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Mormonism and Spiritual Gifts: Real or Imitation?

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Mormonism and Spiritual Gifts: Real or Imitation?

Robert M. Bowman Jr.
“Satan can imitate the gifts of tongues, prophecy, visions, healings, and other miracles…. Satan wants us to believe in his false prophets, false healers, and false miracle workers” (Gospel Principles, 131).

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints affirms the validity of spiritual gifts: “We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth” (Articles of Faith 7). The LDS Church claims that its members alone have these gifts. Yet it also acknowledges that “Satan can imitate the gifts,” so that it is necessary to discern between the genuine, real gifts of the Holy Spirit and the false, imitation manifestations produced by the unholy spirit, Satan. Just how do we tell the difference?

In this response to chapter 22 of the LDS doctrinal manual Gospel Principles, we will put this question in historical and biblical context. We will then discuss some of the more important claims that the LDS Church makes with regard to its “restoration” of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The main points we will make are as follows:

"The LDS religion did not arise in a spiritual or cultural vacuum. In many ways—arguably in every way—it was a product of its time. One way in which this is quite evident is in the emphasis that the LDS faith puts on the gifts of the Spirit."
  1. The LDS Church is just one of several religious movements that emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century claiming to restore the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit.
  2. The LDS claim to represent the true restoration of spiritual gifts is inconsistent with biblical teaching in a number of important ways.
  3. The spiritual gifts that the LDS Church claims its members may have are in several cases either nonexistent or clear distortions of what the Bible teaches about the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

A. LDS Spiritual Gifts in Historical Context


The LDS religion did not arise in a spiritual or cultural vacuum. In many ways—arguably in every way—it was a product of its time. One way in which this is quite evident is in the emphasis that the LDS faith puts on the gifts of the Spirit.

In the early nineteenth century among English-speaking Christians (in both Britain and the fledgling country of the United States), various religious groups were exploring the notion that God was restoring, or was about to restore, the manifestations of the Holy Spirit described in the New Testament. An article in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism acknowledges this historical context in which the LDS emphasis on miraculous gifts emerged:

“Beginning about 1800, a religious movement known as the Second Great Awakening swept across the American frontier. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints emerged in this setting. Many people in this period were seeking the original vitality of the New Testament Church, and those who espoused this point of view were called ‘restorationists.’ …Virtually all restorationists believed that the New Testament Church was to be restored, that there should be no creeds, that baptism should be by immersion, that salvation was through faith and repentance, and that there were a remission of sins and a gift of the Holy Ghost. They differed, however, in other points: whether the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Ghost were a result of baptism, simply a product of faith, or conferred by the laying-on of hands; whether there had been a loss of authority; whether all things were to be restored, including New Testament miracles and gifts of the Spirit, or whether only some things would be restored; and whether religious experience was necessary.” John Dillenberger and Roger R. Keller, “Restorationism, Protestant,” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (New York: Macmillan, 1992), 3:1221.

Mormons were neither the only nor the first of these “restorationist” groups to express an expectation of miracles or gifts of the Spirit. Claims of such manifestations had been circulating for some two centuries before Joseph Smith. Quakers in the seventeenth century reported visions, healings, prophecies, and even speaking in tongues. Such experiences were also reported among such groups as the Camisards, Jansenists, and Moravians. The eighteenth-century Protestant leader John Wesley held a generally positive view of such manifestations, and Wesleyans of his own time and later often claimed to experience visions, prophecies, and other kinds of revelations, as well as physical healings and other manifestations. Joseph Smith’s own theological heritage was predominantly that of the Wesleyan or Methodist tradition, out of which also would later emerge the seeds of Pentecostalism at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In the late 1820s, around the same time that Joseph Smith was producing the Book of Mormon, a group of English Christians were holding prophecy conferences and other meetings that fostered an expectation of an end-times outpouring of miraculous manifestations of the Spirit. Edward Irving (1792-1834), a minister of a Church of Scotland congregation in London, preached an imminent Second Coming heralded by an outpouring of charismatic manifestations, including modern prophecy. One of Irving’s parishioners, the wife of John Bate Cardale, reportedly spoke in tongues in 1831. The following year, Cardale became the first man recognized in this movement as an apostle. Cardale and other “apostles” established what soon became known as the Catholic Apostolic Church, the precursor to a contemporary sect known as the New Apostolic Church.

