Following the Prophets: A Book of Mormon Perspective


The history of Lehi’s descendants clearly illustrates the blessings that come from heeding the Lord’s prophets and the dangers inherent in rejecting their counsel.

Following the Prophets:

From beginning to end the Book of Mormon can be viewed as a handbook on following the prophets. Clear examples are given of the blessings that come from heeding the words of the prophets, and clear examples are given of the dangers inherent in rejecting prophetic direction. Thus, its messages are just as relevant today as when they were written. Indeed, the book itself exists because prophets’ words were heeded.

Lehi and the other prophets of the Book of Mormon were a living demonstration that “surely the Lord God will do nothing, until he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets” (JST, Amos 3:7, footnote a). As with the Jews, the Lord always forewarns His children before He levies his judgments upon them (see 2 Ne. 25:9). Furthermore, from the Book of Mormon we learn that the Lord always fulfills the promises given through His prophets (see Alma 50:19–22; 3 Ne. 1:20; Ether 15:3).

The Dangers of Disobedience

The history of Lehi’s descendants is a classic example of what happens to a people when they fail to heed the words of the prophets. In the Book of Mormon, failure to follow the prophets led to bondage (see Mosiah 12:2; Mosiah 21:13), famine (see Hel. 11:4–5; Ether 9:29–33), deception and wickedness (see 3 Ne. 2:1–3), and sorrow and destruction (see Alma 9:18; Alma 16:9; 3 Ne. 8; Morm. 6; Ether 15). Furthermore, the Book of Mormon is clear in noting that when people reject the prophets and their message, the Spirit of the Lord ceases to strive with them (see 1 Ne. 7:14; Morm. 5:16; Ether 15:19). They are not just left to their own devices but become captive to the full power of Satan (see Ether 15:19; Hel. 16:22–23). Once Satan has this kind of hold on a people, they become blind to the truth and “will not understand the words [of the prophets] which are spoken” to them (Alma 10:25). Instead of following the prophets, the unrighteous end up fighting against them (see 2 Ne. 10:16).

Today, as in Jacob’s day, some “despise the words of plainness” spoken by the prophets because they seek for mysteries that cannot be understood (Jacob 4:14). This course of action places one in spiritual danger. Elder Dean L. Larsen, an emeritus General Authority, described this condition:

“They were apparently afflicted with a pseudosophistication and a snobbishness that gave them a false sense of superiority over those who came among them with the Lord’s words of plainness. They went beyond the mark of wisdom and prudence and obviously failed to stay within the circle of fundamental gospel truths which provide a basis for faith. They must have reveled in speculative and theoretical matters that obscured for them the fundamental spiritual truths. As they became infatuated by these ‘things that they could not understand,’ their comprehension of and faith in the redeeming role of a true Messiah was lost, and the purpose of life became confused. A study of Israel’s history will confirm Jacob’s allegations” (“Looking beyond the Mark,” Ensign, Nov. 1987, 11).

Importance of Heeding Prophets Promptly

The ministry of Abinadi illustrates the importance of timeliness in our adherence to prophetic warning and the blessings received or lost. When Abinadi first warned the Nephites in the land of Lehi-Nephi, no one responded to his warning to repent or be placed in bondage (see Mosiah 11:21). Consequently, when Abinadi returned two years later, the severity of his warning increased. He now prophesied that the Nephites would be brought into bondage and that they would be destroyed if they still did not repent (see Mosiah 12:2, 8).

King Noah and most of his people rejected the warnings of Abinadi and were thus eventually either destroyed or placed in bondage (see Mosiah 19:15–20; Mosiah 21:4–15). However, Alma and his followers gave heed to Abinadi’s message, avoided destruction, and the Lord eased their burdens in the prophetically promised bondage (see Mosiah 17:2; Mosiah 18:6–7, 34; Mosiah 24:8–17). One vital lesson we learn from this account is that it is much better to follow the prophet’s counsel promptly. To delay either obedience or repentance leads to sorrow and regret. Speaking of this principle, Elder Henry B. Eyring of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught:

“The choice not to take prophetic counsel changes the very ground upon which we stand. It becomes more dangerous. The failure to take prophetic counsel lessens our power to take inspired counsel in the future. The best time to have decided to help Noah build the ark was the first time he asked. Each time he asked after that, each failure to respond would have lessened sensitivity to the Spirit. And so each time his request would have seemed more foolish, until the rain came. And then it was too late.

