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Several years ago I became acquainted with another view of revelation very different than what I was used to as a Latter-day Saint. I was attending a well-known theological institution and felt very excited about a particular course entitled “Revelation.” I eagerly anticipated comparing notes, so to speak, with other Christians on such a valuable and significant gospel subject. The professor began the first day by illustrating the various forms that God’s revelation takes on the chalkboard. He drew a stick-figure person and proceeded to draw the sun and some clouds and a few trees, each with an arrow directed to the person. He then drew many other nature items, including another stick-figure person. Each of these had arrows pointed to the first person.
The professor noted that everything God has created is imbued with Godly grace. This grace in every thing is being communicated to each person and as such constitutes the “revelation” of God’s mystery. I was thinking that this was not so different than my own LDS understanding until the professor drew a triangle in the sky above the other figures, labeling this as God, and then astoundingly drew a line connecting God to the stickperson. He labeled this as “conduit revelation” and immediately and decisively marked an X right through it declaring that direct communication between God and people does not exist. I was shocked and dismayed. When I attempted to present biblical instances of what I thought were personal revelations these were deflected neatly by the assertion that these were simply figurative illustrations-not literal history.
At the time I was the Deacon’s Quorum teacher. I decided to try this revelation idea out on them and see what these 12-13 year old Mormons knew about revelation. I illustrated the figures just as my professor had done and waited for their response. It was quick and indignant. They were all sure that my professor had it wrong. When I pressed them about why they immediately gave Joseph Smith’s first vision as evidence to the contrary. At this point I felt impressed to pursue this subject a little further with one young man. I asked him why he thought that my professor refuting direct communication from God was wrong. He hesitated and I asked again. He responded that his mother talked often of receiving answers to her prayers. I felt to push a little more. I asked him why he knew differently. He hesitated again and so I asked again-why do you know that there is “conduit revelation?” Then this wonderful and suddenly humble young man sat a little straighter and said, “because He has answered me.” What a thrill to hear a 13 year old Deacon state that all the book-learning of my venerable professor was false because he himself knew that the Lord listens to and answers our personal prayers from his own experience. So too, can I.
Oliver’s Own Witness
It is in much this same way that Oliver Cowdery received confirmation concerning his own witness of the Lord’s revelation. He was told to “cast your mind back upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things” (D&C 6:22). Earlier in the winter of 1828-29, Oliver had been boarding at the Joseph Smith Sr. home as a New York schoolteacher. He taught the Prophet’s younger brothers and sisters and there heard much about Joseph’s strange and wonderful spiritual experiences. Wanting to know for himself about the validity of such things, Oliver “called upon the Lord to know if these things were so” when “the Lord manifested to him that they were true” (History of the Church, 1:35). One of the histories that Joseph Smith kept (1832) also states that the “Lord appeared unto a young man by the name of Oliver Cowdery and shewed unto him the plates in a vision and also the truth of the work” (Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 8; cited in Stephen Robinson and H. Dean Garrett’s A Commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants, Vol. 1; 52). Oliver decided to travel to meet the Prophet Joseph Smith with an eye to become a participant in the work. It was during the translation of the plates with Oliver serving as scribe that Section 6 was received through the Urim and Thummim. Oliver had received “peace” to his mind (D&C 6:23) about Joseph’s work and had “received instructions of [the Lord’s] Spirit” (6:14) and had the Lord “enlighten [his] mind” (6:15). It was these direct revelatory events that Oliver was told to remember. Shortly after Section 6 was received Oliver also “informed his close friend David Whitmer of the remarkable witness he had received. According to Whitmer, Oliver ‘wrote me that Joseph has told him [Oliver’s] secret thoughts, and all he had meditated about going to see him, which no man on earth knew, as he supposed, but himself, and so he stopped [at Harmony] to write for Joseph (Andrew Jenson, ed. “The Three Witnesses,” The Historical Record, May 1887; Robinson & Garrett, A Commentary, 56).
Heart and Mind Defined
The Lord’s use of the phrase “peace to your mind” is intriguing. This is reminiscent of Enos in the Book of Mormon. He had prayed into the night supplicating the Lord concerning his soul when “there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed. And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away” (Enos 1:5-6). What is of further note here is that Enos kept praying, this time for his Nephite brethren’s welfare. “While I was thus struggling in the spirit, behold, the voice of the Lord came into my mind again” (Enos 1:10). What Enos helpfully explains is that he was receiving the Lord’s communication in his mind, in the spiritual voice, if you will, rather than audibly through his ears. Joseph Smith indicated that this would be the case when he wrote, “A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance when you feel pure intelligence into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon; (i.e.) those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God, will come to pass” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 151). Elder Boyd K. Packer recently noted, “The voice of the Spirit is a still, small voice-a voice that is felt rather than heard. It is a spiritual voice that comes into the mind as a thought into your heart” (Ensign, May 2000, p. 9). What this means here is that this voice is internal, not external.
