Moved by the Spirit

Today, I want to explore the concept of spirituality; I find it both deliciously simple and complex. To do so, I post a snippet from a paper I wrote roughly a decade ago.

According to the anthropologist Sherry Ortner, societies often have certain symbols that carry great weight in constructing a community. She calls these key symbols, in part, because they are either logically or empirically central in organizing the other images, signs, rituals, and behaviors, in short the meaning system that composes the society. I think spirituality is one such in Mormonism.

“Spiritual” serves as an adjective to describe the ideal of religious behavior, i.e. righteousness, according to what I have heard in my various wards. It is a characteristic of the leadership, almost by definition. And it forms an ideal for which we should strive; it is the measure of our lives and something that distinguishes one member from another. As part of Mormonism, as a symbol, it connects religious value, by contagion, with those to whom it is attributed. It is invoked in our meetings and given presence in our daily lives.

As such it operates with an apparent simplicity and clarity appropriate for the transcendent. Yet it also seems to have behind it a complex assemblage of different meanings and to easily slip from Mormon usage into popular American parlance. It is not hard to move from Mormon spirituality to new age practice.

Bruce R McConkie writes in Mormon Doctrine that “Spirituality is that state of holiness, purity, and relative perfection which enables men to enjoy the near-constant companionship of the Lord’s spirit; truly spiritual men walk in the light of personal revelation and enjoy the frequent promptings of the Holy Ghost.”

This passage suggests several things. First, “perfection”, righteousness, or perhaps even piety, are important for spirituality. Second, it involves a relationship with the Lord’s spirit–what McConkie describes as being “in tune with spiritual and eternal things”. Third, it suggest the doctrine that one frequently hears in church that in order to receive spiritual promptings, that is to be spiritual, one must be righteous. Fourth, McConkie connects this with the hierarchy of the church when he writes, in the next sentence, “they [truly spiritual men] are always sought for to serve as patriarchs and in other positions of church responsibility and leadership. It is not uncommon among the true saints to hear such expressions as, ‘President McKay is a very spiritual man.’ The thought behind this is that he has so lived as to overcome worldliness and put himself in tune with spiritual and eternal things. He has been born again”. McConkie further argues, “one of the greatest endowments a mortal man can receive is the gift of spirituality, the talent and ability to recognize and cleave unto the truth.” He sees this ability as a gift of the spirit and at the same time a result of talents and abilities which one developed in the pre-existence.

What a complex theological bundle! Among other things, McConkie includes that bit of difficult Mormon logic that resolves grace and works, by arguing that spirituality results from a person’s endeavors at perfection, which is circularly defined in terms of spirituality, and as a gift from God. This subtlety is an extremely difficult one to remove from its Mormon milieu, with its wisdom that one should pray as if everything depended on God and work as if every thing depended on oneself. McConkie further argues that spirituality indexes two related hierarchies. It accompanies those who attained greater position in the preexistence and it distinguishes those who occupy church position today.

Since symbols that are as abstract as spirituality, require tangible referents to make themselves observable, they often depend on semiotic downward mobility. They are attached to more concrete things. In this case, the answer to the question of how one can recognize something so rarified as spirituality in other people is not simply, because the Spirit of the Lord whispers it to your soul, but that it is obvious, because the really spiritual people are the members of the Church hierarchy. Thus we can measure people’s spirituality by comparing them to Church leaders we might know or to the tales, legends, and myths that compose the cult of personality we build around our leaders. This gives us a fairly tangible set of behaviors, attitudes, styles, and fashions to connect with the overly abstract concept of spirituality.

I have heard people in Utah argue, somewhat sardonically, that the measure of spirituality along the Wasatch front is how high up on the benches a person lives, that is how high a social position the person occupies. Actually, joke aside; this is what we would expect from this kind of connection between a social order, the church, and a marker of status such as spirituality. But the comment goes further and relates spirituality to the measures of secular success, housing location hence wealth and secular prestige. Weber writes about a similar conjoining developing in Calvinist Protestantism.

