Gospel Doctrine Lesson 15: “Seek Ye Earnestly the Best Gifts”

Courtesy J. Kirk Richards http://art.jkirkrichards.com/

Courtesy J. Kirk Richards

“Enthusiasm” is a generally pejorative appellation that both guardians of certain orthodoxies and some historians have used to describe some particularly exciting religious phenomena. Cessationism—the idea that miracles had ceased after the confirmatory witness of the Bible—was standard American orthodoxy when Joseph Smith made his claims of angelic exchange. But angels weren’t necessary to elicit the ire of some conservatives. The populist evangelicals with their camp meetings, their jerking and feinting, shouting and quaking, were often lampooned by the more staid and proper Christians. Shakers spoke in tongues. To be sure, the Book of Mormon was a particularly extravagant rending of God’s parsimonious veil, but its words pushed the boundaries further: the ancient prophets indicted the reader. If miracles have ceased it is because faith has ceased and salvation is lost.

The Saints sang, and they shouted. In the June conference after the organization of the church in 1830, Joseph Smith’s draft history records:

Some prophecied, many spoke with new tongues, and ^several^ of our number were ^so^ completely overpowered for a time, that we were obliged to lay them upon beds &c &c, and when bodily sensibility was restored to them they shouted Hosannas to God and the Lamb & declared that the Heavens had been opened unto them, ^especially N Knights^ that they had seen Jesus Christ sitting at the right hand of the Majesty on high, and many other great and glorious things. [n1]

But this was not all, they healed the sick and cast out devils (sometimes at the same time). Newel Knight gets another vignette: He described being called to his aunt near this time. She was apparently on her deathbed. Knight discerned that her illness resulted from demonic possession and “cried unto the Lord for strength and wisdom that we might prevail” over the evil spirit. He “took her by the hand and commanded satan, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to depart. I told my aunt she should not die, but that she should live to se[e] her children grow up” and she was healed. [n2]

The missionaries of the first Lamanite mission soon made their layover in Ohio, which resulted in such dramatic conversions that the Church’s center of gravity shifted east West. The missionaries left for Missouri and Church leaders had yet to move to Ohio from New York, and the new converts were, well enthusiastic. Like the New York saints, they spoke in new tongues, they feinted (hey it was good enough for the Book of Mormon peoples), and they healed. Sometimes they received invisible parchments from the heavens and translated them, sometimes, they acted out what were apparently ecstatic scenes from the Book of Mormon peoples. John Corrill, one of the Church’s designated historians explained it with some contempt:

Many improprieties and visionary notions crept into the church, which tried the feelings of the more sound minded. Many young persons became very visionary, and had divers operations of the Spirit, as they supposed. They saw marvelous ^wonderful^ lights in the air and on the ground, and would relate many great and marvelous things which they saw in their visions. They conducted themselves in a strange manner, sometimes imitating Indians in their maneauvres, sometimes running out into the fields, getting on stumps of trees and there preaching as though surrounded by a congregation,— all the while so completely absorbed in visions as to be apparently insensible to all that was passing around them. I would here remark, however, that it was but a very few of the church that was ^who were^ exercised in that way. The more substantial minded looked upon it with astonishment, and were suspicious that it was from an evil source. [n3]

When JS and the others from New York arrived, they had some business to take care of. Once the windows of heavens are opened, how do control how people get wet? I really like Robin Jensen’s work on this period and in particular the regulation of revelation (do a search for him and “interview” in the sidebar). Part of this regulation was the reception of Section 46 of the Doctrine and Covenants—Revelation, ca. March 8, 1831.

This revelation regulates more than spiritual gifts, but that is what we are focusing on. It is similar to the litanies of gifts as offered by Paul (and Moroni, who apparently liked Paul), and there are some interesting conversations to have about those sources as well, which I will leave to others for the time being. For now, let’s walk through the relevant portion, with some comments:

8-9: here we have the regulation. Also, what does it mean to consume signs upon one’s lusts?

10: Remember the gifts, note that seizures apparently are not among them.

