Mormonism' equivocal attitude toward the Bible is a direct outcome of its dogma of continued revelation. The inner contradictions between the Biblical and Mormon world-views are of such a character that a whole-hearted acceptance of one automatically excludes an equal reliance upon the other, and Mormons have accordingly assigned the Bible a distinctly inferior position with regard to the revelations of Joseph Smith and his successors. James L. Barker's comment is typical of the Mormon position: "In general, it is well not to use a single passage of scripture in proof of a point, unless it is confirmed by modern revelation .... If a single quotation is confirmed by modern revelation, we may be sure of its interpretation."(1)
The Mormon belief in the possibility of contemporary revelation is not objectionable in itself. What is objectionable is their claim that such revelation has actually occurred and that they are its sole custodians. Many Christian groups believe in continued revelation in one form or another, but none of them would accept Joseph Smith as a true prophet. The only way for these opposing claimants to decide between themselves is to submit their respective claims to the test of scripture. Moses said to reject any prophet whose teachings did not wholly conform with the revealed will of God (Deut. 13:1-5), and Isaiah directed his readers "To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them1" (8:20). The Bible, in the clearest possible words, teaches that the canon of scripture is the authoritative standard by which all revelation must be judged. Paul recorded in Gal. 1:8, "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than they which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed."
As proof of their being led by continuous revelation, Mormons assert that their Church alone is governed by living apostles and prophets. They often argue as if possession of these two offices were itself a sufficient indication of the essential truthfulness of Mormonism; for without apostles and prophets "there can be no work of the ministry--no edification of the body of Christ--no perfecting of the Saints--and consequently no Church."(2)
The success of the Mormon argument depends largely upon what is meant by "prophets" and "apostles." The root meaning of prophet is "one who proclaims" and that of apostle "one designated as envoy," definitions which would apply to anyone who felt chosen to preach. Mormons, however, assert that what they mean by prophets and apostles is what the Biblical authors meant by the terms, and in this sense their claim is demonstrably false. Unless prepared to redefine the terms in their own interest and thus rob themselves of any distinctive claim, the Mormon dogma of living prophets and apostles can be decisively settled by reference to the Bible, which proves them led by prophets who are not prophets and apostles who "say they are apostles, and are not" (Rev. 2:2).
Comparing the Biblical and Mormon definitions of "prophet" reveals dissimilarities on every hand. The calling of prophet in the Old and New Testaments could be held by both men and women;(3) the Mormon office of prophet is exclusively a male perogative. The Old Testament prophet was only rarely the head of the Jewish Church and the New Testament prophets never; the Mormon prophet is invariably President of the Mormon Church. The prophets of the Old Testament were not all drawn from the priestly class, with whom they were often in conflict; the Mormon prophet is by definition head of the Mormon priesthood. In Biblical times there was no chief prophet to whom the other prophets were subordinate; the Mormon Church teaches that there is only one prophet empowered to speak in God's name on earth at any given time. In the New Testament period prophets were subservient to apostles; in the Mormon Church apostles are subservient to prophets. The Biblical prophets were often called to the office without any human instrumentality; Mormon prophets are not prophets unless appointed to the office by men possessing the requisite authority. The Bible condemns as false any prophet who denies the basic truth of God's unity; Mormon prophets are committed to the view that there are more gods than one. Finally, the prophets of the Bible were without exception conscious of speaking for God, whereas Mormon prophets often spend their entire tenure in office without once claiming divine afflatus. Indeed, one Mormon "prophet" is on record as saying, "I have never pretended to nor do I profess to have received revelations."(4)
A similar argument can be made against the Mormon claim of "apostles," though in this case it is not necessary to detail differences in office in order to disprove the Mormon contention. The reason for this is that the New Testament clearly teaches that the apostleship was a temporary office, given only until the church could be properly established. Peter said in Acts 1:21-22,
Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection.
