Visions–Medieval and Modern

I had just completed the oral defense of my admission-to-PhD-candidacy exams, which emphasized the writings of medieval visionaries and mystics. My advisor extended his hand, and with his typical wry smile, said: “Congratulations. You passed. Now, go home and have a vision!” We all had a good laugh, but for different reasons. They all laughed because they don’t believe visions are possible. I laughed because I knew how much it would unsettle them to know that I do.

Perhaps one of the reasons that medieval visionary literature has resonated with me so powerfully is because I grew up in a church that not only taught about a falling away and a loss of authority, but also exuberantly and confidently about a great and ongoing restoration of gifts of the spirit. I grew up in this church that taught that the heavens, if they were closed, are now generously and continuously open, and that God speaks to us in a variety of ways, both as a church and individually, and that we should actively seek God’s presence, grace and spirit in many ways. The medieval texts I read describe prayers, prophecies, visions, hearing of voices, dreams, revelations, impressions, burning bosoms. These fascinate me in part because of the frequency of these terms in LDS theology.

Medieval visionary texts and the “spiritual experiences” (to use a Mormon term) of the women and men who wrote them also intrigue me because point to a certain continuity and convey a spiritual richness and vitality markedly different from the one we are often taught to believe existed in the so-called Dark Ages. The texts I study attest that the desire to know God is timeless and did not cease even when leadership failed or Priesthood authority was gone. Rather, it took on new, often creative and daring forms. Women seem to have been the major conveyors of affective spirituality in the Middle Ages, and it is their voices that remain of greatest interest to me.

Some aspects of their lives and writings would seem unfamiliar and odd to an LDS reader, such as those that focus on imitating the suffering of Christ, often in a graphic and gruesome manner (think of stigmata, for example, or extended fasting, self-flagellation or other mortifications of the flesh), or those that portray the union of the human soul with God as the erotically charged union of two lovers (the bride and bridegroom a la the Song of Songs). Other aspects of these medieval texts, however, feel timeless and strangely familiar to an LDS reader (a revelation that follows intense prayer or study, for example). At the least, our belief that God works in us individually should allow us, in approaching medieval religious texts, to acknowledge the presence of God, if not in all its power and fullness, at least as a source for good in the lives of those prior to the Restoration who sought Him as we do.

I have been particularly interested in the detail with which medieval women visionaries often describe their encounters with God, and in the influence their visions often had within and beyond their convent walls. Hildegard of Bingen (12th-c), for example, records visions that unfolded before her that were nearly cinematic in their detail and breathtaking in their theological specificity and complexity. She received these visions, she tells us, “[not]…in a dream, nor…in a state of mental confusion. Rather…while fully awake, with a clear mind, through the eyes and ears of the inner person.” She communicated frequently with important church leaders, some of whom even asked that she pray and receive revelations for them.

Later visionary women record visions that were more personal, we might say: visions of and conversations with the Lord as a baby, youth, or as the crucified or exalted Lamb of God. I could offer many examples. Such visions often occurred during worship, devotion or contemplation (e.g. as a nun contemplates a crucifix, the figure of Christ comes to life and embraces her), other times as the women went about the more mundane duties of their convent life (e.g. the boy Jesus appears to and plays catch with a young nun as she prepares balls of herbs for dinner.) Visions were, it seems, a vital part of the spiritual life of many medieval religious women.

My readings of medieval women’s visionary texts have caused me to wonder how our church might someday be enriched if its leadership included visionary women. That’s probably best left for another discussion. More generally, my continued engagement with medieval visionary literature has led me to consider what seems to me to be the changing role of visions in the restored church.

Joseph Smith’s vision of the Father and the Son set the restoration of all things in motion, and it was followed by numerous other visions, many of which we are blessed to have recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants. Since Joseph Smith, the number of _recorded_ visions of our prophets has dropped significantly. Does this mean that there have been fewer visions since Joseph? Perhaps, but not necessarily. Joseph’s enormous task of restoring and organizing the church clearly required a nearly constant flow of information and inspiration from heaven to earth. The work of the prophets who have followed him has obviously been built on the foundation established by his visions, so a reduced number of visions would be understandable.

