Mormons and the "Burning in the Bosom" (D&C 9:8)
“But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right. But if it be not right you shall have no such feelings, but you shall have a stupor of thought that shall cause you to forget the thing which is wrong; therefore, you cannot write that which is sacred save it be given you from me.” (D&C 9:8-9)
The above statements are part of a “revelation” that Joseph Smith said the Lord had given to him for Oliver Cowdery, who at the time was Joseph Smith’s scribe in the production of the Book of Mormon. Apparently, Oliver also wanted to translate ancient records and tried to do some translation of his own. In response, Joseph Smith wrote out what we now have as Doctrine & Covenants section 9. Joseph Smith told Cowdery that the Lord had given him this revelation, which tells Cowdery to be content with acting as Smith’s scribe rather than doing some of the translating. In this revelation, the Lord supposedly told Cowdery that part of the inspired translation process was waiting to get a feeling that the translation is right. Specifically, the inspired translator’s “bosom” would “burn within” him when the translation was right. If it was “not right,” then the translator would “have no such feelings” and would even “forget the thing which is wrong.”
According to Mormons, this passage, and other passages in both the LDS scriptures and the Bible, reveal the God-ordained way in which sincere seekers of truth are to know with certainty that something is true. The experience of an internal feeling that Mormons often describe as a “burning” convinces them that the Book of Mormon is the word of God, that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that the LDS Church is the true church of God today. This “spiritual witness,” which Mormons assert comes from the Holy Ghost, is of special importance to their faith in the Book of Mormon. The LDS apologetics organization FAIR defends this belief by citing D&C 9:8:
"Moreover, one is entitled to and should receive a spiritual witness from the Holy Ghost about the truthfulness of the scriptures (including the Bible and the Book of Mormon) before they accept them as true. This is frequently referred to by some as a burning in the bosom, using the phrase from the Doctrine and Covenants (D&C 9:8), and the same concept as recorded in Luke 24:32."
In common Mormon spirituality, then, the statement in D&C 9:8 is generalized into a principle of religious epistemology. The term epistemology means a theory of knowledge—a way of thinking about what it means to know something is true and how one obtains and verifies or confirms one’s beliefs to be true. One need not be a professional philosopher or even an intellectual to engage in epistemology. Practically everyone has an epistemology and thinks about epistemological questions. How do I know that what I think is so, really is true? What kind of knowledge do I have? Can I be certain about this? These are all epistemological questions—that is, questions about how we know what we think we know.
I suppose Mormons are entitled to apply their scriptures in any way they choose, but this use of D&C 9:8 as a general principle about religious knowledge is rather puzzling. In context, D&C 9:8 has to do specifically with a very unusual activity: translating texts by supernatural guidance. Very few human beings ever have opportunity to do this, even in Mormonism. Furthermore, the very next verse says that if what the translator thinks is the correct translation is not in fact right, he will not only lack the “burning” feeling but will forget the incorrect translation. Were we to generalize this part of the passage, would this not imply that anyone who has a false religious belief and seeks to know the truth will forget his mistaken belief? Yet I have never heard any Mormon suggest such a conclusion. It therefore seems at least questionable that D&C 9:8 is meant to provide a general principle or method for determining if religious claims are true. Instead, it would appear that Mormons who use D&C 9:8 and the “burning” feeling to decide whether the Book of Mormon is true are taking this LDS scripture out of context.
In another interesting article on the “burning in the bosom,” FAIR argues that Joseph Smith’s instruction to Cowdery to “study it out in your mind” shows that the LDS epistemology unites both intellect and feeling:
"Again, the united witness of intellect and heart are essential. If either does not agree, then revelation has not confirmed the matter under consideration. Anyone who relies exclusively on a ‘feeling’ does not understand or obey LDS teaching on this matter."
My own extensive discussions with Mormons—which are admittedly anecdotal evidence—suggests that a lot of Mormons do “not understand or obey LDS teaching on this matter,” assuming this really is LDS teaching. It is nice, though, to see some Mormons agreeing that the intellect should agree before a truth claim is accepted.
This principle ought, however, to work both ways. If we have serious, reasoned objections to Mormonism—objections that fairly and fully take into consideration the available evidence—a “burning in the bosom” cannot negate those legitimate concerns..