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Operations of the Spirit: Part 10, Extraordinary Experiences

This is the tenth of twelve parts to an essay entitled
"Operations of the Spirit." The entire essay is 
just over one hundred pages if printed out, so it is 
presented serially in this blog. These parts should 
be read sequentially, because each builds on the previous 
parts. Hopefully, readers will have comments, suggestions 
and criticisms. The twelve parts are as follows: 
I. Introduction, Part I 
II. Confusing Terms, Part II 
III. Metaphors and Meaning, Parts III through VI 
     A. The still small voice, Part III 
     B. The heart and reins, Part IV 
     C. Light and burning, as in a burning in the bosom, Part V 
     D. Extracting meaning from metaphors,, Part VI 
IV. The Scriptures and the Spirit, Parts VII through X 
     A. The Oliver Cowdery revelations: D&C 6, 8 and 9, Part VII 
     B. Other modern-day scriptures, Part VIII 
     C. Ancient scriptures about the Spirit, Part IX 
     D. Extraordinary events, Part X 
V. The Spirit and Individual Affectations, Part XI 
VI. Conclusion, Part XII 

There are footnotes in this work. You can read the footnotes 
by hovering your cursor over the note, or you can click 
on the note to read it as text. There is a symbol at the end 
of each footnote that allows you to return to the text 
by clicking on it.

 

Extraordinary Events

A discussion of the Spirit is incomplete without acknowledging the reality of extraordinary events that have, do, and will occur by means of the Spirit. The nature of extraordinary experiences, however, demands caution.

Visions do happen. Voices are heard from beyond the veil. I know this. But these experiences are exceptional. And when we have a great and exceptional experience, we rarely speak of it publicly because we are instructed not to do so (see D&C 63:64) and because we understand that the channels of revelation will be closed if we show these things before the world.1

What, therefore, does one do with a story like this:

As a young girl, my grandmother Chasty Olsen Harris was tending some children who were playing in a dry riverbed near their home in Castle Dale, Utah. Suddenly she heard a voice that called her by name and directed her to get the children out of the riverbed and up on the bank. It was a clear day, and there was no sign of rain. She saw no reason to heed the voice and continued to play. The voice spoke to her again, urgently. This time she heeded the warning. Quickly gathering the children, she made a run for the bank. Just as they reached the bank, an enormous wall of water, originating with a cloudburst in the mountains many miles away, swept down the canyon and roared across where the children played. 2

Anyone who has seen a flash flood, with its initial flow of debris-fill water—hardly an enormous wall of water—knows how suddenly they can appear far downstream from the originating cloudburst.3 Whether the foregoing recitation is accurate is problematic.4 Of course, one wants to believe this story, a story told by an apostle, and there can be little doubt that things like this have actually happened,5 but how carefully do stories like this adhere to reality?

For example, the miraculous event repeated in the Church about the mantle of Joseph Smith settling on Brigham Young’s shoulders during the leadership debate after the death of Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon or Brigham Young, has  an unwarranted currency in the Church.6 Indeed, the problem with any after-the-fact recollection, particularly when repeated by someone without first-hand knowledge, is that the fact that the story tends to coalesce around what the speaker wants to believe. And there is, inevitably, a little gloss enhancing the story.7 One must be very careful to be, using the vocabulary of the Church, sensitive to the Spirit to discover if these things are true or not. That means, as discussed in the foregoing sections of this paper, using one’s head to test the probity of something extraordinary.

An example helps. The author was in the bishopric of the BYU 53rd Ward in the early 1970s. Bill J. Pope was the bishop.8 One of the ward members told a particularly moving, first-person story at a fast and testimony meeting about coming upon a girl late at night on a trail below the Karl G. Maeser building at BYU, one of the paths leading up the hill. This girl had broken her leg, but this returned missionary was able to heal her with a priesthood blessing. His description of the miracle was so vivid that I could actually visualize where it was on which path that he performed the miracle. Bishop Pope leaned over to me during this inspiring testimony—the student bearing his testimony and many in the congregation were weeping—and asked me if this sounded true. No. It did not. Bishop Pope interviewed this student after the meeting. The story was not true. He had that student stand up in front of the congregation the next week and say so.9

If Bishop Pope had asked me then or if anyone asks me today if the appearance of the Father and the Son to Joseph as he knelt in prayer makes sense, I would and will say yes. Because they would likely appear in answer to Joseph Smith’s prayer about which church to join, because the objective of the Father and the Son was to restore the Church through Joseph Smith, not merely answer his prayer.10 And it makes sense that the appearance would be to a young man not yet blinded by confirmation bias.

