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, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). Just as the Lord always forewarns His children before He levies judgment upon them (see 2 Ne. 25:9), He always fulfills the promises given through His prophets (see Alma 50:19–22; 3 Ne. 1:20; Ether 15:3).
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 makes it clear 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), and they become captive to the full power of Satan (see Hel. 16:22–23; Ether 15:19). Once Satan has captured 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 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). Elder Dean L. Larsen, now an emeritus member of the Seventy, described this condition, as exemplified by the history of ancient Israel: “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’ [Jacob 4:14], their comprehension of and faith in the redeeming role of a true Messiah was lost, and the purpose of life became confused” (“Looking beyond the Mark,” Ensign, November 1987, 11).
The ministry of Abinadi illustrates the importance of timeliness in heeding prophetic warnings. 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, if they still did not repent, they would be destroyed (see Mosiah 12:2, 8).
King Noah and most of his people rejected the warnings of Abinadi and were 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 found their burdens eased during the prophetically promised bondage (see Mosiah 17:2; Mosiah 18:6–7, 34; Mosiah 24:8–17).
From Alma and his followers, we learn 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 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 is often difficult, resulting sometimes in loss of friends 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, now of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He continued, “We must be like President Marion G. Romney [1897–1988], 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 , 73). The choice of Alma, Amulek, Zeezrom, and President Romney to follow the prophet ultimately led them to find more peace, joy, and direction in their lives.
A prophet’s words are not always pleasing to people, as demonstrated in the life of Samuel the Lamanite. He preached repentance and prophesied what the Lord put in his heart (see Hel. 13:2–3). Samuel’s message was twofold: a message of warning and a message 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 (see Hel. 16:2, 6, 16–18). They believed prophecies were wicked traditions handed down from parents to children, traditions which no one could prove to be true (see Hel. 16:20).
Of this tendency by the unfaithful to rationalize away prophetic counsel, President N. Eldon Tanner (1898–1982) of the First Presidency said: “Let us remember … 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).
Over and over 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).
Although prophets are human and have weaknesses (see 1 Ne. 16:20; Ether 2:14), the Lord is perfectly capable of correcting them in His own way. “Prophets need tutoring, as do we all,” declared Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “However, this is something the Lord seems quite able to manage without requiring a host of helpers” (“‘A Brother Offended,’” Ensign, May 1982, 39).
Ultimately, to follow the prophets is to follow Jesus Christ. All of the Book of Mormon prophets taught of the Savior and of the need to accept and follow Him (see Jacob 7:11; Mosiah 13:33). For example:
The ancient prophets Zenos, Zenock, and Neum testified of Christ and His Atonement (see 1 Ne. 19:10).
Lehi taught 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). The reason he quoted Isaiah, he said, was to more fully persuade his people “to believe in the Lord their Redeemer” (1 Ne. 19:23).
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 sought to persuade people “to look forward unto the Messiah, and believe in him to come as though he already was” (Jarom 1:11).
Amaleki pleaded with his readers to “come unto Christ” and “partake of his salvation” (Omni 1:26).
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 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 “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 to come (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 (see Moro. 7:41, 48; Moro. 10:30, 32–33).
Thus, the Book of Mormon prophets were united in guiding others to 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).
In every generation we must take the prophets’ counsel and apply it in our lives. There is safety and security in following the prophets, particularly those of our own day. In Nephi’s day, “those who believed in the warnings and the 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 occur even when those who follow the prophet are 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). With each Nephite generation, the Lord sent prophets to teach, warn, and prepare the people for His coming. So it will be at the Second Coming.
Today, the Lord sends prophets for the same reasons. In the words of President James E. Faust, now 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, November 1989, 10).