President Gordon B. Hinckley is the 15th president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He has led the church since March 1995.
Could I ask you a little about revelation itself? Some scholars who have not experienced it describe it as communication with God, but distinct from impressions or insights. How would you describe it or explain it?
I think it's best described in the experience of Elijah, when there was a great wind, and the Lord was not in the wind; and a great fire, and the Lord was not in the fire; and then a still small voice, and the Lord was there. That's the best description I know of the process of revelation.
I gather that in your church, revelation can have as its subjects monumentally important events like ... the revelation on the priesthood -- but it can also be about smaller things.
Oh, of course. We believe in continuous revelation. We believe this church is guided by revelation. We pray, we ponder, we think, we ask, and we receive direction as to what to do. I think that's going on all the time. That's faith. Story of this church. That's the reason it's made such tremendous progress, and it's going on all the time. Without it, we just stand still. With it, nothing can get in our way.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a former president of Brigham Young University.
Revelation. … For you, how does it work in your life? ...
As a person, it has been a reality, as real as you sit before me or I sit before you. I think it's much more common for many people than ... people who are not members of the church [understand]. This is God's love for the person, ... and it's a promise ... that's given from baptism onward. ... The introduction to covenantal life in this church is a baptism by water and a baptism by the spirit, which is, by definition, a revelatory experience. ... That is the formal introduction to what for the first eight years of their lives was instinctive. ...
[Revelation] is so common and so fundamental that we fill up with it like a fish in a tank of water: You don't even know it's there until someone takes you out of it. You don't even know how much you have until you're in a time in your life when you don't feel that closeness. That's how real revelation is for us from our childhood onward.
It certainly has been a deeply personal reality for me, ... as a sudden lightning strike, an absolute thunderbolt of revelation on the level of the parting of the Red Sea -- and from there on out to gentle, sweet, procedural whisperings; a gentle nudge here and there with no voice and no words and no texts. ... There is nothing more pervasive in our lives, in the Latter-day Saints' experience, than the quest for and reality of and promise of personal revelation. ...
Revelation is central and defining to this church; it's supposed to be possible for everybody. What is the distinction between that and what other religions ask of their members in terms of having an ongoing conversation with God?
... It is defining for us, but at the personal level revelation is not very different for me, the Latter-day Saint, than for her the Episcopalian and him the Methodist. Or take this to Eastern religions; take it wherever you want. ... I don't think I'm more favored by God's direction or prompting than you are or my neighbor of any persuasion. The reason that it is so defining for the church is our institutional commitment to revelation, starting in with the revelation of the prophet Joseph Smith and continuing to what we declare and defend and acknowledge the president of the church to be receiving for us to this day. ... But I would hasten to not seem to have the corner on [the personal-revelation] market. The institutional thing is where we would find it more defining.
Kathleen Flake is a religious historian and author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.
The Mormon sense of revelation is different. ... People believe in the spirit. Probably the most dramatic expression of their belief in modern revelation is this conviction that the Book of Mormon is the word of God; that the Book of Abraham is the word of God; and that Joseph Smith, as a prophet speaking for God, could look at the Bible and add the word of God to the Bible, where God actually speaks new words in the Bible. That kind of conviction of not rephrasing, but speaking the words of God, probably gets you closer to understanding what is different about their revelation.
This is not some exercise in reading the Bible and saying, "This is what God meant." They believe they stand there and speak for God, and certainly their prophet speaks for God.
So to summarize, Mormons' emphasis on revelation is distinct in what way?
If I were to try to characterize the distinctiveness of Mormon revelation, there would be two elements to it. One is the expectation of it and the openness to all of those biblical experiences. If you were to talk to Mormons about it, you would hear them describe those experiences that would track Paul of Tarsus and Jacob and his ladder, all those stories -- the hearing of voices, the dreaming of dreams, the having of visions in a very modern people.
The other dimension would be the conviction that if you don't get this, you are not living the religious life. You have a mission to perform, and if you do not get direction on that through revelation, you have failed in your own religious life. The Bible is lived in all its immediacy, and God does have an expectation that you will come and talk to him about this and get this revelation. ...
Terryl Givens is a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond and author of By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture that Launched a New World Religion.
What is your definition of revelation?
Joseph Smith referred to revelation as pure spirit, pure intelligence, communicating the pure intelligence, and I think that if we really believe in a God who is a personal God ... that we have to believe -- unlike [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, who famously called prayer a soliloquy -- that it has to be a dialogue. And if it's a dialogue, then that presupposes actual content that is communicated, that passes from one entity to another, from one person to another person.
