Authority, Revelation, and Dissent: Managing Personal Revelation in a Revelatory Church

By December 10, 2015

Medieval Catholicism believed both in continuing revelation and in personal revelation, but such beliefs could be problematic: what about false prophets? The late Middle Ages were awash with revelatory figures, often women (like Joan of Arc) and thus the church put in place a number of procedures for how to regulate such people. Revelation could not be legitimate unless it was approved by a confessor, who also looked into the character of the revelator. One of the most important trait was humility: if the revelator was willing to submit to the confessor and have all of her revelations regulated then she showed proper humility was a true revelator. If she balked at those restrictions, that was a sign that she had excessive pride, which proved that she was a false prophet.[1]

Obviously the legitimacy of such figures was highly debated (no one more so than Joan of Arc) and the Protestants came up with an even simpler way to deal with prophets: there weren’t any. The Bible was complete so true revelation would be redundant (simply say the same thing) and anything that was new was automatically false.

Yet belief in revelation was hard to suppress, and radicals (like the Quakers) continued to make claims in Protestant lands. To the question, “Whether there be any Spirit of Prophecy or Revelation given forth since the Apostles deceased, as believing all dyed with them?” Jane Lead replied, “This would be a sad and deplorable thing, if God should since that Age cut off the spring of Revelation from its original, that so the Sheep and Lambs of Christ’s flock should no more expect to be fed from the fresh springing Pastures.”[2]

Evangelicals like Methodists were often open to the idea of personal revelation: Joseph Smith said he was surprised when the Methodist minister told him his vision was of the devil, but it would also make sense that the minister would have a problem with a revelation that said his church was false.

These issues can be tricky in our church as well and the stewardship structure is a great way to manage the issue. But stewardship lines often overlap as suggested in the quote of Heber J. Grant that Marion G. Romney relayed: “My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.” What one does oneself is one’s own stewardship; what happens if there’s a conflict within that realm? Or to put it in terms of a hypothetical, if God prompted an individual through the spirit to do something, and an authority figure told that individual not to (even if it were fairly mundane) would God really want individual to follow the authority figure when we believe that we can communicate with God directly?

Revelatory churches have to grapple with the question: which is paramount, authority or personal revelation?[3]

[1] Dyan Elliott, Proving Women: Female Spirituality and Inquisitional Culture in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), and Nancy Caciola, Discerning Spirits: Divine and Demonic Possession in the Middle Ages (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003).

[2] The Revelation of Revelations Particularly as an Essay towards the Unsealing, Opening and Discovering the Seven Seals, the Seven Thunders, and the New Jerusalem State (London: Jane Lead, 1683), 128. Lead continued, “Let such but call to mind and consider those many Scripture-Prophecies and Promises concerning the continuation of this Gift unto the very end of time, both in the old and new Testament; I shall mention only some of the latter; John 14. 16,17,182Cor.4.8. 1Cor.2.10, 11,12,13,14. 1John 2.28. Heb.8.9,10,11.”

[3] Said Jane Lead, “Therefore while ye in the state of Minority are, and have need to be under Pastors and Teachers, till you are come up to the highest Form, ready prepared and qualified for the great Master Teacher to undertake you, even the holy Spirit, who will perfect whatever was lacking in other Teachings, and through other Mediums, for which direct your Eye, waiting in a peaceable Concord and silent Harmony, in your own Jerusalem within, whereupon written is to be, Holiness to the Lord in every Property.” Revelation of Revelations, v.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. You’ve definitely become one of my favorite writers in the ‘nacle, Steve! I love how you historically situate the issue so that we can see the pros and cons of various traditions that were themselves coherent in different ways.

    There seems to be a lot of discussion about this Romney quote lately, if only because it seems like the most brutal and clear cut case of unconstrained obedience to authorities. I, however, read it and other such passages differently.

