An American Prophet

An American Prophet January 19, 2009

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.

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