President Wilford Woodruff once related that in a meeting held in Kirtland, Ohio, in the early days of the Church, one of the leaders addressed a group of the brethren on the subject of the living oracles of God. The brother who addressed the group set forth his beliefs in these words:
“You have got the word of God before you here in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine and Covenants; you have the written word of God, and you who give revelations should give revelations according to those books, as what is written in those books is the word of God. We should confine ourselves to them.” 1
When this speaker had finished his remarks, the Prophet Joseph Smith turned to President Brigham Young and said:
“‘Brother Brigham I want you to take the stand and tell us your views with regard to the living oracles and the written word of God.’ Brother Brigham took the stand, and he took the Bible, and laid it down; he took the Book of Mormon, and laid it down; and he took the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, and laid it down before him, and he said: ‘There is the written word of God to us, concerning the work of God from the beginning of the world, almost, to our day. And now,’ said he, ‘… those books do not convey the word of God direct to us now, as do the words of a Prophet or a man bearing the Holy Priesthood in our day and generation. …’ When he was through, Brother Joseph said to the congregation, ‘Brother Brigham has told you the word of the Lord, and he has told you the truth.’” 2
Ministers of the Christian world have proclaimed that God has ceased to speak from the heavens, that he has ceased to reveal himself to man. This claim is made by some because of a misinterpretation of a statement recorded by John in the book of Revelation, which reads:
“For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book:
“And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.” (Rev. 22:18–19.)
John’s statement is in full force and cannot be denied. But the reader must remember that the declaration by John refers only to the book of Revelation and not to other books written by John or other writers in the Bible.
When John wrote the words quoted above, the books of the New Testament had not yet been compiled into a single publication. They were separate writings that later became our New Testament as we know it today. There was no intention that John’s words should refer to any other book of scripture than Revelation.
The need for the guidance of living oracles was stated further by President Woodruff when he said:
“We may take the Bible, the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants, and we may read them through, and every other revelation that has been given to us, and they would scarcely be sufficient to guide us twenty-four hours. We have only an outline of our duties written; we are to be guided by the living oracles.” 3
The Lord has revealed his word to his servants in the past and does now reveal his mind and will to his prophet today.
“We believe,” wrote the Prophet Joseph Smith, “all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” (A of F 1:9.)
This statement proclaims continuous revelation from God and establishes the principle wherein we accept all former revelation and look forward to new revelation as needed for the benefit of the sons and daughters of God.
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that if anyone claimed that God had ceased to reveal himself from heaven, it would require a new revelation other than had been previously given by the prophets and apostles.
President Harold B. Lee has related an incident with respect to continuous revelation in our day:
“When I was on my mission, I was with the mission president once at Carthage Jail. We, impressed by the atmosphere of the place where the Prophet and his brother, Hyrum, met their martyrdom, asked him to recount the incidents which led up to the martyrdom. I was impressed as a young man when the mission president said this: ‘When the Prophet Joseph Smith died, there were many who died spiritually with Joseph. So has it been with every change of administration in the kingdom of God. When Brigham Young died, there were many who died with him spiritually, and so with John Taylor, and the passing of every president of the Church.’” 4
When a president concludes his service as the Lord’s representative on earth, the Saints must look to the Lord’s newly appointed prophet, seer, and revelator. Each man who has presided over this church has had a certain work to perform, and when this mission has been fulfilled the Lord has called him home. Following the death of a president, the Savior makes known through the new prophet and president the course the Church is to follow.
In speaking about the matter of revelation of the Lord to his prophets, President John Taylor pointed out that the Church must have new and continuing revelation to meet the current needs of its members. He stated:
“… we require a living tree—a living fountain—living intelligence, proceeding from the living priesthood in heaven, through the living priesthood on earth. … from the time that Adam first received a communication from God, to the time that John, on the Isle of Patmos, received his communication, or Joseph Smith had the heavens opened to him, it always required new revelations, adapted to the peculiar circumstances in which the churches or individuals were placed. Adam’s revelation did not instruct Noah to build his ark; nor did Noah’s revelation tell Lot to forsake Sodom; nor did either of these speak of the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt. These all had revelations for themselves, and so had Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, … John, and Joseph, and so must we, or we shall make a shipwreck.” 5
Elder Joseph F. Merrill also admonished the Saints to follow the brethren:
“Do the people of the Church want a safe guide to what is well for them to do? It is this: Keep in harmony with the Presidency of this Church. Accept and follow the teachings and advice of the President. At every Conference we raise our hands to sustain the President as prophet, seer, and revelator. Is it consistent to do this and then go contrary to his advice? Is anyone so simple as to believe he is serving the Lord when he opposes the President? Of course, the President is not infallible. He makes no claims to infallibility. But when in his official capacity he teaches and advises the members of the Church relative to their duties, let no man who wants to please the Lord say aught against the counsels of the President.
