The June issues of the church magazines are providing much grist for DAMU bloggery. The latest example for me comes from the “Gospel Classics” feature in this month’s Ensign, which has an article titled “The Profile of a Prophet.” (I have not figured out a way to link to the article, but it is available at www.lds.org in PDF format under the heading Gospel Library--Church Publications.) The late Elder Hugh B. Brown of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles wrote the article several decades ago. The article is ostensibly about the Prophet Joseph Smith. But one part of the article stood out to me: Elder Brown’s delineation of 11 characteristics of a true prophet. Elder Brown applied them to Joseph Smith and concluded that Joseph Smith possessed all 11 characteristics. I wondered how current LDS church president Gordon Hinckley might fare.
Here are Brown’s list of prophetic characteristics, followed by my application to Gordon Hinckley:
1. “He will boldly declare that God has spoken to him.” I almost laughed when I read this one. Could anything describe Gordon Hinckley less than this? Has he ever “boldly declared” that God has spoken to him? If you doubt me, click on this link for a summary of Hinckley’s waffling, wavering, tepid, doubting, equivocal statements on a wide range of issues. It is ironic because he has had opportunity to proclaim his prophetic calling to more people than any other church president, having been given an international audience of millions on 60 Minutes and the Larry King show on multiple occasions.
2. “Any man so claiming would be a dignified man with a dignified message.” I will cede this one. President Hinckley acts with dignity and decorum. He does not yell and scream or carry on in any way that might disrupt or disturb the civilized classes in society. Of course, I can think of a few biblical prophets who might not pass this particular test (Ezekiel, Hosea, John the Baptist) and Samuel the Lamanite is pushing it, I would say.
3. “Any man claiming to be a prophet of God would declare his message without any fear and without any weak concessions to public opinion.” See number 1, above. Crowning example: Hinckley’s “I don’t know that we teach that” comment when asked about the doctrines revealed in the King Follett funeral sermon.
4. “If he were speaking for God, he could not make concessions although what he taught would be new and contrary to the accepted teachings of the day. A prophet bears witness to what he has seen and heard and seldom tries to make a case by argument. His message and not himself is important.” I give Hinckley partial credit for this one. He generally does not try to make a case by argument, that is true. Instead, he pronounces by fiat and it is up for the members to decide whether to obey regardless of whether there is a rational basis for the commandment or not (e.g., no multiple earrings for women, no playing poker at all, ever). But I don’t know the extent to which he has borne record of what he has seen and heard. If he’s been speaking directly to Jesus all these years, he sure hasn’t let us in on the conversations (in contrast to the way Joseph Smith reported on his revelations and visitations.) So, either Hinckley fails this test because he has seen and failed to bear witness of his visions, or he fails because he has not experienced any visions. Take your pick. As for the message and not the man being important, I would say that a man who lives rent free in a million-dollar apartment, is chauffered around in an armor-plated Lexus, and has the use of a private jet might not qualify. And look at his Sunday morning address at the April 2006 General Conference (quite possibly his last conference, if rumors about his failing health are accurate). What was the subject of that talk again? Oh yeah, it was all about Gordon.
5. “Such a man would speak in the name of the Lord, saying ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ as did Moses, Joshua, and others.” Again, see numbers 1 and 3, above. I ran a few searches on lds.org and was unable to find any instances of Gordon Hinckley uttering the phrase “Thus saith the Lord” in his tenure as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator for the church. It may be my lack of database-searching skills or it may be that he has never used the phrase. If anyone can point me to a talk he has given in which he has used the phrase, I would be interested to see the context.
6. “Such a man would predict future events in the name of the Lord, and they would come to pass.” Anyone, anyone? Bueller? Hmmm. Let’s think about some of the major events that have happened in the world since 1995 when Gordon Hinckley assumed the LDS Prophethood. There was the whole Millennium Bug scare, which was going to shut down all the world’s non-upgraded computers and cause major havoc on January 1, 2000. Billions of dollars and countless man-hours were spent in anticipation of this potentially catastrophic event. Did Gordon Hinckley get a revelation to let the world know there was nothing to worry about? No. But he did issue a directive to all church employees and officials not to use air transportation over New Year’s in case something were to go wrong. Then there was September 11, 2001. Nothing need be said on that one. The Iraq War, apparently triggered needlessly by an unwarranted fear of Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent WMD stockpiles. The tsunami which, coincidentally occurred the day after Hinckley appeared to an audience of millions on Larry King. Might have been a good time to get a revelation about a future event. Could have saved a few hundred thousand lives maybe (or at least gotten him some street cred. as a prophet if he had predicted it and it happened, even if people failed to heed his warning.) Katrina and Rita last year. Has Gordon Hinckley ever predicted a future event that then came to pass?
7. “He would have not only an important message for his time but often a message for all future time, such as Daniel, Jeremiah, and others had.” Gordon Hinckley: keeping the 23rd century safe from body piercings, tattoos, and penny poker.
8. “He would have courage and faith enough to endure persecution and to give his life, if need be, for the cause he espoused, such as Peter, Paul, and others did.” I can’t really judge this one since I don’t know if Hinckley has ever had to make that choice. Of course, this characteristic is equally true of false prophets such as David Koresh, Jim Jones, and Marshall Applewhite.
9. “Such a man would denounce wickedness fearlessly. He would generally be rejected or persecuted by the people of his time, but later generations, the descendants of his persecutors, would build monuments to his honor.” I’m not sure how this differentiates a prophet from a politician. Does Gordon Hinckley denounce wickedness fearlessly? Judging by the letter that was read over the pulpit in Sacrament meetings around the United States on Sunday, one could argue that he does the opposite, promoting bigotry, intolerance, injustice, and inequality. One could argue.
10. “He would be able to do superhuman things, things, that no man could do without God’s help. The consequence or result of his message and work would be convincing evidence of his prophetic calling.” Maybe Pat Robertson read this list and was inspired to leg-press 2000 pounds. Does that make him a prophet? I have been racking my brain trying to come up with some superhuman thing Gordon Hinckley has been able to do that no man could have done without God’s help. I have read the biography of his life written by Sheri Dew. I have seen the schmaltzy videography of his life produced by the church and broadcast between sessions of General Conference. I can’t remember and superhuman feats. Perhaps one of my TBM readers can help me out on this one.
11. “His teachings would be in strict conformity with scripture, and his words and his writings would become scripture.” The first of these is meaningless: since scripture itself is replete with contradictions, a man’s teachings can be said to conform or not conform with scripture depending on the scripture with which one chooses to compare the prophetic teaching. And the second is circular: he is a prophet so his words become scripture; because his words became scripture, he must have been a prophet. But it does beg the question: why have no words of any Prophet since Heber Grant been canonized as scripture if this is one of the characteristics of a true prophet?
Well, it doesn’t look like Gordon Hinckley does very well under Hugh B. Brown’s outline of characteristics of a true prophet. Do you think that’s the message the Ensign editors wanted to send in reprinting this old article?