What I understand less readily is why visions or other spiritual experiences of our latter-day prophets, however frequent or infrequent they may be, are so seldom described to us. I have heard apostles say, for example, that they have gained a witness of Christ’s divinity through experiences too sacred to share. I have felt the Spirit when they speak even as I have wondered why they cannot share their experiences. Are their experiences any more sacred than the first vision or Joseph Smith’s other visions? Or are there other reasons? Is the membership of the church perhaps now too large and diverse to make the sharing of visions appropriate? Is there now a greater emphasis on visions or other revelations for our families and ourselves than there was in the early days of the church, and thus less need for us to hear our leaders’ visions? Or are we at a stage in the church’s history when our knowledge of details of our leaders’ visions and revelations is less important than our faith that they receive divine guidance?

These are some of the ways my work helps me engage with my faith. I look forward to others’ questions and insights.

31 comments for “Visions–Medieval and Modern

  1. Kirsten,

    I enjoyed this post, as well as your other contributions. Here is my response.

    Remember how Elder Nelson described his mind being enlightened during heart surgery a year of so ago in conference? I know people who have had clear and detailed visions much like he described. All were in answer to a specific prayer, and, in each case, in response to a direct and immediate need.

  2. Ok – I’ve been thinking now a bit about this example of Elder Nelson. His vision, as you say, was for him in a very specific, personal situation. He shared this as many other members with a similar experience might, to bear testimony that the Lord answers prayers and gives _personal_ revelation. An apostles’ personal witness of the Savior arguably also falls into this category, and is perhaps thus not necessarily intended for publication.

    The kinds of visions I was thinking that we hear fewer descriptions of these days are those with a greater scope — intended for the church at large (such as the first vision or Joseph F. Smith’s vision of the redemption of the dead (D&C 138). There are fewer of these recorded since Joseph Smith, probably for some or all of the reasons I formulated as questions.

  3. Kirsten writes: What I understand less readily is why visions or other spiritual experiences of our latter-day prophets, however frequent or infrequent they may be, are so seldom described to us.

    I have had some recent thoughts about this, based on the first verse in Joseph Smith History:

    Owing to the many reports which have been put in circulation by evil-disposed and designing persons, in relation to the rise and progress of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, all of which have been designed by the authors thereof to militate against its character as a Church and its progress in the world—I have been induced to write this history, to disabuse the public mind, and put all inquirers after truth in possession of the facts, as they have transpired, in relation both to myself and the Church, so far as I have such facts in my possession.

    It has occurred to me that in this verse Joseph Smith might be expressing a certain reluctance or resignation to share the details of his revelatory experiences — as if he has been compelled to do so against his will or preferences. This isn’t something we think about too often because we think of the First Vision as a cornerstone of the restored gospel and as missionaries we go out and eagerly memorize and recite verses from his story. But if he had not been in such an adversarial environment, perhaps Joseph Smith could have fulfilled his earthly mission without publishing the First Vision.

    For a potential example of prophetic reserve, I find it intriguing that we have so little specific information or detail about the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood. Yes we know some generalities about the personalities involved … but nowhere near the details that we have of other visions or sacred experiences.

  4. Another interesting verse that I feel refers to prophetic reserve is in D&C 84. There are a set of verses where we learn about how Old Testament prophets received the Melchizedek priesthood. Most of them were ordained by other human beings — yes they were great prophets — but human beings nevertheless. And then there is an unusually potent verse that reads:

    12 And Esaias received it under the hand of God.

    In the book attributed to him, Isaiah does share some unusually great personal revelations where he says that he saw the Lord. But except for this D&C verse, I don’t recall anything that describes the experience where God ordained him to the Melchizedek priesthood.

    Thanks for your post Kirsten.

    … and congrats for passing your oral defense! Does that mean you are officially Dr. Christensen now?

  5. “… and congrats for passing your oral defense! Does that mean you are officially Dr. Christensen now?”

    it’s old, old news, danithew. She’s been Dr. Christensen since 1998 or so.

