Follow the Prophet, Don’t Go Astray?
So I found myself sitting in nursery this past Sunday watching my 2 year old son play around and saw Ursula reincarnate. Not really, but certainly the thought came to mind more than a few times. For those who try and break free from the corporate church, and its teachings, primary is often referred to as one of the last few bastions where the gospel is still pure and simple, where the teachings still focus on and about Christ.
I had that in mind as the scene played out in front of me. I’m not sure if it’s a churchwide program that our unit (nice, I just called it a unit – very correlated) has been following with what primary songs they sing and when, but ours has been on a program which has been focusing on the infamous (to me, at least) primary song: Follow The Prophet. It would be safe to say that chills nearly run up and down my spine when forced to listen to that song, for reasons I’ll try and discuss. But these aren’t ones that I enjoy. Probably more like fingernails going down a chalkboard.
A few weeks (months?) back the primary president gave me a CD of the primary songs the primary was working on so that I could pass it along to my wife who could then listen to those songs as we drove with the kids in the car. Problem is, it’s only a 5-track CD and one of those tracks is “Follow the Prophet.” So somehow – and I promise it was an honest mistake – the CD was misplaced for a couple of weeks before my wife finally found it. I’ve managed to skip that track a few times while present, but so far the inundation of that song at church is beyond my control. Unfortunately.
A few years back, I overheard my nephew singing that song by memory and thought about how cool it was that he had learned such an inspiring song. Now, I’ll be damned if my kids sing it. Shows just how far I’ve fallen.
Seeds of Dislike
So, why my particular dislike for this particular song? Well, it’s not quite as simple as you might guess, though it really is. Sound confusing, or at least a bit muddy? Good. Now we’re getting somewhere.
My dislike probably had origination with the whole “the prophet will never, indeed cannot, lead us astray” meme. Though even that is a tenuous link. It really is just one of those things that happened, and really happened overnight more or less. Whereas before (as in the case of my nephew mentioned above) I found it entirely beneficial, and probably inspiring, to sing such a song, now I can’t stomach it.
I did a simple search on google using the terms, “Follow the prophet” and found a few worthwhile links which will help reinforce this point, and it’s a point I labor with at home as well. We’ve been taught by many that the Lord will still bless us if we do what the prophet tells us, even if he’s wrong. We’ve been taught for 120+ years that our church leaders simply cannot lead us astray – try as they might.
This is recorded by Marion Romney and repeated in Ezra Benson’s Fourteen Fundamentals in Following the Prophet (a talk which is difficult to find anything within to agree with):
President Marion G. Romney tells of this incident, which happened to him: I remember years ago when I was a Bishop I had President [Heber J.] Grant talk to our ward. After the meeting I drove him home….Standing by me, he put his arm over my shoulder and said: “My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.” Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, “But you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray.” [In Conference Report, October 1), p. 78]
Blind obedience is required – check your coat (and free will) at the door.
So, just what are we teaching our primary aged children, and younger? Well, taking a couple of the verses of the song might elucidate the conversation, if only slightly:
Adam was a prophet, first one that we know.
In a place called Eden, he helped things to grow.
Adam served the Lord by following his ways.
We are his descendants in the latter days.
Enoch was a prophet; he taught what was good.
People in his city did just what they should.
When they were so righteous that there was no sin,
Heav’nly Father took them up to live with him.
Noah was a prophet called to preach the word,
Tried to cry repentance, but nobody heard.
They were busy sinning-Noah preached in vain.
They wished they had listened when they saw the rain.
Abraham the prophet prayed to have a son,
So the Lord sent Isaac as the chosen one.
Isaac begat Jacob, known as Israel;
Jacob’s sons were twelve tribes, so Bible tells.
Moses was a prophet sent to Israel.
He would lead them to the Promised Land to dwell.
They were slow to follow, or so it appears.
They were in the wilderness for forty years.
It might not appear so “slow,” if you step back and realize that we’re now treading on 180 years of wandering in our own wilderness, awaiting the redemption of Zion and our own promised land. The problem then becomes, though, what happens when the term “promised land” gets redefined by the same church that has been wandering aimlessly, or nearly so, in regards to Zion?
For example, at this past summer’s commencement speech, Whitney Clayton gave a speech on the promised land. Though I, as of yet, have been unable to find the transcript of the speech to ascertain the entire message he intended to give, we’re given a few snippets in the LDS Church News. These tidbits suggest that (a) the land of promise is, today, merely a way of life, “not a place like it was in the Old Testament,” (b) the “promised land” usually isn’t a place – “it’s found wherever an individual is at the moment,” and (c) today’s college graduates are “cross[ing] a modern Red Sea or River Joran, as you graduate from BYU and move one – no generation has been better trained or more richly prepared for its future.” Better trained and “richly” prepared? To do what, presactly? To continue building up and sustaining Babylon, or to actually redeem Zion? Based on the text of the talk I’ve been able to read, it leaves little doubt – we’re to continue our toils in Babylon, seeking for our land of milk and honey and, not so coincidentally, riches.
Daniel was a prophet. He refused to sin;
So the king threw Daniel in the lion’s den.
