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Question: How do Mormons understand prophetic revelation?
Question: How do Mormons understand the nature of revelation—whether prophetic or personal?
First, who is God?
Mormons understand God to be perfect and omnipresent. Revelation is the tool that he has given us to describe him best, his nature, and his law, even though at times his purposes and ways of working with his children can be inscrutable. To Mormons, he is also literally our Father in Heaven. We understand him to work with us like a father—catering to our needs as he teaches us how to come closer to him. This understanding frames the way we understand all revelation.
Revelation is given in a particular historical context
No revelation occurs in a vacuum. That is, no revelation is given to a prophet without a historical context, and by the same token a particular set of needs, concerns, and pressing events on the prophet leading his people at any given time. This context is either described by the text (as with the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Pearl of Great Price) or by historical research (as it is generally in the Doctrine and Covenants). Every revelation is couched within the language of the agent receiving it which is why we have Hebrew influence in the Old Testament, Hebrew and Egyptian influence in the Book of Mormon, and Jacobean 19th century English in the Doctrine and Covenants.
Revelation is accommodated to the needs of the people living in that cultural circumstance and is couched in their language and their expression
Revelation, as stated before, must be couched within the language of the people. Expression is another issue. For instance, we learn that God is a jealous God (Ex 20:5), yet how can he be jealous and perfect? The Doctrine and Covenants tells us to strip ourselves from jealousies (D&C 67:10). This is part of how God accommodates revelation to the needs of a people living in a particular circumstance. Prophets speak "after the manner of their language."
The Doctrine and Covenants itself announces that:
Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.DC 1:24
Thus, the Doctrine and Covenants acknowledges the weakness of the prophets through which they came, and insists that the wording is in the manner of their language, not sound bites from the downloadable encyclopedia of divine facts.
Brigham Young (who authored one of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants—DC 136:) described the process in similar terms:
I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fulness. The revelations of God contain correct doctrine and principle, so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak, low, grovelling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from the Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities...
The laws that the Lord has given are not fully perfect, because the people could not receive them in their perfect fulness; but they can receive a little here and a little there, a little today and a little to-morrow, a little more next week, and a little more in advance of that next year, if they make a wise improvement upon every little they receive... 
And, there were even times when others besides Joseph were assigned to collaborate in writing the revelations—clear evidence that there was not "only one true" way of expressing a revelation. (See DC 124:12-16.)
Revelation is also accommodated to particular needs and immediate concerns. As such the Lord has worked through diverse means to bring about particular outcomes. This means that some things that have been revealed have only been provisional or implemented in case of contingency.
As the Lord states in Doctrine and Covenants 56:4
"Wherefore I, the Lord, command and revoke, as it seemeth me good...".
LDS Doctrine also states that it is a spiritual gift to understand the "diversity of operations" of the Lord D&C 46:16
Along these same lines, it should be mentioned that revelation always comes at a time of common necessity and not common demand. We may demand that a particular thing bend to our political view or whim, however that is not how the Lord operates. As Alma teaches:
21 And if there was no law given, if men sinned what could justice do, or mercy either, for they would have no claim upon the creature?
A lot of revelation comes simply by treasuring up the words of God in our minds and having the spirit witness to us in the moment of need what to do or say
We are commanded to treasure up the words of God in our minds. He promises us that they will tell us all things we might do or say in the moment of need (see 2 Nephi 32:3 and D&C 84:85). He promises also that as we study issues out in our mind and ask for confirmation that he will give it (D&C 9:7-9)
Sometimes we are required to actively seek a revelation to receive it
As taught in the Doctrine and Covenants "And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed." (D&C 1:26) We must all be active in our search for revelation on any given matter. God does intervene frequently however. The best way to understand under what circumstances is to read the scriptures and judge the matter for ourselves.
Many times, we do not need the Lord to command us in action— especially when what we are going to do or are doing is a good thing
27 Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness;
Revelation is wisdom that is largely independent of the agent receiving it
Were it not so, nothing would be "revealed" in any traditional sense and rather concocted to fit the personal agenda of the prophet. This doesn't mean that revelation is "perfect". Only that God is the one choosing the symbols that revelation attaches itself to and not the prophet.
