The Nature of Prophets and Prophecy
by John A. Tvedtnes
The message of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that God continues to speak to mankind through prophets.
It is the same message delivered anciently. But many have challenged this belief. Numerous anti-Mormon pamphlets have been published with the aim of proving that Joseph Smith is a false prophet.
Several critics have compiled lists of dozens of supposed "false prophecies" uttered by Joseph Smith.
The Biblical Test for Prophets
Here, the Lord describes both the false prophet and the false prophecy. A false prophet either speaks for false gods or attributes to the Lord things that the Lord did not command him to speak. The Deuteronomy 18 passage establishes two criteria for a false prophecy:
The Deuteronomy passage does not say that a man is a false prophet because his prophecy failed, only that the failed prophecy is false. This being the case, it is incorrect to conclude, as most critics do, that one false prophecy (even if some true prophecies are given) makes Joseph Smith a false prophet. The danger in so defining the Deuteronomy passage lies in the fact that there is a tendency on the part of non-believers to "explain away" the prophecy, while believers seek ways to defend it. Thus, the process of determining the truth or falseness of a prophecy becomes, to some extent, subjective.
Consequently, a critic of Joseph Smith can look at a hundred of his prophecies, find one that, in his judgment, is in error, and thereby conclude that Joseph himself was a false prophet. That this has, in fact, happened with true prophets is evidenced in the Bible itself, where we read Jesus' statement about the stoning and rejection of the ancient prophets of Israel (Matthew 23:37). These men were undoubtedly stoned because, in the judgment of their contemporaries, they were false prophets. A good example of the rejection of a prophet is the story of Jeremiah, who was imprisoned and mistreated by the leaders of Judah, who refused to believe his message.
President Joseph Fielding Smith, commenting on the passage from Deuteronomy 18, wrote,
The Double Standard
Based on the false premise that "all you need is one false prophecy to have a false prophet," some critics have ignored many of Joseph Smith's prophecies and have zeroed in on ones they consider to be false. But they typically identify unfulfilled commandments, opinions, and counsel as "false prophecies." In doing so, they forsake the rules laid out in Deuteronomy 18:20-22, ignoring the fact that the passage defines a false prophecy as one uttered in the name of the Lord which does not come to pass.
The main problem is that the critics do not apply these same standards to biblical prophecies. And when we try to show that, by these standards, many of the biblical prophets fail the tests they have set up for Joseph Smith, we are accused of "Bible-slamming." To those who ascribe more divinity to the Bible than to God, such a "sin" is worse than blasphemy itself. Honesty, however, impels us to submit the biblical prophets to the same tests as those applied to Joseph Smith.
For this reason, following the logic of the critics, we would have to conclude that Moses-to whom the revelation in Deuteronomy 18:20-22 is ascribed-was a false prophet. In Numbers 25:13, he said, in the name of the Lord, that Phinehas, his grand nephew, would hold the priesthood eternally. But if Hebrews 7:11-12 is correct, the Aaronic priesthood is not eternal. In this particular example, Moses fills the requirement for the test of Deuteronomy much more closely than does Joseph Smith in most of the examples of "false prophecies" cited by the critics. How, then, can Latter-day Saints accept both Joseph Smith and Moses as true prophets, regarding their prophecies as divinely-inspired? The answer lies in the fact that prophecy is typically conditional.
The Conditional Nature of Prophecy
It was the Lord himself, through the biblical prophet Jeremiah, who explained the conditional nature of prophecy:
Jeremiah himself exemplified the principle of conditional prophecy when he told king Zedekiah, in the name of the Lord, that he would not go captive into Babylon if he followed the prophet's instructions; otherwise, he would be taken captive and Jerusalem would be destroyed (Jeremiah 38:17-23). The conditional nature of prophecy explains why Jonah is not a false prophet. The Lord's threat to destroy Nineveh within forty days (Jonah 3:4) was mitigated by the repentance of the city's population (Jonah 3:4-9). "And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not" (Jonah 3:10). Ironically, Jonah was upset by the fact that the prophecy was not fulfilled, and the Lord had to explain to him that the resultant repentance of "sixscore thousand persons" was more important than fulfilling the word (Jonah 4:1-11). From this story, it is obvious that the free-will actions of men play a role in the fulfillment of prophecy. Here are other examples from the Bible:
It is in the light of the conditional nature of prophecy that we must consider some of Joseph Smith's prophecies. For example, the missionary calling promised Thomas B. Marsh in D&C 112 was never fulfilled because he was excommunicated and forfeited his blessings. Critics have stated that if God really knew Marsh's heart (verse 11), he would have known that he would apostatize and not be worthy of the promised blessings. The same argument has been used in regard to George Miller's calling to the bishopric (D&C 124:20-21), eight years before he was disfellowshipped.