Furthermore, McConkie follows another common social dynamic in locating the source of temporal, that is this worldly, social hierarchy in what Bakhtin called the absolute past, which fortunately lies out of the reach of most critics. The heavens are invoked to justify present order. Durkheim somewhat wittily reversed this common pattern to notice that people around the world tend to project their social order onto the heaven so that God becomes a symbol of society.

Both of these are problematic in a complex society. Since they anchor the current social order in their cosmology, they must defend both against competition. If either one is challenged then the other shakes as well. Thus any questioning of the hierarchy can quickly escalate into an iconoclastic mess, and vice a versa.

This also makes the transplanting of Mormonism tricky, since one cannot simply place new wine in old wine skins–one cannot simply separate the gospel from culture and society and pour it into the vessel of another society and culture. Rather the two are intimately conjoined. Transplanting Mormonism, to return to the earlier metaphor, requires that a package of ideas, practices, and social organization, which mutually imply one another, be placed in some one else’s soil. Unfortunately their fields will only allow certain things to grow and will stifle the rest. They will split asunder what Mormonism puts together. Many of these challenges will be seen as tremendously threatening and will provoke a strong reaction from Salt Lake, since they challenge not merely a social order, but also the very cosmos and the church’s place in it.

McConkie throws a potential wild card into the mix however, when he defines spirituality as being able to hear the whisperings of the spirit. Although he pre-defines, pre-limits, for most purposes, what the Lord might utter to what the church says–in fact, the common measure of whether a piece of inspiration comes from the right source is whether it is in harmony with the “teachings of the brethren”, i.e. with church hierarchy–yet this invocation of mysticism at the center of a critical Mormon key symbol has the potential for destabilizing its structure.

The poet Marden Clark perceives this. He argues that this forms the axis along which Mormonism has shifted since his youth in a thought provoking essay entitled “The New Mormon Mysticism” (Liberating Form, Aspen Books, Salt Lake City, 1992, pp. 103-118).

According to Clark (p 103-104):

When I was growing up in Morgan during the 20’s and 30’s, we seldom if ever heard such expressions as ‘Yield yourself to the Spirit’ or ‘Let the Spirit guide you’ or ‘You’ve got to lose yourself wholly before the Spirit can speak to you.’ We were, of course, exhorted to pray for the guidance of the Spirit, to listen to the still small voice, to seek the companionship of the Holy Ghost. But the emphasis on the spirit simply was not central to our experience of Mormon religion. Our ward chapel was central. ‘Attend your meetings’ was, ‘magnify your callings’ was, ‘get your ward teaching done early’ was, and late in the thirties ‘Go to the welfare farm’ became central…Assuming my memories are accurate and my experiences typical, then the emphasis on the Spirit which a Mormon sees and feels all around today is comparatively new and must surely represent one of the most significant theological and spiritual developments in the Church in our time.

Clark distinguishes an earlier Mormon spirituality built primarily on ward and personal activity, rather than on a mystical connection requiring the subsumation of self to the spirit. In some senses this refers to another Mormon key symbol, testimony, which has probably been reworked to reflect more the idea that it is a personal “witness” from the spirit. Although controlled by the group, this individual mysticism, this worship of loss of self in the flames of God’s soul, as Clark argues is paradoxical.

The first of the paradoxes is perhaps the most troublesome: Because it is the Spirit it would presumably always be the same and totally consistent, and yet we are all aware that it can speak differently and manifest itself differently to different people at different times. Any one who has sat in bishop’s councils or other councils of the church has experienced the wide variances in how the spirit is evidently moving the members of the councils. It may be true that those councils usually arrive at something close to unanimity after discussion and prayer. But it is sometimes a very painful process, in which one man’s version of the Spirit may vary significantly from another’s. Human beings, sometimes even those notably closest to the source, are notoriously individual and sometimes weak and variable receivers of the Spirit.

