Brigham on Doubting the Living Prophet

I came upon a great story from Brigham Young today, about an experience he had once in doubting the prophet Joseph Smith.  I think it is powerful in the principles it teaches about following the prophet: 

I can tell the people that once in my life I felt a want of confidence in brother Joseph Smith, soon after I became acquainted with him. It was not concerning religious matters-it was not about his revelations-but it was in relation to his financiering-to his managing the temporal affairs which he undertook. A feeling came over me that Joseph was not right in his financial management, though I presume the feeling did not last sixty seconds, and perhaps not thirty. But that feeling came on me once and once only, from the time I first knew him to the day of his death. It gave me sorrow of heart, and I clearly saw and understood, by the spirit of revelation manifested to me, that if I was to harbor a thought in my heart that Joseph could be wrong in anything, I would begin to lose confidence in him, and that feeling would grow from step to step, and from one degree to another, until at last I would have the same lack of confidence in his being the mouthpiece for the Almighty.  Though I admitted in my feelings and knew all the time that Joseph was a human being and subject to err, still it was none of my business to look after his faults.

I repented of my unbelief, and that too, very suddenly; I repented about as quickly as I committed the error. It was not for me to question whether Joseph was dictated by the Lord at all times and under all circumstances or not. I never had the feeling for one moment, to believe that any man or set of men or beings upon the face of the whole earth had anything to do with him, for he was superior to them all, and held the keys of salvation over them. Had I not thoroughly understood this and believed it, I much doubt whether I should ever have embraced what is called “Mormonism.” He was called of God; God dictated him, and if He had a mind to leave him to himself and let him commit an error, that was no business of mine. And it was not for me to question it, if the Lord was disposed to let Joseph lead the people astray, for He had called him and instructed him to gather Israel and restore the Priesthood and kingdom to them.

It was not my prerogative to call him in question with regard to any act of his life. He was God’s servant, and not mine. He did not belong to the people but to the Lord, and was doing the work of the Lord, and if He should suffer him to lead the people astray, it would be because they ought to be led astray. If he should suffer them to be chastised, and some of them destroyed, it would be because they deserved it, or to accomplish some righteous purpose. That was my faith, and it is my faith still. (Journal of Discourses 4:297-98.)

Do the Saints have such faith today?

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About Bryce Haymond

Bryce grew up in Sandy, Utah, where he attended Jordan High School. He served a mission to the El Salvador San Salvador East mission, including eight months as mission financial secretary. Bryce graduated from Brigham Young University in 2007 in Industrial Design and a minor in Ballroom Dance. He loves all things Nibley and the temple, and is the founder of, and also blogs at Recently Bryce joined the Executive Board of The Interpreter Foundation, where he serves as a designer and technologist. Bryce has served in numerous Church callings including ward sunday school president, first counselor in the bishopric, and currently as temple and family history instructor. He is a Product Manager and Design Director at HandStands in Salt Lake City, and lives in Pleasant Grove, Utah, with his beautiful wife, three children, and another on the way!

17 thoughts on “Brigham on Doubting the Living Prophet

  1. If I may be so bold, I would like to propose that Bryce’s point is a very valid one (as I interpret it from this quotation — others may interpret it differently).

    I think it’s perfectly reasonable to see living prophets as human beings with human failings, and it’s perfectly reasonable to see that they can make mistakes. The problem in my mind comes when we turn those “human mistakes” into reasons for questioning their prophetic roles when acting as prophets.

    There if one example I think about a lot. I am certain that Spencer W. Kimball was a prophet of God. I am also certain he made some mistakes. One of those mistakes (in my humble opinion) was the way he treated his son who had gone inactive in the Church. If you read the biography by Pres. Kimball’s still-active other son, basically President Kimball would constantly send lengthy letters to his inactive son calling him to repentance. Clearly this effort was counter-productive and didn’t work because his inactive son is still inactive.

    So, did Pres. Kimball give us instructions saying that when of our children go inactive we should send them lengthy haranguing letters? No, just the opposite. He wrote “The Miracle of Forgiveness.” So, he was imperfect in his personal life but a near-perfect leader when acting as a prophet and speaking in the Lord’s name.

