The peculiarities of Mormonism arose from the unique way in which God’s Spirit interacted with Joseph Smith’s particular culture and personality. Is it a coincidence that Joseph Smith, a young treasure seeker and dowser, received his first revelations from buried golden plates and seer stones? Is it a coincidence that the Book of Mormon is steeped in Methodist-like atonement theology when Methodism was a central religious focus in Joseph Smith’s family? Is it a coincidence that our masonic temple ceremony was revealed soon after Joseph Smith was inducted into masonry? Is it a coincidence that polygamy was revealed after Joseph Smith began questioning its practice in his translation of the Bible? None of this casts any doubt on the validity of Joseph Smith’s revelations. But these coincidences do suggest that all revelation is in fact, personal. Revelation reveals more about the unique manifestation of God within us and within our cultural understandings than it does about objective realities outside of ourselves.
Mormons generally believe that Joseph Smith’s revelations present God’s will for all mankind. Joseph revealed that God is a creature of flesh and bone, and for us this is an objective, universal reality, not simply the personal way in which God interacted with Joseph Smith. But is this really a correct theological assumption?
Authority and Personal Revelation
The church teaches us that God speaks to us in one of two ways: through personal revelation, and through authorised priesthood leaders. The message from these two forms of communication is supposed to be the same: our personal revelations confirm the truth of what the prophets have said. The prophets never say “take my word for it.” They ask us to go to the Lord and seek confirmation that what they are saying is true. Herein lies the authority of the prophets: not that they can simply say “God’s will is…” and expect everyone to obey, but that each individual receives a personal revelation confirming the truth of what the prophets have said.
So prophetic revelation is also personal revelation. Joseph Smith’s revelations only become authorised truth for others after other individuals receive their own personal revelations confirming Joseph Smith’s revelations as true for themselves. The principle of stewardship applies even to prophets. No one can claim revelation for anyone else, even within their stewardship, if God does not confirm the truth of that revelation to that other person.
“He That Hath Ears to Hear, Let Him Hear.”
This principle is illustrated in a number of scriptures, particularly Matthew 11:15 where Jesus proclaims: “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” This scripture suggests that God only calls those who are actually capable of hearing His voice. And not all are capable. In another scripture God says “I will shut their eyes and stop their ears that they see not and hear not, and be not converted.” Elsewhere, God says “You are called to gather mine elect, for mine elect hear my voice, and harden not their hearts.” The “elect” are understood to be a distinct group of people who are actually capable of hearing the voice of God from heaven, not just capable of hearing the audible words from the mouths of prophets. This is a very special call for a very special group of people. Desire is also important. “If you desire to serve, you are called to the work.” If you don’t desire, you are not called. I believe this is also the way Jesus meant His command “IF you love me, keep my commandments” (if not, don’t bother). As the Book of Mormon says, “if a man give a gift grudgingly, it is the same as if he retained the gift.”
Judging Outsiders: Revelations Differing from Our Own
On my mission in Italy my companion and I once met a beautiful young woman who invited us in and carefully listened to everything we had to say. This was such a rare and wonderful occurrence that we were sure we had found a golden investigator. She promised to read the passages we marked in the Book of Mormon and pray about them. We stopped by a few days later and asked if she had read and prayed. She said she had, and that God had told her that the Book of Mormon was not true. My companion and I were floored. This had never happened to us before and we didn’t know what to say. Dubiously, we suggested that perhaps she should try again. But she was extremely confident in her revelation and didn’t see the point. Looking back, I feel bad that I judged her so harshly. Maybe God didn’t want her to become a Mormon. Maybe she was one of those people of whom He said “I will blind their eyes and shut their ears.”
We are not the only church that receives revelations. While few other churches conceptualise their revelations in testimony meeting form: “I know that (such and such) is true,” non-members nevertheless have remarkable experiences with the Spirit which are every bit as powerful as our own. You often hear them say “God moved me to do this…” or “I felt called to do that…” or “I suddenly knew that…” These personal revelations may not move people to join the Mormon church, but they do encourage people to do many good things within their own unique religious or cultural paradigms.
Mormons have no claim upon these people, and no right to judge them. If we expect people to listen to our own testimonies with an open mind, should we not give others the same privilege? Should we not honour all revelations which have led to good, even if they contradict our own: Joan of Arc, St. Francis, Billy Grahm, Buddha, Mohammad?