To salvage the notion that the Spirit speaks with one, uniform voice, Clark chooses to focus on the variability of the receivers. But there lies a difficulty, since the variability can either call into question the “worthiness”, to return to an earlier point, or the spirituality of a given individual or can call into question, with equal or greater force, the nature of the spirit and its relationship to the church and its members. Thus the working out of unanimity after the fact of inspiration, which must be argued as prior, i.e. inherent in the Spirit, becomes a process fraught with danger.

Inevitably, turning inward, to find an inner voice subjects critical portions of Mormon life to the vagaries and intangibles of its members’ internal lives and psychologies. They must be taught to form a split inside themselves, between their own feelings and those they identify as coming from the spirit, and must check periodically to insure that the spirit tells them the same things the church teaches. If they perceive a difference, they should think that they are not righteous enough and perhaps receive their inspiration from a source other than God. This internal reorganization is quite difficult to accomplish in cultures where such a possibility is not foreseen.

But the same may be said of our entire complex of spirituality. It is complicated, subtle and very much the product of American society at this time and place. Yet Spirituality lies at the center of the Gospel. It is part of the ordinary, daily practice of Mormonism.


  1. I don’t know if it is possible to nail a fried egg (or green jello) to a wall, but you have come very near to doing it. Thank you. I will now go back and read it again.

  2. McConkie’s being able to hear the whisperings of the spirit resonates with me.

    Spirituality is one’s proximity to God.

  3. I think spirituality is awareness and respect for power outside of oneself, which translates into comportment that transcends the vagaries of social structures. The most “spiritual” people I know are the ones who take the time to commune with God in the ways they know how, and try to live according to the principles they feel have been communicated to them through that process, who do this without pretense or prevarication, without expectation of notoriety or reward for living the way they do. I’m not sure I agree with the tone of Elder McConkie’s definition, nor how it attempts to reach into the social life of church service and leadership as a benchmark to spirituality.

  4. Thanks David. I do think that in the Church spirituality has come to mean harmony with the leadership of the Church and with its correlated teaching, with promptings of the spirit that are also in harmony with the Church leadership and correlated teaching.

    I think of spirituality differently, something somewhat along the lines of SteveS. I perceive spirituality as a sense of humility, of connection to God and God’s children and creations, as a life motivated by love, words and actions spoken by a heart of goodness, usually with quiet little known acts of reaching out and helping others.

    I have a known a few people in my life who are spiritual in this sense, even some in the local leadership (including most patriarchs), but most people I have met who are spiritual in this sense are not leaders in the Church, and several belong to other faiths or do not espouse any religious faith. I do not think being spiritual in this sense is inconsistent with being a leader in the institutional church, in fact, I think it makes one more effective in the long run.

  5. Latter-day Guy says:

    If the validity of one’s spirituality, or rather, a particular spiritual prompting or message is judged primarily on it’s agreement with already-enunciated counsel (revealed or otherwise) then what value can it have? If it is only going to tell you what you have already heard, then why bother listening? Why not save time and just do as you’ve been told? How does this position not reduce the spirit to a warm fuzzy, a hit from the god-bong? If we have already decided what the spirit may validly tell us, then why go to the trouble?

  6. David, just something to consider:

    The word “spirituality” appears in our entire canon a grand total of 0 (zero) times. “Spiritual” appears 45 times – and only a handful of those references deal with someone *being* spiritual. The vast majority refer to “spiritual things”. “Righteousness”, otoh, appears 274 times, and “righteous” appears 214 times. Nearly every instances deals with a human condition that we are to become.

    I believe spirituality is a modern term that largely is used as a substitute for righteousness. Given how “spiritual” is used in the scriptures, however, I am a bit uncomfortable with this mutation. There are elements of “spirituality” within “righteousness”, but “righteousness” includes some very important connotations not present in “spirituality”.

