Do All Prophets and Apostles See God?

A popular joke that I have heard before from both Latter-day Saints and Catholics (with roles reversed, depending on who’s telling it) goes that the pope’s secretary enters his office one day and tells the pope: “I have good news and bad news.”

“Well, what’s the good news?” the pope asked.

“We just got a phone call—the Parousia is happening and Jesus Christ is on the line.”

“That’s wonderful! What bad news could there be with that?”

“He’s calling from Salt Lake City.”

*****

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we focus a lot of on following the prophets and apostles with emphasis on the idea that they are special witnesses of Christ. Often times, the reasoning is that in order to be special witnesses, they have to have had an experience or opportunity that sets them apart as special in some way that makes their witness of Christ more powerful than the average person. The assumption is often that they have personally met Christ during this life and possibly talk with him often (similar to how Moses is portrayed in the later chapters of Exodus with the Lord), but the experiences are too sacred to share in public.

I believe that it is accurate to state that the men we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators receive revelation on a regular basis. I don’t believe, however that they have regular, personal interviews with Christ, though it is possible that these do occur occasionally.

Diving into the historical record, Joseph Smith recorded a number of experiences where he met with Christ or saw Christ. The First Vision, the revelation of the Three Degrees of Glory (often simply referred to as “the Vision”), and the appearance of Christ in the Kirtland Temple stand out as particularly well-known and powerful experiences of this sort. Joseph Smith also did not want to be alone in meeting Christ—he spent his life trying to bring people into the presence of the Lord. For example, in speaking of ancient prophets, he taught:

This is why Abraham blessed his posterity: He wanted to bring them into the presence of God. They looked for a city, &c. Moses sought to bring the children of Israel into the presence of God, through the power of the Priesthood, but he could not. In the first ages of the world they tried to establish the same thing—& there were Elias’s raised up who tried to restore these very glories but did not obtain them. But (Enoch did for himself & those that were with Him, but not for the world.) they prophesied of a day when this Glory would be revealed.—Paul spoke of the Dispensation of the fulness of times, when God would gather together all things in one &c &.[1]

Since he indicated that he was establishing the Dispensation of the fulness of times, it seems that he intended to succeed where past prophets had failed. As such, Kathleen Flake—an important Latter-day Saint historian—noted that “Joseph Smith was the Henry Ford of revelation. He wanted every home to have one, and the revelation he had in mind was the revelation he’d had, which was seeing God.”[2]

This urge to usher people into the presence of God and of Christ appears a number of times in the Doctrine and Covenants—particularly in relation to the Melchizedek priesthood and temple experiences. In fact, Dr. Richard Lyman Bushman has suggested that the particular “endowment of power” Joseph expected to be associated with the Kirtland Temple was a general appearance of Christ to the Saints to enable them to all testify more powerfully about the Savior while on missions.[3] Further, Church leaders did indeed indicate that this was the goal of the apostles as “special witnesses of Christ.” Oliver Cowdery gave the Twelve a charge along these lines shortly after their ordination in 1835:

You have been indebted to other men in the first instance for evidence [of God’s existence, and] on that you have acted. But it is necessary that you receive a testimony from Heaven for yourselves, so that you can bear testimony to the truth of the Book of Mormon. And that you have seen the face of God; that is more than the testimony of an Angel. When the proper time arrives you shall be able to bear this testimony to the world. When you bear testimony that you have seen God. This testimony God will never suffer to fall, but will bear you out. Although many will not give heed, yet others will. You will, therefore see the necessity of getting this testimony from heaven. Never cease striving until you have seen God, face to face. Strengthen your faith, cast off your doubts, your sins and all your unbelief and nothing can prevent you from coming to God. Your ordination is not full and complete till God has laid his hand upon you. We require as much to qualify us as did those who have gone before us. God is the same. If the Saviour in former days laid his hands upon his deciples. Why not in the latter Days.[4]

