Mormonism and doctrine/Prophets are not infallible/Quotations

Table of Contents

Are prophets infallible? Statements by Church leaders


This page is a chronology of statements from primary and secondary sources. Sources may be viewed by following the citation links.

Nineteenth Century

Joseph Smith

  • “a prophet is only a prophet when he is acting as such.” [1]
  • Altho’ I do wrong, I do not the wrongs that I am charg’d with doing—the wrong that I do is thro’ the frailty of human nature like other men. No man lives without fault. Do you think that even Jesus, if he were here would be without fault in your eyes? They said all manner of evil against him—they all watch’d for iniquity….When I do the best I can—when I am accomplishing the greatest good, then the most evils are got up against me. – 31 August 1842 [2]
  • I never told you I was perfect—but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught—must I then be thrown away as a thing of nought? – 12 May 1844 [3]

1854

…it is not the place for any person to correct any person who is superior to them, but ask the Father in the name of Jesus to bind him up from speaking false principles. I have known many times I have preached wrong. [4]

1867

We must all learn to depend upon God and upon Him alone. Why, the very man upon whom we think we can rely with unbounded confidence, and trust with all we possess, may disappoint us sometimes, but trust in God and He never fails. [5] The men who hold the Priesthood are but mortal men; they are fallible men. …… No human being that ever trod this earth was free from sin, excepting the Son of God. … [6]

1858

Why do you not open the windows of heaven and get revelation for yourself? and not go whining around and saying, “do you not think that you may be mistaken? 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. If I am thus borne off by your prayers and faith, with my own, and suffered to lead you wrong, it proves that your faith is vain. Do not worry. [7]

1879

I hope what I have said may be blessed to your profit. If I have said any unwise thing, forget it. If I have said any improper thing, I hope it will pass from your minds, and that which is good, cling to you. [8] And then, we have bishops among us. We will treat them courteously. Have they weaknesses? Yes, they are men just like we are. “What,” say you, “have you weaknesses?” Yes, lots of them. I wish I had not sometimes, and then again I don’t wish so. [9]

1883

Now, was not Joseph Smith a mortal man? Yes. A fallible man? Yes. Had he not weaknesses? Yes, he acknowledged them himself, and did not fail to put the revelations on record in this book [10] wherein God reproved him. His weaknesses were not concealed from the people. He was willing that people should know that he was mortal, and had failings. And so with Brigham Young. Was not he a mortal man, a man who had weaknesses? He was not a God. He was not an immortal being. He was not infallible. No, he was fallible. And yet when he spoke by the power of God, it was the word of God to this people. [11] The First Presidency cannot claim, individually or collectively, infallibility. The infallibility is not given to men. They are fallible. [12]

1891

Do not, brethren, put your trust in man though he be a bishop; an apostle, or a president; if you do, they will fail you at some time or place, they will do wrong or seem to, and your support be gone; but if we lean on God, He never will fail us. When men and women depend on God alone, and trust in Him alone, their faith will not be shaken if the highest in the Church should step aside. They could still see that He is just and true, that truth is lovely in His sight, and the pure in heart are dear to Him. Perhaps it is His own design that faults and weaknesses should appear in high places in order that His Saints may learn to trust in Him and not in any man or men. Therefore, my brethren and sisters, seek after the Holy Spirit and His unfailing testimony of God and His work upon the earth. Rest not until you know for yourselves that God has set His hand to redeem Israel, and prepare a people for His coming. [13]

1898

I saw Joseph Smith the Prophet do things which I did not approve of; and yet…I thanked God that He would put upon a man who had these imperfections the power and authority which He placed upon him…for I knew I myself had weaknesses and I thought there was a chance for me. These same weaknesses…I knew were in Heber C. Kimball, but my knowing this did not impair them in my estimation. I thanked God I saw these imperfection. [14]

Twentieth Century

1907

We can and do know the truth with reference to the matters that concern our salvation . . . But with reference to matters involving merely questions of administration and policy in the Church; matters that do not involve the great and central truths of the gospel—these afford a margin wherein all the human imperfections and limitations of man, even of prophets and apostles, may be displayed…. when you take into account human weaknesses, imperfection, prejudice, passion, bias, it is too much to hope for human nature that man will constantly thus walk linked with God. And so we make this distinction between a man speaking sometimes under the influence of prejudice and pre–conceived notions, and the utterances of a man who, in behalf of the Church of God, and having the requisite authority, and holding the requisite position, may, upon occasion, lay aside all prejudice, all pre–conception, and stand ready and anxious to receive the divine impression of God’s Spirit. [15]

1941

Is anyone so simple as to believe he is serving the Lord when he opposes the President? Of course, the President is not infallible. He makes no claims to infallibility. But when in his official capacity he teaches and advises the members of the Church relative to their duties, let no man who wants to please the Lord say aught against the counsels of the President. [16]

