Truman G. Madsen, “Religious Experience,” in Latter-day Saint Essentials: Readings from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. John W. Welch and Devan Jensen (Provo, UT: BYU Studies and the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2002), 164–8.
In the gospel of Jesus Christ, personal religious experience is the foundation, vitality, and culmination of religious life. As in the biblical book of Acts, LDS religious experience is varied and owes as much to firsthand experience as to texts and traditions. Latter-day Saints may recognize as a religious experience feelings or impressions that build faith in Christ, show that God hears and answers prayer, manifest what is good and right, enhance personal conviction of truth, or confirm that one’s life is approved of God. The sum of one’s religious experiences is sometimes called a “testimony.” Interpretations of these experiences are derived from cumulative personal experience, which language is often inadequate to describe. The frequency, intelligibility, coherence, and shareability of these phenomena among Latter-day Saints are relatively unique.
Regardless of individual differences in age, culture, and language, such experiences enhance the underlying unity of the members of the Church, enabling them to feel one with each other and with the prophets. They recognize familiar religious experiences in one another’s words and actions and in the scriptures. While the transmission of these experiences is often oral (as in testimony meetings, classes, conversations), many are also preserved in diaries, journals, and family histories. Some of these have become widely familiar and almost normative.
At the core of a Latter-day Saint’s life is conversion to the gospel. First impressions are often crucial. Converts frequently testify to feeling a divine assurance, unexpected and unheralded, that truth is to be found in the Book of Mormon and in the teachings of the Church. They also commonly speak of feeling clean, of being washed of their sins, and of being spiritually reborn with an infusion of new life, peace, joy, light, warmth, and fire. The experience of finding oneself, though a sinner, accepted by the Lord, often becomes the foundation of a lifetime commitment to God, because maintaining this feeling is desired above all else. Classic examples of this are found in the conversions of Alma (Mosiah 27; Alma 36) and Joseph Smith (Papers of Joseph Smith, 1:5–8).
Latter-day Saints believe that the divine love they receive in individual religious experience should be reflected to others as charity (Mosiah 2:17–21; 5:2; Moro. 7:46). Rendering service to others in the name of Christ produces feelings of joy and happiness that Latter-day Saints treasure as religious experiences.
Baptized members are given the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, entitling them to the companionship of the Holy Ghost. President Lorenzo Snow described his reception of this gift as “a tangible immersion in the heavenly principle or element, the Holy Ghost” (Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow p. 8, Salt Lake City, 1884), saying that he “tasted the joys of eternity in the midst of the power of God” (Journal, p. 3, Church Archives, Salt Lake City). Alfred D. Young said it was “as if warm water was poured over me coming on my head first. I was filled with light, peace and joy” (Autobiography [1808–1842], BYU Special Collections).
Individual Latter-day Saints speak of being shown righteous courses of action by the Holy Ghost, being warned of dangers and evils, and being otherwise inspired and guided. One sister, reflecting on her life, wrote that the Holy Ghost “warns, counsels, reproves, commends, instructs, and when necessary commands” (Young Woman’s Journal 27 [Nov. 1916]: 691–92). Motivational changes are chronicled, as are infusions of energy, compassion, insight, healing power, and beauty, and also refinement of talents, faculties of communication, and Christlike love.
Impressions of the Holy Ghost often come after much preparation in fasting, prayer, service, and study. At other times they come unbidden and arrive at unexpected moments as a “still, small voice” (1 Kgs. 19:12). The Prophet Joseph Smith observed that the word of the Lord “has such an influence over the human mind—the logical mind—that it is convincing without other testimony” (History of the Church, 5:526). Joseph Smith further remarked, “sudden strokes of ideas” from the Holy Ghost attend a flow of pure intelligence (Teachings, p. 151); “the answer comes into my mind with such a logical sequence of thought and ideas, and accompanied by such a burning feeling within, that I know it is of God” (cited in W. Berrett, “Revelation,” address to seminary and institute faculty, Brigham Young University, June 27, 1956, p. 9).
Such influences and impressions of the Holy Ghost may come as inspiration amid duties in the home, at work, or in Church callings, as well as self-knowledge in the most menial of everyday tasks. Typical reported examples include a glimpse of celestial origins and destiny (Heber C. Kimball); impressions of impending events (Wilford Woodruff); guidance and reassurance in emotional crises such as the death of a loved one (Zina D. H. Young); or insight and strength in pressing practical needs or predicaments (Amanda Smith). Many members of the Church attest to receiving inspiration in creative processes, such as when writing religious poetry, drama, music, or scriptural commentary, or when seeking a solution to a scientific or genealogical research problem. Personal revelation is probably the most widely shared and unifying form of religious experience among Latter-day Saints. It also helps explain the confidence with which many Latter-day Saints make religious decisions.