There were some successes in this endeavor. Visions and appearances of God in the Kirtland area were been documented, though I am not sure how many of the original apostles experienced these visions.[5]

Since then, there are several apostles and presidents of the Church who we have record of having visions or meeting with Christ since the time of Joseph Smith. The Savior appeared to Wilford Woodruff after the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple to accept the temple,[6] Lorenzo Snow met with the Savior in the Salt Lake Temple after Wilford Woodruff’s death,[7] George Q. Cannon stated that “I know that Jesus lives; for I have seen Him,”[8] and Elder Orson F. Whitney spoke of dream-vision where he saw and talked with the Christ while serving a mission as a young man.[9] Elder Melvin J. Ballard also had an experience of meeting with Christ while presiding over a mission,[10] President Hugh B. Brown told his nephew that the Lord appeared to him in an informal manner to offer comfort,[11] and David B. Haight had a lengthy vision of the Savior’s ministry during a serious illness.[12] Other modern apostles and prophets have said things that could be taken to mean that they have seen or met the Christ, but are more cryptic than George Q. Cannon’s straightforward statement. For example, President Boyd K. Packer has stated on at least two occasions (once in 1971 and once in 2014) that “I know the Lord.”[13] Elder Jeffrey R. Holland stated recently that he gave his testimony “with the conviction Peter called the ‘more sure word of prophecy.’”[14] President Ezra Taft Benson stated that “There is no truth or fact of which I am more assured, or know better by personal experience, than the truth of the literal resurrection of our Lord.”[15] There is also room for apostles that have seen the Lord, but have chosen not to leave it on record due to the sacredness of the experience. President Boyd K. Packer said: “We do not talk of those sacred interviews that qualify the servants of the Lord to bear a special witness of Him, for we have been commanded not to do so. But we are free, indeed, we are obliged, to bear that special witness.”[16]

A most interesting story along these lines concerns President Heber J. Grant’s call to the apostleship. When President Grant was first called to the Quorum of the Twelve, he spent a number of months deeply depressed because he felt unworthy to serve in that calling. There were a number of reasons why (moral worthiness was not a concern), but one of them was that one of the Brethren had said that no man could serve in the Quorum of the Twelve who had not had an open vision of Christ, and Heber J. Grant had not. He felt like a liar whenever he bore his testimony because he had “never seen Him; [and did] not know.” Eventually, however, he did have a vision where he saw the council in the spirit world of important individuals—most notably the Savior himself—that had decided to send revelation to the Church leaders to call Heber J. Grant. Concerning the nature of the vision, President Grant stated, “I understand what Lehi meant when he said, ‘I seemed to see.’ I was not seeing it with my eyes, but it was powerful. It was as if I could see it, and I could hear.”[17] This experience seemed to satisfy his concerns over the issue.

That being said, there have been prophets and apostles who have admitted that they have not actually seen the Christ. President Joseph Fielding Smith told his son after almost forty years of serving as an apostle: “I did not live in the days of our Savior; he has not come to me in person. I have not beheld him.”[18] Similarly, President David O. McKay was asked by a reporter whether he had seen the Christ after he had served as president of the Church for a few years, he responded “that he had not.”[19] In that same interview, he also gave more information on how he was able to say things like “My testimony of the Risen Lord is just as real as Thomas’s on that occasion. I know that He lives” despite not actually seeing the Lord: “[David O. McKay said that] he had heard His voice—many times—and that he had felt presence and his influence. … Then he told me how some evidences are stronger even than that of sight” and spoke of the words of Christ to Thomas.[20]  Similarly, Joseph Fielding Smith said that while he hadn’t beheld the Christ, “it is not necessary. I have felt his presence. I know that the Holy Spirit has enlightened my mind and revealed him unto me, so that I do love my Redeemer.”[21]

These stories and references indicate that some, but not all, of the apostles have seen the Christ. It can probably be assumed that they all have powerful witnesses of the Savior in some way or another, even though they haven’t had a fireside chat with the Christ. The other half of the question, however, is whether or not the president of the Church has regular interviews with the Savior.

