There has been a great deal of discussion about just how much control a Mormon prophet has over the people in the church. Little children sing, “Follow the prophet.” What do they mean by that often repeated phrase?
First, let’s look at what a prophet is. As we see in the Bible, a prophet is the only person authorized to speak for God. While everyone can receive personal revelation for his or her own life, only the prophet speaks for the entire church. Imagine what would have happened if God had assigned a committee of people to write the ten commandments. They might still be debating and voting. Instead, God delivered them to a prophet. Because Moses was the prophet, everyone knew they were really from God and hadn’t gotten any human ideas mixed into them.
Mormons do not worship their prophets any more than other Christians worship Moses or Noah. This is true even of Joseph Smith. They are mortal men, called by God to a sacred responsibility. As such, they are honored, but not worshipped.
Mormons are taught not to take anyone’s word for the truthfulness of the gospel. Any mortal could be wrong, no matter how much we trust them. Before children who are born into the church, and converts who join later, are baptized, they are instructed to ask God if the church is true and if they should join.
If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him (James 1:5).
Having done this, they know from God, not man, the church is true and the prophet is indeed a prophet. We have seen, of course, that throughout Biblical history there were those who rejected the teachings of the prophets even when they were members of the church. Moses frequently struggled with rebellious church members who said they believed but who turned their backs on what the prophet said when it wasn’t convenient, fun, or in line with what they really wanted to believe or do. The prophet speaks for God, but the choice to pray and find out if he is a prophet, and to follow him afterwards, is left to the individual. We are free to choose, but not free to choose the consequences. Choosing not to pray about or follow the prophet does not free a person from the consequences of ignoring the teachings of God.
A prophet is the prophet when he is speaking in an official capacity as the prophet and making an official statement. However, God does not tell us everything, and He doesn’t tell us everything at once. This is why the Bible doesn’t end with Genesis. God continued to build on our knowledge of the gospel over time. This means there are many things we don’t know. When there is no official, canonized doctrine, Mormons are free to study the issue and to come to their own conclusions. This is true even for prophets. Sometimes prophets speak their own opinions on subjects. Today, they are generally a little more careful about saying that is what they are doing, due to the speed of communication that brings words to people who do not understand the context. In the past, when they spoke to a small in-person audience of believers, they were less likely to do so.
In the Book of Mormon, which Mormons use with the Bible, a prophet named Alma is speaking to his son:
20 Now, my son, I do not say that their resurrection cometh at the resurrection of Christ; but behold, I give it as my opinion, that the souls and the bodies are reunited, of the righteous, at the resurrection of Christ, and his ascension into heaven (Alma 40:20).
Even though he was a prophet and speaking on a gospel subject, he did not know the official answer to the topic, so he offered his opinion to his son. Because it was an opinion, his saying it did not make it doctrine. It simply made it his opinion.
When outsiders evaluate Mormon doctrine, they tend to quote Brigham Young. Brigham Young has been dead for an extremely long time. To suggest that everything Brigham Young said still holds true would be to say we must also follow the Law of Moses because Moses was a prophet. Those who have read the entire Old Testament know God added to our knowledge of the gospel line upon line and that practices changed, as did understanding of the gospel. When Jesus began to preach, many people tried quoting Moses to him. Moses said it so it must be right—forever. Jesus explained that Moses was indeed a prophet, but that he gave laws for his time. Now they were being called upon to raise the bar and live to an even higher standard. This didn’t make Moses a false prophet. It merely made him a prophet for his time.
Mormons believe that eternal truths never change, but that practices do and also that God does not give us the entire truth all at once. He starts the way parents always start—begin with basics and gradually build upon them until you have the fullness of the gospel. When Mormons hear a doctrine they are not sure about, they simply pray and ask God about it. This is how they follow the prophet–they take his instruction, but confirm anything they aren’t sure of.
It should also be noted that much of what we have of Brigham Young’s words come from a book that is not canonized. People wrote down what he said in conferences and other meetings, but he did not review the words and approve them. Today, when Mormon leaders speak in General Conference, there is an official written version of their talk. They give the talk orally at the conference on Saturday or Sunday, but on Monday they are asked to review the talk they gave. They can then edit as needed, since a speaker sometimes words things in a way that is less clear or speaks spontaneously when he is speaking. The final edited version is the official version. This was not done in Brigham Young’s day. As a result, many of his personal opinions were recorded as if they were canonized doctrine. The only way to know what is canonized and what is opinion is to seek the teachings of the most recent prophet. You can also use these free online sources for canonized doctrine:
Study by Topic (on LDS.org, the official Mormon website for members of the Church)
Gospel Principles (a book for new members and non-Mormons who want to know the basics of the religion)
Mormon.org (an official Mormon website for people who are not Mormon)