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RS/MP Lesson 33: “The Spiritual Gifts of Healing, Tongues, Prophecy, and Discerning of Spirits” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on April 19, 2009

The “From the Life of Joseph Smith” portion of this lesson recounts the story of Joseph Smith’s healing the sick and dying Saints along the Mississippi river after his arrival in Nauvoo. It nicely illustrates the power of the gifts of the Spirit.

The remainder of the lesson, however, is a bit more theoretical, one might say. That is, the “Teachings of Joseph Smith” portion of the lesson does not recount narratives of healing, speaking in tongues, prophecy, and discernment—but rather offers Joseph’s teachings about the nature, place, and employment of these gifts.

What I found particularly interesting in my own study of this lesson is the way these teachings, grouped and separated out as they are, allow for a thinking of the uniqueness of each gift of the Spirit covered here. My notes dwell primarily on that point: What is unique or distinct about each of the four gifts discussed, and what does that tell us about the role or purpose of the several gifts?

The sick may be healed through faith and the exercise of priesthood power, according to the Lord’s will.

The first paragraph in this section (on page 382) comes from a curious discourse, in which Joseph Smith discussed “signs” associated with different priesthood ordinances. Here he identifies “the sign of the healing of the sick,” namely, the laying on of hands. As Joseph then says, “we cannot obtain the blessing by pursuing any other course except the way [or sign] marked out by the Lord.”

This first point is interesting in that it intertwines this first gift with the priesthood: whereas other gifts of the Spirit might be said to function, in some sense, independently of the priesthood, this gift cannot be separated out entirely from the priesthood and the “sign” that the priesthood employs in its use. (I should note here that I am quite aware of the history of Mormon women performing healing rituals, particularly in the nineteenth century. I wonder how that fact might adjust what I am reading into Joseph’s words here.)

But, in the end, it is not this entanglement with the priesthood that is most unique about this gift (questions of the priesthood will come into other gifts, though not in such a direct way). What sets this gift off from others is its close relationship with mortality: one only uses the gift of healing when one is trying to stave off death for another. This comes out in the other three paragraphs of this section: “some had faith enough and were healed; others had not”; “by our obedience to the ordinances, we might be enabled to prevail with God against the destroyer, and that the sick might be healed”; “Many of the righteous shall fall a prey to disease, to pestilence, etc., by reason of the weakness of the flesh”; “all flesh is subject to death.”

The point here is quite clear: the gift of healing is unique in that it attempts to call one back from the point of death, or to ward off that possibility early on in the course of an illness. This is quite distinct: no other (generally named) gift of the Spirit plays such a role.

The consequence is that the gift of healing is one that cannot be imitated. While anyone can pretend to speak with tongues (at least in one sense), and while anyone can pretend to prophesy (hoping that the fulfillment or lack of fulfillment is far enough away that no one will ask questions), etc., it does not take long for people to see whether or not one’s efforts at healing have come to fruition. Moreover, the stakes are drastically higher in this case than in others: if tongues and prophecy serve for a kind of edification, healing is a matter of life and death.

The upshot of all this is that healing is most often taken as an absolute sign by outsiders. Early missionary journals reflect this often: a remarkable healing performed in the mission field leads to all kinds of teaching possibilities and conversions. If someone is healed, then everyone seems to recognize real power. On the other hand, if someone is not healed, it is usually taken as a sign that there is no real power in the would-be-healer. The problem with this, of course, is that healing is meant to be a sign that follows faith, not a sign that promotes faith: the absoluteness of healing often inverts the relationship this sign should have to faith, and that is problematic.

Indeed, much of what Joseph Smith says here has to do with this last point. He points out that some had faith to be healed, some did not; he points out that healing is often simply disregarded, and the Saints just get better with time; he points out that there is a tendency to label the righteous who are not healed as being actually wicked, etc. All of these are evidences that healing is taken as a sign that leads to faith, rather than as a sign that follows from it.

But I wonder whether we, as a people, have really begun thinking about what is at work in this gift.

The purpose of the gift of tongues is to teach the gospel to others.

This section is certainly an interesting one. A bit of historical background is probably necessary here. Early in the history of the Church, the gift of tongues was understood in a way quite similar to that of, say, today’s Pentecostals: it was understood to be an ecstatic speaking of a divine or angelic language, and hence it looked to an outsider like so much babbling nonsense. Such outpourings of the gift of tongues were very common among the Missouri branches of the Church in the 1830s, and they were almost excessive at the Kirtland Temple dedication. But Joseph quickly found that the gift was abused and misunderstood, and he dedicated much of his time to trying to curb excessive and especially false displays of the gift. The teachings gathered into this section come primarily from these attempts on Joseph’s part to keep this gift within proper bounds.

