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Feb

The Missouri Temple Prophecy as a Conditional Prophecy

   Posted by: Rob Bowman   in Mormonism

Mormons frequently lecture their critics on the fact that biblical prophecies were sometimes conditional. Michael T. Griffith offers the following “rules” for properly interpreting prophecy:

  1. Almost all prophecy is conditional to one degree or another, even if this is not stated in the prophecy itself (which is often the case).
  2. In many cases human actions and choices can alter, postpone, or prevent the fulfillment of prophecy.
  3. A prophecy is not always telling us what will happen, but what could happen under certain circumstances.

Mormons commonly cite various examples of biblical prophecies that seem to have been conditional as proof that their conservative evangelical critics are judging Joseph Smith’s prophecies by a double standard. LDS scholar John Tvedtnes, for example, makes this point quite emphatically:

The main problem is that the critics do not apply these same standards to biblical prophecies. And when we try to show that, by these standards, many of the biblical prophets fail the tests they have set up for Joseph Smith, we are accused of “Bible-slamming.” To those who ascribe more divinity to the Bible than to God, such a “sin” is worse than blasphemy itself. Honesty, however, impels us to submit the biblical prophets to the same tests as those applied to Joseph Smith…. The double standard of the critics allows them to accept biblical statements without question, while denouncing Joseph Smith as a false prophet.

While it is true that biblical prophecies were sometimes conditional, this is not true for all types of biblical prophecies. A passage in Jeremiah that Mormons frequently cite is quite specific as to the types of prophecies that are conditional:

At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it. (Jer. 18:7-10 NRSV)

Here the Lord speaking through Jeremiah specifies two parallel situations in which his declarations are conditional. If he declares that he will destroy a nation but it turns away from its wickedness, he will forego its destruction. On the other hand, if he declares that he will do build up a nation but it turns away from the Lord, he will forego its blessing.

The fact that some prophecies, especially prophecies of judgment and promise, can be conditional, does not mean that any apparently unfulfilled prophecy can be legitimately explained in terms of such conditionality. If it did, we could never judge a prophet to be a false prophet on the basis of an unfulfilled prophetic prediction. Yet the Bible explicitly tells us to apply such a test to prophets:

But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die. You may say to yourself, “How can we recognize a word that the LORD has not spoken?” If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it. (Deut. 18:20-22 NRSV)

One category of biblical prophecies that would clearly be unconditional is the category of Messianic prophecies. God’s promises to send the Messiah, his Son as the Redeemer and Savior of his people, were unconditional prophecies. That the Messiah, God’s Servant, was going to suffer and die for his people (Isaiah 53) was unconditionally true. The New Testament assurances that Christ will return in glory (Acts 1:9-11; 3:19-21; Heb. 9:26-28; etc.) are unconditional, not conditional.

The question to be asked, then, is whether it is plausible to understand the Missouri Temple prophecy (D&C 84:1-5) as one that was conditional in nature. I’m afraid the answer to that question is No.

Mormons sometimes argue, as I pointed out in earlier posts, that the prophecy was not fulfilled because enemies of the LDS Church prevented the temple from being built. This is actually what happened, but as an explanation for the non-fulfillment of a supposedly divinely inspired prophecy, it really doesn’t make much sense. Let’s read it again:

4 Verily this is the word of the Lord, that the city New Jerusalem shall be built by the gathering of the saints, beginning at this place, even the place of the temple, which temple shall be reared in this generation.
5 For verily this generation shall not all pass away until an house shall be built unto the Lord, and a cloud shall rest upon it, which cloud shall be even the glory of the Lord, which shall fill the house. (D&C 84:4-5)

Nothing about this prophecy can be plausibly construed as conditional on the cooperation of the saints’ enemies. A conditional prophecy is by definition one that is conditional on the cooperation or obedience of the person or group to whom it is addressed, for whose sake it is delivered. Jeremiah 18 states, for example, that if God tells a nation he will bless them and that same nation rebels against him, he will not deliver on the promised blessing. If God makes a promise to nation A but nation B defies him, that should have no effect on the fulfillment of the promise to nation A. It would be ridiculous to claim that this promised blessing might not be delivered if the faithful nation’s enemies happen to interfere. Can we really imagine God telling a repentant and faithful Jewish remnant nation, “Look, I know I promised you could have your land back, but it’s those blasted Persians”? If the Lord promised the Saints through Joseph Smith that they would have a temple in Independence, then the fulfillment of this promise cannot plausibly be conditional on the cooperation of the authorities of the State of Missouri.