By this same reasoning, God should not have promised a throne to David (1 Samuel 16:12-13; 2 Samuel 3:9-10; 1 Kings 2:4; 8:25; 9:5), since David, in future, would commit adultery and order the death of an innocent man (1 Samuel 11). This also brings up the question of Jesus' promise to his twelve apostles: "Ye which have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of man shall sit in the throne of his glory, ye also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Luke 19:28). This promise was made before Judas betrayed the Master and he was obviously included among those who would sit on the "twelve thrones." How could Jesus have made such a promise to the one who would betray him, whom he termed "a devil" (John 6:70-71)? The answer seems obvious: at the time of the promises, Judas, Thomas B. Marsh and George Miller were faithful to the Lord. By their subsequent actions, they lost all claim to those promises.
The Question of Timeframe
In response, we note that Isaiah (55:8) wrote, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither your ways my ways, saith the Lord." God's reckoning of time cannot be compared to that of man. Peter wrote that "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day" (2 Peter 3:8; compare with Psalm 90:4). The context of Peter's statement is that "there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, and saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation" (2 Peter 3:3-4). After reminding his readers that the Lord does not reckon time as men do, he adds, "The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord shall come as a thief in the night" (2 Peter 3:9-10).
Most of Joseph Smith's prophecies do not give a timeframe for their fulfillment. Others indicate that the events will occur "soon." But from God's viewpoint, "soon" can be a rather long time. The Bible has a number of prophecies of things that the prophets said would happen "soon" but which did not, in fact, occur for a century or more. For example, Isaiah, in his prophecy concerning the destruction of Babylon (Isaiah 13:1, 19-20) wrote that "the day of the Lord is at hand" (Isaiah 13:6). Yet Babylon was not even conquered until 539 B.C., a century and a half after Isaiah, while its destruction came even later.
Isaiah had also prophesied concerning the actions of Assyria against Israel and Judah: "Be not afraid of the Assyrian: he shall smite thee with a rod, and shall lift up his staff against thee, after the manner of Egypt. For yet a little while, and the indignation shall cease, and mine anger in their destruction" (Isaiah 10:24-25). Israel was taken captive by Assyria in 722 B.C. and the Assyrian king Sennacherib attacked Judah in 701 B.C. But it was not until 605 B.C. -- a century later -- that Assyria was defeated by a coalition of Babylonians and Medes. In this case, the prophet's "little while" meant more than a century, making the prophet's counsel "be not afraid" meaningless to his audience.
Zephaniah, writing of the destruction of Judah, wrote that "the day of the Lord is at hand" (1:7) and that "the great day of the Lord is near, it is near, and it hasteth greatly" (1:14). This was written in the days of King Josiah (1:1), nearly a century before Judah was taken captive by the Babylonians. Joel used similar words, saying, "the day of the Lord is at hand" (1:15) and "the day of the Lord cometh, for it is nigh at hand" (2:1).
The New Testament Apostles used similar terminology. Jesus showed John "things which must shortly come to pass" (Revelation 1:1; 22:6). After nearly two millennia, most of the things which John saw in the vision have not come to pass despite the fact that Jesus said they would occur "shortly." In Revelation 12:12, John wrote that the devil has "but a short time" until he is bound when the millennium begins (compare with Romans 16:20), but the devil has still not been bound and the millennial reign of Christ has not yet come.
James wrote, "Be patient therefore, brethren, unto the coming of the Lord… Be ye also patient…for the coming of the Lord draweth nigh…behold, the judge standeth before the door" (James 5:7-9). Yet Jesus has not yet come to judge and reign. Peter was even stronger than James when he wrote, "But the end of all things is at hand" (1 Peter 4:7). Obviously, "all things" have not yet ended, despite the nearly two millennia that have passed since these words were written. If prophecies uttered thousands of years ago by biblical prophets remain unfulfilled, can we not give Joseph Smith a century or two?