Closer to home, Joseph Smith and everyone else in his area would have been quite familiar with the Shakers, a religious sect founded in England by Anna Lee in the eighteenth century and influenced by the Quakers and Camisards. Toward the end of Lee’s life the sect crossed the Atlantic and settled in a town about two hundred miles east of Palmyra, Joseph Smith’s boyhood home. From there, communities of Shakers began popping up in New York, the New England states, Ohio, and elsewhere. “Lee’s message was basically restorationist: The primitive church had lost the gifts, but an end-time restoration had been promised” (Edith L. Blumhofer, “Shakers,” in The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements, edited by Stanley M. Burgess and Eduard M. van der Mass (rev. ed., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 1059.

My point is not to draw a straight line between Joseph Smith and any one of these religious groups in terms of them directly influencing him or of him borrowing from them. Again, the point to grasp here is that Joseph was in no sense the first religious leader to teach the idea of a restoration of miraculous gifts of the Spirit. The idea was very much part of his religious environment. In fact, one of the “selling points” of the early LDS movement was its claim to have such manifestations, precisely because many people of that time were already looking for them. LDS historian Milton V. Backman Jr. tells a story that reflects this historical context:

“Another example of an elder who went forth in the early 1830s to serve as the Spirit directed him was Zera Pulsipher, who met Jared Carter during the latter’s mission in Vermont. This investigator was already interested in the message of restoration; he had secured a copy of the Book of Mormon, read it, and become convinced that it was a new witness for Christ. However, he was not certain that the Church had been reestablished on the earth, so when he met Elder Carter, he asked him if the power of the ancient church had been restored, including the gifts of the Spirit. Elder Carter responded with a firm ‘Yes!’ Then Zera Pulsipher asked him if the sick had recovered after he had lain his hands upon them. The missionary replied that on many occasions he had witnessed the healing of the sick through the power of God, which had been restored to the earth.” The Heavens Resound: A History of the Latter-day Saints in Ohio, 1830-1838 (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1983), 104.

Zera Pulsipher would not have asked Jared Carter if the gifts of the Spirit had been restored in the LDS Church if Zera did not already have the idea of such a restoration. This story illustrates the fact that people in the early days of the LDS Church were already familiar with the expectation of a restoration of miraculous gifts, to the point that they were actively looking for a religion that featured such manifestations.

The question that we need to ask, then, is whether this expectation, particularly as articulated in LDS religion, is consistent with the teaching of the Bible.


B. The LDS Restoration of Spiritual Gifts


The LDS Church claims that it is the vehicle of “restoration” of the gifts of the Spirit. Before looking at some of the specific spiritual gifts in question, there are some overarching issues that we should consider.

1. Should we accept the LDS Church’s claim to be a “restoration” of true Christianity?

The claim that the gifts of the Spirit have been restored in the LDS Church depends on its claim to be the true church of Jesus Christ restored to the earth following the Great Apostasy. If this doctrine of the Restoration is unbiblical or in any other way without a solid foundation in truth, then the claimed restoration of spiritual gifts in the LDS Church is also untenable.