The appearance of John the Baptist and, later and as commonly said, Peter, James and John to restore the priesthood make sense.11 Even the extraordinary voice that saves lives in a dry wash or a voice telling someone to put on the brakes, without which a cement truck would run over the car, or being told what to say to someone in a baptismal interview who needed an unknown answer before joining the Church, or being told to look in a mirror at a particular document to discover an unknown fact that had to be shown the jury to win a case for a good man are all things that make sense considering the urgency of a particular situation and the lack of alternatives. There are ministering angels, after all.

The translation of the Book of Mormon, perhaps, or the inspiration of the Spirit one is entitled to have in his or her life was not or will not likely be like one of these extraordinary experiences. The translation of the Book of Mormon was and the inspiration one can expect in their life is the product of study, learning, knowledge, and the application of mental power to the task at hand.12 We are often obliged, in other words, to exercise our best judgment, subject to the Spirit’s restraining impressions–reservations in our own minds–if we have strayed beyond appropriate limits. We should understand that the Lord will speak to us in His own time and in His own way. This is usually by what the scriptures call the still small voice of enlightenment. 13

The still small voice–remember, this is a metaphor–of enlightenment is the illumination that comes through knowledge and study, and the restraining impressions of the Spirit is what happens when conclusions do not make sense. As Gordon B. Hinckley put it, revelation is “a perception of the mind.”14 Ultimately,  the purpose of life is to obtain experience, freely choosing one path or another depending upon our desires. Desires are the result of decisions, and the plan of salvation “would be frustrated if our Heavenly Father directed us in every act, even in very important acts. We must make decisions and experience the consequences in order to develop self-reliance and faith.”15

The problem, if it may be called that, with the extraordinary experience is that many suppose this type of experiences should be the ordinary experience for those in tune with the Spirit. Perhaps, however, the problem is the expectation of something extraordinary, which results in the failure to recognize the Spirit in the ordinary decisions one makes when living the gospel. The Spirit is there holding the light to illuminate what is already present in the mind so that connections—perceptions—can be seen.16

Endnotes

  1. Oakes, Dallin H., “In His Own Time, in His Own Way,” Ensign (August 2013)(from an address to new mission presidents on June 27, 2001).The scripture cited in this quote is: “Remember that that which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit through prayer, wherefore, with this there remaineth condemnation.”
  2. Oaks, Dallin H., “Eight Ways God can Speak to You,” New Era (Sept. 2004)(from a devotional speech at BYU on September 29, 1981).
  3. Videos of flash floods can be seen at

     

  4. This story would not be admissible in evidence to prove the truth of this event for at least two reasons. First, it is hearsay, a repetition of what someone else had to have told the speaker. Second, the story is told about the speaker’s grandmother when the grandmother was young girl: memories are reconstructed with time.
  5. The author of this paper has, personally, had similar experiences that make the reality of such events irrefragable.
  6. An article by  Lynne Watkins Jorgensen, et. al., “The Mantle of the Prophet Joseph Passes to Brother Brigham: A Collective Spiritual Witness,” BYU Studes no. 36, no. 4 (1996–1997), notes that there were no contemporary accounts of this mantle experience, and that there is disagreement as to what exactly happened:

    Most Mormon historians acknowledge the mantel story, agreeing that something important happened in August 1844. For example, Ronald K. Esplin states, “Though there is no contemporary diary account, the number of later retellings, many in remarkable detail, argues for the reality of such experience.” [Footnote omitted.] Leonard J. Arrington notes that an important event “took place” but observes that there may be may be psychological explanations for the phenomenon [footnote omitted] and reserves judgment regarding whether a miraculous transfiguration [footnote omitted] occurred. [Footnote omitted.] Others, however, have concluded that it is unlikely that a miraculous spiritual manifestation took place. Richard S. Van Wagoner, for instance, writes, “When 8 August 1844 is stripped of emotional overlay, there is no a shred of irrefutable contemporary evidence to support the occurrence of a mystical event.

