Belief that God calls prophets today makes Latter-day Saints distinct to many of our neighbors. This belief is central, but how does it function in our lives? How is it that prophets receive revelation? How do we receive the word of the Lord? This lesson begins with words from the Lord’s preface to Doctrine and Covenants, “though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (1:38).
The Lord’s word is sure, no matter its medium. This is the principle of modern revelation—sometimes God gives mortals the opportunity to impart the word of God.
However, we cannot forget that this declaration is preceded by verses that clearly acknowledge the limitations of God’s “weak and simple” servants. The juxtaposition highlights the tension of having a living prophet. How do we negotiate the space between God’s “weak and simple” servants and receiving the perfect word of God? The day the church was organized, the Lord pled with the church that they “receive” Joseph’s “word…as if from my own mouth, in all patience and faith” (21:5). Those close to Joseph knew him, they knew his limitations, yet Joseph was called to be a prophet and reveal God’s word. Balancing the prophet’s weakness, our own weakness, and the opportunity to receive the word of the Lord is our task. This will always require “patience and faith.”
Just a few weeks ago, Elder M. Russell Ballard began his conference talk with the example of Jane Manning James—“a most remarkable disciple who faced difficult challenges.” Elder Ballard only alluded to just how much remaining faithful tried and tested Jane, “Sister James, like so many other Latter-day Saints, not only built Zion with blood, sweat, and tears but also sought the Lord’s blessings through living gospel principles as best she could while holding on in faith to Jesus Christ—the great healer to all who sincerely seek Him.” He quoted her last recorded testimony, that her faith was “as strong today, nay, it is if possible stronger than it was the day I was first baptized.” Her faith and discipleship within a church that did not always wholly accept her African heritage is “remarkable.” As we more closely examine Jane’s life, the necessity of “patience and faith” becomes clear.
Jane and her family joined the church in Connecticut in 1841 and decided to gather with the Saints in Nauvoo. This did not go smoothly—they were barred from boarding a ship as did other members of their small branch. They chose to walk the 900 miles to Nauvoo. Jane led her family until their feet left bloody footprints in the snow. They prayed and their feet were miraculously healed. After a supremely difficult journey, Jane and her family arrived in Zion. Yet they were not welcomed into the body of the Saints, instead they were met with “hardship and trial and rebuff” until they met Joseph and Emma.
The most recent example of canonized prophetic revelation came in 1978 (the forty-year anniversary comes next June) and ended a century-old policy barring those of African descent from participation in priesthood and temple blessings. The Gospel Topics essay on Race and the Priesthood briefly outlines the history of a policy which directly affected Jane and other early African American members of the church. As the essay details, “[t]he justifications for this restriction echoed the widespread ideas about racial inferiority that had been used to argue for the legalization of black ‘servitude’ in the Territory of Utah.”
Jane dealt with the effects of those ideas about racial inferiority throughout her life. Though she continued faithful and held a place of honor in Salt Lake society, she was barred from receiving the highest blessings of the temple in her lifetime. In Nauvoo, Emma offered that Jane could be sealed to the Smiths as a child. Not understanding, Jane rejected the offer. Later in Utah, in response to Jane’s petition she was sealed by proxy to Joseph and Emma, but as a servant. Jane did not accept this sealing. She would continue to petition multiple LDS church presidents to be able to receive temple ordinances.
After attending a dinner with LDS Church President John Taylor in 1884, Jane felt emboldened to request her temple ordinances yet again. Using the same scriptural language that others used to deny her blessings, she asked “is there no blessing for me?” Her poignant request was left unfulfilled. It tested her and tried her patience, but it did not eradicate her faith. I believe Elder Ballard chose Jane’s example because of precisely this tension. As Jane, we need to be able to see the value in prophets and receiving the word of God even when their human limitations test us and try us. Believing that God speaks to prophets today is only good insofar as we listen.
Elder Ballard’s talk involved a number of cautions and rebukes including: “We need to embrace God’s children compassionately and eliminate any prejudice, including racism, sexism, and nationalism. Let it be said that we truly believe the blessings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ are for every child of God.” Our current political climate is such that I suspect many of us cheered at this direct condemnation of many troubling “isms.” But is that word just for other people?
Here at MWP we are particularly attuned to sexism, but do we recognize our own failures as we trek to Zion? Sometimes we are so self-congratulatory of our own sainthood that we don’t recognize when we have been responsible for “hardship, trial, and rebuff” in the experience of another. Maybe we’re not nationalists marching with tiki torches, but perhaps we bristle or dismiss as another testifies of their “blood, sweat, and tears.” Perhaps we continue to perpetuate more benevolent vestiges of these pervasive racist ideals without self-examination. As Conference ended, Elder Anderson repeated Elder Ballard’s injunction in full to ensure it would not be dismissed. Receiving the word of the Lord requires that we take these words seriously as well as anything else that separates us as we trek to Zion.
Read Jane’s autobiographical interview here.
For resources to work to end racism: Shoulder to the Wheel, Latter-day Saints Working to End Racism and Become a Zion People