Warning: Unusually long post.
What is a prophet?
I’ve always liked the Old Testament style prophets.
A voice crying in the wilderness, outside of the establishment of society, government and religion. Crying repentance. We must change or be destroyed, not by supernatural action, but as the natural consequences of our actions.
Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah
Repent and remember the Lord. Abandon these false gods you have been wasting your time and energy with.
Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch no unclean thing; go ye out of the midst of her; be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the Lord. (Isaiah 52:11)
The Old Testament type prophet shows up in the Book of Mormon also—Abinadi, Samuel the Lamanite. They exist only to come and deliver their message. They are protected until they have spoken their piece, discharged the assignment given them by God. Then they exit the narrative, killed or gone, back to the wilderness from whence they came.
There are OT style prophets active in the world today. My favorite is the poet farmer Wendell Berry, whose poems, essays, and novels have cried in the modern isolated wilderness of American consumerism. He has influenced a wide range of people, from environmental activists and nature writers. Barbara Kingsolver, Michael Pollan (the current Aaron of the food movement), even Mark Bittman from the New York Times. As influential as he is, in the end, almost everyone dismisses the totality of his vision as too idealistic, too impractical. And so he remains an outsider, a voice crying in the wilderness.
There have been so many prophets, inspired people who have changed the world, who have incited repentance and revolution, given guidance, hope and comfort as humanity slogs through this veil of tears.
In 2nd Nephi the Lord says:
Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Knew ye not that I, the lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; an I bring froth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth?...Wherefore I speak the same words unto one nation like unto another…Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose hat I have not caused more to be written..(2 Ne 29:7-8, 10)
And in Alma we have:
For behold, the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own nation and tongue, to teach his word, yea, in wisdom, all that he seeth fit that they should have; therefore we see that the Lord doth counsel in wisdom, according to that which is just and true. (Alma 29:8)
Back to 2nd Nephi:
For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding. (2 Ne 31:3)
And Joseph Smith, Jr., the founding prophet of the restoration of our church said:
The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation…when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same. (Letter to Isaac Galland, Mar. 22, 1839, Liberty Jail, published in Times and Seasons, Feb 1840. TotPotCJS, pge 264)
By the light of these revealed truths, I feel confident in accepting that inspired leaders of other religious traditions are also prophets, and speak the word of God to their peoples at their times. Moses, the Buddha, Mohammed, grace be upon him, Krishna. They in turn, recognize Jesus as a great teacher and prophet. They and Joseph Smith, too, are all radical religious leaders, the establishers of new religious traditions. And inasmuch as they are all divinely inspired prophets, we can learn from them, use their insight to their people to augment our faith in God and the restored gospel today.
One can even make the argument that other radical social leaders have been prophets: Gandhi, Martin Luther, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Brigham Young.
Brigham Young, of course, was a very different sort of prophet than Joseph Smith. Joseph Smith was a charismatic, a visionary man. People were drawn to him, and loved him and were devastated at his death. Brigham Young gathered up the broken saints and led them on the exodus across the plains to the Great Salt Lake. He led with authority and willpower.
But enough of prophets in the world at large, prophets in general, even if they are my favorites in particular.
Within our church, we hold two different, but not mutually exclusive definitions of what it is to be a prophet. It is related intimately to the fact that we believe in both personal revelation and that the president of our church has authority to receive revelation for the entire world.
A prophecy consists of divinely inspired words or writings, which a person receives through revelation from the Holy Ghost. The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy (Rev. 19: 10). A prophecy may pertain to the past, present, or future. When a person prophesies, he speaks or writes that which God wants him to know, for his own good or the good of others. Individuals may receive prophecy or revelation for their own lives. (lds.org)
We have several examples of lay people, if you will, prophesying in the scriptures:
I am thy fellowservant, and of thy brethren that have the testimony of Jesus: worship God: for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.
Joel, Chapter 2
28 ¶ And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions:
And in the beginning of the Old Testament:
23 And the Lord said unto Moses, Is the Lord’s hand waxed short? thou shalt see now whether my word shall come to pass unto thee or not.
24 ¶ And Moses went out, and told the people the words of the Lord, and gathered the seventy men of the elders of the people, and set them round about the tabernacle.
25 And the Lord came down in a cloud, and spake unto him, and took of the spirit that was upon him, and gave it unto the seventy elders: and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease.
26 But there remained two of the men in the camp, the name of the one was Eldad, and the name of the other Medad: and the spirit rested upon them; and they were of them that were written, but went not out unto the tabernacle: and they prophesied in the camp.
27 And there ran a young man, and told Moses, and said, Eldad and Medad do prophesy in the camp.
28 And Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of Moses, one of his young men, answered and said, My lord Moses, forbid them.
29 And Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!
[Due to time constraints, I summarized this passage from Numbers]
(I love this exclamation from Moses, the fugitive murderer, turned reluctant prophet and leader of the Israelite people during the Exodus and the purgatory of forty years wandering in the wilderness. “Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets” and Moses own burden lessened.)
In our church, the term prophet indicates many roles.
The twelve apostles and the members of the presidency of the church are ordained as prophets, seers and revelators at each semi-annual general conference of the church. As such, they have authority to receive revelation for the church. They counsel us in conference talks, and occasionally issue a proclamation.
President Thomas S. Monson, as the current head of the church, has the role of the Lord’s prophet in these latter days. He has the authority to speak, “thus saith the Lord”, just as Joseph Smith did at the time of the Restoration. In practice, our recent prophets act as stewards of Christ’s church, like a CEO.
They generally do not make sweeping predictions of specific future events. (I almost think if they did they would be dismissed as a Cassandra, that daughter of Priam who predicted the future accurately, but was doomed to have no one believe her.)
The Bible Dictionary says a prophet is a forthteller, not a foreteller.
So we make a distinction between prophecy of the lay members of the church, prophecy as a gift of the spirit and prophecy from the office of Prophet.
I see this as analogous to the way we all of us are teachers throughout our lives, but only some of us are called officially to be teachers, for certain periods of time.
As a side note, we have prophetesses. Women prophets.
Prophetess (definition from lds.org, guide to the scriptures)
A woman who has received a testimony of Jesus and enjoys the spirit of revelation. A prophetess does not hold the priesthood or its keys. Though only a few women in the scriptures are called prophetesses, many prophesied, such as Rebekah, Hannah, Elisabeth, and Mary.
Miriam was called a prophetess, Ex. 15: 20. Deborah was called a prophetess, Judg. 4: 4. Huldah was called a prophetess, 2 Kgs. 22: 14 (2 Chr. 34: 22). Anna was called a prophetess, Luke 2: 36.
[This prophetess section was also summarized in the interest of time.]
We call can experience the gift of prophesy, singly or in groups, like a great revival of the Pentecostal. As we all are struck by the spirit and speak that truth, we are prophet and prophetess. But our restored church has order. We don’t all speak at once in a babble of of incomprehensible gobbledegook. We speak and listen in turn, presided over in order and authority, for the Lord’s house is a house of order. And at the head of His church here on earth is His chief steward, the Prophet with a capital P, the president and leader of the church.
I personally like a more expansive definition of prophet. We have a prophet at the head of church, who can receive continuous revelation for the church. But I enjoy seeing obscure prophets, non-religious prophets, toiling away, trying to shake us out of our apathy and selfish selfcenteredness, to make this world a better place. I love the idea, that when we are receiving revelation from God, in those soul-shaking moments of undeniable spiritual clarity, that in a small way, we are given the gift of prophecy, you a prophet, and I a prophetess.