Mormonism and doctrine/Prophets are not infallible
- Critics sometimes impose absolutist assumptions on the Church.
- Some critics hold inerrantist beliefs about scriptures or prophets, and assume that the LDS have similar views.
- Critics therefore insist, based upon the assumptions above, that any statement by any LDS Church leader represents LDS doctrine and is thus something that is secretly believed, or that should be believed, by Latter-day Saints.
The prophets are not perfect, but they are called of God. They may speak as men, but may speak scripture as well. Every person may know for themselves whether they speak the truth through the same power that their revelation is given: the power of the Holy Ghost.
A few question their faith when they find a statement made by a Church leader decades ago that seems incongruent with our doctrine. There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find.
The leaders of the Church are honest but imperfect men. Remember the words of Moroni: “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father … ; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been” (Ether 12:6).
— Elder Neil L. Anderson, "Trial of Your Faith," Ensign (November 2012).
The Church's response
Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. A single statement made by a single leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, but is not meant to be officially binding for the whole Church. With divine inspiration, the First Presidency (the prophet and his two counselors) and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (the second-highest governing body of the Church) counsel together to establish doctrine that is consistently proclaimed in official Church publications. This doctrine resides in the four “standard works” of scripture (the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price), official declarations and proclamations, and the Articles of Faith. Isolated statements are often taken out of context, leaving their original meaning distorted.
- —The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Approaching Mormon Doctrine (May 4, 2007)
In response to a letter "received at the office of the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints" in 1912, Charles W. Penrose of the First Presidency wrote:
- Question 14: Do you believe that the President of the Church, when speaking to the Church in his official capacity is infallible?
- Answer: We do not believe in the infallibility of man. When God reveals anything it is truth, and truth is infallible. No President of the Church has claimed infallibility.
Prophets in the LDS tradition are not infallible
Latter-day Saints do not believe that prophets and apostles are incapable of error, despite being called of God and receiving revelation. Joseph Smith himself taught that ‘a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such’. The Church has always taught that its leaders are human and subject to failings as are all mortals. Only Jesus was perfect, as explained in this statement from the First Presidency:
The position is not assumed that the men of the New Dispensation —its prophets, apostles, presidencies, and other leaders—are without faults or infallible, rather they are treated as men of like passions with their fellow men."
Lu Dalton, writing in the Church's periodical for women, explained:
We consider God, and him alone, infallible; therefore his revealed word to us cannot be doubted, though we may be in doubt some times about the knowledge which we obtain from human sources, and occasionally be obliged to admit that something which we had considered to be a fact, was really only a theory.
Other authors have long taught the same thing:
- 1887 B. H. Roberts, Letter written November 4, 1887, London, Millennial Star 49. 48 (November 28, 1887): 760-763; a portion of which reads: “Relative to these sermons [Journal of Discourses] I must tell you they represent the individual views of the speakers, and the Church is not responsible for their teachings. Our authorized Church works are the Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price. In the Church very wide latitude is given to individual belief and opinion, each man being responsible for his views and not the Church; the Church is only responsible for that which she sanctions and approves through the formal actions of her councils. So it may be that errors will be found in the sermons of men, and that in their over zeal unwise expressions will escape them, for all of which the Church is not responsible” (762)
- 1889 Charles W. Penrose, Editorial: Judge Anderson and ‘Blood Atonement,’ Deseret Weekly 39. 25 (December 14, 1889): 772a-773c. [Editor is Charles W. Penrose; in his response to the lengthy statement by Judge Anderson, he quotes from the same pamphlet which the Judge had quoted from: Blood Atonement, by Elder Charles W. Penrose, published in 1884; Penrose quotes a statement which the Judge had not] “’The law of God is paramount. When men give their views upon any doctrine, the value of those views is as the value of the man. If he is a wise man, a man of understanding, of experience and authority, such views are of great weight with the community; but they are not paramount, nor equal to the revealed law of God’” (773ab)
- 1892 21 March 1892: Elder Charles W. Penrose, at the time a counselor in the Salt Lake Stake Presidency: "At the head of this Church stands a man who is a Prophet . . . we respect and venerate him; but we do not believe that his personal views or utterances are revelations from God." Millennial Star 54 (21 March 1892): 191
- 1902 Joseph F. Smith to Lillian Golsan, July 16, 1902. "[T]he theories, speculations, and opinions of men, however intelligent, ingenious, and plausible, are not necessarily doctrines of the Church or principles that God has commanded His servants to preach. No doctrine is a doctrine of this Church until it has been accepted as such by the Church, and not even a revelation from God should be taught to his people until it has first been approved by the presiding authority–the one through whom the Lord makes known His will for the guidance of the saints as a religious body. The spirit of revelation may rest upon any one, and teach him or her many things for personal comfort and instruction. But these are not doctrines of the Church, and, however true, they must not be inculcated until proper permission is given.” - Joseph F. Smith Correspondence, Personal Letterbooks, 93–94, Film Reel 9, Ms. F271; cited in Dennis B. Horne (ed.), Determining Doctrine: A Reference Guide for Evaluation Doctrinal Truth (Roy, Utah: Eborn Books, 2005), 221–222. Also in Statements of the LDS First Presidency, compiled by Gary James Bergera (Signature, 2007), page 121. Bergera indicates it is a letter from JFS to Lillian Golsan, July 16, 1902.
