Tom Mould is a folklorist and author of the most underrated Mormon book of 2011. He is a professor at Elon University.
In talking with people about their experiences with personal revelation, a number of current and former missionaries regularly shared stories of being guided in their work, often by receiving revelation to knock on a particular door, behind which inevitably waited a person eager for the young man or woman’s message. In other cases, that divine guidance protected a missionary from the angry, disillusioned people who pose mortal as well as psychological threats. In fact, the danger of the mission field was a theme that emerged again and again in stories of personal revelation.
Take the story of a recent missionary in North Carolina. He was nearing the end of his mission, having been in the field for almost two years when he shared the following story, with a bit of help from his current companion.
Spencer: Me and my companion were visiting a family that lived in, what do you call it?
Adam: Boarding house type deal.
Spencer: Boarding house.
Adam: Half-way house kind of.
Spencer: And we were visiting a family that lived in this little one, one, [he’s searching for “one-room” apartment] a room about this big [indicates the size of the small classroom we’re in which was probably ten by ten], a family of four. And they were like the second door on the right, down the hallway. And as me and my companion walked in, you know, everyone there, you know, was having those struggles with drugs and alcohol. And they were under the influence of things that just weren’t good.
And, so we walk in, and a couple of the guys there were acting, you know, buddy buddy at first, with us. And then one of them, who we met on the streets a couple of weeks earlier so we knew who he was and he knew who we were, and he kept trying to get us to come to this room with him. And he was on something. And I told him, you know, we’ll be there in a little bit, we’re visiting this family, we’ll come back.
Anyway, we went and visited the family, and I was standing in the hallway because, you know, we shouldn’t go into the rooms of a single woman, that’s what it was, so we’re just kind of standing in the hallway, and he kept coming back out of his room into the hallway, and you know, saying, “I told you I wasn’t finished with you yet. Get back in the room.” And we kept telling him, “We’ll be right there. We’re visiting these people.” He kept going in and out saying the same thing, like four or five times, and I kept giving him the same answer that we’ll be right there.
And at that point, I just remember the…like the…you know, it’s the…the Spirit, and it wasn’t like an audible voice, but it was a voice that you feel, you know, telling you to leave, that you needed to get out of there right now.
And so I told my companion that we needed to leave. And as we were walking out, you know, I knew we had to walk by his door to get to the front door, so I was just praying, you know, for something to happen for us to be protected. And as we walked up to the door, I peeked in and I saw him sitting right next to
the door, but his eyes were closed. So we snuck out, and there was another man that was in there with him. His name was Shorty, that’s what they called him. So there was two men, Mike and Shorty, and uh, as we were leaving, Mike was the one sitting by the door with his eyes closed.
And we got up to the front porch and then Shorty started yelling for us to pray with him. And I was just waiting for Mike to wake up, because Shorty was yelling to come out to try to get us again. But then, Mike never woke up. And so, Shorty came out to the front porch, and we prayed with him again one more time, and then we left, because we were able to get another member of the church to come back and pick up this family to take them to dinner. So we were planning on coming back in five minutes and so we left, contacted the member, said a prayer, asked for protection as we, before we went back.
Went back, and we’re not even gone five minutes, and when we got back, the Raleigh police department was all there. And we get out and the guy, Shorty, was standing on the porch and he was holding a napkin, he was bleeding, he was stabbed. And he was yelling that he robbed him.
And Mike, and his wife I guess, were there as well, and they took off.
And the police caught them and brought them back.
And we were like, “Yeah, that’s them,” and, “We know his name.”
Tom: Oh, Mike robbed them.
Spencer: Yeah. Mike robbed him and stabbed Shorty. And the member of the family that was in the room next door, she heard the shoving and the yelling so she locked her door and called the police on her cell phone.
So. I mean, that was just, you know, the Spirit was just like, “Don’t go in that room,” and “Get out of here.” And so as we listened, and as we left, the Lord protected us on our way out and then, we were gone, and then it happened, and then everything was taken care of.
But it was one of those experiences that shakes you up a little bit, but makes you grateful for the Spirit and the importance of living your life to where you recognize those promptings and like I know I need to do this. And then you go and do it. The Lord has protected me, in that situation.
Stories enter the world cloaked in context, surrounded by factors that shape interpretation: who told the story, to whom, at what point in the conversation, motivated by what impulse and to what ends? In this case, a young missionary, sitting with his current companion, shared a story with me, a professor from the nearby university, about an experience receiving personal revelation. The experience clearly rattled him, as he says when he wraps up the story. But he also expresses gratitude.
Now imagine, for example, that the story above was shared on a 5th Sunday, a missionary Sunday, during sacrament meeting. Of course, the story would be dramatically shorter. And there’s a good chance that the missionary giving the talk would focus much more on the prompting, and much less on the disturbing details of the actual experience (there’s much more to say on the subject of the power of situational context in shaping how we narrate, but perhaps for another time). For many in the pews listening, especially those long out of the mission field or who never entered it, the story might inspire hope primarily, and great thanks for such a loving, protective Heavenly Father. The anxieties of tracting may seem aberrant, the dangers an anomaly, God’s protection the norm. But consider the reactions of other missionaries in the pews. Consider how the greenie fresh from the MTC might respond. Living in a new state, away from home, following the strict covenants of the mission field, such a story could be far more anxiety in-ducing rather then re-ducing.
While variations in responses can no doubt be traced to shifts in setting as well as a whole host of other factors, it seems that a major distinguishing factor lies in our own specific positioning to the story: with whom we identify in the story and the degree to which we can empathize, not just sympathize with them.
I am not a psychologist, and presuming to understand individualized interpretations, particularly emotional responses, is certainly folly for a person such as myself trained to look for larger, shared patterns in culture. But considering which factors play a significant role in interpretation is surely a question worth asking. After all, stories hardly serve the narrator only. Understanding how they are interpreted is at least as interesting as what the content of the story conveys and why a person chose to share it.
I am not a member of the LDS church, but I expect most if not all of you reading this are. Missionary or not, I also expect you have heard stories such as the one above, perhaps even have stories of your own. While the lion’s share of attention has typically gone to the narrators, I wonder if the listeners out there who have heard these stories and have responded in any of a number of ways, might chime in. What are the factors that seem most relevant as you make sense of these stories, especially as they shift from one telling and situation to another? Is the tension between hope and anxiety one that appears logical on the page, but falls apart in practice and experience? Or is this tension felt in very real ways when hearing stories of personal revelation filled with danger, even when that danger is averted and avoided?