By Eric Johnson
Note: The following was originally printed in the November/December 2022 edition of Mormonism Researched. To request a free subscription, please visit here.
Most of the work done in the 170+ temples of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints located around the world is performed by faithful Mormons on behalf of those who are no longer living. Church members are taught that they need to do genealogical research on their ancestors so special temple “ordinances” can allow spirit messengers to present the LDS gospel to them in “spirit prison,” the next stage of progression.
A church manual states that spirit prison is
“a place in the postmortal spirit world for those who have ‘died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets’ (D&C 138:32). This is a temporary state in which spirits will be taught the gospel and have the opportunity to repent and accept ordinances of salvation that are performed for them in temples (see D&C 138:30–35). Those who accept the gospel may dwell in paradise until the Resurrection. After they are resurrected and judged, they will receive the degree of glory of which they are worthy.”True to the Faith: A Gospel Reference, 81
The belief in this type of intermediate state is a set up for Latter-day Saints who believe the work they do in their temples is carte blanche for communication with deceased spirits.
The Dead Will be After You
In chapter 15 of our book Mormonism 101, Bill McKeever and I document “Masonic and occultic background” of the LDS temple ceremony. Matter-of-fact spirit sightings have been reported over the years by a variety of Latter-day Saints. For example, the deceased signers of the Declaration of Independence, among others, are said to have appeared to President Wilford Woodruff at the St. George temple.
Woodruff said on September 16, 1877,
“The dead will be after you, they will seek after you as they have after us in St. George. They called upon us, knowing that we held the keys and power to redeem them. . . . I straightway went into the baptismal font and called upon brother McCallister to baptize me for the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and fifty other eminent men, making one hundred in all, including John Wesley, Columbus, and others; I then baptized him for every President of the United States, except three; and when their cause is just, somebody will do the work for them” (Journal of Discourses 19:229).
When I inquired about this event two decades ago, a hospitality guide at the temple’s visitors’ center became very excited and told me, “Yes, these have all been documented.” He proceeded to show me a notebook full of newspaper articles about this event and others as well. Of course, no amount of articles could empirically “prove” what was described by Woodruff, as everyone is required to trust Woodruff in his report since there were no witnesses.
This temple has been the scene of many other spirit appearances. For instance, on March 19, 1914, Horatio Pickett, a St. George temple worker, wrote,
“Do those people for whom this work is being done, know that it is being done for them, and, if they do, do they appreciate it? While this thought was running through my mind I happened to turn my eyes toward the southeast corner of the font room and there I saw a large group of women. The whole southeast part of the room was filled; they seemed to be standing a foot or more above the floor and were all intently watching the baptizing that was being done.”Joseph Heinerman, Temple Manifestations, 68.
Another worker, John Mickelson Lang, said that in 1928 he “distinctly heard a voice at the east end of the font, very close to the ceiling, calling the names of the dead to witness their own baptism, allowing a moment for each spirit to present itself” (Ibid., 70).
Someone might assume that 21st century Latter-day Saints no longer desire to have similar encounters with “deceased spirits.” That, however, is not the case. In the third volume of the historical series titled “Saints” (subtitled “1893-1955, Boldly, Nobly, and Independent”) published by the LDS Church in 2022, Apostle John A. Widtsoe (1872-1952) and his wife Leah are featured in chapter 18 (“Any Place on Earth”). Reflecting on the tragic death of their son Marsel, the book records the following on page 277:
“It was tough for John to visit the area where his son had served faithfully. Yet he took comfort from an experience he had shortly after Marsel’s death, when the young man’s spirit came and assured him that he was happy and busy with missionary work on the other side of the veil. The message had given John courage to face life without his son.”
The passage continues:
“Leah also drew strength from this assurance. Previously, knowing that Marsel was cheerfully laboring in the spirit world had not been enough to pull her from her depression. But the mission changed her perspective. ‘The knowledge that our son is busy over there as we are here in the same great cause gives me an added spur to increase my activity and zeal,’ she wrote in a letter to a friend in Utah. Marsel’s death was still a painful memory, but she found hope and healing in Jesus Christ.”
Note how the author says that Leah claimed to have “found hope and healing in Jesus Christ.” Based on what was written, isn’t most of her comfort nothing less than the result of her husband’s encounter with the spirit of her son? This comfort has nothing to do with Jesus.
Encounters with spirits in the temple
What is disconcerting about the passage in this newest church history volume is that the LDS Church apparently wants to encourage its members to seek personal encounters with the dead. I have spoken to several Mormons who claim they have had their deceased spouses, children and parents speak to them in a variety of ways.
For instance, as I was evangelizing at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002, I had a conversation with an older gentleman across the street from Temple Square. He specifically described how his wife had recently whispered into his ear while he sat on a couch in the temple’s celestial room and told him things that only she would have known.
Writing on one online site, a woman attributed her temple experience in a nonchalant manner:
“I took my great grandmother’s name to the Dallas temple one day. I went in, not prepared for anything special, just a day at the temple. We knelt on the prayer altar, which much like any wedding prayer altar, as my husband was proxy for my great-grandfather and I was proxy for his wife. I had my head bowed and was holding my husband’s hand across the prayer altar and I felt someone kneel beside me. I peeked and no one was there. I figured it must have been my imagination. I closed my eyes again. It felt like someone was kneeling beside me, as I could almost hear them breathing. I just knew someone was right beside me. I peeked again. No one was there. I thought about it and realized that my great grandmother had visited me in the temple that day and had participated in the temple ordinance. So now I believe in them.”
Notice how easily she attributed this experience to her relative.
What should be the Christian’s response?
The Bible ought to be consulted to determine how encounters with spirits should be viewed. For one, there is the example of Saul who approached a medium at Endor to inquire about speaking to the deceased prophet Samuel. Although there are several possible interpretations about who it was that appeared to him, we know that this was not the right thing for Saul to do. In fact, he lost the kingdom that very day.
Jesus and the apostles never encouraged their followers to pursue spiritual meetings with the dead. Of course, Jesus did have communication with demons but He never had a friendly dialogue. Consider Acts 19:15 and its description of how the “itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, ‘I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.’ But the evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” What seemed to be a good thing (expelling demons out of a person) turned into a hairy situation.
Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 4:1 that “the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.” Ephesians 5:11 says, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” Ephesians 6:12 adds, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
A Latter-day Saint could counter that only “evil (or demotic) spirits” need to be shunned. How can someone detect an evil spirit according to unique LDS scripture? D&C 129:4-5 explains: “When a messenger comes saying he has a message from God, offer him your hand and request him to shake hands with you. If he be an angel he will do so, and you will feel his hand.” Verse 8 adds, “If it be the devil as an angel of light, when you ask him to shake hands he will offer you his hand, and you will not feel anything; you may therefore detect him.”
Does this “test” sound like a discerning way to determine between good and evil spirits? Demons certainly could have the ability to transform themselves into peaceful apparitions. It is very dangerous for anyone to open themselves up to questionable forces that should be shunned.
Philippians 4:8 says that “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
While some Mormons may find it a positive pursuit to seek out deceased spirits of loved ones, there is no biblical precedent for such a mindset. Just how many will use the example given in this church history book to justify possible attempts to contact loved ones ought to be a concern.