Interpreting Spiritual Experiences

In 1877, shortly after the dedication of the St. George Temple, Wilford Woodruff reported what would become one of the most beloved stories in Mormonism. He described a visitation by the Founding Fathers of America, who demanded to know why their temple work had not been performed in the Endowment House. After the experience, Woodruff quickly had the work performed for these Brethren and their wives, including such luminaries as George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.

Although this story has been repeated often to encourage Latter-day Saints to attend the temple and perform work for the deceased, I believe it has far more important implications and teachings. It turns out, of the people that appeared in vision, almost all had their temple work performed prior to their visit to Woodruff. George Washington in fact, had been baptized no fewer than three times. Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and others had their work performed by John Bernheisel in the Endowment House – the same Endowment House that the visitors insisted had not been utilized in their behalf. Why would these spirit beings maintain that their work needed to be done, when in fact it had already been performed (in some cases more than once)?

This experience, like so many others, can tell us something about the difficulty in interpreting our spiritual experiences. At the outset, I think it’s important to note that there is no reason to believe Wilford Woodruff was lying about his experience. It seems clear that, at the very least, he believed something had happened. He did go on to baptize these brethren and their wives – something he probably wouldn’t have done had he not been somehow prompted or inspired to do so. My friend Brian Stuy, who researched this topic and published his findings in the Journal of Mormon History, theorizes that Woodruff saw no difference between his dreams and actual visions, and perhaps Woodruff’s dream became a vision with various retellings.

How do we know we interpret our spiritual experiences correctly? They are immediately filtered through the lens which we view the world, making it hard to keep them pure. We all know someone who prays and receives an answer that the Book of Mormon is true, and the next thing we know, they’ve interpreted that to mean they must vote a straight-Republican ticket, attend BYU, don CTR jewelry, and pray in restaurants. But such extremes aren’t the only examples. What about a friend of mine who had a powerful spiritual experience while holding a document penned by Joseph Smith, only to later learn it was a Hofmann forgery? If we experience the divine when reading the Book of Mormon, does it really mean it’s true, or does it simply mean we’re in the right place at the right time?

Is Woodruff’s experience a cautionary tale – warning us to be careful in reading too much into our encounters with the divine? Or is it a lesson about finding value in all things, regardless of the accuracy or truth of how we deconstruct our spirituality? Or is it something else entirely?


  1. john fowles says:

    (cont.–I don’t think Holscan allows blockquotes)

    John H. wrote above:

    Take the transfiguration of Brigham Young in August 1844. As Richard Van Wagoner’s excellent research shows, people were so excited about this event that exactly *no one* bothered to write it down. Van Wagoner demonstrates, fairly convincingly, that the event most likely didn’t happen as it was later reported. That doesn’t mean *nothing* happened, but it does raise some eyebrows.

    I am not familiar with Van Wagoner’s study, but it appears that he overlooked at least one Latter-day Saint–my wife’s GGGrandfather who witnessed it happen not only wrote the experience down but also swore to it in a court affidavit.

  2. Apparently I feel like this is a pretty important message :) Sorry for the double-post

  3. Are prophets infallible? If not, why do we collectively freak out when we find that one might have made a mistake?

  4. Danithew and Dave,

    My eyes must have deceived me last night regarding the authorship of comment 7. Another example of an unreliable vision (or improper optical interpretation).

    I still agree with the comment, and apologize for the mixup.

  5. danithew, I’ll relieve you of suspicion by reclaiming ownership of my “dreams and visions are poor guides to truth” quote. It’s from comment number 7 (above) in the comment stack.

  6. David wrote that he agreed with me and supplied a quote but that quote must have been from someone else. To my knowledge this is the first comment I’ve left on this thread. I’ve checked twice just to make sure. Maybe I’m missing something. :)

    I won’t bother to state whether the position given was mine or not. The quote was something I’ve never said is all.

