We Have Had Modern-Day Prophets Since the First Vision, 200 years ago
In his closing remarks during last October’s general conference, President Russell M. Nelson invited us to prepare for this upcoming general conference during which we will commemorate the foundations of the restored gospel. President Nelson suggested we might ponder this question: “How have the events that followed the First Vision made a difference for me and my loved ones?”
I’ve concluded that one of the great blessings which have come into my life and the lives of my loved ones as a result of the Restoration is the guidance that comes from living prophets. Since that spring day in 1820 when the heavens were opened to Joseph Smith and he both saw and listened to the Father and the Son, we have had prophets on the earth. As we make our way through life’s challenges, guidance from prophets becomes precious to us.
We see great blessings as we follow direction from prophets. I remember a very significant example when I was about your age. Less than three weeks after Jill and I were married, we attended a devotional at BYU where the president of the Church at the time, Spencer W. Kimball, spoke about marriage. It seemed as if he were speaking directly to us. That one talk helped us set some patterns as we began our marriage and family, and it has helped us avoid the pitfalls the Lord inspired him to warn against. I have reflected over the years how blessed we were to receive that guidance at such a crucial time for us. Now, 44 years later, we are still being blessed because of that counsel we received as a young married couple.
When We Follow the Prophet, We Are Blessed
I am sure each of you could relate experiences when you have been blessed by following the prophet. Our primary children sing, “Follow the prophet; he knows the way.”We sing, “We thank thee, O God, for a prophet to guide us in these latter days,” and we mean it!
Following what the prophets are inspired to teach doesn’t guarantee we won’t be ridiculed or persecuted or that we won’t face other difficulties because of our obedience. But our willingness to obey does eventually bring “peace in this world, and eternal life in the world to come.”
Nephi and the portion of Lehi’s and Ishmael’s families who followed Lehi’s teachings faced significant challenges, but they ended up living “after the manner of happiness” in the promised land. Waiting and believing in future promised blessings can be a challenge in a day when we get frustrated if a computer search takes more than .62 seconds.
When Societies Start to Drift, Many Reject the Counsel of Prophets
When I was younger, I wondered why people in the Book of Mormon would ever reject the prophets. It almost seemed crazy to me. Couldn’t they see what the results would be? How could people get to a point where they would reject the prophets’ messages and even reject and hate the prophets themselves?
A few years ago, I decided to study reactions to messages from prophets. Sometimes people rejected the prophets because they were jealous of them and their power.
In the Book of Third Nephi when Nephi was ministering with great power, “they were angry with him, even because he had greater power than they.” The people even saw Nephi raise his brother from the dead; “and the people saw it, and did witness of it, and were angry with him because of his power.”
When Thomas Marsh came back to the Church after his disaffection, he explained what happened:
“I must have lost the Spirit of the Lord out of my heart. …
“I became jealous of the Prophet … and overlooked everything that was right, and spent all my time in looking for the evil; … I thought I saw a beam in Brother Joseph’s eye, but it was nothing but a mote, and my own eye was filled with the beam; … I got mad and I wanted everybody else to be mad. I talked with Brother Brigham Young and Brother Heber C. Kimball, and I wanted them to be mad like myself; and I saw they were not mad, and I got madder still because they were not. Brother Brigham Young, with a cautious look, said, ‘Are you the leader of the Church, Brother Thomas?’ I answered ‘No.’ ‘Well then,’ said he, ‘why do you not let that alone?’”
There are other reasons people have failed to follow the counsel of prophets and one of the most common is that prophets testify of people’s sins and preach repentance. This doesn’t sit well with many people. Before the first verse in the Book of Mormon, in the brief introduction Nephi gives to the First Book of Nephi, we see this theme emerge. Nephi writes, “The Lord warns Lehi to depart out of the land of Jerusalem, because he prophesieth unto the people concerning their iniquity and they seek to destroy his life.” This pattern is repeated in the scriptures. Here are a few other examples:
When Laman and Lemuel were struggling with what they were being taught, Nephi explained that “the guilty taketh the truth to be hard, for it cutteth them to the very center.”
When Nephi in the Book of Helaman testified of the wickedness of the day, “Those judges were angry with him because he spake plainly unto them concerning their secret works of darkness”
Alma was sorrowful because “The hearts of the people began to wax hard, and…they began to be offended because of the strictness of the word.”
When Abinadi was facing death from King Noah, he explained, “Because I have told you the truth ye are angry with me. And again because I have spoken the word of God ye have judged me that I am mad.”
One of the clearest examples of this is when Samuel the Lamanite explained the reaction of people who were not living the commandments.
". . . if a prophet come among you and declareth unto you the word of the Lord, which testifieth of your sins and iniquities, ye are angry with him, and cast him out and seek all manner of ways to destroy him; yea, you will say that he is a false prophet, and that he is a sinner, and of the devil, because he testifieth that your deeds are evil.
