Editor’s note: This is the third of a three-part series that gives a model of Mormon spiritual experience, particularly as related to the way our prayers are answered. Read part one here and part two here

Personal Dialogue

Drawing on works by Martin Buber, Ian Barbour suggests that an interpersonal relationship with Deity can be seen as “One understands oneself to be addressed through events. A person replies through the speech of his life; he answers with his actions. Events in daily life can be interpreted as a dialogue with God.” [1] I immediately think of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. I was tempted to defer to the beauty of that example, but I found a suitable Mormon counterpart from historian Richard Bushman:

I had been a branch president and bishop, and was then president of the Boston Stake. Those offices required me to give blessings in the name of God and to seek solutions to difficult problems nearly every day. I usually felt entirely inadequate to the demands placed upon me and could not function at all without some measure of inspiration. What I did, the way I acted, my inner thoughts, were all intermingled with this effort to speak and act righteously for God. I could no longer entertain the possibility that God did not exist because I felt His power working through me… Only when I thought of God as a person interested in me and asked for help as a member of Christ’s kingdom did idea and reality fit properly. Only that language properly honored the experiences I had day after day in my callings. [2]

May I add, that in my own life, I’ve adopted the metaphor of “stones lighting up” based on the account of the brother of Jared in the book of Ether 3, to describe occasions when external events seem to speak to me with all the clarity of the finger of the Lord touching stones, bringing light into darkness.

Summing Mormon Religious Experience

Like it or not, people within the Mormon tradition can and do enjoy the full range of all the experiential and historic aspects of religion, along with access to rich symbolism. Each aspect becomes like a thread in a rope: awe at the creation, numinous and mystic encounters, moments of reorientation of the mind, and reconciliation of the heart, moral obligation, the likening of scriptures to ourselves, making ancient stories into personal biography, dipping into the common mythic experience of humankind, or any number of individual historic events that define and bind our community. Like it or not, when you look at the Mormon community and the Mormon faith at this level of core experience, all that defines religion anywhere exists here.

Therefore, like it or not, at the outset, any assessment of the religious value of Mormonism should admit that here the fountain of living waters flows briskly. In assessing Mormonism, in dealing with questions raised about any particular thread in what can be a complex bundle of threads of varied strengths, some more significant than others, but no single thread carrying all the weight, keep in mind that the validity of Mormon spiritual life must be accepted as a given.

Appendix A: Answers to Prayer in LDS Scripture

Here are scriptures describing answer to prayer through the Spirit. Contexts usually refer to study, pondering, inquiry, musing, fasting, and reflecting on the subject of the prayer before and during the experience described or promised. You should study the scriptures in context. These verses should spur introspection in assessing personal experience, and in considering the claims of others. (Even skeptics should define what they do not believe in.) They are also a strong test for the claims of Joseph Smith. Consider them in light of my model and note how well they all hang together. The Spirit is a promised witness to the obedient (Acts 5:32; John 7:17, 8:31-32).

