Ralph A. Britsch and Todd A. Britsch, “Prophet,” in Latter-day Saint Essentials: Readings from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. John W. Welch and Devan Jensen (Provo, UT: BYU Studies and the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2002), 121–5.
A belief in prophets and their messages lies at the heart of LDS doctrine (Articles of Faith 4, 5, 6, 7, 9). Latter-day Saints recognize the biblical and Book of Mormon prophets, as well as latter-day prophets, as servants of Jesus Christ and accept as scripture the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Doctrine and Covenants. They believe that Joseph Smith and all subsequent presidents of the church were and are prophets and representatives of Jesus Christ.
The word “prophet” comes from the Greek prophetes, which means “inspired teacher.” Although neither the Greek term nor its Hebrew equivalent, nabi, initially required the function of foretelling (Smith, p. 3), all prophecy looks to the future. Since the Lord has chosen some of his servants to be foretellers—to disclose, sometimes in specific terms, momentous events that are to occur—the predictive element often overshadows other implications of the word in the minds of some.
But the gift of prophecy is not restricted to those whose words have been recorded in scripture. By scriptural definition, a prophet is anyone who has a testimony of Jesus Christ and is moved by the Holy Ghost (Rev. 19:10; cf.Teachings, pp. 119, 160). Moses, voicing his approval of two men who had prophesied, exclaimed, “Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!” (Num. 11:26–29). Schools of prophets and “sons” (followers) of prophets, some false and some true, existed in large numbers in Old Testament times. In modern times, speaking of Brigham Young, Elder Wilford Woodruff said, “He is a prophet, I am a prophet, you are, and anybody is a prophet who has the testimony of Jesus Christ, for that is the spirit of prophecy” (Journal of Discourses,13:165). It follows that this spirit does not operate in every utterance of its possessor. The Prophet Joseph Smith explained that “a prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such” (History of the Church,5:265).
In 1820 a passage in James (1:5) led to Joseph Smith’s First Vision (Joseph Smith—History 1:11–20). Three years later the angel-prophet-messenger Moroni, while instructing Joseph Smith, quoted from the prophets Malachi, Joel, and Isaiah, who told of the forthcoming mission of the Messiah and of the role of prophets, including Elijah, in the latter-day restoration of the gospel. Subsequent revelations given to Joseph Smith make frequent reference to the prophets of the Old and New Testaments. Most frequently cited, in addition to those mentioned above, are Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Peter, James, John, and John the Baptist. In April 1836, the prophets Moses, Elias, and Elijah appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and committed to them the keys of the priesthood (see D&C 110:11–16). Other angelic messengers, all prophets, had been instrumental in restoring the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods, beginning in 1829 (Joseph Smith—History 1:68–73).
Joseph Smith had the spirit of prophecy after he and Oliver Cowdery were baptized in May 1829 (Joseph Smith—History 1:73–74), and his prophetic office was officially recognized when the Church was organized on April 6, 1830. A revelation to him says, “Thou shalt be called a seer, a translator, a prophet, an apostle of Jesus Christ, an elder of the church . . . being inspired of the Holy Ghost to lay the foundation thereof” (D&C 21:1–2). In March 1836, under the prophetic leadership of Joseph Smith, the membership of the Church sustained the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as prophets, seers, and revelators (HC, 2:417). Their successors have been similarly sustained.
An unbroken series of prophets have led the Church since the death of Joseph Smith in 1844: Brigham Young (1844–1877); John Taylor (1877–87); Wilford Woodruff (1887–98); Lorenzo Snow (1898–1901); Joseph F. Smith (1901–18); Heber J. Grant (1918–45); George Albert Smith (1945–51); David O. McKay (1951–70); Joseph Fielding Smith (1970–72); Harold B. Lee (1972–73); Spencer W. Kimball (1973–85); Ezra Taft Benson (1985–95); and Gordon B. Hinckley (1995–). Since 1847, these prophets have administered the affairs of the Church from Church headquarters in Salt Lake City. They have dedicated themselves to their appointed mission of helping the people of the world prepare for eternal life, and for the second coming of Jesus Christ. They have provided leadership for the international missionary program of the Church and for the building of temples. The living prophet continues to receive revelations, select and ordain leaders by the spirit of prophecy, and serve as the principal teacher of the Church, instructing its members in doctrine and in righteous living.
Prophets and their messages have occupied a central place in God’s dealings with his children from the beginning. Elder Bruce R. McConkie, an apostle, has written that a foreordained prophet has stood at the head of God’s church in all dispensations of the gospel from the time of Adam (see Moses 5:9, 10) to the present, including, for example, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Peter, and Joseph Smith (McConkie, A New Witness, p. 2).
Prophets are always witnesses of Jesus Christ, a fact that is particularly evident in the Book of Mormon. The experience common to all its prophets is the witness they bore of Jesus Christ, the Messiah—of his divine sonship and his earthly mission. A number of them, including Lehi, Nephi, Jacob, Benjamin, Abinadi, Alma, and Samuel the Lamanite, foretold his coming (1 Ne. 1:19; 10:4; 19:7–8; Jacob 4:4–5; Mosiah 3:5–8). They foresaw his atoning sacrifice and his resurrection (Mosiah 3:10–11; 15). Nephi wrote earlier of ancient prophets, Zenos, Neum, and Zenock (1 Ne. 19:10; 3 Ne. 10:14–16), who also foretold the visitation of Jesus Christ to the Americas after his resurrection (3 Ne. 11–26). Because Latter-day Saints identify Jesus Christ as Jehovah, they recognize that Old Testament prophets bore this same witness.