    1) Such speakers are addressing an audience that is not authorized to receive revelation for their priesthood leader. Thus, nobody in that audience has the right to publicly legislate/advocate what their priesthood leader should and should not be doing/teaching.
    2) This is not to say, however, that nobody, anytime or anywhere cannot tell them so. Higher authorities (God being the all-purpose example of such an authority) can still be brought to bear on the subject and tell that leader that they are wrong.
    3) Nor is it to say that a higher authority (God, again, being the best example) cannot tell anybody within that audience to do differently. While no person is authorized to receive revelation for their leaders, they very clearly are authorized to receive revelation for what they themselves ought to do.

    Thus, I see quotes like Romney’s to mean that our own thoughts and feelings can never justify disobedience. Higher authorities (such as God) can, however, justify disobedience, but not the public legislation/advocacy of disobedience.

    Thus, no mortal authority is totally unconstrained and no obedience should ever be blind.

    Comment by Jeff G — December 10, 2015 @ 4:28 pm

  2. The gospel is full of principles that create tension.

    “Honor thy father and mother….” or “There is no man that hath left…father, or mother…but he shall receive an hundredfold…”

    “Ye cannot say that ye are even as much as the dust of the earth”….or “ye are of more value than many sparrows.”

    “Thou shalt not kill…” or “thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them…nor shew mercy unto them…”

    I could list dozens of examples in scriptures when people were asked by God to do what they thought was wrong. But if you have a testimony of the prophetic calling of the men who claim that calling, you had better make sure it’s a personal revelation which inspires you to ignore it.

    Many times, I feel the guilt, pressure, and stress to do something the prophet commands only to have the Lord whisper to me, “this is not your priority right now.” The Church is the first to teach personal revelation as the other side of the prophetic revelation/authority coin.

    Comment by SilverRain — December 11, 2015 @ 8:57 am

  3. Thanks, Jeff, that’s very kind.

    That Romney quote strikes a cord because I’ve heard the concept preached in various settings in church: that you will be blessed for following your leader even if your leader is wrong. That never sat too well with me, and I do think that the higher form of discipleship is to learn to follow the spirit like Jane Lead says in footnote 3.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 11, 2015 @ 9:03 am

  4. “The Church is the first to teach personal revelation as the other side of the prophetic revelation/authority coin.”

    I don’t know, it’s at least strongly implied that personal revelation is basically to verify leaders’ statements. I don’t recall hearing much about the possibility of it ever being counter to those statements. Not that I would expect that, but I do feel that Lead’s statement in fn 3 to be the higher goal.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 11, 2015 @ 9:07 am

  5. I think what Jeff G and others have pointed out is the difference between the ability to receive revelation for our personal lives as opposed to the doctrinal revelation received by leaders for the church. If the first covenant made is one of obedience, how could we know what God wanted us to obey but for the revealed word of God through His prophets, both ancient and modern? Every established doctrine, principle and policy that exists in the church has come about because of scripture (given by prophets of old). All new things from the Restoration forward, (including those plain and precious things lost from the scriptures) have come about through the authority of modern day prophetic revelation. So, while we may claim personal revelation to a large extent in making daily choices, the kind of broad revelation relating to doctrine comes only through prophetic revelation. I can’t think of one church doctrine that has come about because Brother or Sister Jones in the Orem 10th Ward received some revelation.

    Comment by IDIAT — December 11, 2015 @ 9:49 am

  6. My point is that stewardships can overlap. We’re told to pray about it if we have concerns about issues or policies. What would happen if we get a different answer? Again, what we do IS our stewardship, even without making any claim to be leading the church.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 11, 2015 @ 10:22 am

  7. The Church faced this issue squarely in the case of the Hiram Page revelations, opting away from the original ethos of individual revelation to one of a sole prophet who receives all revelation for the Church. That seems to me a critical turning point in our modern attitudes towards personal revelation.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — December 11, 2015 @ 10:51 am

  8. Right, Kevin and that’s an important beginning in the stewardship structure. But I’m still wondering if there’s any room for a person to say, “I prayed about it and got a different answer. I’m not making claims for the church, but just sharing my own experience.”

