Hope & Anxiety in Stories of Personal Revelation

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?

Comments

  1. Interesting questions

    Using my mission as a marker: I can’t remember what I thought as a listener when I heard these kinds of stories pre-mission. I did hear them, and remember them, but what I thought as I listened to them then I have no idea. I can recall three times as a missionary where even in the midst of what seemed a dangerous moment, I found myself thinking, “Why, this is just like those stories that …” I even wrote home about at least two of those story-come-to-life moments precisely *because* they were stories come to life. And I seem to recall, but am not sure I trust my memory, that on one of those occasions I not only recalled the stories while I was responding to a warning sensation but expected my own to come out okay because all those other stories had.

    I also recall a conversation with a companion during a very calm, pastoral dirt-path walk through picturesque vineyards outside Lyon in search of a remote address, “Remember when you listened to stories of missionaries and imagined what it would be like? This moment is the first time when what we’re doing precisely matches a mission the way I imagined it.” But again, that was recollecting stories, not recalling what it was like to listen to those stories in the moment.

    Post-mission, I’m occasionally conscious of my reaction as a listener. Sometimes I nod in recognition — “Yup, that’s exactly the way it is/was.” Other times I tense up and reject what I’m hearing — but almost always while trying not to show my rejection — because a story doesn’t ring true to my experience, or because I pick up cues that the teller is trying to make more of it than it merits, or cast a more heroic role for himself that he deserves.

  2. “Such a story could be far more anxiety in-ducing rather then re-ducing.”

    I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

    I had a missionary companion who talked down a guy who was threatening us with a knife, when we could have easily walked away from the situation without any risk. That missionary certainly could have used a little more anxiety. A few minutes later, against my pleas, he told a member of the ward about the incident. Fortunately it stopped there, but had the ward member passed on the story, it could have caused serious concern in the ward.

    I also experienced the “get out of there” prompting on my mission, but just once, in a separate incident. And it was combined with the “this guy is pure evil” feeling.

    I’m not sure such stories belong in testimony meetings or anywhere in the 3-hour-block, as they can create anxiety for wards and for the parents of missionaries. For that matter, I don’t think they belong in the letters or emails missionaries send home to their parents. But I do think they should be told in missionary zone and mission conferences, to reinforce faith and the importance of listening to the spirit.

  3. The story of the killer/rapist who didn’t harm the sister missionaries who knocked on his door because of the “three big Indians” standing behind them usually just made me roll my eyes.

    I did, however, have two experiences on my mission that I can likely credit to some supernatural intervention.

    1. My companion and I were walking through a rough area of London, when two large young men approached us. I am six-feet tall and weighed about 200 pounds back then and had wrestled and played football in high school, so I wasn’t easily intimidated. They were both about my size and my comp was smaller than I. Anyway, one of them stepped up to me, got in my face and asked me if we were F-n Mormons. I said yes and stared back at him, waiting for him to take a swing. Suddenly his expression softened and he held out his hands and said in a quite voice “I’m sorry,” and walked away with his mate.

    The other time we were in a tower block tracting and some creepy guy was following us from floor to floor, just out of sight. He began to utter creepy phrases under his breath, then he said in a loud voice, “I will kill you!”
    I turned around to see his ugly-twisted face. Then he ran up the stairway. We got the heck out of there, thankful for his warning.

  4. Chris Gordon says:

    Thank you for sharing this with us.

    When I was preparing to serve a mission and when I was actually serving, part of me wanted to believe that I was something of a mythic hero, at least to the people I served. There are a lot of legends such as these, and I don’t doubt the truth of much of them. As a young, nervous missionary, hearing stories like this didn’t so much elevate my anxiety so much as cement that mythic nature of being a missionary. As a 19-year-old, part of me even longed for my own quasi-dangerous experiences, and hearing something like that would have only fueled that fire.

  5. Chris: I agree with that. I think missionaries often feel invulnerable because of the stories. I shudder to think of the places I went and my wife went on her mission (she went to Scotland and served in some very rough places.), and we didn’t think twice about it. Now that I’m a parent of children who want to serve soon, it does give me pause to think that they could be going down those same dark alleys and squalid housing estates.

  6. WaMo that’s true. I remember an area that had been off limits to missionaries for years that was opened up. We just went in blithely tracting. The stories we heard from the people who let us in were completely chilling. Gang rape of kids was amazingly common. I still can’t believe how people could live in such places.