Angels calmed the lions, and the king soon saw
Daniel’s pow’r was great, for he obeyed God’s law.
Here’s an interesting conundrum: was Daniel’s power great because he obeyed the law, or did Daniel really have any power at all? And, did he refuse to sin, or did you merely listen to the spirit in doing what he did? Granted, a song – especially a primary song – has got to rhyme, so we should probably grant the author a little leeway, but still, who here is exactly comfortable with the lessons being taught here?
Now we have a world where people are confused.
If you don’t believe it, go and watch the news.
We can get direction all along our way,
If we heed the prophets-follow what they say
Follow the prophet, follow the prophet,
Follow the prophet; don’t go astray.
Follow the prophet, follow the prophet,
Follow the prophet he knows the way.
Here, really, is the crux of the song. The last verse talks about the troubled times we live in – which we’re constantly being reminded of – but then it takes a turn for the worse, much worse. Instead of reinforcing the idea that we should seek to get answers directly from the Lord, as is evidenced in several of the verses of this song, we’re redirected into a belief that we need to follow what they say.
Verse 1: Adam served the Lord by following His ways.
Verse 2: Enoch leads his people in righteousness.
Verse 3: Noah was called, as an individual, to preach the word.
Verse 4: Abraham prayed and received individual revelation.
Verse 5: Moses was called, as an individual, by God to lead the people.
Verse 6: Samuel answered, as an individual, “Here I am!”
Verse 7: Jonah learned to listen.
Verse 8: Daniel disobeyed the laws of the land and prayed.
Verse 9: Now we’re confused, and we need someone else to tell us what to do.
So, the next time you listen to that song, perhaps we could think of this alternate ending that some seem to like:
Now we have a prophet, in the latter-day,
He is here to guide us in so many ways.
If we choose to follow all that he may say,
We will have the Spirit with us every day.
—alternate ending verse for the primary song “Follow the Prophet”
Perhaps even worse than the first couple of verses, now we’re told that if we follow all that the current prophet says, we will have the Spirit with us every day. That, of course, gets back to the whole blind obedience argument. Blind obedience, though, has never been taught in the church, or so Joseph F. Smith stated back in 1892.
“Not a man in this Church, since the Prophet Joseph Smith down to the present day, has ever asked any man to do as he was told blindly. No Prophet of God, no Apostle, no President of a Stake, no Bishop, who has had the spirit of his office and calling resting upon him, has ever asked a soul to do anything that they might not know was right and the proper thing to do. We do not ask you to do anything that you may not know it is your duty to do, or that you may not know will be a blessing for you to do.” (Joseph F. Smith, Collected Discourses, ed. Brian H. Stuy, Vol. 3 (Burbank, B.H.S. Publishing 1987-1992).)
If only he’d waited a few years, his eventual successor, Heber J. Grant, he’d have heard this very thing taught to the members. Quoting, once again, Marion Romney:
“Standing by me, [Heber J. Grant] put his arm over my shoulder and said: “My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.” Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, “But you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray.” [In Conference Report, October 1), p. 78]
It really is shocking, to me at least, when you look at it this way. Perhaps it’s true that the culture is so screwed up that they’d benefit from a prophet coming amongst us to tell us to repent, or await the certain destruction that’s coming. Perhaps it’s true we need an outside voice. That’s fine. But, how about we draw the line somewhere? Perhaps we could draw that line at – oh, I don’t know – Follow the Savior, He Knows the Way.
The scriptures teach us – almost ad nauseum – that we need only follow one person – Christ. And yet, here we have a primary song that teaches us to follow someone else. If this could be broken down into images, it would look something like this (in my mind):
In these two representations, the one on the left is what I’d call the “Joseph Smith Model,” whereas the one on the right I’d call the “Follow the Prophet Model,” or the model now espoused by the church, and church membership, generally speaking. The reason I’d call the one on the left the “Joseph Smith Model” is because it’s the egalitarian approach he seemed to espouse, while the one on the right highlights just how much we’ve abdicated our personal responsibility in seeking truth.
“Do you believe Joseph Smith, Jun., to be a Prophet?’ Yes, and every other man who has the testimony of Jesus. For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy. … Salvation cannot come without revelation; it is in vain for anyone to minister without it. No man is a minister of Jesus Christ without being a Prophet. No man can be a minister of Jesus Christ except he has the testimony of Jesus; and this is the spirit of prophecy. Whenever salvation has been administered, it has been by testimony.” (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pages 119, 160.)
So, with that in mind, it might do us some good to revisit Ursula. In our nursery, as is probably typical of most (and is of the ones I’ve ever attended), a member of the primary presidency comes in each week for music time. This past Sunday the song of choice was, as you rightly guessed, Follow the Prophet. But, it wasn’t just that. The sister passed out maracas, tambourines and all sorts of musical gadgets and gizmos to the 11 or 12 kids in nursery. The effect was one of no small mayhem. So, picture if you will, a scene from Where the Wild Things Are (which just may have been the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but the images work) where all the monsters are dancing and singing and chanting around the fire. The member of the primary presidency leading the pack of wild, ravenous 2 year olds as they listened to a cultic song and shook their maracas with all the muster their tiny arms could.