To be an apostle, it was first necessary to be an eyewitness of Christ's resurrection. Paul wrote in 1 Cor. 9:1, "Am I not an apostle? am I not free? have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?" A second qualification was that an apostle must have a knowledge of Christ's life and teachings derived from Jesus himself. Christ chose the apostles "because ye have been with me from the beginning" (Jn. l4:27), and Paul received the gospel "not...of men, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ" (Gal. 1:11-12). A third condition was that an apostle must work miracles in confirmation of his apostolic calling. Christ invested his apostles with the powers of exorcism, healing, and raising the dead, thereby confirming their appointment with mighty signs and wonders (Mt. 10:1, 8).(5) Should the twelve apostles of the Mormon Church offer convincing evidence of having fulfilled these three conditions, their claims might be entitled to more credence.
There are various passages in the Bible which Mormons interpret as teaching future revelation. One of the more prominent of these is Mt. 7: 15-16, "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?" Jesus' mention of false prophets, Mormons contend, logically implies the existence of true prophets who would later appear.
This rather tenuous string of logic will not support the weight placed upon it by Mormon exegetes. False prophets may indeed imply true prophets, but this requires no more than the already existing contrast between the true and false prophets of Jesus' time. The same thought underlies Mt. 24:24, where Christ predicts the coming of both false prophets and false messiahs. Using Mormon logic, this would imply the coming of true Christs additional to Jesus himself.
Mormons often apply Jesus' description of these false prophets to Protestant Christianity, claiming that the repeated confession of "Lord, Lord" in Mt. 7:21 is equivalent to the Protestant's profession of Christ as savior. A more comprehensive analysis of the text, however, reveals that Mormons would find it difficult to apply Jesus' words to anyone other than themselves. Those who address Christ as Lord represent themselves not as simple believers but as prophets and exorcists; their hope of salvation rests not upon the merits of Christ but upon their own marvelous deeds. Such a description is alien to Protestant and Catholic theology, but strangely congenial to the claims of Joseph Smith.
Another passage frequently cited as proof for continued revelation is Pro. 29:18, "Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he." Like many of the proverbs, vs. 29 is composed of two contrasting statements, the truth of the one being enforced by comparison with the obverse truth of the other. This explains why Mormons seldom quote the second half of the proverb, as it significantly modifies their interpretation of the first part. Amplified, the proverb reads as follows: "Where there is no prophetic vision, no direct communication between God and man, a nation is subject to indecision and indiscipline; but the individual who abides by the law, faithfully holding to the revelation already given, happy is he." The first expression is a simple statement of fact; the second a solution to the problem presented. Far from claiming that prophetic vision is always necessary, the author of Proverbs expressly states that God's earlier revelations are sufficient for individual blessedness.
A final text bearing upon the question of continued revelation is Rev. 19:10, "for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy." On the basis of this text Mormons hold that anyone who has a genuine testimony to Jesus also enjoys the "spirit of prophecy," which they then equate with modern revelation. It is unlikely, however, that the text will bear this interpretation. On the Mormon view, the "spirit of prophecy" or modern revelation is possessed by all those having a "testimony of Jesus," meaning by this all true Christians. This interpretation requires that the Greek word translated "of Jesus" be in the objective genitive, "the testimony born by men to Jesus," but this construction is very improbable. The expression "the testimony of Jesus" also occurs in Rev. 1:2, 9; 12:17; and 20:4, and in each instance the genitive is subjective, "the testimony proceeding from Jesus" or "Jesus' testimony." It is therefore most natural that the phrase is used in the same sense here, which means that John was not referring to Christians who believe in revelation because possessing a witness to Jesus but to Jesus' testimony as the source of all Christian prophecy.(6)
The Mormon use of Rev. 19:10 also illustrates a point which the reader should bear in mind throughout this study. Setting aside all considerations of grammar or context, just what would the verse prove? Only that the witness of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. This may mean either that the vital, underlying principle of all true prophecy is the indwelling spirit of Christ (cf. 1 Pet. 1:11), or that the spirit of prophecy expresses itself in witnessing to Jesus. Viewed from the one perspective, the verse is simply a definition of prophecy, and is compatable with the traditional Christian view that prophecy in the sense of new scripture ended with the completion of the New Testament; viewed from the other, the verse is speaking of how the principle of prophecy now manifests itself in having a witness to Jesus, which again does not require any modification of the traditional Christian understanding of revelation. None of these various possibilities support the Mormon contention, but provide a striking reminder that apart from grammar and context it is impossible to decide upon any one meaning to the exclusion of any other.
