Keith A. Erekson grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. As a young man, he served a mission in Brazil. He holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Brigham Young University, a doctoral degree in history from Indiana University, and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Texas at El Paso.
He is an award winning author, teacher, and public historian who currently serves as the Director of Historical Outreach and Partnerships for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. For seven years, he directed the Church History Library, overseeing expanded online research access and enriched public exhibits.
Before leading the Church History Library, Erekson was a tenured associate professor of history and founding director of the Center for History Teaching & Learning at The University of Texas at El Paso. He possesses two decades of international management experience in library administration, higher education, scholarly publishing, and automotive manufacturing.
Brother Erekson now lives near Salt Lake City with his wife and children.
Expectations of a Prophet
It’s so lovely to be with you this morning. I love learning and I love people who learn and so even though it is cold today, I could feel the electricity that comes from excitement with learning. Thank you for sharing that with me.
In my time working with Church history, I have listened to thousands of questions from people who struggle with concerns, doubts, and feelings. Sometimes the questions strike near the heart of the Church’s message, such as the accounts of the First Vision or the translation of scripture. Others stem from something that might seem weird or uncertain, such as the strangeness of polygamy or the prohibition on the participation by Black Latter-day Saints in priesthood and temple ordinances. There may be deeply personal experiences with a domineering male who makes Heavenly Father seem distant, or with witnessing friends be excluded or insulted for being gay or of a certain race. Maybe it’s a little of all of these and then some.
One thing I have observed is that many questions invoke the existence and role of living prophets. Sometimes the connection is stated directly, “If he was a prophet, then how could such-and-such happen?” Most often the connection remains unstated as an underlying concern about trust. During the past half century, we have, as a society generally, abandoned our trust in leaders, in experts, in institutions, even in superheroes. So, it is certainly no surprise that suspicion of prophets would abound in latter-days long prophesied to be populated by “false prophets” who “shall deceive many.” Losing trust is one of the perils of our “perilous times.”1
There is a story in the Old Testament that offers insight into our relationship with living prophets. Naaman was a successful military commander, a mighty warrior who also suffered from a skin disease. When he learned of the prophet Elisha’s reputation as a healer, Naaman approached Elisha according to the customs of his time— he brought a letter of recommendation from his king, arrived in a flourish of horses and chariots, and offered gifts of silver, gold, and clothing.2 He also expected Elisha to behave the same way as other healers in their culture—by calling aloud, waving his hand, or enacting some other ritual performance. But Elisha defied Naaman’s expectations by refusing the gifts and sending a simple message to wash seven times in a nearby river. Naaman reacted in a fury, he became “wroth” and “went away in a rage.”3 Fortunately, for both Naaman’s health and our instruction, his servants talked him into trying the treatment, and it worked! So here is the insight: Naaman’s instant rage surfaced when his expectations were challenged. He protested by saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out.”4 Yes, Naaman needed to humble himself, but the root problem was neither the prophet nor his prescription; it was the expectations Naaman brought to the encounter.
What expectations do you and I have about prophets? How are our expectations influenced by our upbringing and culture? Do we simply assume things that are actually incorrect? Could the instant rage that thrives today on social media, on cable news, and in face-to-face interactions be calmed by examining our expectations? Admitting the errors in our own thinking is sometimes the most difficult part of understanding Church history because it takes humility to change our expectations and assumptions after we learn they are incorrect. What incorrect expectations about prophets do we need to abandon?
Perhaps the most common oversimplification of living prophets posits an either/or of being inspired or uninspired, “called of God” or “just a man.” A revelation given on the day the Church was organized can improve this simple binary. If you ever visit the Church History Library, you will see the beginning of the message emblazoned on the wall in the lobby, “Behold, there shall be a record kept among you.” The instruction went on to explain what kind of information should be found in the record—“in it thou [Joseph] shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of the church.” And what should we expect of this prophet? Three things. Joseph will be considered a prophet “through the will of God the Father, and the grace of your Lord Jesus Christ, Being inspired of the Holy Ghost.”5 Prophets cultivate relationships with each of the three members of the Godhead and understanding these relationships helps dispel common misunderstandings of their work.