- 1907 March 26, 1907. [The following was first published in “An Address. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to the World”, in Millennial Star 69. 16 (April 18, 1907): 241-247; 249-254; also in Improvement Era 10 (May 1907): 481-495; reprinted also in Messages of the First Presidency, Volume IV, compiled by James R. Clark (Bookcraft, SLC 1970): 142-157; “We refuse to be bound by the interpretations which others place upon our beliefs, or by what they allege must be the practical consequences of our doctrines. Men have no right to impute to us what they think may be the logical deduction from our beliefs, but which we ourselves do not accept. We are to be judged by our own interpretations and by our own actions, not by the logic of others, as to what is, or may be, the result of our faith”, page 154.
- 1921 B.H. Roberts: As to the printed discourses of even leading brethren…they do not constitute the court of ultimate appeal on doctrine. They may be very useful in the way of elucidation and are very generally good and sound in doctrine, but they are not the ultimate sources of the doctrines of the Church, and are not binding upon the Church. The rule in that respect is—What God has spoken, and what has been accepted by the Church as the word of God, by that, and that only, are we bound in doctrine. When in the revelations it is said concerning the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator that the Church shall “give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them—for his word ye shall receive as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith”—(Doc & Cov., Sec. 21)—it is understood, of course, that his has reference to the word of God received through revelation, and officially announced to the Church, and not to every chance word spoken.
Protection against error
The Church's system of councils provides protection against the fallibility of a single man or leader. President Smith explained:
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.
Dallin H. Oaks explained how the Lord allows all His children to grow through struggling with problems:
Revelations from God . . . are not constant. We believe in continuing revelation, not continuous revelation. We are often left to work out problems without the dictation or specific direction of the Spirit. That is part of the experience we must have in mortality. Fortunately, we are never out of our Savior's sight, and if our judgment leads us to actions beyond the limits of what is permissible and if we are listening, . . . the Lord will restrain us by the promptings of his Spirit.
The Lord will not help his children avoid all stumbling and error; He will protect them from permanent harm to His work, as Boyd K. Packer taught:
Even with the best of intentions, [Church government] does not always work the way it should. Human nature may express itself on occasion, but not to the permanent injury of the work.
Does this mean that members must simply have "blind trust" in their leaders? Hardly, says President Lorenzo Snow:
There may be some things that the First Presidency do; that the Apostles do, that cannot for the moment be explained; yet the spirit, the motives that inspire the action can be understood, because each member of the Church has a right to have that measure of the Spirit of God that they can judge as to those who are acting in their interests or otherwise.
Biblical prophets are not infallible
Some critics will protest that this standard is not applied to Biblical prophets, yet the Bible itself does not support this claim. One Bible commentator noted that the Biblical authors were not perfect, and that they made errors of expression even in the Biblical record:
Though purified and ennobled by the influence of His Holy Spirit; men each with his own peculiarities of manner and disposition—each with his own education or want of education—each with his own way of looking at things—each influenced differently from another by the different experiences and disciplines of his life. Their inspiration did not involve a suspension of their natural faculties; it did not even make them free from earthly passion; it did not make them into machines—it left them men. Therefore we find their knowledge sometimes no higher than that of their contemporaries.
Paul’s accounts even contain a contradictory account of his vision (Compare Acts 9:7 & Acts 22:9). Paul and Barnabas disagreed severely enough for it to disrupt their missions Acts 15:36–39. Peter and Paul also criticized the other’s writing 2 Peter 3:16 and behavior regarding the Church Galatians 2:11–16.