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 11, 2015 @ 11:02 am

  9. I think there are ways to deal with this via the notion of risk. That is appealing to either authority or personal revelation involves risk as we might choose wrong. The question is whether we take up that element of risk. Yet it seems that most discourse is attempting to minimize any risk. Thus liberal critiques of authority are typically applying some well established ethical principle to minimize the risk and make authority less trustworthy. People pushing more blind obedience typically include parts where even if they are wrong it won’t affect you to minimize risk. The church pushes personal revelation in formal pedagogy yet never raises the problems of interpretation typically so as to minimize the risks of personal revelation.

    I understand the attempt to want low risk living, but it seems this tendency ends up being a bit problematic. Further it’s precisely because of risk that the tension between GA authority and personal revelation can be a fruitful tension. Of course in practice what most members do is simply do whatever the social norm is with their peers. A very low risk strategy in terms of practical effects.

    Comment by Clark — December 11, 2015 @ 11:51 am

  10. “My point is that stewardships can overlap. We?re told to pray about it if we have concerns about issues or policies. What would happen if we get a different answer? Again, what we do IS our stewardship, even without making any claim to be leading the church.”

    This is exactly right… but precisely because such events are kept private, we will never have much knowledge about such things. In such cases, it’s not a cases of overlapping stewardship since all we are doing is making an appeal to a higher authority. Higher leaders can always correct lower ones…. the individual being the lowest leader of their own life (and this is what individualists find offensive).

    Comment by Jeff G — December 11, 2015 @ 12:00 pm

  11. Clark, agreed, and I think the notion of personal revelation always suggests tremendous risk. What if God asks me to do (you name it)? And you’re right, statements like Romney’s are a minimization of that risk. Those statements from Brigham Young and other leaders about how we need to receive our own answers and not rely on the leaders so much seem appropriate.

    Jeff, I know you’ve posted a lot about stewardship meaning that individual contrary revelation needs to be kept quiet, but it always seems to me that the very notion of revelation always insists on an exception: unless God says so. DC 132:36. If there’s exceptions to killing, cannot there be exceptions to sharing of personal revelation?

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 11, 2015 @ 12:33 pm

  12. Steve,

    My claim is that legislation comes always and only from a higher authority – personal revelation being the most common example. This is because nobody has a right to receive revelation outside, beyond or above their stewardship.

    What you’re asking is whether there might be an exception such that I can receive a revelation that is morally binding upon those above me? (I fully grant that I can receive a revelation to inform my leaders, but to command my leaders or place them under a moral obligation to my revelation is something much stronger.)

    I’m just not sure here. More than anything, I’m very hesitant since granting this exception contributes to the perception that it is actually the rule (a rule which so many in the bloggernacle desperately seek right now). I’m also struck by the idea that the only person that could justify such an exception is a higher authority. I suppose that God (or some other higher authority) could place a leader under an obligation to listen to those beneath them, but this, again, is something different.

    While I’m sure that real life probably doesn’t cut a cleanly as I depict, but I far too suspicious of human reason’s self-serving inclination to muddy these waters. I’ll definitely think about this some more, but any light you might be able to shed would be greatly appreciated.

    Comment by Jeff G — December 11, 2015 @ 1:11 pm

  13. Thanks for the clarification, Jeff. I’m just asking if you see it as inappropriate to share a personal experience with answered prayer. For instance, if a person were to say, “I prayed about church-policy x and I don’t feel right about it in answer to that prayer. Thus my reason for opposing it are based on that answer and not based on secular reasoning.” Is it out of bounds for that person to say so on a blog?

    I wouldn’t see such a statement as making any claims to being morally binding on those above him or her, but simply explaining why that person reached the conclusion s/he did.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 11, 2015 @ 1:27 pm

  14. When a similar question arose on another blog, I did a search on my old Infobase CD for “follow” and “prophet.” I think I got something like 2500 hits. I perused many of the quotes, and most of them are along the lines of the Romney quote. There is safety in following the prophets. So, as relates to your example of personal prayer about church policy X, you have to wonder why God would give personal revelation about a church wide policy that conflicts with the collective (15 prophets, seers and revelators) revelation of leaders. Of course, anything is possible. But we get back to that stewardship idea. If I don’t have personal stewardship with respect to issuing church wide policies, I’m not sure God would give me conflicting revelation. Is my opposition really the result of personal bias or preconceived ideas? Should the default position always be to defer to the collective revelation over my personal revelation, and if there be conflict, to hold that conflict privately to myself?

