Early Lessons on Following the Prophet


Stories from early Church history show that following a living prophet requires a willingness to sacrifice, confidence in his prophetic call, and a testimony from the Holy Ghost.

Early Lessons on Following the Prophet

At the first organizational meeting of His Church the Lord restored an important doctrine: He uses living prophets to reveal His will to His Saints. Anciently the Lord stated: “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). Then in April 1830 the Lord again reminded His Saints to receive His word through the Prophet Joseph Smith:

“Wherefore, meaning the church, thou shalt give heed unto all his words and commandments which he shall give unto you as he receiveth them, walking in all holiness before me;

“For his word ye shall receive, as if from mine own mouth, in all patience and faith” (D&C 21:4–5).

In the early years of the Church those who came to understand and live this doctrine found safety. The names of Newel Knight, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, and Eliza R. Snow are held in honored remembrance.

Others found it more difficult to follow the Prophet, and their names have quickly faded from Church history. They gave heed, but only to a point, then something happened in their association with Joseph or he asked of them something they thought was beyond his purview. Their lukewarm obedience led to their separation from the kingdom of God. Many of these early members faced immense challenges, and we should be cautious not to make harsh judgments, yet the examples of these individuals who fell away from the gospel in the New York (1829–30) and Kirtland (1831–37) periods provide insights on following living prophets.

A Willingness to Sacrifice

Many of the early challenges faced by the Saints appear to be linked with property and the cares of the world. They struggled like the rich young man whom the Savior taught: “If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.

“But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions” (Matt. 19:21–22).

The move to Kirtland provided one of the earliest tests for following the call of a living prophet. In December 1830 the Lord commanded the Saints through His prophet to leave their comfortable New York homes and settle in “the Ohio” (see D&C 37:3). The Lord counseled: “And they that have farms that cannot be sold, let them be left or rented as seemeth them good” (D&C 38:37).

Newel Knight, an early convert in the Colesville, New York, branch, went to the 2 January 1831 conference of the Church at Fayette, where he learned of the commandment to gather in Ohio. He stated: “It was at this conference that we were instructed as a people, to begin the gathering of Israel, and a revelation was given to the prophet on this subject. Having returned home from the conference, in obedience to the commandment which had been given, I, together with the Colesville Branch, began to make preparations to go to Ohio. … As might be expected, we were obliged to make great sacrifices of our property. 1 Newel and his family followed the prophet and left behind a beautiful farm. Many others did as well. Others, however, found the sacrifice of property and comfort too great and stayed in New York.

One such person was Philip Burroughs, a gentry farmer from Fayette. There is no record of his baptism into the Church, but the Lord referred to him in a September 1830 revelation as “brother Philip Burroughs” (D&C 30:10). An article in the 9 March 1831 edition of the Reflector, a Palmyra newspaper, just two months after the call to go to Ohio, gives some evidence of Philip’s reasons for separating from the Church: “Our Waterloo correspondent informs us, that two of the most responsible Mormonites, as it respects property, in that vicinity, have demurred to the divine command, through Jo Smith, requiring them to sell their property and put it into the common fund, and repair with all convenient speed to the New Jerusalem, lately located by Cowdery somewhere in the western region. A requisition of twelve hundred dollars, in cash it is said, was made upon one of these gentlemen, (Mr. B.)—‘the Lord having need of it.’ This request was promptly refused by the gentleman, who, at the same time informed the prophet that he would rather risk his soul as it was, (having been dipped) than trust his money or property in the hands of such agents as were applying for it.” 2

When Samuel H. Smith and Orson Hyde traveled through Seneca County, New York, on a mission from Kirtland in 1832, they went to Philip Burroughs’s house. Samuel reported, “He was glad to see us and Sister Burroughs was strong in the faith.” 3 A meeting was held at the schoolhouse, which a number of people attended, but Philip could never bring himself to follow the Saints to Ohio.

Another example is James Covill. James “had been a Baptist minister for about forty years, [and] covenanted with the Lord that he would obey any command that the Lord would give to him through Joseph the Prophet” (D&C 39, section heading). The Lord was pleased because James’s heart was “right before me at this time,” but reminded him that he had rejected the Lord “many times because of pride and the cares of the world” (D&C 39:8–9). James was then instructed to go to Ohio (D&C 39:14), a command he received through the Prophet “with gladness” (D&C 40:2), and evidence suggests that he did unite himself to the Church. 4 Sadly his heart changed, and as the Lord noted, “straightway Satan tempted him; and the fear of persecution and the cares of the world caused him to reject the word.

“Wherefore, he broke my covenant, and it remaineth with me to do with him as seemeth me good” (D&C 40:2–3). James Covill faded from prominence in Church history.