In some prophetic utterances, Joseph Smith used timeframe terminology taken from the Bible itself.
For example, the term "near, even at the doors" (D&C 110:16) derives from Jesus' statement in Matthew 24:33. In D&C 100:13, 15, we read of
"a little season," a term coming from Revelation 6:11, where the martyrs are told that they will "rest yet for a little season."
The statement is made after the opening of the fifth seal and prior to the occurrence of the many events scheduled for the sixth and seventh seals before the promise is fulfilled.
The statement in D&C 106:4 ("the coming of the Lord draweth nigh") resembles the one in Revelation 22:20 (see also 3:11; 22:7), where John quotes Jesus as saying, "Surely I come
quickly." The century and a half that separate us from Joseph Smith are nothing compared to the nearly two millennia since John wrote those words.
False or Unreasonable?
Some of the critics have included "unreasonable" prophecies in their lists of false prophetic utterances by Joseph Smith. The subjective nature of such a determination makes this procedure unacceptable. What is "unreasonable" to one person may be perfectly acceptable to another. For example, the prophets Ezekiel and Jeremiah "contradicted" each other concerning an essential point, and yet were both right. Ezekiel had prophesied that king Zedekiah would go to Babylon but never see it (Ezekiel 12:13), while his contemporary Jeremiah prophesied that Hezekiah would be taken captive to Babylon (Jeremiah 32:5). But, in the end, both prophets proved true, for Zedekiah indeed went captive into Babylon, but did not see the city, for he had been blinded (2 Kings 25:7). Thus, we see that prophecies "impossible" of fulfillment have, in the course of time, proven true. Joseph Smith deserves at least the same kind of consideration.
When it comes to written revelations, the question of language becomes paramount. Was the revelation taken from the Lord's dictation by the prophet? Or does it reflect the prophet's language, reflecting the truths revealed to him by God? One could argue either case without clear resolution. But Latter-day Saints realize that the Lord "speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding" (2 Nephi 31:3; see also D&C 1:24). Thus, each prophet of the Old Testament wrote in his own dialect. Some of the later ones even used Aramaic or Persian words then being borrowed by the Hebrew language.
For a reason that eludes us, some critics have proclaimed Joseph Smith to be a false prophet because he cites earlier biblical prophets. Surely, this is not the sign of a false prophet. In the Bible, prophets quote other prophets, even when placing the words in the mouth of God. For example, Isaiah 2:2-4 is also found in Micah 4:1-3, with no credit line indicating that it is a quote.5 The following items are virtually identical in Obadiah and Jeremiah, one of which (presumably Jeremiah) quoted from the other without giving credit to his predecessor:
While some have taken Joseph Smith to task over biblical quotes in his revelations, others, ignorant that they are dealing with Bible passages, have termed some of these quotes "false prophecies."
One critic noted that the Word of Wisdom (D&C 89) is not from God because it makes false promises.
It says that those who adhere to its principles "shall run, and not be weary, and they shall walk and not faint," and that they shall have "health in the navel, and marrow in their bones" (D&C 89:18-21).
Since not all Latter-day Saints who keep the Word of Wisdom are endowed with such perfect health, this is taken as evidence of a false prophecy.
But the same could be said of the Jews to whom the words were originally addressed in Isaiah 40:31 and Proverbs 3:7-8, whence these promises are drawn.
Again, we encounter a situation where critics apply a different standard to Joseph Smith's revelations than they do to the Bible.