Contradictions Between Revelations
Contradictions between our revelations and others do not give us the right to judge them as false. Any cursory reading of the scriptures from Genesis to D&C demonstrates that God’s revelations sometimes differ and contradict themselves. In D&C 19 God explains that the now-abandoned doctrine of eternal hellfire was only preached to the ancients “that it might be more express upon their hearts.” This doesn’t mean the ancients were wrong. Nor does it mean that our conception of the afterlife is objectively correct either. Both we and the ancients are simply following the revelations God gives to us personally.
A Revelation About Ourselves
Revelations often say more about the divinity within us than they do about objective realities outside of ourselves. Joseph Smith once said: “if we do not understand the character of God, we do not understand ourselves.” We understand God as we are. And God reveals Himself to us as we are. People who are loving and forgiving understand God as loving and forgiving, and this is often how God reveals Himself to them. People who are strict and judgemental understand God as strict and judgemental, and this is often how God reveals Himself to them. I really liked Hawkgrrrl’s Jungian analysis of the First Vision, where she argued that the First Vision revealed as much about Joseph Smith’s nature as it did about God’s nature.
Again, none of this should cast doubt upon the validity of Joseph Smith’s revelations. All revelation is personal. But one man’s personal revelation can often be applied to another man, because we are all connected in some way, especially those who share the same generation or culture. Joseph Smith’s Mormonism might resonate with us because we are Christians and the Book of Mormon is saturated in beautiful atonement theology. It might resonate with us because we are conservative, and this is a theology that celebrates family values. It might resonate with us because we are progressive, and Joseph Smith taught individuals to build Zion and eliminate poverty. It might resonate with us because we are a Chinese person looking for a way to reconcile Western Christianity with Buddhism, and Mormonism has a karma-like doctrine of eternal progression.
The beauty of Mormonism is that it presents modern personal revelations from modern prophets which resonate with modern peoples. Other religions have to rely on ancient personal revelations which may not as easily resonate with modern peoples. This does not mean that all modern peoples will be called to Mormonism. But many are called, and thus Mormonism is one of the most dynamic and powerful religious traditions existing today.
- Do you agree that all revelation is personal?
- Do you agree that prophetic authority can only be claimed if someone else receives a personal revelation to follow that prophetic authority? Do you agree that the scripture “he that hath ears to hear, let him hear” means that prophets only hold authority over those who can actually hear and understand them?
- If we receive a personal revelation, how should we react when someone else’s personal revelation contradicts our own? How do you interpret revelations within the scriptures that contradict themselves?
- Do you agree that personal revelations reveal more about the divine within us than they do about objective realities outside of ourselves?
I love this post. So well written and wise. I’ve had these type thoughts and I’m so glad someone took time to write them more eloquently than I would have. Thank you.
Yes, Rev is very personal
Yes, reveals more about the divine in us
Yes, we cannot judge others (even if they seem counter to HF, he could be using them for good or allowing Satan leeway for the benefit of learning for all people)
Prophets also reveal revelation for the people and their release of it is a call to those who haven’t listened to HF yet but they may not hear.
That is an interesting approach.
Having been deeply within some really bad situations in the past, I am not sure i would have heard God if he had stood in front of me and shouted in my face. However, to have someone come up to me afterwards and say that God had told them what was happening and they ‘wished’ they had done something about what they believed God had told them,but they hadn’t – i wish they had too – it then would then have been up to me to go back to God and verify what they had been told. I believe that most personal revelation is just that, personal, but sometimes God loves us so much that he will get his message through anyway he can in the hope that those who need it will get it in time to make a difference to them and their lives. The same would go for me – if I felt i had received revelation for a family member or a friend I would tell them quietly, but then expect them to go away and ask God to confirm or deny what I had told them. I have learnt to say and walk away because it is no longer anything to do with me.
Personal revelation changes our hearts and therefore who we are completely if we allow it to, but it is up to us, i doubt it has anything to do with sense of hearing, but more our sense of feeling. We can disagree with someone else’s personal revelation, but that doesn’t make it wrong or untrue.
Do you agree that personal revelations reveal more about the divine within us than they do about objective realities outside of ourselves? Yes! Spirit always speaks to spirit and we receive things line upon line, or a little bit at a time when we are ready to accept what God needs us to know.
I do not think that all revelation is personal.
All revelation comes through a person, and has that person’s filters and gifts and capacities that limit how it gets communicated to others.
But some revelation is not intended to be personal to one person and then just happens to be shared with others.
God sees there are some people who are prepared to receive the messages he wants for a greater audience. He uses those vessels to get the message out intended for others to hear.