    I might be nit-picking about this, but I just can’t shake the idea that there is a reason we are told to hunger and thirst after righteousness (“being right with God”) rather than spirituality (“understanding or being in touch with spiritual things”). Frankly, some of the most “spiritual” people I have known in my life have not been “righteous” in their actions – and the heart of the Gospel, imho, is not what we “feel” (our “spirituality”) but whether or not what we feel transforms what we become (our “righteousness”).

  7. At our Branch Conference in May, the Stake President told us that speakers would be chosen during Sacrament meeting “as directed by the Spirit” and that was how I was to phrase it in the program. Personally, I like the “house of order” method better, but no one asked me.

  8. “Spiritual…. It is a characteristic of the leadership, almost by definition.”

    We cannot always determine, by observation, the “spirituality” of any person, be it a church leader or anyone else. However, generally I have found those in church leadership positions to be commandment keeping, worthy individuals. There are many gifts of the spirit; the gift of administration is one. I’ve always thought this gift applied to those in church leadership positions.

    I’ve a found, over long years, that the Lord is with church leaders, but that doesn’t mean the Lord is involved in every decision leader’s make. I believe the Lord steadies His earthly kingdom more than He carries it. Otherwise, where would are agency and personal initiative be exercised. I can see ten church leaders coming up with ten different approaches and solutions to the same set of circumstances, and yet be acceptable to the Lord. Maybe they would get different grades, so to speak, but still within the bounds of wisdom. The Lord, if He chooses, can fine tune the results for those on the receiving end of the “works” of our leaders.

    The church has been the source of blessings and trials in my experience. Both of these add to our stature as we follow the Savior.

  9. Perhaps a derail, but it seems to me that there are lots of interesting things that we might learn about spirituality from others who have considered the question, ranging from St. Teresa de Avila to Ken Wilber.

  10. “I have heard people in Utah argue, somewhat sardonically, that the measure of spirituality along the Wasatch front is how high up on the benches a person lives…”

    I think there is much truth to this statement. A broad definition of the gifts of the Spirit would include the native “intelligence” a person is born with. In our culture those who do well academically are more adapt to do well financially. Most of the homes on the bench are owned by those in the professions, and those with entrepreneurial talents. These saints, as a general rule, also have good skills in administration which makes for successful Stakes and Wards. However, this is but one measure of “spirituality”. In my opinion, it can be said scripturally that this level of spirituality can miss the ultimate goal and might be roughly equivalent to “the honorable men of the earth” definition found in D&C 76:75.

    There is another level of Spirituality that is the real goal, and requires those who receive it to be involved in the things of the Spirit on a level that isn’t measured by leadership positions. At this level the Lord uses terms like “born again”, “justification”, and “sanctification”. All of these terms have one thing in common: these saints have been reconciled unto him (the Father) through the atonement of Christ…and [will] be presented as the first-fruits of Christ unto God…(Jacob 4:11). This kind of spirituality is not acquired at church in-and-of-itself, but is found while pleading with the Lord in the silent chambers of the heart while in might prayer. This kind of experience is represented over and over again in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is written by those who have received the Second Comforter and are inviting all who desire to do the same. Each of us must to receive the First Comforter and then we will be on the high road to being the “first-fruits”.

    I’ve altered the following scripture to make the point that we are not saved by the church anymore than the Nephites were saved by the law of Moses

    24 And, notwithstanding we believe in Christ, [we’re active in the church], and look forward with steadfastness unto Christ, until the [the purpose of attending church] shall be fulfilled.
    25 For, for this end was the [church established]; wherefore [church activity] hath become dead unto us, and we are made alive in Christ because of our faith; yet we [attend church] because of the commandments.
    26 And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins. 2 Nephi 25:24 – 26

  11. Peter LLC says:


    We cannot always determine, by observation, the “spirituality” of any person


    I think there is much truth to this statement [that the measure of spirituality along the Wasatch front is how high up on the benches a person lives].

    So which is it? Difficult to observe or as plain as the elevation on the bench?

    It would be pretty handy if we could develop a spirituality index based on easily measurable criteria like square footage, though there would have to be a mechanism for excluding outliers like lottery winners, professional athletes and rappers.

