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Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Interpreting Spiritual Experiences 

by John H
In 1877, shortly after the dedication of the St. George Temple, Wilford Woodruff reported what would become one of the most beloved stories in Mormonism. He described a visitation by the Founding Fathers of America, who demanded to know why their temple work had not been performed in the Endowment House. After the experience, Woodruff quickly had the work performed for these Brethren and their wives, including such luminaries as George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson.

Although this story has been repeated often to encourage Latter-day Saints to attend the temple and perform work for the deceased, I believe it has far more important implications and teachings. It turns out, of the people that appeared in vision, almost all had their temple work performed prior to their visit to Woodruff. George Washington in fact, had been baptized no fewer than three times. Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and others had their work performed by John Bernheisel in the Endowment House - the same Endowment House that the visitors insisted had not been utilized in their behalf. Why would these spirit beings maintain that their work needed to be done, when in fact it had already been performed (in some cases more than once)?

This experience, like so many others, can tell us something about the difficulty in interpreting our spiritual experiences. At the outset, I think it’s important to note that there is no reason to believe Wilford Woodruff was lying about his experience. It seems clear that, at the very least, he believed something had happened. He did go on to baptize these brethren and their wives - something he probably wouldn’t have done had he not been somehow prompted or inspired to do so. My friend Brian Stuy, who researched this topic and published his findings in the Journal of Mormon History, theorizes that Woodruff saw no difference between his dreams and actual visions, and perhaps Woodruff's dream became a vision with various retellings.

How do we know we interpret our spiritual experiences correctly? They are immediately filtered through the lens which we view the world, making it hard to keep them pure. We all know someone who prays and receives an answer that the Book of Mormon is true, and the next thing we know, they’ve interpreted that to mean they must vote a straight-Republican ticket, attend BYU, don CTR jewelry, and pray in restaurants. But such extremes aren't the only examples. What about a friend of mine who had a powerful spiritual experience while holding a document penned by Joseph Smith, only to later learn it was a Hofmann forgery? If we experience the divine when reading the Book of Mormon, does it really mean it's true, or does it simply mean we're in the right place at the right time?

Is Woodruff’s experience a cautionary tale - warning us to be careful in reading too much into our encounters with the divine? Or is it a lesson about finding value in all things, regardless of the accuracy or truth of how we deconstruct our spirituality? Or is it something else entirely?

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