Hence we have Joseph saying on pages 382-383: “it was particularly instituted for the preaching of the Gospel to other nations and languages, but it was not given for the government of the Church.” Or again, on page 384: “I lay this down for a rule, that if anything is taught by the gift of tongues, it is not to be received for doctrine.” This distinction is particularly interesting. Joseph wants to separate out this gift from ecclesiastical government so that its excesses cannot be taken as somehow binding. The logic the Saints were employing would seem to be as follows: “if someone is speaking by the gift of tongues, and that gift comes from the Spirit, and that Spirit is the Spirit of God, and God cannot lie or deceive, then whatever is said by that person in tongues is universally binding on the Church.” That Joseph wants to distance the gift from governance shows that he was less than completely convinced that it was the actual gift of tongues that was being employed.

This comes out in several other teachings here: “Satan will no doubt trouble you about the gift of tongues, unless you are careful” (p. 383); “We have also had brethren and sisters who have had the gift of tongues falsely; they would speak in a muttering, unnatural voice, and their bodies be distorted . . . ; whereas, there is nothing unnatural in the Spirit of God” (p. 384); “The devil can speak in tongues; the adversary will come with his work; he can tempt all classes; can speak in English or Dutch” (p. 384); “do not indulge too much in the exercise of the gift of tongues, or the devil will take advantage of the innocent and unwary” (p. 384). The point is clear: the gift of tongues is, because one speaks in a tongue that one’s companions does not know, far too easy to fake.

But more: I think it is fascinating that Joseph associates this gift particularly with the mission field. He is drawing here, obviously, on Acts 2, where the apostles were first given the gift of tongues in such a way that everyone gathered in Jerusalem could understand them in their own language. That the first teaching in the section (again, on pages 382-383) comes in 1834 and in a conference of elders is significant on this point: Joseph is making this distinction precisely as he is receiving revelations drawing a sharp distinction between the “standing” Church in Zion and the “traveling” Church abroad (governed over by two separable councils of twelve—the apostles governing the “traveling” Church and the high council governing the “standing” Church in Zion). Joseph seems here to suggest that it is the work of the apostles and missionaries alone to bother with tongues.

And hence there is a consistent theme running through these teachings about the place of tongues in missionary work: “Tongues were given for the purpose of preaching among those whose language is not understood,” etc. (p. 383). Even more basic, perhaps, is the idea that tongues should not be used unless there is someone on the other end of the communication. That is, tongues are to be used in the mission field because one is addressing someone else who otherwise could not understand one’s words. And so if tongues are to be used at home, they should not be used “except there be an interpreter present.”

Clearly, then, what distinguishes this gift from the other gifts of the Spirit is its unverifiability. Whereas one can watch for the actual healing of the sick or dying, and whereas one can wait to see if a prophecy is fulfilled, one cannot know whether someone is speaking genuinely in tongues, or whether one is simply deluded or faking it. The result is that it is this gift particularly that is too often given to excess. It is this gift that was—this seldom happens today—taken as a sign of one’s righteousness, that was used to mark oneself out as righteous or inspired. It is also unique in that it therefore tends to be curbed and maligned, separated out as a gift not to be sought after so much. If any gift of the Spirit has been marginalized, it is this one.

But I wonder whether we, again as a people, have really begun to understand the gift of tongues.

Though only one man speaks as the prophet of the Church, the spirit of prophecy enables all to testify of Jesus Christ

All of the teachings in this section come from quite late in Joseph’s prophetic career, and they deserve at least a bit of historical contextualization. Beginning especially with the second half or so of the Kirtland experience, Joseph began to be accused often of commanding some kind of tyrannical power over a bunch of dupes. (Before that, Joseph was certainly considered a deluded fool, and the Saints were considered a bunch of dupes, but Joseph was not nearly so often regarded as having some kind of tyrannical power.) After the disasters in both Kirtland and Far West, Joseph began to face the same accusations in Nauvoo. Here, though, they took on a somewhat different shape. This was connected with Joseph’s being more and more vocal in his teachings, his being made governor of Nauvoo, his having communicated with the President of the United States, his having curried favor with certain political figures, his having joined the Masonic fraternity, etc., etc., etc.

One of Joseph’s curious responses to this increasingly intense situation was to attempt publicly to draw a sharp distinction between his prophetic role and his leadership. He seems to have done so in order to suggest that, on the one hand, he was nothing but an ordinary Saint (everyone in the Church should have the same spiritual gifts and powers that he had, so there was no reason to suggest that he held some kind of spiritual authority in the Church, except in that the Church asked him to serve), and that, on the other hand, he was nothing but an ordinary political figure (not only should everyone in the Church have the same gifts he had, but everyone in Christianity should have the same gifts, so there was no reason to suggest that he was doing something subversive by getting involved in public policy, etc.).