A Prophet is Not Always a Prophet
Under date of February 8, 1843, Joseph Smith wrote, "[I] visited with a brother and sister from Michigan who thought that `a prophet is always a prophet;' but I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such" (History of the Church 5:265). Prophets are, after all, human beings. The fact that they speak for God on occasion does not remove their free agency. Like all of us, prophets have opinions. Sometimes, these opinions are clearly set off, as Paul did in his first epistle to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 7:10, 12, 25, 40). Joseph Smith occasionally used wording such as "this is my counsel" (History of the Church 1:455) or "I therefore warn" (Nauvoo Neighbor, June 19, 1844).6 Elder Charles W. Penrose, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and later a counselor in the First Presidency, wrote, "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."7 More recently, Joseph Fielding Smith wrote:
Similar thoughts were expressed by President Harold B. Lee in a European area conference:
In January 1970, six months after the first Apollo moon landing, Joseph Fielding Smith became President of the LDS Church. Some anti-Mormon groups took delight in pointing out that he had, during his tenure as an Apostle, declared that it was "doubtful that man will ever be permitted to make any instrument or ship to travel through space and visit the moon or any distant planet."9 What these same critics failed to point out was that President Smith never attributed his belief to a revelation from God. Indeed, many of his generation held the same opinion, and all were surprised-but delighted-when proven wrong. Incorrect opinions do not make false prophets. Some of the Bible's foremost prophets, such as Moses and Jeremiah, objected that their lack of eloquence made them unsuited to fill the role the Lord had cut out for them. God overruled these opinions and sent them on their way.
One opinion held by Joseph Smith, frequently cited by critics, is that the Lord would come in 1890 (e.g., History of the Church 2:182). That this was, in fact, his feeling, is clearly indicated by the number of references he made to it. Joseph's statements on this subject were made in reaction to Adventist prophecies that Christ would come in the 1840s ( History of the Church 5:272, 290-291, 326, 337). Joseph reported that he had once prayed to know the time of the Lord's coming, and had been told, "My son, if thou livest until thou art eighty-five years of age, thou shalt see the face of the Son of Man." But Joseph was careful to add, "I was left to draw my own conclusions concerning this; and I took the liberty to conclude that if I did live to that time, He would make His appearance. But I do not say whether He will make His appearance or I shall go where He is" (History of the Church 5:324, 337; D&C 130:14-17). [see also the discussion by Malin Jacobs]
Since Joseph did not live to the age of 85, the "if" portion of the Lord's statement to him clearly shows that it was conditional. Moreover, Joseph was not told that the Lord would return in glory in 1890, only that he would see him at that time if he was yet alive. In other words, the Lord did not answer Joseph's question directly, for the very reason that no one knows the time of his coming--not even Joseph Smith or the angels of heaven (Matthew 24:36).
One might enquire about the likelihood that the Lord would "trick" Joseph Smith thus, making him think that he would see the Lord in 1890 when, in fact, the Lord knew Joseph would die in 1844. The question is mooted by a similar situation in the Bible. Isaiah came to King Ahaz in the name of the Lord and told him that Ephraim (head of the northern kingdom of Israel) would be broken "within threescore and five years" (Isaiah 7:8). Ahaz reigned in Judah from 734 to 728 B.C. Sixty-five years later would be 689-663 B.C. In actual fact, however, Israel was taken captive in 722 B.C., just six years after Ahaz's death, when his son Hezekiah was king of Judah.
Joseph made an assumption based on what the Lord told him, but it was only an assumption, and it was unwarranted. But this assumption guided some of his other declarations. This does not make him a false prophet, only a mortal who--like the rest of us--often let preconceived notions govern his thoughts. He was perfectly willing (and able) to change direction when the Lord contradicted any of his preconceptions.
The Character of a Prophet
Along with the false belief that there can be no "part-time" prophets is the misconception that a prophet must be without faults. Critics sometimes point to some of Joseph Smith's human failings as evidence that he could not possibly be a true prophet. But Joseph Smith himself admitted publicly on several occasions that he had faults. Once, he wrote of receiving a visitor from the east:
On another occasion, Joseph said, "Although I was called of my Heavenly Father to lay the foundation of this great work and kingdom in this dispensation, and testify of His revealed will to scattered Israel, I am subject to like passions as other men, like the prophets of olden times" (History of the Church 5:516). He also declared, "I told them I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect; if they expected perfection from me, I should expect it from them; but if they would bear with my infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, I would likewise bear with their infirmities" (History of the Church 5:181).
Joseph Smith was well aware of his limitations. He publicly stated, "Many persons think a prophet must be a great deal better than anybody else…I do not want you to think that I am very righteous, for I am not" (History of the Church 5:401). In a letter to Oliver Cowdery, intended for publication, Joseph wrote, "I do not, nor never [ sic] have, pretended to be any other than a man 'subject to passions,' and liable, without the assisting grace of the Savior, to deviate from that perfect path in which all men are commanded to walk" (Latter-day Saints Messenger & Advocate, November 6, 1834).