Answer to Prayer Emphasizing Thinking

a. Guides to truth (that is, to what is real; Jacob 4:13; John 16:13; Ephesians 5:9-10).
b. Brings Christ’s words to remembrance (John 14:26).
c. Eyes of understanding opened, that ye may know (Ephesians 1:16-19). “We began to have the scriptures laid open to our understandings, and the true meaning and intention. revealed to us in a manner we never could attain to previously, nor ever before thought of.” (Joseph Smith – History 1:74)
d. “It is calm and serene; .a person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation: for instance when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas.” [3]
e. Expands your mind (Alma 32:34).
f. Is this not real? What is true is discernible. “Whatsoever makes manifest is light” – truth is things as they really are (Alma 32:35; Jacob 4:13; Ephesians 5:13; D&C 52:14-19) “A pattern in all things” (D&C 52:14).
g. Persuades to believe in Christ (Moroni 7:17).
h. Judge righteously (D&C 11:12; Matthew 7; Luke 11:35).
i. Enlightens your mind (D&C 11:13-14; Alma 32:34).
j. You will know and bear record (Ether 4:11-15).
k. “Still small voice,” “which whispereth through and pierceth all things often making my bones to quake,” “voice in mind,” “as of one crying in the wilderness. because you cannot see him” (Enos 1:10; 1 Kings 16:13; Isaiah 30:21; D&C 85:6; 88:66; see also 3 Nephi 11:37).
l. I know that ye believe them… by the manifestation of the spirit, great is my joy. He that preacheth and he that receiveth, understand one another, and both are edified and rejoice together (Alma 7:17; D&C 50:10-25). It can be a shared experience that is witnessed and not self-induced.
m. Experience a change of perception. “God has created man with a mind capable of instruction, and a faculty which may be enlarged in proportion to the heed and diligence given to the light communicated from heaven to the intellect; and that the nearer a man approaches perfection, the clearer are his views, and the greater his enjoyments, till he has overcome the evils of his life and lost every desire for sin; and.arrives at that point of faith where he is wrapped in the power and glory of his Maker and is caught up to dwell with Him. This is a station to which no man ever arrived in a moment: he must have been instructed. by proper degrees, until his mind is capable in some measure of comprehending the propriety, justice, equality, and consistency of the same.” [4]

Answer to Prayer Emphasizing Feeling

a. Heart burns within (Luke 24:32; Jeremiah 20:9;Psalms 39:2-3, 12; D&C 9).
b. Enlarges soul (Alma 32:27: Moroni 10:3-6); cf. Enos for enlargement of soul, first praying for self, then his people, then his enemies (Enos 1-17).
c. Word begins to be delicious to you (Alma 32:27); also tree of life (1 Nephi 8:10-16).
d. Word grows in you (Alma 32:28-43) “As that subject seems to occupy my mind, and press itself upon my feelings the strongest” (D&C 128:1). “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected upon it again and again” (Joseph Smith-History 1:12).
e. Invites to do good (Moroni 7:13); fruit of spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance (Galatians 5:22-25).

f. Invites to love God and to serve him (Moroni 7:13-19).
g. Peace to mind concerning the matter (D&C 6:14-15, 22-23).
h. Feel that it is right; stupor of thought if wrong (D&C 9:7-9).
i. Leads you to walk humbly (D&C 11:12).
j. Peace and power of spirit flow into you (D&C 111:8).
k. Spirit teaches you that ye must pray (2 Nephi 32:8-9).
l. Spirit fills with joy (D&C 11:13-14; Mosiah 4:3)
m. Peace of conscience (Mosiah 4:3).
n. Consolation, comfort, peace (Helaman 3:5; John 14:26-27)
o. Guilty take truth hard, for it cuts to the center (Acts 2:37; 1 Nephi 16:2; 2 Nephi 32:2). Some harden hearts against it; others repent (see Alma 14, 15, and 36).
p. Experience a change of heart (Alma 5:26). “The spirit of the Lord. will whisper peace and joy to their souls; it will take malice, hatred, strife and all evil from their hearts, .and their whole desire will be to do good, bring forth righteousness, and build up the kingdom of God.” [5] “Law. written in hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). “New heart, new spirit within you” (Ezekiel 11:19).