The cares of the world are very real to those who accept the message of a living prophet. Prophetic teachings often run counter to the popular notions and ideas of the day. As James Covill accepted divine teachings, it seems that he also began to fear losing social status and position with friends or perhaps even losing family associations. And although we do not have specific knowledge of what cares of the world the Lord was referring to, it is likely that the move to Ohio would have also necessitated the sacrifice of material comforts for the kingdom.

Examples like those of Newel Knight, Philip Burroughs, and James Covill help us understand that blessings accompany the sacrifice of personal property and comfort in order to follow a prophet. The Lord continues to give Latter-day Saints commandments through a living prophet. Many of these sometimes seem as difficult for us as it must have been for the early Saints when they were told to pack up and move to “the Ohio.” Yet the Lord honors our agency just as He did with the New York Saints, when He spoke through the Prophet Joseph Smith regarding the move to Ohio: “Behold, here is wisdom, and let every man choose for himself until I come. Even so. Amen” (D&C 37:4). If we use our agency wisely, as did Newel Knight and his family, we will find fellowship with the Saints. Or we may at tremendous cost choose to stay behind as the Church moves forward.

Confidence in the Divine Call of a Prophet

As the faithful New York Saints converged on Kirtland, Ohio, the necessity of following the Prophet Joseph Smith only intensified. Great challenges came as the Restoration continued through a period of spiritual outpouring. Valiant members stayed true to the cause and the Prophet, but there were those who chose not to follow. Many physical challenges and sacrifices provided a testing ground for the members of the Church, and other challenges caused some to question the appropriateness of everything done by the President of the Church.

Two such examples are Ezra Booth and Symonds Ryder. Ezra was a Methodist minister who became acquainted with the Church in 1831 through reading and discussing the Book of Mormon with John Johnson of Hiram, Ohio. They traveled to Kirtland and met with the Prophet, and on this occasion they witnessed a miraculous healing of John Johnson’s wife, Elsa. 5 She had been plagued with chronic rheumatism in her shoulder that prevented her from using her arm. When Joseph took her by the hand and said, “I command thee to be whole,” she was immediately healed. 6 Booth was baptized in May 1831 and served a short mission in the Hiram region.

While in Hiram, Ezra taught Symonds Ryder of his newfound faith. Symonds visited with Joseph and witnessed what he perceived to be a miracle when in June 1831 he read of a destructive earthquake in China and “remembered that six weeks before, a young ‘Mormon’ girl had predicted the destruction.” 7 He was baptized that same month, but his enthusiasm was short-lived. He soon received a ministerial call signed by the Prophet Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon that stated that it had been given them by the Spirit and that it was the Lord’s will he be called to preach the gospel. In both the informal letter he received and in the official commission to preach, his last name was misspelled Rider, instead of Ryder. He left the Church, claiming that if the “‘Spirit’ through which he had been called to preach could err in the matter of spelling his name, it might have erred in calling him to the ministry as well; or, in other words, he was led to doubt if he were called at all by the Spirit of God, because of the [scribal] error in the spelling of his name!” 8 This error appears to have resulted in his rejection of the prophetic mantle of Joseph Smith.

Having one’s name spelled in various ways was not unusual in that time. Symonds, who is mentioned in D&C 52:37, had his name spelled in a variety of ways in original texts, as did many others who did not take offense. 9 His lack of understanding of and faith in the role of a prophet led him to quickly return to his religious affiliation with the Campbellite movement.

Ezra Booth served a mission to Missouri, but when he returned to Ohio he had his own doubts about the living Prophet. Ezra argued that before he left for Missouri Joseph told him that he had seen in vision that the Church would be large in the wilderness. Ezra was disillusioned when he arrived in Missouri and found only a small number of converts, for he misunderstood when this prophecy was to be fulfilled. It also bothered him that the Prophet redirected mission assignments given by revelation when some declined their calls to serve. Ezra did not understand what the Lord had taught the Prophet: “Wherefore I, the Lord, command and revoke, as it seemeth me good; and all this to be answered upon the heads of the rebellious, saith the Lord” (D&C 56:4). Ezra also rejected the Prophet Joseph Smith’s claim as the only one to receive revelation for the Church. He felt this was an authoritarian type of leadership. Further, he questioned the Prophet’s call because he considered Joseph’s personality inappropriate. He felt the Prophet’s jovial nature and levity with people were inconsistent with proper prophetic demeanor. 10

These concerns and others led Symonds Ryder and Ezra Booth to leave the Church and persecute the Prophet. They rejected the divinity of Joseph’s prophetic call because of what they regarded as his mistakes.