For some critics, the ultimate proof that Joseph Smith was a false prophet lies in the fact that he supposedly killed two of the men who stormed the Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844. Actually, we don't know whose shots killed these men, since others present were also armed. As the mob rushed up the stairs to kill Joseph and Hyrum Smith, both men fired through the door, while Willard Richards knocked down the rifle barrels of the attackers. Do the critics really expect that the prophet should meekly sit down with his hands up, waiting for some 200 men to burst into the room and riddle him, his beloved brother, and two of his closest friends with bullets? Does the fact that he fought for his life make him less a prophet? If so, then Elijah, too, was a false prophet, for he twice called down fire from heaven to destroy groups of 50 men sent by the king to arrest him (2 Kings 1:9-12)! Elijah slew a hundred; Joseph Smith may or may not have slain two men. Moses also slew a man he caught harming another (Exodus 2:11-14), yet God chose him to be a prophet. Another biblical prophet, Elisha, angered because young people were taunting him because of his bald head, called she-bears out of the woods to devour them (2 Kings 2:23-24).
The defensive actions of Joseph Smith and his companions at the Carthage jail parallel what happened when envoys from the chief priests came to arrest Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Peter drew a sword and smote off the ear of the high priest's servant (Matthew 26:51; Mark 14:47 Luke 22:50; John 18:10) with one of the two swords that Jesus had allowed the apostles to bring with them from the upper room (Luke 22:38). While it is true that Jesus instructed Peter to put up the sword and proceeded to heal the wounded man, events following Christ's resurrection demonstrate that he continued to acknowledge Peter as the chief of the apostles.
Joseph Smith's calling as a prophet has been questioned because some of his enemies accused him of brawling, lying, getting drunk, and even boasting. Joseph admitted having faults, but denied any gross sins (Joseph Smith-History 1:28). But his faults are, in the end, irrelevant to Joseph's prophetic calling, since many of the biblical prophets exhibited similar traits and sometimes did things most of us would consider worse than anything Joseph Smith did. For example, Jeremiah followed king Zedekiah's instructions to lie to the princes of Judah (Jeremiah 38:24-27). Elisha went even farther, instructing the Syrian general Hazael to lie to the Syrian king Ben-Hadad (2 Kings 8:9-10). Peter, chief of the apostles, through whom the Lord revealed his will (Matthew 16:17; Acts 10:9-20), lied at least three times when he denied knowing Jesus (Matthew 26:69-75). And in 1 Kings 13, we have the story of a prophet who lied to another prophet, by means of a false revelation, and thereby caused his death.
Biblical prophets were guilty of other sins as well. Noah became drunk (Genesis 9:20-21), but had nevertheless received instructions directly from God (Genesis 6:13f). David, who is termed a prophet in Acts 2:29-30, and through whom it is said the Holy Ghost spoke (Acts 1:16; 4:25), was guilty of adultery and the murder of an innocent man (2 Samuel 11), for which the Lord deprived him of blessings (D&C 132:39). Moses and Aaron boasted "must we fetch you water out of this rock?" (Numbers 20:10), and were thereby punished because they did not give the Lord credit for the miracle (verse 12). Joseph Smith was no worse than any of these ancient prophets, and far better than some.
In Good Company
A few critics have claimed that Joseph Smith cannot be a true prophet because of the many enemies he made and because he spent time in prison. He was brought to trial, tarred and feathered, chased out of town, imprisoned, and so enraged some people that a mob finally killed him. Even some of his closest associates turned against him. What the critics fail to mention is that none of Joseph's imprisonments was the result of a trial or a conviction.10
But Joseph was in good company. Jesus had said, "Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you" (Matthew 5:11-12).
Indeed, the earlier prophets had been persecuted. Jeremiah was placed in the stocks (Jeremiah 20:1-3), arrested and brought to trial (Jeremiah 26:8-24), later imprisoned (Jeremiah 32:2; 33:1; 37:15-21), and even placed in a miry dungeon to die (Jeremiah 38:6-8). Daniel was placed in the lion's den, but survived the ordeal through divine intervention (Daniel 6:16-23). The apostles Peter and John were thrice arrested, once imprisoned, and once beaten (Acts 4:1-21; 5:17-19, 26-41). Another apostle, James, was executed (Acts 12:1-2), after which Peter was again arrested and imprisoned (Acts 12:3-10).
