An interesting letter

I recently spent some time in Utah. As I am wont, I spent a couple days at the various archives (LDS, UU & BYU). I cast my net and received a bounty. One First Presidency letter I stumbled upon in Lester Bush’s papers at the UU reminded me of some of the comments in a previous thread on Brigham Young’s natural gifts:

Dear Sister:

Answering your letter of the 12th.

I know of no instance where the Lord has appeared to an individual since His appearance to the Prophet Joseph Smith.

Sincerely your brother,

[signed] Heber J. Grant (1)

This is a remarkable letter on many fronts. First, in a day when the only attention letters to the prophet get are in General Conference and then only when they outline the horrors of a particular vice, it is delightful to see a simple answer to a question. The First Presidency letterpress is chock full of this fun stuff well into the McKay era.

Second, it defies certain auras of special-witnessness regularly found in popular Mormon culture.

I tried to think if there were any well attested accounts to the contrary of President Grant’s statement. Without doing any actual digging, I thought of two potentials:

1. On August 1, 1890, Charles Ora Card recorded in his diary that Apostle John W. Taylor had testified that “he had beheld the Savior.” (2)

2. Lorenzo Snow’s son published an account of his father seeing the Lord in the Temple after hearing that Wilford Woodruff had died. It was published in the Church Magazine in 1933 (seven years after the letter above) and claimed that Heber J. Grant knew of the story at its happening.

_____________

  1. Heber J. Grant, letter to Mrs. Claud Peery, April 13, 1926, typescript in Lester Bush papers, University of Utah Archives.
  2. Donald G. Godfrey and Brigham Y. Card, The Diaries of Charles Ora Card: The Canadian Years, 1886-1903 (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1993), 97.

Comments

  1. What about Bruce R. McConkie’s final testimony? Doesn’t he seem to allude to the fact that he has seen the Savior?

  2. I find Elder McConkie’s final testimony quite powerful. It is however, quite ambiguous on that matter, I think. Either way, I don’t think President Grant would have known anything about it (grin).

  3. J.: Interesting letter. I take it you weren’t able to find the letter to which Pres. Grant was responding? Given the time period (1920s), I’m tempted to read this letter through fundamentalist controversies and the question of whether or not Christ (and JS) had appeared to John Taylor and Lorin C. Wooley in 1886. In that context, Pres. Grant would have ample reason to deny that that had occurred.

    Just speculation, fwiw.

  4. From President Kimball in the April 1978 General Conference:

    “I know that God lives. I know that Jesus Christ lives,” said John Taylor, my predecessor, “for I have seen him.” I bear this testimony to you brethren in the name of Jesus Christ.

    Perhaps President Grant is using Lord to refer to the Father. The letter he’s responding to might provide some context.

    I read Brother McConkie’s testimony as saying that he has not yet seen the Lord. In my mind, to read it otherwise emasculates the power of his witness.

  5. David, that is a perspicacious comment. I heard Sam Taylor (it was a recording actually) say that John Taylor never claimed to see the Lord besides that disputed event.

    While the First Presidency letterpress is currently restricted, various scholars were able to get access back in the days when it wasn’t. Incoming correspondence is something that is much more rare. So yeah, we are left guessing what the original question was.

  6. Perhaps President Grant is using Lord to refer to the Father.

    Another good possibility.

  7. “Seeing the Savior” and “the Lord appearing” can be very different things. The first could be true in any number of manifestation types; the latter seems to be used to mean exclusively the type of phycial manifestation reported by Joseph Smith in the grove.

    I can see easily how Pres. Taylor could have “seen or beheld Jesus” without having Jesus “appear to him”.

  8. “Seeing the Savior” and “the Lord appearing” can be very different things.

    I doubt it. Appearing means “to be or come in sight” last time I checked.

  9. Geoff, read in context, I think the meaning of the letter in question is clear. I might be wrong, but it seems clear to me.

    Just to illustrate, I have heard many people say that they have seen the Lord “in the events of their lives”. I have heard many others say that they have seen the Lord in a dream. I have heard a few say they have seen Him in a vision. I myself have had a small number of experiences where I probably could say that I have seen the Lord. Not one of these people, however, including me, could say that the Lord had appeared to them in His glorified, resurrected, physical form (person to person, in the flesh).

    Again, in the context of the actual quote, I think there is a big difference between the two statements.

  10. There is that late reminiscence by Zebedee Coltrin (I think) about the Father and the Son appearing to the School of the Prophets in Kirtland. I’m not sure what the source is on that.