A Testimony from the Holy Ghost

Many early members had conversions tied to the witnessing of miraculous events, and when challenges came their testimonies of the living prophet seemed to suffer. Those early members who had testimonies rooted in the power of the Holy Ghost stood by the Prophet. Brigham Young and John Taylor are examples of this. They were not disturbed in their testimonies of a living prophet by every wind that blew because they were firmly anchored with a testimony of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Ghost.

As members completed the construction of the Kirtland Temple in 1836, there was a season of great temporal growth and prosperity. The Lord revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith a master plan for the growth of Kirtland. Elder Wilford Woodruff of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles stated: “Joseph presented us in some degree the plot of the city of Kirtland (which is the stronghold of the daughter of Zion) as it was given him by vision. It was great, marvelous, and glorious. The city extended to the east, west, north, and south. Steamboats will come puffing into the city. Our goods will be conveyed upon railroads from Kirtland to many places and probably to Zion. Houses of worship would be reared unto the Most High. Beautiful streets [were] to be made for the Saints to walk in. Kings of the earth would come to behold the glory thereof, and many glorious things not now to be named would be bestowed upon the Saints. But all these thing[s] are better imagined than spoken by the children of Jacob.” 11

Land was purchased and monies accumulated to bring about this plan. Inflation and property values soared. The cost of building the temple put the Church in deep debt, and many members sacrificed much. Some Church leaders decided to enter the banking business in an attempt to resolve some of these problems and create an equitable medium for exchange. A local currency was to be exchanged only in the immediate area, which was a common practice in those times. Many historians have debated the wisdom of such a tactic, but in January 1837 Elder Woodruff gave some insight into the Prophet’s perspective in this matter: “I visited the office of the Kirtland Safety Society and saw the first money that was issued by the treasurer or society. It was given to Brother Bump (in exchange for other notes), who was the first to circulate it. I also heard President Joseph Smith Jr. declare in the presence of F. Williams, D. Whitmer, S. Smith, W. Parrish, and others in the deposit office that he had received that morning the word of the Lord upon the subject of the Kirtland Safety Society. He was alone in the room by himself and he had not only the voice of the Spirit upon the subject but even an audible voice. He did not tell us at that time what the Lord said upon the subject but remarked that if we would give heed to the commandments the Lord had given this morning all would be well. May the Lord bless Brother Joseph with all the Saints and support the above-named institution and protect it so that every weapon formed against it may be broken and come to naught while the Kirtland Safety Society shall become the greatest of all institutions on earth.” 12

The Lord had a hand in the establishment of the Kirtland Safety Society, but the success of the economic plan for Kirtland depended on the brethren keeping the word of the Lord as given them by the living prophet. Later, as the economy of Kirtland and other areas of Ohio began to collapse, Elder Woodruff noted: “President S. Rigdon addressed the congregation and laid before them their situation as to temporal things as the Gentiles are striving to besiege the Saints in Kirtland and would be glad to starve the Saints to death. He also stated that the Presidency had used every means for the deliverance of the Church but many of the Church refused Kirtland currency, which was their temporal salvation. In consequence of this they put strength in the hands of their enemies, and those that had done this thing must suffer by it.” 13

By April 1837 it was obvious to the Prophet Joseph Smith and President Sidney Rigdon that the disobedience of some would cause the suffering of many. By the summer of 1837 the Prophet and President Rigdon had withdrawn from the Kirtland Safety Society. The failure of the members to follow prophetic instructions led to a “great apostasy” of many prominent members. It is estimated that between 200 and 300 persons left the Church during this period. 14 Warren Parrish, John F. Boynton, Luke Johnson, and Lyman Johnson were among many in high positions who left in late 1837 and early 1838 and turned against the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Even Elder Parley P. Pratt of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles faltered in his testimony and in the excitement of the time questioned the Prophet’s handling of the financial affairs. He quickly repented of this and sought forgiveness of the Church. 15 When he shared his feelings of apostasy with Elder John Taylor, Elder Taylor replied: “I am surprised to hear you speak so, Brother Parley. Before you left Canada you bore strong testimony of Joseph Smith being a Prophet of God, and to the truth of the work he has inaugurated; and you said you knew these things by revelation, and the gift of the Holy Ghost. You gave to me a strict charge to the effect that though you or any angel from heaven was to declare anything else I was not to believe it. Now Brother Parley, it is not man that I am following, but the Lord. The principles you taught me led me to Him, and I now have the same testimony that you then rejoiced in, if the work was true six months ago, it is true today; if Joseph was then a Prophet, he is now a Prophet.” 16

Elder John Taylor’s testimony of the Prophet was echoed by many faithful Saints who stood by Joseph Smith during these hard times. Apostates threatened to destroy Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, and others. Brigham Young said it was because he proclaimed in public and in private that he knew “by the power of the Holy Ghost that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of the Most High God, and had not transgressed and fallen as apostates declared.” 17 These two brethren never strayed from their belief that the work of the Lord was being administered by a living prophet.