As I said above, I do believe it is accurate to say that the Church is guided by revelation, but I also believe that it is on an as-needed basis and is generally through the whisperings of the Spirit to the combined council of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. President Gordon B. Hinckley explained on two separate occasions that:

We have a great, basic reservoir of revelation. But if a problem arises, as it does occasionally, a vexatious thing with which we have to deal, we go to the Lord in prayer. We discuss it as a First Presidency and as a Council of the Twelve Apostles. We pray about it and then comes the whisperings of a still small voice. And we know the direction we should take and we proceed accordingly.[22]

 

We have a great body of revelation, the vast majority of which came from the prophet Joseph Smith. We don’t need much revelation. We need to pay more attention to the revelation we’ve already received.
Now, if a problem should arise on which we don’t have an answer, we pray about it, we may fast about it, and it comes. Quietly. Usually no voice of any kind, but just a perception in the mind. I liken it to Elijah’s experience. When he sought the Lord, there was a great wind, and the Lord was not in the wind. And there was an earthquake, and the Lord was not in the earthquake. And a fire, and the Lord was not in the fire. But in a still, small voice. Now that’s the way it works.[23]

Similarly, Elder B. H. Roberts wrote that:

From some things that have been said recently relative to revelation one would reach the conclusion that because we have in our midst prophets and apostles, inspired men, God and angels and the Holy Spirit are subject to their beck and call; and because a man is upheld as a prophet of God some people seem to suppose that he may enter the presence of God when he will and talk with Him face to face; or, that by his summons, a prophet may bring angels to his side at his own sweet will! Not so. These divine things are under the control of the Lord Almighty, and He will reveal Himself when and in whatsoever mode seemeth Him good. … The times and modes of revelation are in the hands of God; our faith is simply this: that the Lord reigns supreme in heaven, aye, and on the earth, and whenever His work requires that His hand should touch it and guide it He will inspire His servants to take the course that is necessary to conform His works to His will. If it be necessary to send from the presence of His throne an angel, clothed with power, might and majesty, to stand in the presence of prophets and apostles, to make known a divine purpose, the sovereign will of God is sufficient to order that to be done; and if it becomes necessary to summon a prophet into the presence of God to commune face to face with Him, then He will summon that prophet into His presence; or open the vision of His mind, snatch away the veil of the covering that at present separates us from God, and will commune with His servant as He did with Moses face to face—all according as God wills.[24]

All this being said, the Prophets and apostles have consistently testified that they are guided by inspiration, albeit, the subtle, gentle revelation of the Spirit. We might, in conclusion, read the words of President Spencer W. Kimball:

Expecting the spectacular, one may not be fully alerted to the constant flow of revealed communication. I say, in the deepest of humility, but also by the power and force of a burning testimony in my soul, that from the prophet of the Restoration to the prophet of our own year, the communication line is unbroken, the authority is continuous, and light, brilliant and penetrating, continues to shine. The sound of the voice of the Lord is a continuous melody and a thunderous appeal. For nearly a century and a half there has been no interruption…. Every faithful person may have the inspiration for his own limited kingdom. But the Lord definitely calls prophets today and reveals his secrets unto them as he did yesterday, he does today, and will do tomorrow: that is the way it is.[25]

 

Footnotes:

[1] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 524-529). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[2] Interview Kathleen Flake, “Meet the Mormons,” PBS, http://www.pbs.org/mormons/interviews/flake.html. Henry Ford wanted a car in every home.

[3] Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Random House, Inc., 2005), 308-309.

[4]  “Kirtland Council Minutes,” 21 Feb. 1835..

[5] Karl Ricks Anderson, Joseph Smith’s Kirtland: Eyewitness Accounts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1989), 107-113.

[6] Wilford Woodruff, in Collected Discourses Delivered by: President Wilford Woodruff, His Two Counselors, the Twelve Apostles, and Others, edited by Brian H. Stuy, 5 vol. (BHS Publishing, 1987–1992), 5:225.; citing John Lee Jones biography (no date) and Minutes of Salt Lake Temple dedication on 6–24 April 1893, 16th session, 13 April 1893.