  6. Often in the church it is taught that there were no visions or revelations at all from God during the centuries of apostasy until the heavens were “re-opened” with Joseph Smith’s first vision. This teaching is reflected in the “Gospel Principles” manual”:

    From page 106:
    “the priesthood and revelation were no longer on the earth….There were no Apostles or other priesthood leaders with power from God, and there were no spiritual gifts.”

    Page 109:
    “Because of apostasy, there was no direct revelation from God.”

    Page 110:
    “Beginning with this event, there was again direct revelation from the heavens. The Lord had chosen a new prophet. Since that time the heavens have not been closed.”

    I also looked at some more recent publications: “True to the Faith,” “Our Heritage,” and “Preach my Gospel.” These seemed to put more stress the loss of authority during the apostasy, and they seem to tread more lightly on the idea that all revelation was absent. (There are a few statements to that effect, but most could probably be interpreted to apply to revelation for purposes of church leadership.) Perhaps we are seeing a change in emphasis.

    I’ve certainly heard many talks and lessons where members claimed that there were no revelations or visions at all during the time of the great apostasy. I suspect that most American mormons would simply dismiss medieval visions as false, or even satanic.

    Any comments?

  7. Ed, you are probably describing quite accurately many members’ view of medieval spirituality. There are other and better reasons for rejecting that view, but if nothing else, one could take note of the fact that it is irreconcilable with the equally widespread view that Martin Luther was divinely inspired. Since the Middle Ages are often considered irrelevant to our spiritual welfare, few people worry themselves about such inconsistencies, and it’s easy for these kinds of ill-considered notions to be perpetuated.

    When I was doing my own work on Hildegard, I found it much to my advantage that I was prepared to accept the reality of visions. It meant I didn’t have the notion that there was something pathological about her experiences at the foundation of my research.

  8. Jonathan–

    Perhaps my friendship with Kirsten has me biased, but there seems to be a disproportionate number of LDS German Medievalists. Do you think this attitude toward visions might have something to do with it?

  9. Ed, I was very interested in your thoughts that the church’s view of the apostasy–or rather, an acknowledgment that the spirit could have continued working throughout the apostasy–may be softening somewhat. Obviously there’s always been the LDS belief, as Jonathan points out, that Martin Luther and other reformers were highly inspired, and since they couldn’t have operated in a vacuum, it stands to reason that the spirit would have worked in the preceding centuries, and maybe the church is allowing more room for this now in its discussions of the apostasy. The things you quote certainly suggest more openness to the possibility than did B.H. Roberts, who described the apostasy as “a period of 1500 years! In which a famine for the word of God existed; a period when men wandered from sea to sea, and ran to and fro to seek the word of the Lord and found it not. How pitiful the picture of it.” McConkie’s _Mormon Doctrine_ isn’t much more generous. His entry for the Middle Ages says simply “see Dark Ages.” That entry then declares both that in the Middle Ages “progress was nil,” and that it was a period of “universal retrogression.” Not much subtelty there, so to the extent that LDS are skeptical of the possibility of spiritual enlightenment in the Middle Ages, such teachings, of which there are many, are likely the source.

    It’s worth noting that plenty of the contemporaries of medieval visionary women also thought their visions were false or even satanic. More than a few visionaries were persecuted, some killed for their claims. By the fifteenth century skepticism was running high, and the church formulated guidelines for the discerning of spirits, so that church leaders, esp. local parish priests, had some ‘official’ measuring stick for determining the source of a vision. As you might imagine, those were not particularly good times to be a visionary in Europe.

    In my experience, even though the vast majority of modern scholars almost certainly have no personal belief in visions, all attempt to approach the texts with integrity. That said, there is a large body of scholarship, mostly from several decades ago and longer, that attempts to explain away visions as psychotic phenomena.

    I do know a few LDS German medievalists. It would be interesting to survey them about their interest in the Middle Ages and its connection to their faith.

