This semester I have been teaching an “Adult Religion Class” as part of the BYU Continuing Education program. Doctrine and Covenants. It has been great fun. This week the lesson was on Section 138—Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the Descensus Christi ad Inferos. We have a great classroom dynamic and the students have proven themselves eager and capable to tackle scholarly approaches to our history.
Before class, one of the students handed me a document and asked if I knew of it. I had. But I couldn’t remember the exact details in the moment (my cognition has taken a dramatic hit with the recent baby—at least that is the excuse I tell myself). Not too long ago a teacher distributed a similar item in a member of my family’s ward and my sibling sent it to me, wondering my opinion. When I got home, I looked up my emails and then the light bulb went off. Oh yeah.
An analysis of the document might have broader interest, so I figured I would share some thoughts. The document opens:
A heavenly manifestation given to Heber Q. Hale, President of the Boise Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as related by him, with the approval of the first Presidency of the Church, at the Genealogical conference held in the auditorum of the bishop’s Building, in Salt Lake City, Utah, October, 1920.
There are many copies of the document online and apparently one professor at BYU-Idaho is distributing it as part of a course (why does this not surprise me?). The account is in the voice of Hale and indicates that “between the hours of 12 and 7:30 in the night of January 20, 1920, while alone in a room at the home of W.F. Rawson in Carey, Idaho, the glorious manifestation was vouch-safed to me.”
The narrator then proceeded to describe a dream/vision in which he observes the spirit world in vivid detail: they types of plants, trees and flowers; the types of people-spirits, their general labors and locations. He described the dead of the Great War rallying behind General Richard W. Young, Armistice only two years previous to the purported vision. He met with deceased Church leaders of the Restoration and viewed a temple of the spirit world and the Savior who ministered there. He also met spirits who were preparing to receive the spirit of a friend appointed to die in the next few days. The account is lengthy and full of personal observations.
Now it is entirely possible that the text really was written by Heber Hale, and that it is an accurate account of his experiences. However I have been unable to find any reliable provenance at all (I have not, however, spent any time at the CHL on this matter). I have confirmed that Hale was actually the Boise Stake President. I have not been able to locate any documentation that the genealogical conference was held, nor that President Hale spoke anywhere at the bidding of the first presidency. Duane S. Crowther, wrote in Life Everlasting: A Definitive Study of Life and Death  that he received a copy of the document from Leland Rawson, an apparent relative of William Rawson at whose house the vision was to have been received. Rawson also indicated that “Lucy Gates,” of the General RS Presidency published the document. Unfortunately, no such person was on the General RS Presidency or Board during this time. There are copies of the text located in various collections around, including the Rudger Clawson’s papers (that isn’t to say the Clawson approved of the text, just that he had a copy in his possession).
From my perspective, it would be somewhat surprising if Grant actually did ask him to speak publicly, as Grant was not a big fan of democratic revelation. In fact in 1923, the FP sent a letter to Hale telling him to have the sisters stop speaking in tongues and delivering revelations to the Church. On the other hand, President Grant did have a close relationship with the General Young mentioned in the vision account.
And now the take home message: It sounds just like a dream. You can find all sorts of weird visionary/dreamy stuff, especially in the nineteenth century. Wilford Woodruff was always writing his dreams down. While I appreciate the sincerity with which these folks found religious meaning in these experiences, there is a reason that the Church limits what is considered revelation. And in the possibility it was more than a dream, as a believer it wouldn’t surprise me if the Lord spoke to an individual in a way that would be grossly unrepresentative of “the truth” when transmitted to the whole Church. In my view, at best, this document is a fun reflection of a pious man’s religious dream – one which is not particularly consistent with currently authorized Church doctrine/revelation/teachings. At worst it is a hoax, transmitted in a way not dissimilar from things like the “White Horse Prophecy.” 
As an historian I would not use the document in historical work without better provenance (unless it was a study of modern folklore). Even with provenance, though, as a believer I would definitely not turn to it for devotional purposes.
- p. 25 n 3; as a side note, the author should consider joining the McConkie family and form a club for over-confident book titlers.
- See Don L. Penrod, “Edwin Rushton as the Source of the White Horse Prophecy,” BYU Studies 49, no. 3.