God uses human beings as his leaders on the earth. Do these people need to be perfect to be prophets, seers, and revelators?
This is the fifteenth in a series compiled from the many interviews conducted during the course of the Witnesses film project. This series of mini-films is being released each Saturday at 7pm MDT. These additional resources are hosted by Camrey Bagley Fox, who played Emma Smith in Witnesses, as she introduces and visits with a variety of experts. These individuals answer questions or address accusations against the witnesses, also helping viewers understand the context of the times in which the witnesses lived. This week we feature Gerrit Dirkmaat, Associate Professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. For more information, go to https://witnessesofthebookofmormon.org/ or watch the documentary movie Undaunted.
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Witnesses of the Book of Mormon — Insights
Episode 15: Are Prophets Perfect?
Martin Harris: I’m a weak man, Joseph, though I don’t mean to be. I’ll never have your faith.
Joseph Smith: It isn’t easy, being chastised by the Lord.
Martin: No, it isn’t…He chastised you?
Joseph: He has taken away the plates, and I have lost the ability to translate.
Martin: What will we do?
Joseph: It’s not the first time I have been reprimanded. But this time, Martin, we will listen.
Martin: It wasn’t your fault. I was the one —
Joseph: Yes. You’re right, Martin. You were the one. You were the one who came to me in my time of need. It’s because of your generosity that Emma and I came to this place away from those who would harm us. And you were the one who left your farm to come here and assist in the Lord’s work. You will see the plates. The Lord has declared it. You’ll see the plates, Martin.
Camrey Bagley Fox: Welcome to our series about the witnesses of the Book of Mormon. My name is Camrey Bagley Fox. And we are joined today by Dr. Gerritt Dirkmaat, Associate Professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. Gerritt has worked as a historian and writer on the Joseph Smith Papers project over the last decade.
I recently had the opportunity to play Emma Smith in the movie, Witnesses. That experience was both fascinating and informative, but it also raised a lot of questions for me, and that’s why I have invited Dr. Dirkmaat to join me. Thanks for being here.
Gerritt Dirkmaat: Thank you for having me.
CBF: So, there are a lot of people who leave the Church because of imperfections or mistakes that Joseph made. So, should a prophet be expected to be perfect? Does it mean he’s not a prophet if he’s made his mistakes? What references do we have for that in history?
GD: Wow, I mean, it’s pretty hard to find a prophet that was perfect. You can think of just SO many examples. Even great prophets like Elijah, right? I mean, he’s certain that there is nobody left in Israel that worships Jehovah, and he’s ready to just lay down and die. And the Lord comes to him and says there’s still thousands of people. We tend to highlight human failings of prophets in a way that makes us say, ‘Well, then that means that the revelations that they had, weren’t— they must not really be from God if they had that failing.’
With Joseph, Joseph tells us himself of all the failings he has. The whole point of praying in the first place is, ‘I’m a sinner and I need to be saved.’ Joseph COULD have told Martin Harris no when he asked to see the pages, and Joseph didn’t.
Those are some of the ones we all kind of know about, but there are others. Joseph gets in a fistfight with his brother William, and I even had someone say to me when they read that that that really hurt their faith to know that. For me, it actually kind of made me feel like, ‘Well, as someone with brothers, I guess maybe I have a chance, you know?’ It’s an unfair expectation to expect anyone but the Lord Jesus Christ to be perfect.
Joseph described himself as this rough stone rolling down a mountain, that has jagged parts knocked off every time he comes in contact with something.
The ideal of life is to try towards perfection. But nobody’s there, prophets aren’t there. In fact, you don’t ever hear any prophets saying that they ARE there.
GD: So, the fact that we’re so desperate to believe that prophets are perfect is kind of weird, because they keep telling us, ‘We’re not perfect.’ ‘But you are, right?’ ‘No, we’re NOT perfect.’ ‘I hear what you’re saying, but I also hear that you’re perfect.’
It’s important that we recognize MANY of things that you and I know, that you and I take for granted, Joseph doesn’t know, because it hasn’t been revealed to him yet. Joseph DOESN’T know the entirety of the plan of salvation when he first comes out of the grove. And maybe he would have acted differently had he known it.