[7] Lorenzo Snow, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Lorenzo Snow (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2012), 238-239.

[8] George Q. Cannon, “Supporting Church Leaders,” (6 October 1896), reported in The Deseret Weekly 53 (31 October 1896): 610; reproduced in Stuy, Collected Discourses 5:225

[9] Orson F. Whitney, “The Divinity of Jesus Christ,” Improvement Era Vol. 29, NO. 3 (Jan 1926), 119-127. https://prophetsseersandrevelators.wordpress.com/2013/09/19/the-divinity-of-jesus-christ-by-orson-f-whitney/

[10] M. Russell Ballard, Our Search for Happiness (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1993), 18-20.

[11]  Cited in G. Homer Durham, N. Eldon Tanner: His Life and Service (Salt Lake: Deseret Book, 1982), 254-256.

[12] David B. Haight, “The Sacrament and the Sacrifice,” Ensign (November 1989), 59-60.

[13] Boyd K. Packer, Conference Report, April 1971: 122–25, Boyd K. Packer, “The Witness,” General Conference (webpage), accessed April 20, 2014, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/print/2014/04/the-witness?lang=eng&clang=eng.

[14] Jeffrey R. Holland, “Lord, I Believe,” CR, April 2013, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/04/lord-i-believe?lang=eng#16-10785_000_51holland.

[15] Ezra Taft Benson, “Five Marks of the Divinity of Jesus Christ,” University of Utah fireside, 9 December 1979. Published in New Era 10 (December 1980): 48 and Ensign (December 2001).

[16] Boyd K. Packer, “A Tribute to the Rank and File of the Church,” Ensign (May 1980): 86.

[17] Heber J. Grant, Conference Report, April 1941, p.3-7. See also Truman G. Madsen, The Presidents of the Church: Insights into Their Lives and Teachings (SLC: Deseret Book, 2004), 184-186.

[18] Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013), 49.

[19] Cited in Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (SLC: University of Utah Press, 2005), 38. Note that there is an account of a dream-vision where David O. McKay beheld the Christ from a distance, but that was apparently not counted by him on this occasion.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Smith, Teachings, 49-50.

[22] Interview with President Gordon B. Hinckley, ABC News Australia: Compass, November 9, 1997. http://www.lds-mormon.com/hinckley.shtml.

[23] Don Lattin, “Interview with President Gordon B. Hinckley,” SF Gate, 13 April 1997. http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/SUNDAY-INTERVIEW-Musings-of-the-Main-Mormon-2846138.php#page-1

[24] B. H. Roberts, CR, April 1905, 43-44.

[25] Spencer W. Kimball, “Revelation: The Word of the Lord to His Prophets,” CR, April 1977.

13 comments for “Do All Prophets and Apostles See God?

  1. I think of the account in the Book of Mormon wherein a Alma (the elder) is promised eternal life–thereby receiving the more sure word of prophecy. There was no vision or visitation–he simply heard the voice of the Lord speaking to him. The sealing powers were given to Nephi (son of Helaman) in the same manner–by hearing the voice of the Lord. And so, while there’s no question that grand and glorious visions, visitations, and ascensions do occur the key elements necessary to endow one with a sure witness need not be received in so glorious a fashion.

  2. Of course they don’t. Otherwise, they ought to bear witness of it. It does no one any good for them to play coy about it.

  3. Elisa,

    IMO, a lot of damage could be done if they were to openly share their most sacred experiences. I think what the Lord desires is that we humble ourselves because of the word–and not because of an external force working on us. If the brethren were to lay bare the visions and visitations they’ve witnessed it would be tantamount to spiritual blackmail, IMO. It would have a coercive effect upon the hearts of many who are not prepared to receive such a witness. That’s why (IMO) they are very careful not to share those kinds of experiences too readily.

