Mormons believe in prophets, both ancient and modern. This belief is intertwined with the belief that God has an interest in talking to man, and does so through the prophets that He chooses. The Bible contains a record of God’s dealings with prophets in those days, and modern scripture contains a record of God’s dealings with prophets in modern days. Mormons believe that the heavens were not closed after the biblical record, and that He still talks to His children today, just as in days of old.
Most Christians have at least a passing familiarity with the prophets of the Bible. Stories of Moses, Joshua, Isaiah, Samuel, Elijah, and dozens of other major and minor prophets are included in the Bible. These prophets talked with the Lord and related the Lord’s will to the people. The teachings and warnings of the biblical prophets were heeded or ignored; the choice rested with the people to whom the prophets spoke. The consequences for exercising that choice—good or bad—also rested upon the people as a whole.
Becoming a Prophet
A prophet is not someone born to that position, it is not a job that someone can apply for, nor is it something that someone can take upon themselves. Based on the biblical record, prophets always seem to go through a specific process in order to become a prophet. This process includes a call, a commission or charge, and a message to be delivered.
Calling a Prophet
All prophets share a calling, initiated by God, in which the individual is summoned to serve as God’s messenger. The event attendant to the calling, and the circumstances in which the event occurs, are powerful and realistic enough to convince the individual that the communication is from God, and not some mental aberration or hallucination.
The Bible records the calling of prophets such as Moses, Samuel, Elisha, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and others. There are a few prophets (such as Elijah, Nathan, and Ahijah) for whom the record is incomplete and the calling is not recorded. A prophet’s call often occurs through visionary experiences, but not all the details are exactly the same from prophet to prophet. It is not uncommon for the visions to be accompanied by an unusual or miraculous event, such as Moses and the burning bush.
The Prophet's Charge
God's calling of a prophet is always accompanied by that individual being charged with a specific task. In other words, the prophet is called and then asked by the Lord to do something. The charge is seldom easy and often related to others. For instance, a prophet may be charged with preaching repentance to a city or people. Others may be asked to condemn individuals or a group of people.
Prophets are not always eager to accept the charge given them by God. Perhaps the most famous example is Jonah, who tried to run from his prophetic charge, only to be miraculously delivered by God to the location where he finally accepted it. There are other instances, as well, of reluctance among prophets—Jeremiah protesting that he was too young (Jeremiah 1:6) or Moses coming up with reasons why people wouldn’t listen to him (Exodus 3-4).
For other prophets the biblical record indicates no reservations; they went straightway and did what the Lord asked. Prophets such as Isaiah and Ezekiel are characteristic of this type of personality.
A Prophet's Message
The charge given to a prophet invariably includes some sort of message that the Lord wants delivered. The message may be one of warning or consolation; it may be one of promise or consequence. The message often contains some prediction of the future, conditioned on the reception or rejection of the message. The message is seldom the same, and the details are oriented to the needs of the people and the expectations of the Lord.
God communicated His will to prophets in various ways. Some prophets experienced visions, heard voices, or had dreams. At least one prophet, Moses, spoke with God mouth to mouth (Exodus 33) or face to face (Deuteronomy 34). Most prophets only sensed the presence of the Lord, whereas Moses actually saw His form and person (Numbers 12, Exodus 33-34).
The Character of Prophets
Prophets are not all cut out of the same character mold; they are people with different characteristics, different capabilities, and different skills. The Bible records that some prophets were dynamic, commanding speakers, while others are self-conscious or poor speakers. Some were pleasing to look at, while others were not much to look at. Prophets have no physical marks that would identify them as such, and they carry no credentials that would lead to unquestioned recognition of their position. Prophets are individuals, the same as everyone else, and easily mistaken for any other regular person.
This "plainness" of a prophet led many people to reject biblical prophets—the man called of God did not fit the image of a prophet that was expected by the people. Rejection may have been because the prophet was someone known to the people before his call, or it may have been because they expected messages from God to be delivered in some other manner and through some other messenger.
The individuality of a prophet also means that their messages weren’t always delivered in the same way. One prophet might speak directly to a king or other leader, while a different prophet might preach in the streets. One might use threatening language, while another used pleadings and promises. The Lord did not transform the prophets into carbon copies of each other; He gave them a message to deliver and then usually left it to the individual prophet to figure out how to best deliver the message.
