An American Prophet

Mormons are not the only prophetic tradition in America. The African American spiritual community also has its own prophetic roots, and Martin Luther King, Jr. is the paradigmatic figure from that tradition. It is true that these two traditions define prophetic leadership differently. For Mormons, today even more so than in our past, the prophetic mantle is held by right of institutional authority. The prophetic responsibility is to testify to the world of Christ, and to teach the faithful. This vision of prophesy hearkens back to ancient prophetic schools which saw prophesy as a vocation, and moreso in recent times, as a tool for the preservation of traditional social values. In the African American tradition, the prophetic tradition takes the role of charismatic cultural critic, especially around issues of injustice. This tradition hearkens back to a biblical tradition of speaking out against authority in the hopes of transforming society.

Despite the differences, there are deep parallels between African American and Mormon prophetic callings. I have suggested before that there are spiritual parallels between African American and Mormon traditions. In many ways, the African American prophetic tradition of King has more in common with our earlier prototypes of prophetic leadership like Joseph Smith. Like Smith, King drew on the prophetic biblical tradition in shaping his role and the movement he led. He too came from the tradition of Moses leading his people out of bondage and into the new light of the Kingdom of God. Both had a vision for a new, more just society that shared resources and talents. Both inspired millions to change, to be better people, and to follow God. Both were hated and resisted for their controversial visions. Both were killed in their late 30’s (MLK was just about a year older that JS when he died).

It is an unfortunate aspect of our history that our prophetic leadership at the time of King resisted his prophetic vision. Fortunately, that could not stop this vision from coming true, and I am eternally grateful that we as a people have now been able to embrace this other prophet’s vision. I believe that Nephi of old saw this moment through a prophetic eye:

For none of these iniquities come of the Lord; for he doeth that which is good among the children of men; and he doeth nothing save it be plain unto the children of men; and he inviteth them ball to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile. (2 Ne 26:33)

King’s prophetic vision foretold of an American society that judged a man by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin, where all are alike unto God. Today that vision is one step closer to coming to pass on the eve of Barak Obama’s inauguration. Though we still have a long way to go, I am humbled by this moment in American history, and humbled by the prophetic voices that foretold it and helped make it happen. Today, I honor MLK as a true American prophet.

12 Replies to “An American Prophet”

  1. “Though we still have a long way to go….”

    In terms of freedom for blacks in America, isn’t Obama’s presidency a sign that we don’t have a long way to go?

  2. Thanks, TT. We started a tradition last year in my family when for FHE we watch King’s “Dream” speech while eating ice cream. (The ice cream is to keep the kids at the table—and no, it’s not Neapolitan!)

  3. If it is the role of a prophet to call us to repentance and to speak forcefully against the “blood and sins of their generation” then I consider Martin Luther King a prophet. During the Viet Nam era while most of us (and even higher percentage LDS) were “goose stepping” to the drums of war in order to remain accepted and mainstream, MLK spoke with clarity and truth about the criminally sponsored murder of 3-5 million Vietnamese civilians–which war was promoted on as false evidence as our war of aggression into Iraq. Here is a clip of part of his 1967 speech called “WHen Silence is Betrayal.”

  4. It seems hard to accept that Martin Luther King and the LDS had prophets at the same time, since the latter spoke out forcefully against the former.

    Ezra Taft Benson in 1967 General Conference said, “There is no doubt that the so-called civil rights movement is used as a Communist program for revolution in America. We must not place the blame upon Negroes. They are merely the unfortunate group that has been selected by professional Communist agitators. Not one in a thousand Americans understands the full implications of today’s agitation. The planning, direction, and leadership come from the Communists.”

    And Bruce R. McConkie wrote in Mormon Doctrine: “The Negroes are not equal with the other races where the receipt of certain spiritual blessings are concerned, …but this inequality is not of man’s origin. It is the Lord’s doing, is based on his eternal laws of justice, and grows out of the lack of spiritual valiance of those concerned in their first estate [the pre-existence].”

    It does not seem that the LDS leadership was on the leading edge of the civil rights movement.

  5. MichaelC,

    Other LDS apostles at the same time were supporting civil rights. See this post about Hugh B. Brown:

    I think if you look at the Old Testament tradition of prophets (yes, this is outside my area of expertise) it is not uncommon to have more the one prophet or more than one prophetic voices.

    Oh…..and Benson was just flatout wrong on civil rights.

  6. Chris H,

    Yes, I knew that Hugh B. Brown was a big champion of civil rights. I’m sure you also know that he was in the minority among the Quorum of the Twelve at that time. I look at the leadership of the LDS church in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and it looks like the rest of America when it comes to race issues: divided. I would expect the leadership of the Lord’s true church to be on the vanguard of any efforts to promote equality, not reluctantly being pulled along for the ride.

    If there was ever an issue during any time and any place that deserved revelation, this was it. All of God’s children are equal in His sight. That this most basic of beliefs was taught against again and again by church leaders from the time of Brigham Young through Ezra Taft Benson, leads me to believe that the LDS prophets had no special insights into the will of the Lord.

  7. MichaelC,

    I am still troubled by the same things. However, I do not take the position that they are infallible or supposed to be. It gets me through. Peace.

  8. Thanks for this post, TT. I like your comparison of MLKJ to Joseph Smith. Interestingly, after reading most of the post, I read the first line of 2 Nephi 26:33 as “for none of these inequities come from the Lord” which seems particularly appropriate too.

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