Holy Ghost/Burning in the bosom

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The "burning in the bosom" in Mormonism as a method of determining truth

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Question: Is a "burning in the bosom" simply a subjective, emotion-based, unreliable way to practice self-deception?

It is a fundamental misunderstanding or misstatement to say that the Latter-day Saint revelatory experience is exclusively or primarily “emotional”

It is claimed by some that the Latter-day Saint appeal to "revelation" or a "burning in the bosom" is subjective, emotion-based, and thus ineffective, unreliable and susceptible to self-deception.

It is a fundamental misunderstanding or misstatement to say that the LDS revelatory experience is exclusively or primarily “emotional.” The united witness of mind and heart is key in LDS doctrine. Even the body is involved in many instances, hence the use of language exactly like “burning in the bosom.” The LDS concept of human experience is not one where we are carved up into separate, rigid compartments labeled emotional, intellectual, and physical. The LDS approach to human experience is holistic and involves all of our faculties operating simultaneously and inextricably. According to LDS scripture, “the spirit and the body are the soul of man.” D&C 88:15 We are greater than the mere sum of our inner and outer parts. Ordinarily, it’s not possible, nor is it desirable, to reject and shut down any one of our faculties. All of them combine to provide useful and valid ways of coming to know ourselves, the world, and God. All are involved in true spiritual experience.

A Latter-day Saint “spiritual” experience has intellectual content as well as emotional elements of peace or joy

Accordingly, a Latter-day Saint “spiritual” experience has intellectual content as well as emotional elements of peace or joy. In the early days of the Church, Oliver Cowdery received the following revelation through Joseph Smith:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God? (D&C 6:22–23).

Notice the information is spoken to the “mind,” and the feeling of peace accompanies the intellectual gift. Further, the solution for later doubts or concerns is not reliance on “a feeling” alone but an admonition to recall specific information communicated earlier.

This matches the revelatory pattern later explained to Oliver Cowdery when he attempted to participate in the translation process of the Book of Mormon:

Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. 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… (D&C 9:7–9).

Again, the united witness of intellect and heart are essential. If either does not agree, then revelation has not yet confirmed the matter under consideration. Anyone who relies exclusively on any one faculty – either feeling or reasoning or physical sensation – does not properly understand the LDS approach to spiritual witnesses.

Talk of “feelings” does not mean simply experiencing an “emotion”

To be sure, many Church members will talk about how they “felt” when they prayed or had other experiences with God. However, it is to fundamentally misunderstand these experiences to assume (as critics often do) that talk of “feeling” means simply—or only, or primarily— experiencing an “emotion.” What's lacking from these descriptions is vocabulary. The problem with them is more semantic than it is substantial. The LDS member is stymied, in a sense, because there is no good, available word for what happens during a spiritual experience. These experiences are ineffable. By definition, they defy description. Since few of us have the poetic and metaphorical powers of prophets like Isaiah and John, we are left to try our best to convey what we've experienced in words laden with secular connotations which critics can misinterpret if they so choose.

LDS scholar,Hugh Nibley, hazarded a guess at what this process of willful misinterpretation might look like:

He cannot conceive how anyone could possibly acquire knowledge by any method other than his. He cannot believe that any man has experienced anything which he has not experienced. . . . ‘I have never seen a vision,' says the [skeptic], ‘therefore, Joseph Smith never had one. I have seen dreams [or had emotionally moving experiences], therefore, I will allow him that.'”[1]

Early Christians experienced similar feelings to a "burning in the bosom"

Justin Martyr wrote in his book Dialogue with Trypho, of his conversion that he was a philosopher until he met an old man who introduced him to the Hebrew Prophets when “a flame enkindled his heart” and he found “this philosophy (Christianity) alone to be sure and profitable.” [2]

The Shepard of Hermas, which was once considered scripture, reads “There are two angels with a man-one of righteousness, and the other of iniquity...The angel of righteousness is gentle and modest, meek and peaceful. When he ascends into your heart, he speaks to you of righteousness, purity, chastity, contentment, and every other righteous deed and glorious virtue. When all of these things come into your heart, know that the angel of righteousness is with you” [3]


Dallin H. Oaks (1997): "Surely, the word “burning” in this scripture signifies a feeling of comfort and serenity. That is the witness many receive. That is the way revelation works"

Dallin H. Oaks:

What does a “burning in the bosom” mean? Does it need to be a feeling of caloric heat, like the burning produced by combustion? If that is the meaning, I have never had a burning in the bosom. Surely, the word “burning” in this scripture signifies a feeling of comfort and serenity. That is the witness many receive. That is the way revelation works.[4]


Question: Why do critics of Mormonism who belong to other religions discount spiritual experiences?

