As a member, I occasionally pondered why Joseph Smith was so prolific in his prophecies, yet the prophets since then have been very reticent to make such bold prophecies. All sorts of historical miscellany came forth from the mouth of Joseph Smith – things that have nothing to do with the Gospel, but which bolster the respect that his followers gave him as a Prophet of God. The name of the Brother of Jared (see footnote here). Zelph the white lamanite, the location where Cain slew abel, and babies ruling on thrones are just a few of the examples. (these examples seem ludicrous, but they are a legitimate part of church history – check out the links)
The believers perspective
Why did the subsequent prophets not continue the trend of disclosing these sorts of faith promoting anecdotes? As a believing Mormon the answer is that Joseph was the Prophet of the restoration and it was his special calling and blessing to bring the truths to light. Subsequent prophets carry the duty of assisting members in adhering to the truth that they already possess. We are told that since we have not been sufficiently faithful in living the laws and ordinances that we have already been given, that there is no cause to call out for more dispensations of knowledge from on high.
The skeptics perspective
Outsiders have the freedom to examine the idiosyncrasies of church history and consider one of two possibilities – Joseph as an inspired man of God or Joseph as a brilliant con-man. By not having a preconceived belief, outsiders can look at the evidence and see which of these patterns best fits the man and the organization he established. To a skeptic, just as in almost every other issue – the events of history that don’t make clear sense in the faithful perspective come into crystal clarity when Joseph is seen as a deceiver.
From this perspective, the reason that Joseph was so prolific in his prophesy is that he was unconstrained by any legacy. He had planted the idea that the Bible was corrupted and had conjured a whole new scripture to build upon – setting himself as the conduit of new light and knowledge. Since he was forging completely new territory, he could say anything about anything with very few restrictions and people would believe him because there was no greater prior authority that he had to conform to.
In essence, Joseph Smith did not have to give a flying flip to any other religious authority or tradition. Thanks to a viral internet video, Honey Badgers now have the reputation of running about their landscape exerting their will upon all the surrounding fauna without any regard for established norms of the food-chain. In all events – Honey Badger Don’t Care! Look at it from a skeptics perspective – Like the illustrious Honey Badger, Joseph ran about the religious landscape having his way with any issue of doctrine, history, politics and theology and doing so with complete disregard to established norms of theology. So what if a teaching or revelation contradicts centuries of Christian scholarship? Joseph Smith don’t care – all those professors are corrupt! So what if a revealed doctrine complete upends the Christian narrative of Grace in the Holy Bible? Joseph Smith don’t care – the Bible is only correct so far as it is translated correctly! So what if the Book of Mormon itself condemns polygamy and Joseph wants your wife? Joseph Smith don’t care – new revelation trumps everything else!
Critics who see Joseph as a deceptive trailblazer declaring divine authority and revelation acknowledge that he was completely unbounded in what he could proclaim as “new revelation”. If he changed a religious tenet – he could claim that it had become corrupted over the ages. If he created a new ritual or doctrine – he could claim that it was a plain and simple truth which had been lost to the centuries. This complete freedom of creating new religious truth, however, was not something that his successors could enjoy. Since they followed in a line of authority and legitimacy that Joseph created, they all had to make sure that what ever truth they ‘revealed’ fit squarely with the revelations that Joseph Smith himself brought into existence.
To a critic considering this possibility – there could only really be one religious honeybadger in the restored dispensation.
Early attempts to continue the prophetic tradition
Lets look at more aspects of this hypothesis from the critics perspective.
Early on, there were only the restrictions that Joseph had laid. This gave Brigham Young the ability to branch out with much more freedom than any subsequent prophet. His most remarkable prophetic excursion was the doctrine that Adam was in fact God the Father “and the only God with which we have to do.” (See this post for full references) This bold statement had to later be diminished and covered up (memorably called heresy by Bruce R McConkie) because it was at such variance with scripture that there was no way to reconcile it. Brigham also expanded on teachings about the nature of “the seed of cain” and blood atonement. These revelations were accepted at the time because they were new and exciting teachings that seemed to be consistent with the theology that Joseph left behind and yet were remarkable enough to be proof of Brigham Young’s divine connection. If he had stuck to the sort of banal and workaday prophecies that we are accustomed to now – people may have started to doubt his authenticity. His strong autocratic management style probably also contributed to their outward acceptance.
Brigham didn’t produce nearly the amount of new revealed ‘truth’ that Joseph did – he ultimately conceded that he was not a Prophet like Joseph Smith stating “…I don’t profess to be such a Prophet as were Joseph Smith and Daniel; but I am a yankee guesser…” (Journal of Discourses 5:77) The fact that each of Brighams doctrinal excursions has had to be minimized or disowned by future prophets in order to keep the religion palatable to the public and to reconcile contradictions with revealed scripture and Joseph Smith were a lesson to subsequent Prophets – If you stick your neck out, it is liable to be cut.
