The Lord's Prophet
The President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the prophet, seer, and revelator of the Lord on the earth today. He is the one through whom God reveals His will to mankind. He is the one who holds all priesthood keys available to mankind and who, therefore, authorizes all ordinances of the gospel.
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bear this testimony to the world, for it is absolutely vital to the salvation of every man, woman, and child of accountability to gain a personal witness of God's prophet. Such a testimony does not denigrate the position of the Lord Jesus Christ as our Savior, "for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved" than that of our Redeemer. (Acts 4:12; see also 2 Ne. 25:20.) However, through his prophet and those who serve under his direction, the Lord authorizes the ordinances and covenants that lead to salvation.
At the beginning of this last dispensation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Savior himself declared: "The arm of the Lord shall be revealed; and the day cometh that they who will not hear the voice of the Lord, neither the voice of his servants, neither give heed to the words of the prophets and apostles, shall be cut off from among the people." (D&C 1:14; italics added.)
The prophet and President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the senior apostle on earth today, holding the same keys of authority that Christ's chief apostle, Peter, held two centuries ago. Peter himself, along with his two apostolic associates, James and John, helped restore the keys of priesthood authority to the earth in our day. (See D&C 27:12-13; 128:20.)
The significance of accepting both Jesus Christ and his prophets was declared by the First Presidency in 1935:
Two great truths must be accepted by mankind if they shall save themselves: first, that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Only Begotten, the very Son of God, whose atoning blood and resurrection save us from the physical and spiritual death brought to us by the Fall; and next, that God has again restored to the earth, in these last days, through the Prophet Joseph [Smith], His holy Priesthood with the fulness of the everlasting Gospel, for the salvation of all men on the earth. Without these truths man may not hope for the riches of the life hereafter. (Heber J. Grant, J. Reuben Clark, David O. McKay, "A Testimony to the World," Improvement Era, Apr. 1935, p. 205.)
Living Prophets and Deceased Prophets
One of the difficulties mankind seems to have always had is in making the transition from following a prophet who is deceased to following the living one who has taken the former prophet's place. Perhaps the people are accustomed to the ways and words of the former prophet, or perhaps they have mistakenly placed their loyalty in the man rather than in the mantle of authority he wears. Whatever the reason, there have been those who have stumbled and faltered in their faith whenever such transitions have taken place.
During the meridian of time, the Savior was rejected by some because they claimed to be "Moses' disciples." (John 9:28.) Others placed their undying allegiance on Abraham: "Art thou greater than our father Abraham?" they cried in their rejection of the Son of God. (John 8:53.) In their twisted thinking, these blind loyalists to the past thought they did not need any other prophet; not even the Holy One to whom Moses and Abraham gave their loyalty and worshipful obedience, for the Jesus of the New Testament was the same who was Jehovah of the Old Testament-a God come to earth.
Latter-day Saints have not been immune to the problem of misplaced loyalties. Some Church members have found it difficult to make a transition from one prophet to the next. Elder Spencer W. Kimball noted that "even in the Church many are prone to garnish the sepulchres of yesterday's prophets and mentally stone the living ones." ("To His Servants the Prophets," Instructor, Aug. 1960, p. 257.)
Elder Harold B. Lee observed that each time the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints dies, some Church members also die spiritually because they are unable to follow the newly called living prophet. They are willing "to believe in someone who is dead and gone and accept his authority more than the words of a living authority." ("The Living Prophet," Instructor, Aug. 1965, pp. 308-9.)
The Lord's church is a living church, and it requires a living prophet. President Ezra Taft Benson observed that "God's revelations to Adam did not instruct Noah how to build the Ark. Noah needed his own revelation." Each generation requires revelation for the challenges and needs of its day. "Therefore," continued President Benson, "the most important prophet so far as you and I are concerned is the one living in our day and age to whom the Lord is currently revealing His will for us." President Benson cautioned, "Beware of those who would pit the dead prophets against the living prophets, for the living prophets always take precedence." ("Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet," in 1980 Devotional Speeches of the Year [Provo: Brigham Young University, 1981], p. 26.)
Living Prophets and the Scriptures
Not only do the living prophets take precedence over those who have gone before them, but their inspired words also have a priority over scripture. When he was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, President Ezra Taft Benson explained this principle: "Because [the living prophet] gives the word of the Lord for us today, his words have an even more immediate importance than those of the dead prophets. When speaking under the influence of the Holy Ghost his words are scripture. (See D&C 68:4.)" (In Conference Report, Oct. 1963, p. 17.)