  12. ” Was Nauvoo more beautiful than Salt Lake City?”
    “Much like it .” he said. “Only there, the temple stood above the Homes.” ( pg 768 “Children of God” 1939)

  13. Kristine says:

    It seems to me that spirituality is also a heavily gendered notion in the church–that cultural expectations of a “spiritual” Mormon woman are very different than those for a man, even though in some ways the characteristics we call spiritual skew feminine in broader cultural norms. (Hence, perhaps, the silly insistence that women are “naturally” more spiritual than men…)

  14. david knowlton says:

    In what I posted I was seeking a description and analysis of what I have seen in the wards I have lived in and the ones I have studied. The point was ethnography, grounded in people’s behavior and thoughts. But I think the comments raise some important points.

    Ray points out how infrequently spirituality appears in the cannon. Yet the Spirit and related words, such as spiritual and spirituality are frequently spoken in wards. They seem key to so much of Mormon life and experience. As a result we can ask how those words (symbols, concepts) relate to both behavior and to texts. Statistical presence of a word in the scriptures does not seem to correspond to weight in actual speech or behavior.

    Many of the responses argue to an ideal spirituality, or to a broader spirituality that is partially within and partially without some LDS views. While I think there is a demonstrable and enforced normative system of spirituality, there is also the green jello of comment #1, it shifts and bends at different times and places. There is diversity.

    Pete LLC brings up an apparent contradiction. I say it is apparent because it is between actual innerness and the social definition and measure of that innerness. So while we ultimately cannot know a different person’s inner life, Mormon society attempts to establish ways of knowing, ways of measuring people vis a vis each other. Thus Peter it is both. That is part of the analytical problem.

    Jared brings up another part of the slipperiness, i.e. the difference between what is the real spirituality and what is its human, and hence generally lesser, manifestation. This kind of platonism perfuses much of Christianity. Mormonism and other Christian faiths.

    Part of what I was trying to point out is that Mormon spirituality is particular, not universal, and thus not so easy to communicate in different cultures and contexts. All of this is part of its richness and particularity.

  15. david knowlton says:

    I agree with you Kristine and have seen that in interviews.

    It is an important point.

  16. Kristine, that is part of the reason why I am uncomfortable with a focus on spirituality rather than righteousness.

    When the ideal we identify is tied up in how we *feel*, it is easy to alter “spiritual” into “emotional” – and from there assume that those who appear to be more emotional (can cry more easily, can empathize more readily, are more prone to share their emotions, are more prone to bear their testimonies, etc.) are more spiritual. I know I am speaking in very general terms with myriad exceptions, but I think almost everyone who reads what I just wrote would have a hard time not picturing women instead of men.

    Personally, I think we tend to believe that women are more spiritual than men specifically because we have altered the original meaning of “spiritual”. To me, spirituality is not the end; it really is just half of the necessary balance with proper physicality that constitutes righteousness of an entire soul. I’m not sure how to say that properly, since I don’t mean to denigrate spiritual things at all, but I just don’t see spirituality as an end result of its own – and I am wary of the results that occur when it becomes such.

  17. david knowlton says:

    Ray (and Kristine). In common usage righteousness and spirituality shift into one another. There is more to this, however, than simply a religious discussion.

    As Anderson and many others note, in the separation of sectors of Western society, the space of logic and reason was reserved not only for men, but for the formal, economic and political sector of society. nationalism and the soul of a people became a place of the spirit, as did the ostensibly residual category of religion. At the time women also were located in this place of the heart, soul, emotion, and spirit.

    This political economic happening makes a religious discussion difficult. It is difficult to make a clear separation between spirituality and righteousness, although this problem has troubled Catholicism (i.e. case of Sta. Teresa de Avila, etc.) and in some ways troubles Mormonism.

    You raise, Ray, the contrast between physicality and soul. That difference troubles any discussion of spirituality, yet one LDS reading is to insist on the materiality of the spirit and hence spirituality as well as the quality of reighteousness of the vessel, the body, in oder to receive the spirit. In other words it would argue for a harmony of physicality and spirit.