  10. Kirsten, that’s a good point about modern scholars. In my work on a quite obscure part of Hildegard’s work, I was dealing mostly with older research, some of it part of or influenced by Bismarck’s Kulturkampf. Still, it’s surprising how long some of those 19th-century attitudes persisted in some places. Oliver Sacks’s work for a popular audience assumes that Hildegard’s visions were the result of migraines. Perhaps because the[articular work was still part of the philologist’s domain and a bit bizarre, even by the standards of medieval visionaries, even some recent articles were reluctant to accept it on Hildegard’s terms. You’re absolutely correct about the vast majority of current work, though.

    Julie/Kirsten, I’m counting up the number of LDS German medievalists, and coming up with three, plus a couple of Scandinavianists. Am I missing somebody? There are many more LDS medievalists in other disciplines.

  11. Thanks for an interesting post, Kirsten. Ed’s and Jonathan’s comments prompt me to join the discussion. I am not comfortable with what I feel as a tendency to relativize the Great Apostasy and accept the reality of visions throughout the ages as a proof of this relativization. In the view of some, it may undermine a clear-cut need for the Restoration and it may tend to put Joseph Smith as one of many along the line. Moreover, it may be placed in contradiction with what Church leaders have said on the topic.

    As a former Catholic and convert to Mormonism, I have a certain understanding of the relation between on the one hand “apostasy, closed heavens, no revelation”, and on the other hand the visions and other spiritual experiences of individuals during those periods. This insight is of course not new, but I would like to mention it.

    First, the concept of apostasy and closed heavens pertains, from our Mormon perspective, to the leadership of other churches. Catholic doctrine itself, like in almost all Christian churches, rejects continuing revelation after the apostles, since Christ “has revealed everything in all its fullness during his lifetime”. In that sense, both Mormons and most Christians agree: there was no revelation, in its Biblical sense, to Christian leaders after the death of the apostles. However, this does not exclude that individuals, in their deep personal devotion, have had spiritual experiences from divine origin. But it is telling that these people, when they shared their experiences, were often rebuked by their ecclesiastical leadership, if not condemned, persecuted and eventually put to death. Think of Joan of Arc, who claimed heavenly voices had spoken to her, and was reviled and condemned to the stake by the Church authorities. I understand many medieval mystics were viewed with suspicion and had to struggle to avoid a condemnation as heretic and, if female, as witch. Hundreds of thousands of Cathar Albigenses, people who believed in spiritual gifts, were exterminated by Rome in a bloody crusade. This is what we rightfully call the Dark Ages – religious leadership committed to inquisition and horror, precisely against devoted believers. It is equally telling that the Catholic leadership has to conduct an official investigation, sometimes taking years, to determine if an alleged vision would be of divine origin. Wouldn’t the Lord reveal it directly to the leaders if such were the case and if He accepted them as his representatives on earth?

    Second, logically following the preceding item, we believe God gives revelation in behalf of the Church directly to the leaders of his Church. It is hard to understand how e.g. the reported Marian apparitions to women at Lourdes, Fatima or Akita included (secret) messages that were next given to the hierarchy, critically studied and eventually accepted (under pressure of massive public devotion?). Compare: when Miriam, Moses’ sister, spoke enviously about the prophetic monopoly of her brother and wanted to proclaim her own revelations, she was promptly rebuked: God Himself chooses his prophet (Numbers 12). In the Old Testament, the prophet always represents religious authority. In the New Testament the prophets are mentioned together with the apostles as the leaders of the young Church (Acts 13:1; Ephesians 2:20; 4:11). The receiver of revelation for the Church is a prophet who fulfills a function of religious leadership in a historical perspective.