Placing a priority on the living prophet does not downgrade the importance of holy writ, for the same God whose words are found in the scriptures is the one who is revealing His mind and will to the living prophet. The scriptures and the words of the living prophet are used in tandem, for "every generation has need of the ancient scripture plus the current scripture from the living prophet," said President Benson. (In Conference Report, Korea Area Conference, 1975, p. 52.) President John Taylor also provided the following explanation of the need for living scripture:
The Bible is good; and Paul told Timothy to study it, that he might be a workman that need not be ashamed, and that he might be able to conduct himself aright before the living church, the pillar and ground of truth. The church mark, with Paul, was the foundation, the pillar, the ground of truth, the living church, not the dead letter. The Book of Mormon is good, and the Doctrine and Covenants, as land-marks. But a mariner who launches into the ocean requires a more certain criterion. He must be acquainted with heavenly bodies, and take his observations from them, in order to steer his barque aright. Those books are good for example, precedent, and investigation, and for developing certain laws and principles. But they do not, they cannot, touch every case required to be adjudicated and set in order. . . .
We require a living tree-a living fountain-living intelligence, proceeding from the living priesthood in heaven, through the living priesthood on earth. . . . And from the time that Adam first received a communication from God, to the time that John, on the Isle of Patmos, received his communication, or Joseph Smith had the heavens opened to him, it always required new revelations, adapted to the peculiar circumstances in which the churches or individuals were placed. (Gospel Kingdom, p. 34; italics added.)
The Savior himself stressed the need of living words over long-standing written ones. In an exchange with the detractors of His day, Jesus chided them because they were not abiding by the words of the Father, "for whom he hath sent, him ye believe not." The Savior then chastized them for thinking that they would find eternal life in the scriptures ("in them ye think ye have eternal life") while ignoring Him of whom the scriptures testified. "Ye will not come to me, that ye might have life," He admonished. (John 5:38-40; italics added.) In their misdirected loyalty, these people were worshipping the word rather than the Author.
Elder Orson F. Whitney, who served as an apostle for twenty-five years, provided us the following explanation regarding the need for current revelation:
The great distinguishing feature that differentiates God's Church from all other churches under the sun-[is] this, that while they are founded upon books and traditions and the precepts of men, this Church is built upon the rock of Christ, upon the principle of immediate and continuous revelation. The Latter- day Saints do not do things because they happen to be printed in a book. They do not do things because God told the Jews to do them; nor do they do or leave undone anything because of instructions that Christ gave to the Nephites. Whatever is done by this Church is because God, speaking from heaven in our day, has commanded this Church to do it. No book presides over this Church, and no book lies at its foundation. You cannot pile up books enough to take the place of God's priesthood, inspired by the power of the Holy Ghost. That is the constitution of the Church of Christ. . . . Divine revelation adapts itself to the circumstances and conditions of men, and change upon change ensues as God's progressive work goes on to its destiny. There is no book big enough or good enough to preside over this Church. . . .
No man ought to contend for what is in the books, in the face of God's mouthpiece, who speaks for him and interprets his word. To so contend is to defer to the dead letter in prefer[e]nce to the living oracle, which is always a false position. What the Lord said to the Jews and Nephites, two thousand years ago, or what he said to the Latter-day Saints fifty or sixty years ago, has no force whatever at this time, unless it agrees with presentday revelation, with the Lord's most recent instructions to his people through his chosen or appointed servants or servant; and they who ignore this fact are liable to get into trouble. It is the latest word from God that must be heeded, in preference to any former revelation, however true. . . .
God's work is progressive. It changes its appearance, but never its principles. The truths upon which it is founded are eternal, unalterable, but there are many regulations that change and change and change, as the work of God goes on. (In Conference Report, Oct. 1916, pp. 55-56; italics added.)
"The principle of present revelation," said President John Taylor, "is the very foundation of our religion." (Gospel Kingdom, p. 35.) God reveals "line upon line, precept upon precept" according to our faith and need to know. (2 Ne. 28:30; see also D&C 98:12; A of F 1:9.)
In the early days of the Lord's latter-day church, one man who did not understand the priority of prophets over scripture cautioned the leaders that they should confine themselves to giving revelations according to what was already found in scripture. President Wilford Woodruff reported what followed:
When he concluded, Brother Joseph [Smith] turned to Brother Brigham Young and said, "Brother Brigham I want you to take the stand and tell us your views with regard to the written [or living] oracles and the written word of God." Brother Brigham took the stand, and he took the Bible, and laid it down; he took the Book of Mormon, and laid it down; and he took the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and laid it down before him, and he said: "There is the written word of God to us, concerning the work of God from the beginning of the world, almost, to our day." "And now," said he, "when compared with the living oracles those books are nothing to me; those books do not convey the word of God direct to us now, as do the words of a Prophet or a man bearing the Holy Priesthood in our day and generation. I would rather have the living oracles than all the writing in the books." That was the course he pursued. When he was through, Brother Joseph said to the congregation: "Brother Brigham has told you the word of the Lord, and he has told you the truth." (In Conference Report, Oct. 1897, pp. 22-23; italics added.)
