Imperfect Prophets

This is the eighteenth in a series of 23 essays summarizing and evaluating Book of Mormon-related evidence from a Bayesian statistical perspective. See the FAQ at the end of the introductory episode for details on methodology

This author discusses Book of Mormon prophets, Old and New Testament prophets, and modern prophets.

An example of the author’s methodology:

The Evidence

To catalog the evidence here, we’re going to have to catalog some prophetic mistakes. We can consider this a sampling of the most public errors available from modern prophetic figures. I’ll emphasize that these are alleged errors—it’s certainly possible that each of these represent exactly what God would have preferred to happenObviously I don’t have the space to go into depth on any of these topics, but I’ve tried to link you to the most detailed scholarly sources available on each.

  • Book of Mormon Copyright Sale. Though there’s a fair argument that the conditions of this prophecy weren’t met, the copyright for the Book of Mormon in Canada was not sold as predicted by Joseph.
  • Temple in Independence, Missouri. The D&C is quite clear that a temple would be built on the temple lot in Independence, with the implication that it would be soon. We can hold out hope for the future, but it does seem to be a bit of an embarrassing delay.
  • Kirtland Safety Society. It would be tough, indeed, to argue that Joseph made perfect and perfectly inspired decisions in his handling of the financial affairs of the church in the Kirtland period.
  • Destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor. Though Joseph’s martyrdom may have ultimately been the will of God, there’s an argument to be made that destroying the Expositor’s press was a tactical error that did little to protect the saints and hastened the prophet’s demise.
  • Joseph’s Polygamy. Though polygamy itself may have been divinely inspired, I think it’s fair to say that Joseph’s handling of polygamy was, at times, less than graceful.
  • Joseph and the Moon. Joseph saw many things in his visions. The surface of the moon was not one of them. Though he probably didn’t say this, both he and Brigham likely believed it, as did a number of prominent scientific minds at the time.
  • Joseph’s Millennial Prophecy. This one isn’t fair, since it’s obvious from the text that Joseph wasn’t at all sure what to make of the Savior’s cryptic communication, but in that case the mistake may have been in publicly sharing something that he wasn’t sure about.
  • Queens of the Earth Paying Homage. Joseph made a rather bold prediction that the queens of the earth would pay homage to the Relief Society within 10 years of its founding. This doesn’t seem to have occurred.
  • Calling Apostles Who Would Later Apostatize. There are a number of apostles who later would leave the church and fall short of their callings. An argument could be made that those issuing these callings could have exercised prophetic foresight and called only those who would remain faithful.
  • Blacks and the Priesthood. Both the Gospel Topics essay and Elder Uctdorf have made clear that the church considers both the priesthood ban itself and the post-hoc justifications for it as grievous errors.
  • Handcart Companies. This one’s definitely debatable, but the tragedy of the Martin and Willie Handcart Companies might not have happened if Brigham hadn’t chosen to institute handcarts in the first place.
  • Mountain Meadows. Brigham’s role in the massacre remains controversial, and though I think the historians behind Saints vol. 2 make a strong argument that he did not approve of or have knowledge of the massacre beforehand, critics could sincerely ask why prophetic insight didn’t allow him to prevent it.
  • Brigham’s Divorces. Brigham can’t take all the blame, since it takes two to tango, but the record would indicate that Brigham was not always the perfect husband (though I’m sure few mortals could ever succeed at spinning that many relational plates).
  • Joseph Fielding Smith and Evolution. I have no doubt that President Smith’s views were sincerely held, and that the evidence for evolution wasn’t nearly as incontrovertible then as it is now. But he was wrong, and his stance continues to be a stumbling block for many.
  • Forgeries of Mark Hoffmann. Though they had plenty of good company, it’s clear that the church was fooled, and fooled hard, by Mark Hoffman.
  • Baptizing Children of Gay Couples. Regardless of the correctness of the doctrine, the relative swiftness with which this policy was revoked suggests that the brethren themselves realized it was a bad idea, both in terms of PR and in terms of unintended consequences.

“Translating the Book of Abraham: The Answer Under Our Heads” by Tim Barker

My favorite presentation from the 2020 FAIR Conference.

Tim Barker, an accountant in WA state, undermines (what in my opinion is) the most frequent criticism against our faith and the restoration: Book of Abraham translation.

This answer has been available for decades, Tim argues. In fact, he cleverly shows that the answer has been hiding under our heads (hypocephalus). Facsimile 2 in the Pearl of Great Price is called a hypocephalus, which means below the head.

We’re not scholars, so we wouldn’t have known. But now, thanks to Tim Barker and others, we can know.

Below is the hypocephalus of facsmile 2. The type of drawing depicted in facsimile 2 is known among scholars as a “hypocephalus,” which means “under or beneath the head.”

“A hypocephalus is a small disk-shaped object made of papyrus, stuccoed linen, bronze, gold, wood, or clay, which the Egyptians placed under the head of their dead.

