Every year, nearly 100,000 people resign their membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, voluntarily asking for their names to be taken off the records of the Church. Many, if not most, of these ex-Mormons leave because specific intellectual or spiritual reasons have led them to a conviction that the Church is false. One of the most common reasons for leaving is disbelief in Joseph Smith as a prophet. For various reasons, these people have lost, or never fully gained, a testimony of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. Closely related to this issue are the concerns which some members and ex-members of the Church have concerning his successors. When asked specifically why they no longer believe that Joseph Smith or his successors are Prophets of God, many respond by listing the various mistakes and errors of both Joseph Smith and later presidents of the Church. I will seek to examine these issues and their implications both by looking at a few examples and also by grappling with the question of what it means to be a Prophet, and especially what being a Prophet does not mean. Hopefully, I will be able to address some of these issues and concerns which many, many people experience and explain why they need not necessarily lead to a conclusion that the Church is not what it claims to be. I cannot give anyone a testimony that Joseph Smith was a Prophet, or that Thomas S Monson is a Prophet today. That can only come through the Holy Ghost, by the will of God, in answer to earnest and sincere prayer, meditation and reflection. However, if there is anybody who has received a spiritual witness, but still has intellectual concerns and questions, I may be able to address and help with some of them.
The Church does not teach that Prophets are infallible. Most members of the Church understand this, and yet it is not something which we commonly discuss as Church members, for various reasons. However, the fact remains: leaders of the Church can, and often do, make mistakes. And sometimes, these mistakes can be very bad. Often they are only mild errors, but sometimes they can be very grave and serious sins. The Church acknowledges this. In fact, we cannot escape it, or ignore it, even if we wanted to. We are confronted with it every time we open the scriptures or take a close look at Church history. Noah was one of the greatest patriarchs of the Old Testament, and following the Flood, he was the spiritual leader of the entire human race up until his death. Yet despite being in this position of such great authority and responsibility, the Bible records that Noah “drank of...wine, and was drunken, and he was uncovered within his tent.” (Genesis 9:21) It should be clear that this is not acceptable behaviour for anybody, let alone a Prophet of God. Yet this does not change the fact that Noah was a great Prophet, who declared God’s words to the world and led his family and descendants to safety even while the rest of the world was destroyed. Similarly, Peter famously denied knowing the Saviour three times and cut off a centurion’s ear in a fit of anger (see John 18). Yet Christ promised him the keys of the kingdom and he was the Lord’s closest confidante during His mortal ministry and the leader of the Church after Christ’s ascension.
There are many other examples in both the Bible and the Book of Mormon of Prophets who make mistakes, including sometimes committing serious sins. Yet God still speaks with them and uses them as His messengers, and they are still His mouthpiece upon the earth. If anybody feels that Joseph Smith could not possibly be a Prophet because he sometimes did things which were unconventional, inappropriate, insensitive, rude, or just plain morally wrong, my answer would be: yes. He did. Often, in fact. He had a flawed personality. In fact, if you read the Doctrine and Covenants, you don’t have to look very hard to find many cases where the Lord rebukes Joseph for one sin or another. For example, in D&C 93:47, the Lord says: “I say unto Joseph Smith, Jun. – You have not kept the commandments, and must needs stand rebuked before the Lord.” This is just one of many, many instances all throughout the Doctrine and Covenants where God rebukes Joseph Smith for his sins and misdeeds. Prophets are not perfect. Thankfully, they do not have to be, or we would all be left without guidance or hope. But they are still Prophets, and God still speaks to them.