Does a Prophet Always Know Everything?

Lately I have pondered some issues relating to revelation, the privilege of having the Spirit communicate to us things that are sacred in nature, or at least able to help us in ways unseen at the moment.

I ran into the Mark Hofmann story again. If you read the linked Wikipedia story, you’ll learn that he forged documents which he was able to pass as real, discovered old documents that seemed to contradict greatly the “official” history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to the story, he “fooled not only members of the First Presidency — notably Gordon B. Hinckley — but also document experts and distinguished historians.”

While it would be interesting to parse whom he really fooled, I’d like to present just two ideas concerning the episode and its handling in publicity.

It was naturally well noted after he was caught, that Pres. Hinckley “was unable” to pronounce the documents forgeries right off the bat (as described in the Wikipedia article linked to above, accessed Dec 11, 2009). Also, in footnote 38 there’s a description how Hofmann pulled “the ultimate spoof” against God by appearing in a meeting with Elder Dallin H. Oaks, an Apostle, who was unable to point out the crime of murder that he had just committed.

Pres. Hinckley frankly admitted that he was duped by Hofmann. Other prominent LDS leaders were also obviously not aware of the forgeries, and frankly admitted that. From this some have inferred, that they could not be real “prophets, seers and revelators” since they could not reveal that Hofmann was a fraud.

Does a prophet really always know everything? Think about Jonah. (If you haven’t read the book in the OT yourself, read it just for relevant basic information.) Jonah was told to call the people of Nineveh to repentance. His response was to take the opposite direction and run away from his call. When he did heed the call, he went to tell the people in Nineveh that if they must repent; terrible things were in store for them. Then, when the people did repent, and the Lord removed the punishment (the same he does when we repent), Jonah was indignant. His prophecy didn’t come to pass; Nineveh was not destroyed.

Can we infer from that, that Jonah could not have been truly a prophet called of God, because he didn’t know they’d repent? What about the fact that he rebelled against the Lord’s commandment, and only obeyed after he was humbled enough? I mean, if Joseph Smith can’t be a prophet because of his character flaws — he did have some, I’m sure — or that he did things we in our society would frown upon, then by any like measure, Jonah can’t have been a true prophet.

We could tell less (and more) impressive stories about Bible characters, whom believing Christians hold to be prophets, that equally show them as flawed people. Did you know that Peter denied Jesus — three times — to save his own skin or just out of timidity?

In my view, prophets do not have a constant “broadband connection” bringing in all knowledge that God has about things that are happening right now or in near future. They sometimes are given warnings, advise, or Revelation. That does not mean that they are like radio receivers, that follow every channel all the time, knowing all things past, present and future.

Prophets only receive — and publish — Revelation about things that the Lord deems important to the people of the Lord. When that isn’t happening, they are just mortals, who struggle with their daily lives just like you and me. Except they probably have less time to watch TV shows.

It is true that sometimes even the saints also make the mistake of thinking that everything an Apostle says is Revelation. Or perhaps especially the saints do that. The prophets also sometimes think that the fact that they have authority over the Church, all of their opinions are from the Lord, when a lot of them are just their own reasoning. And no man can be totally free from the “false traditions of their fathers”. We are all influenced deeply by the culture we are immersed in.

Funny, those old document experts’ (whom Hofmann likewise fooled) expertise has not been questioned as actively as the prophetic callings of the LDS leaders who were more or less duped. But imagine for a bit what would have happened, if Pres. Hinckley had declared Hofmann’s documents forgeries. As I see it, the following things may have happened:

  • The vocal critics of the Church would have decried the statements as utter frauds; attempts to use the cloak of authority to deep-six anything that would put the Church history in questionable light out. Now they said that the Church wanted to do just that, but the problem with that is, that they were published (the “Salamander Letter” was published as such in Ensign).
  • Faithful Church members would likely not have studied the documents as seriously, as they did now — they would not have been proven forgeries so soon.
  • The secular experts’ motivation to test and answer questions of their validity as seriously as they did now — it is not cool among scientists to prove prophetic claims true; rather, they might have concentrated on proving them right.

So you see that it is not so simple for a prophet to declare a document a fraud, when there are so many people, who disagree with his authoritativeness, who still matter.