    I think the problem comes for Latter-day Saints when we start questioning the prophets when they are specifically and clearly speaking as prophets. That is a dangerous road to go done, in my humble opinion.

  2. Faith in Joseph? I don’t have faith that precludes saying Joseph made some stupid choices — I’m a little over half-way through Rough Stone Rolling, and there’s no question in my mind that Joseph wasn’t perfect, and that some of his choices were dumb. I do have faith, however, that says that making stupid choices from time to time doesn’t mean he wasn’t called of God.

    I do have faith that God runs the Church. That doesn’t mean that every word out of Pres. Monson’s mouth, or out of the Church PR department, was dictated by God.

    Wanna make something of it? I’ll take you man. Any time, any place, as long as I’m already there and have nothing better to do.

  3. Geoff,

    That is the best way to approach it and is the ideal situation. The problem is for a lot of members who have a difficult time telling when a leader is sharing an opinion when it could be interpreted as authoritative by the tone or setting. Yes, we should know better but sometimes it is difficult to distinguish. I am, of course, thinking of situations where a prophet’s conduct is not at issue but a statement is made that is authoritative.

  4. Personally, I think we care too deeply about too many things that are too unimportant from an eternal perspective.

    I receive inspiration and revelation for MY life; Pres. Monson receives inspiration and revelation for the life of THE CHURCH. I’m OK with that division.

  5. Personal opinion here: I think we should start with the presumption that declarations made by prophets at conference and statements released by the Church as official Church policy are authoritative statements from prophets acting as prophets. I do believe God gives us the ability to use our reason to fit those declarations and statements into our way of living.

    The problem begins when Latter-day Saints immediately assume that their reason trumps a prophet’s when it has to do with a specific Church policy. In my opinion, that is when you stop putting trust in God and you put trust in yourself, and that’s a dangerous thing to do.

  6. Valid Topic Bryce. The comments are excellent and good advice to follow. Thanks Bryce.
    As for me, Words said by the Prophet in conference have greater weight. I also think it is folly to teach converts and young people that a prophet is perfect all the time. It sets them up for failure later. An old joke, Catholics believe that a Pope is infallible, but no one really believes it. Mormons believe that a prophet is fallible, but no one really believes it.

  7. Hunter, I don’t think so. The overall principle that Brigham is refering to is about people deserving the leaders they get, for whatever reason.

    I’ve heard people speculate why they got a certain bishop who nobody liked, and was not living up to anyone’s idea of how a bishop should operate. Yet, knowing the Stake President, they fully believed the Stake President wouldn’t have called that bishop if it were not the Lord’s will. The members’ conclusion was that they either deserved that Bishop, or it was a test for them to see if they’d remain faithful and active.

    Joseph Smith did this at least a couple times, doing or saying something outrageous just to test someone. He even did it to Brigham Young.

    Although only tangentially related, I found some quotes by Elders Nelson and Oaks about rules and exceptions coming from prophets and apostles, and whether or not we take things the Brethren say as absolutes.

    I’m the kind of person who wants to take what the prophet and apostles say as absolutes. I once staked a major decision in my life on what one of the apostles said. When the reality of the situation didn’t match what the apostle said it “must be” I was hurt, and that became part of the reasons I left the church for a long time.

    This quote from Elder Nelson did much to resolve the conflict I had. My life would have taken a much better path had I known this over 20 years ago.

    Elder Russell M. Nelson, Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
    CES Fireside for Young Adults, February 6, 2005. Brigham Young University.

    “Through the years you will note that apostles and prophets teach the rule. We don’t teach exceptions to the rule. Exceptions are left to individual agency and accountability. The Lord knows we live in an imperfect world. He knows it is ‘ripening in iniquity’ (D&C 18:6). His judgments will be fair, just, and merciful.”


    Elder Oaks explained the same principle in a talk given May 1, 2005, at a CES broadcast, and reprinted in the June 2006 Ensign.