“Every time in my life when I have chosen to delay following inspired counsel or decided that I was an exception, I came to know that I had put myself in harm’s way. Every time that I have listened to the counsel of prophets, felt it confirmed in prayer, and then followed it, I have found that I moved toward safety. Along the path, I have found that the way had been prepared for me and the rough places made smooth. God led me to safety along a path which was prepared with loving care, sometimes prepared long before” (“Finding Safety in Counsel,” Ensign, May 1997, 25).

The Book of Mormon presents the stories of individuals like Alma the Younger, Amulek, and Zeezrom, who had to forsake lifestyles or politically popular views in order to follow the living prophet. This forsaking can be and often is painful and difficult, resulting sometimes in loss of friends, associates, and position (see Alma 14:6–7; Alma 15:3). “There are, or will be, moments when prophetic declarations collide with our pride or our seeming personal interests,” said Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He continued, “We must be like President Marion G. Romney, who humbly said, ‘… I have never hesitated to follow the counsel of the Authorities of the Church even though it crossed my social, professional, and political life’” (Things As They Really Are [1978], 73). As with President Romney, the choice of Alma, Amulek, and Zeezrom to follow the prophet ultimately led them to find more peace, joy, and direction in their lives.

Not Criticizing the Prophet

A prophet’s words are not always pleasing to people, as demonstrated in the life of Samuel the Lamanite. He preached repentance and prophesied the things the Lord put in his heart (see Hel. 13:2–3). Samuel’s message was twofold: a message of warning and of hope (see Hel. 13:5–6, 30–33; Hel. 14:11–13).

When he taught, the unrighteous became angry, attributed his power to the devil, and used their reasoning to conclude that the prophetic word was not rational or reasonable (see Hel. 16:2, 6, 16–18). They believed prophecies were wicked traditions handed down from father to son, which no one could prove to be true (see Hel. 16:20).

Applying the negative reactions of the unfaithful to the present day, President N. Eldon Tanner (1898–1982) of the First Presidency explained: “Let us remember too that the further out of line or out of tune we ourselves are, the more we are inclined to look for error or weaknesses in others and to try to rationalize and justify our own faults rather than to try to improve ourselves. Almost invariably, we find that the greatest criticism of Church leaders and doctrine comes from those who are not doing their full duty, following the leaders, or living according to the teachings of the gospel” (“‘Judge Not, That Ye Be Not Judged,’” Ensign, July 1972, 35).

Often in the Book of Mormon, occasions arise when people question the wisdom or character of a prophet. From the beginning Laman and Lemuel questioned the direction of their prophet-father. Sherem questioned Jacob’s integrity (see Jacob 7:7), and Korihor challenged Alma’s honesty and motives (see Alma 30:31–32). While these accusations were false, it is clear in the Book of Mormon that prophets are human and can have weaknesses. Father Lehi finally succumbed to a measure of murmuring or complaining to the Lord (see 1 Ne. 16:20). The brother of Jared failed, for a period of time, to call upon the Lord for direction (see Ether 2:14). The important point is that in each case the prophet was corrected by the Lord in His own way (1 Ne. 16:25–27; Ether 2:14). “Prophets need tutoring, as do we all,” declared Elder Maxwell. “However, this is something the Lord seems quite able to manage without requiring a host of helpers” (“A Brother Offended,” Ensign, May 1982, 39).

A Collective Call to Follow Christ

Ultimately, to follow the prophets is to follow Jesus Christ. All of the ancient Book of Mormon prophets taught of the Savior and of the need to accept and follow Him (see Jacob 7:11; Mosiah 13:33).