And all of that doesn’t mean that I claim that Pres. Hinckley, for example, knew all along. No, I mean, that there was no real need to resort to Revelation, when the documents’ true nature came out anyway. If that process was a trial of faith, I can only say that we need trials of our faith. They may not be nice, but they are useful.

And one last word about trials and faith. It has always moved me to tears to read of the Three Hebrews Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego. In Daniel three, they are threatened with death by burning in a fiery furnace, and they face the imminent torture and death with resolve. One of the most beautiful descriptions of faith to me is in verses 18 – 19 in the 3rd verse. It reads:

If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up. (Daniel 3:18-19)

They were good men, who had very strong faith. For them it did not matter that they would die in the furnace as much as it did to show the King that they were firm in their resolve. We have to remember, that throughout the history of the kingdom of Israel and Judah, idolatry had been a major scourge, that had invited the hot displeasure of the Lord. These men would not be guilty of that.

Our furnaces are not physically burning, but we are constantly bombarded by images and words that undermine our faith; that entice or even threaten us to worship false gods. Our idols are not that difficult to recognize, and many of us bow down to them, some unwittingly, some just out of indifference, some in defiance. I can’t speak for them, but I think I can say, that I have faith the Lord can save me from the consequences of social awkwardness and ostracism the secular society uses as punishments for us not bowing down to their idols.

But if not, I still will not bow down to their “Idols”.

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Posted in Mormonism, Religion
16 comments on “Does a Prophet Always Know Everything?
  1. Javelin says:

    It’s possible that Pres. Hinckley got hold of the forged documents for PR reasons. Did not want people talking about Joseph Smith in a bad light.

    • velska says:

      It’s hard to know what you mean by your comment. The Church published the text of the letter known as Salamander Letter, for example, in the Ensign, which is the magazine that was then the Church’s major channel to communicate to members and others. The documents were also given to experts to examine. The text caused many members to leave the Church, as they believed it was authentic. I don’t know if anyone came back when it was proved a forgery.

      Naturally one could speculate that some documents were pulled out of circulation, but that would be a conspiracy theory that is almost on the par with “Elvis Lives” stuff. Of course the Church was interested in the “McLellin Collection”, which never materialized. And the documents from McLellin that were published by non-LDS sources were not nearly as negative as the anti-Mormons would have you believe. But if you don’t check the sources, anybody can tell you anything.

      To nip these in the bud, the Church has the Joseph Smith Papers project, which promises to publish all documents created by and about Joseph Smith.

  2. What a great analysis! It has always irritated me that anti’s pull out this instance to show that Gordon B. Hinckley, et al. could not POSSIBLY be prophets, because otherwise “They would have known.”

    Well done.

  3. Javelin says:

    No, the letters were locked up so that no one would have access to them. The public access came after MH was arrested. The church leaders had the prosecutor,an EQP, make a plea with MH so that President Hinckley would not have to testify in court.

  4. David says:

    I grew up having been taught and believing that leaders were inspired and received revelation for and on behalf of those under their stewardship. I also grew up believing as I was taught that once baptized, I would have the gift of the Holy Ghost and its constant companionship if worthy.

    2 Nephi 32:5 The Holy Ghost is given unto us to show us all things that we should do.

    I was also taught in my youth to always pray to have the promptings of the spirit to discern between truth and error. Matter of fact, when I went through the temple for the first time, I clearly remember the promises of discernment between truth and error that were uttered by the ordinance worker upon me.

    Leadership are there to make inspired decisions.

    Making Inspired Decisions as taught in the Priesthood Manual Part B, Chapter 21:

    1. Identify the problem.
    2. Pray for guidance and the spirit of discernment.
    3. Study the problem.
    4. Make the decision.
    5. Pray for confirmation.
    6. Act—do it.

    I would expect that the prophet, seers and revelators would get down on their knees and do precisely the above and pray for guidance and the spirit of discernment and be guided and prompted in all things that they should do, just as the scriptures declare it so.

    The prophets, seers and revelators do not only make decisions for themselves, but also for the Church as a whole. They keep the commandments, seek the companionship of the Holy Ghost, and have faith in Jesus Christ. Surely because of their righteousness, they would be blessed with the power of discernment.

    There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated–And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated. (D&C 130:20-1)

    • velska says:


      I have been in different presidencies several times over the last decades, and I have found that the pattern is followed fairly closely; some processes look a little different if you picked some detail and looked at it, but the core is there pretty much as you stated it.

