"That ye may not be deceived":
Discerning of Spirits and the 1831 Priesthood Developments

For six weeks in the summer of 2013, student scholars from all over the United States and from Europe met daily in the Maxwell Institute library to discuss and research the topic “Workings of the Spirit and Works of the Priesthood: Gifts and Ordinances in LDS Thought and Practice.” This seminar was hosted by the Maxwell Institute and directed by Terryl Givens. The Summer Seminar Working Papers 2013 are the result of the research done by the students and were presented at a BYU symposium on July 11, 2013.


When Joseph Smith arrived in Kirtland, Ohio, in February 1831, he encountered new, excited converts engaged in practices that would probably have surprised many of the New York Saints. Baptized less than three months earlier by missionaries en route to preach to Native Americans in Missouri, these converts had virtually no connection with the rest of the church except for the few copies of the Book of Mormon available among them. With no experienced leadership, they had begun holding night prayer meetings and engaging in various activities that they understood to be induced by the power of God. Some members would leap up to the rafters, fall to the floor, froth at the mouth, or contort their bodies.1 Other “spiritual operations,” as Parley P. Pratt termed them, included speaking in unknown tongues taken to be Indian dialects, chasing invisible objects flying through the air, preaching to empty fields from tree stumps, and acting out various behaviors associated with Native Americans.2 Smith knew of the urgent need for leadership in Ohio, but he was probably unprepared for the range of spiritual phenomena he encountered. How he responded helped define the young Church of Christ and its conceptions of priesthood.

Twenty-five years after Smith’s death, his cousin George A. Smith, then a member of the First Presidency, recalled that “there was no point upon which the Prophet Joseph dwelt more than the decerning of Spirits.”3 To whatever extent George A. Smith’s recollection may have been affected by his immediate context or the passage of years,4 there is no question that Joseph Smith understood his ministry to be marked by associations with supernatural agencies—both positive and negative. As he recounted the experience in 1835 and 1838, his First Vision was immediately preceded by a physical encounter with an unseen, malevolent power.5 Subsequent encounters and deceptions, as well as a cultural background of folk magic dominated by supernatural beings, led to a preoccupation with evil or false agencies that lasted throughout his life. There is evidence that even Smith’s understanding of the temple endowment, which weighed heavily on his mind near the end of his life, was shaped by anxiety about deceptive supernatural agencies. On 1 May 1842 he wrote, “I preached in the grove on the keys of the Kingdom, Charity &c The keys are certain signs and words by which false spirits and personages may be detected from true, which cannot be revealed to the Elders till the Temple is completed.”6 Ever mindful of the power of supernatural agencies and their potential influence on humans, Smith introduced many theological principles and procedural changes into the church that are best understood as efforts to manage or govern spirits and their influence on humans.

While the reality of false spirits and their ability to deceive was a topic of concern for Smith throughout his life, the issue was particularly pressing and worrisome in the winter and spring of 1831. The Church of Christ was young, and leaders were inexperienced, but convert numbers in Ohio were large, and expectations of divine manifestations were high. Anticipating a full restoration of New Testament spiritual gifts, the early Saints actively sought evidence of God’s divine sanction through the miraculous. Such anticipation gave the early church great vitality, but it also made its members vulnerable to deception. Smith later claimed that the spiritual gift of speaking in tongues could be easily imitated by the devil, but false spirits apparently had numerous ways of deceiving the faithful.7 J. Spencer Fluhman therefore notes that “careful ‘filtering’ [. . .] of the false from the real became an important task of early Church teachings about spirituality.”8 Out of this context came important changes to Smith’s conception of priesthood, and these changes cannot be understood or appreciated fully without considering the very real apprehension Smith and other church leaders felt regarding evil spiritual agencies. With claims to the church’s authority tied to manifestations of the Holy Spirit and false spirits threatening to undermine those claims or deceive church members, the priesthood in 1831 came to be understood as a system of order and government between the tangible and spiritual worlds more than as a store of power.

