Selected Teachings on
The Humanity of the Prophets

James 5:17

[Elijah] was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months.

Book of Mormon Title Page (Moroni)

An abridgment taken from the Book of Ether also, which is a record of the people of Jared, who were scattered at the time the Lord confounded the language of the people, when they were building a tower to get to heaven—Which is to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel what great things the Lord hath done for their fathers; and that they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever—And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations—And now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgment-seat of Christ.

Mormon 9:30-31 (Moroni)

 30 Behold, I speak unto you as though I spake from the dead; for I know that ye shall have my words.

 31 Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father, because of his imperfection, neither them who have written before him; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.

Joseph Smith (President)

I told them I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect; if they expected perfection from me, I should expect it from them; but if they would bear with my infirmities and the infirmities of the brethren, I would likewise bear with their infirmities. (Teachings, p. 268)

A prophet [is] a prophet only when he [is] acting as such. (History of the Church, 5:265; see also Teachings, p. 278)

I was this morning introduced to a man from the east. After hearing my name, he remarked that I was nothing but a man, indicating by this expression, that he had supposed that a person to whom the Lord should see fit to reveal His will, must be something more than a man. He seemed to have forgotten the saying that fell from the lips of St. James, that [Elijah] was a man subject to like passions as we are, yet he had such power with God, that he, in answer to his prayers, shut the heavens that they gave no rain for the space of three years and six months.... Indeed, such is the darkness and ignorance of this generation, that they look upon it as incredible that a man should have any intercourse with his Maker. (Teachings, p. 89)

Oliver Cowdery (Second Elder of the Church)

[Joseph Smith] is worthy the appelation of a seer and a prophet of the Lord.  In this I do not pretend that he is not a man subject to passions like other men, beset with infirmities and encompassed with weaknesses; but if he is, all men were so before him, and a pretence to the contrary would argue a more than mortal, which would at once destroy the whole system of the religion of the Lord Jesus; for he anciently chose the weak to overcome the strong, the foolish to confound the wise, (I mean considered so by this world,) and by the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe. (Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844, vol. 1 of the Histories series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 89)

Lorenzo Snow (Quorum of the Twelve)

I can fellowship the President of the Church if he does not know everything I know.... I saw the ... imperfections in [Joseph Smith].... I thanked God that He would put upon a man who had those imperfections the power and authority He placed upon him ... for I knew that I myself had weakness, and I thought there was a chance for me. (Cited by Neal A. Maxwell, in Conference Report, October 1984, p. 10)

David O. McKay (Quorum of the Twelve)

[W]hen God makes the prophet, He does not unmake the man. (Conference Report, April 1962, p. 5-9)

Harold B. Lee (President)

There have been times when even the President of the Church has not been moved upon by the Holy Ghost. There is, I suppose you’d say, a classic story of Brigham Young in the time when Johnston’s army was on the move. The Saints were all inflamed, and President Young had his feelings whetted to fighting pitch. He stood up in the morning session of general conference and preached a sermon vibrant with defiance at the approaching army, declaring an intention to oppose them and drive them back. In the afternoon, he rose and said that Brigham Young had been talking in the morning but the Lord was going to talk now. He then delivered an address in which the tempo was the exact opposite of the morning sermon. Whether that happened or not, it illustrates a principle: that the Lord can move upon His people but they may speak on occasions their own opinions. (The Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. Clyde J. Williams (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1996), p. 542)

Gordon B. Hinckley (First Presidency)

I have worked with seven Presidents of this Church. I have recognized that all have been human. But I have never been concerned over this. They may have had some weaknesses. But this has never troubled me. I know that the God of heaven has used mortal men throughout history to accomplish His divine purposes. (Conference Report, April 1992, p. 77)

We have critics who appear to cull out of a vast panorama of information those items which demean and belittle some men and women of the past who worked so hard in laying the foundation of this great cause....

My plea is that as we continue our search for truth, particularly we of the Church, that we look for strength and goodness rather than weakness and foibles in those who did so great a work in their time.

We recognize that our forebears were human. They doubtless made mistakes. Some of them acknowledged making mistakes. But the mistakes were minor when compared with the marvelous work which they accomplished. To highlight mistakes and gloss over the greater good is to draw a caricature. Caricatures are amusing, but they are often ugly and dishonest....

