Question: In light of the fact that prophets can make mistakes, explain this passage following Official Declaration 1 in the Doctrine & Covenants:
“The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty.” (Wilford Woodruff, Oct. 6, 1890)
Answer: The phrase “a Prophet will never lead the Church astray” more properly means he will never lead or teach members to sin or to not follow Christ. In this particular instance, President Woodruff was referring to the Manifesto that ended the practice of polygamy. Members needed to be reassured this change did not come from bending to political pressure, but was the direct result of revelation.
Because of continuing revelation, we know the Lord will sometimes change practices based on the needs or obedience/disobedience of his people.
“Wherefore I, the Lord, command and revoke, as it seemeth me good; and all this to be answered upon the heads of the rebellious, saith the Lord.” (D&C 56:4)
Though sometimes errors and incorrect traditions are changed in the Church, prophets never intentionally mislead members with false doctrines. It’s our responsibility as members to keep ourselves in tune with the Spirit so we can receive personal revelation about the instructions of our leaders. Here are several statements from past Church leaders on the subject:
“The First Presidency cannot claim, individually or collectively, infallibility.” (George Q. Cannon, Gospel Truth: Discourses and Writings of President George Q. Cannon)
“Even the President of the Church has not always spoken under the direction of the Holy Ghost.” (J. Reuben Clark, Faithful History: Essays on Writing Mormon History)
“We are all liable to error; are subject, more or less, to the errors incident to the human family. We would be pleased to get along without these errors, and many may think that a man in my standing ought to be perfect; no such thing.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 10:212)
“The First Presidency have of right a great influence over this people; and if we should get out of the way and lead this people to destruction, what a pity it would be! How can you know whether we lead you correctly, or not? Can you know by any other power than that of the Holy Ghost? I have uniformly exhorted the people to obtain this living witness each for themselves; then no man on earth can lead them astray.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 6:100. Emphasis added.)
“Forget everything I have said, or what … Brigham Young … or whomsoever has said … that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.” (Bruce R. McConkie, CES Conference, August 1978)
“The Lord uses imperfect people … He often allows their errors to stand uncorrected. He may have a purpose in doing so, such as to teach us that religious truth comes forth ‘line upon line, precept upon precept’ in a process of sifting and winnowing similar to the one I know so well in science.” (Henry Eyring, Reflections of a Scientist)