Prophets Painted Into a Corner
All of the subsequent Prophets did not and do not have the freedom that Joseph had to reveal new ‘truth’. Each of them has had to carefully craft whatever prophetic utterance they made to ensure that it did not contradict all those that came before. This is essential in order to maintain the illusion that God himself is directing the church. It becomes more difficult after every subsequent Prophet because each revelation adds another brushstroke to the boundaries that paint the next Prophet into an increasingly smaller corner.
Prophecy in Practice
So as a result, other than a few minor tweaks here and there, the continuing succession of prophets primarily reiterate those things which Joseph himself preached. Societal and legal pressures occasionally force a new convenient revelation that shifts the Church into a position that is more socially acceptable or answers the demands of the legal environment, such as ending polygamy or ending institutional racism but very few actual prophetic statements like those of Joseph are made. When they do make such statements, such as Joseph Fielding Smith stating that man would never go to the moon – they run the risk of being proven false by science or the passage of time and progress. In that case, remaining reticent would have avoided the humiliation of having the Apollo 15 astronauts present the prophet with a flag that had made the trip to the moon.
As a result, prophetic utterances are now kept minimal, infrequent and rarely if ever extend outside the bounds of what is already known and acceptable.
Look at the most recent examples. Raising the bar for missionaries was hardly something new – I never knew that the bar had been lowered to the levels that were apparently allowed before this in the first place. The proclamation on the family was more an act of graphic layout and design than an act of prophecy, placing already commonly accepted notions of traditional family, gender and society into a 2 column format under a large font heading. More recent prophetic driven initiatives deal more with administrative functions of the church – lowering the missionary age to 18 and pushing for social media as a new missionary focus. These are decisions that a CEO would make for a corporation and even these ‘prophetic’ actions are few and far between.
Conspicuously Absent Prophetic Deliverables
There are, in fact, several things which Joseph Smith had hinted at which were going to be restored and revealed had he not met death at the hands of a mob in 1844. Given that it was the Priesthood authority and keys which Joseph held which granted him the status of Prophet, Seer and Revelator, when these keys passed to his successor, then the work on these texts should have continued.
“And again, the duty of the President of the office of the High Priesthood is to preside over the whole church, and to be like unto Moses- Behold, here is wisdom; yea, to be a seer, a revelator, a translator, and a prophet, having all the gifts of God which he bestows upon the head of the church.” D&C 107:91-92
Inspired Translation of the Bible
The first is the Inspired Translation of the Bible, usually referred to as the “Joseph Smith Translation” (JST). Based on numerous revelations it had been made clear that (1) the Lord was interested in the translation; (2) through it, information of significance to the Church would be obtained (see this article from a 1983 Ensign). While Joseph started with Genesis, he was instructed to direct his translation to the New Testament and after many interruptions recorded in his Journal on 2 February 1833:
“I completed the translation and review of the New Testament on the 2nd of February, 1833, and sealed it up, no more to be opened till it arrived in Zion.” (History of the Church, 1:324.)
It was originally planned to publish the Book of Mormon in a companion volume with this inspired translation of the New Testament. It is true that Joseph Smith died and that his manuscripts stayed with Emma Smith – but the keys and authority of translation stayed with Brigham Young as Joseph Smith’s successor. Why was the Inspired Translation of the Bible not immediately recreated through revelatory power and published for the saints? Even if you accept that since God works through imperfect men, and so the text would not be exactly the same as Joseph Smith produced – it would be the Power of God which acts through whatever Prophet produced the scripture, ensuring that the restored or revealed elements of the scripture remained intact in principle, if not in word.
In the century since that time, the Church has once again come into possession of the content of Joseph Smith’s manuscripts. In 1983 many of the scriptures from the JST were incorporated as references into the standard works of the church. If Joseph had completed the full inspired New Testament – why was this volume not immediately adopted and incorporated into LDS cannon? Since only key sections and verses of it are currently part of Mormon scripture, then at some point some modern person (presumably Bruce R. McConkie) went though Joseph’s “completed” translation of the New Testament and picked and chose which parts were worth presenting to the Saints as quasi scripture. Why and how could an Apostle, not in full possession of the Keys which Joseph Smith held, take it upon themselves to include some verses of Joseph’s restored translation and not others? McConkie himself stated that “The Joseph Smith Translation, or Inspired Version, is a thousand times over the best Bible now existing on earth.” (reference) If it was so much better – why not give it members in it’s complete form – as Joseph intended it?
The Book of Joseph of Egypt
Another conspicuously absent scripture is the Book of Joseph. It is known by many members that the ancient documents which Joseph is said to have translated into the Book of Abraham is part of a collection of papyri purchased from a traveling antiquities salesman in 1835. What is less commonly known is that Joseph declared that in addition to the writings of Abraham, the papyri also included the writings of Joseph of Egypt.