In previous articles in this study guide, we gave several reasons for rejecting the LDS Restoration:

  • According to New Testament teaching, the church was never taken from the earth (Matthew 16:18; Jude 3).
  • The LDS concept of restoration was largely unoriginal, so that revelation is not needed to explain it (as is true specifically of its concept of the restoration of spiritual gifts).
  • We have good reasons to question Joseph Smith’s alleged “first vision,” the foundation on which LDS doctrine bases the Restoration. These include both biblical reasons (e.g., Joseph’s seeing the Father as a visible, corporeal being alongside the Son, see John 1:18; Colossians 1:15) and historical reasons (the lack of any mention of this story prior to 1832, and even the version from that date omits the appearance of the Father; the discrepancies in the accounts as to whether Joseph already believed that the churches were apostate before his first vision; etc.).
  • The LDS Church claims that God restored the Aaronic priesthood through Joseph Smith, but this priesthood became obsolete when the old covenant was superseded by the new covenant in which Christ is our heavenly priest.
  • The LDS Church also claims that God restored the Melchizedek priesthood through Joseph Smith, but Melchizedek’s priesthood was a type of the heavenly priesthood of Jesus Christ, which no one on earth can have (Hebrews 5-8).
  • The historical evidence does not support the stories of John the Baptist and three apostles appearing in 1829 to confer these two priesthoods on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. The evidence shows that Joseph made up this story sometime in 1834 or 1835 and added it to an earlier “revelation” that had contained no reference to these alleged events.
  • The organization of the LDS Church is not in any sense a restoration of the organization or offices of the New Testament church. The first-century Christian movement was not run by a religious hierarchy; many of the offices in the LDS Church had no counterpart in the New Testament, and those LDS offices that do have biblical names generally refer to something very different.
  • The distinctive doctrines and practices of the LDS religion are not restorations of New Testament doctrines, but deviations from biblical theology (e.g., God the Father as a man who became exalted to Godhood; human beings preexisting as spirit offspring of a heavenly father and mother; virtually all human beings will be saved to live forever in one of three heavenly kingdoms; reinterpreting repentance and faith as life-long effort to make ourselves worthy of life in the celestial kingdom; a priesthood order that controls Christian ordinances that are regarded as essential for full salvation; etc.).

From this admittedly quick summary, it should be evident that there are many, serious reasons for challenging the LDS Church’s claim to represent the restoration of true Christianity.

2. Are supernatural gifts of the Spirit a hallmark of true Christianity?

Even asking the question of the relative importance of supernatural gifts of the Spirit is likely to provoke in some the reaction that we are somehow “minimizing” or even denigrating the work of the Holy Spirit. Far from it! But the question is a valid one. If these gifts are a crucial, vital mark of the restoration of true Christianity to the earth, this would imply that they are an essential component or indispensable hallmark of true Christianity. We also need to point out that we are not questioning the fact that spiritual gifts, or gifts of the Holy Spirit, are a normal, expected, important part of church life. They are indeed. Our focus here is specifically on certain overtly supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit that some religious groups, including the LDS Church, argue were “lost” and therefore needed to be “restored.”

If we take the teaching of the entire New Testament about the work of the Holy Spirit in the church into consideration, what we find is that overtly supernatural gifts of the Spirit are not a normative or essential element of the Christian church. The one epistle that devotes more than a sentence or two to the subject—1 Corinthians—also makes emphatically clear that supernatural manifestations are not essential to sound, mature Christianity. Sandwiched between chapters 12 and 14, which focus on correcting abuses in the Corinthians’ exercise of spiritual gifts, is 1 Corinthians 13, commonly known as the Love Chapter. What is often missed is that in this chapter Paul’s main point is that love, not miraculous manifestations, is the hallmark of true Christianity:

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing…. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away…. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2, 8-10, 13; biblical quotations from the ESV).

What really matters, says Paul, are not the spiritual gifts of tongues, prophecy, and knowledge, but the spiritual fruits of faith, hope, and especially love. In chapter 12, Paul had argued that Christians have different spiritual gifts and no one need be embarrassed because they do not have a particular gift. Here he follows up that point by emphasizing that, in contrast to such differences with regard to spiritual gifts, all Christians need faith, hope, and love.