    Id. at 126.

    This BYU Studies article collects all know accounts of the mantle experience, including the September 2, 1844, account in the Times and Seasons, which does not say it happened as the story is commonly retold.

  7. “Autobiographical memory is a constructive process. . . . People’s current goals and knowledge influence recollections.” Michael Ross and Anne E. Wilson, “Constructing and Appraising Past Selves,” Memory Brain, and Belief, edited by Daniel L. Schacter and Elain Scarry (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), quoted by Gardner, Brant A., op cit. at 73.
  8. He was the inventor of the artificial diamond, there is a building name after him on the campus of Utah Valley University, and he was married to Margaret McConkie, Bruce R. McConkie’s sister. Sister Pope was an inspiring gospel doctrine teacher (she sat on the Church’s curriculum committee and wrote lesson manuals she often would not use), and both she and Bishop Pope epitomized faithfulness in the Church.
  9. The author hopes and believes that most of this recollection of this event that took place more than forty years ago is true.
  10. Two precedents militate in favor of the appearance to Joseph Smith. Moses was asked to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt, and the Lord appeared to him and spoke to him “face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.” Exodus 33:11. The Savior appeared in the flesh after his resurrection to establish His Church, “Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” Luke 24:39. These and other appearances in the scriptures were extraordinary events. Not usual. Can there be any doubt that many people since Joseph Smith have asked asked the same question Joseph Smith asked (which church is right) without having a theophany?
  11. It is not clear that Peter, James, and John appeared to restore the Melchizedek priesthood according to the manuscript history of the church. The appearance of John the Baptist and his restoration of the Aaron priesthood is recorded. “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” p. 17–18, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed February 28, 2017,

    http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-1856-volume-a-1-23-december-1805-30-august-1834/24

    This restoration occurred in May 1829, and the history records that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery “continued to translate [the bible] when they were not responding to inquiries or attacks intended to confound them. “History, 1838–1856, volume A-1 [23 December 1805–30 August 1834],” p. 26, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed June 20, 2017,

    http://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-1838-

  12. A later blog posting will present the author’s thoughts about the translation process: how it was done.
  13. Oaks, Dallin H., “In His Own Time, in His Own Way,” supra.
  14. Gordon B. Hinckley’s characterization is discussed in conjunction with Part 3 of this blog,

    Operations of the Spirit: Part 3 of 12, Metaphors and Meaning, the Still Small Voice

    between footnotes 26 and 27.

  15. Oakes, Dallin H., “Eight Ways God Can Speak to you,” New Era (Sept. 2004). Faith must mean, here, what the person does because of his desires as witnessed by his decisions. It cannot be a synonym for belief.
  16. The reader of this blog should refer back to Parts VII and VIII of these postings on the operation of the Spirit to appreciate what can be characterized as the ordinariness of the Spirit in the life of one following the Savior.

1 thought on “Operations of the Spirit: Part 10, Extraordinary Experiences

    • Author gravatar

      I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced an extraordinary experience with the Spirit as described; rather, my experiences have been far more ordinary. A thought that seemingly came from nowhere, or more likely after days, weeks, or months of pondering. Recollecting facts during an exam, but after weeks of studying. Enlightenment that comes in a conversation with someone else. Recurring thoughts that won’t leave me until I go and do whatever it is that’s on my mind. The key, I agree, is to “recognize the Spirit in the ordinary decisions one makes when living the gospel.”

      I think the Spirit was intended to help us with those ordinary decisions, to help us improve incrementally on our individual journey to exaltation. Reliance on extraordinary events might fail us as, among other things, memory fades…

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