  11. David, that would have been the minutes of the Salt Lake City School of the Prophets, October 3, 1883 (which have been published in several places). Not sure what to think about some of Zebedee’s recollections. His account of group vision of Adam and Eve with Joseph is interesting as well.

  12. Ray: read in context, I think the meaning of the letter in question is clear

    What context are you referring to Ray? The Lord appeared to Joseph Smith in waking visions on most occasions. I see no evidence for this “physical manifestation” claim you are making in the brief letter from President Grant at all (nor is it even clear that the first vision was a physical manifestation to begin with).

  13. There’s a wide disparity in “appearances” of the Lord that we don’t have a full grasp on. When the Lord appeared to the brother of Jared, he declared that (Ether 3:15) And never have I showed myself unto man whom I have created, for never has man believed in me as thou hast. Obviously the Lord had shown himself to some other people prior to that time (D&C 107:42-57), but the nature of that “showing” was apparently markedly different in the context that He showed Himself to the brother of Jared. How? We can only speculate. The same is true of how HJG responded here. I suspect that Pres Grant means literal visitation of HF/JC in the flesh as experienced JS.

  14. J.: Thanks for the source. The SL School of the Prophets was actually in the back of my head, but I just wasn’t sure if I was conflating the Kirtland SotP with the SL SotP. Like you, I’m not sure what to think of it.

  15. Geoff, “His appearance” is singular. Joseph’s waking visions are plural – and well known to Pres. Taylor. In that context, “His (singular) appearance” seems clear to me. Is there any other singular appearance you would put forth as THE appearance Pres. Taylor was referencing – that would be understood by a regular member as “His appearance to the Prophet Joseph Smith”?

    Honestly, arguing that Pres. Taylor might have meant something other than the First Vision in this letter just doesn’t make sense to me. You can argue that the First Vision doesn’t constitute a “physical, in the flesh” appearance, but I don’t think you have a leg to stand on if you try to argue that Pres. Taylor meant any other appearance than that one.

  16. I always loved this story of Hugh B. Brown retold by Mike Quinn in his Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power

    Hugh B. Brown privately related a charasmatic experience which seems unprecedented among twentieth-century apostles. Following a decade of service as a counselor in the First Presidency, Brown was release in 1970 and resumed his position in the Quorum of the Twelve. In physicl decline and unhappy at his release from the Presidency, Brown had an experience which he related to his nephew:

    “He said it was not a vision, but the Lord appeared to him, very informal, the same as I was sitting talking to him. The Lord said, ‘You have had some difficult times in your life.’ Uncle Hugh responded, ‘Yes, and your life was more difficult than any of us have had.’ In the conversation Uncle Hugh asked when he would be finished here, and the Lord said, ‘I don’t know and I wouldn’t tell you if I did.’ Then He said, ‘Remain faithful to the end, and everything will be all right.’”

  17. I’m with David. We need to sort out the context, which may have been a question about Parousia and the theology of Christ’s Second Second Coming or something about schismatics. Because it’s not accurate as a statement about visions of Jesus.

    The woman could have been writing that Jesus came to her, or her bishop, or her neighbor, and had proclaimed a new church structure, or she could have been struggling to understand how to integrate visions into ideas about the parousia.

    Or Grant may just have felt strongly that what he was writing was true, but I doubt that’s the actual whole story.

    As I think about it, this is the period when Elohim/Jehovah separations had gotten much clearer and theologically important, so Left Field’s comment may be the simple answer, that Grant was referring to “Elohim,” and the woman’s question was simply: has anybody seen Jesus’s Father in vision?

  18. Joe Geisner says:

    On pages 2-4 M.H. Extensions of Power Quinn discusses this issue in detail quoting the letter J. has sited.

    Another experience of seeing the Savior is found in Collected Discourses vol.3 page 285. Cannon is quite definite in his comment.

    I will basically be repeating Quinn, but from my perspective. One has to understand how HJG had come to view these experiences. For him those who claimed to have had these experiences were disappoints or failures in his eyes. For HJG, JWT was either a major failure or apostate since he had been excommunicated and GQC was a liar and thief. HJG also did not think highly of LS, he felt him to be a cold and unfeeling person. For HJG it made no sense that these people could have these wonderful experiences and yet he had never had a manifestation or vision and had remained faithful. It did not fit his world view. I think HJG was in a better position to make a comment like this than any of our speculation. I will take HJG at his word.

  19. #18 – “I will take HJG at his word.” – meaning what, exactly?

