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For Mormons, What Does 'Follow The Prophet' Really Mean?

Mormon Prophet

First Posted: 03/30/11 10:35 PM ET Updated: 05/30/11 06:12 AM ET

By Peggy Fletcher Stack
Salt Lake Tribune

SALT LAKE CITY -- Mormon President Thomas S. Monson, his two right-hand men and 12 apostles will take to the podium at this weekend's (April 2-3) General Conference and offer sermons that many Mormons will treat like faxes from God.

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints consider these 15 men "prophets, seers and revelators" and look to them for divine guidance on issues as profound as the role of the Holy Spirit and as seemingly trivial as using "thee" and "thy" in prayers.

Mormons don't use the term "infallibility" to refer to their leaders and readily acknowledge that they are imperfect men. In practice, though, Mormon belief comes awfully close to that standard.

"We pay lip service to the prophet's fallibility," said Edward Kimball, son of late church President Spencer W. Kimball. "But when you come down to specifics, we can't think of any incidents where a prophet was wrong."

It's a conundrum for the ever-growing Utah-based church. Founder Joseph Smith took the title "prophet" and claimed divine messages, but also urged members to think for themselves and to ask God directly about the truth of various pronouncements.

One of Smith's most radical concepts was "continuing revelation," the notion that the scriptural canon did not end with the Bible and that well-established beliefs could be altered -- even overturned -- by new messages from heaven to the leaders in charge.

So much authority is ascribed to the Mormon president, though, that quasi-prophet worship by the far-flung members of the 14 million-member faith seems unavoidable.

After all, Mormon children are taught to sing "Follow the Prophet" and are assured that he never will lead the church astray.

The adherence to authority can create tensions for faithful Mormons who opposed the church's support of Proposition 8 that banned same-sex marriage in California, or those who now object to the church's support of a compassionate approach to illegal immigrants.

How, then, should Mormons view their leaders? What happens when they slip? And when, if ever, is it OK to disagree with them?

Smith knew his limitations and said a church president spoke for God only when he was "acting as a prophet." But few Mormons then or now could separate the man from the office. Instead, many have elevated his stature into an impossible realm.

Members say Smith was "just a normal man with failings and weaknesses who was called to do extraordinary things," said John Fowles, a Mormon lawyer in London, "but then many are very uncomfortable with even the very mild report of some of his weaknesses and failings."

Their faith is sometimes shaken, Fowles said, and it's all because of "unrealistic and unnecessary expectations."

For their part, Mormon leaders know they are fallible.

"Forget everything I have said, or what ... Brigham Young ... or whomsoever has said ... that is contrary to the present revelation," the late apostle Bruce R. McConkie once preached. "We spoke with a limited understanding."

When asked about his statement discounting that man would ever reach the moon, former church President Joseph Fielding Smith said, simply, "Well, I was wrong."

Indeed, biblical history is full of imperfect prophets. Moses killed a man and later met God face to face. King David committed adultery and then murder. In Mormonism, LDS prophet Brigham Young expressed racism, and a decade before his 2008 death, LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley confessed that "adulation is a disease I fight every day."

"I'm grateful to know this and more," said Molly Bennion, a Mormon in Seattle. "Their very fallibility gives me hope that I can overcome and that God might forgive me."

Bennion said those who follow the LDS prophet unthinkingly "never develop the spiritual strength necessary to weather the inevitable disillusionment in some leader or, perhaps worse, in oneself."

All humans learn as least as much from their mistakes as from their triumphs, Bennion said. "To deny our leaders that possibility seems unfair."

The speeches at General Conference and elsewhere mostly emphasize long-standing doctrines and LDS standards already spelled out in official publications, said Mormon sociologist Armand Mauss of Irvine, Calif. They largely serve to "build and maintain a sense of community among the Latter-day Saints in a diverse world."

And that can make it tough, Fowles said, to disagree.

Mormon writer Jana Riess experienced that firsthand last October, when her Flunking Sainthood blog took issue with LDS senior apostle Boyd K. Packer's critical conference comments about homosexuality.

Some blog commenters were "calling for my head for publicly disagreeing with a general authority," said Riess, who lives in Cincinnati. "But what is wrong with disagreement and debate? I did not say anything hurtful about ... Packer; I did not attack him personally. Nor did I question that he is called to hold the position of authority that he does. I simply disagreed with him. Why is that so threatening?"

Ultimately, LDS observers say, Mormons have to decide for themselves how much deference to give the words of their leaders and deal with the consequences of their choices.

Philip Barlow, who teaches Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University, said it's entirely possible to appreciate the intentions and example of LDS leaders, without falling prey to blind adoration.

"The wonder is not that some or another leader has disappointed in word or action," he said. "The proper wonder is that, with all the foibles to which we humans are subject, church leaders may ... exhibit the truth of what Jesus spoke of: grains of salt and bits of leaven capable of enlivening a whole people with the taste of the transcendent."

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Filed by Bryan Maygers  |