“Through the will of God the Father”
First, we should observe that there are other cultural models for prophets in our midst. Many traditions present prophets as a sphinx, a riddler, or a soothsayer. Another flavor is that a prophet must be a lone voice who speaks out against all evil and oppression. Yet another version surfaces as a pundit on cable news who, immediately after a natural disaster, pins blame for the catastrophe on the sins of some enemy group. Thus, without thinking, some Saints come to expect prophets to act like these other models in our culture—to speak in anonymous riddles, denounce every wrong, or offer harsh condemnations. Then, if prophets speak too clearly in favor of vaccination,6 or if they fail to stand with or against the Internet’s outrage of the day, or if they offer kindness instead of criticism of refugees, some turn away in rage like Naaman.
A second unhelpful expectation comes not from ignorance of culture but in awareness of it. Because prophets live in times and places they are inevitably shaped by their surroundings. Therefore, some wonder how to trust in a person who is influenced by culture? But this is an impossible expectation. Culture combines the language, customs, knowledge, and experiences of individuals and families and societies, so how can any human not be touched by their culture? Nephi explained that God speaks to prophets (and all of us) “according to their language, unto their understanding”—in other words, our cultures.7 Experiences in Church history show us that prophets interact with their cultures—Joseph Smith used seer stones, debated Protestant preachers, and joined a prominent social club; Joseph F. Smith pondered about the afterlife while the ravages of World War I sent so many people to it; Russell M. Nelson counsels us to “lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice” in a global society long built on discrimination across multiple divisive categories.8 Prophets participate in their cultures as do you and I, and the way we all progress is by following God in our cultures.
Another unhelpful expectation is that we “follow the prophets” best by imitating their every deed. I have met people who began to raise pigeons because Thomas S. Monson did or who learned how to ski because President Nelson does. Prophets do not urge us to follow or imitate them, but to follow and imitate the Savior. George Q. Cannon served as a counselor in the First Presidency to Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff and Lorenzo Snow. “Do not,” he counseled, “put your trust in man though he be a Bishop, an Apostle, or a President; if you do, they will fail you at some time or place; they will do wrong or seem to, We must not elevate the childhood game “follow the leader” into a false template for human imitation. Stated another way, the prophets do not teach us to “follow them” but to “Hear Him!”9
One seemingly simple expectation is the idea that prophets receive revelation only by kneeling alone and asking for it. Many revelatory experiences certainly happened this way, but it is not the only way prophets receive inspiration. Joseph Smith also received revelations with other people—Moroni appeared to him and the Three Witnesses, and he and Sidney Rigdon viewed into the heavens together.10 As the Lord directed Joseph to establish the First Presidency (1832), high councils (1834), and the councils of the Twelve and the Seventy (1835), the process of receiving revelation for Church governance expanded from individuals to the collective deliberations of councils. Today most of the ecclesiastical activities of the Church are administered by three Executive Councils comprised of members of the Twelve, Seventy, Presiding Bishopric, and the presidencies of the women’s organizations. Elder Quentin L. Cook recently explained that “the council process refines things and perfects them, and the council setting allows great power and purpose to come into them.”11 Such power and purpose comes as decisions are made in unanimity “when moved upon by the Holy Ghost” and become “the will of the Lord.”12 If we expect revelation to come only to individuals in solitary prayer, then we will miss many of God’s modern dealings with living prophets.
Prophets act “through the will of God the Father” because He calls them. They are not self-appointed riddlers or pundits, nor are they somehow exempt from their cultures. Through God’s will they become authorized to teach us about God so that we increase our faith and trust and commitment to follow God, not them. Prophets learn the will of God through their individual exertions and also by counseling together.
“Through the . . . grace of your Lord Jesus Christ”
Why do prophets need the second qualification—“the grace of [our] Lord Jesus Christ”? For the very same reasons that you and I depend on His grace—to forgive our sins, succor our infirmities, mitigate our shortcomings, expand our capabilities, turn our weaknesses into strengths.