11. Everyone gets a gift or more. Here is a great place for an important tangent. The lesson manual states:

1. All faithful members of the Church can receive gifts of the Spirit.

Explain that gifts of the Spirit are spiritual blessings or abilities that are given through the Holy Ghost. These gifts were taken from the earth during the Great Apostasy, but God restored them in the early days of this dispensation. The exercise of these gifts can bless, edify, and unify us.

So, when you go through the litany of gifts, please remember that these gifts are gifts of the spirit, not gifts of the priesthood, nor gifts of particular callings. What is that you say? Can non-ordained church members have the gift to heal? That is a great question. I recommend a nice concise treatment of the topic here, but let’s defer to Joseph Smith:

“Go ye into all the world” &c.— no matter who believeth; these signs, such as healing the sick, casting out devils &c. should follow all that believe whether male or female…if the sisters should have faith to heal the sick, let all hold their tongues, and let every thing roll on.

Later in the same sermon he stated that “respecting the propriety of females administering to the sick by the laying on of hands— said it was according to revelation.”

The same goes for the rest of the gifts.


  1. Karen Lynn Davidson, David J. Whittaker, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard Jensen, eds., Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844 (Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 366-368.
  2. Newell Knight, Autobiography, 24-25, microfilm of holograph, MS 767, LDS Church History Library.
  3. John Corrill, “Brief History,” Manuscript, ca. 6 April 1838– ca. 26 January 1839, JSPP.


  1. “please remember that these gifts are gifts of the spirit, not gifts of the priesthood”

    Fascinating point, and it does cause one to wonder if a faithful person without the priesthood can cause a healing just as real as someone giving a priesthood blessing. The Lord does say, as you quoted, signs such as healing follow those that believe.

    “such dramatic conversions that the Church’s center of gravity shifted east.”

    That’s a clever observation too. I guess the European saints were “heavy” enough to push the center back east. :)

  2. Sorry: I meant weren’t “heavy” enough

  3. “That’s why the Lord, in the revelations, lays such emphasis on gifts. It is through the various gifts distributed among us that we are able to get into the act. We are told repeatedly both to ask for gifts and seek for gifts (D&C 42, 46). Among the last words of the Book of Mormon are “Do not deny the gifts, do not reject the gifts” (Moroni 10:8). On the other hand, we are commanded not to ask for or seek for office. Yet nobody seems particularly interested in asking or seeking for gifts, while men constantly plan, scheme, and aspire to office. Martin Harris and others actually left the Church because their services were not recognized by high office. Martin Harris, who had the privilege of standing in the presence of an angel and turning over the plates, wanted an office in the Church, something which would only be temporary and a nuisance. Why, let me talk to Moroni for five minutes and I’ll give you the pleasure of sitting on the stand forevermore!” “Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints”, Hugh Nibley, P. 435.

  4. “Sometimes they received invisible parchments from the heavens and translated them”

    I’ve collected several newspaper articles that make this claim about Joseph Smith. I had assumed it was just another one of those mocking things that was entirely made up because of the nutty way it is reported. Is there evidence from Mormon records that any Mormon (not Joseph Smith) actually made this claim regarding invisible parchments? or are you relying on those newspaper reports? (I haven’t looked anywhere yet — am just wondering how you come to include this in your list.)

  5. J. Stapley says:

    Sorry about that. Should be center moved West. I’ll fix that when I am able.

    Ardis, I think that it is pretty well documented among the Kirtland folks. As I remember both Robin’s thesis and Staker’s Kirtland volume hit the relevent materials. JS does have one documented occassion of translating a nonextant parchment, namely the document written by John and in the D&C. No details whether it fell from heaven, though. I rather doubt it.

  6. Meldrum the Less says:

    A modern account of the manifestation of a gift of the spirit.

    Our small disorganized ward scout master took 6 little deacons on a car campout and hike down into a river gorge the next day. My then 14 year old son and I went along. Joseph a new member from the government housing projects had never been in the outdoors before and was astonished at the beauty and he got really excited about scouting.

    When we had to leave the swimming hole and hike back up about 5 steep miles mid-afternoon things went south. Little Joe lost his inhaler for his asthma and got scared climbing back up the rocks near the river. Nobody else was at this popular destination because it was about 110 F and steamy humid. Little Joe at 180 pounds was so out of shape he couldn’t walk up the hills. He became anxious and frightened which worsened his asthma. The scout master yelled at him which made it even worse. Soon he could no longer walk even a couple of steps, was wheezing weakly about 50-60 times a minute, could only speak in one or two word bursts and his lips were turning blue. He said he was going to die and demanded we call 911 immediately. We had no cell service.