Lessons for Our Time

Lessons can be learned from the stories of individuals who struggled to follow a living prophet. Those who chose to stand by the Prophet Joseph Smith, even in physically and spiritually demanding times, were blessed and are honored today. Those who were disobedient and disloyal soon fell into spiritual obscurity.

We live in an age of tremendous change and social pressure. Prophets and apostles continue to give us counsel and teach us the Lord’s will as we live through this great period of the last days. If we individually give heed to the lessons of the past, we will find ourselves ready to sacrifice when the Lord requires it, because we will have chosen to align ourselves with His servants.

Living prophets often give us counsel in areas that affect our social and economic well-being. Yet we must be able to receive their teachings without limiting the realms in which they may teach. In doing so, we can claim the promise made to all who obey a prophet when the Lord said that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against you; yea, and the Lord God will disperse the powers of darkness from before you, and cause the heavens to shake for your good, and his name’s glory” (D&C 21:6).

To receive such a blessing we must have a testimony of the living prophet that is from the Holy Ghost. As we follow their inspired teachings, we will discover by the Holy Spirit that this is the Lord’s work and that His guidance is given us through His chosen servants.

Our Greatest Security

Elder Robert D. Hales

“The greatest security of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comes from learning to listen to and obey the words and commandments that the Lord has given through living prophets. I would hope that the world would understand the importance of having a living prophet on earth today.” Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “Hear the Prophet’s Voice and Obey,” Ensign, May 1995, 17.

Look to the Prophet

President Ezra Taft Benson

“Of all mortal men, we should keep our eyes most firmly fixed on the captain, the prophet, seer, and revelator, and president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. … This is the man who stands closest to the fountain of living waters.” President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994), “Jesus Christ—Gifts and Expectations,” New Era, May 1975, 16.

Let’s Talk about It

Most Ensign articles can be used for family home evening discussions. The following questions are for that purpose or for personal reflection:

  1. 1.

    What sacrifices of personal property or comfort have I or my family made to follow a living prophet?

  2. 2.

    How well do I or my family understand the role of a living prophet?

  3. 3.

    Why is a testimony from the Holy Ghost needed to help us follow a living prophet?

[illustration] Detail from Joseph Smith in Liberty Jail, by Greg K. Olsen

[illustrations] Illustrated by Sam Lawlor

[photo] Photo courtesy of Church News

Guy L. Dorius is a member of the Battle Creek Third Ward, Pleasant Grove Utah East Stake.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Scraps of Biography—Tenth Book of the Faith Promoting Series (1883), 68; emphasis added.

  2.   2.

    Reflector, 9 Mar. 1831, 116–17; spelling corrected.

  3.   3.

    Samuel H. Smith Journal, 1831–33, microfilm copy located in the Historical Department Archives. See also Larry C. Porter, “A Study of the Origins of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the States of New York and Pennsylvania, 1816–1831” (Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, Aug. 1971), 262–63.

  4.   4.

    Porter, “A Study of Origins,” 266–67.

  5.   5.

    Although many records refer to John Johnson’s wife as Elsa, her headstone in the Walnut Hill Cemetery in Council Bluffs, Iowa, has her name as Alice Johnson.

  6.   6.

    History of the Church, 1:215–16.

  7.   7.

    History of the Church, 1:158 footnotes.

  8.   8.

    History of the Church, 1:260–61 footnotes.

  9.   9.

    Robert J. Woodford, “The Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants” (Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, Apr. 1974), 2:678.

  10.   10.

    Milton V. Backman Jr., The Heavens Resound: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Ohio 1830–1838 (1983), 94–96.

  11.   11.

    Journal of Wilford Woodruff, 6 Apr. 1837; capitalization, punctuation, and spelling modernized in all entries.

  12.   12.

    Journal of Wilford Woodruff, 6 Jan. 1837.

  13.   13.

    Journal of Wilford Woodruff, 9 Apr. 1837.

  14.   14.

    Backman, The Heavens Resound, 327–29.

  15.   15.

    Backman, The Heavens Resound, 326.

  16.   16.

    B. H. Roberts, The Life of John Taylor (1963), 40.

  17.   17.

    Manuscript History of Brigham Young, ed. Elden Jay Watson (1968), 23.