That, in miniature scale, is what I saw in nursery. I even tried to snap it on my cell phone, but didn’t get it out in time. I was nearly appalled and probably would have been had I not been so taken back by the whole scene playing in front of me.
And, not so appalled as I am at some of the websites currently floating around which reinforce our idolatrous ways. The President of the church has his own website, owned, managed and ran by the church, which reads more like a resume than anything else. And, there are countless others devoted to following just what the president is doing on any given day – like www.followtheprophet.net – which literally seeks to “follow” him on his travels. Once there, you might have some fun going to their post on May 24th of this year and asking yourself, should a prophet be limoed around in a Gulfstream IV – the Huntsman jet – which has a price tag hovering around $36 million and change (new). Just a question. We’d all do a little better to ask a few more questions each day. Start with that question. Then, imagine that Gulfstream landing in rural Guatemala, or Mongolia, or Uzbekistan or wherever it lands.
“We learn more by looking for the answer to a question and not finding it than we do from learning the answer itself.” – Lloyd Alexander
As a culture, we’re so far removed from processes which create the goods and services we want that all we really care about is the end result. When we go buy a toy at our nearest Wal*Mart, we care not how it came to us or where it was made. We couldn’t care less that an 8-year old kid is working 12-hour days to help support his family, just so they can have a ¼ cup of rice on the table at night. No, so long as we get our toy at a good price, that’s really all we care about. Same with our groceries, shoes or whatever it may be – just so long as it has an appropriate price tag on it. The last quote of my post on Samsara and Perfume discusses this idea and refers to it as “world building.”
The same principle goes with this Gulfstream. Instead of asking ourselves some questions like these: “does he really need a $36 million airplane to traverse and gallivant across the globe?”, “So what if it reeks of extravagance to the extreme?,” and others along the same vein. Instead, we simply throw those questions aside and, as the original story on FollowtheProphet.net mentions, find no shortage of adulation for such conveniences. Questions, lots of questions.
“The power to question is the basis of all human progress.” – Gandhi
Alternate Ending, Part 2
So what’s my whole beef with this issue? Mainly one of focus. We, as a church and a people, are so fixated on an office that we can’t see the forest for the trees. We have developed such a cult of personality that we no longer verify things, no longer think that God can (or does) work outside the bounds of the corporate church. We think that all we have to do to be saved is listen to a man. Any man, really. So long as he ascends the hierarchy and holds on longer than the rest, that means we are bound to listen and adhere to everything he says.
Like the above graphics note, we’ve replaced intimate relationships with corporate institutions. The idea and belief that Christ now must speak through someone else, and that that someone else is impervious to ever doing anything contrary to the will of the Lord is about as egregious a teaching as I know. We’ve strayed from the path that instructs us to go on and on in our search for Christ, and strayed into a path that we only need search for a president – for then we’ve found the only person we need listen to (allegedly).
“In our context, what has happened as a result of this alteration is that the former significance of the church’s president was administrative, and priestly. He was a final arbitrator and judge, a presiding authority and a leader whose words were to be considered carefully. He was NOT considered infallible or to be invariably inspired. In fact, during the presidencies of the Prophet Joseph Smith, President Brigham Young and President John Taylor, they all spoke against any notion of infallibility of the church’s president. President Young was particularly cautionary about trusting church leaders instead of the Holy Spirit as your guide. President Young said too much trust of a church leader would bring the saints to hell.
President Woodruff was so criticized by members for the Manifesto that he defended himself by claiming that the Lord wouldn’t let him make a mistake on that order. He said that the Lord just wouldn’t let the church’s president lead the saints astray. That comment was what would later be used to buttress the notion popularly believed today that the “prophet is infallible.”
President Heber J. Grant was an unpopular church president. One of the problems with getting the saints to respond to the church president’s counsel was solved when the president of the church became the living “Prophet.” You can reject or question counsel from an administrative authority. But to question a “Prophet of God” was to invite the damnation of hell. So the change in nomenclature worked a mighty change in the perceptions of the Latter-day Saints. The “cult of personality” was an inevitable result. Everything the president did would be done as “God’s Living Prophet.” No matter what decisions were made, no matter their wisdom, goodness or undesirability, the result was the same: “They MUST be inspired. We may not have the human capacity to see it, but God’s ways are higher than man’s after all. To question is to lack in faith.”
The change put the president into a league in which at a minimum criticism was disrespectful. Worse, if you were convinced that he made a mistake, it followed almost as an inevitability that you were absolutely forbidden from saying so because to do so revealed a “weakness in the faith.” In fact, there are General Conference talks which speak about criticizing the church president (or “Living Prophet”) claiming that the criticism was due to a weak faith, and it would lead to apostasy unless a person repented.”
So, I guess at the end of the day, all this probably means that I have weak faith and am on the road to apostasy. Such is my plight. If you’re here, perhaps you’re experiencing the same weaknesses. If so, soyez le bienvenue (French for: “Welcome”).
So while the primary may generally be one of the last few bastions of pure Christlike doctrine, that song isn’t doing us any good.