While there are no texts in the Bible which unequivocally assert the necessity of continued revelation, there is also no text which clearly denies the possibility of future communications from heaven. Granting, then, that contemporary revelation is at least possible, what criteria does the Bible contain which would enable us to distinguish between genuine and spurious revelations? The first criterion, as we have already seen, is that of consistency; the second is that of fulfilled prophecy. This last should never be divorced from the first, for fulfilled prophecy in and of itself means nothing if the prophet teaches doctrines contrary to those attested by scripture. We read in Deut. 13:1-3,
If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof be spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou has not known, and let us serve them; 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.
This means that even should a prophet offer irrefutable proofs of supernatural knowledge, predicting future events with the same ease and accuracy as we foretell the sun's rising tomorrow, that prophet is false if he urges us to forsake the fundamental truth of God's unity. How well Smith fits this description will become clear in later chapters.
Leaving the question of consistency aside for the moment, however, does Smith present any evidence of genuine prophetic ability? The answer to this question must be a decided no. Even before the organization of his Church Smith had predicted that the copyright to the Book of Mormon would be sold to a man in Canada. Oliver Cowdery and Hiram Page were entrusted to carry out the divine commission, which terminated in utter failure. Cowdery and Page returned "nearly starved, completely wearied, with no money nor copyright sold either."(7) Three years later Smith again tried his hand at prophecy, again with the same conspicuous lack of success. He promised in the name of the Lord that a temple would be constructed in Independence, Missouri during the generation then living, "for verily this generation shall not all pass away until an house shall be built unto the Lord" (Doctrine and Covenants 84:5). Despite Smith's confidence, and the confidence of later Mormon leaders, no temple has ever been constructed by the Mormons in Independence, Missouri, let alone within the lifetime of anyone living in 1832.
Other false prophecies which Smith delivered during his lifetime were that Christ would return to earth in 1891, (8) that the United States Congress would be destroyed if it did not grant Smith redress for losses suffered in Missouri (which it did not),(9) that a treasure would be discovered in Salem, Massachusetts, which would enable Smith to pay his debts, though after a month's searching no treasure was found (Doctrine and Covenants 111). (10) These and other false prophecies are variously explained by Mormons, though no explanation has thus far succeeded in its intended purpose. The prophecies themselves are clear; the predicted event unambiguous; and each delivered under the clear conviction of divine inspiration. When prophecies of this character fail there can only be one explanation: their author was a false prophet.
If this be so, it might be wondered how Mormons can continue to reverence a prophet so conspicuously unsuccessful in predicting future events. To this question there are two answers: first, most Mormons are either unaware of have conveniently "forgotten" Smith's prophetic blunders; second, Smith's stature as a prophet rests for the great majority of the faithful upon a revelation which we have not yet discussed. This is his famous prediction, in 1832, of the Civil War.
In that revelation Smith stated that war would begin in South Carolina, eventually terminating in the "death and misery of many souls" (Doctrine and Covenants 87:1). For those of us far from the events of 1832, Smith's prophecy may seem wonderfully accurate, but at the time it would have passed as little more than a commonplace. On Nov. 24, 1832, the state legislature of South Carolina passed an ordinance in which they declared the tariff act passed earlier the same year "null and void" and "inconsistent with the longer continuance of South Carolina in the Union." They further threatened to "hold themselves absolved from all further obligation to maintain or preserve their political connexion with the people of the other States, and will forthwith proceed to organize a separate Government, ...."(11) The nation was tense with the threat of imminent war: President Jackson alerted the nation's military and naval forces, South Carolina mobilized her troops and called for additional volunteers, and the nation waited for the armed hostilities which were "hourly apprehended." At the height of this tension Smith delivered his famous prophecy on war, prefacing it with a brief recital of the events which had let to the crisis.(12) In other words, at the time of the revelation South Carolina had already rebelled, both sides had armed themselves for war, and the general feeling was that the nation was on the brink of a bloody civil conflict.(13) Under such circumstances, when virtually everyone was expecting a civil war, it would have been better for Smith's prophetic reputation had he predicted that no war would occur at the time, or that the anticipated conflict would not erupt until considerably later.
