I am concerned for friends of mine who say “that if a living prophet can say things that sets aside what a former prophet has said, what faith then can we take in what the prophets tell us today if their words can be set aside by a future living prophet”. My friends are wanting to only stick with the scriptures and words of Joseph Smith, saying that we are getting away from original teachings. Other then bear my testimony what else can I say?
We are, above all else, to follow the living prophet. There is a valid concern in this rule that you have expressed. The answer is prayer. Every prophet from Joseph Smith to Russell N. Nelson today has repeatedly stated that it is the duty of every individual to determine for themselves, through prayer to God, whether or not they are indeed a prophet.
In other words, it needs to be a matter of personal testimony. Not even God expects us to blindly follow whomever claims to be His chosen mouthpiece.
While it is true that any living prophet can ‘set aside’ the words of a predecessor, I need to explain to you that throughout the history of the Church, this has happened rarely, and under very specific circumstances. The changes must come through the proper channels, or with the proper authority. They also must come by way of revelation. In other words, the doctrines of the Church cannot be changed just because the current prophet ‘feels like it’. Ultimately, the entire church must approve of the change before it is enacted. The two most commonly known of are the two official declarations found in the Doctrine & Covenants, one regarding the ending of polygamy, and the other regarding the extension of the priesthood to all worthy males regardless of race.
The restoration was not complete before Joseph Smith died. Endowments for the dead were first practiced in the St George temple after the founding prophet had died. At the time, sealings were done by “adoption”, where saints were sealed to a prophet or apostle instead of their own parents. This continued until Wilford Woodruff received a revelation correcting the practice.
President Woodruff testified that Joseph “accomplished all that God required of his hands. But he did not receive all the revelations that belong to this work, neither did President Taylor, nor has Wilford Woodruff. There will be no end to the work until it is perfected. (The Law of Adoption)” (You can find this quote in Packer’s The Holy Temple p 139 and again on p 196-206.)
Another point to remember is that this is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not Joseph Smith. Christ is the head of the Church, always has been, and always will be. Joseph Smith was called to establish the Church in the latter days. His calling was to build it up and get it started. He was to point all mankind to the Savior according to the principles and ordinances of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Successive prophets have been given the duty of continuing to lead and guide the Church to Christ, not to Joseph Smith.
Joseph Smith was called of God to be a prophet, and so has every prophet of the Church from Brigham Young to Russell M. Nelson today. This is a part of my personal testimony, and I obtained it through personal prayer to God along with a careful heed to what the prophets have said.
Any time we get ‘hung up’ on any one prophet and regard his successors as somehow less authoritative, we are taking the first steps on a very dangerous road that ultimately leads to personal apostasy. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been, is now, and always will be about focusing on Jesus Christ. It has never been about Joseph Smith, nor any other prophet since.