    Third, we believe in a concept of visions and revelations with almost cognitive clarity. There usually is a significant difference between the ecstatic (and sometimes erotic or gruesome) visions experienced in a highly emotional state, and the calm confidence with which the biblical prophet writes down the word of God — ” and the Lord said…”. To Moses the Lord specifies the character of his speaking, i.e. “Mouth to mouth, even apparently, and not in dark speeches” (Numbers 12:8). Depending on the moment and the purpose of the revelation, the language may vary from sober simplicity to richer symbolism. But even in the latter case, the message remains concrete and logical, unadorned with hallucinations or spectacular elements. The incident with the prophet Elijah on Mount Carmel illustrates this difference between “true” and “false” prophets: with a smile Elijah watches the ecstatic show of the prophets of Baal in their attempt to invoke rain. Then he makes his own appearance: composed, confident in the relationship he has built with God through true revelation (1 Kings 18). In the same way, Joseph Smith and his successors knew no other relationship: the words of the Lord flowed quietly to them and were received with a steady hand. They relate to instructions and commandments, to warnings and promises. The instructions ensure the conveyance of truth — correct knowledge about the nature of God, the sense of life and of history, the meaning of the Atonement and the Redemption. The commandments establish covenants between God and man, invite to personal growth and make blessings flow. Finally, the voice of the Lord draws the outlines of the future — the “prophecy”. In the midst of all this one thing stands out, i.e. the distinction between these contents and the products of visionaries and illuminists.

    In conclusion, we should have no problem to accept that throughout the ages, all over the world, deeply religious individuals have experienced certain forms of divine impact on their souls. I don’t think the Church has ever denied that. But such does not imply a relativization of the basic concept of the Apostasy when it comes to the Church, priesthood authority, and revelation in behalf of mankind.

  12. Wilfried – thank you for your thoughtful post. We are in absolute agreement that the mystics and visionaries I write of could have been personally inspired, but not designated as spokespersons for the church or world, as we understand our prophets now to be. I apologize if my post came across as an attempt to relativize the the loss of Church, authority, and revelation in the apostasy. I simply intended to highlight what I believe to be the reality of on-going personal revelation, even during the apostasy.

    As Jonathan and I indicated in our comments, to the extent that members of the church (at least in the U.S.) have any opinion at all about the Middle Ages, it is almost always a very negative one — a sense that it was a period utterly devoid of any workings of the spirit. I simply hoped to show, as you indicate, that we need to understand this lack of spirit as lack of authority and organized church, but not necessarily as utter lack of personal communication between God and his children. I certainly did not mean to suggest that any of these women should be viewed as prophets or God’s mouthpieces to the broader church. That said, though, some of them were very astute at identifying and condemning corruption in the leadership. To that extent, perhaps they were inspired carriers of a broader message.

  13. No need to apologize, Kirsten, your post was clear on those points. My response was mostly triggered by Ed’s remarks because he extended to “visions and revelations” and quoted past Church authors in comparison to more recent ones as if there is a shift in the Church’s concept of apostasy. At the same time he also nuanced by mentioning the point of interpretation — “revelation for purposes of church leadership”, so I think we are mostly in agreement.

    I would make a clear difference between workings of the spirit (inspiration, spiritual guidance, even ecstatic) and the concept of “visions and revelations” as we understand that concept in a Mormon perspective.

    As to an understanding of the European Middle Ages it is probably true that the perception of many people, especially outside Europe, is one of total darkness for more than a millennium. Of course it is not that simple, there was art, literature, music, etc. Still, let us not fall into another extreme. Just imagine how many centuries it took for a barbaric Europe to regain the organizational and cultural level of e.g. the Roman Empire before them. Millions died in incessant wars. There was fear of death and hell. Superstition was rampant until far after the Middle Ages. Science hardly progressed for more than a thousand years. And from a religious viewpoint it seems that especially the politics of Rome, including crusades, inquisition, autodafes, witchburning etc. still allow us to speak of Dark Ages.

    But, agreed, the Middle Ages cover centuries and are complex. Allow me a personal note to show my love for it. I grew up in a house almost devoted to the Middle Ages, with a dad art historian specialized in the late Middle Ages and medieval art around us in every room. As a boy I read (in the original Dutch, my mother tongue) Huizinga’s fascinating Waning of the Middle Ages – “a period of weariness, pessimism and decadence” – and many other books on a period that has always fascinated me. For my M.A. thesis I worked in Paris on the first French medieval translation of the Bible (13th century) and published on it. Loved the feel and look of those unique illuminated manuscripts. I missed becoming a true medievalist and I regret it…

  14. Wilfried,

    I think your view is entirely consistent with the newer church materials, i.e. that “the concept of apostasy and closed heavens pertains, from our Mormon perspective, to the leadership of other churches.” However, I think it’s inconsistent with the older quotes I gave from “Gospel Principles” and with ideas that have been prominent among mormons (at least in the USA) that focus on the heavens being “closed” with “no spiritual gifts” prior to 1820. It’s true that Mormon’s have often taught that Martin Luther and others were inspired, but I always assumed this meant a sort of subtle inspiration, not unlike the Lord “softening” Pharao’s heart.

