Mention of the Spirit of Elijah in Latter-day Saint discourse is not uncommon. Interestingly, modern conceptions of this spirit are actually that, i.e., relatively modern. We typically associate the Spirit of Elijah with genealogical fervor and the passion that many people, Mormon and gentile alike, have for family history. This perspective seems to be the result of taking a concept that Joseph developed by translating/expanding scripture and then decades later reapplying the term to the original, unmodified text.
Our most famous Elijah reference is that found in Malachi 4:
5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD:
6 And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
See this discussion for the development of Joseph Smith’s perspective on these verses. In short Joseph taught that the word “turn” actually should be “bind or seal.” Consequently, he taught that the Spirit of Elijah was the ability to seal people up into eternal life and administer in all the temple ordinances:
Now for Elijah, the spirit power & calling of Elijah is that ye have power to hold the keys of the revelations ordinances, oricles powers & endowments of the fulness of the Melchezedek Priesthood & of the Kingdom of God on the Earth & to receive, obtain & perform all the ordinances belonging to the Kingdom of God even unto the sealing of the hearts of the
heartsfathers unto the children & the hearts of the children unto the fathers even those who are in heaven…
This spirit of Elijah was manifest in the days of the Apostles in delivering certain ones to the buffitings of Satan that they may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus, they were sealed by the spirit of Elijah unto the damnaton of Hell untill the day of the Lord or revealtion of Jesus Christ Here is the doctrin of Election that the world have quarreled so much about, but they do not know any thing about it, The doctrin that the Prysbeterians & Methodist have quarreled so much about once in grace always in grace, or falling away from grace I will say a word about, they are both wrong, truth takes a road between them both. for while the Presbyterian says once in grace you cannot fall the Methodist says you can have grace to day, fall from it to morrow, next day have grace again & so follow it, but the doctrin of the scriptures & the spirit of Elijah would show them both fals & take a road between them both for according to the scriptures if a man has receive the good word of God & tasted of the powers of the world to come if they shall fall away it is impossible to renew them again, seeing they have Crucified the son of God afresh & put him to an open
frameshame, so their is a possibility of falling away you could not be renewed again, & the power of Elijah Cannot seal against this sin, for this is a reserve made in the seals & power of the priesthood (1)
A search of Journal of Discourse and Collected Discourses (discourses spanning from 1852-1898) yields only two instances of the Spirit of Elijah and, in both cases, the speaker does not use it in the modern sense. E.g., Orson Pratt taught in 1872:
It is a dispensation to restore all things, it is the dispensation of the spirit and power of Elias or Elijah, “to seal all things unto the end of all things” preparatory to the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2)
It is not until the turn of the century that the now common usage appeared as an aperent misapplication of the phrase to the “untranslated” Malachi verses:
The temple-building spirit manifested among the Latter-day Saints is the spirit of absolute unselfishness; it is the spirit of Elijah, the spirit by which the feelings of the children are turned toward the fathers, and the feelings of the fathers are directed toward the children; for no man stands upon this earth alone. (3)
Now I wonder where they got that from! Surely the spirit of Elijah has spread out over the world, and it is “turning the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers, lest the earth be smitten with a curse.” (4)
Personally, I don’t mind the modern usage of the Spirit of Elijah. The deep desire for some people to do family history is no doubt inspired. It is, however, important to understand what Joseph meant by the term as well.
- Wilford Woodruff Journal in WoJS, pg. 327-329
- JD 15:53. Note however that Orson seems to conlate the Spirit of Elias and the Spirit of Elijah which Joseph taught were distinct powers (see discourse in fn 1). The other entry was Parley Pratt in 1853 (JD 1:13).
- James E Talmage Conference Report April 1912, pg. 126
- Walter P. Monson Conference Report April 1915, pg. 51