Burning Bosom

Theology, History, Culture, Politics & Life from a LDS (Mormon) Perspective

Inoculation, Part Deux: Ancient Versus Modern Prophets

Posted by Andrew on January 6, 2008

One of my Primary boys said one of the darnedest things on Sunday, and it got me thinking again about Shawn L’s post from a couple weeks ago, where he posed the question of how we can best approach the task of “inoculating” our youth from aspects of Mormon history or doctrine that may seem difficult to understand.

Since then, I’ve given much thought to Shawn’s question, and the answer I keep coming back to is that it all comes down to giving our youth correct and reasonable expectations about the Church, its leaders, and its doctrine. Of course, that’s a bit vague, so let me explain.

Just about every anti-Mormon attack boils down to an argument that the Church or one of its leaders has failed to meet a certain assumed expectation. For example, anti-Mormons frequently try to prove that Joseph Smith or Brigham Young were false prophets by attempting to show that certain statements they made appear to have been incorrect. Such arguments are based on the assumption that a “true” prophet of God is infallible, and would therefore never say anything incorrect. Based on that assumption, they conclude that anyone who has claimed to be prophet who appears to have made an incorrect statement must have been a false prophet.

One way of responding to such attacks is to debate whether or not the challenged statement was, in fact, incorrect. However, to me the best approach, and the more fundamental question, is whether the assumption that “true” prophets are infallible is a correct and reasonable expectation. Perhaps the best response to the type of argument mentioned above is to address the underlying assumption of infallibility by discussing the possibility that a person may be mistaken about some matters and still be inspired by God about many others–the idea being that a prophet doesn’t stop being a human.

This is just one example designed to illustrate the importance of our expectations. Our expectations about the Church and its leaders–e.g., whether we expect them to be infallible or still human–will largely determine whether we become “disillusioned” when we perceive human error in Church affairs. If I expect prophets to be infallible, then I might become disillusioned when prophets seem to err; but if I expect to prophets to err on occasion, then I don’t get disillusioned when they appear to do just that.

I am therefore becoming increasingly sensitive to the expectations that I give children about their Church, its leaders, and its doctrine. The challenge of inoculation is to figure out how to teach the youth not to expect too much of their leaders without teaching them to expect too little (thereby undermining their faith in those leaders).

With this backdrop in mind, let me pose a scenario to you based on something that two of my students said on Sunday. Near the end of class, I asked the boys what a prophet is. One student responded that a prophet is someone who talks to God, who sees the future and makes prophesies like telling people when their city will be destroyed, and who goes around doing miracles. (Certainly an understandable image of prophets based on what we read in the scriptures.) But then, one of his classmates added: “Except, prophets today don’t really do those things. They mostly just tell Stake Presidents and Bishops what types of callings they need to make and stuff like that.” Putting aside the obvious inaccuracy of the second boy’s statement, his apparent perception is that prophets today are mainly administrators of an organization, rather than individuals whose status as prophets is evidenced by their public display of supernatural powers.

Although I wanted to further discuss this question about the nature of prophets with the boys, it was time for class to end, so we had to leave that issue hanging until next week’s lesson. So my question for you all is this:

What would you tell my Primary students about the perceived difference between the prophets of old and the prophets of today? In other words, what would you tell them they should expect, or not expect, from our modern prophets? (Of course, any citations to authority would be most appreciated!)


One Response to “Inoculation, Part Deux: Ancient Versus Modern Prophets”

  1. Shawn L said

    Another interesting comparison is the ministry of Joseph Smith to that of subsequent prophets. In this vein, I once heard a BYU professor (Robert Millet) describe Joseph as a “Prophet with a captial P” and his successors as “prophets with a small p.”

    Digression aside, we certainly don’t live in a time where mountains are seen to change locations. But that doesn’t mean that prophet are any less “prophetic.” I think its easy to lose sight of that because we’re living in the moment. When future generations recount the ministry of, for example, President, the focus likely will not be on his longevity or administrative decisions. Rather, the story may focus on the miralce of temple building. It’s all about perspective.

    P.S. I’m far too lazy to look about citations, so you should take anything I say with a mighty large grain of salt.

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