    I suspect that we will see less of the older teaching in the future. The newer materials used much of the same language, but in a way that seemed somewhat ambiguous on this issue. (Perhaps deliberately ambiguous…I often get this sense when reading recent correlated materials…see recent discussions of what it means to “preside.”)

    I have found the older teachings a bit hard to swallow. Even Joseph smith’s own family members experienced prophetic dreams, to say nothing of Hildegard of Bingen.

    Perhaps the old idea is fading out as missionary work focusses less on american mainline protestants and more on catholics and others among whom spiritual manifestations are more common. Or perhaps there is more awareness of historical problems with the old view.

  15. Kirsten,

    Would love to hear some more of your experiences with academic securalists.

    Luther: I think he was inspired like many of the other reformers in preparation for the restoration. He also taught some false doctrine about grace and wanted the “throw out” the book of James for the obvious reasons

    I agree with the idea that authority was lost but not personal revelation. HF still oved his children in 1200AD and would have responded to heartfelt prayer of his children then as now.

  16. Wilfried- thanks for sharing your background. Between your upbringing and your M.A., I’d wager that you’re a better-trained medievalist than some medievalists! As you probably know, those of us who train in language departments often have to sacrifice medieval coursework for generalist training in our language, since most every job in lang. depts.–even positions designated for a medievalist–requires that the candidate ‘swing both ways’ — be able to teach modern as well as pre-modern material. I’ve only taught in non-PhD-granting departments, so I’ve had precious few opportunities to teach medieval material so far. I have to get my medieval ‘fix’ through my research. But I do love also having a professional excuse to stay abreast of contemporary literature and culture. This is all just a long way of saying how much I admire and envy the rich education in things medieval that you describe, both the one you received in your boyhood home and at the university.

    Thanks also, of course, for your additional thoughts on visions — in both of your comments. I agree on almost every point. I was particularly interested in your comparison of the “sober, logical, unadorned, concrete” visions of prophets with the emotionally charged, gruesome, erotic, spectacular or ecstatic visions of medieval mystics. Perhaps the former category does offer a good series of measures of ‘true’ visions. Not all medieval visions fit the latter category, of course; not all were ecstatic, gruesome, or erotic, although those are generally among the more memorable. Hildegard of Bingen makes a point of saying how unaltered–unecstatic, we might say–her state was when she received her visions. Others (Gertrude the Great of Helfta, 13th c.. comes to mind) also received visions in a quite sober state.

    I also appreciate your point that ‘vision’ and ‘revelation’ have specific meanings and connotations in LDS parlance. Still, I’m not prepared to cede use of those generic, descriptive terms in the medieval context, since I think it is mostly content, not essence that differs. We may be uncomfortable using those terms for workings of the spirit during the apostasy, or for manifestions in any period that were not meant for the church or the world, but the broader terms “inspiration” or “spiritual guidance” that you suggest using instead simply don’t adequately describe many of the phenomena these medieval women and men record.

    In any case, thanks very much for the dialogue. It makes me wish I had more LDS medievalists around me.

  17. Many thanks, Kirsten, for the valuable comments. I think we’re in perfect agreement as the addition of nuances shows. I agree that some claimed real “visions”, and real voices, more than inspiration, whether they were called Hildegard or Joan of Arc. From a Mormon point of view, difficult to assess to what extent those were of real divine origin, but there should be little doubt as to the piety, devoutness, and candor of the individuals.