Other Ways Prayers Are Answered

a. You receive help that you’ve prayed for (James 5:16-18). “The fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16).
b. Numinous Experience: awe and reverence, mystery and wonder, fascination and dread, a sense of otherness, confrontation and encounter; becoming aware of dependence, finitude, limitation, and contingency. [6]
c. Mystical Experience; sense of the unity of all things, joy, harmony, serenity, peace, loss of ego. “Eight central qualities of the mystical or transcendent experience” are: [7]
d. The “ego quality.” During the experience, the person may lose the sense of self, and feel absorbed in to something greater. (cf. He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth; D&C 88:6; And it came to pass that the Lord spake unto Enoch, and told Enoch all the doings of the children of men; wherefore Enoch knew, and looked upon their wickedness, and their misery, and wept and stretched forth his arms, and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook. Moses 7:41);
e. The “unifying quality.” During the experience, the person may feel that “everything is one.” (cf. He comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him, and all things are round about him; and he is above all things, and in all things, and is through all things, and is round about all things; and all things are by him, and of him, even God, forever and ever. D&C 88:41),
f. The “inner and subjective quality.” The person may feel that things possess consciousness which we don’t usually regard as being conscious, like trees, or the earth itself. (cf. And it came to pass that Enoch looked upon the earth; and he heard a voice from the bowels thereof, saying: Wo, wo is me, the mother of men; I am pained, I am weary, because of the wickedness of my children. When shall I rest, and be cleansed from the filthiness which is gone forth out of me? When will my Creator sanctify me, that I may rest, and righteousness for a season abide upon my face? Moses 7:48)
g. The “temporal/spatial quality.” The person may experience time and space differently, and may even feel that the experience occurs outside the normal boundaries of space and time. (cf. And it came to pass, as the voice was still speaking, Moses cast his eyes and beheld the earth, yea, even all of it; and there was not a particle of it which he did not behold, discerning it by the spirit of God. And he beheld also the inhabitants thereof, and there was not a soul which he beheld not; and he discerned them by the Spirit of God; and their numbers were great, even numberless as the sand upon the sea shore. And he beheld many lands; and each land was called earth, and there were inhabitants on the face thereof. Moses 1:27-29. Compare also Black Elk’s vision.);
h. The “noetic quality.” The person may feel that the experience is the source of true knowledge. (cf. And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because you know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand. O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good; …Alma 32:34-35 )
i. The “ineffable quality.” The experience may be impossible to express in normal language. (cf. And behold, the heavens were opened, and they were caught up into heaven, and saw and heard unspeakable things. And it was forbidden them that they should utter; neither was it given unto them power that they could utter the things which they saw and heard; And whether they were in the body or out of the body, they could not tell; for it did seem unto them like a transfiguration of them, that they were changed from this body of flesh into an immortal state, that they could behold the things of God. 3 Nephi 28:13-15. Which he commanded us we should not write while we were yet in the Spirit, and are not lawful for man to utter; Neither is man capable to make them known, for they are only to be seen and understood by the power of the Holy Spirit, which God bestows on those who love him, and purify themselves before him; D&C 76:116-117)
j. The “positive emotion quality.” (cf. He hath filled me with his love, even unto the consuming of my flesh. 2 Nephi 4:21. And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain! Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy. Alma 36:20-21).
k. The “sacred quality.” The experience may seem to be intrinsically sacred. (But now mine own eyes have beheld God; but not my natural, but my spiritual eyes, for my natural eyes could not have beheld; for I should have withered and died in his presence; but his glory was upon me; and I beheld his face, for I was transfigured before him. Moses 1:11).
l. Dreams and Visions; compare Nephi and Lehi, Daniel, Peter, and John, etc.
m. Personal Dialogue; you feel yourself addressed through events, and answer through your actions. [8]

Appendix B: An Extract from a Comparison of Smith and Emerson

To illustrate the bridging of numinous and the mystical by Joseph Smith, compare these passages from the “Spirit” section in Emerson’s 1836 Nature [9] and some unified passages from an 1832 revelation (D&C 88) that Smith termed an “olive leaf which we have plucked from the Tree of Paradise.” I’ve broken the lines to facilitate comparisons, not just of the poetic prose, but of the conceptual content.

Notice that Emerson starts with mystic truths arising within a meditating human consciousness, and that Smith starts with the numinous divine reaching down to illuminate human consciousness.

