In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many critics of the church are evaluating the prophets' abilities when it comes to prophecy and leadership in a time of crisis. Since we all know that the prophets and apostles are supposed to be watchmen on the tower, you'd think there would be plentiful evidence that they have been able to see things the rest of us cannot, warn of things that are ahead, and offer protection from these catastrophes.
I wanted to look back at a few historical calamitous events to see what kind of track record Mormon prophets have when it comes to this kind of thing.
Spanish Flu Pandemic
We'll start with a global health crisis that many people are using as a point of comparison or contrast to the tragedy unfolding in the present. What I found most interesting about Mormonism's response to the influenza outbreak is the difference in how two prophets approached it. From this week's Salt Lake Tribune article:
“Joseph F. Smith and his counselors in the First Presidency had been reluctant to abandon the use of the common goblet for the sacramental water,” historian Justin R. Bray wrote in the Journal of Mormon History. “They allowed the use of individual cups for six years (1912-18) but did not strongly encourage it, and the use of individual cups seems to have been mostly confined to the Salt Lake Valley.”
So the old prophet kind of wanted to keep the same tradition for the Sacrament, even though it was hygienically ill-advised, especially in a time when an easily communicable disease was ravaging the world. But the incoming prophet after Smith's death in 1918 felt differently. And why did he feel differently?
Smith's successor, senior apostle Heber J. Grant, was more hygienically minded.
Not only was he slated to become the faith's next "prophet, seer and revelator," Grant served on the Utah Public Health Association's board of directors. He understood that the pandemic wasn't finished with Utah and that only extreme measures would prevent greater spread.
So, basically, President Grant took important steps that his predecessor didn't—not because of any kind of revelation or prophetic knowledge, but because Grant's secular understanding was superior to Smith's. Which is exactly the kind of thing that can happen in organizations that operate purely on human decisions without any connection whatsoever to the divine.
Good thing a prophet died during the flu pandemic so a new prophet could act based on scientific knowledge?
World War II
I've pointed out before that President Grant chose to use his time in the November 1938 General Conference to warn about car accidents multiple times but not to warn about World War II or the Holocaust. But there's more to discuss when it comes to the prophet's behavior during the various crises of the late 1930s and the 1940s.
On the church's website, it proudly proclaims at the beginning of its timeline that all missionaries were evacuated from Europe by order of the First Presidency more than a week before Hitler invaded Poland. That's great, but the actual text below that quick-reference timeline indicates it's a little messier than that.
See, missionaries were evacuated from Germany and Czechoslovakia on September 14, 1938 and remained in neighboring countries for about two weeks [p. 5] until things were deemed stable enough for them to return. And it doesn't seem that the continent was fully emptied of missionaries by a First Presidency order on August 24th like the church article says. Instead, Czechoslovakia and western Germany were evacuated to neutral European countries [pp.14-15]. But even considering that it seems the LDS missionaries got out before an official war declaration, that still means that there were missionaries actively proselytizing in Europe during Italy's invasion of Albania, Hungary's invasion of Carpatho-Ukraine, and, of course, Germany's infamous Kristallnacht in November 1938.
I don't have any documentation that indicates any missionaries died during this time, but it sure seems reckless and perhaps not prophetic for the church to keep missionaries in a continent that was seething with wars and rumors of wars and that would shortly see upheaval, violence, and even many civilian deaths before the historically-agreed-upon start date of the Second World War.
Once the international conflict really got going, though, the prophets didn't seem to offer much leadership. There was a special fast Sunday in January of 1942, which the Deseret News describes as "in conjunction with a national day of prayer called by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt." Not only does this make it sound like the prophets were aligning themselves with secular leadership instead of providing their own leadership, but it also doesn't indicate much as far as the efficacy of fasting. After all, it would be another three years and seven months before peace was reached with Japan. The fact that a lot of soldiers and civilians died in this intervening period is not really a matter of historical debate.
Good thing we had a prophet to tell us to fast on the President's national day of prayer?