But behold, if a man shall come among you and shall say: Do this, and there is no iniquity; do that and ye shall not suffer; yea, he will say: Walk after the pride of your own hearts; yea, walk after the pride of your eyes, and do whatsoever your heart desireth—and if a man shall come among you and say this, ye will receive him, and say that he is a prophet. Yea, ye will lift him up, and ye will give unto him of your substance; ye will give unto him of your gold, and of your silver, and ye will clothe him with costly apparel; and because he speaketh flattering words unto you, and he saith that all is well, then ye will not find fault with him."
Most of us don’t want to hear that we are doing something wrong. We don’t like to be corrected. This becomes more of a challenge as society moves further and further from the teachings and commandments of God. In a righteous society, people drifting into sin become outliers; but in a society that ignores or rejects the teachings of the Lord, those who adhere to the commandments become the outliers and they come under strong pressure.
In the Book of Mormon, those societies most steeped in false philosophies and sin—such as the people of King Noah, the people of Ammonihah or the Zoramites—were most likely to react negatively to the messages of prophets. As society drifts, the great and spacious building exerts a stronger influence on individuals. It seems closer and larger. The mocking seems more intense and more pointed. There seem to be more fingers pointing—and this is because there are. The pressure is on us not only to turn away from the path and the fruit of the tree but to join in mocking and attacking those trying to stay on the path.
What did it take for those societies to get to the point where they would reject the prophets and even thirst for their blood? How did the false philosophies and doctrines become embedded in the hearts of the people? What factors enabled them to move from humility to pride and from obedience to belligerence? This is maybe a topic for another time.
As we look at these societies and individuals who turn from the prophets and from the Lord, we can see the results in hindsight. The city of Ammonihah was destroyed in one day. The people of Noah were put in bondage and many were killed. The Zoramites were upset that some of the poor among them who had accepted the gospel were warmly received in the Land of Jershon. This triggered their joining in a war against the Nephite nation.
We Make a Personal Choice to Follow the Prophet or Not
We each have the choice to follow the prophet, no matter the state of the particular society in which we live. We may feel pressure from society to ignore or even reject the prophet’s message, but we still retain the ability to choose. If we keep our covenants and stay close to the Lord, it will be much easier for us to follow the prophet. We will have the Spirit to both guide us and strengthen our resolve to submit our will to that of the Lord. And then we are recipients of the Lord’s blessings.
I was in a conversation a few years ago about a certain topic that has some political ramifications, but the topic hasn’t really been addressed by the Church or the prophet. The person made a comment that if the prophet ever asked us to do what we were discussing, this person would not do it and for him it would mean that the prophet was no longer a true prophet. I was taken aback and thought that was a very rash decision. But after the conversation, I wondered: was there something that I felt strongly enough about, or that society’s current trends were so powerfully against, that could cause me to reject the prophet?
When a prophet’s counsel clashes with our personal feelings, desires, or convictions, or that counsel opposes widely held views of society, what is our reaction? Joseph Smith said, “I have tried for a number of years to get the minds of the Saints prepared to receive the things of God; but we frequently see some of them, after suffering all they have for the work of God, will fly to pieces like glass as soon as anything comes that is contrary to their traditions: they cannot stand the fire at all.”
In general conference a number of years ago, President Henry B. Eyring, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, spoke about responding to counsel from prophets and included some profound thoughts for us as individuals. He said:
"When the words of prophets seem repetitive, that should rivet our attention and fill our hearts with gratitude to live in such a blessed time.
Looking for the path to safety in the counsel of prophets makes sense to those with strong faith. When a prophet speaks, those with little faith may think that they hear only a wise man giving good advice. Then if his counsel seems comfortable and reasonable, squaring with what they want to do, they take it. If it does not, they consider it either faulty advice or they see their circumstances as justifying their being an exception to the counsel. Those without faith may think that they hear only men seeking to exert influence for some selfish motive…
The failure to take prophetic counsel lessens our power to take inspired counsel in the future. . . Every time that I have listened to the counsel of prophets, felt it confirmed in prayer, and then followed it, I have found that I moved toward safety…
Sometimes we will receive counsel that we cannot understand or that seems not to apply to us, even after careful prayer and thought. Don’t discard the counsel but hold it close. If someone you trusted handed you what appeared to be nothing more than sand with the promise that it contained gold, you might wisely hold it in your hand awhile, shaking it gently. Every time I have done that with counsel from a prophet, after a time the gold flakes have begun to appear, and I have been grateful."
After Samuel the Lamanite described to the people how they had rejected the prophets and listened instead to others who taught them to “walk after the pride of [their] own eyes, and do whatsoever [their] heart desired,” he asked two penetrating questions: “How long will ye suffer yourselves to be led by foolish and blind guides?” and “How long will ye choose darkness rather than light?”
No one would admit they wanted to be led by blind guides. Those who had been misled would not have labeled those who taught them the false philosophies as “blind guides.” In fact, it’s likely that those who did the misleading were often viewed as enlightened, forward-looking, brilliant, and socially aware.
