Which is a bigger deal? Being a prophet or being an apostle? If you’re like me, you would probably assume that the title “prophet” is higher than “apostle,” but I recently read some interesting information on the history. I was curious to know when we started to call the quorum of the twelve “prophets, seers, and revelators.” The brilliant J. Stapley pointed me to his excellent OP from 2008, including many of the following tidbits.
“In 1835 and in dedication of their new temple to God, the priesthood rose in their various quorums and sustained the authorities of the Church. The Twelve were declared “prophets, seers and revelators.” I’m not sure that we can capture the zeitgeist of 1835, having heard that phrase repeated over and over in our lifetimes; but I believe that this was a great extension of the hand of God to His people.”
Is an Apostle Greater than a Prophet?
When asked if he had seen the Savior, Brigham Young told Susa Young Gates that he had not and didn’t expect to while in the flesh. He also stated:
“I am not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet…”
This could have been a paraphrase of the scripture in Amos 7: 14-16. But it also appears to be related to the idea that being a “prophet” is a natural gift, possibly even one that is genetically passed from father to son, whereas being an apostle is an office, a call, a position of authority. Being a prophet or having the ability to prophesy was largely seen as a spiritual gift. This is consistent with such scriptures as:
“And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” Acts 2:17
“Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets.” Numbers 11:29
At other times, Brigham Young said:
“I am not going to interpret dreams; for I don’t profess to be such a Prophet as were Joseph Smith and Daniel; but I am a Yankee guesser;”
“I have never particularly desired any man to testify publicly that I am a Prophet; nevertheless, if any man feels joy, in doing this, he shall be blest in it. I have never said that I am not a Prophet; but, if I am not, one thing is certain, I have been very profitable to this people.”
John Taylor explained, in defense of Brigham Young’s statement:
“Many have the gift of seeing through seer stones without the Priesthood at all. He had not this gift naturally yet He was an Apostle & the President of the Church & kingdom of God on the Earth and all the Keys of the Holy Priesthood & of Revelation was sealed upon him & the spirit & power of Revelation was upon him daily.”
Wilford Woodruff who had never heard Brigham Young make this claim said in his defense:
“He is a prophet, I am a prophet, you are, and anybody is a prophet who has the testimony of Jesus Christ, for that is the spirit of prophecy. The Elders of Israel are prophets. A prophet is not so great as an Apostle. Christ has set, in his Church, first, Apostles; they hold the keys of the kingdom of God. Any man who has travelled with President Young knows he is a prophet of God. He has foretold a great many things that have come to pass.”
Jean Calvin, opponent of Mormonism, interpreted Brigham Young’s demurral differently:
“…he indeed modestly says, that he was not a prophet, nor the son of a prophet: why did he say this? To render himself contemptible? By no means though the words apparently have this tendency; but it was to gain for himself more authority; for his extraordinary call gave him greater weight than if he had been brought up from his childhood in the schools of the prophets.”
From a comment in the discussion on the original OP referenced (source not cited beyond the name Josh):
“To Brigham Young, Joseph Smith was never fully gone. Remember that Young is seeing him in dreams, talking to Joseph, receiving guidance, etc. Joseph still presides over the dispensation and is the great prophet, so Brigham is clearly reticent to assume such a mantle. Plus, in the minutes of the Nauvoo showdown with Rigdon, Young uses the term prophet to characterize Rigdon–a charismatic leader without priesthood authority. In contrast to this, Young forwards the Twelve collectively as having authority to lead the church, but he goes on to say that Joseph will never be replaced.”
What is a Prophet?
It’s an interesting idea, that a calling or office (apostle) carries more weight than being a prophet. That goes back to the question of what we mean by “prophet.” There are different interpretations possible, and context probably matters:
- President of the church. This is usually used in the context of missionary work, stating that we have “a prophet” and likening it to ancient prophets who were individual leaders. In this sense, apostles could be viewed as prophets-in-waiting, ready to step in whenever the time comes.
- Anyone who gives a warning, who preaches. General Conference talks often remind us of this definition.
- One who foresees the future or predicts future events, a prognosticator.
From the Bible Study Guide on lds. org:
A person who has been called by and speaks for God. As a messenger of God, a prophet receives commandments, prophecies, and revelations from God. His responsibility is to make known God’s will and true character to mankind and to show the meaning of his dealings with them. A prophet denounces sin and foretells its consequences. He is a preacher of righteousness. On occasion, prophets may be inspired to foretell the future for the benefit of mankind. His primary responsibility, however, is to bear witness of Christ. The President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is God’s prophet on earth today. Members of the First Presidency and the Twelve Apostles are sustained as prophets, seers, and revelators.
Some of these definitions sound unique to the President of the Church (use of singular) whereas other sound general. The Bible Dictionary definition of prophet includes this:
as a rule a prophet was a forthteller rather than a foreteller. In a general sense a prophet is anyone who has a testimony of Jesus Christ by the Holy Ghost
Sorry, Phil the Groundhog. Looks like you don’t qualify after all. Why was Brigham Young reluctant to take the title of “prophet”? There could be a few reasons:
- Distinguishing between natural spiritual gifts like predicting future events, visions and dreams and interacting with heavenly beings.