  7. Another post sourced from yet another author employed at Elon University – I thank you, BCC. Tom, how many professors are there at Elon who exhibit such interest toward the LDS faith? This is fascinating.

    I am an outsider among LDS friends. So my question has been to those, particularly in S.E. Idaho, “How similar is your ‘feel the Spirit’ experience now as compared to when you went on an LDS mission?”

    I would look to the simple truth, “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit”, as critical for our life long journey as we deal with anxiety and cling to hope. Every year for me the impressions grow stronger in my story because of life experiences with threats, evil humans, demons, great stuggle, and anxiety. Personal responsibility is given to us to walk in the Spirit. And the Spirit, I would believe, not of the same species as the humans or the demons, leads the way. God being the Hero. And this path causes the creature to triumph over and over again. Hope.

    Tom, I will have to look for your book – the Mormon book of 2011.

  8. I did have one experience where I felt specifically warned of danger, and I left immediately. Otherwise, the things I would count as “revelation” have been mostly in regards to comfort, guidance in my maternal role, assurance, and the urging towards love–of myself and others. I have found themes coming into my life and appearing over and over at particular times: “Endure to the end” just before my father’s health started declining; “Wait upon the Lord” as I dealt with my children’s choices and was instructed over and over in patience. The phrases would sometimes appear almost miraculously–jotted down in a notebook I had forgotten about and opened while searching for something else; sent in a text message; staring at me when I opened the scriptures. I take all of these things as tender mercies. I do not live from revelation to revelation, waiting for a divine “okay” before taking the next step (or backing up), but I find divine guidance to simply be present as I go through my life–like wildflowers appearing at random on my path. I suspect they’re not random at all, though. I also suspect there are many which I haven’t recognized–yet.

  9. When I was on my mission, I really, really wanted to have these kind of experiences, to affirm my value as a missionary, to make the time I was on my mission special, and to make my parents proud of me…and, oh yeah, to help others find Christ. My journal was full of them. I think if you are looking for these things, you can see them, and as you say, narrate things in a way that is honest and inspirational (but maybe not always historically accurate). Faith proceeds the miracle because you have to want to believe in the promptings for the promptings to be valid, but usually it is only after the event happens that one can look back and develop the story and whether they believe it was revelation or luck. When I was “inspired” to go down a certain street, and came up with nothing, it was a non-event, or a test to see if I would stay faithful and continue to try, like Nephi going a 3rd time to Laban’s.

    Some experiences others thanked me for, but I was unsure what to think of it. For example, one time I told my companion I really needed to use the bathroom. We zoomed to the church to use the facilities. As we opened the door with our key, a man came running out of the bishops office and out of the building. The bishop came out, thanking us for listening to the spirit to come, as this man came asking for welfare money, when bishop said he couldn’t help, the man pulled a knife on him…just then, we walked in. We were happy to be there to help in this situation…but then I had to go use the facilities. I didn’t share that in my homecoming speech.

  10. Nice stories, but what do you say to the person (missionary) who actually got roughed up or worse (like myself on my mission). I had no voices, inspiration or intuition. We weren’t in a rough area, and before I knew what was happening, I was on the ground bleeding from a gunshot wound.

    Of course there are those judgemental souls who put the onus on me (was I living the rules, etc.?) as to why I would get my experience instead of the great “get out of there” stories. Maybe it was for my own personal growth.

    This is one of the problems with so many of the “faith-promoting” stories. There is no clear way to identify why/what the purpose was of the experience and no way to interpret the outcome. What about the person who prayed earnestly and was the salt of the earth and their spouse died anyway? What about the missionaries that do die? It seems very unreasonable to expect God to protect and heal us all. We would be a church full of spry Octegenerians who never had any issues. Unreal!

  11. Tom, I particularly like how this post points to the impact that listeners have on the telling of stories, not only regarding what sort of details the teller might relate in context, but in the listener’s own context which will bring different elements of the story to the fore. The missionary fresh in the field will hear a different message than the one who has been home for a decade, for instance.

    You ask what factors seem most relevant, and I think the answer will depend largely on the individual answering that question.

    PS, I’d like to take a second to plug the podcast episode featuring Tom on personal revelation:

    http://www.fairblog.org/2012/01/24/fair-conversations-episode-14-tom-mould-on-folklore-and-personal-revelation/

  12. ps- great comment, Margaret!

  13. And Paolo, great question. Reconciling some of the miraculous with some of the not-miraculous is an incredibly difficult thing to do. It may very well be the case that wrestling with your conundrum without ever reaching a resolution is the best we can do.

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