At another time, President Wilford Woodruff added his own testimony of this principle: "If we had before us every revelation which God ever gave to man; if we had the Book of Enoch; if we had the untranslated plates [of the Book of Mormon] before us in the English language; if we had the records of the Revelator St. John which are sealed up, and all other revelations, and they were piled up here a hundred feet high, the Church and kingdom of God could not grow, in this or any other age of the world, without the living oracles of God." (In Millennial Star 51:548.)
Prophets Become More Than Ordinary Men
Some express concern that the prophets of our day appear to be ordinary men. They wonder if their words should really carry the weight of ancient prophets. Forgotten by these skeptics is the fact that the same Lord who spoke anciently to Moses, or the other prophets and apostles, is the one who speaks to the prophets and apostles of our day. Their inspired words come from the same source.
The Lord selects His leaders for His purposes, and the qualifications that these men of God possess may differ from what the world may have expected. In 1951, Elder Spencer W. Kimball said, "I would not say that those leaders whom the Lord chooses are necessarily the most brilliant, nor the most highly trained, but they are the chosen, and when chosen of the Lord they are his recognized authority, and the people who stay close to them have safety." (In Conference Report, Apr. 1951, p. 104.)
More recently, Elder Boyd K. Packer provided the following insights:
It is not because of travel nor professional success that we ought to pay heed to [God's chosen servants]. Nor is it because they are nimble of mind or wise in years. These things are incidental only.
We listen to them because they have been "called of God, by prophecy, and by the laying on of hands, by those who are in authority to preach the gospel and administer in the ordinances thereof." (Article of Faith 5.)
They are given divine authority. Not one of them aspired to the office he holds, nor did he call himself, for "in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints, one takes the place to which one is duly called," said President [J. Reuben] Clark, "which place one neither seeks or declines." (Improvement Era, June 1951, p. 412.) (In Conference Report, Oct. 1968, p. 75.)
In contrast to royal kingdoms on earth where princes and kings are designated from birth and are reared in courts of splendor with the goal of someday having them ascend a throne or occupy a regal position in society, prophets are generally reared among ordinary people, often in humble circumstances. Although prophets come into life with a mission to perform, having been foreordained to their callings, for the most part the Lord keeps this information secret while He quietly but carefully directs His future prophets along their path of preparation. To most of their peers, friends, and acquaintances, these future prophets appear as ordinary boys or men.
Even the Savior appeared to most to be but an ordinary man. Isaiah described Him as having "no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him." (Isa. 53:2; see also Mosiah 14:2.) Indeed, the Son of Man was mistakenly seen by His neighbors as just "the carpenter's son." (Matt. 13:55.)
The Apostles Peter, James, John, and Andrew were all humble fishermen. While he had more formal training than most of his apostolic associates, Paul was a tentmaker by trade. Each of these great disciples was undoubtedly looked upon as an ordinary man, but that did not change the divine nature of each one's apostolic appointment as a special servant of the Lord.
The leaders whom the Lord has selected to serve Him in our day have come from a variety of backgrounds and occupations. But, counseled Elder Mark E. Petersen, we "must look beyond the former occupations and personal activities of our modern leaders and see them as the servants of God that they are now." Elder Petersen added this observation:
What if we did know them as boys in the neighborhood and saw no halos about them? What if we did mingle with them as they lived routine and ordinary lives in the past, meeting the world as it came, day be day? We must realize that conditions have changed!
God has now lifted them out of those familiar patterns and has given them a new status in life. He has summoned them to high callings in his ministry. A sacred mantle has descended upon them, the mantle of their divine commission, the mantle of prophecy!
They speak with new voices; they are guided by a heavenly light. They are ordinary no longer! They are the anointed ones-the chosen ones-chosen by Almighty God! ("Follow the Prophets," Ensign, Nov. 1981, p. 66.)
Those who are prone to myopically focus on the seeming ordinariness of the Lord's anointed, the mortal mistakes of the man, or the physical failings or other limitations of a prophet are in danger of missing the message sent from the Lord. President Spencer W. Kimball once warned the people that "the swiftest method of rejection of the holy prophets has been to find a pretext, however false or absurd, to dismiss the man so that his message could also be dismissed." ("Listen to the Prophets," Ensign, May 1978, p. 77.)
The Prophets Will Never Lead Us Astray
Becoming more than an ordinary man does not mean that these leaders have attained perfection. They are still mortals, subject to making mistakes. None has claimed perfection. However, one must not therefore conclude that the prophets will ever preach or teach false doctrines. The Prophet Joseph Smith once told the Saints, "I never told you I was perfect; but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught." (History of the Church, 6:366; italics added.) This same statement could be said of each man who has worn the prophet's mantle in this dispensation.