Latter-day Saints may receive individual blessings from a priesthood bearer in which they seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Through such personal experiences most Latter-day Saints have received needed direction, restoration of spiritual and physical health, or other divine aid. One Church leader describes the giving and receiving of blessings as vitalizing and enlightening, through “an essence of force or power” inherent in the holy priesthood. Diaries commonly report experiences such as this: “He blessed me. I felt the influence and power of the Lord upon him and upon me. I have never forgotten that blessing from that day to this and I never shall” (Ezra T. Clark).
A wide range of manifestations of the Spirit—visions, dreams, visitations, contact with the dead, miraculous aid in answer to prayer—is known in every LDS community, though not generally publicly heralded. For example, Karl G. Maeser reported experiencing the gift of interpretation where all language and cultural barriers were removed; Franklin D. Richards received the gift of prophetic dreams; James G. Marsh, the gift of visions; and Lucy Mack Smith, the gift of faith.
LDS religious experience also includes pentecostal outpourings, dramatic and overwhelming spiritual manifestations, witnessed simultaneously by many people and recorded privately. Of the foundation experiences of the Restoration the most crucial were shared, witnessed, and recorded. Each conferral of divine priesthood authority was shared by at least two persons and included visitations analogous to the appearance of Moses and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:2–4). Here the experience was no less objective than the deliverances of sense-experience. Several hundred experienced the outpouring of spiritual gifts in the Kirtland Temple dedication (see Backman, pp. 284–309). Several thousand, including many children, witnessed the experience in Nauvoo when the “mantle” fell upon Brigham Young and he was providentially portrayed in Joseph Smith’s likeness. Approximately 63,000 participated in the dedicatory sessions of the Salt Lake Temple, and many reported seeing visions and hearing heavenly music.
LDS journals are replete with testimonies that the Spirit of the Lord enlivens all of the senses—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching—and that one is more physically alive and aware when spiritually quickened. This illumination is more than an aid to physical perception; it is a medium of comprehension. Latter-day Saints sometimes speak of a “sixth sense,” interrelated with the other senses, that apprehends spiritual things. All things “are revealed to our spirits precisely as though we had no bodies at all” (Teachings, p. 355). One may be lighted up “with the glory of [his] former home” (J. F. Smith, GD, p. 14) and be led to say with Eliza R. Snow, “I felt that I had wandered from a more exalted sphere” (“O My Father,” Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, no. 292, Salt Lake City, 1985).
Many Latter-day Saints record such experiences in the setting of temple ordinances, sensing a oneness with departed friends and relatives—”they are not far from us, and know and understand our thoughts, feelings, and motions, and are often pained therewith” (Teachings, p. 326)—and “seeming to see” and “seeming to hear” the realms of the spirit world (J. Grant, Journal of Discourses, 4:134–36).
LDS spiritual experiences are often related to scripture study. One convert had mastered the entire Bible in Hebrew, German, and English. After receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, he found new meaning in familiar verses (O. Hyde, Journal of Discourses, 8:23–24). Another who had memorized New Testament books found, after receiving the Holy Ghost, that “new light dawned upon” him in “bold relief,” which the Book of Mormon clarified and confirmed: “Truths were manifested to me that I had never heard of or read of, but which I afterwards heard preached by the servants of the Lord” (C. Penrose, Journal of Discourses, 23:351). Still another, praying through his youth for some great manifestation, learned slowly and for a lifetime, “line upon line, precept upon precept,” until he felt his whole being was a testimony of the truth (J. F. Smith, GD, pp. 501–50).
Today, psychological, positivistic, and existential thought raises questions about religious awareness. There is much preoccupation with criteria of meaning and with the logic of religious discourse. The sum of LDS religious experience, however, suggests that anyone may appeal to the way of the prophets: Look and see.
Backman, Milton V., Jr. The Heavens Resound, pp. 284–309. Salt Lake City, 1983.
Jessee, Dean C., ed., Papers of Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City, 1989.
Madsen, Truman G. “Joseph Smith and the Ways of Knowing.” BYU Extension Publications, Provo, Utah, 1962.
Smith, Joseph. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2d ed., rev. Salt Lake City, 1957.
TRUMAN G. MADSEN