To keep order, there is priesthood keys so it helps us mortals figure this out.
But there are also some revelations God tells the prophets not to share with others, that they are more personal in nature.
The confirmation of revelations is personal to each of us, whether personally intended revelations or priesthood key revelations.
But not all revelations are intended by god to be to the same audiences.
Because god is using mortals, even if he is choosing the ones most ready to be his mouthpiece, they are influenced and limited by their understanding and culture. They will get it wrong. There will need to be updates, revisions, and further revelation to clarify it, or correct it entirely and the prophet has to realize they got it wrong or other prophets got it wrong. That will happen.
I think there should be a distinction made between revelation that is personal to each individual and we seek to make sense of it for ourselves, and the priesthood revelation INTENDED for the church or for others within our stewardship that comes through an individual, that is validated by others, but is always revelation that is not personal.
The restoration was not personal revelation to Joseph as an answer to James 1 and then blew up into a whole church movement because that is how people interpreted it. It started with God’s intent, not with people’s reaction to it.
Have you ever had a conversation with a political enthusiast that is sure their party platform is the only way for the country to not implode? It is the same with revelations. What prophets reveal for some purpose to some group of people does not necessarily mean that is the only way that can be done for everyone for all eternity. But we are egotistical and feel if it is right for me, it must surely be right for everyone.
The woman in Italy who received revelation you couldn’t understand is fine. It does not need to be framed as “wrong, try again” or “the devil imitates god to thwart the plan”.
We don’t need to use extremes. Everything is not personal revelation. Everything is not universal.
Revelation announced by a prophet seems more public than personal, unless you mean that it comes to us filtered through his cultural lens.
I think prophets have authority whether we get a confirmation or not. They have the authority, or duty, to receive and announce revelation. I believe we are accountable only so far as we understand laws or commandments.
I see adequate room for personal revelation that might contradict what a prophet preaches. As Elder Nelson once said, apostles and prophets teach the rule, not the exceptions to the rule. *Exceptions are left to individual agency and accountability.* That sounds to me like, Go with your conscience, but be willing to account for it.
I’m willing to let others interpret what they receive as “revelation.” It’s just that I’m going to act according to what I understand to be right.
And as for contradiction within the scriptures, I see that as my wide-open door to decide the matter for myself.
Greedy, good point about personal revelation can contradict. Or maybe sometimes it seems like a contradiction on the surface, but really it is all about how things are understood and applied where contradictions and interpretations exist.
For example, Elder Uchtdorf talked in last General Priesthood session about not giving up on marriage and not getting divorced.
But, my personal revelation contradicted that. When I give my specific situations to bishops and SPs, they can see it is not a contradiction I felt impressed to divorce. My situation was not what Pres Uchtdorf was talking about.
Those kinds of things need to be considered. Some things that look like contradictions to others, are not contradictions to me. Simply, personal revelation for my situation, and prophetic revelation for the body of the church.
I’d been busy and abandoned this post after writing it.
Some good comments, thanks everyone.
Heber13, good comments. I only say “all revelation is personal” as a way of emphasising the fact that all individuals are entitled to personal revelatory confirmation of other people’s revelations on their behalf. At the end of the day, God is speaking to each individual, either through the Holy Ghost, or through prophets. So revelation’s end is always in the individual heart.
The problem with giving too much emphasis on blanket prophetic revelation as applicable to all mankind, is that we judge others too easily. They may not be getting confirming revelation, they may be led down different paths. The only thing we can “know” regarding the prophets is that it was confirmed (to us individually). That is spiritual knowledge, and it is the only religious knowledge that there is. Everything else is in a realm outside of our stewardship and experience. Everything else is mere assumption and judgement.
Greedy Reader, as far as prophets having authority, whether we get confirmation or not, I think it has to do with power. Authority is inseparable from power. That is why they always say “the power and authority” of the priesthood. Authority with no power is NOT authority. In the UK, if you park on private land, private parking attendants will give you parking tickets. But those “in the know” realise that these private parking attendants have no power to enforce the tickets as they are not held up in court. So they don’t have to pay, and there will never be any consequences.
The “power” in the priesthood comes from the Holy Ghost and it’s confirming power in the hearts of individuals who hear the word. As it is written, “amen to the power of the priesthood” when the Spirit is not present.
So when a prophet speaks revelation, that revelation is ONLY authorised when there is a power to confirm it to the hearts of “those who have ears to hear.” Otherwise, there IS no authority.