June 21, 2009

Touched by the Spirit

In response to one of my earlier blogs, Jack said the following:

I think you've overlooked the fact that when the spirit testifies of something (like, for example, that God lives) then you have your proof. That's more proof than anything a mathematician can show on paper.
To Jack and anyone else who cares to listen, let me relate a personal experience.

After Lori and I were married, we attended church at a Mormon ward that was comprised of young married students. I was asked, at the time, to organize regular events during which the ward members could gather and listen to speakers address issues of secular interest. Soon after accepting the responsibility, I heard of a man who’d uncovered numerous historical documents from the church's early days. I gave him a call and asked if he would speak to my congregation. He agreed without reservation.

On the evening of the event, the man came at the appointed time and brought several examples of documents he had uncovered. They included a fragment that contained Queen Isabella’s signature and another that came from an original Declaration of Independence. However, the document he showcased was a letter written by Lucy Mack Smith, the mother of the Mormon Church’s first prophet, Joseph Smith. He handed out copies of the letter printed on expensive parchment paper. I wish I still had my copy, but alas, I’ve lost it.

The letter was addressed to one of Lucy Mack Smith’s relations and told of the work Joseph was accomplishing to bring forth the Book of Mormon. He had, according to the letter, translated over 100 pages that Lucy referred to as the Book of Lehi. Two aspects of the letter’s contents are noteworthy. First, the over 100 pages (actually 116) were subsequently lost and never recovered. According to Mormon theology, God instructed Joseph to, rather than retranslate the work, replace it with a translation of another source document. Therefore, the contents of the original manuscript are the subject of much speculation. Nowhere that I know of, aside from the letter ascribed to Lucy Mack Smith, are there any claims that the lost pages were known as the Book of Lehi.

Second, the letter gives insight into Book of Mormon events that aren’t recorded in the current version. For example, the Book of Mormon talks of a prophet Lehi, who after prophesying of the destruction of Jerusalem, took his family into the desert to await further instruction from God. There, God ordered Lehi to send his sons back to Jerusalem to convince a man named Ishmael to accompany them into the wilderness. This was necessary, according to the account, so that Lehi’s sons would have Ishmael’s daughters to marry. As part of the letter’s commentary on the event, Lucy Mack Smith told her relation that Ishmael was Lehi’s brother and therefore knew of Lehi’s standing with God. That information is not included in the Book of Mormon today.

The reason this remains so clear in my memory is because the man who shared the document with us, became quite emotional as he referenced this section of the letter. He told us that he’d always wondered what would cause Ishmael to walk into the desert (after all, the invitation of a few young men who were hungry for his daughters seemed insufficient) but the letter answered his nagging question. When I say the man became emotional, what I mean is he shed tears of what appeared to be joy and gratitude, and with a wavering voice he shared a powerful testimony that the Book of Mormon was what it claimed to be: God’s word. I have to say that I was moved by what the man said, and judging from the sniffles and smiles from others who’d come to listen, I wasn’t alone. By the end of the evening, I was being congratulated for organizing a wonderful faith-promoting experiencing.

Why am I telling you this story?

If you’re familiar with events that shook the Salt Lake Valley in 1985, you’ll know that the Lucy Mack Smith letter is a forgery created by the very man who came to speak at the gathering I'd arranged. That man, Mark Hoffman, was the creator of dozens of similar forged documents, including one that is now known as the Salamander Letter, which supposedly quotes Joseph Smith and is an account of a white salamander that gave Joseph directions to where the source record for the Book of Mormon could be found. Yet, that’s not Mark Hoffman at his worst. In an effort to protect the secret of his forgeries, the man murdered two people and is now behind bars for the rest of his life.

My question is: Why would I—and others, too—have felt the spirit, if it confirmed what amounted to a lie? Perhaps it wasn’t the spirit, after all, but an emotional response based upon William James’ will to believe. The fact is, as I’ve asserted elsewhere, we can’t know if God is speaking to us, although it would be nice to think He does.

What I’ve written here isn’t an isolated case, as I could give other examples. For instance, my first spiritual experience was in the Vatican, while I sang with a choir in Saint Peters Basilica. Most Mormons would object if I were to say that the spirit had come to testify of Catholicism. Then, a year later, I decided to go on a mission after hearing a church leader, Paul H. Dunn, speak. Dunn was an extraordinary orator, who had tremendous influence over the youth of the church. During his address he spoke of once being a pitcher for the Saint Louis Cardinals and of his exploits as a decorated soldier in the Korean War. Though I was filled with what I presumed then to be the spirit, subsequent developments have cast a shadow on that special moment in my life. You see, a journalist began looking into Dunn’s background and discovered that he’d never played professional baseball, neither had he fought in a war. When this information came to light, Dunn was quickly put on emeritus status by the church.

In a future blog, I’d like to use Mormon scripture to show how difficult it is to “hear” God’s instructions, but for now, let’s acknowledge the difficulty and the underlying uncertainty involved. At the very least, we might admit that such an experience is not proof at all, but a jumping off place for our leap of faith.


Anonymous said...

I never said that listening and understanding the promptings of the spirit was easy--only that it pointed to what was true.


Alan Bahr said...

But the point is, Jack, how do you know it's the spirit? In a way, you make my point by saying that understanding the spirit's promptings isn't easy. If so, you can never know for sure what you're feeling. The question is: Can you admit it?