I wonder how some of those blind guides from the Book of Mormon would fit in today. Think of Sherem who was learned and had a perfect knowledge of the language of the people so he could use much flattery. With his command of the language, it’s certain he would take the Twitter world by storm. He would have many catchy, clever tweets that would be retweeted because he knew just how to turn a phrase or place a barb.
With Nehor’s good looks, great strength, costly apparel, and appeal to the people, he would garner a huge following on Instagram—modeling the “good life” without the constraints of commandments and use his pattern of bearing down on the Church and its teachings.
And Korihor would have millions of subscribers to his YouTube channel where he would have the freedom to make fun of believers and teach things that were “pleasing [to] the carnal mind.” He would “rise up in swelling words . . . and . . . revile against” the prophets and leaders of the Church. He would gather more subscribers as his message got out that “whatsoever a man did was no crime.”
Of course, the underlying current of all their communications would be that there is no Christ. Their teachings are not so modern or original. They are plagiarized from the author of lies. Even Korihor finally admitted that the devil taught him what to say.
When individuals or societies separate themselves from the teachings of the Lord which come through the prophets, they look for alternate teachings that allow them to live the way they want—without that pesky guilt.
Elder Jeffery R. Holland explained, “Sadly enough, my young friends, it is a characteristic of our age that if people want any gods at all, they want them to be gods who do not demand much, comfortable gods, smooth gods who not only don’t rock the boat but don’t even row it, gods who pat us on the head, make us giggle, then tell us to run along and pick marigolds.”
Blind and foolish guides will never lead us to the joys and blessings the Lord would have us receive. As we follow the prophets, we need to be willing to stand up for what is right in the face of scorn and persecution.
Elder L. Aldin Porter related a struggle he had in his life. He explained:
"What is it that hinders us from absorbing into our very beings the words of the prophets? Is it our fear of what others will think of us? After all, the prophets are not always politically correct.
One day many years ago I was fighting a personal battle in trying to be popular with everybody. In the midst of my distress, a thought came to me: Most people in this world do not care what happens to you. Only you will remember this unhappy experience a few months, weeks, days, or even hours from now. Furthermore, the people you respect are also unpopular with those who raise the finger of scorn at you.
That event marked a turning point for me. I realized that we simply must not be afraid to stand, even quietly, in defense of virtue. We must understand that there really are two forces warring for mankind and that we cannot be in both camps. We cannot be popular with everybody."
Prophets Beckon Us to Come to the Savior
While blind guides and the scorn of the world try to lead us away from God and his blessings, prophets beckon us to come to the Savior. Prophets don’t try to convince us to worship them but beckon us to worship and draw nearer to our Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.
In Lehi’s dream of the tree after he had partaken of the fruit and experienced the exceedingly great joy that came from it, he beckoned others to come so they could partake of the fruit. He wanted them to feel the love of God and the joy that came because of that love. He wasn’t interested in building a fan base or having people worship him. He was trying to lead them to the Savior.
About a year ago my wife, Jill, and I were speaking with President Russell M. Nelson. He asked us if we would be willing to accept a different assignment. President Nelson has always been so kind to us and has treated Jill with great love and respect. After he asked the question about our willingness, Jill said, “We’d do anything for you, President Nelson.” He immediately responded, “Do it for Him.” This was striking for both Jill and me. He taught us a great lesson. President Nelson wanted us to have the proper motives and to keep our eyes where they should be directed.
When we are guided by the prophets, we actually follow the counsel because of Him—the Savior. His grace is sufficient for each of us.
I was deeply touched by Sister Wendy Watson Nelson’s testimony of the prophetic call of her husband, President Nelson. She said, “I can take any witness stand in any nation on the earth to tell you for sure that Russell Marion Nelson has been called by God to be the Lord’s prophet on the earth at this time.” She is one who has seen it firsthand.
We know of President Nelson’s own willingness to follow prophets throughout his life. He gave up a prestigious career opportunity as a result of counsel from the prophet. As a very busy surgeon with a large family, he studied Chinese because the prophet made a comment about needing members of the Church who could speak Chinese. We know that when President Thomas S. Monson asked the Church members to study the Book of Mormon, President Nelson dove right in. What would the Church or the world be like if each of us were as willing to follow the prophet as President Nelson has been?
I remember vividly the powerful witness I received of President Nelson’s divine call during the solemn assembly when we all had the opportunity to sustain him as President of the Church and as prophet, seer, and revelator. I have had that witness confirmed many times since then.
I know that there are tremendous blessings as we follow the guidance the Lord gives through His prophets. If what they say clashes with current trends in society, let’s have the courage to follow, sustain, and defend. It won’t always lead to smooth sailing, but it will always lead to promised blessings and personal growth.
I pray that you can feel the Lord blessing your life as you follow the living prophets.
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.