So I believe that revelation can take many forms, but the common thread that underlies any true experience of revelation is that there's a personal agent at the other end of the conversation who is communicating something of value and meaning that is personalized to the person at the other end. It can come through intimations of the heart; it can come through dreams; it can come through an audible voice. It can come through the unfolding of experience; it can come through the actions or the words of others to which the spirit bears testimony that there is a divine consciousness behind the communication of that idea or message or understanding. ...
You've said revelation is the scandal of Mormonism [in] the way the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ is the scandal of Christianity. ...
The kind of revelation that Joseph describes is the scandal of Mormonism in the same way that the resurrection of Christ is the scandal of Christianity. What I mean by that is that on the face of it, that's an affront to sophisticated notions of how the universe works. God doesn't deliver gold plates to farm boys. It's a cause of embarrassment to many intellectuals in the church to continue to insist that Joseph had literal gold plates given to him by a real angel that he translates through the Urim and Thummim [an ancient type of seer stones].
But I also mean that it's a scandal in the sense that it is inseparable from the heart and soul of Mormonism, that one could no sooner divorce the historical claims of the Book of Mormon from the church than one could divorce the story of Christ's resurrection from Christianity and survive with the religion intact. ...
... [Talk about] the range of revelations, from the most mundane to the most exalted, in the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C]. ...
One finds in the revelations of Joseph Smith an immense range of subject matter. One can go to the Book of Abraham, where he describes in vision pre-mortal councils where God himself participated, and we were present as unembodied spirits. One can go to section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which was called just The Vision, in which he describes the glories of the celestial world and the inheritance of those who go to the celestial or the terrestrial kingdoms. Those are examples of revelations that are about as exalted and transcendent as one could ask for. Then one can also find a number of revelations in which he tells people that they should open a print shop on this property, or they should sell this property here, or that they are called to New York to do this. His revelations range from the sublime to the mundane. And yet I think that there's no contradiction there.
One of the hallmarks of Mormonism, and of Joseph Smith in particular, is the collapse of sacred distance. Joseph insistently refused to recognize the distinctness of those categories that were typical in traditional Christianity, the sense that there is an earthly and a heavenly, a bodily and a spiritual. ... He did this in ways as divergent as commenting on the fact that God himself was once as we are, that he is embodied; by arguing that when revelations came to him, they came through vehicles as palpable and earthly as seer stones, or Urim and Thummin, or gold plates. ... Every time that we think we have found an example of what we think is a dichotomy, Joseph collapses it into one.
Time and time again that served as an occasion for much of the antagonism and hostility toward Joseph Smith.
Marlin K. Jensen is the executive director of the LDS Family and Church History Department and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.
I think the genesis of it all is Joseph's experience in the Sacred Grove in Palmyra, N.Y., in 1820, when, as a young boy, seeking the truth about religion, he went into the woods near his father's farm and prayed to God, having read a Scripture that said that "If any man lacks wisdom, let him ask of God."
And in what we refer to as a theophany, this connection between God and man, he was blessed to be visited by God the Father and by his Son Jesus Christ. And in that moment, he still had the presence of mind to ask and to fulfill the purpose for which he came, which interestingly wasn't to ask, "Is there a true church?"
I've always been struck, honestly, with the question he posed: "Which of the churches is true?" He thought there was a true church. That would have been the logical thing to think. And so he asked that: "Which of them all is true?," not "Is there a true church?," which, even in that question, I think, tells us something about his sincerity, his honesty. The answer was that none of them were. I mean, that was an earthshaking answer. I'm sure that it came as a very big surprise to him.
But from that experience, so much is to be had: the idea that there is a God, that Jesus is his Son; ... the idea that you can pray and receive an answer; the idea that there is a true church, there is one way to live life that is approved by God and his Son. There is so much to be learned from that one experience, and when it becomes the foundation, not just for a church but for one's personal life, then you can see why there's no chance, really, to turn that into a metaphor. ...
There are different variations of that story that have come over time. How do you account for that? Does that bring up questions for you?
Yes. I've actually studied the various accounts of Joseph's First Vision, and I'm struck by the difference in his recountings. But as I look back at my missionary journals, for instance, which I've kept and other journals which I've kept throughout my life, I'm struck now in my older years by the evolution and hopefully the progression that's taken place in my own life and how differently now from this perspective I view some things that happened in my younger years. ...