The mouthpieces of the Lord gave no warning of the most devastating act of terrorism that has ever occurred in His Promised Land. The April 2001 General Conference gives no indication that any of the fifteen apostles had an inkling of what would happen. There was one reference to terrorism in that conference—a line from Hinckley's dedicatory prayer requesting that God preserve the new conference center "from conflict and acts of terrorism". Arguably, I guess, that sort of works, since God made sure that the closest attack on 9/11 was a couple thousand miles away from his precious conference center, never mind the thousands of people who died and the countless lives that were forever changed.
In another display of lackluster prophetic leadership, the church organized a special assembly in the Tabernacle on September 14th, which the Church News described as being "held in response to U.S. President George W. Bush’s call for a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance." Once again, a prophet of God took his leadership cues from the government in a time of crisis.
Even faithful Mormons struggle to point to an indication that the prophets had foresight regarding these terrorist attacks. The best that this thread could come up with to demonstrate that Hinckley knew anything was that he gave a CES Fireside on September 9th titled "Be Not Afraid; Only Believe," which doesn't make any reference to terrorism that I can sniff out.
Good thing we had a prophet to prepare us by telling a portion of the church's young adults not to be scared for their futures without any hint at the national trauma that would grip them 36 hours later?
Russell M. Nelson, like the prophets before him, has given us no reason to believe that he foresaw the current global catastrophe. That's not to say that there aren't people who would disagree with that statement, of course. At the conclusion of last October's conference, Nelson did indicate that the upcoming one would be unusual, but I don't think that counts, because that statement was directly related to the 200th anniversary of the First Vision:
Thus, the year 2020 will be designated as a bicentennial year. General conference next April will be different from any previous conference. In the next six months, I hope that every member and every family will prepare for a unique conference that will commemorate the very foundations of the restored gospel.
The shift toward the "home-centered, church-supported" spiritual education has also been considered prophetic and I think this claim has a bit more substance to it. But when the church was framing its release of this update, it was still stressing that Sunday church services were a big piece of the puzzle—meaning there were no stated plans to go without Sunday services for any period of time. And if the church really was making changes to better adapt to the sudden need to worship from home, then you'd think they wouldn't have waited until after the crisis erupted to advise bishops to "determine how to make the sacrament available to members at least once a month."
In a departure from previous examples, President Nelson invited the world to join him in a special fast scheduled for March 29th. The reason this is a departure is because unlike Hinckley, who held his 9/11 service on Bush's Day of Remembrance, and unlike Grant, who held his special fast on FDR's National Day of Prayer, Nelson was behind the curve. President Donald Trump announced March 15th as a National Day of Prayer. Nine days after that, Nelson jumped on the bandwagon and decided the world should fast for relief from the effects of the viral pandemic. Are the prophets actually starting to fall behind the secular leadership when it comes to organizing a response to crises?
I'm not sure why anyone should have bothered with a special fast anyway. They don't seem to help. The fast on December 22, 1918 didn't seem to prevent the third spike in influenza fatalities the following year. The fast on May 15, 1932 [p. 321] didn't immediately improve the Great Depression. Even though GDP started to rise and unemployment started to drop the year after, it took a decade and an international conflict involving millions of deaths for things to really get back on track. The fast on January 4, 1942 similarly didn't seem to precipitate a speedy end to World War II.
Good thing the prophet can tell us to starve ourselves and donate money so that God won't solve the problem?
So how can we expect the church to behave in future crises based upon its behavior in current and historical crises? Not admirably.
A concern for the environment does not seem to be one of the foremost issues in the apostles' minds, since men marrying men is clearly more of an existential threat to society than the suffocation of our atmosphere and the poisoning of our water and the melting of our ice caps. There are some head nods toward ecological responsibility, though. For example, this nice little article by Elder Snow is about how God expects us to "act as good stewards of the land He created." Of course, you'll notice that this was given by Elder Snow of the Seventy at a Utah State Symposium and not by a prophet or apostle in general conference.
Go ahead an search the collection of general conference addresses to see how often the apostles spur the membership of the Lord's church to action to prevent what scientific consensus deems an impending crisis. Search for "warming" or "climate" or "environment" and tell me if there are any examples in the last ten years in which the prophet has demonstrated leadership and prescience and urgency on this subject.
In coming decades, we may see another notable example of prophets failing to be prophetic and failing to provide proactive, inspired leadership in troubling times.
Good thing we have prophets who don't do what they're supposed to be able to do?