The apostle Paul was similarly mistreated by the populace and by government officials. Once, he was stoned by a mob and left for dead (Acts 14:19-20). He and Silas were both whipped and imprisoned (Acts 16:22-26). He wrote that he had been beaten five times by the Jews, thrice beaten with rods, and once stoned (2 Corinthians 11:24). On his last trip to Jerusalem, some sought to kill him (Acts 21:31; 23:12-22). He was then arrested and led from one prison to another over several years, without trial (Acts 22-28) until, according to tradition, he and Peter were executed by order of the emperor Nero.
Even Jesus was mistreated in much the same way as Joseph Smith. He was accused of having a devil (Matthew 11:18; John 8:48; 10:20) and of being in league with the devil (Matthew 9:34). He was termed a "glutton" and "winebibber," who consorted with sinners (Matthew 11:19). Betrayed by one of his closest associates (Matthew 26:47-50), he was ultimately arrested, while all of his disciples forsook him and fled (Matthew 26:56). He was led away and accused of various crimes, with supporting testimony from false witnesses (Matthew 26:59-60). Among the list of accusations, we find blasphemy (Matthew 26:65; compare to John 10:33), sedition (Luke 23:2, 5, 14), and treason (for having declared himself king). He was spat upon and struck by both Jews (Matthew 26:67) and Romans (Matthew 27:30), and the latter also whipped him (Matthew 27:26). In the end, he was tried and executed for treason (Matthew 27:37), the same crime of which Joseph Smith was accused when imprisoned at Carthage.
Was Joseph Smith's order to destroy the Nauvoo Expositor press,11 so readily condemned by critics, really much different from the disturbance Jesus caused in the temple when he made a whip and attacked the stock merchants and money-changers, overthrowing their tables (John 2:13-16)? Some of Joseph's followers turned away when they learned that he was practicing plural marriage and encouraging others to do so. Jesus, too, lost disciples when he taught things that were hard for them to accept (John 6:60-66). Peter wrote that some Christians of his day found it difficult to accept Paul's teachings about the atonement (2 Peter 3:15-16).
Prophecy or Commandment?
The vast majority of Joseph Smith's supposed "false prophecies" listed by critics are not prophecies at all, but "commandments" or "counsel" (see D&C 104:1; 115:1, 7-9, 12) which were not obeyed.
If the person receiving the instructions failed to comply, then the "prophecy," according to the critics, is proven false.
By this reasoning, even God himself is a false prophet, for Lot's wife disobeyed him and looked back at the city of Sodom (Genesis 19:17, 26).
Cain sinned even after the Lord had told him, "If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted?
And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door" (Genesis 4:7).
Let's examine one of Joseph Smith's revelations often listed as a "false prophecy" by critics. In D&C 114, David W. Patten was commanded to "settle up all his business as soon as he possibly can" and prepare to leave on mission the next spring with the rest of the Twelve Apostles (cf. D&C 118:5-6). Due to circumstances beyond his control (i.e., mob attacks), Patten did not settle his business "as soon as he can," as the Lord commanded and died before he could go on the mission the Lord had for him. Some have objected that, since God is all-knowing, he would have been aware that Patten would die, so why give such a commandment. In response, we ask, Didn't God know that Nineveh would repent upon hearing Jonah's message (Jonah 3:5)? Why, then, did he tell Jonah to prophesy doom to the inhabitants of the city (Jonah 3:4)? And didn't God know that Hezekiah would live another fifteen years? So why give two conflicting prophecies through the prophet Isaiah (2 Kings 20:1-6)? Didn't God know that Pharaoh would reject Moses' words? Then why bother to send the prophet to the Egyptian king to ask that he let Israel go free?
