Examining the claims of Jonathan Neville and the Heartland movement

Thursday, March 14, 2019

If prophets are fallible, are they misleading the Church?

Jonathan Neville frequently points out that “Every prophet and apostle who has ever formally addressed the issue has affirmed that Cumorah is in New York, including members of the First Presidency speaking in General Conference.” (As of this date, he’s made that claim around seventy times on just one of his dozens of blogs.)

Let’s grant for the moment that his claim is true. As this blog has pointed out before, his reliance on it is merely question-begging—he assumes that when a Church leader speaks, he is always speaking with some measure of infallibility, that his remarks are based on revelation and not interpretation, and that he speaks for all other Church leaders (including those who haven’t said anything about the subject).

But is that the way revelation works? Are prophets always prophets, or are they sometimes (or even often) men who hold opinions and beliefs just like the rest of us? When do the statements of the Brethren rise to the level of establishing the doctrine of the Church?

Fortunately for us, the Brethren have spoken on that question. And their consensus is that, contrary to Jonathan Neville’s question-begging assumption, doctrine is not established by one or even many general authorities speaking on a subject. Rather, as Elder D. Todd Christofferson explained in 2012:
The President of the Church may announce or interpret doctrines based on revelation to him. Doctrinal exposition may also come through the combined council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Council deliberations will often include a weighing of canonized scriptures, the teachings of Church leaders, and past practice. But in the end, just as in the New Testament Church, the objective is not simply consensus among council members but revelation from God. It is a process involving both reason and faith for obtaining the mind and will of the Lord.

At the same time it should be remembered that not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. It is commonly understood in the Church that a statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion, not meant to be official or binding for the whole Church.
(Elder Christofferson’s statement was affirmed in an earlier statement released by the Newsroom of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which I suspect he had a hand in writing.)

But, Neville responds, if prophets and apostles are wrong, doesn’t that make them “naive speculators who misled the Church about Cumorah being in New York,” as he accuses people who disagree with him of teaching? The answer is no, it doesn’t. As Brigham Young explained:
Can a Prophet or an Apostle be mistaken? Do not ask me any such question, for I will acknowledge that all the time, but I do not acknowledge that I designedly lead this people astray one hair’s breadth from the truth, and I do not knowingly do a wrong, though I may commit many wrongs, and so may you. But I overlook your weaknesses, and I know by experience that the Saints lift their hearts to God that I may be led right.
(Brigham Young, “A Series of Instructions and Remarks by President Brigham Young at a Special Council, Tabernacle, 21 March 1858, Church Historical Department,” in Richard S. Van Wagoner, ed., The Complete Discourses of Brigham Young, volume 3 [Salt Lake City: Smith‑Pettit Foundation, 2009], 1418.)

What Jonathan Neville apparently fails to grasp is that Church leaders aren’t leading the Saints astray just because they have opinions and beliefs that may not be backed by revelation. Elder B. H. Roberts put it this way:
While I believe the Lord will help men at need, I think it improper to assign every word and every act of theirs to an inspiration from the Lord; for if that were true, we would have to acknowledge ourselves as being wholly taken possession of by the Lord, and not permitted to go to the right or to the left, but as he guided us. Needless to say that in that event there would be no error in judgment, no blunders made. Where would human agency or human intelligence exist in the one case or be developed in the other under such circumstances? They would not exist. Hence I think it a reasonable conclusion to say that constant, never-varying inspiration is not a factor in the administration of the affairs even of the Church; not even good men, no, not though they be prophets or other high officials of the Church, are at all times and in all things inspired of God. It is only occasionally and at need that God comes to their aid.
(B. H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints [Salt Lake City: The Deseret News Press, 1907], 524–25.)

Even Elder Bruce R. McConkie, as great a supporter of prophetic authority as there ever was, agreed with Elder Roberts:
With all their inspiration and greatness, prophets are yet mortal men with imperfections common to mankind in general. They have their opinions and prejudices and are left to work out their problems without inspiration in many instances.
(Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine [2nd ed. rev; Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1979], 608.)

So when the Brethren speak, even when they speak from opinion or common belief, are we obligated to agree with them? If President Marion G. Romney or Ezra Taft Benson said that the hill Cumorah in New York was the same hill described in the Book of Mormon, must all Latter-day Saints interpret the scriptures as they did?

President J. Reuben Clark answered this question in a letter he wrote to Elder Joseph Fielding Smith in 1946. The two men had various disagreements over the decades regarding the proper interpretation of scriptures that relate to the age of the earth and the existence of men before Adam. Elder Smith believed that accepting an old earth or pre-Adamites was a rejection of the scriptures, but President Clark disagreed:
You seem to think I reject the scriptures, or some of them. I do not intend to do so, but obviously I am no more bound by your interpretation of them than you are by mine.…

Now, as to what the earlier brethren have said,—where they have declared themselves as speaking under inspiration and by the authority of the Lord, I bow to what they say. But where they express views based on their own understanding and interpretation, then none of us are foreclosed from exercising our own reasoning powers, inadequate though they may be; but the earlier views do not foreclose us from thinking. This is particularly true, where we come to interpreting their interpretations.
(J. Reuben Clark Jr, letter to Joseph Fielding Smith, 2 October 1946; quoted in D. Michael Quinn, J. Reuben Clark: The Church Years [Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1983], 167–68.)

Contrary to Jonathan Neville’s incessant, repeated claims in his mountain of books and blog posts that those who disagree with his views are rejecting the prophets, we rather disagree with his interpretation of the scriptures and grant all individuals—including prophets and apostles—the right to have beliefs and opinions, including ones that may be based on common belief and tradition. That, in no way, diminishes them, for when they speak authoritatively as a unified body, their words are “the will of the Lord…, the mind of the Lord…, the word of the Lord…, the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation” (D&C 68:4).

Until the Lord sees fit to declare, by revelation to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the location of the hill Cumorah, it remains a subject open to research, discussion, and debate.

—Peter Pan


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