Because one function of prophetic councils is to promote unanimity, their existence also dispels the expectation that prophets never disagree with each other. Prophets bring different perspectives drawn from personal experiences. Sometimes, in extreme cases, the differences prompt disputes, such as when Paul called out Peter or when Joseph Smith and his brother William, who was an apostle, broke into a fistfight. (Incidentally, it might challenge one of your assumptions about Joseph to learn that his friends had to intervene, pulling William off to find Joseph “on the floor, barely able to move”).13 Most of the time, the differences of opinion serve to bring all perspectives on issues into the discussion. President M. Russell Ballard has explained the value of this process: “None of the Twelve are shrinking violets,” he said. “We each have strong personalities. So when we are unified in a decision, you can rest assured that we have counseled together and come to that decision after much prayer and thoughtful discussion.”14 Because errors arise when this process is not followed, modern prophets increasingly speak publicly of this unanimity, such as when they announce proclamations together or make significant changes in church practices.15
One very unhelpful expectation is that prophets don’t make mistakes. The only person to live a mistake-free life was Jesus Christ. For their part, prophets are well aware of their own shortcomings—Moses worried about his inadequacies in speaking and Moroni felt the same about his writing. Joseph Smith declared, “I never told you I was perfect,” and he reported his errors and published his divine rebukes. President Nelson observed of all General Authorities: “We recognize them as instruments in the hand of the Lord, yet realize that they are ordinary human beings. They require haircuts, laundry services, and occasional reminders just like anyone else.”16 Elder Jeffrey R. Holland added that “imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we.”17 Latter-day Saint doctrine does not include a provision that a prophet is infallible.
We should also not expect that prophets do not get tricked. Isaac’s son Jacob came in disguise to claim his brother’s birthright blessing, and Jacob later was led to believe his son Joseph has been killed.18 A series of dastardly forgeries in the 1980s fooled nearly everyone, from historians to document dealers to Church leaders.19 After losing the Book of Mormon manuscript, Joseph was told simply, “You cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous” (D&C 10:37). The message was not “one day you will learn how to identify the wicked,” just “you cannot.” Later in his life Joseph was deceived by persons brought into his inner circle of confidence.
Of course, it is possible to cite instances when prophets disagreed, made mistakes, and got tricked, but those actions are incomplete without understanding that prophet serve “through the . . . grace of [our] Lord Jesus Christ.” His “grace is sufficient” to bring them to unanimity, refine their souls, and succor them. He is “merciful, and gracious, [and] longsuffering.”20
“Being inspired of the Holy Ghost”
Another expectation often assumed of prophets is that they know everything about the future, with the implication that they are just waiting for us or toying with us. While it is true that God reveals some of His secrets to prophets, and that some prophets including Moses, Enoch, and Nephi received sweeping visions, that does not mean that every prophet knows everything about everything.21 Nephi went after the plates “not knowing beforehand the things which [he] should do.” Peter received a vision about unclean food and only later understood it to be about proclaiming the gospel. During his First Vision, Joseph was told not to join any churches without being instructed what he should do.22 God has emphasized throughout scripture that “[His] ways [are] higher than [our] ways” and that there are “hidden things which no man knew.” Our expression of belief that “God will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God” means that we also believe the current prophets do not yet know some “great and important things.”23
Not only do prophets not know everything, but the things they do know are not always spelled out for them. Sometimes, yes, the will of the Lord is unmistakably clear, but like every Latter-day Saint, prophets must also study, ponder, pray, and wrestle. As the “mouthpiece” of the Lord, they do not simply open their mouths and the word of God flows out. Sometimes revelation has come as dictated wording, but prophets also receive inspiration, feelings, and impressions that they then must put into words and actions. Sometimes they explore paths that don’t pan out—Nephi first asked for the plates and then offered to purchase them, Joseph Smith followed financial leads that failed to materialize, the means and methods of missionary work have changed over time.24
So what about the idea that the prophet will never lead the Church astray? The wording in this expectation comes from a statement made by Wilford Woodruff when announcing the end of plural marriage, but over time additional assumptions have been attached— that the practices of the Church should never change, and that following prophetic counsel should cause no suffering. But the practices of a living Church led by the Living Christ are supposed to change – line upon line as part of the ongoing restoration.25 Isn’t that why we say we need a living prophet? And instead of a free pass from suffering, discipleship routinely involves trials and refinement. What did Sam get for following the counsel of his prophet-father Lehi and brother Nephi? Beaten up, his life threatened, his property stolen, and a family copy of the scriptures.26 The promise of Jesus to His disciples is not freedom from pain, but that all pains and sorrows and afflictions will, like the sting of death, be “swallowed up” in His power and love and grace.27 In its complete original context, Wilford Woodruff’s teaching emphasized that the prophet would not lead people “astray from the oracles [or revelations] of God and from their duty.”28 Prophets will not lead us away from their true witness of Jesus Christ, from His revelations, or from the path to follow Him.