From Emerson:

But when, following the invisible steps of thought, we come to inquire, Whence is matter? and Whereto? many truths arise to us out of the recesses of consciousness. [10]

From Smith:

He that ascended up on high,
as he also descended below all things,
in that he comprehended all things,
that he might be in all and through all things
     the light of truth;
Which truth shineth.
This is the light of Christ.
As also he is in the sun, and the light of the sun,
and the power thereof by which it was made . . .
And the light which shineth, which giveth you light,
is through him who enlighteneth your eyes,
which is the same light that quickeneth your
     understandings; (D&C 88:6-11)

Both writers express an identical epiphanic awareness of a divine spirit interpenetrating and supporting the physical world. Both speak in an identical tone, differing only in that Emerson depicts the influence of the Spirit in terms of a Nature metaphor, and Smith does so in terms of a light metaphor.

From Emerson:

We learn that the highest is present to the soul of man;
that the dread universal essence,
which is not wisdom, or love, or beauty, or power,
but all in one, and each entirely,
is that for which all this exists,
and by which they are; that spirit creates;
that behind nature, throughout nature spirit is present;
one and not compound it does not act upon us from without,
that is in space and time,
but spiritually, or through ourselves. [11]

From Smith:

Which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God
to fill the immensity of space –
The light which is in all things,
which giveth life to all things,
which is the law by which all things are governed,
even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne,
who is in the bosom of eternity,
and who is in the midst of all things. (D&C 88:12-13)

Regardless of the differing vehicles that carry their thoughts, and their different points of origin, both metaphors move towards the same awareness.

From Emerson:

therefore that spirit, that is, the Supreme Being,
does not build up nature around us,
but puts it forth through us,
as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and
leaves through the pores of the old. [12]

From Smith:

He comprehendeth all things, and all things are before him,
and all things are round about him;
and he is above all things,
and in all things,
and is through all things,
and is round about all things;
and all things are by him, and of him,
even God, for ever and ever. (D&C 88:41)
     From Emerson
As a plant upon the earth,
so a man rests upon the bosom of God;
he is nourished by unfailing fountains,
and draws at his need inexhaustible power . . .
we learn that man has access to
the entire mind of the Creator,
is himself the creator in the finite. [13]
     From Smith
And if your eye be single to my glory,
your whole bodies shall be filled with light,
and there shall be no darkness in you;
and that body which is filled with light comprehendeth
all things. (D&C 88:67)

Here Smith’s production embraces the mystical experience of union and identity with the divine, and sounds very close to Emerson. However, the complete text of the “Olive Leaf” includes much that is numinous in tone and eschatological in intent, totally alien to Emerson’s thought. Nevertheless, this bridging to mystic experience by Smith may account for striking parallels that appear in the key teachings of both men, just as the more numinous aspects of Smith’s revelations can account (in part) for the many differences.

[1] Barbour, Myths, Models, and Paradigms, 55. Barbour cites Martin Buber’s I and Thou.

[2] Richard Bushman, “My Belief,” in A Thoughtful Faith: Essays on Belief by Mormon Scholars, ed. Philip L. Barlow (Centerville, UT: Cannon, 1986), 24.

[3] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 151.

[4] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 151.

[5] Joseph Smith to Brigham Young in a dream; see S. Dilworth Young, “Gift of the Holy Ghost,” Improvement Era 71 (November 1968): 76. Also, Brigham Young, ” An Olive Leaf: Tell the People to Keep the Spirit” in Sunstone 97 December 1994,

[6] Barbour, Myths, Models, and Paradigms, 53-54; Smart, Worldviews, 62-72; cf. Moses 1; Joseph Smith-Testimony; Mosiah’s sermon; Alma’s conversion, etc.

[7] Mark E. Koltko, “Mysticism and Mormonism: An LDS Perspective on Transcendence and Higher Consciousness,” Sunstone 13/2 (April 1989): 14-19.

[8] Barbour, Myths, Models, and Paradigms, 54-55.

[9] Bode and Cowley, The Portable Emerson, 42-43.

[10] Ibid., 42.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.