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.

Does Revelation 22:18-19 Close the Canon?

18 For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:

19 And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

Sound scary? Well, a clearer understanding will remove any fear that John was condemning Latter-day Saints and their additional revelations.

As usual, context matters. Moses made a similar comment in Deuteronomy. Proverbs mentions a similar concept. And John himself likely wrote his Gospel and epistles after writing Revelation.

No, the canon (New Testament) wasn’t closed with John’s words in Revelation 22.

Misconceptions about the Quorum of the 12

From the Church News:

“The Lord puts a lot of people together who are not that alike in many things — their professions, how they grew up, where they come from,” said Elder Andersen.

“They are alike in their testimony of the Savior and in their humility. They don’t seek position, they are not trying to be the smartest person in the room. The Lord can work with that. I have never seen anyone show anger and I have never seen anyone put anyone down.”


Brigham Young: Pitman Shorthand, Journal of Discourses, Adam-God Theory, and the Priesthood Ban

Helpful podcast:

Episode 22: In Brigham Young’s Words – Gerrit Dirkmaat and LaJean Carruth

Key points:

“First, Russell Stevenson interviews Gerrit Dirkmaat about the research he and LaJean Carruth did comparing the shorthand notes of George Watt to some of the speeches in the Journal of Discourses.

The Journal of Discourses have historical and religious value, but Dirkmaat urges members to be careful quoting specific passages and to realize that in most cases, there is no way to know the specific words used.

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LaJean Purcell Carruth has an unusual skill: she can read the shorthand of George Watt, the transcriber of the speeches contained in the Journal of Discourses, his private printing venture.

Over the past thirty years, she has learned his distinctive style–the unique upturns and curves he made in his notations. As she transcribed his notes, she noticed that they varied — sometimes greatly — from the printed versions of the same speeches. She wrote a poem about what she noticed:

There was a man named George Watt,

Who could improve Brigham Young, so he thought.

So he took out words here,

And he added words there,

And his accuracy was not what it ought.

LaJean Purcell Carruth©

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LaJean expounds on what she has learned about the speaking styles of early religious leaders. They spoke extemporaneously and without notes and were more prone to engage in speculative theology than current leaders.

She emphasizes that Brigham Young was a powerful speaker. He cared about the people, and they knew that he cared about them. When George Watt changed Brigham Young’s words, he changed what Brigham Young said about himself. She feels the real Brigham Young has been lost to us as we view him through his discourses printed in the Journal of Discourses.

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In her research, she discovered that the “one drop [of Negro blood]” phrase attributed to Brigham Young by Wilford Woodruff did not exist in the original shorthand transcription of George Watt on a speech relating to the priesthood and temple ban.”

Watt took good notes.  The issues are found during the review process.  What was published wasn’t identical to what Watt wrote down.

A few more helpful podcasts:

Can Imperfect Scriptures Lead us to God?

Prophets are fallible, flawed, though chosen by God. They’re talented, good, wise, and inspired. But very human.

They grow up in a culture. They share perspectives and biases, as they’ve experienced in their lives. They give accounts of past history, as they understand it.

Some have used hyperbole and even exaggerated. Big surprise?  Nope! They’re human. 

Part I:

Part II:

Succession in the LDS Church

A recent summary of a few of the factors affecting the Church in 1844:

Starting with the first transition in August 1844 till today, the video discusses succession in the LDS Church.

This video wasn’t made yesterday,  but the content is solid.

LDS Truth Claims:

Are prophets perfect?

Fun place to start:

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Members and Church critics are often unfair toward LDS leaders.

This was recently posted in a discussion about supposed unreliability of LDS prophets:

Whatever criticisms you have of LDS leaders (and some are fair) we can show you flaws in OT prophets (also fair). I’ve found that many Christians have a double standard. They ignore Biblical prophets’ flaws and obsess on LDS leaders flaws.

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If we knew even more about the cultural shifts in Biblical times we’d have an even greater hey day, highlighting the shifts in doctrine/policy/opinions in the early Church.