GD: As someone who’s made lots of mistakes, I’d always prefer that we were on the side of saying that, ‘Believers in God are imperfect, but they can repent.’
Joseph says, ‘I never said that I was perfect, but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught.’ He separates the two—that when Joseph is speaking as a prophet, he is a prophet.
Now sometimes people accused him of things that, just what their expectation of a prophet was, is different than what Joseph’s was. Joseph was a regular guy, Joseph liked to laugh and hang out, and play with kids in the street, and throw snowballs and things like, I mean, Joseph enjoyed being around other people. And so sometimes people were offended by that, that this is not how a prophet would act. ‘A prophet doesn’t wrestle.’
It’s really, Joseph’s story is the story of all of us in the Gospel, trying to be something better than what we were yesterday. It’s EASY to criticize someone from the past. We judge them by our standards. We judge them by our lives, by our experiences, by our understanding of technology, and we say, ‘Well, why didn’t they just…”X”?’
When someone says, ‘Oh, well they made this mistake.’ Yeah, cause they’re normal human beings. But they’re still the conduit by which God gives us revelation and directs his church.
CBF: I love that. And I think, a lot of times today in society we see this black-and-white thinking. That it’s like, ‘Oh, well if this one bad thing happened, then everything about this is bad. Or, you know, if this one wonderful thing happened then everything about this is wonderful.’ Where in almost every case that I can think of, it’s neither black or white. It’s both things are true. Yes, this bad thing happened, AND this wonderful thing happened, and they don’t negate each other. They’re both still true.
GD: Humans are wonderfully beautiful, complex creatures.
GD: And frankly, Joseph Smith’s life is granting other people second, and third, and fourth, and fifth chances. He believed that the way that you demonstrated your belief that Jesus was your Savior, was by forgiving other people. He told one visitor in Nauvoo that the great principle in Christianity is love, and that there’s more of this love-spirit among our people than there is among anywhere else in the world. That’s what he thinks the point is. And so hopefully we can grant him that charity, too.
CBF: So why do you think it is that Joseph Smith gets a lot harsher judgment than, say, Brigham Young, or John Taylor, or any other prophet that we’ve had, who, maybe has some characteristics that people don’t love, but we’re like, more okay with it than with Joseph Smith?
GD: That’s a great question. I think it goes back to where the wellsprings of our faith are. I mean, when we say Joseph Smith’s the prophet of the Restoration, I mean, we mean it. We absolutely have living prophets on the Earth today who continue to receive revelation, but the CORE doctrines that are the central part of what makes up being a Latter-day Saint today are all things that Joseph Smith received by revelation. They’ve been expanded upon, we’ve learned better how they work as other prophets go, about things like our pre-mortal existence, which is a unique doctrine among Latter-day Saints; things like the universal salvation of mankind from hellfire into these various different kingdoms after they suffer for their sins after this life, work for the dead, the idea of exaltation, eternal marriages, and eternal sealings of families—all of these things are things that Joseph Smith received by revelation and revealed to the Church. And so, I think for many members, the reason why they believe is because of Joseph Smith. Most members place the beginnings of their faith in that Joseph Smith story.
But even more so, how many millions of members believe because of the Book of Mormon? And if Joseph is the translator of the Book of Mormon, there’s a direct connection between Joseph Smith the prophet and WHY they believe. That’s the reason why it’s so difficult when you find out, you know, ‘Oh, Joseph wasn’t always doing everything he was supposed to do?’
Frankly, I think that’s the way we treat our heroes, right? We want them to be perfect, and so we’re going to make them hold to that standard. But I think there is some beauty in the, in the messiness in it. Men and women who have led this church, who have made such amazing sacrifices, they had hard lives, or they made difficult decisions, and they weren’t always right every time. That should give us hope! It should allow me to say, ‘Well I’ve got some hard times, I’m making some wrong decisions, and I still have a chance.’
CBF: Thank you.
GD: You’re welcome.