1954

There have been rare occasions when even the President of the Church in his preaching and teaching has not been “moved upon by the Holy Ghost.” You will recall the Prophet Joseph declared that a prophet is not always a prophet….This has happened about matters of doctrine (usually of a highly speculative character) where a subsequent President of the Church and the people themselves have felt that in declaring the doctrine, the announcer was not “moved upon by the Holy Ghost. How shall the Church know when these adventurous expeditions of the brethren into these highly speculative principles and doctrines meet the requirements of the statutes that the announcers thereof have been “moved upon by the Holy Ghost”? The Church will know by the testimony of the Holy Ghost in the body of the members, whether the brethren in voicing their views are “moved upon by the Holy Ghost”; and in due time that knowledge will be made manifest. [17] We are not infallible in our judgment, and we err, but our constant prayer is that the Lord will guide us in our decisions, and we are trying so to live that our minds will be open to His inspiration. [18] Hugh B. Brown: The only way I know of by which the teachings of any person or group may become binding upon the church is if the teachings have been reviewed by all the brethren, submitted ot the highest councils of the church, and then approved by the whole body of the church…I do not doubt that the brethren have often spoken under inspiration and given new emphasis—perhaps even a new explanation or interpretation—of church doctrine, but that does not become binding upon the church unless and until it is submitted to the scrutiny of the rest of the brethren and later to the vote of the people. Again, we are only bound by the four standard works and are not required to defend what any man or woman says outside of them. [19]

1956

If I should say something which is contrary to that which is written and approved by the Church generally, no one is under obligation to accept it. Everything that I say and everything that any other person says must square itself with that which the Lord has revealed, or it should be rejected. [20]

1959

Joseph Smith, as prophets were and as prophets are, was subject to disappointment, even to despair; to illness, to fatigue, to frustration, and even to failure. He was just a man, after all, and he had no special immunity from any of the realities of life that prevail for all the other beings who have ever been born. [21]

1964

It is not to be thought that every word spoken by the General Authorities is inspired, or that they are moved upon by the Holy Ghost in everything they speak and write. Now you keep that in mind. I don’t care what his position is, if he writes something or speaks something that goes beyond anything that you can find in the standard works, unless that one be the prophet, seer, and revelator––please note that one exception––you may immediately say, “Well, that is his own idea!” And if he says something that contradicts what is found in the standard works (I think that is why we call them “standard”––it is the standard measure of all that men teach), you may know by that same token that it is false; regardless of the position of the man who says it. [22]

1965

There have been times when even the President of the Church has not been moved upon by the Holy Ghost. There is, I suppose you’d say, a classic story of Brigham Young in the time when Johnston’s army was on the move. The Saints were all inflamed, and President Young had his feelings whetted to fighting pitch. He stood up in the morning session of general conference and preached a sermon vibrant with defiance at the approaching army, declaring an intention to oppose them and drive them back. In the afternoon he rose and said that Brigham Young had been talking in the morning but the Lord was going to talk now. He then delivered an address the tempo of which was the exact opposite of the morning sermon. [23]

1966

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 own problems without inspiration in many instances. Joseph Smith recorded that he “visited with a brother and sister from Michigan, who thought that ‘a prophet is always a prophet’; but I told them that a prophet was a prophet only when he was acting as such.” (Teachings, p. 278.) Thus the opinions and views even of prophets may contain error unless those opinions and views are inspired by the Spirit. Inspired statements are scripture and should be accepted as such. (D. & C. 68:4.) Since “the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor. 14:32), whatever is announced by the presiding brethren as counsel for the Church will be the voice of inspiration. But the truth or error of any uninspired utterance of an individual will have to be judged by the standard works and the spirit of discernment and inspiration that is in those who actually enjoy the gift of the Holy Ghost. [24] Whether that happened or not, it illustrates a principle: that the Lord can move upon His people but they may speak on occasions their own opinions. [25]

1980

The prophets, as they walk and live among men, are common, ordinary men. Men called to apostolic positions are given a people to redeem. Theirs is the responsibility to lead those people in such a way that they win the battles of life and conquer the ordinary temptations and passions and challenges. And then, speaking figuratively, it is as though these prophets are tapped on the shoulder and reminded: “While you carry such responsibility to help others with their battles, you are not excused from your own challenges of life. You too will be subject to passions, temptations, challenges. Win those battles as best you can.” Some people are somehow dissatisfied to find in the leading servants of the Lord such ordinary mortals. They are disappointed that there is not some obvious mystery about those men; it is almost as if they are looking for the strange and the occult. To me, however, it is a great testimony that the prophets anciently and the prophets today are called out from the ranks of the ordinary men. It should not lessen our faith, for example, to learn that Elijah was discouraged at times, even despondent. (See 1Kgs.19:4.) This calling forth of ordinary men for extraordinary purposes is as evident during the Savior’s earthly mission as in former and later eras. [26]

