I think that the modern age is often pretty arrogant about its relationship with earlier times. We seem to assume that collectively we are always more enlightened, more ennobled, more understanding, smarter, more discerning, than those who’ve gone before. We’re always “climbing the mountain,” and each decade finds us farther up the ascent.
I mean, after all, we’ve ended slavery, women can vote, we’ve rallied against racial discrimination, etc., etc. We wear these accomplishments with pride, as evidence that we are intellectually superior than the generations before us who’ve either ignored these injustices or perhaps even engaged in apologetics in their favor.
Because of this assumption, we look to the shifting opinions of the masses as a guide for how we should view the world. Nobody wants to be “behind the times.” Currently, the fad is to discern where society is heading, and then get there first. If we’re going to be different than our peers, we want to be ahead of the times, rather than trailing behind. At least then, a decade from now, we can feel vindicated when most of our peers join our ranks.
But I don’t see any revelatory support for the assumption that society, collectively, will inevitable progress. The whole idea of the apostasy should indicate that, if anything, society often regresses. I don’t believe that the restored church will ever fall into general apostasy—that supposition would be counter-revelatory—but society at large can and probably will adopt worldviews entirely at odds with revealed truth.
I don’t see safety in looking to the crowd for our cues on which ideological directions to move. I see safety in looking to God’s servants. And they can be either ahead of the time or behind the times, and still be right. Joseph Smith and others were “ahead of their time,” in the sense that Joseph Smith’s abolitionism, etc., were adopting by society at large only later. Spencer W. Kimball, Ezra Taft Benson, Gordon B. Hinckley, and others, were “behind their time,” in the sense that they were/are warning against the directions that society is currently moving.
Some members of the church view prophets as shepherds or tour guides along the trail of history, providing us with a rudder that helps us avoid rocks and pitfalls as we, with the rest of society, are swept along the river of progress. The final destination to which the prophets are leading us is the same destination towards which society as a whole is currently heading—the prophets just help accelerate that journey and make it smoother than it might otherwise be. To the extent that they are “behind the times,” it is only to avoid rocking the boat so much that some of our less progressive members fall out and are left behind. For this reason, prophets can’t get too far ahead of their time, else they ”imperil the unity of the Church.” But, in the end, the progressive views of society and the teachings of the prophets will someday converge.
I reject this view. Why have prophets at all, if they’re just going to keep us a trailing a little behind the moral progress of the rest of society? I believe that the more likely scenario is that society is sweeping us a direction entirely different than the direction that the prophets are gently leading us. I see the prophets as being a voice in the wilderness against some of the more “progressive” trends in society. The extent that they sometimes mellow their voices and cease warning about certain dangers is the extent to wich we do not listen, or contingencies in society keep them from speaking so loudly.
In short, prophets can be behind the times, and this is not a criticism. Sometimes being behind the times is good. “Being on the wrong side of history” is not a threat that scares me much. Being different from our peers isn’t only a virtue if they eventually catch up to our progressive vision. Sometimes being different from our peers is important because our peers (society) are moving in a wrong direction.