Book of Abraham: Facsimile 2 by Wes Trexler - Mormon Bandwagon

Egyptian Papers and Book of Abraham Translation

Kerry Muhlestein, “Egyptian Papers and the Translation of the Book of Abraham: What Careful Applications of the Evidence Can and Cannot Tell Us,” from the 2020 FairMormon Conference.

We still won’t have a perfect picture of the translation after viewing this presentation. But we can be sure that one of the critics’ major claims is not true: the much-discussed characters in the margin are not a result of the “translations” and other efforts found in the Kirtland Egyptian Papers (KEP).

An earlier presentation by Dr. Muhlestein:

Why Giving Matters: Arthur Brooks

Dr. Brooks is a practicing Catholic and PhD economist. He loves Utah and admires Latter-day Saints. He was skeptical about the relationships between charity and prosperity. Ultimately, the data showed Arthur that comparing like families and individuals demonstrated that giving made people happier and more prosperous on average.

People giving to charity are 43% more likely to say they’re happy. People who give blood: 2x as likely to say they’re happy.

Multiple Versions Of CES Letter History

This blog post shares specific time points in Jeremy Runnell’s life that contradict statements he later made about his intentions

“I almost put this post together a couple years ago, but I was torn. In interviews, Jeremy Runnells comes across as such a nice guy. And yet the very nature of this post calls into question his motives.”

Jeremy claimed he never intends to hurt the Church or its members. Yet, earlier he was already on record stating he didn’t want his kids being brainwashed and had a goal to get others out of the Church. Jeremy’s tone, approach, and stated goals changed.

This thread is available in the LDS forum of reddit:

When the author wrote the original CES Letter in 2013, he was already totally out of the church and self-identifying as an apostate. In this post dated November 15, 2012 for example, he describes himself as an exmormon and asks for advice on how to keep his kids out of the church even though his wife is still in.

“I’m BIC, RM, Temple Married who left the church a few months ago”

“I’m mainly worried about two things at this point: 1) TSCC undermining me as a father by feeding them “your dad lost the spirit” bulls**t. 2) TSCC brainwashing my kids into TBM “Follow the Prophet” robots.”

“When is the right time to bring up my disbelief and the details that caused my disbelief?”

“I want to know the most effective way to save them from Mormonism”

That’s just an example of where he was before he wrote the CES letter. That’s his reddit account.

After he published the first draft he said “I wrote this for my kids who one day are going to ask their dad why he left the faith.”

If you use Google’s “custom date range” search feature you can see a more of what he was saying at the time.

The original CES Letter was different than the one that is available today – he used more aggressive language that made his position at the time a lot more clear. For example (and this was read at his disciplinary council as one of the evidences for his apostasy):

“So, Christ is the crazy god of the Old Testament. The Christ of the Old Testament and the Christ of the New Testament are light years different. Again, I’m asked to believe in not only a part-time racist god and a part-time polygamous god but a part-time psychopathic schizophrenic one as well.”


“Delusion is believing when there is an abundance of evidence against something. To me, it’s absolute insanity to bet my life, my precious time, my money, my heart, and my mind into an organization that has so many serious problematic challenges to its foundational truth claims.”

You see that the current subtitle of the CES Letter “My Search for Answers to my Mormon Doubts” is not an accurate description of why he wrote the letter, the content of the letter, or his spiritual state at the time. He wasn’t someone searching for answers as he commonly portrays himself now – he had left the church, had resentment toward it, and was involved in trying to bring his family out of it. The original subtitle was “How I lost my testimony”; he crowdsourced the current subtitle at /r/exmormon in 2015 before releasing the current version.

By 2015 the way he described his position in 2013 had shifted from a strong antagonism closer to what he currently claims: that he was just looking for answers, man. The current release was modified from the previous one “for a softer tone” according to Runnells, and that is characteristic of what he was doing across the board. Here is a good example of the way he describes the period when he was writing all of the stuff I quoted above:

I didn’t lead people away from the Church. I don’t accept this phraseology.” (compare to his posts about how to apply a strategy to get his family out of the church.)

“All I did was share my reasons for doubting.” (compare to his clear antagonism and resentment of the church earlier – that’s not doubt)

“Yes, my position in 2015 is that the LDS Church is based on a foundation of fraud but I was still wrestling with figuring things out 2 years ago when I was approached by the CES Director.” (compare to his statements about the church from 2 years previous – he was quite certain it was a fraud and he spoke openly about it).

Since 2015 he’s really fortified his statements that he was just looking for answers to his doubts when he wrote the letter, but I think the selection of quotes I’ve given here shows that actually that’s not the case.

After he wrote the CES Letter he started speaking publicly against the church. This is what ultimately led to his disciplinary council.

You can read the transcript if you like. As evidence of his apostasy they picked out sections from the original CES Letter (I’ve quoted them above) and they picked out statements he made during that “press tour” period in 2014-2015.

Assumptions of New Testament Scholars

John Gee — more frequently commenting on the Book of Abraham — shares valuable insight on the topic of the veracity of Jesus and the New Testament.

Among other things, Dr. Gee discusses the early Church leader, Papias, age of ancient manuscripts (usually much, much older than the NT manuscripts), and other subjects that support the reliability of the New Testament.