Mormons differ from many other Christian religions because they believe revelation did not end forever when Jesus and the apostles were gone. They believe there was a long period of apostasy, but that it ended in the 1800s when Joseph Smith was chosen to be the first prophet of the restoration.
Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) today are taught to follow the prophet. However, many who are not Mormon misunderstand what that means to Mormons or how it works in actual practice.
“Mormon” is a nickname for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While using the nickname is not offensive, Latter-day Saints ask that it not be used as the name of the church, because it pulls the focus away from the center of the church being on Jesus Christ. Latter-day Saints (“Mormons”) tend to shorten the rather long name to LDS (Latter-day Saints).
The prophet is the only person authorized to speak for God. He is God’s mouthpiece on the earth. Not everything the prophet says is considered doctrinal. He is certainly allowed to have his own opinions on matters, but when he does speak as the prophet, it is as if God Himself were speaking. “Whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same” (Doctrine and Covenants 1:38). Truth does not change, although our understanding of it and the amount of truth revealed at any one time does. Practices can, and do, also change, according to our needs at the time. God does not change, but men and societies do, and it is essential to have continuing revelation.
For instance, in the Bible, the early Jewish people were expected to live the Law of Moses. That was a practice, but it held only a portion of truth. Therefore, when it was fulfilled, a higher law was built on its foundation. Living the Law of Moses has been added upon by a higher law. We no longer practice sacrifice by the shedding of blood because Jesus Christ was the ultimate sacrifice and fulfilled that law. Now we live the Law of Sacrifice according to what the Lord demands of us: our time, talents, money, etc. Whatever He asks, we need to give.
Only certain teachings are canonized. A canonized doctrine is an official doctrine that has been received through revelation, approved not just by the prophet, but by his counselors and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and then announced to the church. However, a teaching from the prophet need not be canonized to be viewed as scripture by members of the “Mormon Church” if he spoke as the prophet when he taught it. There is no debate or vote on teachings from the prophet. He speaks as God’s mouthpiece. Would we question God? No.
Mormons believe God gave us intelligence and that He expects us to use it. He chooses not to tell us everything and when we have no official doctrine, we are free to study the issue, find out how it relates to other teachings, study what the scriptures say, and then make up our own minds. God said, through the Prophet Joseph Smith,
“For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:26).
We are also encouraged to gain a personal witness from the Holy Ghost of the truth of a principle, even when it does come from the prophet. We are commanded to follow the prophet, but we are also commanded to gain a knowledge for ourselves. If a Mormon hears of an official doctrine and feels uneasy about it, he is not expected to take anyone’s word for it. Every Mormon is instructed to pray to know what is true. A Mormon—or anyone else—can pray about the doctrine and ask God directly if it is true. No one but the prophet can receive direct revelation for the church, but each of us can confirm revelation for ourselves and receive revelation for our personal areas of responsibility. Blind faith is never required, which provides a safety check for members so they cannot be lead astray.
What does it mean to follow a prophet? It means to gain a personal testimony that the prophet is indeed a true prophet, to understand when he is offering opinion and when he is offering doctrine, and to pray when we need additional confirmation. It means to respect him as the mouthpiece of the Lord, and when he speaks for the Lord, we should obey immediately, even if we do not understand why right away. If we gain our personal testimony of the prophet and his teachings, and if we follow him, we will never be led astray.