We have the assurance that the prophet who stands at the head of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will not lead the people astray. Consider the following testimonies:
In 1890, the fourth President of the Church, Wilford Woodruff, declared: "I say to Israel, the Lord will never permit me nor any other man who stands as the 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, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty." (In Wilford Woodruff, p. 572.)
Speaking as the Lord's prophet in 1972, President Joseph Fielding Smith stated: "I think there is one thing which we should have exceedingly clear in our minds. Neither the President of the Church, nor the First Presidency, nor the united voice of the First Presidency and the Twelve will ever lead the Saints astray or send forth counsel to the world that is contrary to the mind and will of the Lord. An individual may fall by the wayside, or have views, or give counsel which falls short of what the Lord intends. But the voice of the First Presidency and the united voice of those others who hold with them the keys of the kingdom shall always guide the Saints and the world in those paths where the Lord wants them to be." ("Eternal Keys and the Right to Preside," p. 88.)
Another of God's prophets, President Heber J. Grant, provided these testimonies: "You need have no fear . . . that any man will ever stand at the head of the Church of Jesus Christ unless our Heavenly Father wants him to be there." (Gospel Standards, p. 68.) "Any Latter-day Saint who thinks for one minute that this Church is going to fail is not a really converted Latter- day Saint. There will be no failure in this Church. It has been established for the last time, never to be given to another people and never to be thrown down." (Church News, Oct. 27, 1962, p. C-2; see also Dan. 2:44; D&C 112:30.)
Safety Comes in Obtaining a Testimony of the Living Prophet
At the time The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was organized on April 6, 1830, the Lord commanded the members to follow the prophet whom He had placed over His church: "Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me; for his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith." (D&C 21:4-5.)
President Harold B. Lee observed that our "only safety" will come in doing exactly what the Lord said in the revelation just cited. He then noted that "there will be some things that take patience and faith. You may not like what comes from the authority of the Church. It may contradict your political views. It may contradict your social views. It may interfere with some of your social life." But, he cautioned, "Your safety and ours depends upon whether or not we follow the ones whom the Lord has placed to preside over his church. He knows whom he wants to preside over this church, and he will make no mistake." President Lee then admonished all to "keep our eye on the President of the Church." ("Uphold the Hands of the President of the Church," Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, p. 127.)
The Lord does not require blind obedience, for He wants each individual to gain his or her own witness of the truth of what the prophets are saying. Twenty years prior to making the above statement, President Lee said: "It is not alone sufficient for us as Latter-day Saints to follow our leaders and to accept their counsel, but we have the greater obligation to gain for ourselves the unshakable testimony of the divine appointment of these men and the witness that what they have told us is the will of our Heavenly Father." (In Conference Report, Oct. 1950, p. 130.)
This places the responsibility for knowing and following the word of the Lord squarely on the shoulders of the individual. The challenge to each man, woman, and child of accountability is to gain a personal witness of the divine nature of a prophet's calling and of the truthfulness of the words he speaks. And then, to follow the counsel given.
We live in a very troubled world. "Where is there safety in the world today?" asked President Harold B. Lee. He then answered by stating, "Safety can't be won by tanks and guns and the airplanes and atomic bombs. There is only one place of safety and that is within the realm of the power of Almighty God that he gives to those who keep his commandments and listen to his voice, as he speaks through the channels that he has ordained for that purpose." (In Conference Report, Oct. 1973, p. 169.)
While no one is guaranteed safety from all physical harm in the world today, there is a safety that is much more significant-spiritual safety or well-being. The inspired counsel of the Lord's prophet-the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints-if followed, will lead us safely back to the presence of our Father in Heaven and His Son Jesus Christ.
"When we are instructed by the President of this Church," proclaimed Elder George Albert Smith, "we believe he tells us what the Lord would have us do. To us it is something more than just the advice of man." (In Conference Report, Oct. 1930, p. 66.) The Lord Himself emphasized this principle when He declared, "whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same." (D&C 1:38.)
Those who reject the words of the living prophet of God place their souls at risk, for, as previously cited, the Lord declared that "they who will not hear the voice of the Lord, neither the voice of his servants, neither give heed to the words of the prophets and apostles, shall be cut off from among the people." (D&C 1:14.) To truly follow Christ is to follow His anointed servants, for they teach what He would have us know and do. We bear witness to the world of the living Christ and of the authority of His living prophet. We invite all mankind to "come unto Christ, and be perfected in him." (Moro. 10:32.)
This article was excerpted from Hoyt W. Brewster, Jr., Prophets, Priesthood Keys, and Succession (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1991).