Because prophets act and preach by the Spirit, we have a duty to seek the Spirit to understand and receive their message. Brigham Young worried that Latter-day Saints would “have so much confidence in their leaders that they [would] not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him.”29 George Q. Cannon added that “when men and women depend on God alone and trust in Him alone, their faith will not be shaken.” Therefore, he counseled, “seek after the Holy Spirit and the unfailing testimony of God and His work upon the earth. Rest not until you know for yourselves.”30
Prophets work to be “inspired of the Holy Ghost” because they do not know everything, because they gain light and truth from the Lord line upon line, and because the promise of the Holy Ghost is to show them—and us—“all things what [we] should do.” If there are trials along the way, we trust God’s promise “that [we] should suffer no manner of afflictions, save it were swallowed up in the joy of Christ."31
“Upheld by . . . the Church”
We should rightly expect prophets to be called through the will of God and the grace of Jesus Christ and receive ongoing guidance through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost.32 As we do so, we can, like Naaman, shed incorrect expectations and assumptions about prophets that both impede our ability to be blessed and prompt divisive anger. Because so many of today’s questions about historical or social matters involve the nature of prophets, we can dissolve present concerns by re-examining our own incorrect notions. Naaman changed his thinking to accept his servants’ reasoning that simple tasks are better than “some great thing.” Because, as the Book of Mormon prophet Alma observed, these “small means in many instances doth confound the wise,” we who seek to avoid deception in our perilous times must not miss one more lesson about prophets.33
As the Doctrine and Covenants was going to press, an inspired instruction explained that prophets are to be “upheld by the confidence, faith, and prayer of the church.”34 This counsel echoes another Old Testament story in which Aaron and Hur literally held up Moses’s hands to ensure that Israel prevailed in its battle.35 Today, we “Let God Prevail” by upholding the prophets with confidence gained through the companionship of the Holy Ghost, with faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, and through prayer to God our Father.36 Joseph Smith implored the Saints, “I want your prayers and faith that I may have the instruction of Almighty God and the gift of the Holy Ghost.”37 Wilford Woodruff added, “I am dependent upon the Lord and upon the prayers of the Saints, the same as my brethren.”38 To the well-known musical expression of “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet” we must also add “We Ever Pray for Thee, Our Prophet Dear.”39
I testify that God calls good and fallible and humble prophets to help us in our day. He instructs, and forgives, and guides them so that they may point us to hear him. That the Lord’s prophets may have the will of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and that we may uphold them through our confidence, faith, and prayers is my prayer. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.
- Joseph Smith-Matthew 1:9; 2 Timothy 3:1.
- See 2 Kings 5:5-9, 15-19.
- 2 Kings 5:11, 12.
- New Revised Standard Version 2 Kings 5:11, emphasis added.
- Doctrine & Covenants 21:1-2.