Sectarian Critics and the Biblical Roots of Burning Feelings

Sectarian critics also belittle appeals to spiritual experiences, comparing them to "warm fuzzies," or merely something "felt by simply watching a Hollywood movie." However, it is strange that sectarian critics fault appeals to a "burning in the bosom" within the LDS community when the roots of the idiom are found in the Bible itself.

Following Jesus' resurrection, He walked with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They did not recognize Jesus, but listened to Him as "he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself" (Luke 24:27).

After breaking bread with them, Jesus was revealed to the disciples, and vanished from their sight.

Interestingly, they did not say to each other, "We should have known it was Jesus because of his scriptural teaching." Rather, their explanations went beyond their intellectual faculties. They said:

Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?(Luke 24:32)

Likewise, a reference to a "burning" in the heart can be found in Psalms 39:3:

My heart was hot within me, while I was musing the fire burned: then spake I with my tongue. Psalms 39:3

The Lord's counsel to Oliver Cowdery makes perfect sense in this context:

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. D&C 9:8

It seems unlikely that sectarian critics who generally work to uphold the Bible to the best of their understandings would dismiss Jesus' disciples' witness because it was described in words with an LDS ring to them such as “burn” and “heart.” Surely sectarians wouldn’t argue the disciples in Luke 24 must have been emotionally manipulated or that they were experiencing some kind of social effervescence simply because they referred to their feelings when speaking to each other about being in the presence of a holy being. The disciples in Luke 24 were not new to the gospel. They knew what it felt like to experience Christ and they recognized the feeling even when they weren’t expecting it. Human nature remains the same in contemporary times and it stands to reason that even now people experienced in spiritual witnesses can know the difference between spiritual sensations and the emotional rush of a Hollywood film.

Ultimately, as the Bible instructs us, we trust in the Lord to reveal the truth:

Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.
In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)


Question: Can a person "feel the spirit" while watching movies?

The Spirit testifies of all true principles, regardless of the source

Why would I "feel the spirit" when watching fictional movies? Some of these movies are even violent and R-rated, such as Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List.

The Spirit testifies of all truth. The Spirit can testify of true principles taught or portrayed in fiction as well as in real life such as the importance of sacrifice, the importance of family, or of humility. For example, why would one feel so compelled by the story of Les Miserables? After all, the movie portrays prostitutes, thieves, and blasphemers. However, the message is of the importance of mercy over justice, of self-sacrifice, and of forgiveness. Why wouldn't the Holy Ghost tell us these are true principles? The same can be said of many movies, including animated films such as The Lion King.

Also, one should not equate the witness of the spirit with emotion. Just because an experience generates a pleasant emotional response does not mean that you are "feeling the spirit." Just because one can "feel the spirit" regarding religious matters does not mean that one is unable to feel good or inspired about anything else. No Latter-day Saint will say that they felt the spirit "confirm the truth" of a movie. Important here is to understand the different factors that play into spiritual epistemology. Spiritual epistemology is a complex interaction between and evaluation of the thoughts of your mind, the feelings of you heart, the physical health of your body, the light of Christ (which can increase by doing good and decrease and be diminished by doing what is wrong), and the outside influence of the Holy Ghost. With these, one can feel a more passive influence of the Holy Ghost which is like an abiding peace that comes when one is doing what is right, or it can be more dynamic as when we are seeking revelation in which we will receive both inspiration or revelation in our mind and a phenomena (not just a feeling or emotion) in our heart.

The movies Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List are very accurate and profound dramas that depict certain important historical events: In this case, the D-day invasion and the Holocaust. They are, out of necessity, R-rated and violent movies, nevertheless they are still deeply moving and, at their most beautiful moments, can move our hearts and minds to God as they teach simple but profound truths. We are moved by these portrayals because we empathize with the sacrifice and suffering of those depicted. Just because we seek "confirmation of the spirit" in religious matters in order to receive confirmation of their truthfulness does not require us to be "dead in feeling" to the rest of life. We should understand how the spirit works, including how it interacts with everything mentioned above, and do our best to evaluate it.


Dr. Wendy Ulrich (2005): "How do the goosebumps and tearfulness I experience when someone speaks in a testimony meeting differ from the goosebumps and tearfulness I experience when the 4:00 parade begins at Disneyland?"