While the events occurring in 1832 are sufficient to explain any elements of Smith's revelation which may strike later generations as "prophetic," the prophecy considered as a whole is manifestly false. Smith was wonderfully accurate in "predicting" events which had already occurred, but hopelessly inaccurate in forecasting events which had not yet transpired. In vss. 2-3, for example, he predicted that "war will be poured out upon all nations, beginning at this place [South Carolina]."
For behold, the Southern States shall be divided against the Northern States, and the Southern States will call on other nations, even the nation of Great Britain, as it is called, and they shall also call upon other nations, in order to defend themselves against other nations; and then war shall be poured out upon all nations.
Here Smith claims that the rebellion occurring in South Carolina would finally involve all other nations, each calling upon the other until the whole world was embroiled in global conflict. This obviously did not occur. While the South did call upon other nations to assist in its struggle with the North, none granted the South more than covert aid, as they did not wish to become involved in what was essentially an internal dispute. None formed alliances with other nations for mutual protection, and no international conflict occurred as a result of the American Civil War.
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1. James L. Barker, The Divine Church (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1951), 9.
2. Pratt, A Series of Pamphlets, 187.
3. The fact that women could share in the prophetic calling offers an evidence of the transitory character of that office in the early church. The apostles, after the model of the Jewish synagogue, denied women ecclesiastical office, yet we read of prophetesses existing in the primitive church. This is a definite indication that prophets were not an indispensable part of normal church polity.
4. U. S. Senate, Committee on Privileges and Elections, Proceedings in the Matter of the Protests against the Right of the Hon. Reed Smoot, a Senator from Utah, to Hold His Seat. Senate Document No. 486, 59th Congress, 1st Session 1:99; cf. 1:483-484.
5. Paul referred to these same gifts as the "signs of an apostle" (2 Cor.12:12).
6. Even if it should be admitted that the "testimony of Jesus" refers to the testimony borne by men to Jesus, this still does not require the interpretation that all true believers are prophets. The parallel passages of 22:6, 9 identify the "brethren that have the testimony of Jesus" as Christian prophets, not believers in general. The explanatory words of 19:10, "for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy," also implies that John's brethren are fellow members of the prophetic office and hence distinct from Christians generally. Interpreted in this light, Rev. 19:10 pertains to the prophetic office as it then existed, not to its continuance within the Christian church of all ages.
7. W. Wyl, Mormon Portraits (Salt Lake City: Tribune Printing and Publishing Company, 1886), 311; cf. Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, 31, and a letter from W. E. McLellan to Joseph Smith III, dated July 1872. The original of this last is in the archives of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
8. Smith, History of the Church 2:182.
9. Ibid., 6:116. B. H. Roberts, in a note on this prophecy, suggests that it refers to the administration then in power, not to the Congress as a governmental body. He points out that the Democrats, which were then the dominant party, lost control of the Congress some years later, not returning to power until some quarter of a century had passed. This interpretation, however ingenious, does not fit the entire prophecy, for when Roberts "edited" Smith's History he deleted the phrase, "and God shall damn them, and there shall nothing be left of them--not even a grease spot." Millennial Star 22 (21 July 1860):455. Neither the Congress as a governmental body or as the dominant party then in power were utterly destroyed, which makes the prophecy patently false, however interpreted.
10. For background on the treasure hunt revelation, see E. Robinson, "Items of Personal History of the Editor," The Return (Davis City, Iowa) July 1889, 105-106.
11. William MacDonald (ed.), Documentary Source Book of American History (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1908), 332-333.
12. Smith, History of the Church 1:301.
13. The anticipated war, however, failed to occur as predicted, and Smith, though he had already sent out missionaries announcing the forthcoming conflict, stopped the revelation from being printed, lest people say that he had delivered another false prophecy. It was only in 1851, when conditions once more seemed propitious for a civil war, that Smith's prophecy was first made public. Only a few months before this date Congress had passed the so-called Compromise Measure of 1850, which issued in a great agitation among the Southern and Northern states over whether the new territories should be admitted as slave or free. Numerous conventions were held throughout the South, where the popular feeling was that the measures should be resisted by force. Under these conditions Smith's prophecy was finally printed, lest it not appear until after the predicted event.