  7. Jayneedoe says:

    From President Hafen’s talk:

    >You might also ask yourself how much governmental intervention into the regulation of business and private life is too much. The people on the extreme sides of these questions convey great certainty about what should be done. HOWEVER, I THINK SOME OF THESE PEOPLE WOULD RATHER BE CERTAIN THAN RIGHT. (CAPS emphasis mine)

    I wonder if John Kerry read President Hafen’s talk? :-)

    As a non-believer, I found President Hafen’s talk refreshing. Though I don’t necessarily agree with his final premise (in cases of ambiguity give the church the benefit of the doubt), I wish speakers in the Church today would at least acknowledge that ambiguity does indeed exist. In my experience, living in Utah among a TBM family and community, mentioning some of the ambiguities is met with stern disapproval, and once outright shouting. Most of the Mormons I know are definitely still in Hafen’s description of “Level One.”

    This is my first post here. I’m assuming it is okay to post even if I am not a member. If not, please let me know and I will refrain from posting, even though I will still lurk. :)

    I have thoroughly enjoyed reading everyone’s posts. Your discussions remind me so much of my time in the Cambridge, MA student ward. We were actually encouraged to explore and discuss “ambiguities.” It was one of the happiest times in my life.

    Then I moved to Utah. :-b


  8. Hmmm. My third great-grandfather, John D.T. McAllister, was there with Wilford Woodruff when this occurred and, according to the family history documents (which I haven’t looked at in years) he describes the event the same way. So when you write, “It seems clear that, at the very least, he believed something had happened,” that strikes me as a careless statement, especially about an utterance by a prophet. Don’t mean to sound curmudgeonly, but I think we all need to be careful about such things.

  9. john fowles says:

    How wierd–John H. that comment beginning “very interesting issue!” was from me. I don’t know why the formatting on the line identifying the commenter was messed up. . . .

  10. I agree with Danithew, that “dreams and visions are poor guides to truth, if by truth we mean statements about the real world.” They tend to be symbolic, and as John points out, one must be careful in translating them into application or meaning.

    This is particularly the case with noncanonized reports of dreams and visions (and with other forms of noncanonized revelation). The story of the dream of the Founders, while frequently recounted, has not been formally accepted as an official revelation. Nor do I know of an official, binding interpretation of the account of the vision.

    In cases of noncanonized reports of visions or dreams, I tend to reserve judgment or acceptance. I like Harold B. Lee’s quotation of Anthony Ivins quoting J. Golden Kimball: “[President Ivins] said: “Brother J. Golden Kimball told us yesterday that he was a great believer in dreams that come true.” I wish you would think of that. That accords with my feelings. I am a great believer in dreams that have come true.” [Harold B. Lee, “Follow the Leadership of the Church,” Ensign, July 1973, 95]

    I also like the conclusions of B.H. Roberts regarding the Joseph Smith’s “Toronto Journey Incident”, in which an apparent revelation may have failed. Joseph is reported to have explained, “Some revelations are of God: some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil.”
    To which I would add, some interpretations or understandings of dreams or visions are of God and some are of man (and perhaps even the adversary).

    The story is set out at 161-62 of Vol. I of the Comprehensive History of the Church. Grasshopper excerpts the the story on a thread over at Nauvoo;f=1;t=000743;p=4 [Of course, one reason the apparent revelation, and the account, are not frequently recounted may be that the only source, at least at the time B.H. Roberts wrote the volume, was David Whitmer.]

    Elder Roberts explains with respect to that apparently erroneous revelation or inspiration:

    “How important for the Prophet’s disciples to know that not every voice heard by the spirit of man is the voice of God; that not every impression made upon the mind is an impression from a divine source. There are other influences in this God’s world than divine influences. There are men-originated influences, and even satanic influences, as well as divine influences…. But one will say, what becomes of certainty even in matters of revelation and divine inspiration if such views as these are to obtain? The answer is that absolute certainty, except as to fundamental things, the great things that concern man’s salvation, may not be expected….. Would absolute certainty be desirable? “Know ye not that we walk by faith, not by sight,” is Paul’s statement. From which I infer that this very uncertainty in the midst of which we walk by faith, is the very means of our education. What mere automatons men would become if th

  11. I believe that Joseph Smith said something about dreams in TPJS- Something to the effect that sometimes the Lord works through them, sometimes not. I don’t have the exact quote infront of me, sorry.