      We have also had the opportunity to follow counsel from my priesthood leaders, that didn’t fit my own reasoning, and we had to get on our needs and ask for strength to follow the counsel. When we have done that, we have received blessings. I guess it could look like we’ve been duped, if you looked at it from the outside and didn’t know what we felt in our hearts, and didn’t follow the long-term consequences.

      But if we follow counsel reluctantly and murmur about it on the way, the confirmation of the Spirit may not come, nor the other blessings.

  5. John Hamilton says:

    Great analysis. You eloquently explained how I’ve always felt about this episode in our history. I think too many people expect God to direct our every footstep and want our prophets to essentially be our “kings” and tell us everything we should know and do. I don’t know how we are supposed to grow and become like God if we’re always depending on others for directions. We need to be able to seek answers on our own and be able to discern for ourselves even the advise given by prophets and apostles.

    I find that most, if not all, that the prophets and apostles say is true on some level. It may need to be interpreted differently on a case by case basis or for changing circumstances, but if it was given with genuine concern, and they are living righteously, we have the power within in us to discern and act properly to what they say if we are also in turn living righteously.

    I think that is how the apostles get along so well despite “disagreements” or varying opinions among themselves.

    Anyway, your post spelled it out better than I could.

    • velska says:

      I think you expand the idea very well, to the direction I think this way of thinking naturally goes. There are sometimes ideas that really we should have everything guided by commandment, when the Lord himself says, that it is not right that we should be commanded in all things.

      We need to get on our knees and seek. Then get up and go where we feel most deeply we must go. Then the Spirit will direct us. The Spirit will not confirm idle speculation or just intellectual curiosity (something that I do a lot). My opinion/experience is, that we must be genuinely — even anxiously — willing to do the right thing to get that kind of spiritual direction.

      My experience may differ from that of others…

    • David says:

      Vleska wrote: “My opinion/experience is, that we must be genuinely — even anxiously — willing to do the right thing to get that kind of spiritual direction.”

      So if I understand you correctly, you’re suggesting that if we’re not getting the answers that the prophets and apostles say we should be getting, then we’re not sincere enough, not worthy enough, not genuine in our efforts to get an answer?

      If an investigator follows the admonition of Moroni and prays to know the Book of Mormon is not true, and he does not get a confirmation, is he/she at fault and doing something wrong?

      As for the statement that intellect is a distraction, I can’t help but think of a scripture.

      D&C 93:36 The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth.

      I believe that faith cannot be sustained on falsehoods and deception. Heavenly Father did not create us and expect us not to use our brain to think and consider intellect as a key in our decision making process. In fact he expects us to study it out first.

      “Faith is not sufficient when all tangible evidence contradicts the divine nature of the church. Faith, as well intentioned as it may be, must be built on facts, not fiction. Faith in fiction is a damnable false hope.” – Thomas Edison.

    • David says:

      John wrote: “We need to be able to seek answers on our own and be able to discern for ourselves even the advise given by prophets and apostles.”

      How then do we determine when a prophet or an apostle is speaking in his capacity as a prophet or an apostle, or if he is speaking as a man?

      D&C 1: 38, Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.

      What if the answer I receive on my own differs from the advise given by Church leaders? Must our answers to our prayers always be in accordance with the prophet and apostles?

      I think we’ve all been in a position where we reached a certain conclusion after receiving what we though was confirmation and an answer, but only to have it later on turn out contrary.

      For instance, immediately after publishing the Book of Mormon in 1830, Joseph received a revelation that Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery were to go to Toronto, Canada to sell the copyright of the Book of Mormon. They failed to do so, and upon their return, accused Joseph Smith of falsely prophesying.

      Joseph did not know how it was, so he enquired of the Lord about it, and behold the following revelation came through the seer stone: “Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of men: and some revelations are of the devil.”

      So we see that the revelation to go to Toronto and sell the copyright was not of God, but was of the devil or of the heart of man.

      A concern I have is I have been taught to believe that the prophet cannot lead us astray, almost to the point of believing that they know best and I don’t need to question or doubt or think about their advise.

    • velska says:

      What if the answer I receive on my own differs from the advise given by Church leaders? Must our answers to our prayers always be in accordance with the prophet and apostles?

