FairMormon is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing well-documented answers to criticisms of the doctrine, practice, and history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Question: How do Mormons understand prophetic revelation?
Question: How do Mormons understand prophetic revelation?
Among the most pressing questions a Latter-day Saint can answer is that of the nature of divine revelation. Critical attacks on revelation demand that we develop a robust understanding of the nature of the Divine Disclosure and how it has come to us. Without a solid understanding of the nature of revelation, criticism will appear to threat or even undermine virtually everything we believe in given the centrality of the doctrine of revelation in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This article answers that question. To reduce circularity, it is always wisest to start with what the prophets actually say about revelation. Thus, this article will be centered on the scriptures and the statements of living prophets and apostles.
First, who is God?
It is important to first answer the question of who Latter-day Saints believe God to be since the nature of God influences all understanding of revelation. 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 Latter-day Saints, he is also literally our Father in Heaven with a body of flesh and bone. He is of the same species that we are and because of this is able to communicate with us in a way that we understand through our own human processes. Since he is a man he knows how to communicate with humans. If we weren't of the same species, would it be possible to communicate with us? We understand him to work with us like a father—catering to our needs as he teaches us how to come closer to him. He works beyond "the veil". In other words, he is separated from us for a time and a purpose. He must now communicate his will to us, through agents known as "prophets", to the end of accomplishing that purpose. Latter-day Saints generally understand God to be maximally powerful, knows all that is able to be known, omnipresent but only by means of the Light of Christ (since he is limited in space by virtue of having a body), benevolent, all-loving, all-good, capable of sin but without it, with a fixed past knowledge, immutable in character, passible since he is our father and has a body (though most wouldn't be sure how this is made manifest), and sovereign. This knowledge of who God is frames the way we understand all revelation.
Purpose of Revelation
Revelation for Latter-day Saint is given for the purpose of drawing all mankind into a community of believers, united by special promises made between them and God called covenants, and guided into one heart and mind to becoming like God. All scriptures, from the Holy Bible to the Book of Mormon, from the Doctrine and Covenants to the Pearl of Great Price, have testified that all mankind may be gathered together into Zion, the community of believers as said before, and unite them in a common purpose to make themselves become more like God by emulating his attributes and inviting others to do the same. God knew that not all people would be able to fulfill these demands. Latter-day Saints believe that the Atonement of Jesus Christ effectuated the means by which a person could repent of their sins and be brought back to the covenant people in full fellowship. All revelation is given to show people what God's attributes are, invite them to live according to who God is, to invite those people to invite others to live by who God is, to bring people into that group, and to thus stand in one heart and mind in indwelling love and unity one with another by virtue of having one purpose and means of bringing about that purpose.
Since Latter-day Saints believe that the ultimate end to which God has called all humankind is to become like him, orthopraxy is more important than orthodoxy; holiness over accuracy; person-truth over idea-truth. Revelation teaches Latter-day Saints much more how to act rather than what to believe. Those are obviously not mutually exclusive, and Latter-day Saints do have doctrines that teach them about their divine ontology and how that leads them to live the Law of Love more fully, but revelation for Latter-day Saints is more about getting people to act morally and to seek the holiness that God enjoys rather than getting them to believe in all the same things.
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.
Revelation is received, interpreted, transmitted, and recalled through human systems and processes
Revelation is inextricably tied to the human processes we all possess as children of God— most especially our aural, visual ( these perhaps more in the case of visions), sensory (in the case of peace, burning in the bosom, etc.), and cognitive systems and processes (perhaps more in the case of spiritual promptings, dreams, etc.). Since God, angels, and man are of the same species (3 Nephi 28:10; Moses 6:9), the Spirit of Revelation is given by the power of the Holy Ghost (Alma 5:46; Moroni 10:8, 13-14, 17-18), the Holy Ghost works through the Light of Christ (Doctrine and Covenants 84:45-53), the Light of Christ gives light and life to all things (Alma 28:14; Doctrine and Covenants 88:7-12), and our souls are composed of our spirit and our physical body intimately intertwined (D&C 88:15), it seems theologically unavoidable to say that revelation will come through these systems and processes. Thus, revelation will be received, interpreted, transmitted, and even recalled (e.g. The First Vision) through those systems and processes.
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). This historical context is crucial to understand since the authority of a particular revelation may have only been necessary during the historical context in question. Perhaps this is what is the Lord meant in D&C 46:15 when he states that he "[suits] his mercies according to the conditions of the children of men." This is why we can have doctrines that are revealed yet not ideal (i.e. something to be updated later) such as the legal systems of the Old Testament.
Since every revelation has a historical context and a particular language with which it is expressed , it becomes expedient for us to familiarize ourselves with the culture and language in which that revelation was produced (a specific injunction for which is found in D&C 88:77-79).
Revelation is also accommodated to the particular needs and immediate concerns of the agent receiving it as discussed before. 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 (see below under "What can change through revelation?" for a fuller discussion of this). This does not mean that prophets cannot overcome their historical circumstances through revelation in at least some regards. They logically have to in order to provide us soteriological or eschatological knowledge. But the point is that even that revelation comes in a historical context.
