Summary: In August 2021, the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints put out an official statement to all their members “urging” them to wear masks and getting vaccinated to help stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus. This created a strong debate among members of Christ’s restored church, about whether we should do everything the prophet says or do we exercise our God-given right of agency to decide for ourselves what we should do? This article takes a close look at both sides of this debate in an effort to answer this question.
In January 2020 a virus called COIVD-19 swept through the world, and because there was no vaccine for it, governments mandated that their people wear masks in public and required businesses to shut down and for people to remain quarantined in their homes, which caused great economic, physical, and mental hardships on hundreds of millions of people.
By the late summer of that year this dangerous virus was still affecting people but to a much lesser degree where many of the restrictions were relaxed. By early 2021 several pharmaceutical companies were able to provide the public with vaccines available for the public to take, however, because these drugs were rushed to market without the normal testing time to make sure they were safe, many people were hesitant to take them.
In an effort to help stop the spread of this virus, governments strongly recommend that people get vaccinated, and the more resistant some people were to comply with these requests, the more stringent steps governments took to “encourage” their citizens to do so. As a result, Americans began dividing themselves into two opposing camps.
On the one side, there were those who fully agreed with these government measures, which they felt were necessary in order to ensure everyone’s health, while others felt that the government was overstepping their constitutional authority by denying people some of their constitutionally protected rights. Those who agreed with the government’s action accused the other group of not caring if people got sick and died, which only made the other group become more committed to fighting for their freedom to choose.
Then, in the Summer of 2021 a new strain of COVID-19 virus began appearing, and the rate of people getting sick dramatically increased. This caused some state governments to renew their mandate to wear masks and get vaccinated, with the threat that they might have to reinstitute lockdowns. This had the effect of intensifying the debate between the two opposing sides of the virus issue, which only helped increase the hostility between them.
In August 2021, the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints put out an official statement to all their members “urging” them to wear masks and get vaccinated to help stem the spread of this virus. Predictably, there were those in the church who whole-heartedly accepted this counsel, and there were just as many who vigorously opposed doing what the prophet was suggesting.
As a result, this created a conflict of opinions among members of Christ’s restored church, about what it means to follow the prophet. Do we do everything the prophet asks of us and just follow him in blind faith, or do we exercise our God-given right of agency to decide for ourselves what we should do? Do we only follow official church policy, or do we follow what the prophet says even when he’s just expressing his opinion?
And how do we determine when the prophet is making an official statement that we’re required to obey, and when is it acceptable not to follow what he says? For example, in the August 2021 letter that the First Presidency sent out, was that an official statement telling us what we should do, or was it merely a suggestion of what they thought would be a good medical advice for us to follow? Some argued that since the letter didn’t say we had to get vaccinated, then it was their opinion that we didn’t have to follow what the letter said, while others were of the opinion that since the prophet – who is a highly respected medical doctor – “urges” us to get vaccinated, then we should take that as the word of the Lord.
However, this is not a new argument. In fact, this is a very, very old argument, that believers in Christ have had to struggle with for centuries. To understand why, let’s look at some examples.
In April 1830, Joseph Smith organized the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and those who had joined accepted as fact that he was a prophet who received revelations from God At this time, the members lived in the towns of Fayette, and Colesville, New York but by the end of the year, Joseph said he had received a revelation from God that everyone was to sell their homes, pack up all their belongings and move to Kirtland, Ohio, a distance of 360 miles.
Was this just a suggestion or was it a commandment? This question arises because it meant leaving behind everything these people had worked for and moving to somewhere they knew nothing about. It meant leaving behind people they knew and living among people they didn’t know. It meant leaving their livelihood and hoping they’d be able to support themselves in their new location. And because the answer to these questions had serious consequences, they were faced with the difficult decision of whether to follow the prophet or not.
Not long after the saints arrived in Kirtland, the Lord revealed the law of consecration, where the saints were asked to deed over all their possessions to the bishop and he would then give them back only what they needed. Again, the decision had to be made, was this a commandment, or was it merely a suggestion? In the end, some people refused to follow this revelation, while others did as it said, but some of them latter changed their minds.