But there is more to the David Patten story than meets the eye. Latter-day Saints believe that when a commandment is given to a man because of the office he holds, the commandment can apply to his successor. Thus, while David W. Patten did not fill the mission to England, the new apostles called to fill vacancies in the quorum did. There are biblical precedents for this. For example, the Lord commanded Elijah to anoint Hazael king of Assyria and Jehu king of Israel and Elisha as prophet in his stead (1 Kings 19:15-16). Elijah did, indeed, call Elisha (1 Kings 19:19-21). But it was Elisha, after Elijah was taken to heaven, who sent one of the prophets to anoint Jehu (2 Kings 9:1-10), and Elisha himself announced to Hazael that he would be king (2 Kings 8:7-13). In other words, Elijah did not accomplish two of the three tasks assigned to him by God. Does this make him a false prophet? In the LDS view, he did the right thing by designating his successor, who followed through on unfinished business. In the same manner, some of the things the Lord commanded the early Latter-day Saints to accomplish (such as to settle in Zion, Missouri) will be fulfilled by their descendants and successors. Likewise, the blessings pronounced on each of the tribes of Israel by Jacob (Genesis 48-49) and Moses (Deuteronomy 33) are to be understood as blessings for their future generations, not only for the men to whom the words were addressed.
We must also note that sometimes God's commandments are designed as tests of obedience. For example, he didn't really want Abraham to kill his son, Isaac, though this is what he told him to do (Genesis 22). The same is true of the Lord's commandment to send an armed group ("Zion's Camp") to redeem the land of Zion in Missouri (D&C 101, 103, 105).
Prophecy vs. Vision
Visions are often highly symbolic and hence require interpretation. They cannot, therefore, necessarily be taken as "prophecy" in the sense of predictions of precise future events. As an example, we may consider Joseph Smith's vision of the celestial kingdom (History of the Church 2:380-381). It has been highly criticized because in it he saw the twelve apostles of his day in the celestial kingdom. Of the twelve, however, five were excommunicated and never returned to the Church. This, the critics say, is evidence of a false prophecy. More likely, it is an indication of what the Lord intended for them, had they all remained faithful.
If Joseph Smith is to be condemned as a false prophet on the basis of this vision, then we must condemn Jesus as a false prophet for similar reasons. Christ promised his twelve apostles that, when he returned to reign in glory, they would sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28). And yet Judas, who was one of the twelve at the time, later fell away and, losing his place as an apostle, was replaced by Matthias (Acts 1:15-26).12 If we take Jesus' words literally, then either Judas will receive the reward (which makes the account in Acts wrong), or Jesus lied. On the other hand, if we do not hold Jesus to every word, should we not extend the same courtesy to Joseph Smith who, after all, was far less perfect than the Savior?
Joseph Smith has often been criticized on the grounds that his revelations contradict those of the Bible. Most of the contradictions are more pretended than real, and result from the inability of the critics to accept any revelation subsequent to the writing of the books of the Bible. Some of Joseph's revelations, however, contain ideas not clearly delineated in the Bible or foreign to it. We have, for example, the idea of eternal marriage or of baptism for the dead, for both of which there are only hints in the Bible but much evidence in other early Christian literature.
It is interesting to note that some of the biblical prophets also taught doctrines which either contradicted earlier scriptures or were at least totally unknown to earlier prophets. Thus, for example, Peter's revelation concerning the consumption of unclean animals (Acts 10:9-20) contradicts earlier revelations given to Moses (Leviticus 10:10-11; 11:4-47; 20:22-26; Deuteronomy 14:1-20). Paul received a revelation that the Gentiles would be heirs with Israel through adoption in Christ. He taught that this information had been hidden from earlier generations (Romans 11:25; 16:25-26; Ephesians 1:5, 9-10; 2:11-13, 19; 3:3-6, 9; Colossians 1:26-27).
Some of Joseph Smith's prophecies only become "false" after being misinterpreted by the critics. Here are some examples:
This brings us to the fact that some critics quote secondary sources to illustrate "false prophecies" uttered by Joseph Smith. By their very definition, such sources cannot be considered totally accurate in their representation of the prophet's words. One of the critics became rather selective in his use of secondary sources. Whenever the "prophecy" (some of them weren't prophecies), in his judgment, failed, he was quick to pronounce the secondary source "authentic" or "reliable." But when it was fulfilled, he denounced it as coming from a secondary source and therefore unreliable. He even went so far as to term one failed prophecy as "reliable" because its source was "Mormon," while denouncing another fulfilled prophecy on the very same grounds.
For my part, I use all secondary sources with caution. They may give insights, but they cannot be considered with the same weight as known statements of Joseph Smith. This is true of journal accounts as well, for the reason that they are generally written after the fact (often at the end of the day) and are usually not reviewed by the person who made the statement.