    Comment by IDIAT — December 11, 2015 @ 1:39 pm

  15. No doubt such a situation would raise a lot of questions, but how should one seek to resolve that question? Should s/he stop praying (ignore the prompting) or continue to pray? It seems to me that for Mormons to ignore their own answers to prayer undercuts testimony since testimony is based on the same process.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 11, 2015 @ 1:57 pm

  16. “So, as relates to your example of personal prayer about church policy X, you have to wonder why God would give personal revelation about a church wide policy that conflicts with the collective (15 prophets, seers and revelators) revelation of leaders.”

    Surely it’s not hard to figure that out? While I’m pretty skeptical of people saying they have such revelations, it makes sense if someone in the 1960’s were troubled by blacks and the priesthood issue and God told them it wasn’t his doctrine. Especially if that revelation had the practical effects of helping them stay in the church.

    Where I think things get more tricky is when people have purported personal revelation and then publicly go against the brethren. I’m not saying it never could happen. (Think Paul and Peter for instance) However it’s one of those situations that seems possibly in theory but pretty unlikely in practice. Again, getting to my comments on risk it seems a very, very risky issue. Maybe not Abraham levels but in my book it’s getting close.

    Comment by Clark — December 11, 2015 @ 2:22 pm

  17. The ultimate authority is the individual.

    You and me always have to answer for our decisions. Even in a situation where we defer to the higher authority of others, we ultimately have to live with the reality that we made that decision and no one forced us into it.

    So I find it interesting to read this conversation about how personal and prophetic revelation and guidance are balanced.

    At the end of the day if you do something that you think is morally or ethically wrong because you deferred to a higher authority, you still made that decision.

    My personal view is that God will not give me a pass at the judgment bar for doing something that I believed morally or ethically wrong just because I had a world view that prophets are infallible.

    I personally own my decisions. I often take one of three paths. 1) I agree with the prophetic counsel and follow it. 2) I disagree with the counsel but seek further understanding and withhold judgment until further light and knowledge come. Or 3) I disagree and follow the light which God has granted in my life. Even when others around me beat the drum of obedience at all costs.

    My choices don’t have to make sense for others. But I would love to think I would be one of those who disobeyed their church leaders when they were asked to take the lives of 120 unarmed pioneers.

    I hope I am never tested to this degree however.

    Comment by James Allred — December 11, 2015 @ 2:45 pm

  18. Steve,

    “I wouldn?t see such a statement as making any claims to being morally binding on those above him or her, but simply explaining why that person reached the conclusion s/he did.”

    If this were actually what was happening, I would probably agree with you, but such things are almost never shared with an “FYI” intent. Instead, they are attempts at *justifying* one’s position to others who you are trying to convince. There is one person that I have in mind (Howard) who routinely condemns other people’s positions and, when pushed to justify his condemnation, he almost always appeals to his own personal revelation. This is exactly what I disagree with.

    I think a much better example of where you and I would agree is be in fast and testimony meeting when there (ideally) isn’t any debate or attempt at legislation at play. This would be a case in which nobody assumes that anything the other person says is morally binding in any sense, and we can take from it what we will.

    Within a public sphere (bloggernacle, opinion piece, sunstone symposia, etc.) that is specifically tailored to the give and take of debate and almost always aimed at moral legislation, I find all such appeals to be thoroughly suspect. While I assume (or at least hope) that most of the things that Howard says are inspired, when he makes an explicit appeal to that inspiration it becomes a covert and illegitimate attempt at prophetic legislation. A lot of posts around the ‘nacle are no different.

