry make the concept of “endless genealogies” more meaningful than ever before.