Often revelation does require that we first study something out in our mind (D&C 9:8). As President Russell M. Nelson has recently stated
. . .I know that good inspiration is based upon good information. . .
Once we have studied an issue out in our mind, it is then up to the spirit to decide which will be the best for the future.
Obviously not all revelation functions this way as it should cut through the unknown on some level. God does give us knowledge completely out of blue to his prophets and to us personally that we need to bless ourselves and others in the moment of need. This increases our confidence that revelation really is independent of our own normal cognition and emotion.
Revelation is given to prophets "line upon line; precept upon precept"
Line upon line has two features:
- It reveals core truths over time directly to the prophet.
- It makes small addendums to a few previous revelations without threatening the core integrity of the first revelation—immediately suggesting its sometimes corrective nature—and the original revelation being an accommodation to the first people receiving it.
An example of this is found in Doctrine and Covenants 19. It states:
6 Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment.
7 Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my glory.
[. . .]
10 For, behold, the mystery of godliness, how great is it! For, behold, I am endless, and the punishment which is given from my hand is endless punishment, for Endless is my name. Wherefore
11 Eternal punishment is God's punishment.12 Endless punishment is God's punishment.
Some things weren't meant to be made known in this life
States the Apostle Paul: "For now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." (1 Cor 13:12).
Elder David A. Bednar compares this pattern of light to walking through fog on a sunny day (and also reveals other patterns of light), where we have just enough light to press into the darkness but not so much as to know exactly where we are going. Eventually, as the Doctrine of Covenants teaches, all will be revealed--the light will grow brighter and brighter until the perfect day.
Revelation comes through a variety of means or methods
As expressed in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:
TYPES OF REVELATION. A dispensation of the gospel of Jesus Christ is a series of personal revelations from God. These revelations may be direct manifestations from God, as in the following typical cases:
1. theophanies (seeing God face-to-face), as in the first vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith, which came at the beginning of the present dispensation (JS-H 1:15-20)
2. revealed knowledge from the Father that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:13-17; see also Spirit of Prophecy)
3. visitations of angelic persons, such as the appearance of the angel Moroni to Joseph Smith (JS-H 1:30-32)
4. revelations through the Urim and Thummim, by which means Joseph Smith translated the book of mormon
5. open visions, as when Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon were shown the kingdoms of the hereafter (see Doctrine and Covenants: Section 76)
6. physically hearing the voice of God, as is recorded in 3 Nephi 11
7. receiving the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit, as in the experience of Elijah (1 Kgs. 19);
8. receiving the gifts of the spirit (D&C 46)
9. having a burning in the bosom as an indication of the will of God, as in the explanation given to Oliver Cowdery (D&C 9:8)
10. dreams (1 Ne. 8:2-32)
11. manifestations of the Light of Christ, by which all men know good from evil (Alma 12:31-32; D&C 84:46-48).Such direct manifestations of the mind and will of God are known as gifts and are contrasted with signs. Gifts always have a spiritual component, even when they have a physical aspect. Signs are physical manifestations of the power of God and are a form of revelation from God, though they may be counterfeited and misinterpreted. Signs may show that God is at work, but spiritual gifts are required to know how one should respond.
We accept the light we have received and worship according to it
We act in doctrine (D&C 101:78). We accept the light we have received now and receive whatever additional future light with gladness. If one does not act in accordance to the commandments of God, such is sin.
This view is one that is compatible with the ideas of both having men who actually receive revelation from God and the knowledge that God has given everyone agency which they can freely exercise without having to be puppets--downloading truth directly from God's encyclopedia of knowledge (D&C 101:78).
- Brigham Young, "The Kingdom Of God," (8 July 1855) Journal of Discourses 2:314.
- Nelson, Russell M. "Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives" General Conference, April 2018 
- Riddle, Chauncey R. "Revelation." Encyclopedia of Mormonism. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. 2007 Online