As the Lord states in Doctrine and Covenants 56:4 —
"Wherefore I, the Lord, command and revoke, as it seemeth me good...".
Latter-day Saint doctrine states that it is a spiritual gift to understand the "diversity of operations" of the Lord D&C 46:16
Revelation is couched in the language and expression of the agent receiving it.
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 (2 Nephi 31:3).
Revelation is also accommodated to language and the cultural context of the agent receiving it.
Because revelation is trying to describe a perfect being with fallen language, revelation is also accommodated to the languagof the agent receiving it as well as that agent's current understanding of God. For instance, we learn that God is a jealous God (Exodus 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 isn't to say that either scripture is "more correct" in how they portray God—only that they are expressing the character, will, and acts of a perfect being through imperfect language so that we can approach an understanding of him.
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
So since people can't learn all that there is to know about God in one revelation, God simply seeks to bring knowledge about himself to that person seeking revelation while not revealing all at once. He reveals himself "line upon line." Just as a teacher teaching 101 students cannot teach them 405 concepts without the 101 students being confused, so God must accommodate learning about him to the cultural context of the agent seeking knowledge about him through revelation.
There is no one perfect way to express revelation
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 fullness. 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 fullness; 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 sometimes given "from the top, down."
Revelation is sometimes given "from the top, down." God reveals things suddenly, out of the blue, indepedent of our own cognition. These things generally overcome our present knowledge to give us knowledge about the future, eschatology, soteriology, or knowledge about individuals that we wouldn’t otherwise have. He gives us gifts, he reveals sacred information through prayers or blessings, he gives miracles. This may properly be referred to as "top-down revelation" where the Lord is placing the agent receiving the revelation in the mental state that he/or she needs to be to accomplish a particular task. This type of revelation is most sacred to Latter-day Saints. It increases our confidence that revelation is not "all in our heads" so to speak.
If revelation like this didn't exist, nothing would be "revealed" in any traditional sense and could easily be construed as self-delusion or deception. It would make it so that no law could be given that could then be subsequently subverted with claims that revelation is simply men following the dictates of their own bias. It would undermine any type of authority from revelation which we need for crucial practices and doctrines such as commandments, obedience, and repentance.
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. Sometimes it will confirm what we have studied out and sometimes it will cause a "stupor of thought" (D&C 9:9)
Some more "progressive members" of the Church and other critics take "bottom-up revelation" to be something different. Usually it is thought that if one places enough public pressure on the Church that it will change it's doctrines. This should not be expected or practiced (see below under "common necessity, not common demand").
All revelation is wisdom that is largely independent of the agent receiving it.
All revelation, whether more "bottom, up" or "top, down" is wisdom that is largely independent of the agent receiving it. This simply means that God is primarily the one who chooses the symbols that revelation attaches itself to not the prophet. Were it not so, nothing would be "revealed" in any coherent sense and rather be closer to a concoction of bias and self-delusion that can change with any wind of opposition. We have prophets for the opposite reason — to not be swayed with every wind of doctrine and to come to a unity of faith (Ephesians 4:11-15). This does not mean that revelation doesn't have a human component to it — that it isn't couched in human language and expression, that it can't have tensions, updates, etc. Only that, in the moment of revelation, if that revelation is faithfully received, interpreted, and recorded, that it should be authoritative for our lives.
How successful revelation is depends entirely on the agent who receives it and how willing they are to receive, interpret, and record/transmit that revelation as faithfully as possible. Such is why the Book of Mormon so strongly emphasizes the need to keep good records of God's dealings with his children. Joseph Smith wrote to the Saints that:
9 It may seem to some to be a very bold doctrine that we talk of—a power which records or binds on earth and binds in heaven. Nevertheless, in all ages of the world, whenever the Lord has given a dispensation of the priesthood to any man by actual revelation, or any set of men, this power has always been given. Hence, whatsoever those men did in authority, in the name of the Lord, and did it truly and faithfully, and kept a proper and faithful record of the same, it became a law on earth and in heaven, and could not be annulled, according to the decrees of the great Jehovah. This is a faithful saying. Who can hear it?
Thus, how authoritatively the Bible reads may be read differently than how, say, the Doctrine and Covenants reads — where the former relies primarily on oral tradition, memory, and preserved written records to do history that approaches the original revelation and the latter relies primarily on Joseph Smith simply dictating the words that he feels impressed to dictate and having a scribe record it in real-time. This does not mean that the Doctrine and Covenants constitutes "fax-from-God" revelation (i.e. infallibilism), but simply that it is read more authoritatively than the Bible. One will readily see, however, that the emendations to the Doctrine and Covenants do not change the core integrity/idea of the first revelation. If they do, then they remove knowledge that wouldn't be relevant to future Latter-day Saints.
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 addenda 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. This is perhaps what the Lord meant to express in D&C 46:15 when he states that he "[suits] his mercies according to the conditions of the children of men."
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.
What can change through revelation?
It becomes the question of some from time to time how we can know what is subject to change and what is not subject to change. To answer this question we should look at it theologically. We should ask ourselves and think logically about what God might want to reveal line upon line and "change" in our theology.