Dr. Wendy Ulrich (a licensed psychologist with over 25 years of experience):

People from many religious traditions have “spiritual” experiences–feelings, insights, premonitions, and encounters which they are left to their own conclusions to decipher. It is not unusual for people to conclude from such experiences that God is their God, that He is nearby, or that something associated with that experience is God’s will. Often in the Church we encourage people to look for such feelings and experiences as evidence of God’s hand, or of the truthfulness of the Church’s message. Yet people from many religious backgrounds can have such experiences. How do the goosebumps and tearfulness I experience when someone speaks in a testimony meeting differ from the goosebumps and tearfulness I experience when the 4:00 parade begins at Disneyland? Critics may conclude that there is no real difference, that feelings are not trustworthy or related to the spirit, and that Church members are being misled by missionaries who teach them that such experiences are the Holy Ghost testifying to them of truth. I have seen this argument used to discredit “spiritual” experiences as nothing more than subjectively produced emotions with no supernatural significance. In many cases I might agree. Because I feel certain emotions in response to a film–even a Church film–may say more about the credibility of the actors’ performance or the director’s talent than the presence of God or the historical accuracy of the message, for example.[5] —(Click here to continue)


Question: Can someone feel the spirit when listening to stories of apostasy?

The Spirit only testifies of things that come from God, and should not be confused with emotion

One critic of the Church, who believes that the "spirit" is simply an emotional manifestation, poses the question: "Why did I feel the Spirit as I listened to the stories of apostates sharing how they discovered for themselves that Mormonism is not true?" [6]

The Spirit does not confirm apostasy. This is simply an attempt to diminish the experience of those who have truly had the Spirit testify of Christ.

A more accurate way to phrase this would be: "Why did I feel good as I listened to the stories of apostates sharing how they discovered for themselves that Mormonism is not true?" After all, ex-Mormons have already concluded that the "Spirit" is unreliable and inconsistent. The answer, of course, is that the stories that the ex-Mormon is hearing support the conclusion that they have already formed.

This is simply an attempt to demonstrate that the feelings of the "spirit" are meaningless

Ex-Mormons sometimes attempt to equate the experiences of believers who "feel the spirit" during testimony meeting with how they feel when hearing the stories of those who have left the Church, thereby proving that "feeling the spirit" is meaningless. However, while the spirit communicates with us through feelings, such as love, joy, or peace, (Gal. 5:22-23), the mere fact one experiences such feelings does not mean that person is "feeling the spirit." Correctly identifying when such feelings represent the presence of the Holy Ghost can take practice and depends upon study, prayer and experience.


"Recognizing the Voice of the Spirit" (Podcast): "How can I come to know that spiritual experience is not just a product of chemical processes in the brain?"

"FAIR Questions 2: Recognizing the Voice of the Spirit":

How do I find a way to not only discern the Spirit from emotion, but how can I become convinced that the Spirit is actually real? How can I come to know that spiritual experience is not just a product of chemical processes in the brain? I mean, I’ve prayed about the truth of the Book of Mormon and the gospel and I have gotten answers to my prayers, but how can I come to know whether or not this is from God, and not just either a part of my subconscious or a delusion.[7] —(Click here to continue)


Question: Will our manifestation of truth from the Holy Ghost be a "spectacular" witness?

Why should members expect to receive a spectacular revelation? Even if one saw an angel, one would be susceptible to later concluding that it was an illusion or mistake

Once critical website claims: " Sounds like if you don't get any real answer from the Holy Ghost that you should just keep on following the church and do everything you're suppose to do such as paying 10% of all your income to an organization that you do not know is true or not, and maybe you will slowly gain one and that may take many years or even a lifetime. It is suspicious when the leaders tell their members that the way to gain a testimony is to follow the leaders and some time in the future you may get a testimony but don't expect anything spectacular." [8]

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As 1 Kings 19:11-12 says:

"And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice"

Preach My Gospel: How Do I Recognize and Understand the Spirit?

How Do I Recognize and Understand the Spirit?

Why should members expect to receive a spectacular revelation? Even if one saw an angel, one would be susceptible to later concluding that it was an illusion or mistake.

True spiritual conversion is a process

However, true spiritual conversion is a process, Alma 32:33 states:

"And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good"

Critics ignore that if members experience something really spectacular, then faith wouldn't be necessary, just like the brother of Jared didn't have faith following his miraculous visionary experiences described in Ether 3:19-20:

"And because of the knowledge of this man he could not be kept from beholding within the veil; and he saw the finger of Jesus, which, when he saw, he fell with fear; for he knew that it was the finger of the Lord; and he had faith no longer, for he knew, nothing doubting. Wherefore, having this perfect knowledge of God, he could not be kept from within the veil; therefore he saw Jesus; and he did minister unto him"

The gospel is intended to promote faith and personal growth--receiving really spectacular experiences is like skipping steps.