We may therefore dismiss once and for all the suggestion that D&C 84:4-5 was a conditional prophecy that did not come to pass because of the interference of the enemies of Mormonism. This leaves us with the opposite suggestion, that it was unfulfilled because of the disobedience of the Saints themselves. This explanation has the merit of conforming (in theory) to the pattern described above, where God makes a promise to nation A and nation A forfeits said promise by its disobedience. But in other respects this explanation is just as flawed.

Since the prophecy states that the temple would be built before the generation alive in 1832 had all passed away, this means that the Mormons had decades from that date to build the temple in fulfillment of the prophecy. For our purposes here it doesn’t matter exactly how long this was. At the shortest end of the hypothetical range of possibilities, the Saints had forty years to build the temple; at the longest end of that range one might suppose they had a hundred years or even somewhat more to build it. The problem will be the same regardless of how long exactly the generation might be reckoned to have continued. The explanation that the Mormons were too disobedient presupposes that the Mormons were disobedient not merely for the few short years between 1832 (when the prophecy was uttered) and 1838 (when the Mormons were driven out of Missouri) but for decades afterward. It requires us to infer that the Saints were unruly, hard-hearted people throughout the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s, and beyond.

Not only is such an assumption about the early Saints presumably unpalatable from the LDS perspective, it is flatly contradicted by Mormon leaders. The official LDS publication Church News in 1998 reported on comments made by LDS president Gordon B. Hinckley:

President Hinckley said that being in Ohio made him think of the times of Kirtland, and of the early days of the Church. He spoke of “a great winnowing process that took place in Kirtland, largely over financial matters, but it had a tremendous filtering effect upon the people. Those who were faithful, those who were true, those who were loyal stayed with the Prophet Joseph Smith and those who were otherwise drifted away. That process has been going on ever since and will continue to go on.”

According to President Hinckley, the Saints who followed Joseph Smith in the wake of the controversies in Kirtland, Ohio, were faithful, loyal people. So why were they not able to build the temple that God had promised, if the condition for that promise was faithfulness?

Brigham Young, speaking in 1856, while admitting that there were wicked scoundrels in their midst in Utah, argued that they were the exception:

What fault could the world justly find with this people? Some have passed through here to California to dig gold, but they have received nothing at the hands of this people but kindness. What do they know about us? They cannot charge us with one evil…. The great majority of this people are righteous, but the worldlings seek out and mingle with the few wicked here, because both those classes love the spirit of the world…. We are hated, because we are righteous. (Journal of Discourses 4:76, 78)

The following year, Young offered a similar assessment of the Saints:

I remarked to brother Kimball last Sabbath, that this people are the best people that ever lived upon the earth; I am actually a good deal inclined to think so. Do not marvel at this remark. How long did it take Enoch to purify his people—to become holy and prepared for what we want this people to be prepared for in a very few years? It took him 365 years. How long has this people lived? It will be 27 years on the sixth of next month, since this Church was organized. What do you think about this people? I say that the virtuous acts of their lives beat the whole world. Were the children of Israel ever so obedient to Moses, as this people are to me? No, they never began to be; for obedience they could not favourably compare with this people. (Journal of Discourses, 4:269)

Joseph Fielding Smith, speaking in 1913, had this to say:

We are, notwithstanding our weaknesses, the best people in the world. I do not say this boastingly, for I believe that this truth is evident to all who are willing to observe for themselves. We are morally clean, in every way equal, and in many ways superior to any other people. The reason is that we have received the truth, the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not to us a dead letter, something perhaps to be followed on the Sabbath day and forgotten on the six other days of the week, but our religion is an everyday religion. We are expected to live in accordance with the principles of truth every day of our lives, for these principles are just as true in the middle of the week as they are on the Sabbath day. (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:236, emphasis in original).

Granted that the Mormons have never been perfect—and of course never claimed to be—their leaders’ assessment of the faithfulness and obedience of the Mormon people in general for the century following the 1832 Missouri Temple prophecy would seem to be incompatible with the claim that the temple was not built because of Mormon wickedness.

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