Through a Glass Darkly

This is a guest post by Brother I. W. Brown.


Recently I had a conversation with a family member who is struggling to understand whether prophets are permitted to make mistakes. And if they are, well then how can we ever fully place our trust in them? How can we be certain they’re not making a mistake on any particular issue? These are reasonable questions. These questions and the answers to them are becoming increasingly important as LDS Church history is scrutinized. That got me thinking…

Naturally Joseph Smith is the primary focus of that scrutiny, and it only makes sense. After all, he made the biggest impact and certainly had the most to say about the formation of the church. So he had more opportunity than anyone to make mistakes – he had the most “at bats,” so to speak, so it’s possible that he had the most strike-outs! Incidentally, some of his critics remind me of someone who never played baseball bragging about having fewer strikeouts than A-Rod!

Unlike the prophets of our day, Joseph did not have a mentor. He had no organization or policy to perpetuate, he had to create them (or as we believe restore them) from scratch. I don’t think we can ever appreciate the enormity of that task. Think about it. Imagine the task of building a house from nothing, for example, having never seen another house or having floorpans. Now build the house – engineering, excavation, foundation, concrete, framing, plumbing electrical, flooring, framing, finish carpentry, paint, roofing, windows, etc. No doubt a critic would come inspect your home after the fact and cite you for not knowing the right size of pipe for venting a toilet!

So let’s turn to Joseph. Let’s see what we can learn about any standard he may have set for a prophet. What qualifies and disqualifies a man to be a prophet? Maybe we can use his own standard against him!

Joseph Smith makes his debut as a self-proclaimed prophet in 1830 with the publication of his opus, The Book of Mormon. It turns out that we learn quite a bit about his version of prophets in the first 5 chapters of the book, 1 Nephi chapters 1-5. Here we meet Lehi and his son Nephi who are the prophet of the story and his next-in-charge respectively.

Lehi has a vision instructing him to take his family and leave Jerusalem immediately. While Nephi is happy to comply, older brothers Laman and Lemuel are less thrilled with the idea of leaving the only home they had ever known. We might imagine that they have had experiences with their father that exposed him as less than perfect. They are put out to have to leave their lives, including all the wealth they had hoped to inherit one day. But still they reluctantly obey and follow dad into the wilderness – act of obedience number 1.

They travel for three days. Let’s say that amounts to 40 miles. Apparently, Lehi’s plans were only half-baked. Once 40 miles out of town, he’s inspired, or at least realizes that he needs the Brass Plates in Laban’s possession way back in Jerusalem. Naturally, Laman and Lemuel are irritated. Why didn’t dad think of that before we left? His oversight cost them 80 miles of grueling travel. Meanwhile Nephi is quick to comply. After expressing their frustration the brothers return with Nephi and another one of Nephi’s brothers, Sam – obedience #2.

After retracing their journey they “cast lots” and decide that Laman would be the lucky one to go meet with Laban to collect the Plates. Nephi is effectively the leader/prophet/priesthood on the ground. Laman again defers to his leader and is nearly killed for his troubles – obedience #3. Laban’s henchmen chase him out of town, back to where the brothers are hiding.

Undeterred, Nephi remembers the riches the family had left at their home. He suggests that they can trade for the Plates. This time he’s certain the plan will work. It has to because they’re on the Lord’s errand so the Lord will provide a way (1 Nephi 3:7). Finally the brothers all agree to try again – obedience #4. But again Laban doesn’t cooperate. He steals their riches and tries to have the brothers killed.

With this context in mind, it’s hard not to empathize a little with Laman and Lemuel. I’ve often thought that, at this stage of their adventure at least, they get a bad wrap. Who wouldn’t be aggravated with all they had experienced. Now I’ve never beaten my little brothers with a rod, but I’ve never been threatened and tested like Laman and Lemuel were during their trip back to Jerusalem.

So after pummeling their brothers, the two are rebuked by an angel. Tempers soon cool and Nephi decides to have a go at Laban alone, not knowing exactly what to do. But still he ventures forth.
He gets a little bloody in the process, but Nephi is finally successful. He not only collects the Brass Plates, but also adds a helping hand to the travel party, Zoram.

Next we read about the joyous reunion of the four brothers with their family. They made it back to Lehi’s camp. We can imagine the relief they felt having accomplished a difficult and dangerous series of tasks. Finally they can rest. Now imagine their reaction when maybe just days or even hours later their father, the prophet Lehi, has more news to share. There’s yet another wrinkle in his prophetic plan. Likely after clearing his throat, Lehi explains that, “it was not meet for [him, Lehi,] that he should take his family into the wilderness alone.”