  12. I cast my vote for this being a “cautionary tale,” John. I think the lesson should be that dreams and visions are poor guides to truth, if by truth we mean statements about the real world.

  13. I guess I am the devil’s advocate here (metaphorically speaking only, I emphasize). Is this thread an argument in support of healthy skepticism of every prophetic utterance that is a “form . . . of noncanonized revelation?” That’s the way it reads. If so, is that a principle important to our chances for happiness? Does it combine being learned with being wise in the manner Nephi endorses? Just a few questions early in the morning. ;)

  14. I posted a link above that was too long and thus got broken. Here it is again:

    This speech by Bruce Hafen, “On Dealing with Uncertainty,” was given at BYU in 1979. It meant a great deal to me when I read it, and actually changed my life. I hope some of you enjoy it too.

  15. I think I am going to give up on this discussion, just because I’m really pressed for time (and I kind of wonder if you all want to hear opposing points of view). What rubbed me the wrong way was John’s underlying assumption: The work was done for some of the Founders already, so Wilford Woodruff’s account is therefore flawed and shows us all how careful we mist be about interpreting spiritual experiences. That is an intellectually flawed argument, and therefore careless. I commend to all of you this speech by Bruce Hafen, which changed my life when I read it as a young college student full of skepticism:$fn=default.htm

    See what you think.

  16. I’ve found that as I get older (so so old…. birthday was on Sunday), I share spiritual experiences less and less. Part of it is shyness, but perhaps a part of it is a realization that such experiences are inherently personal and subjective, and that their sharing can often lead to confusion and misinterpretation. Perhaps WW’s experience is one such experience.

    How can we know if we are interpreting our spiritual experiences correctly? If we were in OT times, we could call on a prophet, like babylonian kings calling on Daniel or pharaoh calling on Joseph to interpret dreams. Unfortunately, the prophet’s not as accessible, and the Stake President is unlikely to venture too far in his interpretations of your experiences. And so, we are left to our devices in figuring out what our experiences mean and drawing what conclusions we will.

    And let’s not crack on praying in restaurants — if you’re eating at Applebee’s, for example, you’d better pray that a) the food doesn’t kill you and b) that no one sees you eating at that crapstaurant.

  17. D. Fletcher says:

    John H,

    Would your question/paradigm be true of Joseph Smith himself? That he had visions and received actual inspiration is a given, but it might also be true that he misinterpreted other bright/creative ideas emanating from his own brain as inspiration and wrote them down as revelations.

    It might be the reason for Zelph and some disputable revelations of Joseph (like polygamy, for example).

  18. John H.: I have to confess that I have never looked in that closely at the Brigham transformation story, however, I wonder if the absence of contemporary accounts is as significant as you suggest. Perhaps it is. I genuinely don’t know. How many contemporary accounts of the succession conference are there period?

    There are lots of dramatic and important events about which we have few if any contemporary accounts. For example, most of the debates in the Constitutional Convention are attested to by a single source — Madison’s notes. Most of the other members either didn’t take notes, took them very inconsistently, and didn’t write much of anything in letters or diaries. There are large portions of the proceedings of the Second Continental Congress (which prosecuted the American Revolution) about which we have very little in the way of contemporary documents. Likewise, most of Joseph Smith’s earlier career is attested to by virtually no contemporary documents. Both traditionalist and revisionists rely on documents from long after the fact. Take a look at Vogel’s “Early Mormon Documents” books and note how many of those documents are actually from after Joseph Smith’s early ministry and even his death.