“In the spirit of helpfulness let me give you a key. When in doubt go on your knees in humility with an open mind and a pure heart with a real desire to do the Lord’s will, and pray earnestly … until you get an answer that fills your bosom with joy and satisfaction. It will be God’s answer. If obedient to this answer you will always act as the President indicates. You will then be safe.” 6
Elder Orson Pratt illustrated how one who rejects the living oracles of God actually sets aside the revelations God has given in the past, pointing out that we would be condemned by the written word if we did not follow the living oracles.
We should diligently study the standard works of the Church and the words of prophets who have lived in the past, but we should also look to the living prophet, seer, and revelator to give us new revelation, new interpretation on points of doctrine when needed, and new scripture and doctrine to guide the Church in fulfilling its mission today. When we feel inclined to find fault with the Brethren, let us remember the principle taught by President George Q. Cannon:
“God has chosen His servants. He claims it as His prerogative to condemn them, if they need condemnation. He has not given it to us individually to censure them. No man, however strong he may be in the faith, however high in the Priesthood, can speak evil of the Lord’s anointed and find fault with God’s authority on the earth without incurring His displeasure. The Holy Spirit will withdraw itself from such a man, and he will go into darkness. This being the case, do you not see how important it is that we should be careful? However difficult it may be for us to understand the reason for any action of the authorities of the Church, we should not too hastily call their acts in question and pronounce them wrong.” 7
President Spencer W. Kimball has recorded that the brethren have the experience frequently of witnessing the directing of the Church by the Lord Jesus Christ through his prophet, seer, and revelator.
“When in a Thursday temple meeting, after prayer and fasting, important decisions are made, new missions and new stakes are created, new patterns and policies initiated, the news is taken for granted and possibly thought of as mere human calculations. But to those who sit in the intimate circles and hear the prayers of the prophet and the testimony of the man of God; to those who see the astuteness of his deliberations and the sagacity of his decisions and pronouncements, to them he is verily a prophet. To hear him conclude important new developments with such solemn expressions as ‘the Lord is pleased’; ‘that move is right’; ‘our Heavenly Father has spoken,’ is to know positively.
“From the prophet of the restoration to the prophet of our own year, the communication line is unbroken, the authority is continuous, the light, brilliant and penetrating, continues to shine. The sound of the voice of the Lord is a continuous melody and a thundering appeal. For almost a century and a half there has been no interruption.” 8
And President Harold B. Lee stated that “President Grant used to say to us … ‘Brethren, keep your eye on the President of this Church. If he tells you to do anything and it is wrong and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it. But you don’t need to worry; the Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead this people astray.’” 9
No member of this church will ever leave it or find himself in opposition to its teachings and practices nor to the words of the living prophets, seers, and revelators if he follows the living prophet of God. The living prophet of God has been chosen by the Lord and sustained by the membership of the Church as the mouthpiece of the Lord Jesus Christ to the inhabitants of this earth. He is the one through whom revelation will be given for the blessing and well-being of the membership of the Church, as well as for all the inhabitants of the earth.
Conference Report, October 1897, p. 22.
Journal of Discourses, vol. 9, p. 324.
Address at Brigham Young University, April 19, 1961.
Millennial Star, vol. 9, p. 323.
Conference Report, April 1941, p. 51.
Gospel Truth, ed. Jerrald L. Newquist (Salt Lake City: Zion’s Book Store, 1957), p. 278.
Instructor, August 1960, p. 257.
Address at BYU, April 19, 1961.