"And now, I, Moroni, would speak somewhat concerning these things; I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith." (Ether 12:6)

Having a impressive experience is something unusual and special, and should not be shared frequently,

Having a impressive experience is something unusual and special, and should not be shared frequently, unless the Spirit dictates.

Preach My Gospel states:

"Revelation and spiritual experiences are sacred. They should be kept private and discussed only inappropriate situations." [9]:99

President Boyd K. Packer said:

“I have learned that strong, impressive spiritual experiences do not come to us very frequently. And when they do, they are generally for our own edification, instruction, or correction. Unless we are called by proper authority to do so, they do not position us to counsel or to correct others.

“I have come to believe also that it is not wise to continually talk of unusual spiritual experiences. They are to be guarded with care and shared only when the Spirit itself prompts you to use them to the blessing of others."[10]

Foundation of testimony

President Ezra Taft Benson observed:

“Just as the arch crumbles if the keystone is removed, so does all the Church stand or fall with the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon. The enemies of the Church understand this clearly. This is why they go to such great lengths to try to disprove the Book of Mormon, for if it can be discredited, the Prophet Joseph Smith goes with it. So does our claim to priesthood keys, and revelation, and the restored Church. But in like manner, if the Book of Mormon be true—and millions have now testified that they have the witness of the Spirit that it is indeed true—then one must accept the claims of the Restoration and all that accompanies it.”[11]

Preach My Gospel continues:

"Rely on the promise in Moroni 10:3–5. Every person who sincerely reads and prays about this book can know with certainty of its truthfulness by the power of the Holy Ghost."[12]:111

For a detailed response, see: Moroni's promise in the Book of Mormon


Question: How can you know if an answer to prayer, a personal revelation, is true?

Understand how the spirit works and consider how it works with you

With regard to all revelation, see these articles

If you want to know the truth of an impression to do something, then you must test it

Regarding impressions to do something, how can you know if an answer is true? If you want to know the truth of your own personal revelation, then you must test it. If you feel the promptings of the spirit to do something, then do it, and see what happens. Alma, in the Book of Mormon, suggests that we treat it like a seed, and make an experiment out of it. But debating its validity in a sort of theoretical way, won't ever provide you with that answer.

We need to remember that the spirit always brings knowledge as well. It won’t be just an emotion. It will be an impression that warns of danger, or directs you, or presses feelings and thoughts on your consciousness. It will usually be some sort of physical phenomena accompanied by revelation (D&C 8:2). The key is to understand that if something is being revealed to us, then we will understand when the revelation is coming from a source other than our normal thoughts and feelings, it will feel as though it came without great effort and independent of any manipulation. Regarding its manifestation in our mind, Joseph Smith talks of "pure intelligence" flowing into you:

A person may profit by noticing the first intimation of the spirit of revelation; for instance, when you feel pure intelligence flowing into you, it may give you sudden strokes of ideas, so that by noticing it, you may find it fulfilled the same day or soon; (i.e.) those things that were presented unto your minds by the Spirit of God,will come to pass; and thus by learning the Spirit of God and understanding it, you may grow into the principle of revelation, until you become perfect in Christ Jesus.[13]

However, as Boyd K. Packer points out, revelation does not "flow without effort" on the part of the person desiring it.

To one who thought that revelation would flow without effort, the Lord said:

“You have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.

“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.” [14]

This burning in the bosom is not purely a physical sensation. It is more like a warm light shining within your being.

Describing the promptings from the Holy Ghost to one who has not had them is very difficult. Such promptings are personal and strictly private![15]

Compare the phenomena you experience and your decisions to the scriptures and the teachings of living prophets and apostles

Regarding both a foundational witness to foment initial testimony and an impression to do something, if we want help in discerning the truth of the witness, we should compare our feelings to the pneumatology and principles of living taught by the scriptures and by modern-day prophets and apostles. It stands to reason that if we want to be led by Christ’s spirit and follow him, then we will try and measure our lives against what he has revealed through his servants so that we aren’t deceived (JS Matthew 1:37). This means we interrogate and weigh the words of the standard works (since they are our standard of truth) and we take into consideration what has been taught by the living prophets and apostles in trying to make good decisions and bring ourselves in tune with the spirit’s whisperings.

As taught in Preach My Gospel:

As you pray for inspiration, you should also confirm your feelings. For example, compare your decisions with the scriptures and the teachings of the living prophets. Be certain that the feelings are consistent with the assignment you have; for example, you will not receive revelation to tell a local bishop how he should perform in his calling. Discuss your decisions and conclusions with your companion, your district leader, or your mission president when appropriate.