    To be sure, we ought to be skeptical about events unattested to by contemporary documents, but it seems that we should also be realistic about the coverage of contemporary documents.

  19. John H.: My understanding is that while baptisms had been performed previously, other temple ordinances had not. Indeed, my understanding is that other than baptism there were no vicarious temple ordinances (eg washing & annointing, endowment, sealing, etc.) until the dedication of the St. George Temple. I confess that it has been several years since I looked at the history of temple ordinances, so I may well be remembering things incorrectly here. Does Stuy address this issue?

  20. john fowles says:

    John H.: very interesting issue! I have often wondered about the role of dreams in prophecy and revelation. On the one hand, I very much believe that God can and does use them to reveal his truths, as in Lehi’s dreams and in dreams from my own ancestors and family which have served as guidance to us and which have comforted us greatly. On the other hand, I think that the quote from JS that David provides above is very important–that some revelations (which includes revelatory dreams) are from God, some are from man, and some are from the adversary. Korihor is a case in point, if we are to take him at his word that an angel revealed to him the message he was to preach. So I endorse your concern that we approach such with caution. (But of course you know my view on following a prophet, however that plays into this concept. . . .)

    One small side-quibble. You wrote above

    Take the transfiguration of Brigham Young in August 1844. As Richard Van Wagoner’s excellent research shows, people were so excited about this event that exactly *no one* bothered to write it down. Van Wagoner demonstrates, fairly convincingly, that the event most likely didn’t happen as it was later reported. That doesn’t mean *nothing* happened, but it does raise some eyebrows.

    I haven’t read Van Wagoner’s study but he overlooked at least one Latter-day Saint who wrote the experience down. My wife’s GGGrandfather not only wrote it down but swore to it in a court affidavit. . . .

  21. John, a historical question: do you know whether the wives’ work had also been done before the WW incident? Maybe they came to WW because they were getting lonely :)

  22. John, I guess I was struck by the irony of your arguing that people need to be careful how they describe spiritual experiences, but you yourself seemed careless in your analysis of this story. Your premise is that because the ordinance work had already been done for many of those who appeared to Pres. Woodruff, then they must not have/probably didn’t/wouldn’t have needed to/ appear to him. Therefore, his account is questionable. Are you so sure? I don’t think that is a careful approach to a prophetic experience that the prophet in question took the time to tell over and over and to commit to writing.

  23. Kris:

    The wives’ work had been done. Of course, Woodruff did do work for some lesser-known dignitaries that hadn’t been taken care of. But of the people that visited him, and that he specifically spoke of (like Washington), it had been taken care of.

  24. L.W. Jorgensen et al., in The Mantle of the Prophet Joseph Passes to Brother Brigham: A Collective Spiritual Witness, 37 BYU Studies 125 have a slightly different perspective from Richard Van Wagoner’s regarding this spiritual event or recollection of spiritual witness. (I may have the BYU Studies volume number wrong; the article can be ordered at their website.)

    They acknowledge that there is no contemporaneous recording of the event. But they cite 82 individuals who later reported directly or through others some version of the “collective spiritual experience” confirming the passing of the mantle.

    I do not know if Van Wagoner has published a subsequent response.

  25. Lowell actually brings up an interesting point about how events are interpreted when there’s more than one participant. We hear that “in the mouth of two or three witnesses,” but even dozens of witnesses can apparently make mistakes.

    Take the transfiguration of Brigham Young in August 1844. As Richard Van Wagoner’s excellent research shows, people were so excited about this event that exactly *no one* bothered to write it down. Van Wagoner demonstrates, fairly convincingly, that the event most likely didn’t happen as it was later reported. That doesn’t mean *nothing* happened, but it does raise some eyebrows.