- Respect for the unique role Joseph Smith played in the restoration. Historian Michael Quinn also noted that prior to David O. McKay, use of the term “the prophet” invariably referred to Joseph Smith, not to the current President of the Church.
- A belief that “apostle” was a calling or office, and that “prophet” was a general term that didn’t carry specific authority.
- Joseph was Brigham’s ongoing personal intermediary, in the form of visions or other direct inspiration, even after his martyrdom.
From the Journal of Discourses:
“Is [being a prophet] the privilege of every person? It is. Permit me to remark here-this very people called Latter-day Saints have got to be brought to the spot where they will be trained (if they have not been there already,) where they will humble themselves, work righteousness, glorify God, and keep His commandments. If they have not got undivided feelings, they will be chastised until they have them; not only until every one of them shall see for themselves, and prophesy for themselves, have visions to themselves, but be made acquainted with all the principles and laws necessary for them to know, so as to supersede the necessity of anybody teaching them.”
and elsewhere, Brigham Young added:
“Every man and woman may be a Revelator, and have the testimony of Jesus, which is the spirit of prophecy.”
Natural Prophets vs. Institutional Ones
J. Stapley (in the comments of his post) added another interesting historical note:
“I should also add that Brigham taught that it was the patriarchal right of an Apostle to ordain his sons apostles, regardless if they ever make it into the Quorum of the Twelve. The consequence of this practice is that there were likely very many more apostles outside the Quorum than in it. What is interesting about that is that it seems, in a way, that he replaced the family of natural prophets and seers with the family of institutional prophets and seers.”
The question often arises whether the apostles have seen the savior or not, with a strong belief among many members that they have. Brigham Young’s refusal to make this claim is interesting in light of this. A story shared in that prior post’s discussion by commenter kevinf:
“I once heard the temple recorder of the Salt Lake Temple speak in a fireside one Sunday night, many years ago. He mentioned happening to sit at the same table in the cafeteria at the COB with a newly called apostle, whom he did not identify. In the course of small talk, he (the recorder) made the comment, “I guess that it must be pretty special having a Road to Damascus kind of experience”, with all that implies.
The apostle answered him, “If that were what it took to become an apostle, then there would literally be thousands of them.””
Prophetic Gifts Genetic?
Another shift that took place during these early years was from familial ordination to institutional ordination. In Brigham’s day it was customary for an apostle to ordain his own sons as apostles, even when they were very young; this is certainly not the case today, although Jeff Spector has noted the nepotism among church leadership.
As we know, Joseph also had ordained his son Joseph Smith III who went on to become President of the RLDS branch of the church. Something that was news to me is that Brigham longed for David Hyrum and Joseph Smith III to join the church in the west and to take up their apostleship. 
Institutional vs. Charismatic
Another comment mentions the tension between charismatic authority and institutional authority, describing a shift from Joseph’s charismatic authority to Brigham’s institutional authority.
Recently, church leaders excommunicated two individuals on the basis that they were charismatic leaders, one of whom claimed to have seen the savior. The fact that they had garnered a following and felt that church leaders were in apostasy seems consistent with this tension between charismatic prophets and organizational ones.
I am also reminded of Sidney Rigdon’s show-down during the succession crisis in which he famously refused to attend his excommunication trial after which he, in turn, likewise excommunicated the members of the Twelve. As Brigham Young pointed out, Rigdon was a charismatic prophet.
Do Special Witnesses Need to See Christ?
So why is there such a strong belief among members that the apostles have all seen the savior? Commenter CRC notes:
One interesting bit of church history trivia that is seldom talked about is that when Oliver Cowdery was called by revelation to help pick and ordain the 12 apostles, he told them that their calling as apostles would not be “complete” until the Savior appeared to them and personally ordains them.
From my tour of Kirtland, there was a lot of focus on personal visions of the Savior, including in the School of the Prophets that was held in the upper story of the Newel K. Whitney store. Our guide gave us a handout with nine different locations in the area where historical documents recorded that the savior had been seen by church members in the early days of the restoration.
It’s been theorized elsewhere that the types of prophetic gifts that Joseph claimed like seeing and translating were only necessary for his role as the one who ushered in the restoration. Those who carry the mantle today don’t need more than the normal types of spiritual gifts that all of us have access to: faith, personal revelation, the gift of the holy ghost. What sets them apart is simply the calling itself, not any personal gifts or experiences that come with that.
What do you think?
- Is being a natural prophet important to the role of apostle? If not, does it matter if members think it’s necessary?
- Are the apostles natural or charismatic prophets or institutional prophets? Which is greater?
- Are there church members who are natural prophets or charismatic prophets today? Are there women who have the gift of prophecy? What is the role of a natural prophet in the church?
 From the biography of David Hyrum From Mission to Madness.