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How to Recognize a Prophet When You See One

As I write this essay, the United States of America has sworn in its newest president. Barack Obama, an African and American, author, lawyer, and father, won the popular vote in the national election and has now gone to Washington, D.C., via “Freedom’s Highway” to claim his prize—the Oval Office in the White House.

Do not think for one moment this could have been possible without a transformative national prophecy: that one day all Americans, black and white, rich and poor, male and female, northern and southern, would remake the ”American Dream” as a possibility for every person. Without hundreds of years of slavery, without William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln, without Marcus Garvey, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, without Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan, and Oprah, could the American nation have ever fulfilled this promise and bend “the arc of justice” toward earth so earnestly?

Who can deny that in the spirituals (listen to Dr. Oral Moses sing as you read the rest of this commentary) of the plantations, in the fiery rhetoric of the abolitionists, in the civil rights marches of the 1960s, and in the sermons of civil disobedience, we have seen the working of the Spirit and heard the true voice of prophecy? I want to argue here, “Yes, we have!” and that the wider range of Judeo-Christian prophecy, especially the American experience, helps us understand the meaning of prophecy in our own religious community.

Let me ask, how do we recognize a prophet when we see one? As the category and work of “prophet” is inductively derived from many examples that solicit our interest, it is impossible to restrict narrowly the definition to “one who foretells” or “tells forth” a divine message, like a lone voice calling to empty hills (as in the popular caricature of John the Baptist).

The roles assumed by prophets vary from age to age: reformer, revolutionary, founder, guardian, instigator, pacifier, comforter, visionary, writer, and spokesperson. Perhaps today, in part because of the civil rights movement, we can also see prophets as managers of change, men and women who bring divine precepts of justice and hope to their situation, their talents and personalities used to the highest of ends—that a new community is conceived and born to reflect these divine ideals.

Who can be a prophet? Does it require a special kind of mind? The idea that the mind of the prophet is blank or inconsequential is a fiction propagated by the prophets and their followers to add credibility and mystery to their claims. Equally illusive is the idea that true prophets and their movements are somehow exempt from the normal social processes that shape human communities. Instead, there is much evidence that gender, social class, education level, personality, personal history, and variable states of consciousness influence the careers and messages of prophets, as well the reception they receive from their followers.

Think of some examples. The German visionary Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) was very musical, and her liturgical creations and community ideals have inspired European Christians for the last millennium. English mystic Marjorie Kempe’s (ca. 1373–1438) competitiveness with other women shows up in her claims to superior visions. George Fox (1624–91), living in a time of regulated worship and enforced sacramentalism, opposed needless ceremonies and urged believers to follow their inner light. Some, such as Joseph Smith (1805–44), relied upon family and followers to an extraordinary degree, while others fled family and society.

Dozens of examples suggest that even when the conscious mind is passive, images, feelings, memories, fears, and hopes pour from the inner world to populate the prophet’s words, dreams, and visions. In this way, prophecy can be seen as a form of religious creativity, in which older elements of a tradition are combined with new insights to bring forth or reform a community toward divine values.

Looking over more than three thousand years of Judeo-Christian history, it is our privilege to see the Spirit of prophecy alive and active in “diverse manners and places.” The many examples we can gather from the Bible and history argue for a plurality of manifestations, each shaped by and suited to different occasions and concerns. A narrow biblicism that fails to see multiple fulfillments of prophecy, or that limits spiritual gifts to past ages, will completely miss the ongoing work of the Spirit today.

Instead of considering, for example, that the Spirit vacated the Jewish nation soon after the return from the Exile, we may see it active in the anti-Roman resistance or among the Essene communities who celebrated a “teacher of righteousness.” Even in American history, female (as well as male) voices and visionaries, from Ann Hutchinson (1591–1643) to Sarah Edwards (1710-1758) and Rebecca Jackson (1795–1871), provided a moral compass and divine guidance to their communities. The long view also suggests we view the Spirit of prophecy active in the hearts and minds of many, and always the possession of a community, not just an individual religious talent.

Is there a prophetic passion? I think so. The golden thread that runs through the Judeo-Christian prophets is the concern for justice and mercy—in the home, the community, the nation, and the world. The cry for justice arises, in most cases, from a situation of injustice that must be changed. To achieve this, some prophets attempt to reform the current system by returning to the community’s founding values, and others decry the past and call for something new.

The work of reformation or revolution, however, requires more than a central personality, enthusiasm, or popular ideas. It requires someone or something to manage and balance both structure and spirit—the essential components of community—or the whole thing will disintegrate. In common Adventist terms, it requires inspiration and organization.

The basic role of a prophet is rhetorical: to proclaim that change is necessary and to convince a community that it is almost inevitable. Prophets not only initiate but also help to manage these transitions—from Egypt to the Promised Land, from Exile to Restoration, from the Law to the Gospel, from Europe to the New World—by presenting new revelations of divine will specially suited to the times.

Of course, the question of how to co-ordinate the new with the old—the tradition—is always a problem for emerging faiths, just as it was for Christianity in its relation to its matrix, Judaism. Many emerging religious movements, however, become divided between those who want to dissociate from the old and free the child from its parents, and those who want to present the new as an outgrowth or fulfillment of the old. These two models—separation/purification and engagement/transformation— underlie the rhetoric of most prophetic movements.

The most successful prophets—Moses, Jeremiah, Jesus, and Mohammed—were innovators as well as restorers. When the relation between the old and the new is kept in creative tension, a new synthetic tradition often develops. This is where prophets shine, and why prophetic religions are the most successful in making new converts.

In the case of Ellen White, about whom we have substantial historical information, her gifts are in many ways continuous with the American tradition of inspired leadership in the New World—think of the many women who, though lacking formal training, found their inspiration and energy in dreams, visions, and sanctified imagination. But she also wrote toward the new American concern for the body and human feeling.

In my view, her early work (1845–early 1850s) validated the Millerite cosmology in the face of repeated disappointments and encouraged social emotional cohesion among existing believers. In the early 1850s, she experienced a hiatus in her gift, but later the visions returned with new and broader ideas. Ellen and James White invested years of community building before the move toward the legal founding of the denomination in the early 1860s. By the outbreak of the Civil War, the structural (“gospel order”) and inspirational (“spirit of prophecy”) components were in place and a new denomination had been successfully birthed.

For those who have eyes to see, the rise of the Adventist movement and the long events of the civil rights movement are two American expressions of the Spirit of prophecy, each shedding light on the other. Both burn with a passion for divine and social justice—in the courts and streets of heaven or on earth—and we may discover one day that these are one.

Graeme Sharrock lives and teaches in Chicago. He volunteered this fall as a photojournalist for Barack Obama’s Campaign for Change. You can see his worldwide photographs at

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