‘Guess what boys, it’s time to turn around and make yet another 80-mile round trip to convince Ishmael and his family to join us in the wilderness. You boys need wives.’

But Lehi was supposed to be a prophet! Nephi too, in Lehi’s absence on the road, spoke for the prophet. Why couldn’t these men of God see the end from the beginning? Why didn’t Lehi get his act together and get all the facts before formulating a plan and demanding action?

Well, if we accept that Lehi was indeed a prophet, it appears that a prophet may operate through trial and error on occasion. He may only be given “line upon line” and even have to act without “knowing beforehand the things which [he] should do” (1 Nephi 4:6). We learn about the nature of prophets in the very first pages of the Book of Mormon. We see that prophets may stumble and fail at times even while doing prophety things. We learn that, as human being and without all the information he would like, a prophet must make mistakes. We learn that the path of a prophet will zig and zag and will end up nothing like a straight line. As we ponder this and the perfectly human nature of every prophet, we may even feel foolish for ever thinking that a prophet should always have a clear and perfect vision of his mission – start to finish. We may feel foolish for thinking that obvious missteps prove that a prophet is not a prophet.

Somehow we have developed an image of a prophet that is far removed from what the Book of Mormon and other scriptures clearly present. Lehi and Nephi are two of many prophets we read about who together display the full range of human frailties. Maybe it’s the result of too much exposure to characters in Marvel and DC comics or lessons from overly-enthusiastic Sunday School teachers, but we seem to have endowed prophets with superhuman virtues. Either way we end up forgetting their humanity.

Of course, the point of all this is that it applies to Joseph Smith. Joseph’s life and errors are so relatively recent and so well documented that it’s tempting to apply a whole new standard to him.
But such a judgment says far more about us than it does about him. And heaven forbid if his successors were to ever misstep, backtrack, or change policy or direction. The humanity of the prophets likely hasn’t changes over the millennia. Unfortunately, with respect to failing to recognize a prophet in our time, neither has ours.

At least that’s what I think.

Bio: I’m second generation LDS. My father worked for the CES with a PhD in ancient Christianity. I left the church for 6-7 years after consuming thousands of pages of criticism of the church in general and Joseph Smith in particular. I was an atheist for that period. Long story short, about 15 years ago I began my return to the faith. Ironically, some of the issues that used to trouble the most are now what I call pillars of my renewed faith in the Gospel.

14 thoughts on “Through a Glass Darkly

  1. Great post. There are numerable layers of understanding in the Book of Mormon, and numerous lessons to learn from its pages. How on earth did a farmer come up with such a book?

    I had considered before the challenges of Laman and Lemuel to get the plates before, but I never saw a link to how prophets work in those same verses. To those in the Church, it makes a lot of sense. To those outside, I notice they tend to expect prophetic perfection even more than the regular member.

  2. Perhaps off-topic, but then again, perhaps not:

    I think that Laman and Lemuel were rather more pious than we give them credit for. In my most recent journey through First Nephi, I have been impressed at how different Lehi’s teachings were from the standard religion of his day. While we see Laman and Lemuel as apostate murderers for their responses to Lehi and Nephi, I wonder if they were, in their own estimation, faithful. While it is true that Laman and Lemuel threatened Nephi’s life, Nephi not only killed Laban, but then robbed Laban’s treasury.

  3. This is a great post. Well said, Brother Brown!

    If all scripture vanished and all we were left with was 1 and 2 Nephi, I suspect we could still get along pretty well. There’s so much happening in Lehi’s family experiences that the lessons are delightfully multilayered. Semi-tangentially, I’ve always been a Sam fan, as Lehi’s family goes. He wasn’t a standout, but he always seemed to end up on the right side of things. I have long believed that most of us are Sam.

  4. Mormotarian,

    It would be a pitty to lose Alma 31-34. Or Abinadi’s sermon in Mosiah. Those two accounts are my favorites in the Book of Mormon; I would perhaps exchange a few isaiah chapters from 2 nephi to put those chapters in their place 😉

  5. UM, I’m of the opposite opinion. L and L were wicked. They attempted to kill Nephi four times. 1) They would have beaten him to death if the angel had not intervened. 2) They tied him up in the desert and left him to die. 3) They were going to kill him on the boat, or throw him overboard alive and bound. 4) Then the final attempt in the new world when Nephi and his side fled in the night.