1981

Now my divine commission and your divine commission is number one, to teach the principles of the gospel; number two, to teach them out of the standard works; number three, to teach them by the power of the Holy Ghost; number four, to apply them to the situation at hand; and number five, to bear a personal witness, a witness born of the Spirit that the doctrine that is taught is true. That is the teacher’s divine commission. I do not always measure up to that by any means. I guess the brethren of whom I am one do as much preaching and speaking in Church congregations as anyone, unless it is the seminary and institute teachers. There are times when I struggle and strive to get a message over and just do not seem to myself to be getting in tune with the Spirit. The fact is, it is a lot harder for me to choose what ought to be said, what subject ought to be considered, than it is for me to get up and preach it. I am always struggling and trying to get the inspiration to know what ought to be said at general conference, or in a stake conference, or whatever. If we labor at it and if we struggle, the Spirit will be given by the prayer of faith. If we do our part we will improve and grow in the things of the Spirit until we get to a position where we can, being in tune, say what the Lord wants said. That is what is expected of us. [27]

1987

To keep ourselves unspotted from the world….includes being aware that God’s work on earth is done by human beings, all of whom have some weaknesses. It encompasses the ability to look for the good accomplished rather than being disillusioned when human failings surface. It includes resisting the urge to proclaim such weaknesses so adamantly that the basic good is overshadowed and testimonies waver. [28]

1989

We make no claim of infallibility or perfection in the prophets, seers, and revelators. [29] We who have been called to lead the Church are ordinary men and women with ordinary capacities struggling to administer a church which grows at such a pace as to astound even those who watch it closely. Some are disposed to find fault with us; surely that is easy for them to do. But they do not examine us more searchingly than we examine ourselves. A call to lead is not an exemption from the challenges of life. We seek for inspiration in the same way that you do, and we must obey the same laws which apply to every member of the Church. We are sorry for our inadequacies, sorry we are not better than we are. We can feel, as you can see, the effect of the aging process as it imposes limitations upon His leaders before your very eyes. [30]

1991

Every student of church history knows that there have been differences of opinion among church leaders since the Church was organized. [31] …even with the best of intentions, it [the governance of the Church by mortal priesthood holders] does not always work the way it should. Human nature may express itself on occasion, but not to the permanent injury of the work. [32]

1994

The members’ faith in the Brethren as living Apostles and prophets not only provides the needed direction but also clearly sustains those leaders in their arduous chores. There is more to it than this, however. Sustaining them also means that we realize those select men are conscious of their own imperfections; each is even grateful that the other Brethren have strengths and talents he may not have. The gratitude of the Brethren for being so sustained thus includes appreciation for members’ willingness to overlook the imperfections of the overseers. The faithful realize the Apostles are working out their salvation, too, including the further development of the Christlike virtues. Serious discipleship requires us all to be “on the way to perfection” rather than thinking we are already in the arrival lounge. [33]

1995

I’ve known a few prophets. You’ll hear them criticized and attacked, and people will sometimes talk about their failures or their weaknesses, because they’re not perfect. [34] Clearly, my problem and your problem is to hear the word of God from and through imperfect teachers and leaders. [35]

Twenty-First Century

2001

Good but imperfect prophets are especially likely to be slandered. Nor are they immune from trials. In fact, of the responsibilities of priesthood leaders, the Prophet Joseph Smith said, “The higher the authority, the greater the difficulty of the station.” President John Taylor further said, “God tries people according to the position they occupy.” Near the end, the Prophet noted, “I never told you I was perfect; but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught.” The Prophet Joseph, then and since, has been subjected to intense mortal scrutiny. Yet, as prophesied, many in the world ever continue to “inquire after [his]name” (D&C 122:1). [36]

2012

A few question their faith when they find a statement made by a Church leader decades ago that seems incongruent with our doctrine. There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find. The leaders of the Church are honest but imperfect men. Remember the words of Moroni: “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father … ; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been” (Ether 12:6). [37] 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. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that a prophet is a prophet only when he is acting as such. [38]

2013

We should be careful not to claim for Joseph Smith perfections he did not claim for himself. He need not have been superhuman to be the instrument in God’s hands that we know him to be. In May 1844 Joseph declared, “I never told you I was perfect, but there is no error in the revelations which I have taught.” And he had commented earlier, “Although I do wrong, I do not the wrongs I’m charged with doing. The wrong that I do is through the frailty of human nature like other men. No man lives without fault. Do you think that even Jesus, if he were here, would be without fault in your eyes? His enemies said all manner of evil against him, and they all watched for iniquity in him.” Joseph was a mortal man striving to fulfill an overwhelming divinely appointed mission against all odds. The wonder is not that he ever displayed human failings, but that he succeeded in his mission. His fruits are both undeniable and incomparable. [39] And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine. I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes. In the title page of the Book of Mormon we read, “And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.” This is the way it has always been and will be until the perfect day when Christ Himself reigns personally upon the earth. It is unfortunate that some have stumbled because of mistakes made by men. [40]