Things that Can Change Day to Day
As it regards hamartiological matters (theology dealing with sin and the nature of sin), these things can change from day to day. The things that God sees as pleasing and not pleasing can change how they like. The Lord tells us this in Doctrine and Covenants 56:4:
4 Wherefore I, the Lord, command and revoke, as it seemeth me good; and all this to be answered upon the heads of the rebellious, saith the Lord.
Things That Could Change From Day to Day But Don't for a Reason
Ecclesiological matters (pertaining to Church organization) would logically be subject to change only when there is a particular need to change Church government. In Old Testament times there was a prophet and the immigrating people-nation of Israel. Under Christ, 12 apostles (or "disciples" depending on which Gospel you read) carried authority to preach the Gospel and administer the ordinances pertaining to that Gospel and 70 men were called to fulfill a similar call. In modern times, the early restored Church under Joseph Smith started from something slightly different from that and progressed to what was present in the ancient Church quickly. Today, having a First Presidency, Quorum of Twelve Apostles, Seventies, Teachers, Priests, Deacons, Bishops, and so forth acts as an identifier for those seeking the Lord's Church. Additionally, having a wide variety of offices ensures that the needs of a global church are met. Thus, it is unlikely that such offices will change. With a growing populace of members, it is more likely that more men and women will need to be called to provide leadership in those positions without the types of positions changing.
Ordinances necessary for salvation could also change dramatically in amount necessary, type performed, presentation of such ordinances, and so forth. These don't change as they act as effective identifiers for people to find the Lord's Church.
Things That Are (or should be) Revealed in a Linear, Upward Process and Become More Static with Time.
Soteriological matters (that relating to doctrine of afterlife and salvation) come line upon line, precept upon precept, and are crystallized with each subsequent revelation regarding them. The Lord has revealed one reason why we might not know everything about the afterlife right now. As Doctrine and Covenants 19:7 tells us, somethings are revealed as they are to "work upon the hearts of the children of men". Thus, the degree to which we understand the afterlife is contingent upon what will motivate us to repent and what we are prepared to receive. Here we don't have room for contradiction but much more room for adding to a proposition and developing it gradually to a crystallized view of the afterlife. Soteriology as it stands today in the Restored Church is fairly developed with only a few more questions such as progression between kingdoms of glory.
Eschatological matters (relating to understanding of the end of times) really don't have room for contradictory understandings. The Lord has motivation to reveal more relating to eschatology as we progress closer and closer to eschatological times so that we are prepared for them. This is the general pattern followed by the scriptures and will likely continue.
Theogony (or the doctrine of the origin of God) may develop slightly. The only real question remaining is that of the infinite regress of Gods.
Things That have No Reason to be Revealed More than Once or to Have an Ongoing, Crystallizing Understanding
Matters pertaining to cosmology, mariology (theology relating to the character and nature of Mary, mother of Jesus), anthropology (the nature of man in relation to God), angelology (theology regarding angels), christology (theology relating to the character and nature of Jesus Christ), demonology (theology relating to the character and nature of demons), pneumatology (theology relating to the character and nature of the Holy Ghost), the nature of the Godhead and so forth have little room for changing in understanding since they all pertain to the study of essential characteristics or behavior that is independent of all other individuals.
Along with the above, missiology (theology relating to the purpose and manner of performing missionary work) and epistemology (the study of knowledge, its limits, and how it is characterized) in the Latter-day Saint tradition have no reason to change in understanding.
Generally speaking, we should be approaching a static ideal as we get closer to judgement day.
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 the words of the prophets themselves and judge the matter for ourselves. It does seem that God is revealing new knowledge on a very frequent basis from reading their words.
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;
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 at the second coming (Doctrine and Covenants 101:32-34)--the light will grow brighter and brighter until the perfect day (Doctrine and Covenants 50:24).
Revelation comes because of common necessity and not common demand.
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?
Some believe that if they put enough pressure on the Church that it will change its doctrines regarding things which do not conform to their particular political agenda. If such people actually wanted to build a Zion of "one heart and one mind" (Moses 7:18; Doctrine and Covenants 38:27) they would not seek to build strife in the kingdom and seek more compromise, more patience, and deeper study. They would not seek to subvert authority to follow the God of their own image (Doctrine and Covenants 1:16).
There are good examples of such "bottom-up revelation". However, they usually take the form of new policies and practices that come without any revelation. Such is easily fit into the definition of "being anxiously engaged in a good cause and doing things of our own free will" (Doctrine and Covenants 58:27-28).
We act in doctrine (D&C 101:78). We accept the light we have received now and receive whatever additional future light is given with gladness. If one does not act in accordance to the commandments of God, such is sin.
- Chauncey R. Riddle, "Revelation," Encyclopedia of Mormonism (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992 and 2007).
- Brigham Young, "The Kingdom Of God," (8 July 1855) Journal of Discourses 2:314.
- Russell M. Nelson, "Revelation for the Church, Revelation for Our Lives," General Conference (April 2018).