    Also gratitude to Ed (#17) for his observations. One item that would interest me, continuing Ed’s remark, is the point if there is indeed a real shift in the assessment of Church authors, past versus present, as to the working of the Spirit on individuals during the Great Apostasy. No doubt we can find plenty of quotes that condemn the doctrinal and political demise of Christianity in no uncertain terms (from general statements by Brigham Young to the more detailed analysis of Talmage and others), but I suspect past Mormons authors must also have said, in between, more nuanced things as to the simple and devoted souls that were crushed by the system. Perhaps some of the recent publications on Mormon views of the Apostasy give indications in that regard. I haven’t had a chance to look for that particular aspect. But I would be careful with the conclusion that basic Mormon standpoints have really changed. I presume it is more a question of focus and nuance. The first thing past Mormons authors had to illustrate, was the reality of the Apostasy as an historical phenomenon in order to show the need for the Restoration. How rank-and-file believers managed to retain devotion and spirituality in those “Dark Ages” was probably not their first concern. But Mormon authors may have made some nuanced remarks in between. And the nuances have no doubt grown over the past decades as we have become more sensitive to the feelings of outsiders. That development would perhaps make an interesting M.A. thesis, unless a study of it has already been made.

  18. Great post, Kirsten, and I’m sorry I’m so late in responding. I’m an early modernist, but I’ve done a bit of reading in medieval women’s spirituality, mostly courtesy of Caroline Walker Bynum’s _Holy Fast and Holy Feast_. The material is very rich and makes for rewarding research, but I have to confess that I’m unable to take most of the described spiritual manifestations at face value. It seems quite clear to me that both the content and form of the material produced was highly socially constructed—though I recognize my modern’s arrogance in that assessment. Still, this doesn’t make the visions any less interesting or fruitful an object of study—it makes them even moreso, perhaps.

  19. b bell – you asked about my “experiences with academic securalists.” My faith or another colleague’s lack of faith is rarely an issue. But my dissertation advisor knew I was religious. He made a point of telling me early on that he had no faith. It was clear that this was just a statement on his part, not a judgment of me.

    Once, when I came in to discuss a chapter draft with him, he handed it to me and said dryly, “Here. I’ve knocked all the religious fervor out of it.”

    It made me laugh. His input always made my work better.

  20. Rosalynde – yes, absolutely, the context(s) in which these visions came forth is one of the most interesting aspects. It’s fascinating, for example, that visions of Christ as an infant seem to proliferate during Advent (in the voluminous 14th-century Dominican sister books, for example), or visions of Christ on the cross are prevalent during holy week. Does this make these manifestations constructed or less ‘real’ because they are so clearly connected to the liturgical calendar? Who knows, but I don’t think necessarily. It seems a strong parallel, on some level, to the counsel we receive that we’ll be more likely to have spiritual experiences, promptings, impressions, if we’re studying and pondering and worshipping regularly. That’s what these women were doing. So our contexts also determine, to some extent, how we perceive spiritual things, although I do think it’s important to keep Wilfried’s comments about the mostly very clear nature of prophetic visions and revelations in mind as a counterpoint to the varieties of personal spiritual experiences.

  21. First, the one medievalist I had a class from at BYU said that the renaissance was in fact more war-bloody than the supposed “Dark Ages.” I don’t know how he came up with that–if it’s attributable to the technology of war making gains, or if there were actually more wars (his contention I believe). But I thought it was interesting. Also that the Middle Ages were more an era of faith than the “Humanist”/rational Renaissance.

    I’m curious what others think the Church’s message about prophetic revelation is these days. I think there is clarity in regards to revelation for self and ones’ own stewardships -vs- churchwide/worldwide authority/direction is concerned. But I’m not so sure there is a distinction in terms of type or expanse (I can’t think of a better word) of such revelations. I was actually a bit troubled by one of President Hinckley’s responses in one of his press interviews. He was asked about the claim that prophets speak to God. He talked about the voice of God not being in the whirlwind, etc., but being a still, small voice. Then there was a description I heard or read once by an apostle about how revelation is received and decisions are made (currently) in the Council of the Twelve. Sounded a lot like how all the rest of us are supposed to receive personal revelation. Reason it out in your own mind, make a decision, pray for confirmation. Sounds quite a bit more subtle than Joseph Smith-style revelation, not only solitary, but group open visions. Maybe it still happens, but they’re just not talking about it so openly? I’m certainly pretty private about my own spiritual experiences, but it does seem a change on a church-wide level.