Notes

  1. History of the Church 5:265.
  2. Words of Joseph Smith, 130, citing Nauvoo Relief Society Minutes.
  3. Words of Joseph Smith, 369, citing Thomas Bullock Report.
  4. Brigham Young, in Thomas Bullock minutes, 8 May 1854, Church Historical Department.
  5. George Q. Cannon, Journal of Discourses (21 April 1867) 12:46.
  6. George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth, 215.
  7. A Series of Instructions and Remarks by President Brigham Young at a Special Council, Tabernacle, March 22, 1858 (Salt Lake City, 1858), pamphlet in Frederick Kesler Collection, J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah.
  8. George Q. Cannon, April 6, 1879. Journal of Discourses 20:205.
  9. John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 20: 357 (30 November 1879).
  10. The Book of Doctrine and Covenants
  11. George Q. Cannon, August 12, 1883. Journal of Discourses 24:274.
  12. George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth, 1:206.
  13. George Q. Cannon, “Need For Personal Testimonies,” (15 February 1891), Collected Discourses 2:178. See Millennial Star 53:658–659, 673–675.
  14. Lorenzo Snow, cited by George Q. Cannon, in George Q. Cannon Diary, 7 January 1898.
  15. Brigham H. Roberts, Defense of Faith and the Saints, 2 vols (Provo: Utah, 2002 edition), 346, 554–555.
  16. Joseph F. Merrill, Conference Report (1941): 51.
  17. J. Reuben Clark, “When Are the Writings or Sermons of Church Leaders Entitled to the Claim of Scripture,” Address given to seminary and institute teachers, at BYU, on July 7, 1954, published in Church News (July 31, 1954): 9–10; reprinted in Dialogue 12 (Summer 1979), 68–80.
  18. J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Church News July 1954}}: 8.
  19. Hugh B. Brown cited in Edwin B. Firmage (ed.), An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988), 124; cited in Dennis B. Horne (ed.), Determining Doctrine: A Reference Guide for Evaluation Doctrinal Truth (Roy, Utah: Eborn Books, 2005), 272–73.
  20. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56), 1:322.
  21. Boyd K. Packer, The Things of the Soul (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997), 36 Address given as Joseph Smith Memorial Sermon at Logan Institute 6 December 1959.}}
  22. Harold B. Lee, “The Place of the Living Prophet, Seer, and Revelator,” Address to Seminary and Institute of Religion Faculty, BYU, 8 July 1964; see Teachings of Harold B. Lee, 541.
  23. Teachings of Harold B. Lee, 542.
  24. Bruce R. McConkie, “Prophets,” in Mormon Doctrine, 2nd edition, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, Inc., 1966), 608.
  25. Teachings of Harold B. Lee, 542.
  26. Boyd K. Packer, The Holy Temple (Deseret Book Co., 1980), 102.
  27. Bruce R. McConkie, “The Foolishness of Teaching,” evening with a General Authority, September 1981.
  28. Marvin J. Ashton, Be of Good Cheer (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987), 12.
  29. James E. Faust, “Continuous Revelation,” Ensign (November 1989): 11.
  30. Boyd K. Packer, “Revelation in a Changing World,” Ensign (November 1989): 16.
  31. Dallin H. Oaks, The Lord’s Way (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991), 200.
  32. Boyd K. Packer, “”I Say unto You, Be One,’” in BYU Devotional and Fireside Speeches, 1990–1991 (Provo, Utah: University Publications, 1991), 84.
  33. Neal A. Maxwell, Lord, Increase Our Faith (Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft, 1994), 105.
  34. Henry B. Eyring, To Draw Closer to God: A Collection of Discourses (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1995), 108–109.
  35. Henry B. Eyring, To Draw Closer to God: A Collection of Discourses (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1995), 13.
  36. Neal A. Maxwell, Promise of Discipleship (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2001), chapter 10.
  37. Elder Neil L. Anderson, ”Trial of Your Faith,” Ensign (November 2012).
  38. Elder D. Todd Christofferson, “The Doctrine of Christ,” April 2012 General Conference, Sunday Morning Session (1 April 2012).
  39. G. Todd Christofferson, “The Prophet Joseph Smith,” devotional, BYU Idaho, 24 September 2013, 14:15-15:30
  40. Dieter F. Uchdorf, “Come Join With Us,” general conference, October 2013.