There was only one perfect man who ever walked the earth. The Lord has used imperfect people in the process of building his perfect society. If some of them occasionally stumbled, or if their characters may have been slightly flawed in one way or another, the wonder is the greater that they accomplished so much. (“The Continuing Pursuit of Truth,” Ensign, Apr 1986, p. 2)

Boyd K. Packer (Quorum of the Twelve)

The Brethren then and now are men, very ordinary men, who have come for the most part from very humble beginnings.... Do you know how inadequate we really are compared to the callings we have received? Can you feel in a measure the weight, the overwhelming weight, of responsibility that is ours? If you look for inadequacy and imperfections, you can find them quite easily. But you may not feel as we feel the enormous weight of responsibility associated with the callings that have come to us. We are not free to do some of the things that scholars think would be so reasonable, for the Lord will not permit us to do them, and it is His church. He presides over it. (CES Symposium on the Doctrine and Covenants and Church History, 22 August 1981)

We who have been called to lead the Church are ordinary men and women with ordinary capacities struggling to administer a church which grows at such a pace as to astound even those who watch it closely. Some are disposed to find fault with us; surely that is easy for them to do. But they do not examine us more searchingly than we examine ourselves. A call to lead is not an exemption from the challenges of life. We seek for inspiration in the same way that you do, and we must obey the same laws which apply to every member of the Church.

We are sorry for our inadequacies, sorry we are not better than we are. We can feel, as you can see, the effect of the aging process as it imposes limitations upon His leaders before your very eyes.

But this we know. There are councils and counselors and quorums to counterbalance the foibles and frailties of man. The Lord organized His church to provide for mortal men to work as mortal men, and yet He assured that the spirit of revelation would guide in all that we do in His name.

And in the end, what is given comes because the Lord has spoken it, "whether by [His] own voice or by the voice of [His] servants, it is the same." We know His voice when He speaks.

Revelation continues with us today. The promptings of the Spirit, the dreams, and the visions and the visitations, and the ministering of angels all are with us now. And the still, small voice of the Holy Ghost "is a lamp unto [our] feet, and a light unto [our] path." Of that I bear witness. ("Revelation in a Changing World," Ensign, November 1989, p.16)

Neal A. Maxwell (Quorum of the Twelve)

Soren Kierkegaard wrote some interesting lines concerning the role of the holy apostleship.... Kierkegaard wrote:

An Apostle . . . does not become more intelligent, does not receive more imagination, a greater acuteness of mind and so on; on the contrary, he remains himself and by that paradoxical fact he is sent on a particular mission by God. . . . He was called to proclaim this new thing.

“. . . Divine authority is, qualitatively, the decisive factor. . . . I have not got to listen to St. Paul because he is clever, or even brilliantly clever; I am to bow before St. Paul because he has divine authority; and in any case it remains St. Paul’s responsibility to see that he produces that impression, whether anybody bows before his authority or not. St. Paul must not appeal to his cleverness, for in that case he is a fool; he must not enter into a purely aesthetic or philosophical discussion of the content of the doctrine, for in that case he is side‑tracked. . . . [Instead, he is to say] ‘I cannot and dare not compel you to obey, but through your relation to God in your conscience I make you eternally responsible to God, eternally responsible for your relation to this doctrine, by having proclaimed it as revealed to me, and consequently proclaimed it with divine authority.’ . . .

“. . . God cannot help men by providing them with physical certainty that an Apostle is an Apostle-which would, moreover, be nonsense. Even miracles, if the Apostle has that gift, give no physical certainty. . . .

“. . . Therein lies the essence of an Apostle’s life of self-sacrifice, even if he were never persecuted, . . . that he never dares take the time or the quiet or carefreeness in order to grow rich. Intellectually speaking he is like a tireless housewife who herself hardly has time to eat, so busy is she preparing food for others. . . . that a man is called by a revelation to . . . proclaim the Word, to act and to suffer, to a life of uninterrupted activity as the Lord’s messenger (The Present Age and Two Minor Ethico-Religious Treatises [London: Oxford University Press, 1940], pp. 143–61).

These interesting perspectives, as indicated, provide a different context out of which, as the Lord’s messenger, I hope tonight to proclaim the word humbly, desiring that the spiritual food so given to you will prove to be nourishing. ("O How Great the Plan of Our God," Address to CES Religious Educators, 3 February 1995)

Bruce R. McConkie (Quorum of the Twelve)

With all their inspiration and greatness prophets are yet mortal men with imperfections common to mankind in general. They have their opinions and prejudices and are left to work out their problems without inspiration in many instances. (Mormon Doctrine, p. 608)

[T]he opinions and views, even of a prophet, may contain error, unless those opinions and views were inspired by the Spirit. (“Are the General Authorities Human?” Address delivered at the Institute of Religion Forum at the University of Utah, October 28, 1966)

[E]very word that a man who is a prophet speaks is not a prophetic utterance. Joseph Smith taught that a prophet is not always a prophet, only when he is acting as such. Men who wear the prophetic mantle are still men; they have their own views; and their understanding of gospel truths is dependent upon the study and inspiration that is theirs. Some prophets—I say it respectfully—know more and have greater inspiration than others. ("Finding Answers to Gospel Questions," Letter dated 1 July 1980. Published in Teaching Seminary Preservice Readings, Religion 370, 471, and 475 (2004))