Joseph Smith and the Biblical Test of a Prophet
Millions of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints pray to receive a "testimony" of the truthfulness of the Church and believe that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God. They base this knowledge largely on a Book of Mormon passage, Moroni 10:4, that if you ask sincerely ask God "if these things are not true he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost."
Mormons reason that the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, the LDS Church, and Joseph Smith can be "tested" according to Moroni 10:4. In fact, verse five indicates by this test, "ye may know the truth of all things."The problem with a subjective test of this sort is that many religions have followers that are sincere and pray.The Moslems pray five times a day facing Mecca and they have a sincere testimony that Mohammed was a true prophet and the Koran the word of God. Likewise, Jehovah's Witnesses believe in prayer and their "anointed" followers are convinced that they have the testimony of God's Spirit that their organization is true.
The Bible makes it clear that there are other spirits besides the Holy Spirit who can be very "seducing" and even teach "doctrines" (1 Timothy 4:1). This is why 1 John 4:1 warns: "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try [Greek dokimazo "test"] the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world." Testing the spirits is necessary because of "many false prophets" in the world. What is the test for a prophet?
Biblical Test for a Prophet
The test for a prophet is found in Deuteronomy 18:20-22. This scripture teaches that a prophet must be tested by checking his prophecies. Also. Jesus said, "Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves."This is not telling us to examine a prophet's good works. Many false prophets have led moral lives. The fruit of a fig tree is its figs. The fruit of a prophet is his prophecies. One false prophecy (even if some true prophecies are given) and that person is a false prophet. It does not matter how sincere he or his followers are. It does not matter how often his followers pray or what feelings they seem to receive in answer to their prayers. He is a false prophet.
This is one way a person can decide if Jeane Dixon is a true prophet not by praying about her, but checking her prophecies. Many of them have not come true. A false prophet never says to you, "I am a false prophet. Follow me!" He will appear to be a true prophet. This is part of the "sheep's clothing."
Does Joseph Smith Pass the Test?
The fruit of a prophet is his prophecy. Before testing some of Joseph Smith's prophecies, it is important that we classify types of prophetic statements dealing with future events.
First, there are open-dated predictions. These are prophecies that are given no certain time frame in which to be fulfilled. An example is found in History of the Church, Vol. 2 p. 182. In this prophecy Joseph Smith predicts in 1835 that, "the coming of the Lord, which was nigh--even fifty-six years should wind up the scene." Although the Lord did not return by 1891, it should be noted that Joseph Smith said fifty-six years should wind up the scene. Something could have happened to upset the original time schedule. Therefore this prophecy alone does not make Joseph Smith a false prophet.
A second type of prediction that is quite common is the self-fulfilling prophecy. One sample is located in Doctrine and Covenants 37:1. In this revelation, the Lord instructs Joseph not to translate any more until he goes to Ohio. To make this prophecy come true, Joseph Smith had only to cease translating for a few months.
A third type of prophecy Joseph Smith gave is the conditional prophecy. One such prediction is preserved in Doctrine and Covenants 40:16-18. Here it is foretold that if the people of Ohio repent, they will not be severely judged of the Lord. This is conditional upon their repentance. If Ohio is severely judged, they did not sufficiently repent. If they are not judged, they must have repented before God.
Although most of Joseph Smith's prophecies are of the first three types, there is a fourth type of prediction that can be found. This is the close-dated unconditional prophecy. Although relatively few of Joseph Smith's prophecies are of this type, they are extremely important because they make it possible to put Joseph Smith to the Biblical test of a prophet.
One such prophecy is found in Doctrine and Covenants Section 114. This two-verse prophecy, given April 17, 1838, is a set of instructions to David W. Patten, then one of the LDS twelve Apostles. He was to prepare to go on a mission with the other eleven (Apostles) into "all the world." According to the revelation, the mission was to take place "next spring" which would give the prophecy a "closed-date" somewhere around April or May of 1839. Less than three months later, the "twelve" were given a specific date to leave (April 26, 1839) and one of the apostles, Thomas Marsh, was instructed to stay behind to "publish my word." (Doctrine and Covenants SectionS 118).
The date of April 26, 1839 came and, as History of the Church records, "The Brethren arrived at Far West, and proceeded to transact the business of their mission." (Vol. 3 p.336). However, David W. Patten was not part of that mission. David Patten was not present because he had died in October of 1838.
History of the Church reports: "Captain Patten was carried some of the way in a litter, but it caused so much distress that he begged to be left by the way side. he died that night" (Vol. 3, p. 171). Rather than going on a mission with the Twelve next spring, as Joseph Smith had prophesied in 1838, Patten died before the next year even came. This could not be a reference to a "mission" in the spirit world after death because Joseph Smith was specific that he was to go "unto all the world" (not the Spirit World) and he was to be with the "twelve." (Doctrine and Covenants 114 emphasis added).
