Ever since I can remember, I’ve known and sung the words to the children’s song Follow the Prophet. It is a catchy little tune and each verse ends with:
Follow the prophet, follow the prophet, follow the prophet; don’t go astray.
Follow the prophet, follow the prophet, follow the prophet; he knows the way.1
For basically my whole life I thought ‘the way’ meant the direction or the specific route to travel in order to get from point A to point B. I thought ‘the way’ referred to in this song was similar to me knowing ‘the way’ home from grandma’s house or ‘the way’ to the store – complete with detailed turn by turn instructions and an estimated time of travel. My understanding was probably forged from thinking that if I ‘go astray’ from that path, I would get lost and be unable to make it back home (at least until I re-traced my steps to get back on ‘the way’. I think this idea is true and good – but, I don’t think it’s complete.
Even if that meaning were complete, some people today have become less dependent upon living prophets (or leaders) and have failed to see the critical role they play in our lives. 2 This is possibly due to the increased amount of information and history now available to the general public by way of the internet that reveals the (somehow) shocking truth that these prophets and/or leaders were not (in the past) and are not (presently) perfect – which means (to some) that there is no possibility that imperfect men could somehow ‘know the way’ let alone lead us to it.
But, “saying the church and its prophets (or leaders) are not perfect is not the same as saying they are not true. Just the opposite is, in fact, the case according to our understanding of our Heavenly Father’s plan. The prophets cannot be required to be perfect because that would foil the whole purpose of the plan, which is for human beings (including church leaders) to exercise moral agency. In this life we learn through our experience to distinguish good from evil and choose truth over error. If God were to dictate every decision and forcibly instigate every policy, if he refused to allow his church leaders, from prophets to primary presidents, to ever make mistakes or commit sin, he would be defeating his own purpose: to help us learn to use our moral agency to develop our divine nature and become like he is. God treats the church very much like he treats individuals. As we strive to follow him, he intervenes occasionally to provide us with guidance, to warn us from danger, or to admonish us to change direction. Much of the time, however, even for those blessed with the gift of the Holy Ghost or the mantle of prophethood, he teaches us correct principles and allows us to govern ourselves.” 3
Proof of this comes in in the Book of Mormon – just read 1 Ne. chapter 16. It’s the story of Nephi’s broken bow; where everyone seemed to be murmuring at their present circumstances – including the prophet/leader Lehi. Nephi didn’t assume that everything Lehi had ever taught him was suddenly incorrect because he had seen Lehi made a mistake or be less than perfect, nor did the Lord remove Lehi from his place or prophetic calling at the first sight of mortal failing – Nephi just humbly and patiently asked for his counsel on where to go. We can all learn so much from Nephi.
Can we begin to understand that ‘the way’ may not be as detailed a step by step directional knowledge as we had hoped? And if it’s not that – then what is it? The answer (like all the answers) is in the scriptures. In John 14:6, Jesus says “I am the way”, and in 2 Ne. 31:21 Nephi tells us that “he [Christ] is ‘the way’, and there is none other way nor name given whereby men can be saved.” This means that ‘the way’ is a person as much as it is a route or a direction.
“God’s [true] prophets never set themselves up as the light but rather stand on the mountain pointing people to the true Light. Prophets instruct people to learn from their teachings and from their lives, which include many wonderful acts of righteousness as well as the sin and error that are the lot of all humanity. In that way prophets doubly fulfill their calling to encourage all in the sound of their voice to become perfected in and through the atonement of Jesus Christ. Prophets are not called to save us; they are called to lead us to the Savior.” 4 They show us The Way.
So, the next time we sing “follow the prophet, follow the prophet, follow the prophet, he knows the way”, let us understand that we are recognizing and testifying that our beloved leaders indeed know, and are pointing us to The Way – and are inviting us to ‘come unto Him’.
1 Childrens songbook, 110.
2 I make no mention of the need for prophets and apostles in order to have the priesthood authority for temple work, ordinances, etc. This is an absolute need which I do not mean to discount, it just isn’t part of this particular thought and need for prophets to ‘show us the way.’
3 Patrick Q. Mason, in Planted (pg. 108)
4 Ibid (pg. 105)