Elder Richard G. Scott helps to define this in what I consider a landmark address to the Church Educational System in August of 1998:
I would explain that an impression to the mind is very specific. Detailed words can be heard or felt and written as though the instruction were being dictated. A communication to the heart is a more general impression. The Lord often begins by giving impressions. Where there is recognition of their importance and they are obeyed, one gains more capacity to receive more detailed instruction to the mind.
An impression to the heart, if followed, is fortified by a more specific instruction to the mind (Richard G. Scott, “Helping Others to Be Spiritually Led,” General Authority Address, The Twenty-Second Annual Church Educational System Religious Educators Symposium, Brigham Young University, 11 August 1998, p. 4).
Thus general impressions come to the heart and specific instructions are delivered to the mind. Elder Scott suggestion that the Lord begins with the general impressions, to see if they will be heeded, then moves to more specific instructions has been borne out many times in my life. When I have been willing to follow those initial tuggings I have been rewarded with greater direction. However, when I have been slothful or doubtful I have squelched these precious communications and I know that I have lost something of significance from the Lord. “It [revelation] is awakened with prayer and cultivated ‘by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.’ It can be smothered through transgression and neglect” (Elder Boyd K. Packer, Ensign, May 2000, p. 9). Elder Scott has also noted that further and more detailed revelation may be unnecessarily curtailed by not writing down those that we have been received. “We often leave the most precious personal direction of the Spirit unheard because we do not record and respond to the first promptings that come to us when the Lord chooses to direct us or when impressions come in response to urgent prayer” (Scott, “Helping Others,” p. 11; emphasis added). I know that I show the Lord how precious his revelations are to me when I “esteem them of sufficient worth” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 73) to write them.
Apply Unto It
Elder Packer stated above that we can cultivate the Lord’s communication to our hearts and minds by prayer and obedience. The Lord invited Oliver to “ask of me and you shall receive; if you will knock it shall be opened unto you” (D&C 6:5). He gave Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s older brother the same counsel (D&C 11:5). The Lord gives both of these men who desired to be part of the “great and marvelous work” (D&C 6:1;11:1) similar instructions regarding the receipt of revelation. Oliver needed to “exercise thy gift” (6:11) and “apply unto it” (8:4), while of Hyrum it was required to “appeal unto my Spirit” (11:18) and “seek not to declare my work, but first seek to obtain my word” (11:21), also, to “study my word” (11:22). I believe there is a remarkable relationship between the study of the scriptures and receiving revelation. The following quotes will emphasize this relationship.
Elder Bruce R. McConkie has said, “I sometimes think that one of the best-kept secrets of the kingdom is that the scriptures open the door to the receipt of revelation. However talented men may be in administrative matters; however eloquent they may be in expressing their views; however learned they may be in the worldly things-they will be denied the sweet whisperings of the Spirit that might have been theirs unless they pay the price of studying, pondering, and praying about the scriptures” (Ensign, May 1986, 81).
Elder Dallin H. Oaks offers this helpful distinction: “As a source of knowledge, the scriptures are not the ultimate but the penultimate. The ultimate knowledge comes by revelation. A study of the scriptures enables men and women to receive revelations. Because scripture reading put us in tune with the Spirit of the Lord” (“Scripture Reading and Revelation,” Address to BYU Studies Academy, Provo Utah, 29 Jan. 1993, 3-4).
Finally, Elder Carlos E. Asay notes, “I fear that many of us rush about from day to day taking for granted the Holy Scriptures. We scramble to honor appointments with physicians, lawyers, and businessmen. Yet we think nothing of postponing interviews with Deity-postponing scripture study. How much better it would be if we planned and held sacred fifteen or twenty minutes a day for reading the scriptures. Such interviews with Deity would help us recognize his voice and enable us to receive guidance in all our affairs. We must look to God through the scriptures” (Ensign, November, 1978, 53-54).
Arguably one of the greatest scriptural examples of the relationship between serious scripture study and further revelation is that of Joseph F. Smith as recorded in D&C 138:1-11.
I know that for me I am striving to more consistently and with more concern study the scriptures-truly “obtain my word,” so that as Hyrum was promised my “tongue shall be loosed” and I will “have [his] Spirit and [his] word, yea, the power of God unto the convincing of men” (D&C 11:21). I am grateful for the revelations so far received, both in the Doctrine and Covenants, and those personal communications to my heart and mind. I testify that our God is a God of revelation, for so He has revealed Himself to me. I know that when I apply unto that gift I receive of his Spirit for the direction and comfort that I need. I am so grateful for the gift of personal revelation.