In another epistle, Paul judges that people are being led by the Spirit and walking by the Spirit by whether their lives are characterized by the fruit of the Spirit rather than the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:18-25). The fruit of the Spirit are character qualities like love, joy, and peace (5:22-23). Spiritual gifts do not even come up in this context.

Jesus himself said nothing about his disciples needing to have or experience miraculous gifts or manifestations of the Spirit. Of course, Jesus performed miracles, and he empowered his disciples during his earthly ministry to cast out demons and heal people. But when his disciples became excited by such manifestations, Jesus put them in perspective: “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). Jesus taught that his disciples would be known by their love for one another (John 13:34-35).

Again, our point here is not to deny that God does miracles today, nor are we denying that in some times and places God may choose to grant miracles with far more frequency or intensity than is usually the case. What are normal and essential for the Christian church in all times and places, however, are not miraculous experiences but rather genuine faith, hope, and love that manifest themselves in good works done in gratitude for God’s grace (Romans 5:2-5; 1 Corinthians 13:13; Galatians 5:5-6; Ephesians 4:1-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:3; 5:8; 1 Peter 1:21-22).


C. Testing the Spirits: The LDS Church and Spiritual Gifts


We will now consider some of the more important, specific gifts of the Spirit that the LDS Church claims to have functioning among its members. It is important to understand that LDS doctrine maintains that these gifts are genuine only when manifested in or through Mormons. “These gifts have been given to members of the true Church whenever it has been on the earth” (125). Any other apparent occurrences of these gifts we are apparently supposed to regard as having been counterfeited by Satan (131). In making this claim, the LDS Church has invited a stricter level of scrutiny. Since it makes the sweeping claim that it alone has these gifts of the Spirit and all other apparent manifestations of these gifts are deceptions of Satan, Mormons can hardly complain if we raise serious questions about this claim to exclusive rights to the gifts.

1. If there is a “gift of translation,” Joseph Smith was apparently the only person in human history ever to have it.

The Bible makes no reference to a gift of translation. However, this alleged gift plays a crucial, essential role in the LDS religion, because it is the gift by which Joseph Smith claimed to translate the Book of Mormon, as well as the Book of Moses, the Book of Abraham, and the “Joseph Smith Translation” (JST) of the Bible.

Gospel Principles makes it sound as if this is an ongoing gift of the Spirit when it states, “If we have been called by the leaders of the Church to translate the word of the Lord, we can receive a gift to translate beyond our natural ability” (127). However, the only example the manual mentions of anyone having this gift is Joseph Smith. Supposedly the Lord gave Oliver Cowdery the gift but then withdrew it before Oliver could translate anything (D&C 9). Indeed, most references in LDS literature to the gift of translation are to Oliver’s failed attempt to exercise that gift! Another Mormon who aspired to the gift and failed was Hiram Page; according to Joseph Smith, Page’s alleged translation was a deception of Satan (D&C 28:11).

There is something troubling about the claim that Joseph Smith had a gift of the Spirit that evidently no one else in history has ever had. If this was a genuine gift of the Spirit that God restored in the LDS Church, why have none of the LDS Church presidents or other leaders ever produced any supernaturally translated writings?

The evidence shows that in fact Joseph Smith did not have any such gift. The coup de grâce to his claim to be divinely enabled to translate ancient texts came with the rediscovery of the papyri from which Joseph supposedly translated the Book of Abraham. Even though some of the papyri had been lost in a fire, enough remained to demonstrate that the papyri had no substantial historical connection to Abraham, the other patriarchs, or the Israelites. Close examination of the JST also shows that it reflects a decidedly uninspired approach to the Bible—rewriting biblical texts to fit Joseph’s changing theology, supposedly “fixing” biblical texts that Joseph simply misunderstood, and other such problems.

2. No spiritual gift is needed to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

Gospel Principles explains, “This has been the gift of prophets and apostles who have been called as special witnesses of Jesus Christ. However, others are also given this gift. Every person can have a testimony through the whisperings of the Holy Spirit” (128). In context, by “every person” is meant every member of the LDS Church, since it has already been established that only Mormons may receive the gifts of the Spirit.