    They were not “righteous enough” to see an angel, they were _wicked enough_. All through the account, I see Nephi doing the prophet-thing, giving L&L every chance to turn around and do the right thing, giving them the benefit of every doubt. Mourning their disobedience, not making accusatory railings which they deserved.

    Here’s my take…. L and L were going to ditch the family in the wilderness and go back and pick up their old life, and have the property and treasure all to themselves. When Nephi “lost” the family treasure to Laban, that pissed them off and “ruined” their life. They likely thought Laban would just tell them to bug off again, and were surprised when Laban actually stole their stuff.

    They could still go back at that point, but they would not have any riches. They’d have to wait until Laban calmed down, but they could go back.

    But when Nephi killed Laban, “kidnapped” Zoram, and “stole” the plates, that sealed off any possibility of L and L going back, because all of Laban’s household would have known “Lehi’s boys” were responsible. (Maybe they could have gone back to a “sanctuary city”.)

    The next trip back to get Ishmael’s family was probably clandestine, traveling at night. Ishmael’s family could have confirmed to the 4 boys that they were being sought for in Laban’s death, thereby ensuring that L&L stayed with the group.

    I used to wonder why the Lord “forced” L and L to go along. Why not let them stay, or turn back? All they did was cause trouble. It took several read-throughs of the BoM for me to get it. The Lord _needed_ “Lamanites” in the New World, for purposes both ancient and modern.

    Anyway, that’s the “movie” I’ve made of it in my mind. I suppose we’ll have to wait for the 116 pages, or the Large Platesz to be released to know the full story. Or maybe Nephi will do firesides/talks during the Millennium to fill everyone in.

  6. Books – Note that I described Laman and Lemuel as “pious,” not “righteous.” My comment is intended to highlight a *possible* internal motivation, and to point out how sharply Lehi and Nephi differed from the mainstream of their day, not to justify their wickedness. Lehi and Nephi were humble and spiritual. I wonder if Laman and Lemuel acted as they did because they failed to move beyond the legalistic religion of their age.

  7. “Somehow we have developed an image of a prophet that is far removed from what the Book of Mormon and other scriptures clearly present. Lehi and Nephi are two of many prophets we read about who together display the full range of human frailties. Maybe it’s the result of too much exposure to characters in Marvel and DC comics or lessons from overly-enthusiastic Sunday School teachers, but we seem to have endowed prophets with superhuman virtues. Either way we end up forgetting their humanity.”

    Or maybe it is talks like President Ezra Taft Benson’s 14 points that make people think modern day prophets are supposed to be super human.

    In any event almost anyone who studies LDS Church history knows the prophets aren’t infallible. The important thing is to be able to recognize that and still keep the faith.

  8. “Somehow we have developed an image of a prophet that is far removed from what the Book of Mormon and other scriptures clearly present. Lehi and Nephi are two of many prophets we read about who together display the full range of human frailties. Maybe it’s the result of too much exposure to characters in Marvel and DC comics or lessons from overly-enthusiastic Sunday School teachers, but we seem to have endowed prophets with superhuman virtues. Either way we end up forgetting their humanity.”

    Or maybe it is talks like President Ezra Taft Benson’s 14 points that make people think modern day prophets are supposed to be superhuman.

    In any event, almost anyone who studies LDS Church history knows the prophets aren’t infallible. The important thing is to be able to recognize that and still keep the faith.

  9. I am enjoying the discussion about Laman and Lemuel and Nephi and Lehi. However, I think the main thrust of the OP is to encourage us to maybe look at more modern applications. How about the current hot button topic — LGBT marriage and related issues? I have recently come across old copies of some pamphlets authored (at least in part) by Elder Spencer W. Kimball which sounded very much like they were promoting some kind of conversion to heterosexuality — certainly a lot of ideas that I think we have gone past in the current stance the Church is taking. Like Lehi seemed to be getting multiple revelations (leave — go back — go back), the Church seems to have gone through an evolution in its stance towards LGBT issues. Some progressives express all kinds of hope that this means that, eventually, the Church will fully embrace gay marriage. Interestingly, on the other side of the coin, I have seen ultra conservative members express horror at the way the Church has softened its stance against homosexuality — wishing that the Church would return to less tolerant and less nuanced days. How shall we understand and accept this evolution? It is relatively easy for us, in hindsight, to look back and say that Laman and Lemuel should have just been more obedient and accepting of the process of revelation God used with Lehi. In the midst of the issues that we face, I don’t know that it is always easy to understand the seemingly very human process of receiving and interpreting revelation.

