Do Mormons Believe Prophets Are Perfect?

There are some who, in an attempt to tear down the LDS Church, point to the shortcomings and faults of those who manage the Church, particularly the prophets and apostles. Their reasoning seems to be that the true church of God must be run by perfect or near perfect men. I can accept this logic more easily coming from an atheist or agnostic than from another Christian, seeing as how the Bible is full of examples of prophets and apostles and other chosen of the Lord acting in rather imperfect ways.

There are indeed some Mormons who appear to believe our prophets are perfect, and that every word they speak is scripture. I’ve seen some Mormons who appear to extend the mantle of infallibility even down to stake presidents, bishops, and Mormons who run for the Presidency of the United States, unless their name is Huntsman. But this is not taught by the Church. We are not taught by an official curriculum (and I’ve never seen it taught unofficially) to believe in prophetic infallibility. Rather I believe, as Joseph Smith roughly said, a prophet is a prophet only when acting as such. The only person who ever taught only perfect doctrine was Christ himself. Every other prophet has made mistakes, some perhaps more substantive than others.

But for fun, let’s assume every accusation ever leveled against the leaders of the LDS Church were true. Could it still be the true Church of God? What would a prophet need to do in order to clearly prove himself to have never been a prophet? Although there is no evidence Joseph Smith was an adulterer (curious fact that he was quite fertile when it came to making babies with Emma and yet there is no evidence I’ve see of his having ever fathered a child with any other woman), what if he was, and what if it wasn’t somehow ordered of God but just Josephs lustfulness that led him to it? Could he still be a prophet? What if Brigham Young did order the Mountain Meadows massacre (not that I believe he did, rather I believe he tried to prevent it) and he did it with murderous intent? Could he still be a prophet and could the Church still be true?

I am reminded of a story about Joseph Smith visiting Dan Jones, a recent convert to the Church in Nauvoo, and pretending to be completely drunk. Right after Joseph sent Dr. Willard Richards, his friend, to talk to Dan Jones and see what he thought of it all. Jones’ response was “All I think of it is that if he drinks until doom’s day, he can’t drown that truth which is in him, nor the little that is in me neither. Tis true that I would rather have a sober Prophet, but then if we can’t get a sober one, a drunken Prophet is better than no Prophet at all, so I will hold on to the one we have got, drunken or sober. That’s what I think to do Doctor.” The more complete story is here.

Now it is certainly true that being drunk is one thing, and committing adultery or murder quite another, hence the motivation to try and prove that leaders of the Church have been adulterers and/or murderers. Whether or not a prophet could commit either sin and remain a prophet I do not know. I’d like to think not. But perhaps that is beside the point. Maybe the point is not really whether a prophet who commits such crimes can be a prophet or not, but whether anyone would believe he is. Those Mormons who believe in higher levels of infallibility when it comes to their leaders will naturally tend to be more vulnerable to evidence of fallibility in those same leaders, all other things being equal. And those Mormons who see their leaders as quite imperfect beings who yet still bear the authority to act in their positions will be less vulnerable to the shortcomings of those leaders, whether real or imagined.

I can see the temptation parents might feel to teach their children that the prophets are always right. It would be comforting to believe that one can merely go to church, listen to general conference, read the Ensign magazine, and that your kids are guaranteed to be safe from sin and the consequences thereof and everyone will be happy. We want to be able to flip a switch to make everything safe and perfect so we can relax and not stress out so much. But such is not our lot in life. While seeking safety in God and his teachings is to be commended, the idea that we can ever attain perfect safety for ourselves or our loved ones in this life–and then stop and relax–is a dangerous idea of the adversary. It is to stop running before the race is over. When we teach our children they can do such and such and then they are safe and don’t need to worry any more, we might communicate to them that they do not need to endure to the end. That they can do a lot of work and then rest from their labors prematurely. I believe it is so when we teach them the prophets are perfect and all they have to do is listen to them, do what they say, and everything will be ok. There is much more God asks of us, and the only safety is in creating and maintaining a direct relationship with Him, which the prophets are trying to help us to do. And the double-harm that comes from teaching children that the prophets are perfect is that when they learn they aren’t, their testimonies are shaken.

Rather than teaching our children the prophets are perfect, let us teach them to be like Dan Jones. To understand that whether or not a prophet is perfect, he is still chosen by God to be a prophet, and that if we follow the prophet we’ll be better off following him than if we don’t follow him. But ultimately we need to gain a direct relationship with God through the Spirit, just as the prophets have done, and as they urge us to do. If we do this and endure to the end of our lives, then we’ll finally be safe and happy.