  18. Thomas Parkin says:

    I think I understand, Ray, and I really like what you are saying. Maybe this will help.

    Although we use the word differently right now, a ‘spiritual’ capacity is itself morally neutral. One can be plenty spiritual, and have a character black as death. It is more like physical strength and health, or intellectual ability. We should certainly strive to develop such things – and a spiritual capacity is even, as neccesary to living the gospel, more important to develop than nearly any other attribute. It is certainly better to be physically strong than weak, or bright rather than … dumb. It is also better to be a good writer than a poor one. It is better to have spiritual capability than not. But there is nothing about being physically strong, intellectually capable, a good writer or a marked spirituality that makes one a good person. They are only tools and capacities to be used. _How_ they are used is the thing – and ‘righteousness’ seems like a good word for the goal we should be working towards.


  19. I was taught growing up, you could only show your inward “Spirit” by your outward actions, efforts, love of toward others, etc. ( And private prayers to God) The plain outwardly showing of your “spiritual inside” was called “piety”.
    Also, I reject how much status or education you have show how much spirit you have.

  20. David,

    Do you view spirituality as more related to transformation of the individual into something other than s/he is at a particular time or more related to enhancing or enriching the experience within a particular personality or neither?

  21. Ray, you have described in # 6 something that I have also observed amongst acquaintances and friends. I would agree that personal righteousness, as exhibited by actions, to be somewhat different from “spirituality”, or sensitivity to the promptings of the spirit. When David talks about the many manifestations of the spirit, he describes how individuals are perhaps gifted or otherwise more sensitive to spiritual promptings than others.

    There are, I believe, scriptural passages that tell us that we are more receptive to spiritual communications as our personal righteousness increases, but the two are not always directly correlated. Maybe another way to describe it is that if personal righteousness is represented by x, and spiritual receptiveness by y, you can’t really graph all combinations of x=y uniformly, as 2x may not always equal 2y. For some, spiritual sensitivity is the starting point, rather than personal righteousness.

    Greenfrog, # 20, I would tend towards the latter view, an enhancing, rather than transformating, experience.

  22. #21, I was editing transformative to transforming, and came up with transformating. Could be a new field of study, or perhaps a cartoon series, ie The Transformators?

  23. That would make sense, kevin. For aren’t we all robots in disguise?

  24. I read your post as directed specifically at the spirituality referenced by the title; the kind involving being guided,prompted and taught by the Holy Ghost and being “moved” to apply those things to everyday life.

    The Mcconkie comment contains two very important words regarding the state of spirituality he is referring to; holiness and purity. The words holy and holiness appear in our canon 494 times and are defined as a sacred and godly characteristic; that of being both clean and free from sin. And we become pure when our thoughts and actions are clean in every way.

    Obviously, achieving periods of holiness sporadically is not the same thing as reaching a state of being and maintaining it as Mcconkie defines it, and “the process of becoming free from sin, pure, clean, and holy through the atonement of Jesus Christ” is word for word the definition of sanctification.

    IOW as applied to the gospel, spirituality is becoming sanctified through faith, repentance, and the ordinances of the gospel, and then striving continually to maintain it. Helaman 3:35 is a beautiful example “…they did fast and pray oft, and did wax stronger and stronger in their humility, and firmer and firmer in the faith of Christ, unto the filling their souls with joy and consolation, yea, even to the purifying and the sanctification of their hearts, which sanctification cometh because of their yielding their hearts unto God.”

  25. kristine,

    Regardless of how some might choose to interpret it, every bit of scriptural evidence we have demonstrates that both the process of obtaining and the act of maintaining spirituality is completely gender neutral. It is achieved by everyone in the same manner;fasting, praying, growing more and more humble, firmer and firmer in our faith in Christ until we are filled with joy and consolation and yield even our hearts (desires) unto God along with our thoughts, words, and actions.

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