Some have suggested that David Patten could have apostatized from his calling. In other words, God called him to go on the mission but because of sin or faithlessness he fell from the calling. There are two problems with this explanation. The God of the Bible is all-knowing and He knew that Patten was going to die (Acts 1:18). Also, Patten did not fall away from the Church. After Patten's death, Joseph Smith wrote, "Brother David Patten was a very worthy man, beloved by all good men who know him. He was one of the Twelve Apostles, and died as he had lived, a man of God, and strong in the faith of a glorious resurrection." (History of the Church Vol. 3, p. 171).
Temple in Independence
A second example of a close-dated unconditional prophecy is preserved in Doctrine and Covenants Section 84. In this revelation given on September 22 and 23, 1832, Joseph Smith foretold of an LDS temple to be built in Independence, Missouri. The prophecy specifies that the city of "New Jerusalem" including the temple was to be constructed, "beginning at the temple lot which is appointed by the finger of the Lord, in the western boundaries of the State of Missouri" (verse 3). Joseph Smith placed a time limit on the new temple saying, "which temple shall be reared in this generation. For verily this generation shall not all pass away." (verses 4 and 5). The generation of 1832 has passed away. Obviously there is no one who was alive in 1832 which is still alive today. The temple was never built. At this time there are still no LDS temples in the entire State of Missouri, much less Independence. Shortly after Joseph Smith gave this prophecy while in Kirtland, Ohio, the Mormons in Independence were being driven out of the state (History of the Church Vol. 1, chapter 31). Later, a splinter group called The Church of Christ (or Hedrickites) claiming to be the "true" followers of Joseph Smith, came into possession of the actual site on which the temple was to be built.
In the prophecy this site was called the "temple lot." Granville Hedrick, the first leader of this group, received a revelation to return to Independence where by 1869 they purchased the original "temple lot." (see Divergent Paths of the Restoration, by Steven L. Shields). Both the Latter-day Saints and the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS) have attempted unsuccessfully to obtain the property. Currently, the Hedrickites have about 3,000 members, but they have been unable to or unwilling to build the temple. The RLDS are in the process of completing a temple across the street from the temple lot within sight of the spot where the corner stone was laid. Nonetheless, even if Hedrickites or the LDS were to build the temple today, the prophecy would be false because the generation that was alive in 1832 has all died.
Some Mormons have attempted to stretch the meaning of "this generation" to include more than those that were alive in 1832 when the revelation was given. They try to make the word generation mean an era possibly centuries long. What Joseph Smith meant by "generation" was clearly explained by Apostle Orson Pratt. In a lecture given in Salt Lake City during General Conference, Apostle Pratt attempted to play down the claims of some that Doctrine and Covenants section 84 was a false prophecy. This sermon was delivered in 1871 just two years after the Hedrickites gained possession of the "temple lot."
Apparently, there were some who already believed this was a false prophecy as early as 1871. After all, it had been thirty-nine years since the revelation was given and hopes were beginning to fade. To silence these "objectors," Apostle Pratt delivered this sermon in which he specifically explained what Joseph Smith meant by the term "generation." He first quotes the prophecy (Doctrine and Covenants 84) then he explains: "Here then we see a prediction, and we believe it. "Yes! The Latter-day Saints have as firm faith and rely upon this promise as much as they rely upon the promise of forgiveness of sins. a temple will be reared on the spot that has been selected, and the corner-stone of which has been laid, in the generation when this revelation was given." Then Apostle Pratt rebukes the doubters saying, "But says the objector, `thirty-nine years have passed away.' What of that? "The generation has not passed away; all the people that were living thirty-nine years ago have not passed away; but before they do pass away this will be fulfilled." (Journal of Discourses Vol. 14 p. 275).
Orson Pratt had no idea that over 100 years after he was to make this bold claim that the "temple lot" would still stand empty. He said he and his hearers could be as sure of this as their own salvation. He was wrong.
His statements do, however, clarify what was meant by Joseph Smith when he said "generation." Rather than guessing at what was meant, here is a definitive explanation by a General Authority who was alive when Joseph Smith made the prediction. Because this sermon was delivered from the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City in General Conference by an Apostle, it can be counted as trustworthy.
Latter-day Saints are sincere when they testify that Joseph Smith is a true prophet. Unfortunately, one can be sincerely wrong. Doctrine and Covenants 114 and 84 are false prophecies and, according to Deuteronomy 18, this makes Joseph Smith a false prophet.