Who is a prophet?

The last couple weeks we have been studying two prophets in the Book of Mormon. Comparing and contrasting these two prophets can yield some interesting insights on what it means to be a prophet.

The first is Nephi. Nephi came from a line of men who had served as political, religious, and military leaders among a group called the Nephites. At one point he held the highest political office of chief judge. Later, he gave up that position to preach the gospel among the people.

The second is Samuel. Samuel was from a group called the Lamanites. The Lamanites had only recently accepted the gospel. The first we hear of Samuel is when he comes to the Nephite capital, Zarahemla. He preaches to the people and when his message is delivered, he leaves. The Book of Mormon doesn’t tell us what happened to him afterwards.

Nephi and Samuel had similar messages. The people had focused their hearts on wealth. They let that focus drive them to lying, stealing, and even murdering. They hid each others crimes rather than pursued justice. Nephi and Samuel spoke against this. They taught the people that they must abandon these practices.

Most importantly, they taught of the coming of Christ. They taught a way out. The people were not stuck in their sins. They could repent and be forgiven.

I think the most interesting aspect of these stories comes from the contrasts. Nephi came from a position of power and authority. He was at the top of society. While giving up his political position to preach probably carried a cost, he likely still had some wealth, since he had a garden tower next to a major road. He likely still held some influence, since his prophecies drew a great deal of attention and weren’t just brushed off.

Meanwhile, Samuel, just a few years later (and while Nephi was still preaching in the city) had a very different experience. As a Lamanite, a traditional enemy of the people in the city, he help little respect. Away from his home, he couldn’t draw on any wealth. He was an itinerant preacher far from home. He was cast from the city after his initial attempt. His final attempt was from the wall of the city and the people tried to kill him.

To members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, prophets hold an important role. This church was founded by a man we call a prophet. That mantle of prophet has been passed down to the men who succeeded him in leadership – the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and, later, a reorganized Presidency of the Church. When we discuss prophets, we tend to focus on these men.

They hold a unique authority. In the early days of the Church, when someone claimed to be a spokesperson for God, Joseph Smith recorded these words as a revelation from God:

Ye have received a commandment for a law unto my church, through him whom I have appointed unto you to receive commandments and revelations from my hand. And this ye shall know assuredly—that there is none other appointed unto you to receive commandments and revelations until he be taken, if he abide in me.

Doctrine and Covenants 43:2-3

Joseph Smith claimed sole authority to provide revelations to the Church. The leaders of the Church today – the 12 Apostles and First Presidency – continue to claim this unique authority.

Within the community of the Church, this authority manifests itself in many ways. Every six months, the Church as a whole gives a vote of support for the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Presidency as “prophets, seers, and revelators.” If they visit our community, it is considered a privilege and we make an effort to be there, even if it involves some sacrifice. They set up the committees that produce church material. The materials written by these men are considered the most authoritative. Debates on the authority of other materials may hinge on whether the apostles approved what is within them. Their decisions hold a weight and authority unique in the Church.

These men are our Nephi’s – men at the pinnacle of society sent to preach the word. While not all of them held prestigious positions before their call to be apostles, many did. They were professors, university presidents, lawyers, doctors, even a state supreme court justice. Regardless of their pre-apostle role, they reach the pinnacle of the Church community once they have been called.

My question is: do we also have our Samuel’s? Who has been sent from outside the traditional structures to testify of Christ and call us to repentance? Can anyone do this?

There is some scriptural support for the idea. When two men began prophesying in the camp of Israel and some encourage Moses to stop them, he said, “would God that all the LORD’S people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit upon them!” Num. 11:29. In Revelation, God teaches John that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”

Joseph Smith himself spent his life trying to help others have the experiences he had. This is most evident in his temple building. He organized and taught rituals and practices that he believed would allow people to hear the voice of God here on earth.

Based on this idea – that people from all walks of life can learn of God – we should listen to each other. When someone other than the prophet says that we should fix something in our life – called us to repentance – we should consider whether they might be right. We should ask God if that person is sharing a message for us.

There is a final message in Samuel’s story that is relevant. Some may be concerned that viewing anyone other than the ordained president of the church can lead to chaos. If anyone can receive revelation from God, then how do we know what is right?

After Samuel preached, the people who believed went to Nephi to be baptized. Nephi’s authority still mattered. He still seemed to hold a unique position. While we can receive the word of God from all around us, the leaders of the Church still hold unique authority to declare doctrine and the rituals of the Church.

3 thoughts on “Who is a prophet?

  1. Shelly says:

    We may not have an actual Prophet/Church President from a Lamanite background (ie, former enemy not race), but more and more we are seeing both men and women in other church offices who are converts to the church, come from broken homes, have been divorced, or have relatives who are alcoholics or experience same-gender attraction. They are powerfully strong and stalwart in their testimonies regardless of early life experiences or family obstacles. God is no respecter of persons, and these people are just as worthy as someone who was raised in a two-parent, strong gospel-centered home. I wouldn’t be surprised, therefore, to one day see a “convert” as our Church prophet.

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    1. Stephen says:

      I think one point I wanted to make and I may have failed to (hard to get all my thoughts down with kids, etc.) is that I think we should think of prophets more broadly than the president of the church.

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  2. Cameron says:

    It’s also interesting that later even Nephi admits he didn’t take Samuel very seriously. 3 Nephi 23: 9 – 13 because he didn’t write it down until he was called to repentance by Christ. I think it is even difficult for the best of us to not recognize servants of the Lord if they aren’t in the traditional positions we think they should be appearing to us. I think someone else who fits in a similar role as Samuel is Abinadi.

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