Apostle: Special Witness of Christ

I have just finished The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power by Michael Quinn.  Many of us know that a Mormon Apostle is a special witness of Christ.  Does that involve a personal vision or visitation of Christ? In the earliest days of the church, it did.  Quinn says on page 1,

[Oliver] Cowdery told the new apostles: “It is necessary that you receive a testimony from heaven for yourselves; so that you can bear testimony to the truth of the Book of Mormon, and that you have seen the face of God.”  Then he continued, “That is more than the testimony of an angel.  Never cease striving until you have seen God face to face.” Cowdery acknowledged that most of the new apostles had depended on visions of others for their faith and suggested that some might even be skeptical of visions.  Thus it was not necessary to see Jesus to be chosen as an apostle. However, once ordained each man had a lifelong obligation to seek this charismatic experience: a vision of diety.

Quinn goes on to show apostles that did and did not have visions.  Orson Pratt and Heber J. Grant felt “inadequate” because they did not have these.  In the 20th century, the charge to seek visions was no longer given to apostles, starting with Reed Smoot in 1900.  Quinn says that apostles began to adopt wording (from page 2)

that encouraged listeners to assume the leader has had a more dramatic encounter with the divine than actually claimed.  Apostle Boyd K. Packer acknowledges that some Mormons have become impatient with those carefully worded apostolic testimonies and ask: “Why cannot it be said in planter words?  Why aren’t they more explicit and more descriptive.  Cannot the Apostles say more?”  He dismissed this objection as seeking ‘for a witness to be given in some new and dramatic and different way.’

While early apostles were not charged with the duty to seek for a visitation, Quinn says that apostles starting in 1900 were no longer required to seek for this witness when Reed Smoot was ordained an apostle.  From page 2

General church authorities had long regarded him as “reliable in business, but [he] has little or no faith.”7 President Lorenzo Snow blessed him to receive “the light of the Holy Ghost” so that he could bear testimony of Jesus Christ and Joseph Smith.  That was an extraordinary departure from the apostolic charge as given in 1835.8

Quinn continues on page 3,

Unlike the nineteenth-century apostles, modern LDS aposles have no obligation to see a visionary witness of Jesus Christ.  In place of the instruction to seek a vision is a lengthy charge for modern apostles to be submissive to the majority of the Twelve.

Therefore, the twentieth-century hierarchy began publicly downplaying the necessity of apostolic visions.  By the time he became church president, Heber J. Grant had overcome guilt he had felt as an apostle for not having had a vision.  “I never prayed to see the Savior,” he told a tabernacle meeting in 1942. “I have see so many men fall because of some great manifestations to them”17 He came to deny knowledge of such experiences for his colleagues:  “I know of no instance where the Lord has appeared to an individual since His appearance to he Prophet Joseph Smith.”18 In fact, rather than qualifying a man as a special witness and apostle, visions made one vulnerable to apostasy in Grant’s view.  His first counselor, J. Reuben Clark, went so far as to dismiss visions as “testimonies of the flesh.”19 On the other hand, Grant’s second counselor, David O. McKay, reported many spiritual manifestations, including a dream-vision of Christ.20

From pages 5-6,

Apostle Marion G. Romney wrote in his diary during the 1960s: “I don’t know just how to answer people when they ask the question, ‘Have you seen the Lord?’  I think that the witness that I have and the witness that each of us [apostles] has, and the details of how it came, are too sacred to tell.  I have never told anybody some of the experiences I have had, not even my wife.”29 Nevertheless, as recently as 1989 Apostle David B. Haight publicly affirmed that during “days of unconsciousness” stemming from a health crisis, he had a vision of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.30 However, according to his official biography in 1995, whenever asked if he has seen Jesus Christ, Apostle Boyd K. Packer’s response is:  “I do not tell all I know.  If I did, the Lord could not trust me.”  Such a standard would put Lorenzo Snow, George Q. Cannon, and David B. Haight under divine condemnation for telling their visionary experiences.31

Hugh B. Brown privately related a charismatic experience which seems unprecedented among twentieth-century apostles.  Following a decade of service as a counselor in the First Presidency, Brown was released in 1970 and resumed his position in the Quorum of the Twelve.  In physical decline and unhappy at his release from the Presidency, Brown had an experience which he related to his nephew:

He said it was not a vision, but the Lord appeared to him, very informal, the same as I was sitting talking to him. The Lord said, “You have had some difficult times in your life.”  Uncle Hugh responded, “Yes, and your life was more difficult than any of us have had.”  In the conversation Uncle Hugh asked when he would be finished here, and the Lord said, “I don’t know and I wouldn’t tell you if I did.”  Then He said, “Remain faithful to the end, and everything will be right.”32

Brown was the only twentieth-century appointee to the Quorum of the Twelve to describe a charismatic witness of Chris as a waking appearance.  The few others who have reported such experiences have described them as dreams, “night visions”, or visions while unconscious with a physical disability.33 Brown received his “special witness” without a charge or obligation to obtain such at his ordination.

Another explanation for the decreased emphasis on visionary witness is the hectic life of LDS apostles in the late-twentieth century. “Before I became a General Authority I picture the Brethren sitting at their desks studying hte scriptures, writing books, and having hours at a time to meditate upon matters of the kingdom,” said Apostle David B. Haight.  Instead he discovered “the reality of back-to-back committee assignments; preparation of talks and remarks to be given in various parts of the world to many types of gatherings, as well as those assigned for general conferences, frequent (and often far-flung) travel to stake, region, and area conferences,…[Quinn lists many other tasks.]

With little opportunity for the contemplative life of traditional mystics, LDS apostles currently have limited time in which to follow Oliver Cowdery’s original charge: “Never cease striving until you have seen God face to face.”

Do these excerpts enlighten you to the life of an apostle?  Does anything surprise you?


7 comments on “Apostle: Special Witness of Christ

  1. I find this information both comforting and bothersome. Comforting in the sense that it helps me relate to these men more. Bothersome in the sense that it seems like there is an implicit allowance (and sometimes slight encouragement with room for plausible deniability) for the lore that the apostles have seen Christ. Many members believe that the apostles and the Prophet are speaking with Christ directly. It allows them to have more faith and assurance in what the brethren teach. If members understood that the apostles and prophet likely receive inspiration the same way we do, then it may be more difficult to have unflinching faith in their teachings.

  2. I hear ya John. What I’d like to do is take out the naivete out of people conceptions about apostles. I think Quinn does a good job of that.

  3. By the way John, you might be interested in another post. Denver Snuffer says that anybody can be visited by angels. See http://www.mormonheretic.org/2012/07/01/talking-to-angels/

  4. Thanks for posting this MH. It confirms that much of the power of God has been lost since the restoration.

  5. Mormon Heretic :
    I hear ya John. What I’d like to do is take out the naivete out of people conceptions about apostles. I think Quinn does a good job of that.

    I have always felt that the apostles obtain(ed) their testimonies the same way I received mine, through the provenance of the Holy Ghost.

    I don’t think that enough people in the Church read Quinn’s works or even know who he is for his information to have much of an impact.


  6. Yes, Glenn, I agree. But Quinn’s works aren’t sold in Deseret Book, and his excommunication would cause most members to think his books are risky to read.

  7. […] that these men are, according to the Doctrine and Covenants, “special witnesses”.  But because these implied experiences are sacred, not secret, we will never know if these men are ac… Which is a bit ironic, considering what made the original apostles apostles was their being […]

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