    We can interpret “his word” in lots of different ways, as is evidenced by the discussion so far – so please be more direct in what you think “his word” means.

  20. Aaron Brown says:

    Interesting post and comments. I agree with LeftField that McConkie’s testimony is best read as an acknowledgment that he HADN’T seen the Savior, rather than that he had. I suspect many want confirmation that the Prophet/Apostles are having the frequent, literal conversations with God and/or Christ they imagine them to be having, so they see what they want to see in comments like McConkie’s (rather than giving his comments their more obvious reading).

    AB

  21. Joe, I confess to not having carefully read all of Extensions, however, I cracked it open and revisited the section you reference. I disagree with Quinn here. The encouragement of Church leaders (and the body of the Church) to receive charismatic visitations or visions was with the Church from the very begining (Kirtland Temple pentacost, for example), but you have folks like Brigham that were fairly immune to such encouragement. Where I do agree with him, is that the leaders did eventually de-emphasize such manifestations (along with all sorts of other Charisma).

    I am also not familiar with HJG’s view that JWT was a failure/apostate. I have read that he felt that his excommunication was a great tragedy and his sympathies were with Taylor. It is true that I don’t know if Grant’s perspective changed in later years. His tension of Cannon is of course well documented.

  22. What about Loren C Dunn of the Seventy? He gave a powerful testimony at a mission conference I attended where he repeated over and over for several minutes “I know God lives”. He bore a similar testimony shortly before his death at general conference:
    http://www.lds.org/conference/talk/display/0,5232,23-1-138-5,00.html

    For me the mission conference was more powerful as he kept repeating the statement over and over and over. He said it with such conviction and emotion that I believed he KNEW something I didn’t. i.e. he knew, whereas I only believe.

    As for church leaders in general, my opinion is that any experiences they have are kept on the lowdown to not take away from the testimony of Joseph Smith.

  23. Grant didn’t say they didn’t happen,he just said he knew of none. Maybe after he thought about it, he realized, “oh yeah, that one, and that one…” Maybe he didn’t feel like talking about it. I think they’re so busy and—wasn’t he the depressed Prophet?–maybe he was just not at his best at that moment.

  24. These are all second hand or anecdotal and sadly without citations

    Del Moody, Assitant to the President to David B. Haight reported to missionaries in the MTC (I was one of them)that Elder Haight told him he had seen Jesus Christ in vision.

    James E Faust said he had a brother of Jared experience in a talk (or more than one actually) but was very vague.

    David O. Mckay, per his wonderful secretary (although not recorded in Prince’s biography) had a dream vision of Christ on his round the world mission trip. (I’d love to ask Prince why this exclusion if any of you know him personally. It is somewhat a burning question for me. It is otherwise my favorite LDS biography)

    Heber J. Grant did have a vision where he say Jospeh and Hyrum Smith. I read about this in a Truman J. Madsen book. Grant was very concerned he had not had a personal vision of Christ, but Smith told him in a dream He was where he was in part for his Father’s sake, or something like that. Does anyone have that handy?

  25. I meant where he “saw” oops

  26. From the CES manual, Heber’s visionary experience:

    “As I was riding along to meet them . . . , I seemed to see, and I seemed to hear, what to me is one of the most real things in all my life. I seemed to hear the words that were spoken. I listened to the discussion with a great deal of interest. The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had not been able to agree on two men to fill the vacancies in the Quorum of the Twelve. There had been a vacancy of one for two years, and a vacancy of two for one year, and the conferences had adjourned without the vacancies’ being filled. In this council the Savior was present, my father was there, and the Prophet Joseph Smith was there. They discussed the question that a mistake had been made in not filling those two vacancies and that in all probability it would be another six months before the Quorum would be completed. And they discussed as to whom they wanted to occupy those positions, and decided that the way to remedy the mistake that had been made in not filling these vacancies was to send a revelation. It was given to me that the Prophet Joseph Smith and my father mentioned me and requested that I be called to that position. I sat there and wept for joy. It was given to me that I had done nothing to entitle me to that exalted position, except that I had lived a clean, sweet life. It was given to me that because of my father’s having practically sacrificed his life in what was known as the great reformation, so to speak, of the people in early days, having been practically a martyr, that the Prophet Joseph and my father desired me to have that position, and it was because of their faithful labors that I was called, and not because of anything I had done of myself or any great thing that I had accomplished. It was also given to me that that was all these men, the Prophet and my father, could do for me. From that day it depended upon me and upon me alone as to whether I made a success of my life or a failure” (Gospel Standards, 195–96).”

