When Russell M. Nelson became president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, some observers noted that he, more than many of his recent predecessors, claimed direct inspiration for policies as seemingly mundane as the faith’s new logo and his decision to avoid the word “Mormon.”
To many Latter-day Saints, this fit easily into their expectations for church leaders. In the church today, members use the word “prophet” to describe the church president and associate “prophecy” primarily with his administrative authority. That is to say, being a “prophet” means to run the church. And thus, Latter-day Saints expect what they hear in General Conferences to be “prophecy” — direction and instruction derived from inspiration.
In part, this way of thinking about prophets comes from the church’s current image of leadership, which is drawn from the midcentury male corporate leaders many current church leaders watched growing up. Prophets are like the fathers of mid-20th-century television programs: patriarchal, wise, competent, authoritative, dressed in conservative business uniforms. Their primary function is to give direction.
But there are many other ways to think of what the term “prophet” means — ways that can help church members reimagine what their relationship with these figures might be.
Preserve and renew
The church’s Doctrine and Covenants offers official titles for the church president. D&C 107:65-66 identifies this leader as “President of the High Priesthood of the Church; or, in other words, the Presiding High Priest over the High Priesthood of the Church.”
One word not included in this title is “prophet.” This is not to say that church founder Joseph Smith and his successors did not and do not function as prophets. But it is to say that Latter-day Saint scripture emphasizes that the church president also, and perhaps firstly, functions as a priest.
The distinction between prophecy and priesthood is one scholars of religion have long discussed, and it may be useful in understanding the work of Latter-day Saint leaders. In the Bible, “prophet” is not an office associated with priesthood. No one is ordained to be a prophet. Prophecy is described as a spiritual gift in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and, in the Book of Mormon, in Moroni 10. It derives directly from the divine, not from the laying of hands on heads.
In Latter-day Saint scripture, God calls prophets in 1 Nephi 1, Isaiah 6 and Ezekiel 1, among other places. They are often told they will garner opposition, frequently from priestly leaders. They are commanded to go forth preaching change, repentance and reform. Their calls do not come through established lines of religious authority. In Amos 7, the priest Amaziah is baffled when the prophet Amos tells him he was simply a shepherd when God called him to prophesy. This distinction is why women throughout the Bible are identified as prophets, like Deborah in Judges 4 or Anna in Luke 2. Prophets were not expected to be part of the priestly leadership (though sometimes, as with Ezekiel, they were), which in the Bible was indeed reserved for men.
On the other hand, the responsibility of the priest is described in Exodus 27-30, throughout Leviticus, and, in the Book of Mormon, in 2 Nephi 6 and Mosiah 23. In all these passages, it is described in terms of ordination by religious authorities. Priests are given distinct responsibilities. They ensure that sacrifices and sacraments are performed. They care for the community of believers.
Both are important. Priests preserve tradition in memory and in ritual, thus giving the people identity and values. Prophets renew those things when they require renewal. The priest represents the people to God, supervising and offering ritual worship. The prophet represents God to the people, offering correction and instruction.
This pattern holds true in the Book of Mormon. Abinadi holds no apparent place in the religious leadership of his day; he seems, simply, an average man with no distinction other than a divine call. The Nephites reject Samuel the Lamanite precisely because he presents no conventional sign of authority to them. He is an outsider, different from them in terms of race, religion and politics.
The importance of priests
All of this means that insofar as Latter-day Saints use the term “prophet” to mean “the man in charge of the church,” they are conflating the role of the prophet and the role of the priest. Indeed, it appears that this colloquial usage developed in the mid-20th century. Generally speaking, in church publications before the 1950s, the phrase “the Prophet” referred for the most part to Joseph Smith.
Calling the church president “the prophet” neglects the priestly function of that office and misconstrues what it means to be a priest. Overemphasizing the prophetic aspect of the role means overemphasizing the role of words and doctrine. It can make members hyperattentive to talks and statements and lead them to underemphasize the pastoral, day-to-day functions of what a priest is supposed to do.
If I were to think calling the church president a priest instead of a prophet was minimizing the job, it would be because I don’t fully understand how important that priestly role is. The job of the priest is pastoral, to care for people, to ensure that the community is functioning in healthy and nurturing ways. Healing the sick, caring for the poor, visiting those in prison — these are the work of the priest. It is not the work of the pulpit, necessarily. It is not as dramatic as prophecy. But it is essential to the health of a religious community, even if it often happens without public proclamation.
A church that emphasizes the priestly role of its leaders balances respect for their speeches with attention to their service. It also balances the idea of religion as language — theology, doctrine, and belief — with the idea of religion as action — gathering, community and ritual.
Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith” and “Christian: The Politics of a Word in America.”