By now, I'm sure it's old news that Thomas S. Monson, sixteenth president of the Brighamite branch of Mormonism, has passed away. The next prophet is expected to be Russell M. Nelson.
I liked Monson's public persona. He had kind of a grandfatherly charisma at his General Conference appearances, much like his predecessor, Gordon B. Hinckley. Nelson doesn't have that. His aura is one of rigorousness and exactness. One of his recent Conference addresses stressed the importance of semantics referencing the atonement, an assuredly trivial thing to devote such time to. Unless the mantle of leadership involves a softened public image, Nelson's tenure may be quite different from Monson's.
But one thing that will stay the same is, of course, Nelson's ability to prophesy. Monson, as many church critics gleefully point out, didn't make any substantive prophecies while he was the prophet. Neither did Hinckley. And likely, neither will Nelson.
But that got me wondering what the purpose of prophecy is. Why is this such an important concept that it's the first title members sustain their church president to be? What is essential to our salvation about our leader foretelling future events? Prophets have predicted the second coming of Christ and the ensuing havoc at varying levels of non-specificity for generations. What does this accomplish? Why does God need this kind of thing to happen?
Of course, one of the simplest reasons is to demonstrate the power of God—or, more accurately, that the prophet has the power of God. Predicting some unexpected event with clarity speaks to a level of foresight associated with godly knowledge. This is why Hank Morgan was feared as a powerful wizard for predicting the eclipse in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. And this is why it was so impressive, apparently, for Nephi to know about Christopher Columbus. At least, with the power of prophecy, God's chosen mouthpieces can convince people that they actually speak for God. Sometimes.
Another reason seems to be for God to basically say, "I told you so." The doom of the Nephites was foretold many times over their thousand year history. But despite all the foreknowledge, it seemed unavoidable. What is the purpose of prophesying something so horrible? Why would an omniscient God bother to warn us of something that we clearly cannot avoid? I suppose it teaches a lesson to later generations who can see how disastrously correct the prophecy was, but it doesn't hold a lot of weight if the prophecy and its fulfillment are both revealed centuries after the fact. A prophecy like that is only predictive if the audience can see it unfold in real time.
But when is the last time we've seen a prophet do anything like the things prophets did in the scriptures? What purpose does a prophet who does not prophesy serve?
I realize it's a bit of a Mormon cliché to resort to explicating the definitions of key terminology, but it's interesting to me that the Google definition of prophet includes a specific definition among Mormons: Joseph Smith or one of his successors. The first definition mentions teaching the will of God but gives words like seer and fortune-teller—terms associated with foresight—as synonyms. Other definitions mention the ability—or the claim of an ability—to make predictions. So prophets are generally associated with divine predictive power...except maybe in modern Mormonism.
Why call someone who doesn't prophesy a prophet? I suppose the only reason left is to induce the distinction provided by the title. The title is merely a vestigial office, an outdated remnant of the faith's the bolder, gutsier, more dramatic roots (like polygamy, praying with archaic pronouns, and even the prophetic line of succession). But the word prophet—and to a lesser extent, the words seer and revelator—summons up mental associations with powers beyond the realistic scope of Hinckley, Monson, and Nelson.
But as long as the focus in the church is on the title and reverence for the man who bears it instead of on the abilities and divine gifts being claimed, Nelson will have the same prestige and enjoy the same control over his followers, whether he makes any prophecies or not.
And I'm betting he will not.