All of this serves as a backdrop to the statements found here. Joseph’s various teaching here emphasize the distinction between the office of “The Prophet” and the gift of prophecy: “No man can be a minister of Jesus Christ except he has the testimony of Jesus; and this is the spirit of prophecy” (p. 384); “Now if any many has the testimony of Jesus, has he not the spirit of prophecy? And if he has the spirit of prophecy, I ask, is he not a prophet? And if a prophet, will he not receive revelation? And any man that does not receive revelation for himself must be damned, for the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (pp. 384-385); “If a man professes to be a minister of Jesus and has not the spirit of prophecy, he must be a false witness . . . ; and the difference between [Joseph Smith] and the clergy of this generation is, he claims to be in possession of that spirit of prophecy which qualifies him to testify of Jesus and the Gospel of salvation; and the clergy deny that spirit” (p. 385); “testimony is always attended by the Spirit of prophecy and revelation” (p. 385).

This carefully drawn distinction between the office of the prophet and the gift of prophecy is helpful, and in more ways than one. Not only should it have allowed for the necessary distinction Joseph was hoping to make—between his spiritual and his temporal work—it allows us to recognize that we should all be receivers of the same gift of prophecy, that the existence of the prophet does not excuse us from seeking out the gift of prophecy ourselves.

In the end, then, what is unique about the gift of prophecy is its complex entanglement with questions of hierarchy. Whereas healing is intertwined with mortality and the order of the priesthood, and whereas tongues are the most imitateable gift and so subject to censure, prophecy is usually dismissed as being someone else’s job, when it is the work of every soul who has the testimony of Jesus. It would seem, then, that this gift of the Spirit is a kind of “base” gift, the one that everyone receives when the Spirit comes, though some might be given others gifts as well—at least, this seems to be how Joseph reads it.

But again, that would seem to me to suggest that we have not yet even really begun to understand, as a people, what this gift of prophecy amounts to.

The gift of discerning of spirits allows the faithful to distinguish between the influence of good and evil spirits.

All of this section but the last paragraph comes from a single editorial published in the Times and Seasons (and it is not entirely clear that it is Joseph writing—though there are moments that clearly do sound like Joseph). This several-page discussion is rather complex and somewhat meandering, so that it is not entirely clear what Joseph is teaching. But a few points, at any rate, might be made.

Certainly, what seems to be the most unique about the gift of discernment is its strange circularity: the gift of discernment is a gift of the Spirit that allows one to know whether a gift is a gift of the Spirit. But then one has the difficulty of knowing whether the gift of discernment is itself from the Spirit. And one is thus immediately trapped, on the theoretical level, within a circle: one cannot know that any gift of the Spirit is genuine without the gift of discernment, but one cannot receive the gift of discernment without receiving a gift of the Spirit (since discernment is one of those gifts). This gift has a strange self-referential status that thus complicates it.

One way this odd circularity can be distracted, perhaps, is through the several appeals to the priesthood in the teachings here: “We answer that no man can do this [that is, discern spirits] without the Priesthood, and having a knowledge of the laws by which spirits are governed” (p. 386). This makes it sound as if discerning spirits is less a question of some obscurely bestowed gift of the Spirit and more a question of having received specific endowments of the priesthood, such that one knows how to tell a true messenger from a false one.

Again: “The Apostles in ancient times held the keys of this Priesthood—of the mysteries of the kingdom of God, and consequently were enabled to unlock and unravel all things pertaining to the government of the Church, the welfare of society, the future destiny of men, and the agency, power, and influence of spirits; for they could control them at pleasure, bid them depart in the name of Jesus, and detect their mischievous and mysterious operations when trying to palm themselves upon the Church in a religious garb, and militate against the interest of the Church and spread of truth” (p. 387). Here again it is a question of the priesthood (again capitalized as well): it would seem to be through ordinances and rights of the priesthood that the ancients were able to control (and not just discern?) spirits.

All of this cannot be disconnected from the historical context in which the editorial was written. Published April 1st, 1842, it was printed within weeks of the first endowments offered to the Saints, and in the very same issues of the Times and Seasons in which the Book of Abraham first appeared. If Joseph was indeed the author of the editorial, it would seem that his attention was held by the new developments in the bestowal of the priesthood—the endowment was then and should be now understood to be in part a bestowal of the authority and understanding necessary to command the world of spirits.

It is possible that it is this connection to the priesthood—indeed, to the endowment—that makes the circularity of this curious gift of the Spirit explainable: one knows one has the gift of discernment because one has received the appropriate keys and instruction in the temple. It is thus not necessary to fight spirits with spirits.