The Book of Mormon, apart from its function as history, is essentially a record of the dealings of God with a long series of prophets, from Lehi, in the sixth century before Christ, to Moroni, a thousand years later. As witnesses of Jesus Christ, all were called to be teachers of righteousness. Though their teachings were all based in the gospel of Jesus Christ and they taught the same essential things, the record we have preserves some individual points of emphasis: Abinadi stressed living the Mosaic law with the proper spirit (Mosiah 12, 13); Nephi and Alma preached baptism and repentance (2 Ne. 31; Mosiah 18), as did Alma’s sons (Alma 17– 29). Many, including Nephi, Enos, Ether, and Moroni, were prompted to write and speak of faith and the gift of the Holy Ghost (e.g., 2 Ne. 26:13; 32:2–3). In counsel to his son Jacob, Lehi taught the principles of “opposition in all things” and of agency (2 Ne. 2). King Benjamin urged his people to serve God by serving one another (Mosiah 2:17). He and other Book of Mormon prophets, like their Old Testament counterparts, warned against vanity, greed, sexual immorality, materialism, and similar sins; but they also counseled love, kindness, patience, humility, and all peaceable things.
The Hebrew prophets spoke for God for many centuries until the post-apostolic era, from the second to the nineteenth centuries, when faith in continuing prophecy had vanished in that part of the world and when people assumed, even as did some in Jesus’ day, that the prophets were dead (John 8:53) and their offices abolished. To believe that God had spoken to people of one’s own time was “the test that Christ’s generation could not pass” (Nibley,The World and the Prophets,3:7).
“He that prophesieth,” wrote Paul, “speaketh unto men to edification, and exhortation, and comfort” (1 Cor. 14:3)—such a person teaches, admonishes, and gives assurance of God’s love. The prophets have proclaimed those God-given messages in many ways and with varying emphases. Their messages, though timeless in import, have been relevant to the immediate life of communities and nations. Some have combined their functions as prophets with other activities, such as being judges, military leaders, historians, poets, and church and civic administrators.
Some prophets have been popular figures and charismatic leaders—Moses, Samuel, and Alma, for instance. But many have suffered abuse and betrayal. For every prophet who has been honored during earth life, many have suffered persecution and even martyrdom (2 Chr. 36:15–16; Matt. 5:11–12; Mosiah 17:20; D&C 135). Clearly, prophetic messages have not been designed to gain popular favor. A fundamental, common theme in all these messages is the call to repentance. Though prophets have counseled mercy, brotherhood, and humility, and though they have promised life and joy to those who have sought to love God and to receive his love, they have foreseen sorrow and despair as the unavoidable consequences of immorality, greed, idolatry, malice, pride, and other sins. They have yearned for peace, but they have condemned false prophets who have cried, “Peace, peace; when there is no peace” (Jer. 6:14). Unwarranted complacency, obsessive materialism, and the worship of other gods were main attributes of false prophets and their followers.
No true prophets, ancient or modern, have ever called themselves to their positions. Some, such as Moses, Amos, and Jeremiah, have even accepted the calling reluctantly. Some, including John the Baptist, Samuel, Nephi, and Joseph Smith, were called in childhood or youth.
The calls made to individual prophets and God’s further communications with and through them have been accomplished in various ways: through the ministering of angels; in dreams; in day or night visions; by prophetic inspiration, an intense conviction verified by subsequent events; by the literal voice of God; and in face-to-face visitations such as those experienced by Moses (Ex. 33:11), Enoch (Moses 7:4), and Joseph Smith (Joseph Smith—History 1:17). Sometimes the call has come with blinding intensity, as in those of Paul and Alma; sometimes, as with Elijah, the prophet has heard “a still small voice” (1 Kgs. 19:12). God has often spoken to his prophets in answer to prayer, but true prophets have not been mystics who try to make contact with the unseen by self-induced trances or similar means.
The calling of a prophet has always been made, and his messages have been written or spoken, through the power of the Holy Ghost, sometimes called the Spirit of the Lord (Acts 2:1–4, 37–42). Ananias put his hands on Paul that he might receive his sight and be filled with the Holy Ghost. “And straightway he preached Christ. . .that he is the Son of God” (Acts 9:17–20). So, too, did the prophets before Paul, and so have all of them since. In close conjunction with the gift of the Holy Ghost is the priesthood power that has been exercised by God’s representatives throughout all dispensations.
Madsen, Truman G. Joseph Smith the Prophet. Salt Lake City, 1989.
McConkie, Bruce R. A New Witness for the Articles of Faith.Salt Lake City, 1985.
Nibley, Hugh W. The World and the Prophets.Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley.
Smith, J. M. Powis. The Prophets and Their Times. Chicago, 1925.
Smith, Joseph. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed., rev. Salt Lake City, 1957.
Welch, John W. “The Calling of a Prophet.” In The Book of Mormon: First Nephi, The Doctrinal Foundation, ed. M. Nyman and C. Tate, pp. 35–54. Provo, Utah, 1988.