    The scoutmaster freaked out. He wanted to give Joe a Priesthood blessing but he was so terrified he couldn’t remember how and he was irrationally searching everyone’s day packs because we didn’t have any oil or scriptures. I thought it couldn’t hurt, and might calm things down. I was scared and thinking, what am I going to tell his mother if he dies? I consecrated some coconut oil suncream which freaked out the scoutmaster even more and gave Joe a very short blessing by myself. My mind was flooded with the words, “Get him the hell out of here and to the hospital.” Does the Spirit ever swear at you? I think it is possible.

    The scoutmaster was also over weight and barely getting his own flabby behind up the trail in the heat and the other scouts were very small. I have a bad back and can’t carry much weight. My son, a lanky rugged teenager weighting about 120 pounds then piggy-backed Joe up that trail, I do not know where he got the strength, and the raw determination. He could barely put one foot in front of the other but once he got moving he was difficult to keep up with and left all the anxiety back on the trail. His hands were covered in blood from gripping Joe’s pants to keep him on by the end. It felt like an angel had carried Little Joe out.

    Once in the car air conditioning Joe got better but he was still bad enough to be kept in the hospital over night. They had no insurance and he had been hospitalized 4 times earlier that year for asthma but since we ere slack on doing medical forms we never had the chance to consider that he might not do well on this hike. The scoutmaster resigned and the family of Little Joe lost interest in coming to church. I started having my son carry a Dutch oven on future backpacking trips which he did for a few years and I always carry an inhaler with me when hiking even though I do not have asthma. I am a Nazi when it comes to medical clearance for scouting activities.

    It is my experience that many “miracles” could be avoided with the application of common sense and proper preparation.

  7. Wonderful helps for all of us, J. Thanks.

  8. “its words pushed the boundaries further: the ancient prophets indicted the reader.” If this line alone was the entire post I would have been grateful for the trip here, J.–many thanks!

  9. J., I also appreciated your reminder to remember that these are “gifts of the spirit, not gifts of the priesthood, nor gifts of particular callings.”

    That, however, made me want to read a blog article about the “gifts of the priesthood.” While I don’t think early church members were unconsciously conflating gifts of the priesthood with gifts of the spirit, there are some interesting usages that, to me, muddy the waters a bit–including this one, recorded by Richards in the JS journal entry of 28 April 1842, describing JS’s address that day to the FRSoN. Richards records JS giving a “lecture on the pries[t]hood shewing how the Sisters would come in possession of the privileges & blesings & gifts of the priesthood”. [JSP, J2, p.52] Nice one Willard . . .

    I don’t think the usage in the quote above is to be read as a generic forthcoming gift *of* the priesthood (priesthood-as-gift), as there are other places, like Hyrum’s patriarch appointment in the 19 Jan 1841 revelation that separate the two: “be crowned with the same blessing, and glory, and honor, and priesthood, and gifts of the priesthood that once were put upon him that was my servant Oliver Cowdery.” [D&C 124:95]

    So, ummm, J. . . . can we commission another piece? ;-)

  10. J. Stapley says:

    Thanks, Alex. I really appreciate it. And that is a great question. The April 28 minutes don’t include that phrase as I remember, so perhaps it is a Richards gloss. One which would have made more sense a few weeks later…but I really need to get a better handle on what of JS’s Temple cosmology folks like Richards had a grasp of before May. And that is, I think, not the context for the other usage. I’ll have to think about this a bit.

  11. Parasite says:

    I know, all we lurkers do is take, take, take. But I’ve come to rely upon this excellent series for idea fertilizer when planning my lessons. A month after the last entry, I find myself staring down a dreadfully dull lesson on the Plan of Salvation, wondering where you all went. Please come back!

  12. J. Stapley says:

    We got a little off schedule, but we should be back up and running now. Kevin put up a post for Lesson 17 on Tithing. Lesson 18 should be up soon.