“I commenced the translation of some of the characters or hieroglyphics, and much to our joy found that one of the rolls contained the writings of Abraham, another the writings of Joseph of Egypt, etc.,–a more full account of which will appear in its place, as I proceed to examine or unfold them. Truly we can say, the Lord is beginning to reveal the abundance of peace and truth.” (History of the Church 2:236)
If the Lord saw fit to bring a new account of such a key figure of biblical history to the hands of the only man on earth with the power to translate it you can bet that it was his intention to do so. Anyone familiar with the question of the papyri used as the source of the Book of Abraham will know that many apologist argue that the actual papyri used in the translation were likely lost in the great Chicago fire and no longer exists. What do we know about the papyri supposed to represent the Book of Joseph?
In December of 1835 a letter by Oliver Cowdery was published in the church periodical “Messenger and Advocate” which described several of the figures found on the scroll of Joseph. Careful examination and comparison with the scrolls in the church’s possession, now available in high resolution on JosephSmithPapers.org, clearly demonstrates that the church owns this very papyrus. See the following descriptions and diagrams:
“Upon the subject of the Egyptian records, or rather the writings of Abraham and Joseph, I may say a few words. This record is beautifully written on papyrus with black, and a small part red ink, or paint, in perfect preservation.” (History of the Church 2:348 )
This is a fair description of a papyrus which the church currently owns as depicted below – note the writing in both black and red lettering:
In the letter, referenced above, Oliver goes on to describe the specific scroll of the Book of Joseph:
“The serpent, represented as walking, or formed in a manner to be able to walk, standing in front of and near a female figure, is to me one of the greatest representations I have ever seen upon paper, or a writing substance; and must go so far towards convincing the rational mind of the correctness and divine authority of the holy scriptures”
(Messenger and Advocate, Dec 1835, Vol II No. 3, pg. 236)
This is a clear match for what Oliver was describing (though one may doubt his credentials as an art critic if this is one of the greatest representations he had ever seen upon paper)
Next, Oliver describes another figure:
“Enoch’s Pillar, as mentioned by Josephus, is upon the same roll . . .Enoch wrote a history or an account of the same, and put into two pillars one of brick and the other of stone; and that the same were in being at his (Josephus’) day.”
(Messenger and Advocate, Dec 1835, Vol II No. 3, pg. 236)
Here we see another figure from the same papyrus which matches Cowdery’s description.
These three witnesses to this scroll – the black and red lettering, the figure of the walking snake and the pillar of Enoch identify it as the very scroll containing the Book of Joseph.
Why hasn’t this record been translated and published to the world? The Lord has preserved it up even to this very day. You can see in the picture that there is quite a bit of ancient writing – a plethora of scriptural treasure just waiting to be unlocked! Joseph Smith, using his divine calling as Prophet, Seer and Revelator declared it to be an account of Joseph of Egypt. Egyptologists claim that it is a simply funerary text of the Book of the Dead, but that shouldn’t matter. LDS apologists, explaining why the Book of Abraham papyri don’t match the text of the Book of Abraham say that the papyrus was a catalyst which helped the prophet channel the ancient record of Abraham, even though the hieroglyphics have nothing to do with it. (this is also why the introduction to the Book of Abraham was recently changed) If that is so with the Book of Abraham – let it be so with the Book of Joseph. The same authority and power with Joseph used to produce the Book of Abraham is still present and resting upon the mantle of the current prophet of the Church. If that power was real, then it would have shown the true fruits of its potency and produced this record which the Lord had preserved.
The unmistakable disparity between the prolific prophetic output of Joseph Smith and that of every single one of his successors is a glaring feature of Mormonism that still manages to go unobserved by most of the members. There are rationalizations which members can use to explain it away – usually having to do with the failure of the members themselves to live up to God’s expectations. (It is a common feature of unethical controlling organizations to blame the members for any deficiencies of the group) An explanation which is grounded much more in reality and the experience of other deceptive men is that Joseph Smith was a pretender of religion. His status as the trailblazer meant that he had no barriers to his imagination and the more bold and outrageous his claims were – the more that his adherents were convinced of his divinity. Like the Honey Badger he was free to unabashedly exact his will upon the religious landscape of his times without having to take heed to any of the existing religious creatures. When he finally met his demise, his succeeding prophets were confined by the parameters Joseph set, in a way that he never was. Thus, few if any new bold revelations have been forthcoming. The power which Joseph claimed to give him his abilities as a translator are clearly defunct since they haven’t produced a single fruit since Joseph’s departure – despite there being ample substrate for their production.
Like the honey badger – Joseph Smith don’t care! Unlike the honey badger – all the rest of the prophets have to.