The main problem with this claim is that it denies the fact that numerous Christians for the past twenty centuries have known with an unshakable confidence that Jesus is the Son of God. Excuse me for being so blunt, but we didn’t need the LDS “restoration” to have this knowledge. Millions of Christians during the centuries of the so-called Great Apostasy gave of themselves without reservation—many of them to the point of martyrdom—because they knew that Jesus was the Son of God and were assured that they had eternal life in him.

The Bible does not support the notion that a special gift of the Spirit is needed to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. If such a gift were needed, however, millions of Christians outside the LDS Church have had it, including millions of Christians living today. The facts refute the LDS claims about this alleged gift.

3. The idea of a “gift of believing the testimony of others” appears to be a way to discourage people from critically examining the LDS Church’s controversial religious claims.

The description in Gospel Principles of the “gift of believing the testimony of others” as something any Mormon can and should have (129) is at odds with the New Testament teaching about spiritual gifts in a very basic way. In the New Testament, there is no such thing as “a gift of the Spirit” that every believer can have. Gifts of the Spirit are distributed to believers so that not all members of the body of Christ have the same gift (1 Corinthians 12:4-11, 29-30). Yet the LDS Church teaches its members that each one should pray to know if a particular revelation is true. If this is a gift of the Spirit, by definition it is not one that everyone will have. In the same chapter, the apostle Paul does refer to a special gift of discernment of spirits (1 Corinthians 12:10). In context, this refers to a special enablement from the Holy Spirit by which the gifted individual is able to recognize whether a revelation comes from the Spirit of God or from an evil or false spirit. Paul is explicit that this is a gift given to some but not others.

There is a very important point here. The LDS Church teaches prospective converts to ask God to reveal to them if the Book of Mormon is true by a spiritual witness or testimony. Yet such spiritual discernment in biblical teaching is a gift of the Spirit that he gives to believers—not to unbelievers trying to decide what to believe—and even then only to some members of the body of Christ. Thus, to teach that everyone should find out if the LDS scriptures, prophets, and religion are true through an experience of the Spirit is really an exercise in misdirection. It sounds pious, but this recommendation encourages people to try to work up a spiritual experience instead of taking a close, careful look at the facts to see if what the LDS Church claims really holds up.

4. Real prophets are not limited to speaking truth to people below them in the religious chain of command.

The claimed restoration of prophecy and prophets is a large issue in LDS religion. We have already discussed some aspects of this issue in previous articles in this study guide, including the article that focuses on prophets.

There is one point that deserves special mention here. According to Gospel Principles, “It is contrary to the order of heaven for a person to receive revelation for someone over whom he or she does not preside” (129). Where is this taught in the Bible? Frankly, such a doctrine appears to be a way of insulating the leadership of the LDS Church from any criticism, no matter how warranted. The doctrine presupposes that the leadership can never become corrupt or fall into serious error that would need correction.

5. The Bible tells us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 John 4:1).

The Bible tells us to test the spirits, not by praying for a revelation about others’ alleged revelations, but by applying doctrinal and practical tests to their claims. For example, John explained that anyone who denied that Christ had come in the flesh was not of God (1 John 4:2-6). There is no need to pray to know if someone who denies this truth might nevertheless be a prophet of God: his doctrine proves that he is not. We are to judge alleged prophets to be false if their fruit is bad (Matthew 7:15-23), which assumes that we know enough to tell good fruit from bad.

Testing claims to the gifts of the Spirit is not a sign of a lack of faith in God. We firmly believe that God the Holy Spirit gives gifts to genuine believers in Christ today. However, we have a responsibility to determine which people who claim to follow Christ and have his Spirit really represent God and which people do not. The many contrasts between the teaching of the Bible about the gifts of the Spirit and the teaching of the LDS Church are good reasons to question its claim to be the sole custodians of those gifts.