    The point might be, human beings can do a pretty good job of convincing themselves of something, even with no evidence. Six months after 9/11, my wife and I traveled to New York. We got our tickets for the viewing platform and walked up the ramp to see the devastation first-hand. On the ground in the middle of the viewing platform was a pile of black and white dirt or ash – it was difficult to tell. Very quickly, word spread through the dozen or so people that this was debris from the site. People started snapping pictures and ooohing and aaahing appropriately. Finally, someone asked a cop on the platform what it was. He smiled and said, “It’s salt for when the ramp gets icy. People have been taking pictures of it all day.”

    People don’t have to work hard to believe what they want.

  26. Lowell,

    I appreciate your concern. However, it seems a little odd to be warning me about what I say, without addressing the issue at all. Let’s say there was a vision. Why did the Founding Fathers ask to have temple work done when it had already been done for them? That’s the question – not how “carefully” I stated something.

    Sorry if I’m being a bit snotty. I just went through a lengthy thread at another blog where, after just about everything I said, I was suddenly the topic of conversation, not the issue at hand.

  27. Nate:

    He does. The problem is in the statement of the Founding Fathers that the Endowment House had not been utilized for their benefit. Since only baptisms had been performed in the Endowment House, the assumption would be that baptisms were the ordinances referred to.

    Also, Woodruff only then went and baptized the Founding Fathers – the endowment ordinances were not performed until later.


    I’m not familiar with the BYU Studies article – thanks for mentioning it! I’ll read it soon. I didn’t mean to imply that no one ever recorded the 1844 transfiguration – many people did. But not until years later. Can you imagine if President Hinckley died, and in Conference President Monson would be transfigured to look like him – and then not a soul wrote it down? I’m not saying that nothing took place. Clearly people felt like Brigham was the right leader. But even after the event there were plenty of schism threats, particularly from Strang.

  28. OK, I blew the link again. Sorry! Here:

  29. Rereading John’s original post, I’m hardpressed to find anything “careless” in it. He uses Wilford Woodruff’s vision to pose an interesting and relevant question: How do we know we interpret our spiritual experiences correctly? No one has answered it, which isn’t surprising because it has been debated for thousands of years with no generally accepted response.

    An alternative approach to considering why certain visions or events (or, more technically, accounts of visions or events) become, like WW’s vision, “one of the most beloved stories in Mormonism,” is to ask what support or usefulness it provides those who do the repeating. WW’s vision seems to tell Mormons that George Washington and other Founding Fathers are aware of the Restoration, affirm it, and have vicariously joined the Church. Mighty comforting to modern Mormons. Obviously, if George Washington had appeared to WW and said, “You should all be Deists!” it would not have become “popular” with Mormons even if WW had written it down for posterity.

  30. Chris Grant says:

    Speaking of contemporaneity, the “some revelations are of the devil” quote appears in David Whitmer’s _An Address to All Believers in Christ_, where it was recorded 57 years after the fact, and also appears in _Defence in a Rehearsal of my Grounds for Separating myself from the Latter Day Saints_, which, though attributed to Oliver Cowdery, is alleged to be a forgery based largely on Whitmer’s _Address_. Does the statement appear in any reliable contemporaneous accounts?

  31. There was a real discussion in the early Church about the founding fathers, their weaknesses and whether they should receive the ordinances.

    The vision that we are discussing addresses that issue as well, and I always took that part of the message as the important part of it.

    I think that often a story has different tellings depending on the message that we find important in it.

    E.g. many tell this story to point out that the Church is true and the ordinances are important.

    I see it as a cautionary tale that we should be careful of judging others and an important marker of how God judges men (and women) by the light they have and how they fulfill their purpose.

    With the Church being rebuked, in some part, for judging those in the past by a different judgment than God applied.

  32. To the contrary, John, I think the truthfulness of the gospel and the Book of Mormon mean that a near straight Democratic ticket is appropriate. The fact that many or most members (and leaders) think and vote differently is additional evidence that God loves and works with us in spite of our weaknesses.

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