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I find it troubling that, speaking generally, people seem unable or unwilling to observe something in the present that they readily admit occurred in the past.
This pattern permeates scriptural application (or lack thereof), which is fairly odd since the very purpose of these scriptures is to be applied in our lives.
Consider an example I find extremely problematic: the widespread ignorance or outright rejection of what I consider to be the Book of Mormon’s secondary purpose. With repetition and great emphasis, the book’s editors point out historical evidences for “secret combinations” and the manner by which they overpower a society (through the government), and then make explicitly clear that we will face the same conflict in our own day. Most Latter-day Saints are comfortable reading about and recognizing the influence of these groups in past societies, but are ill-equipped to discern who they are—and what they’re doing—in our day.
For another instance of this inconsistently held belief, think of the many calamities related in scripture, and foretold regarding the future. Famines, fires, flood, and rampant chaos are historical oddities we casually read about in the comfort of our home, yet the scriptures warning about similar circumstances at our doorstep are disregarded as irrelevant, thus not motivating any significant percentage of the Mormon population to materially and spiritually prepare for such calamities.
There’s also plenty of evidences of past call-outs, whereby God, through a prophet, told a group of people to abandon their society and begin their own. Perhaps in some theoretical sense Latter-day Saints are open to the idea of this happening again, but it’s never discussed in any church setting and therefore few individuals, I presume, pursue the idea in their personal study.
While these are important issues, I want to address another in detail that nearly shouts from the many scriptural passages which support it—for those who have ears to hear, anyway. I’m speaking about God calling prophets outside the hierarchy of the established Church to call people to repentance.
The Book of Mormon opens with the story of one such prophet, Lehi, whose prophetic commission came from a vision he received of God. He, along with many other prophets, “went forth among the people, and began to prophesy” about the impending destruction of Israel should they continue to alienate themselves from God. Positioning himself as a prophet among a wicked people brought him mockery and attempted murder by “God’s people” who rejected God’s message.
A contemporary of Lehi’s shared many similar experiences. Jeremiah had been foreordained to become a prophet, yet found himself rebuking the religious leaders of his day for their misdeeds; the church leaders called for the death of the Lord’s emissary. Yet he delivered his message: “The Lord sent me to prophesy against this house and against this city all the words that ye have heard. Therefore now amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the Lord your God; and the Lord will repent him of the evil that he hath pronounced against you.” This prophet, whose source of authority was a direct call from God, was imprisoned, punished, publicly humiliated, and eventually killed for delivering unpopular messages he had been instructed to convey.
What of Abinadi? King Noah employed false priests who encouraged corruption and infidelity, leading God to call “a man among them” to call them all to repentance and threaten destruction for continued disobedience. The establishment, unsurprisingly, was “wroth with him, and sought to take away his life,” which they eventually did.
When discussing prophets, we Latter-day Saints are quick to cite Amos 3:7, wherein we read, “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets.” But who was Amos, and what kind of prophet was he? He himself explains, to the king of Judah at the time: “I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son; but I was an herdman, and a gatherer of sycamore fruit. And the Lord took me as I followed the flock, and the Lord said unto me, Go, prophesy unto my people Israel.” His message was likewise an excoriating, divine rebuke against church culture, criticizing tradition and ritual and calling for judgment and righteousness instead.
How about Samuel the Lamanite? While the Nephites had languished “in great wickedness,” this man preached “the words of the Lord which he doth put into my heart,” and which an angel told him, to Nephites who first expelled him, and then attempted to kill him. Those who believed him sought after Nephi, Helaman’s son, who then baptized them.
Of course, these prophets—and surely there are more I’ve missed, or whose prophecy and mission were not recorded and preserved for us to learn about—are merely a model for Jesus Christ who himself was sent of God, outside of church hierarchy, from humble and unlikely circumstances, to call people to repentance. The existing establishment of religious authority, most notably the Pharisees, claimed to be the conduit to God. Thus, when the Conduit himself appeared before them, rebuking them with simplicity and boldness, they, following the pattern, desired to exile him.
Like the other issues presented at the outset of this article, Latter-day Saints are comfortable with these scriptural stories, and perhaps some of us take note of the pattern. We recognize the Pharisees of the past, both literal and figurative, and shake our heads that they would find themselves at odds with a person who is clearly a prophet of God, not realizing how much we benefit from hindsight and taking for granted the fact that knowing these people were prophets requires no discernment on our part—we are told as much directly by the scriptures we accept as authoritative.
But how would we fare if a prophet came to us today outside of the hierarchy of the Church? Would we learn from the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them? Or would we side with the structure to which we have accustomed ourselves, thus removing the need for tackling hard questions such as determining if a person claiming a divine mandate, and chastising us for our wickedness, is in fact a prophet?
It’s instructive to note that these prophets are sent to God’s people because of general wickedness, and not necessarily corruption within church leadership. While in many cases the religious establishment had become rotten, this was not the experience of Samuel the Lamanite, whose mission came despite Nephi, and presumably others, righteously trying to do the very thing that Samuel was sent to do.
It’s irrelevant, then, whether leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are doing exactly what God wants them to or not. God can send—and perhaps has sent?—prophets outside of this organization. He would do so because of a general deviation from the path he wants us to follow. It has happened previously, so why not today? Are we so confident of our supposed righteousness, despite God himself noting that we are condemned, and our minds darkened?
I also find it interesting that the examples listed above entail missionary work within the ranks of the supposedly faithful. God’s prophets, in these cases, were sent to rebuke those who claimed to be God’s disciples, yet who had deviated from the course they claimed to follow. None of these instances entail a non-hierarchical prophet being tasked to preach the gospel among nonbelievers; the pattern, it seems, is that iniquity or idolatry within Christian communities causes God to shake things up a bit in hopes of getting the people back on track.
This is uncomfortable doctrine—the idea has led people since time immemorial to reject, if not attempt to kill, people who claimed to be prophets but didn’t come up “through the ranks,” as it were. It’s difficult for us to sift through claims of prophecy and we therefore rely upon the scriptures, or the structure of the church, to tell us who is in a position of authority—who can be trusted to relay God’s message. We want somebody else to do the thinking—and deciding—for us.
I recognize that there are people in our day who claim, or who others have claimed, to be called of God to deliver a message of warning and repentance. I take no position in this article on any of these individuals or their messages—I only wish to establish that this type of thing can happen. It’s scripturally sound. We should expect it.
Cultivating a spirit of discernment—deciding for ourselves, with God’s guidance—therefore becomes key. Perhaps in recognition of this imperative, and in reference to the very time in which we live, Christ told his disciples that just prior to his Second Coming—an event soon pending—there would “arise false Christs, and false prophets.” Speaking of false prophets previously, Jesus had given the key to discernment: “by their fruits ye shall know them.” You’ll note, of course, that he did not say that we shall know them by whether they hold a position within the Church.
Can prophets come from outside the leadership of the Church? The scriptural record is clear—and if we’re sincere about believing that what we read is indicative of present and future events, then we must concede that an unchanging God may very well commission people in our own day to preach repentance unto God’s people.