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The Crucial Question Related to Mormonism’s Dependence on Personal Revelation

by Sharon Lindbloom
7 June 2022

In an opinion piece about personal revelation published on May 28th (2022), The Salt Lake Tribune columnist Gordon Monson asks some interesting questions. He begins with a hypothetical one:

“Is there a slipperier foundational concept in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints than the one that centers on being guided by the spirit, the one that relies on inspiration and revelation from deity?”

The answer Mr. Monson is looking for is, “No. There is no LDS church concept slipperier than this.”

Personal revelation in the Mormon church, he writes, is ‘slippery’ in that the messages one receives might not actually be coming from God. “Inspiration can bless lives,” he says, “but what about when messages come not from above but from beneath – or within?”

This is an important question – and an interesting one coming from a Latter-day Saint. As Mr. Monson notes:

“This inspiration is depended on throughout the church, from top to bottom, from prophet and apostles to choir directors and hymnbook coordinators… Like just about any human endeavor, sometimes decisions are made, calls are extended and they are bang on, right on the money. And sometimes decisions are made, calls are extended, and they are off target enough to be considered wrong.” (In context, Mr. Monson is here speaking directly to the process by which Latter-day Saints receive their church callings “via the spirit, via revelation sprinkled upon those doing the calling.”)

The author’s observations about the failure of revelations that guide LDS church callings leads him to ask a third significant question:

“Does that mean God was dispensing incorrect information or that the receivers were going through the motions, guessing at answers, at whom should do what, or picking from a select group of friends, or blindly reaching, designating it as inspiration and calling it good?”

What a question. It suggests two possible scenarios that might explain the “wrong” results church members experience after having acted on their personal revelations. Both are seriously distressing. In these cases, either God was wrong, or the people receiving the revelations were deceived/deceiving. Mr. Monson sums up these two scenarios in a fourth question:

“Wishful thinking or God’s thinking?”

Images of the Restoration

That is the crucial question. What is the actual source of the revelations that are so foundational to Mormonism? From “top to bottom,” all the way back to prophets and apostles, Mormonism is built on personal revelation, a concept that Mr. Monson calls “dicey and dangerous.”

“Many a slip ‘twixt the lip and the cup on revelation,” he writes. “Ultimately, it’s up to each individual to figure what’s coming from the Omnipotent and what’s coming from the…well, someone, somewhere else.”

Indeed. Each individual must figure it out. The Bible says as much, warning against false prophets (e.g., Matthew 7:15), providing tests for determining who is legitimately speaking for God and who is not (e.g., Deuteronomy 13:1-5), and calling all Christ-followers to a lifestyle of spiritual discernment (e.g., Philippians 1:9-11).

But the Bible’s instructions for analytically distinguishing truth are quite unlike Mr. Monson’s advice. He suggests,

“A good rule of thumb is to trust your own feelings on every matter.”

Considering that Mr. Monson’s article is filled with examples of people who experienced bad outcomes after trusting their own feelings, his advice is surprising. But it does fall right in line with LDS teachings.

For example, people investigating the Mormon church are encouraged to pray to know whether the Book of Mormon is true (Moroni 10:4). They are told that God will “manifest” the truth to them, a confirmation generally understood to be found in a good feeling, as taught in LDS scripture Doctrine and Covenants 9:8:

“But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.”

An LDS church manual explains that,

“In answer to our prayers, the Holy Ghost will teach us truth through our feelings and thoughts.” (Preach My Gospel, 2004, 39)

And LDS Apostle Ronald A. Rasband taught at a 2017 General Conference,

“Sometimes we rationalize; we wonder if we are feeling a spiritual impression or if it is just our own thoughts. When we begin to second-guess, even third-guess, our feelings—and we all have—we are dismissing the Spirit; we are questioning divine counsel.” (“Let the Holy Spirit Guide,” April 2017 General Conference. See also “April General Conference Notebook,” Ensign, August 2017, where this quote is used in response to the question, “How Can I Know If My Answer Is from the Spirit or Just Me?”)

As mentioned above, the biblical approach to discerning truth is quite different. Mormonism Research Ministry’s Eric Johnson explains,

“First John 4:1 commands believers to ‘try [test] the spirits.’ Why? Because many false prophets have gone out into the world! Critical thinking is encouraged. The admonition is to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ (Luke 10:27).  It’s impossible to truly love another person without getting to know her first.  So it is with God and truth.  As a matter of fact, the Bereans in Acts 17:11 didn’t resort to praying about Paul’s message and settling for a nebulous testimony; rather, they ‘searched the scriptures daily’ and tested the apostle’s words against what God had already revealed.  For this, they were called ‘noble.’…

“God’s Word never commands believers to trust in hunches or gut feelings that could lead to disastrous decisions. Jeremiah 17:9 says, ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?’ Proverbs 14:12 warns, ‘There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death,’ while Proverbs 28:26 adds that only fools trust in their hearts. According to 1 Thessalonians 5:21, ‘prove all things; hold fast that which is good.’” (“Does James 1:5 teach about praying for a testimony?”)

Out of fairness to Mr. Monson, please note that he does suggest “if you’re of the sort” you might ask yourself if your personal revelations “match” your scripture study. But biblically speaking, this suggestion is really too little too late.

For Latter-day Saints, questions on Mormonism’s revelations remain. And some of these are of great – even eternal – significance.

Did Joseph Smith’s First Vision reflect “wishful thinking or God’s thinking?” Does an investigator’s personal revelation confirming the divine origin of the Book of Mormon come from “wishful thinking or God’s thinking?” Where does a Latter-day Saint’s personal revelation (i.e., “testimony”) regarding Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the LDS church originate? “Wishful thinking or God’s thinking?”

God calls each of us to discern the true source of revelation. If we approach that vital task in the biblical way, the answer regarding any revelation confirming the divinity of Mormonism will not be “God’s thinking.”

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