- See Jon Ryan Jensen, “First Presidency Urges Latter-Day Saints to Wear Masks, Be Vaccinated,” Church News, August 12, 2021; Trent Toone, “Timeline: Church Leader Actions and Statements on Wearing Masks during Pandemic,” Deseret News, August 12, 2021.
- 2 Nephi 31:3.
- Russell M. Nelson, “Let God Prevail,” Ensign, November 2020, 94.
- George Q. Cannon, in Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of President George Q. Cannon, ed. Jerreld L. Newquist 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1974), 1:319.
- See Doctrine & Covenants 17; 76.
- Quentin L. Cook, in Sydney Walker, “Video: Elder Cook Explains the Roles of 3 of the Church’s Executive Councils,” Church News, December 20, 2021.
- Doctrine & Covenants 68:4; see also Doctrine & Covenants 107:27.
- See Galatians 2:11-21; Acts 15; Saints: The Story of the Church of Jesus Christ in the Latter Days, vol. 1, The Standard of Truth, 1815-1846 (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2018), 230; see also 223, 225-227, 229-231.
- M. Russell Ballard, “Be Still, and Know That I Am God” (CES Devotional for Young Adults, San Diego, CA, May 4, 2014).
- For recent examples see Russell M. Nelson, “Hear Him,” Ensign 50, no. 5 (May 2020): 88–92; Quentin L. Cook, “Deep and Lasting Conversion to Heavenly Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” Ensign 48, no. 11 (November 2018): 8–12. For a case of rejecting the advice of a council, see Saints, vol. 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846-1893 (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2020), 256-263.
- Joseph Smith, in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007), 522; Russell M. Nelson, “Honoring the Priesthood,” Ensign, May 1993, 39. See also Moses; Ether 12:23-25; JS—H 1:28–29; D&C 3:6–7; 24:2.
- Jeffrey R. Holland, “Lord, I Believe,” Ensign, May 2013, 94.
- See Genesis 27:6–10; 37:31–34.
- See “Hofmann Forgeries,” Church History Topics (2021).
- 2 Cor. 12:9; Exodus 34:6. See also Ether 12:41; Doctrine & Covenants 17:8; 2 Chron. 30:9; Doctrine & Covenants 128:19.
- See Amos 3:7; Moses 1; 7; 1 Nephi 13-14.
- See 1 Nephi 4; Acts 10; Joseph Smith-History 1:17-20.
- Isa. 55:9; D&C 101:33; Article of Faith 9.
- See 1 Nephi 3; Doctrine & Covenants 111.
- See 2 Nephi 28:30; Article of Faith 9.
- See 1 Nephi 3-4.
- See Mosiah 16:7-8; Keith A. Erekson, Real vs. Rumor: How to Dispel Latter-day Myths (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2021), 215, 227.
- Wilford Woodruff, Sixty-first Semiannual General Conference of the Church, Monday, October 6, 1890, Salt Lake City, Utah (included with Official Declaration 1).
- Brigham Young, “Remarks,” Deseret News, February 12, 1862, 257.
- George Q. Cannon, in Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of President George Q. Cannon, ed. Jerreld L. Newquist 2 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1974), 1:319.
- 2 Nephi 32:5; Alma 31:38.
- After announcing the prophets’ relationship with the Godhead, Doctrine & Covenants 21 goes on to emphasize that Church members should “give heed” to the prophets, “walking in all holiness” and “in all patience and faith” (Doctrine & Covenants 21:4-7).
- 2 Kings 5:13; Alma 37:6.
- Doctrine & Covenants 107:22, emphasis added. For the pre-publication context, see “Historical Introduction” to "Instruction on Priesthood, between circa 1 March and circa 4 May 1835 [D&C 107]," p. 82, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 12, 2022,
. See also Doctrine & Covenants 43:11-12.
- See Exodus 17:8-13.
- See Doctrine & Covenants 121:45-46
- “Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith” p. 342.
- “Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff” pp. 199-200.
- William Fowler, “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,” Hymns, 19; Evan Stephens, “We Ever Pray for Thee,” Hymns, 23.