  22. What’s the difference between someone wanting to sell me a car…but won’t let me see it, and someone telling me they have a “special witness” of Christ, but its too holy to share? What value is a “special witness” that never testifies. I believe that the prophets have the keys to lead the Church–but I don’t see anything “special” about their witnessing of late. If the heavens really are open to our leaders, why aren’t they sharing that with us?

  23. Mistranslated–I think it does happen. I was really touched recently as I re-read a witness/vision of Christ’s suffering and another near-death vision both related in General Conference by Apostles. I’ll see if I can find the links for you. Those two just came to mind immediately.

  24. I don’t know how to do a link, but two apostolic witnesses of Christ that seem a sharing of “visions” to me are:

    David B. Haight The Sacrament–and the Sacrifice Nov 89 Ensign p 59

    Bruce R. McConkie The Purifying Power of Gethsemane May 85 Ensign p 9

    They’re both available on

    Sorry for the threadjack, Kirsten.

  25. Lisa, but aren’t these two examples remarkable…because really they are the only ones we’ve had in many, many years of recent General Conference–where every Apostle “bears their testimony,” but doesn’t provide the evidence? I can relate to wanting to know if their special witness is anything more than my own warm fuzzy.

  26. This is definitely _not_ a threadjack, Lisa. In fact, I’m happy that someone finally took up the ‘modern’ part of my post, which was the part I had assumed would be of most interest to people. Maybe it was buried too far down.

    I share the questions that Mistranslated and Jack Sprat pose. The role of prophets is to speak for the world, and if they get their inspiration for the world mostly by the still small voice, the way the rest of us do, rather than through a burning bush, perhaps it shouldn’t matter to us. But I think most church members believe (or hope) that our prophets have visions, and that their revelations are more potent, direct and unmistakable than our own spiritual experiences. This special access to God is what we believe distinguishes a prophet, or at least has through most of history. So it seems natural to wonder why, if indeed our prophets continue to have such experiences, we don’t hear about them more often. I raised some of the possible reasons in my post above. Some may see this as an heretical question–one of doubting the prophet. But it’s really just an honest question, to which, of course, there may be no immediate answer.

    I wonder if any GAs have spoken on this topic… — not of sharing their own experiences, necessarily, but about the _way_ God works through His modern prophets.

  27. I think it’s remarkably FREQUENT, Jack Sprat–two in one decade. Scripturally we only see these things once every hundred years or so! Doesn’t mean it wasn’t more frequent necessarily (same with today), just that’s what the record we have reveals.

    Kirsten–I don’t have sources off the top of my head, but yes, GAs have addressed how revelation is received both generally and prophetically. More often (I’d wager) the claim of direction is asserted or testified to without further explanation. I’d to a General Conf search on to see what pops up, but I’m crunched for time right now. Still, I didn’t want to drop this discussion, ’cause I think it’s really important.

    As indicated above, I was initially (and for some time) upset to hear Pres Hinckley describe “talking to God” in the same way that I do, but now the self-initiated, working out, and mediated parts of how revelation seems to work both generally and prophetically are important answers to several of my concerns about the current state of affairs within the church. I would rather NOT learn that everything church leaders have done has been given in as detailed a fashion as the directions for the ark, or the temple. Some things, yes. But not all. I have to believe that somehow the atonement can cover even those oversights, mistakes, misunderstandings, imperfections, narrowness of vision, etc. that have monumental impact because of the prominence and position of those leaders who make them (BY’s misogyny and racism, as easy examples).

    I’m not sure how this relates to your research, since I’m only cursorily familiar with visionaries as you describe. But one thing that comes to mind is the description in the NT about all the spiritual gifts–including prophecy–being worthless/meaningless/nothing without charity.

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