    “The explanation I gave that man is the same explanation I give to you if you feel you are an exception to what I have said. As a General Authority, I have the responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. There are exceptions to some rules. For example, we believe the commandment is not violated by killing pursuant to a lawful order in an armed conflict. But don’t ask me to give an opinion on your exception. I only teach the general rules. Whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord.”

  8. My dad has often said that if the prophet asked him to stand on his head and gargle peanut butter he would do it, because if the prophet asked him to do it, it would be important that he do it.

    Thanks, Bryce.

  9. 6 — I tend to view statements by leaders to be inspired and authoritative descriptions of generalities. I do not accept them as inerrant or without exception, because they don’t, and because such a position is anti-doctrinal. If this means I disagree with Brigham, then that wouldn’t be the first time.

    Is this a failure of faith by the standard you’re trying to establish here?

  10. I think this topic is much more complicated than has been let on so far. Bookslinger’s comments are excellent, and yet there are clearly situations where the duly appointed leaders screw up. It’s bad enough when you have a bishop discovered to be sexually abusing his daughters, but even worse when you find out he’d been doing it at the time he received his call. The damage done to that ward was inestimable, and I cannot accept that the Lord meant for that man to be called. If that’s the case, then what about the stake pres. who issued the call? I know this man (the stake pres) and received a blessing at his hands.

    This story is pertinent to the prophet Joseph, in that Oliver Cowdery was excommunicated (at least in part) for accusing Joseph of adultery with Fanny Alger. Oliver wasn’t in on the polygamy thing, and he had strong evidence. Seemed a pretty clear cut case to him. Yet, Joseph was still the prophet. Was that bishop still the bishop?

    This becomes even more complicated when we consider church policies. Should blacks really have been denied so many blessings until 1978? What about the Church’s stance against ending prohibition? Against the ERA? Against California’s Prop 8? It could be that all of these positions were truly inspired, but could it also mean that they weren’t, but that we’re still supposed to sustain our leaders, even when they weren’t inspired. Right?

    Prop. 8 was very difficult for me. Living in California, I campaigned very hard and donated significant money in its support, but my feelings were mixed. I listened to the apostles speak and felt motivated to work diligently to support a good cause, but I wasn’t sure the cause was good. After much prayer and contemplation, I simply could not feel a spiritual confirmation. Nor, however, did I feel I received personal revelation to the contrary. Therefore, I followed the prophets. My conscience is clean before God. I hope His will was done.

  11. Martin, I hear you. I have been confused by all that you have mentioned, plus more. It is very complicated. To deny that it is so is folly. I have concluded that it is part of our mortal experience and faith i.e. “looking thru the glass darkly”.

  12. Martin, there are more facts in the historical evidence about Oliver’s falling away from the church, and Oliver’s attitudes towards polygamy. You’ve only given the points that the antis like to pound on, and left out some strongly mitigating counter-points. Delve into the 6 (or 7?) volume “History of the Church”, and read what Joseph actually said about Oliver’s initial attitudes towards polygamy. There’s more to it than what the antis like to throw in our face. (Hint: Oliver actually wanted to start practicing polygamy before Joseph did, soon after Joseph received the revelation, but before the Lord wanted them to start to put it in practice.)

    So, whatever was between Joseph and Fanny, Oliver already knew about the polygamy revelation, So to me, Oliver’s accusation of adultery was more likely a product of his bitterness after having been disaffected. The same story of once-loyal people in the inner circle turning on Joseph with false accusations after being disaffected played out several times. And many of those came back around: WW Phelps, Parley Pratt, Thomas Marsh, etc. Even Oliver himself.

    There’s another point about callings issued to unworthy people. Sometimes, the issuing of the calling is the impetus that person needs to confess and repent. Sometimes, the Lord wants a calling issued to someone, but doesn’t want that person to actually accept the calling. The Lord might be testing the callee to see if they will repent.

  13. I have to say, that I have always thought that the prophets were human beings and not divinely infallible. One good read through the Old Testament and you can see that all of the prophets of old were not perfect by any means. Moses would rant to the Lord about his calling and about the stubborness of Israel. Elijah had wicked priests killed and burned. The issue is when we, knowing that our prophets are imperfect, start believing otherwise.

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