President Howard W. Hunter offered this counsel: “Let me offer a word of caution. … I think if we are not careful … , we may begin to try to counterfeit the true influence of the Spirit of the Lord by unworthy and manipulative means. I get concerned when it appears that strong emotion or free-flowing tears are equated with the presence of the Spirit. Certainly the Spirit of the Lord can bring strong emotional feelings, including tears, but that outward manifestation ought not to be confused with the presence of the Spirit itself” (The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter, 184). The Spirit of the Lord always edifies.
[16]

John 7:17

To know if a particular principle of living or commandment is good and/or true, the Gospel of John gives us this counsel from the Savior:

John 7:17

17 If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself.

Ultimately, it is a choice to believe in the reality of the spirit, understand the epistemology, work to be worthy to feel the spirit’s influences, and follow those influences courageously

Lehi gives his children this counsel at his death, teaching us an important principle.

2 Nephi 2: 27-28

27 Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.

28 And now, my sons, I would that ye should look to the great Mediator, and hearken unto his great commandments; and be faithful unto his words, choose eternal life, according to the will of his Holy Spirit

Personal revelation can differ between two people

Latter-day Saints don't believe that differences in the phenomena experiences while feeling the spirit should always be the same. What it means is that 1) We are all working at understanding and following the spirit and 2) that we are all receiving personal answers to our prayers from a loving Heavenly Father, and others are receiving personal answers to theirs. Personal revelation is beautiful precisely because these differences can exist. It deepens our understanding and love of the fact that we are all unique children of our Heavenly Father.

Some may have “spectacular” experiences while others only hear a still small voice.

Boyd K. Packer:

We do not seek for spectacular experiences. President Spencer W. Kimball spoke of the many who "have no ear for spiritual messages … when they come in common dress. … Expecting the spectacular, one may not be fully alerted to the constant flow of revealed communication."[17]

A revelation given to the whole Church is limited by the whole Church

A revelation given to the whole Church is limited by the whole Church. Joseph Smith said that "It is contrary to the economy of God for any member of the Church, or any one, to receive instruction for those in authority, higher than themselves.[18]

On the other hand, the revelation we receive comes to us individually, personally, and from our unique perspective helps us to refocus on that distant absolute truth that are slowly working towards. It isn't about "getting it right now" so much as it is about making it more right so that we become better people. And in the end, it is the light that God gives us (individually and collectively) that becomes the ruler that we are measured with. And this of course gives us great hope that we (individually) can be saved despite all the strange notions and ideas we have both believed and sometimes abandoned over the years.


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Notes

  1. Hugh W. Nibley, The World and the Prophets, 3rd edition, (Vol. 3 of Collected Works of Hugh Nibley), edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum, and Don E. Norton (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Company; Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1987), 31.
  2. Dialogue with Trypho 8, Ante-Nicene Fathers 1:198
  3. Shepard of Hermas, Ante-Nicene Fathers 2:24
  4. "Teaching and Learning by the Spirit," Ensign (March 1997) 14.
  5. Dr. Wendy Ulrich, "'Believest thou…?': Faith, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Psychology of Religious Experience," Proceedings of the 2005 FAIR Conference (2005).
  6. Jeremy Runnells, Letter to a CES Director (2013)
  7. "FAIR Questions 2: Recognizing the Voice of the Spirit," FairMormon Blog (28 August 2011).
  8. Website: MormonThink, Article: "Testimony & Spiritual Witnesses," URL: mormonthink.com (Last accessed: 4 Jun. 2011) FAIR review
  9. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service (Salt Lake City, UT: Intellectual Reserve, Inc., 2004).
  10. Boyd K. Packer, "[https://www.lds.org/ensign/1983/01/the-candle-of-the-lord?lang=eng The Candle of the Lord," Ensign (January 1983), 53.
  11. Ezra Taft Benson, A Witness and a Warning: A Modern-Day Prophet Testifies of the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book Co., 1988), 15-16.
  12. Preach My Gospel.
  13. Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith," 151.
  14. D&C 9:7–8
  15. Boyd K. Packer, "Personal Revelation: The Gift, the Test, and the Promise," Ensign (November 1994).
  16. "How Do I Recognize and Understand the Spirit?," Preach My Gospel: A Guide to Missionary Service (2004)
  17. Boyd K. Packer, "Personal Revelation: The Gift, the Test, and the Promise," Ensign (November 1994).
  18. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 21.

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here

Notes