Moreover, though, this temple connection begins to open the possibility that all the gifts of the Spirit are similar. Are they not all represented in the temple endowment in curious ways? There is undoubtedly a kind of gift of tongues in the temple, there being certain things that can only be said within the temple. And there is undoubtedly a kind of healing associated with the temple: not only did the Saints often baptize for healing in the temple baptismal fonts in earlier days, but the washings and anointings cannot be too far removed from the out-of-the-temple anointing for the sick. And there is little doubt that prophecy (or the testimony of Jesus) is associated with the temple endowment, since it is there one goes to seek revelation.

In the end, it is possible to suggest that all the gifts of the Spirit, while they are employed to some effect outside of the temple, are brought to their fullest meaning and effect in the temple, in the endowment. And there seems to be a sense in which the endowment is the bestowal on the Saints of all the gifts of the Spirit.

But there is much more to learn about such things, and we, as a people, have barely begun to learn about even the discerning of spirits.

7 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 33: “The Spiritual Gifts of Healing, Tongues, Prophecy, and Discerning of Spirits” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. […] four gifts discussed, and what does that tell us about the role or purpose of the several gifts? Read the rest of this entry » at […]

  2. Brian said

    I’m curious about what you say regarding healing. I have friends in other churches who have witnessed healing miracles at the hands of their ministers. What are we to make of this?

  3. Robert C. said

    An interesting tension, it seems to me, is that of what is limited versus what is full. That is, the phrase in D&C 46:10, “For all have not every gift given unto them,” in a kind of tension with D&C 46:29, “unto some it may be given to have all those gifts.” It seems the ordinance are—at least now—available to all who are worthy. And yet is it ever said that everyone will have all gifts? Is the “some” in 46:29 simply commenting on the fact that not all will receive of the fulness of the gospel? or is it more like “some” in the sense that not everyone worthy male church member will serve as bishop?

  4. NathanG said

    I second Brian’s question and add a little of the curious wording of D&C section 42 regarding healing.

    43 And whosoever among you are sick, and have not faith to be healed, but believe, shall be nourished with all tenderness, with herbs and mild food, and that not by the hand of an enemy.
    44 And the elders of the church, two or more, shall be called, and shall pray for and lay their hands upon them in my name; and if they die they shall die unto me, and if they live they shall live unto me.
    45 Thou shalt live together in love, insomuch that thou shalt weep for the loss of them that die, and more especially for those that have not hope of a glorious resurrection.
    46 And it shall come to pass that those that die in me shall not taste of death, for it shall be sweet unto them;
    47 And they that die not in me, wo unto them, for their death is bitter.
    48 And again, it shall come to pass that he that hath faith in me to be healed, and is not appointed unto death, shall be healed.
    49 He who hath faith to see shall see.
    50 He who hath faith to hear shall hear.
    51 The lame who hath faith to leap shall leap.
    52 And they who have not faith to do these things, but believe in me, have power to become my sons; and inasmuch as they break not my laws thou shalt bear their infirmities.

    I like in your comments the relationship of healing and death, which comes out in this as well. The wording of this almost separates the gift of healing from the priesthood ordinance, ie those that have not faith to be healed, but believe shall have the Elders called for a blessing. This seems different from how we view things today. If this pattern is followed, does it need to be an Elder that has the gift to heal (again if this is someone that has not the faith to be healed).

    In relation to Brian’s question, do you think the gifts of the Spirit are to be received by those who have the gift of the Holy Ghost, which would make gifts of the spirit exclusive? Could it be similar to someone investigating the church experiencing the power of the Holy Ghost, but perhaps not a more constant gift? Only ideas, I don’t know how to think through all of this, at least today.

  5. Ken W said

    Thanks for the commentary above, My wife and I taught this lesson today, in our respective organizations, and were so grateful for the insight that you shared – we both felt particularly inspired to use your reflections on the endowment as an aid in discernment, and could feel the confirmation that it was correct in our respective classes.
    warmest regards
    Springville Utah

  6. NathanG said

    Joe,
    Regarding gifts of tongues and your last comments on the temple. I have always liked Nephi’s words at the end of 2 Nephi (chapter 32)

    2 Do ye not remember that I said unto you that after ye had received the Holy Ghost ye could speak with the tongue of angels? And now, how could ye speak with the tongue of angels save it were by the Holy Ghost?
    3 Angels speak by the power of the Holy Ghost; wherefore, they speak the words of Christ. Wherefore, I said unto you, feast upon the words of Christ; for behold, the words of Christ will tell you all things what ye should do.

    I think the tie in to the temple and the words the angels speak is impressive. Also, being in an English speaking mission, I often thought on this as another manifestation of the gift of tongues for me in my own language and that the words I taught by the spirit had some extra power to them.

    Thanks for your post.

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