When people read that Mormons are supposed to follow the prophet, they sometimes repeat that information—but add more to it than Mormons actually teach. They will say we have to do anything the prophet says no matter what, no questions asked. Well, that isn’t really what Mormons teach. Those people either misunderstand the teaching or are trying to create a false image of danger.
Here’s how it works:
One thing potential Mormons—and Mormons who grew up in the church—are asked to do is to find out if the prophet really is a prophet. This has been a requirement of faithful people from the beginning of time. God has always spoken through His prophets and His children have always had to decide if the person who said He was the prophet really was. There have always been blessings and consequences for the decision made. The people of Noah’s time either decided he wasn’t really a prophet or they decided they didn’t care to listen to him—and so they were killed in the flood.
It is interesting to note that many people who criticize the Mormon rules about prophets believe in the Bible, which, of course, required obedience to prophets. But Jesus Himself said a prophet has no honor in his own town, meaning that it is easier to believe a prophet you don’t know very well or who lived long ago. People who accepted Moses or Noah as prophets rejected Jesus Christ because He was modern—and they didn’t believe in modern prophets. Jesus was, of course, much more than a prophet. He was our Savior, but He did bring to the people of His time the current teachings of God, which is also the role of a prophet.
So the Bible says we have a moral and spiritual responsibility to identify prophets and then obey them. This means we begin by identifying the prophet. Since the Bible does not say prophecy would end when the Bible ended—and indeed, it says exactly the opposite, we have to always be watching to see if there are prophets.
Mormons learn that if you want to know truth, you have to pray about it. That’s what the Bible says to do and it promises that if we do that, God will answer us. (There are some people of other faiths who claim God won’t tell you or you won’t know who is answering, but Mormons trust God to know how to do this.) So Mormons begin by studying the prophet they are trying to find out about—reading what he teaches—and then making a decision. They then pray and ask God if they made the right decision. God answers them through warm, peaceful feelings, a burning in the heart, if they are right, and with negativity and confusion if they are wrong. This sometimes takes a long while. Anything worth knowing is worth taking time on. If they don’t get an answer right away, they continue to study and pray until God knows they are ready for the answer.
This is what believing and practicing Mormons do. When you have prayed for a testimony and gotten an answer from God, it doesn’t matter what the world tells you. We all know God is the only source of real truth.
This means Mormons are not blindly taking the prophet’s word for anything at all. They are asking God if they ought to be listening to and following the prophet and then they are obeying God.
When I was considering becoming a Mormon, I only prayed to know if Spencer W. Kimball was God’s prophet. He was the prophet at the time. When he died, I had no idea of the new prophet was really a prophet or not. This time I prayed to know if every Mormon prophet, past, present, and future, was a real prophet. I received an answer, and so I didn’t need to pray about each one.
In spite of my prayers, at first, I had trouble trusting everything a prophet said. We see this in the Bible as well. Even though the Jewish people accepted Moses as a prophet, sometimes they just rejected something specific he said. Sometimes it was because they didn’t want it to be true—it didn’t fit with what they already believed, or what they wanted to be true.
Initially, any time I heard something new, I felt a need to pray about it, to make sure it was really true. However, each time I discovered it was. In time, I understood that when a prophet is speaking as a prophet, he is telling me the truth. I no longer needed to pray about everything. Of course, if I heard something that I felt unsure about, I could still ask God and He would tell me. It is not considered wrong or even a sign that we lack faith to do so. God has taught us to always feel safe coming to Him for whatever wisdom we need and Mormons do.
As you can see, we are not following prophets blindly—we are thinking, studying, and asking God. We are doing exactly what the people in Biblical times were required to do, so if a person believes in the Bible, he cannot criticize a Mormon for doing exactly what God has always asked us to do. We are simply turning to God for wisdom:
If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him (James 1:5, King James version of the Bible.)