Here is an example of how journals are sometimes misused: One critic quoted a revelation of Joseph Smith as found in Parley P. Pratt's Autobiography (page 100), reading "surely Zion cannot fail, neither be moved out of her place." Elder Pratt, however, gave an abbreviated version of the revelation, which is found in D&C 97:19-20. In the original, we find that the words in question are what "the nations of the Gentiles shall say" of Zion at some point in the future. The secondary version was evidently used because it is more susceptible to interpretation as a "false prophecy."
Other problems arise when the critics cite a known forgery or a "false prophecy" by Joseph Smith whose only source is another anti-Mormon publication. Of a particular document, one critic wrote, "I believe this might be the most clear cut prophecy Joseph Smith ever gave." The document in question is a forgery prepared by Mark Hofmann.
Finally, we consider a statement attributed to Joseph Smith that may prove to be the one most frequently cited by modern critics. An article in The Young Woman's Journal 3 (1892), 263-264, indicates that Joseph Smith, as early as 1837, had declared that there six-foot people living on the moon, who dressed like Quakers and lived nearly a thousand years. Because of its absurdity, some critics have included the article in their list of Joseph Smith's "false prophecies," though it is by no means prophetic in nature and despite the fact that the article does not attribute the belief to divine revelation. (Joseph may have been joking.) The statement regarding people on the moon is both second-hand and very late, and there are no known statements from Joseph Smith himself. The source is the Oliver B. Huntington Journal, Book 14, and is from a journal entry dated 1881, nearly forty years after Joseph Smith's death! It is hardly a reliable source.
Nevertheless, Joseph Smith may have believed, as did Brigham Young (Journal of Discourses 13:217), that the moon is inhabited. After all, it had been reported in the press in 1835 that Sir John Herschel, the most prominent astronomer of the day, had seen creatures on the moon who were human in form with bat-wings and wearing no clothing. During the century before, others had reported seeing moon people who were half-human and half-dog. Amazingly, a few astronomers even reported seeing people living on the sun! As it turned out, the Herschel story was a journalistic hoax, designed to increase circulation.14 But large numbers of people believed it, and it continues to appear occasionally in twentieth-century publications. Could we really fault Joseph for accepting as fact (if he did so) something that he thought prominent scientists of his day accepted? After all, he did not claim to have any divine source for this information.
One critic asked, "Do you really want to risk your eternal salvation on men who make statements like these?" To this, I reply, Can we risk our eternal salvation on the Bible, which reports that the sun and the moon stood still for Joshua (Joshua 10:12-14), when we know that this-like Quakers living on the moon-is a scientific impossibility? One might object that what the Bible describes is the standing still of the earth, rather than of the heavenly bodies (which is precisely the way the Book of Mormon puts it in Helaman 12:13-15). But the point is that the author of Joshua held an incorrect belief concerning the movement of celestial bodies, even if that does not invalidate the basic story he tells. So, too, Joseph Smith (and others) could have held false views concerning these same celestial bodies and yet told the truth about the revelations he received from God.
As we have seen, there are several basic problems with the various published (and unpublished) criticisms of Joseph Smith's prophetic calling. But two of these appear to drive all the rest. The first is the predetermined view of the critics that the Bible contains all the revelation God ever gave to man or ever will give. This means that there can no longer be any prophets. By this reasoning, Joseph Smith is a priori a "false prophet." The second problem is a natural consequence of the first: Since Joseph Smith must be a false prophet, all the evidence is interpreted in a manner to support that view.
With this attitude, it becomes easy to apply a separate standard to Joseph Smith than the one used for the biblical prophets or even for Jesus himself. If Joseph is prejudged to be a "false prophet," then the Deuteronomy 18:20-22 test must apply to all of his prophecies. By extension, however, the critics have applied the test to Joseph's opinions, commandments, counsel, and any other statements with which they take exception. When they find it impossible, using these procedures, to deny that a prophecy actually was fulfilled, they reinterpret it, deny its authenticity, or call it coincidence.
I have yet to see a really objective study of Joseph Smith's authentic prophetic utterances by a non-Latter-day Saint. The nature of prejudice is such that I probably never shall.
by Matthew Roper