  • Lehi exclaimed the importance of making known to all that only “through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah” can we be saved (2 Ne. 2:8).

  • Nephi declared, “We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ” (2 Ne. 25:26). Furthermore, he explained that he quoted Isaiah in order to more fully persuade his people to “believe in the Lord their Redeemer” (1 Ne. 19:23).

  • The ancient prophets Zenos, Zenock, and Neum testified of Christ and His Atonement (see 1 Ne. 19:10).

  • Jacob expressed his great desire to “persuade all men” to “believe in Christ” (Jacob 1:8).

  • Enos declared the “truth which is in Christ” during all his days (Enos 1:26).

  • The prophets in Jarom’s day endeavored to persuade people “to look forward unto the Messiah, and believe in him to come as though he already was” (Jarom 1:11).

  • Amaleki pled with his readers to “come unto Christ” and “partake of his salvation” (Omni 1:26).

  • King Benjamin labored at length, with the assistance of many holy prophets, to prepare his people to take upon them the name of Christ (see W of M 1:16–18; Mosiah 1:11; Mosiah 3:17; Mosiah 5:8–10).

  • Abinadi warned the people that salvation comes only through the Atonement of Christ (see Mosiah 13:28, 33).

  • Alma the Younger explained to his people what they must do to have Christ’s image in their countenance and to follow Christ as their shepherd (see Alma 5:14, 38).

  • Alma and Amulek taught the poor among the Zoramites that the word is in Christ and that without His Atonement all would be lost (see Alma 34:6, 9).

  • Helaman, son of Helaman, spoke to his sons of the need to build one’s life on the “rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ” (Hel. 5:12).

  • Samuel the Lamanite came among the Nephites with the specific intent of helping the Nephites to “know of the coming of Jesus Christ” that they “might believe on his name” (Hel. 14:12).

  • Many prophets just prior to the Savior’s appearance on the American continent testified of the redemption of Christ that was soon at hand (see 3 Ne. 6:20).

  • Even long after the Savior’s appearance to the descendants of Lehi, the prophets Mormon and Moroni proclaimed the importance of being true followers of Jesus Christ and coming unto Him in our lives (see Moro. 7:41, 48; Moro. 10:30, 32–33).

Thus, the Book of Mormon prophets were united as one voice to guide others to follow Christ. For, they testified, we are saved as we “endure to the end, in following the example of the Son of the living God” (2 Ne. 31:16).

Safety in Following Living Prophets

The need of every generation is to take the prophets’ counsel, past and present, and apply it in our lives. There is safety and security in following the prophets, particularly those of our own day. Those who “believed in the warnings and revelations of God” (2 Ne. 5:6) were led to live after “the manner of happiness” (2 Ne. 5:27). Gratefully we learn from Alma the Elder and his people that great blessings will occur even when those who follow the prophet may be few in number (see Mosiah 18; Mosiah 24). Those who were spared in the great Nephite destruction were saved because they “received the prophets” (3 Ne. 10:12). So it will be at the Second Coming. With each Nephite generation, the Lord sent prophets to teach, warn, and prepare the people for His coming. Today, the Lord sends prophets for the same reasons. In the words of President James E. Faust, Second Counselor in the First Presidency: “We have been promised that the President of the Church will receive guidance for all of us as the revelator for the Church. Our safety lies in paying heed to that which he says and following his counsel” (“Continuous Revelation,” Ensign, Nov. 1989, 10).

[illustration] Lehi and His People Arrive in the Promised Land, by Arnold Friberg

[illustration] Alma the Younger Counseling His Son, by Darrell Thomas

[illustration] Abinadi Appearing before King Noah, by Arnold Friberg

[photo] Photo by Eldon Linschoten

[photo] Photo by Tom Smart, Deseret News

[photo] Photo by Steve Bunderson, posed by models

Clyde J. Williams is an associate professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.