  4. Jack, Jospeh Smith, shared just about all his spiritual experiences.

  5. Yes, he did share a fair amount–but not everything; at least not to the masses–and not always immediately. He said that he could have told us ten times more about the Kingdoms of glory had we been prepared to receive it. But even so, those experiences that he did share were to a group that was much more localized and sectarian than we are today. To share such things before the entire world would push too many people away who might otherwise be receptive to the word–IMO.

  6. What is “the word” except a testimony of Christ? Why be a witness if you don’t actually testify as to the things you witness? People could still decide for themselves whether they believe what’s being shared and what it means for their own lives.

    There is already plenty of coercion (sad heaven). They aren’t sharing these experiences because they aren’t having them.

  7. “They aren’t sharing these experiences because they aren’t having them.”

    Some of that depends on what experiences we think they should be having. Elder Oaks has stated explicitly that he has witnessed miracles a great as any mentioned in the New Testament. Though he didn’t tell us what the exact miracles were that he has witnessed–and so were left to wonder (in awe). And what’s more I suspect that most–if not all–of the apostles could say the same thing about their own experiences with the miraculous.

    And so, what we get is a picture of people who experience the miraculous on a somewhat regular basis with the need to receive a grand vision or visitation in order to know how to act on behalf of the church. They know the voice of the Lord–and having such knowledge should preclude the need for a heavenly visitation at every juncture. Remember, they are called to be witnesses of the *name* of Jesus Christ–and if they know his voice then they know him well enough to witness of his name–IMO.

    Even so, I’ve no doubt that many of the apostles have had the heavens opened to them and have seen great things–even the Savior himself in some instances. But be that as it may, one doesn’t need to see in order to know.

    “People could still decide for themselves whether they believe what’s being shared and what it means for their own lives.”

    Yes–but in a “wheat and tares” world (nyuk nyuk) we should allow the widest swath possible for people to receive the word without any compulsion whatsoever. And that’s why it’s rare to hear the apostles say, “thus sayeth the Lord.” And sharing sacred experiences too readily tends to have the same sort of binding effect upon saint and sinner alike.

    IMO, the apostles do have sacred experiences–but they guard them carefully.

    From Alma 12:

    9 And now Alma began to expound these things unto him, saying: It is given unto many to know the mysteries of God; nevertheless they are laid under a strict command that they shall not impart only according to the portion of his word which he doth grant unto the children of men, according to the heed and diligence which they give unto him.

    What it really boils down to (IMO) is that the Lord’s servants can be trusted to protect that which comes from above.

    From D&C 63:

    64 Remember that that which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit; and in this there is no condemnation, and ye receive the Spirit through prayer; wherefore, without this there remaineth condemnation.

  8. When I was in the MTC in 1995, I remember Elder Scott coming to speak and saying that he knew Christ lives and it was not by faith. I suppose it could mean he received a witness by the Holy Ghost that was so clear, it equated to perfect knowledge. But the way he said it implied his witness was through the natural senses. At least that was my interpretation.

  9. Sorry to keep beating this dead horse–

    The first part half of my last comment is rather muddled. And so I wanted to clarify what I was trying to get at with another quote from the scriptures–since they do a much better job of explaining these principles than I do.

    From D&C 8:

    2 Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart.

    3 Now, behold, this is the spirit of revelation; behold, this is the spirit by which Moses brought the children of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground.

    Here we have the perfect example of how a prophet leads the Lord’s people primarily by the spirit of revelation–while, on the other hand, experiencing and witnessing mighty miracles along the way that may or may not have anything to do with the specific counsel that is dispensed to the church by the Lord’s servants through the *spirit of revelation*.

    Clear as mud? :D

  10. I will never forget Elder Uchtdorf’s words when dedicating our new temple. Toward the end of speaking about the Lord, he became emotionally choked up, his voice cracked and he said, “He is real.” It was clear to me how he knew and the most powerful witness I’ll ever behold in mortality. “He is real.”

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