    I think Heber distinguished “seemed to see” from “seeing”, personally… (Oh, and Quinn was wrong on this one…)

  27. Nick Literski says:

    I think they’re so busy and—wasn’t he the depressed Prophet?–maybe he was just not at his best at that moment.

    Well, HJG was the only president of the LDS church to have suffered a nervous breakdown (during his apostleship).

    I must say I find it sad that so many here feel a need to twist Grant’s words far beyond their ordinary, normal meaning, in order to protect a myth that is not even LDS doctrine.

  28. Matt, Quinn argues that that account really didn’t occur. I’m not familiar with the various source documents so can’t say one way or the other.

  29. “Well, HJG was the only president of the LDS church to have suffered a nervous breakdown (during his apostleship).”

    George Albert Smith had at least one nervous breakdown while an apostle, in 1909. See eg http://www.lib.utah.edu/spc/mss/ms36/ms36.html

  30. J. Is Quinn arguing then that Heber was lying or is making something up? Or is it that it doesn’t jive with the thesis he is derving from the above letter you mention. (which falls in line with what Grants predecessor Joseph F. Smith had said at the Reed Smoot Hearings, right? Maybe Grant was just towing the party line?)

  31. Nick Literski says:

    Thanks, DavidH. I stand corrected.

  32. Let me add, I don’t know if every apostle has had a personal face to face experience seeing Christ in the flesh. I’m not trying to protect “some myth.” I am just sharing stories I find interesting.

    So stop taking cheap shots.

  33. It wouldn’t bother me if a prophet hasn’t seen the Savior. I don’t think you have to have seen the Man to be an effective leader and a conduit for revelation. We have been given specific promises about the prophet (specifically about never being able to lead the church astray), but personal visitation of the Savior isn’t one of them. That said, a story of visitation would have more credence from a prophet than from some average member (why a member would feel the need to tell me about a visitation of the Savior is another story altogether, which HAS happened to me btw) Personally, while I don’t think I have the chops to run the church, I can be an effective leader and receive revelation. Experiences come at different times and for different reasons, and we should cherish those that we receive.

  34. Davidh #29, the link you provided for GAS described it as a physical breakdown, not a nervous breakdown.

  35. No, I think he really suffered from deep depression, I can’t remember the circumstances, but didn’t he lose a lot of loved ones tragically? That can really put a cramp in a good mood.

    I don’t think it matters whether or not they saw the Savior. Sometimes the veil is very thin and I can feel the spirit world and I assume it’s the same way for everyone, including prophets and apostles. It’s an undeniable phenomenon.

  36. re whether Apostles and Presidents of the Church have seen Jesus, it would perhaps be better if we did not imbue Church leaders with a mystique that they neither have nor claim. In fact, doing so could lead and has led to types of disillusionment problems that are unnecessary.

    Consider Elder Packer’s recent General Conference talk:

    For a long time, something else puzzled me. Forty-six years ago I was a 37-year-old seminary supervisor. My Church calling was as an assistant teacher in a class in the Lindon Ward.

    To my great surprise, I was called to meet with President David O. McKay. He took both of my hands in his and called me to be one of the General Authorities, an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

    A few days later, I came to Salt Lake City to meet with the First Presidency to be set apart as one of the General Authorities of the Church. This was the first time I had met with the First Presidency—President David O. McKay and his counselors, President Hugh B. Brown and President Henry D. Moyle.

    President McKay explained that one of the responsibilities of an Assistant to the Twelve was to stand with the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as a special witness and to bear testimony that Jesus is the Christ. What he said next overwhelmed me: “Before we proceed to set you apart, I ask you to bear your testimony to us. We want to know if you have that witness.”

    I did the best I could. I bore my testimony the same as I might have in a fast and testimony meeting in my ward. To my surprise, the Brethren of the Presidency seemed pleased and proceeded to confer the office upon me.

    That puzzled me greatly, for I had supposed that someone called to such an office would have an unusual, different, and greatly enlarged testimony and spiritual power.

    It puzzled me for a long time until finally I could see that I already had what was required: an abiding testimony in my heart of the Restoration of the fulness of the gospel through the Prophet Joseph Smith, that we have a Heavenly Father, and that Jesus Christ is our Redeemer. I may not have known all about it, but I did have a testimony, and I was willing to learn.

    Elder Packer went on in his talk to discuss principles of inspiration/revelation tied to particular stewardships (offices) as the principle for leadership by revelation in the Church, nowhere mentioning a grand vision of Jesus as a requirement for Apostleship.