  10. I enjoyed this post. But I see a process that is just that, process.

    Take Ishmael and his family. Why would they have been persuaded if Lehi had approached them before he himself had irrevocably committed to his course?

    As for attempting to obtain the brass plates from Laban. It may well be that Lehi himself knew this was required all along, but knew he needed his family to be a solid three counties (three days travel) away from Jerusalem to ensure the older and less able individuals would be safe when the attempt was made.

    As to Laman and Lemuel, I think they saw themselves as entirely pious believers in the dominant Deuteronomist faith of the day. It’s not clear Laman and Lemuel believed in a Messiah. To Deuteronomists, Abraham was a joke. Moses was their true prophet, and the Law of Moses was their code. They honored their father, because it said in the Law of Moses that they had to. But fratricide of an upstart usurper (i.e., Nephi) apparently didn’t count as murder in their book. When you read the Book of Mormon, you see that the primary heresy until after the birth of Christ is rejection of a Messiah and insistence on adherence to the Law of Moses.

  11. I always found it interesting that Lehi left all the family riches back home. Seems an odd move for someone who “knew” he was leaving on a permanent basis. There are several plausible explanations not considered in the OP that, if true, would make the narrative in the OP implausible.

    One interpretation is that Lehi did not realize it was permanent himself when he initially left. Only after three days journey did he receive the revelation that they would not be going back– or maybe that they might be gone a little longer than he had planned.

    Another is that he intentionally lied to his family about the duration of their trip and leaving their possessions behind added credibility to his lie.

    Obedience under the first interpretation, even for Laman and Lemuel, is laudable. If the second interpretation is more accurate (and I believe that it is)…. then what does that say about Lehi as a prophet.

  12. Meg, I don’t know how pious the leading deuteronomists of the day could have been. The Jewish religious leaders of the day were child-sacrificers and grove worshippers, and were having ritualistic sex with religious prostitutes. Those were the reasons the Lord had them “shaved with a razor that was hired.” Those were the reasons the Lord allowed the Babylonians to kill off the leadership, much of the people, and carry off the survivors.

    I suppose L & L could have been followers of one of the not-as-bad-as-the-others types of deuteronomists. But the whole point of the Babylonian conquest was that, aside from the few such as Lehi who were led off and saved, and the younger generation such as Daniel, the -entire- leadership, priests and monarchical, were utterly corrupt and ripe for destruction.

    Paul: Lehi saw the destruction in vision. the message he preached was “repent or be conquered”. He could see that the Jews were not repenting, so he knew destruction was nigh; therefore he knew that they were not going back.

  13. Nice post, but I suggest the premise is somewhat faulty. The question is not whether prophets are allowed to make mistakes. Because, well, free agency. Moses declared, “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Nbrs 11:29). In essence, all of us–men and women–can be prophets/prophetesses in our own sphere of stewardship. But guess what, all of us are going to keep on making mistakes. Usually because that’s how we learn and grow.

    Yes, I suppose prophets/Church presidents are held to a different standard by virtue of their high and holy calling. But they are not precluded from human error or blunders. President Lee stated that the only qualification for a prophet was to be able to recognize the Spirit of the Lord and then act on it. Being able to respond when the “Lord…put[s] his spirit upon” us takes years of experience, training, and personal discipline–through decisions good and bad. Pres. Monson once told a story when he, as an apostle, was prompted in the middle of stake conference to go visit a member in need, but he put off acting on the prompting until the meeting concluded, but by the time he arrived, the member had passed away. A mistake? Yes. When the prompting occurred again years later in another stake conference, he promptly left, this time with positive results, before the member died.

    The question, though, is not, how can we trust prophets when they make mistakes. Rather, the question should be: Can we trust that the prophet will never lead His people astray? Because the Lord will never permit His chosen Prophet to guide his people away from truth and the plan of salvation, and if he does, he will be removed from his office. Thus, while we understand the prophet and apostles (also sustained as prophets) are perfectly capable of making mistakes, we can trust that we will never be led astray. (Brigham Young’s speech to the general membership following Sidney Rigdon’s sermon in 1844 springs to mind…) So long as the living prophet, who holds all the keys of the kingdom, is doing his best to guide the church membership to hold fast to truth and to Christ, and we do our part to listen and follow, then we can know that the Church as a whole is on the right course. And that is good enough for me.

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