After the death of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young took charge of guiding the church, and in January 1846 called on the saints to take what little possessions they could carry and head west, across the frozen Mississippi river and travel over a thousand miles to the Rocky Mountains. This time he didn’t claim to have received a revelation to do this, as had happened with Joseph Smith. There were many people who followed Brigham Young’s advice, while others used their agency to decide that it was better for them to stay in the Nauvoo area.
At the heart of this debate is the question of when and why do we follow the words of the prophets? Do we follow everything he says, or do we only follow things he says at certain times, such as in General Conference or official church announcements, or do we follow him according to what our own conscience tells us? And if that’s the case, then that puts us in the position of being the judge of deciding if what the prophet says is correct or not.
Those who decide to depend on their own wisdom of when to follow the prophet, often do so based on what they think is best for them. For example, in the case of whether to be vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, some people are convinced that it will help protect them from getting seriously ill, while others feel that there is a greater risk of them having an adverse reaction to an untested medicine. In either case, their decision is based on what they think is in their best interest.
The bottom line is that those who want to use their agency in deciding which words of the prophet to follow, will most often choose to follow what they agree with and will most always conclude that what the prophet says is not necessary to follow if they disagree with his position.
But if we make our decisions based on what we think is best for ourselves, then what do we do when confronted with the decision to stand up for our faith, even when it means being persecuted? Logic would tell us it’s better to capitulate than to suffer.
However, there are many Christians in Muslim countries who are being severely persecuted for their faith, and in many cases, their Muslim captors often give them the choice of either converting to Islam or being killed. For most people, staying alive is the better of the two options, but most Christian have already decided long ago that it’s better to remain faithful to Christ than it is to remain alive. But why would they make that choice?
The earliest Christians faced a similar problem when Rome passed a law mandating that all citizens had to worship their pagan gods. Those who didn’t were subject to arrest and torture. Even so, all the Christian church leaders choose to be martyred rather than comply with this law.
However, there were some Christians who made a show of worshipping the false gods in order to save their lives. In their mind, they felt that since the offering they made was a meaningless gesture on their part, that it didn’t really constitute denying Christ. In this way, they felt they could make an offering to pagan gods while still being a faithful Christian.
However, this later led to a very heated debate within the church. There were many who felt that those who did offer such sacrifices to pagan gods had taken the coward’s way out and had denied the faith, and therefore didn’t deserve to be numbered among those who had remained faithful to the name of Christ by being willing to sacrifice their life. But what was it that made people choose death over denying their faith in Christ?
Although the choices we face today aren’t as serious as what the earlier Christians had to make, the principle is the same. Do we decide to always follow the prophet no matter what he says or what the consequence will be, or do we decide for ourselves which words of the prophet to follow, based on what we think is best for us? And what is it that determines which one of those two decisions we should make?
From our perspective, life in mortality not only seems long, but it’s the only life we know, and it’s therefore natural to want to make it as comfortable as possible. However, in reality, our life on earth is quite short and before we realize it, we’ll find ourselves living in a very different world.
The scriptures tell us that this life is the time to prepare to meet God (Alma 12:24), and a major portion of that preparation involves proving that we “will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command [us]” (Abraham 3:25). And the way God proves our loyalty to him is by granting us the absolute freedom to decide for ourselves, without coercion, whether or not we want to “do all things whatsoever the Lord shall command us,” and then he watches to see what our decisions will be.
Throughout the scriptures we’re repeatedly told that in order to be saved in the kingdom of God a person must endure to the end in being faithful, diligent, steadfast, immoveable, valiant, and unwavering in their commitment to Christ. The Lord didn’t say, “Come follow me if it’s convenient for you, or when it meets your needs, or only if you agree with what I tell you.”
Russell M. Nelson has set the example of what it means to follow the prophet. In the October 2017 General Conference, he said, “Remember in the Sunday morning session of the April 2017 general conference, President Thomas S. Monson pleaded with ‘each of us to prayerfully study and ponder the Book of Mormon each day.’ Many have responded to our prophet’s plea…. Since President Monson’s challenge six months ago, I have tried to follow his counsel. Among other things, I’ve made lists of what the Book of Mormon is, what it affirms, what it refutes, what it fulfills, what it clarifies, and what it reveals. Looking at the Book of Mormon through these lenses has been an insightful and inspiring exercise! I recommend it to each of you.”