    As to Elder McConkie’s rather baroque final testimony, which is very moving, I also interpret that as being a stronger testimony in stating that he had not yet seen the Savior because he concludes by saying that when he does (after he has died), he will not have a better knowledge of his existence than he already does right now.

    Nick, I agree with Ray and others here (e.g. smb) about the presence of an ambiguity that shouldn’t be overlooked in HJG’s statement. He might very well be referring to God the Father. He might be drawing a distinction between seeing Jesus in a dream or vision (which are both in the mind) and a physical face-to-face appearance as to Joseph Smith in the First Vision. He might very well have been saying that he had not had such a physical appearance and was not aware of others who had besides Joseph Smith, without addressing the issue of seeing Jesus in a dream or vision.

    I shy away from the interpretations of the letter implied in some comments above that HJG might well have been lying or obfuscating based on a strategic agenda relating to countering polygamist fundamentalism, though those are also possibilities.

  37. John, I had forgotten about Elder Packer’s statement at conference. thank you for bringing that into the discussion. I remember being quite moved during his talk as he talked about the testimonies of people in the Church.

  38. Perhaps President Grant was alluding to the fact that such experiences are sacred and would not be commonly talked about. Even as the President of the Church, it would not be his place to divulge such information without the permission of the Lord AND the person to whom He appeared.

  39. Dan Knudsen says:

    For what it’s worth, three additional items on this subject are listed.

    Charge by Oliver Cowdery to the original Twelve: “…it is necessary that you receive a testimony from heaven for yourselves; so that you can bear testimony to the truth of the Book Of Mormon, and that you have seen the face of God. That is more than the testimony of an angel….When you bear testimony that you have seen God, this testimony God will never suffer to fail, but will bear you out….Never cease striving until you have seen God face to face….Your ordination is not full and complete til God has laid His hand upon you….If the Savior in former days laid His hands upon His disciples, why not in latter days?” (Succession In The Church, by Reed C Durham, Jr. and Steven H. Heath, pages 25-26, Bookcraft, Inc., 1970.)

    While on my mission in Northern California I heard two apostles (each of whom later became the prophet) bear testimony on this subject:

    Sunday, 11/11/62–Gridley, California: Sometime in one of his two talks today, as Elder Spencer W. Kimball was bearing his testimony, he suddenly stopped and said quietly, “For I have seen Him!” Then he continued speaking, and I didn’t hear what was said as I repeated it in my mind several times. Afterwards, I went around asking people if they’d heard that and no one had. I didn’t record this incident in my journal, but have remembered it, over the years, as one of the highlights of my life–how often does one get to hear an apostle (& future prophet of God) say something so powerfully?

    Then with a month to go on my mission, Elder Thomas S. Monson came to our mission, on August 15, 1964, and spoke to us at the Tri-Stake Center in Oakland (now the Multi-Stake Center by the Oakland Temple): “Elder McCann (from S. Australia) asked him if an apostle had to have a personal witness of Christ to be an apostle; he answered that he didn’t have to, to be one, but that they were to live so that they could, & that they didn’t talk about those things because they’re so sacred to them; and, he said that it was true, that apostles did have personal witness borne to them; but all he had to say then was ‘The Church is true’, and that was enough for me.” As I recall it 43-1/2 years later, when this question was asked, Elder Monson smiled his big, wide smile, and seemed to glow as he said, “Brethren, it’s true! We don’t talk about it because it’s sacred to us.”

  40. A chapter on Angus Cannon in Supporting Saints quotes an interesting journal entry of Cannon’s from April 1906 while he was visiting Britain.

    The entry notes that after being introduced at a meeting by HJ Grant as someone who had seen Joseph Smith, he (Cannon) told the audience that he not only had seen Joseph Smith, but he had also seen Jesus Christ. He went on to describe a vision that he experienced in the 1880s.

  41. I’m coming late to the conversation here, Interesting find, J.

    jonh f. (#36), Why do you “shy away from the interpretations of the letter … that HJG might well have been lying or obfuscating based on a strategic agenda relating to countering polygamist fundamentalism”?

  42. Orson F. Whitney related one of my favorite visions of an apostle regarding Christ.
    Click.

  43. re # 41, because I don’t think Heber J. Grant was lying or obfuscating. Tough to understand, I know, but there it is.

  44. Re: #43

    But why don’t you think he was? David (and Sam) presented logical and thoughtful reasons for suggesting the possibility that he was. I was curious to know your reasons for dismissing it, that’s all. No need for the condescending and sarcastic tone.