To get a better idea of how prophets are limited yet still divinely called, it can be helpful to look at some examples of Bible prophets and compare them with modern prophets.
|Bible prophets||Modern prophets|
|Moses disobeyed God's instruction to speak to the rock and instead hit it. He then attributed the miracle to himself and Aaron, saying, "Must we fetch you water out of this rock?" He was chastized by the Lord afterward. (Numbers 20:)|
|Joshua was deceived by the inhabitants of Gibeon when they claimed to come from a far country so they could get a peace accord with Joshua. Then the Israelites found that instead of living a long distant away, that people from Gibeon lived among them. (Joshua 9:)||Gordon B. Hinckley was deceived by Mark Hofmann, who had done so in order to obtain money. Hofmann was even responsible for the death of some people. After some investigation, he was discovered and sentenced.|
|Gideon repeatedly asked the Lord for signs even though the Lord has said, "An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign." (Judges 7:; Matthew 12:39)|
|Nathan told David that the Lord approved of his desire to build a temple, and that he should commence the project. The Lord later told Nathan that such was not His desire, and that he was to tell David that the temple would be built by another. (2 Samuel 7:)|
|Jonah felt some personal prejudices against Assyrians, to the point of expecting the Lord to give them fewer blessings than to Jews. (Jonah 4:1)||Brigham Young felt some personal prejudices against blacks, to the point of expecting the Lord to give them fewer blessings than caucasians.|
|Jesus' apostles were not always perfectly humble or modest. They once disputed over which of them would be the greatest in heaven. (Mark 9:34)||Joseph Smith was not always perfectly humble or modest. He once said he had "more to boast of than ever any man had." See here, though, to learn how critics misinterpret this event.|
A person could spend all day looking for examples of the Lord's chosen servants making mistakes, but such an activity does nothing to edify or strengthen people. In all of these situations, a prophet's weakness or mistakes do not make him any less a prophet, called of God to do His work.
- [note] Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15 no. 11 (September 1912).
- [note] Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:265. BYU Studies link; See also Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 278. ISBN 087579243X. off-site
- [note] James R. Clark, quoting B. H. Roberts, Messages of the First Presidency, edited by James R. Clark, Vol. 4, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1970), p. xiv–xv.
- [note] Lu Dalton, Woman's Exponent (Salt Lake City: 15 July 1882), p. 31.
- [note] Brigham H. Roberts, “Answer Given to ‘Ten Reasons Why “Christians” Can Not Fellowship with Latter-Day Saints,’” discourse delivered in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, 10 July 1921. Deseret News, 23 July 1921, 4:7. Roberts' previous reply to the same pamphlet also appeared in His earlier response can be found in Brian H. Stuy (editor), Collected Discourses: Delivered by Wilford Woodruff, his two counselors, the twelve apostles, and others, 1868–1898, 5 vols., (Woodland Hills, Utah: B.H.S. Publishing, 1987–1989), 5:134-141. ; it was first published in Millennial Star 58 (July 22, 1896): 417-20; 433-9.
- [note] Joseph Fielding Smith, "Eternal Keys and the Right to Preside," Ensign (July 1972), 88. off-site
- [note] Dallin H. Oaks, "Teaching and Learning by the Spirit," Ensign (March 1997), 14. off-site
- [note] Boyd K. Packer, "I Say unto You, Be One," in BYU Devotional and Fireside Speeches, 1990–1991 (Provo, Utah: University Publications, 1991), 84.
- [note] Lorenzo Snow, "A Serious ordeal, etc.," in Conference Report (October 1898), 54.
- [note] James R. Dummelow, A Commentary on the Holy Bible: Complete in one volume, with general articles (New York : Macmillan, 1984 ), p. cxxxv.
- [note] Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 6:408–409. BYU Studies link This statement, when understood in its proper context, doesn't appear to be a statement of personal pride at all. Joseph Smith read to the congregation 2 Corinthians 11 and then mimicked Paul in his "boasting." In its proper context, Joseph Smith was not acting in a proud manner at all but was using the rhetoric of Paul to defend his own authority as a prophet against those who were then proclaiming him a "fallen prophet." This statement, however, is used often in anti-Mormon literature as a criticism of the prophet and is used here only to show that even if he were in fact proud, it doesn't damage his authority as a prophet/apostles any more than it damaged Jesus' apostles' authority.