Most people who were already familiar with the Book of Mormon would have probably told themselves that President Monson’s counsel didn’t apply to them because they were already very familiar with its teachings. As a result, they would have casually dismissed his call to study and ponder this sacred book. However, when the prophet merely suggested that people do this, President Nelson followed his counsel.
We have to remember that when President Monson issued this advice, President Nelson had been an apostle for thirty-three and a half years and was the most senior apostle, other than President Monson, and no doubt had read the Book of Momon so many times that he probably could quote much of it from memory, yet he still did what God’s prophet had asked people to do.
This is what it means to follow the prophet. Even if he’s only making a suggestion, or offering his opinion, his words still contain great wisdom and counsel. It’s been accurately said that a prophet is a prophet only when he’s acting as such, and although that is true, a prophet doesn’t lose all of his spiritual wisdom just because he’s not performing his official duties. That would be like if your neighbor was a doctor, and you were talking to him over your backyard fence about a medical problem, you wouldn’t ignore his advice simply because he was at home instead of being in his medical office at work. And that’s because his knowledge of medicine doesn’t go away once he leaves his office.
But what if the prophet’s opinion is wrong? That is certainly the fear many people had about getting the COVID-19 vaccine, especially when they saw people having adverse reactions to it. But throughout the history of Christianity, the saints have often had to endure great physical and emotional pain for following what the prophets have said, and there have also been many who have lost their testimony simply because they had to endure some suffering for doing what the prophet said. But it is those who endure to the end in following God’s chosen servants, regardless of what they must go through, who will receive eternal blessings for being faithful to God and those whom he has called to preside in his church.
The early saints suffered horrible persecution as mobs beat them, shot at them, burned their homes, and forced them to flee for their lives, leaving behind all their worldly possessions for others to take. Yet, no one forced them to continue following the prophet Joseph Smith, and all they had to do to save themselves from harm was to stop doing what Joseph told them.
However, the bedrock principle of the gospel is faith in Christ. Jesus taught, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). When we stand before the bar of Christ on judgment day, I doubt that he will commend us for using our own wisdom in deciding whether or not to follow his servants the prophets. Rather, I suspect that he will be more pleased with our faith to willingly follow his prophets no matter what they said, and no matter what we had to endure because of our obedience to them.
It’s been argued that we should not follow our church leaders in blind faith, and that is absolutely true. Blind faith only leads to trouble, and that applies equally to following the prophets. Therefore, we should follow them in faith, but faith is not blind.
The apostle Paul wrote, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). In order to have faith in something there has to be something that causes or persuades us to have faith in it. There has to be some sort of evidence that gives substance or supports our decision for why we believe in something or someone.
The Lord, speaking through the prophet Malachi, called on the Jews to “Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, saith the LORD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it” (Malachi 3:10).
God doesn’t want us to exercise blind faith in him. Rather, he wants to prove that we can trust him so that our faith in him is based on evidence. On the other hand, blind faith is based on nothing, while real faith has substance to it.
It is foolish to follow the prophets out of blind faith. There has to be a reason why someone would want to follow them, no matter what the cost, and for many saints, that reason is a testimony that has been powerfully born to them by the Holy Ghost, that the living prophets are truly God’s spokesmen and that they are being led by divine inspiration. Once someone has received that kind of a witness, then doing what the prophet says becomes no different than taking the word of a trusted doctor, accountant, or mechanic.
The prophet Alma told the saints of his day, “And how do ye suppose that I know [of] their surety? Behold, I say unto you they are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself… this is the spirit of revelation. (Alma 5:45,46)
When we have received the kind of faith that comes through divine revelation, then doing what the prophets say will seem like the most logical and wisest thing to do. On the other hand, those who question what the prophet says, very rarely take the time to sincerely fast and pray until they know for themselves what God would have them do. And until then, they will continue to question whether they should follow the prophet.
Related articles can be found at The Nature of Covenants