Miracles and Prophets
When people think of prophets, they often think of miracles performed by those prophets. Mention Moses, and people often think of the miraculous plagues pronounced upon the Egyptians, the parting of the Red Sea, or striking a rock and having water come forth. Moses is not the only prophet to perform miracles; there are many including Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, and Isaiah.
Miracles do not seem to be a common characteristic of all prophets, however. Some prophets have no recorded miracles, yet the Lord affirms that they are prophets nonetheless. Miracles seem to be associated with the needs of the prophet and the people and always consistent with the will of the Lord.
The book of Deuteronomy offers rules of procedure to determine if a prophet is a true prophet. The first rule is located in Deuteronomy 13:1-5, and specifies what shall happen if a prophet attempts to lead people to follow “different gods” than the true God:
- 1 If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder,
- 2 And the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them;
- 3 Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
- 4 Ye shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him.
- 5 And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn [you] away from the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to thrust thee out of the way which the LORD thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee.
The second rule is recorded in Deuteronomy 18:20-22 and specifies a test for prophets relative to the predictions they make:
- 20 But the prophet, which shall presume to speak a word in my name, which I have not commanded him to speak, or that shall speak in the name of other gods, even that prophet shall die.
- 21 And if thou say in thine heart, How shall we know the word which the LORD hath not spoken?
- 22 When a prophet speaketh in the name of the LORD, if the thing follow not, nor come to pass, that [is] the thing which the LORD hath not spoken, [but] the prophet hath spoken it presumptuously: thou shalt not be afraid of him.
The problem is that the rules outlined in Deuteronomy will not work in many situations. For instance, what the predictions carried in a prophetic message have no specific timetable attached? When should a person determine that the prediction did not come true? If the person judges too soon, then the person will be wrong. If the person judges too late, then the person will end up following a false prophet.
In historical terms, many of the biblical prophets gave predictions without timetable which could not be judged within the lifetime of the hearer. For instance, Isaiah and many Old Testament prophets prophesied about the coming of the Messiah. It was impossible for a hearer to listen to such predictions and wait for their eventual fulfillment and make a decision that would affect how the hearer lived his or her life.
In most cases, the decision of whether a prophet is a true prophet or not must rely upon factors not addressed in the Deuteronomic tests. Perhaps the primary factor, besides whether the prophet speaks in the name of the true and living God, is the affect that the prophet has upon the person asked to judge the truth of the prophet’s message. Each person must make the determination of the truthfulness of the prophet’s message based upon whether that message resonates with what the individual knows to be real and true.
Book of Mormon Prophets
Mormons accept as holy scripture the Book of Mormon. This inspired record recounts God’s dealings with His covenant people in the Western hemisphere for about a thousand years, from approximately 600 B.C. to 400 A.D. The record indicates the call, charge, and message of many prophets, all following the biblical model for messengers from God.
The concept of prophetic records being in a book other than the Bible is undoubtedly foreign to many Christians. Mormons believe that such a concept is consistent with Christianity, however, because God loves all His children, and it makes logical sense that He would select messengers (prophets) to minister to those children, as well. It is important that such selection would exhibit the same characteristics as the selection of prophets in the Bible—and Mormons feel that such consistency is evident in the Book of Mormon.
Besides the prophets of the Bible and the Book of Mormon, Mormons recognize modern prophets. These prophets, like those in ancient times, are viewed as messengers of God; as His servants chosen to convey messages from the Lord to His people and to the world as a whole.
The first prophet in modern times is Joseph Smith, and his call, charge, and message is consistent with the pattern established for prophets in the Bible. Since the death of Joseph Smith in 1844, an unbroken series of prophets have led the Mormon Church:
- Brigham Young (1844-1877)
- John Taylor (1877-1887)
- Wilford Woodruff (1887-1898)
- Lorenzo Snow (1898-1901)
- Joseph F. Smith (1901-1918)
- Heber J. Grant (1918-1945)
- George Albert Smith (1945-1951)
- David O. McKay (1951-1970)
- Joseph Fielding Smith (1970-1972)
- Harold B. Lee (1972-1973)
- Spencer W. Kimball (1973-1985)
- Ezra Taft Benson (1985-1994)
- Howard W. Hunter (1994-1995)
- Gordon B. Hinckley (1995-present)
These prophets have dedicated themselves to their appointed mission of helping the people of the world prepare for eternal life and for the second coming of Jesus Christ, delivering the message that the Lord would have delivered. The living prophet continues to receive revelations, selects leaders by the spirit of prophecy, and serves as the principal teacher of the Church.