Such shifts and changes surely occurred. And some just might have been handled in less-than-perfect ways. Even with the little we have from scripture, it’s obvious Biblical leaders (all men) had issues, sometimes major.

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For some reason you can’t say the obvious: prophets have never been perfect. They’ve always battled weaknesses and blind spots. We don’t take joy in pointing out flaws in Paul’s day or ancient Israel. But your harping against Brigham’s issues (he may have had more than any modern LDS prophet) is very unfair and uncharitable.

So, we’re inclined to illustrate that Brigham wasn’t alone in teaching later-refuted stuff while still remaining an instrument in God’s hands (if sometimes a clumsy and ineffective one). Pick a century (or more) in ancient Israel. During that span you will find good prophets and just perhaps a less-effective prophet.

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If Brigham was our most trouble you may want to stop focusing on the outlier (a bad apple among the bunch). That’s not a good practice. Look at the broad picture. To focus only on the negative leads to biased conclusions.

You should appreciate some of the best the Mormons do. Their best teachings. Not their worst, refuted-by-everyone-from-critic-to-friend teachings. That is not an honest pursuit of truth: to focus on the worst.

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Do you excessively, even obsessively, criticize Hillary (or Trump)? Ever notice anything good he/she has done? Anything? You may not do this with politicians. However, to only nitpick the LDS Church — when it has many widely recognized positive virtues and practices — is a reflection on you. And your character. And motives. Not the Church…

Thoughts by Michael Ash, frequent contributor to FAIR MORMON:

Among other great points made in the video, Michael Ash points out that OT prophets had false understandings regarding astronomy. False prophets, therefore? Nope. Cut them some slack!


The Church encourages members to use faith and reason to interpret the revelations and teachings of the Church.  Too many members follow blindly.  

Do prophets know everything?


What happens to those who privately or publicly disagree with the prophets or official church doctrines?  We can disagree.  We are not asked to follow blindly.


Brett McDonald, creator of the LDS TRUTH CLAIMS YouTube channel,  discusses fallibility of our leaders:

What constitutes “official” Mormon doctrine? Clearly, the scriptures contain official doctrine. But what counts as “scripture?” Are statements of the First Presidency official “doctrine?” What about statements of Joseph Smith, the Journal of Discourses or general conference addresses?




Change, Progress, Leadership, LGBTQ issues, and the LDS Church

Jeff at LDS Q&A created this on 2/16/20:

A friend of mine — who’s no longer active & with whom I have very frequent debates/discussions — complained to me this AM that the Church changes all the time.  I told him he’s right.  Our church does change.  And it’s a good thing.

We have had many such discussions in the past.  We respect each other, but disagree a lot.  A lot!

Then I told him that he criticizes the LDS Church for changing and for not changing.  “Which is it”, I asked?  Should we change or not?  You can’t have it both ways!

I asked him to think of his favorite organization and least favorite.  His least favorite — at least the one he nags about the most — is the LDS Church.  He didn’t commit to another organization, saying the Church was the only organization he belonged to.

Not letting him off the hook, I asked him about his favorite college and how they changed through the years.  He understood my point — lots of challenges and even possibly (gasp and yikes!) mistakes in adapting with the times.

Nobody anticipates every challenge decades in advance and avoids these complex challenges and social issues.  Everyone changes and adapts.  I’d argue the better the leadership the better the changes.  The LDS Church is blessed with very capable, experienced, thoughtful, and inspired leaders.

But, don’t forget!  Our prophets aren’t perfect.  They’re fallible, despite being great individuals:

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The issue my friend brought up was this story (read link below) about the LDS Church and the upcoming support concert for LGBTQ youth.   Dan Reynolds — lead singer for Imagine Dragons — is one of the major performers at this event.  Dan is LDS and has criticized the Church’s LGBTQ positions in the past.  The Church’s relationship with the LGBTQ crowd has been rocky to say the least.  Dan praised the LDS Church’s announcement, supporting this event.

The Church and its leaders love everyone, including LGBTQ kids (and adults).  The Church hasn’t changed doctrinal positions.  Yet, they may be taking effective steps toward more positive outreach.

By the way, I love Imagine Dragons.  Dan and his band are awesome!