Prophets in Mormonism/Part 1

By: Marvin W. Cowan; ©2007
Since Mormons believe the President of the LDS Church is a “prophet” to whom God reveals the future and His will for mankind, they believe they have information that no one else on earth has. But what does Mormon history reveal about some of these prophecies?

Our recent articles have discussed Mormon Priesthood. The President of the LDS Church is also the Presiding High Priest of the LDS Priesthood as their scrip­ture says in Doctrine & Covenants [D & C] 107:65-66. No one on earth has moreauthority in Mormonism than the President of the Church. He is a prophet, seer, revelator, translator and Trustee-in-Trust of the LDS Church. LDS Apostle Bruce R. McConkie said, “He is the one man on earth at a time who can both hold and exer­cise the keys of the kingdom in their fullness” (Mormon Doctrine, p. 592, see D. & C. 132:7).

Since Mormons believe the President of the LDS Church is a “prophet” to whom God reveals the future and His will for mankind, they believe they have information that no one else on earth has. Mormons claim that Amos 3:7 supports that belief. It says, “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but He revealeth His secret unto His servants, the prophets.” But, the context of that verse shows that God simply told Israel that He would not punish them without warning them first. God did not promise to reveal to prophets everything He was going to do before He acted and history shows He has never done that.

Mormon history also shows that their Prophets usually either didn’t know what God was going to do, or if they knew, they ignored it and didn’t tell anyone, so it was of no value. For example, this year (2006) Mormons celebrate the 150th anniversary of the 1856 LDS handcart trek from Iowa City, Iowa to Salt Lake City. But was it the great success their celebrations seem to indicate?

In 1856 the last two handcart companies to leave Iowa City were led by James G. Willie and Edward Martin respectively. Willie’s left on July 15 and Martin’s on July 28 because their handcarts and tents weren’t ready until then. Mormon Prophet Brigham Young said, “The (hand) carts can be made without a particle of iron” (Handcarts to Zion, pp. 29-30). Mormon Apostle Franklin D. Richards who oversaw the handcart project said, “The (handcart) plan is the device of inspiration, and the Lord will own and bless it” (ibid. p. 32).

But the handcarts were poorly constructed and without iron in the axles the wood wore out so fast the pioneers had to stop often for repairs. Those delays caused “the greatest single tragedy in the history of the nation’s move west in the nineteenth century” (Forgotten Kingdom, by David L. Bigler, p. 118). Willie’s and Martin’s
companies arrived in the high elevations of Wyoming so late in the year that they were caught in terrible snowstorms and freezing weather. Many of the pioneers froze or starved to death while others died of exhaustion.

B. H. Roberts, a respected Mormon historian said, “One of the chief contributing causes to the handcart disaster was the frailness of these carts, and the unfitness of the material put into them. They were hurriedly made of unseasoned timber, and so much was sacrificed to lightness that the necessary strength and durability was impossible… the wheels were devoid of iron except in some of them there was a very light iron tire. The whole weight of a cart was about sixty pounds (A Compre­hensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, pp. 95-96).

Roberts went on to say, “The exact number of those who perished in this (Martin’s) company is not of record in our official annals… the estimate of Chislett and Jacques — putting their estimate at 145 — is perhaps not far from the facts. And these added to Willie’s seventy-seven deaths, brings the total of deaths to 222. The number who were frost-bitten was also large, and some were crippled for life” (ibid. pp. 101-102).

The very day that the Mormon Church was organized their scripture commanded them to keep records (D. & C. 21:1). Mormons probably have more records than almost any other organization. So, why doesn’t the LDS Church have records of those who died or even how many died in the Willie and Martin handcart companies of 1856? Some think that LDS leaders kept that information from being made public because they didn’t want potential converts to know how bad the tragedy was or they might conclude that Mormonism was not led by a true Prophet of God.

What urgent need resulted in the handcarts being built so quickly out of unfit material that they often broke down? Why did those handcart companies in 1856 want to get to Salt Lake that year? It was not persecution as the June 2006 issue of the LDS Ensign magazine says on page 78: “This influx of Mormon settlers (to Iowa City), who had faced persecution elsewhere, found a safe harbor in Iowa City where, Mr. Horton says, members of other denominations often helped the Saints build handcarts and prepare for their journey.”

If it wasn’t persecution that caused those handcart companies to risk traveling so late in the year, what was it? It was the prophetic warning by LDS leaders that the Lord was coming soon to judge the nations and the only safe haven was in Zion (Utah). That message combined with Joseph Smith’s “revelation” concerning gath­ering the LDS to one place (see D. & C. 29) motivated Mormons to try to get to Utah as fast as possible. One thing is obvious; having a Prophet as the head of the Mormon Church in 1856 didn’t help those LDS pioneers who lost their lives trying to obey him.

Our next article will continue our discussion of Prophets in Mormonism. Those who want to read more about the Mormon handcart movement can do so in Forgot­ten Kingdom, by David L. Bigler, published by Utah State University Press, Logan, UT in 1998.

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