      I’d say that you follow your conscience. My experience has been, that when I have not had a strong answer right away, I have heeded the counsel, and at some point I have felt right about it — either I have just gotten used to it, or it’s been confirmed.

      I would never do something, that I feel is outright wrong. For example, as I wrote in another comment (see comment #120):

      “… if my bishop told me to do something that would destroy my relationship with my wife (like tell me to leave her if she left the Church or committed adultery or whatever — I would not leave her just because of adultery), I would not do that, either. Unless I really got a strong spiritual testimony of it, when I would be really between the rock and the hard place, and as for me, I don’t really know what would be right then. Unless it would be to go along with my strong spiritual testimony. It has guided me right for 30 years, in very difficult situations, so it has proven very reliable.”

      As I said, I do not relate my expreiences to demean those of others.

  6. velska says:

    To David (my threaded comments go only three deep):

    First of all, don’t you think, that if one ever is going to get a confirmation from the Spirit, it would require genuine effort and sincerity?

    Did I not state clearly enough, that I realize and acknowledge that others’ experience may differ? I do not have answers to every question.

    Second of all, I just reminded that, according to the Lord, it is not right that we should be commanded in all things. Furtermore, I have always affirmed, that the admonition in D&C Section 9 to “study it out in your mind” goes together with the promise that Moroni makes. Intellect may be a distraction at some point, when we come to the boundaries of intellectual approach. I don’t believe that every answer can be found by logical thought alone.

    For me, spiritual revelation has opened new avenues and possibilities, and later I have seen the logic of them.

    And, again, my experience may be, and probably is, quite unique to some extent, and I am sharing it with the hope that it will be helpful to someone — not with the intention to condemn those, whose experience has not followed identical patterns.

    I even entertain the possibility, that some are just not ready to enter the fulness — I know it’s a quite a departure from the “Steps of Faith” idea, where “post-Mormons” see themselves as somehow progressed above Mormonism.

    But I can’t implant my experiences to your mind, so I can only say good luck and God bless.

  7. John Hamilton says:


    I was unaware of the Toronto BofM copyright revelation, but I can’t think of an instance in modern times, at least, where the honest advice of the prophets was not worthy of emulation. Not saying it is impossible that they could be wrong, but what they say should be fully and faithfully considered. Some of what they say may not pertain to me or present situations, but it was certainly not evil or disingenuous.

    Again, the burden of proof is on us, not them. We must get conformation, if we feel we need it, before we act—usually. If we have given it an honest effort and still do not get spiritual conformation, I don’t think we are accountable to that principle or teaching. But we must give it all we reasonably can to understand their meaning.

    That said, I can’t think of an instance where the teachings of the present apostles are in direct conflict with each other. Some present teaching may be at odds with past teachings, but as far as the current generation, it seems to be all harmonious. Not that they all think alike, of course—they all hit upon truths in the unique way God inspires each of us.

    • velska says:

      You have a point. Someone may have said that someone would never receive the right to the Priesthood, and it turns out it was just his own speculation. Case closed, as far as I’m concerned.

      In the Toronto affair, I’d say there’s a possibility that there was a process of learning for these brethren that a wild goose chase — because of their constant worry about things that the Lord had given promises about — accelerated.

      Sometimes we doubt the Lord’s promises, and ask him for further confirmation, when we should be acting.

      But doctrinal statements and council are two different things. I don’t pay too much attention to doctrinal statements, that come out of the blue, with one of the Apostles saying something, while others are silent about it. It could be like Peter and John about circumcision. Remember in the Bible when these two major Apostles were not in harmony about circumcision? Well, they were humans, and acted out of inbred convictions.

      The Lord may not feel that He should be correcting every little thing we, when he’s given all of us a mind to use, and the privilege to spiritual confirmation and guidance.

  8. David B says:

    You know, our family is reading through the Book of Joshua right now, and recently went through the story of the Gibeonites (Joshua ch. 9). The crucial thing is that the Israelites saw all the evidence of the Gibeonites being from far away, but didn’t consult with God, and so were fooled.

    I suspect there’s a very excellent parallel here.

    I also think it’s important that Joshua and all Israel kept their promise to the Gibeonites even after learning they’d been fooled, and even though the general command they’d been given was to wipe out all the Canaanites (of which the Gibeonites were a part). That part of the lesson doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the issue at hand, i’ve just always liked the importance of keeping one’s promises.

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