    Comment by Jeff G — December 11, 2015 @ 3:04 pm

  19. I like the relationship between Lehi and Nephi. Essentially, what we see is a long development between the two that goes from strict adherence to lines of stewardship to a quasi sort of shared stewardship. That said, the one thing that’s constant throughout is Nephi’s personal connection with God. And it’s that personal connection that leads Nephi in such a way that, over time, he is able to move beyond the “bright lines” and share in “higher” stewardships — kinda like what Nephi son of Helaman does because he won’t ask anything that is contrary to the Lord’s will. And, interestingly, Nephi, who is similarly trustworthy, never seems to be at odds with Lehi who is the reigning priesthood authority.

    Comment by Jack — December 11, 2015 @ 4:41 pm

  20. Agreed, Clark, and the priesthood ban may open other possibilities.

    Also agreed, James. Let’s not forget our own accountability.

    That helps me understand better, Jeff. I see your point about testimony meeting, but you can also understand that people would be pretty freaked out if someone shared a dissenting personal revelation in that setting. While the ‘nacle no doubt has a very different feel, you can understand that a person who feels prompted in a different way would feel more comfortable expressing that here than in testimony meeting.

    Good examples, thanks Jack.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — December 12, 2015 @ 9:33 am

  21. Could we differentiate between revelation relating to church doctrine as opposed to prophetic counsel? The church position on gender is doctrine. The church position on a year’s worth of food supply is counsel. The age of accountability is doctrine. The admonition to hold FHE is counsel. I think it is relatively easy to own our decisions with respect to counsel because we are entitled to personal revelation with respect to our lives. I’m interested in how one might address conflict over church doctrine, because it would be chaotic if all of us could claim to receive revelation for the whole church.

    Comment by IDIAT — December 13, 2015 @ 1:15 pm

  22. I’m not sure we can make clear distinctions between doctrine, policy and counsel. Different figures often use different categories. Then categories change as with the Word of Wisdom.

    Comment by Clark — December 15, 2015 @ 2:46 pm

  23. Just reading now, and want to nuance one claim a bit. “This is because nobody has a right to receive revelation outside, beyond or above their stewardship.” Technically, this isn’t true (though often said.) Practically, however, the revelations for the the entire church get published by those in the proper office to receive them.

    ?Should you receive a vision or revelation from the Almighty, one that the Lord gave you concerning yourselves, *or this people*, but which you are not to reveal on account of your not being the proper person, or because it ought not to be known by the people at present, you should shut it up and seal it as close, and lock it as tight as heaven is to you, and make it as secret as the grave. The Lord has no confidence in those who reveal secrets, for he cannot safely reveal himself to such persons” (Discourses of Brigham Young, 40?41)

    “If the Lord Almighty should reveal to a High Priest, or to any other than the head, things that are true, or that have been and will be, and show to him the destiny of this people twenty-five years from now, or a new doctrine that will in five, ten, or twenty years hence become the doctrine of this Church and Kingdom, but which has not yet been revealed to this people, and reveal it to him by the same Spirit, the same messenger, the same voice, the same power that gave revelations to Joseph when he was living, it would be a blessing to that High Priest, or individual; but he must rarely divulge it to a second person on the face of the earth, until God reveals it through the proper source to become the property of the people at large. Therefore when you hear Elders say that God does not reveal through the President of the Church that which they know, and tell wonderful things, you may generally set it down as a God?s truth that the revelation they have had is from the Devil, and not from God. If they had received from the proper source, the same power that revealed to them would have shown them that they must keep the things revealed in their own bosoms, and they seldom would have a desire to disclose them to the second person.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, 338).

    Re: the famous couplet
    ?Brother Snow, that is a new doctrine; if true, it has been revealed to you for your own private information, and will be taught in due time by the Prophet to the Church; till then I advise you to lay it upon the shelf and say no more about it? (in Orson F. Whitney, ?Lives of Our Leaders?The Apostles?Lorenzo Snow,?Juvenile Instructor, Jan. 1, 1900, 4).

    Comment by Ben S — December 19, 2015 @ 12:26 pm


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