The impending nomination of Mitt Romney as the Republican nominee for President has critics of the LDS Church dusting off an old complaint and hauling it back into the service: The so-called “White Horse Prophecy.”
Here’s the quick version of the story: Joseph Smith supposedly announced to a small group in 1843 a prophecy that said, among other things, that the LDS Church would establish themselves in the Rocky Mountains as the “White Horse of safety and peace,” and that someday the Constitution of the United States would “hang like a thread” and would only be preserved by the White Horse. Critics point to this supposed prophecy as evidence that the Mormons intend to take over the U.S. Government and demand that coffee be outlawed and red fruit punch be named as the official National Beverage. Or something like that.
Now, the easy answer to the allegation is that the Church has officially said that the White Horse Prophecy is hooey. But that explanation doesn’t help much to folks who insist that the Church is run by charlatans who pick and choose which revelations they like. So it might be helpful to explain a little bit about how the principle of continuing revelation works in the LDS Church.
For other Christian denominations, this is a foreign subject. Certainly the rest of Christianity accepts that God inspires people and can “reveal” truth, but this tends to be lower-case “revelation,” meaning brief flashes of insight or personal callings to various types of service. Upper-case “Revelation,” such as would actually be binding on the full church, is out of the question. That kind of nonsense ended at the time of the New Testament Apostles, even though nothing in the Bible says that it would, much less why.
Mormons believe in both upper- and lower-case revelation. Basically, we believe that any person is entitled to receive revelation (by which I don’t necessarily mean open visions or heavenly messengers) concerning whatever subjects for which they are responsible. I can receive revelation or inspiration for my own life; my family (in conjunction with my spouse); my business; and within the scope of my Church callings (currently, my Sunday School class). I can’t receive revelation for the guy across the street, my local congregation or the Church as a whole.
As to revelation for the entire Church, Mormons believe that such can only be received by the President of the Church. Many such revelations have been presented to the general membership of the Church as binding, and upon approval of the membership have become part of the official canon of the Church, usually as part of a book of scriptures called “The Doctrine and Covenants.” Despite what may be said by our critics (or even unthinking members), we do not believe that every word that comes from the mouth of the President of the Church is canonical scripture. Only when something is announced by the President of the Church as being revelation for the Church and is accepted as such does it become binding.
For that reason, even if the old claim about Brigham Young believing that if he cut his hair it would bleed is true (and I have no idea whether it is), that doesn’t mean that all Mormons are going to start channeling Crystal Gayle. This distinction between spoken-as-prophet and spoken-as-man is by no means hypocritical. Other Christians openly accept the theological teachings of the Apostle Paul while rejecting his chauvinistic advice about women keeping their traps shut in church. Sometimes, inspired leaders speak for God. Other times they just speak.
So the LDS Church is careful about what we treat as authentic revelations or prophecies. This is especially true when it comes to Joseph Smith. This is not because we consider him an unpredictable theological cowboy, but because records of what he said often are inherently unreliable. Much of what we have about his sermons was received second or third hand, by people jotting down longhand what they remembered from one of his sermons or what someone else told them. I don’t know about you, but if I had to write down longhand what was said in last week’s Sacrament meeting, I probably couldn’t give you much more than “It dealt with God.”
On top of that, early Church historians weren’t always as discriminating with their sources, which certainly didn’t help matters. As years have passed, the standards of scholarship within the Church have improved considerably, but some things have worked their way into what I would call Mormon “folklore” that just aren’t accurate.
This White Horse Prophecy business is one of those things. I think that if most Mormons read the entire thing, it would be a head scratcher. It doesn’t sound like anything of the other prophecies or revelations from Joseph Smith and doesn’t make much sense, especially all of the horse imagery, which reads like a weird knock-off of the Revelation of John. Growing up in the Church, I never heard of the “White Horse Prophecy” once. However, references to the Constitution “hanging by a thread” did occasionally work its way into talks or lessons. As a kid, I figured it must be in the scriptures someplace. Only later did I realize that it wasn’t, and I have heard very few references to it in recent years.
In my mind, this doesn’t evidence any intent by Mormons to take over the government. By contrast, for a group with a long history of persecution, Mormons are a remarkably patriotic group with a strong appreciation for separation of church and state. But I also think that, for some Church members, the notion of Mormons helping to save the Constitution from some unspecified threat has some romantic appeal. Mormons consider the Constitution a divinely inspired document and are strongly encouraged to be active in their communities. So, sometimes, this myth of riding to the rescue of the Constitution works its way back up to the surface. But the implication that this is evidence of some long-plotted Mormon coup is pure fantasy.
I suspect that as the years pass, references to this “prophecy” will continue to dwindle. Until then, critics off the Church will continue to trot it out, insisting that it is a core teaching of the Church and then condemning Mormons because of it. That tactic appears to have considerably more staying power than apocryphal prophecies.