Although there is evidence that the earliest Mormon missionaries emphasized that divine authority to baptize had been bestowed on the new church by heavenly beings, few of the first converts to Mormonism seemed to attribute to such a claim the significance that it would eventually acquire.9 Rather, most sought evidence of God’s sanction and authority in the presence of spiritual manifestations or gifts in the church. As Gregory Prince explains, “the basis of [Smith’s] authority was implicit in his work, not the result of any ‘hands-on’ ordination.”10 That Smith could translate and receive revelations by the power and gift of God was more important than some revised notion of apostolic succession to early Mormons, almost all of whom converted from Protestantism. These early adherents understood that God was preparing to pour out spiritual power and manifestations upon the Saints as part of the restoration of all things, and very few of them would have connected such expectations to a narrative of John the Baptist or Peter, James, and John restoring the priesthood in 1829—events Smith and Cowdery would only write about openly years later. Even Smith seems not to have made the connection. Having experienced visions, angelic visitations, and the gifts of translation and revelation without any official ordination or confirmation of authority, Smith may not have fully understood the need for or role of the priesthood when he received it. For the most part, that restored authority was understood only as a necessary requirement for the performance of ordinances.

In Smith’s experience, the power of God was manifested most fully in supernatural encounters, not in formal ritual. Smith had sought God directly, not through the medium of liturgy and religious rites, and the entire church was built on the assumption that his search had been successful. But Smith was also aware that not all supernatural encounters were godly, and not all spiritual beings were beneficent. He was familiar with the power and influence of evil spirits long before the events of 1831. In addition to his encounter with “some actual being from the unseen world” that seemed to threaten him with “sudden destruction” just before his First Vision, Smith apparently came under the influence of evil spirits on his first trip to the Hill Cumorah in 1823 to uncover the golden plates.11 Writing to William W. Phelps in 1835 regarding that experience, Cowdery reported that “two invisible powers were operating” upon Smith as he walked to the hill from his home, one positive and one negative.12 The evil power, which gained influence over Smith, insisted that he take the golden plates for personal wealth, which he attempted to do three times. Each time he tried to remove the plates, he received a shock. Frustrated, Smith wondered aloud why he could not obtain the plates, and the angel Moroni appeared and reminded him that they were not to be used for financial gain. Cowdery records that Smith then prayed and received the Holy Spirit, after which,

the heavens were opened and the glory of the Lord shone round about and rested upon him. While he thus stood gazing and admiring, the angel said, “Look!” and as he thus spake he beheld the prince of darkness, surrounded by his innumerable train of associates. All this passed before him, and the heavenly messenger said, “All this is shown, the good and the evil, the holy and impure, the glory of God and the power of darkness, that you may know hereafter the two powers and never be influenced or overcome by that wicked one.”13

This experience marked the beginning of Smith’s training to discern between good and evil spiritual agencies, a training that apparently continued near the Susquehanna River under the direction of the archangel Michael who “detect[ed] the devil when he appeared as an angel of light.”14 Smith took such training seriously, and he instructed the Saints regarding the discerning of supernatural agencies on multiple occasions.15 By 1842, after two decades of personal experiences and training, Smith published in the Times and Seasons an article that cautioned that “nothing is a greater injury to the children of men than to be under the influence of a false spirit, when they think they have the spirit of God.”16

The 1842 caution came not only from Smith’s own encounters with dangerous supernatural agencies but also from his experiences as the leader of a religious movement. Such experiences began almost immediately after the organization of the Church of Christ, when Smith was called upon to cast the devil out of Newel Knight. Later that same year, when Hiram Page claimed to receive revelations from his own seer stone, Smith needed to persuade him that he had been deceived and was under the influence of Satan. Those experiences, however, significant as they were in Smith’s religious development, were relatively isolated incidents. What Smith encountered in Kirtland was far more widespread. Certainly not all Ohio members were participating in or even comfortable with spiritual ecstasies, but a significant number either came from charismatic traditions or came under the influence of those who did.17 As Richard Bushman argues of the area, “religious intensity and spiritual independence gave birth to a host of innovations in worship and belief.”18 While John Whitmer does not indicate what percentage of the Ohio converts engaged in acts of religious enthusiasm, he does offer a detailed description of some of the “innovations in worship”:

Some had visions and could not tell what they saw. Some would fancy to themselves that they had the sword of Laban, and would wield it as expert as a light dragoon, some would act like an Indian in the act of scalping, some would slide or scoot on the floor, with the rapidity of a serpent, which they termed sailing in the boat to the Lamanites, preaching the gospel.19

These unusual behaviors were common enough to cause Parley P. Pratt concern upon his return from Missouri. He later wrote,

As I went forth among the different branches, some very strange spiritual operations were manifested, which were disgusting, rather than edifying. Some persons would seem to swoon away, and make unseemly gestures, and be drawn or disfigured in their countenances. Others would fall into ecstacies, and be drawn into contortions, cramp, fits, etc. Others would seem to have visions and revelations, which were not edifying, and which were not congenial to the doctrine and spirit of the gospel. In short, a false and lying spirit seemed to be creeping into the Church.20

However widespread and whatever its nature, the problem of deception by spiritual agencies engaged Smith’s attention immediately upon arriving in Kirtland. In a letter to his brother Hyrum written within a month, he explained that “regulating the Churches” had “been a Serious job,” since “the deciples are numerous and the devil had made many attempts to over throw them.”21 Smith gave an indication of the types of challenges he was facing when he related that he had been called from his bed at night to see a woman assumed to be possessed by some evil force: “I went and had an awful strugle with satan but being armed with the power of God he was cast out and the woman is Clothed in hir right mind.” As with the previous exorcism that he had performed on Newel Knight, Smith here attributes success to the “power of God” rather than any priesthood authority. There was still no clear conception of authority as the power to control supernatural forces; however, with the large number of converts and their numerous pressing issues, Smith was beginning to recognize the need for a more ambitious structure for administering the work of the church, and it was clear that proper authority would be a necessary element. Consequently, Smith wrote to Hyrum that “there is a great Call for Elders in this place,” a requested he also made in a letter to Martin Harris.22 The precise role of elders and the priesthood generally would become more defined over the next several months.

Surprisingly, immediately after relating the account of the possessed woman, Smith wrote to Hyrum that “the Lord worketh wonders in this land.”23 Despite the widespread instances of spiritual ecstasies and an undercurrent of concern throughout the church, Smith seems to have been at least partially encouraged by the abundant spiritual experiences in the Kirtland area. As Bushman writes, “The outbursts of religious enthusiasm point to the existence of a widespread visionary population hungering for more of God than standard church worship provided,” and that is precisely what Smith’s Restoration was to provide.24 Like the Ohio converts, Smith himself expected to see great divine manifestations increase as the work went forward, and having grown up in the midst of revivals, he was more familiar and probably more comfortable with spiritual enthusiasm than some other early Mormons. Furthermore, since his authenticity as a prophet was assumed based primarily on the successful exercise of his own spiritual gifts rather than some tangible ordination by the imposition of hands, he could not very well dismiss spiritual operations from the church without jeopardizing the faith of many. Smith would be forced to wrestle with this tension as more questions arose, and the revelations he received from February to June 1831 offer the clearest evidence that he came to view the priesthood as a way to govern spiritual powers already present in the church.

Prior to 1831, spiritual deception was not a common theme in Smith’s revelations or other writings. A revelation in March 1829 promised that the Lord would “put down all lieings & deceiving” upon establishing his church, and a few months later another revelation warned Smith not to retranslate the Book of Lehi due to a plan by Satan to deceive believers, but there was never any mention of the danger of false spirits. Smith did address the issue of an evil supernatural being attempting to deceive a believer in June 1830, when he dictated what would become the Book of Moses, but this portion of the retranslation of the Bible was not immediately available to general church members.25 Smith’s most direct written engagement with the issue of deceptive supernatural forces prior to his arrival in Kirtland was the revelation he received discounting Hiram Page’s revelatory claims. In September 1830, Smith openly stated that Page had been deceived by Satan. While Smith later wrote of various personal encounters with evil supernatural agencies, the occasion for the September 1830 revelation forced Smith to confront for the first time the reality of evil supernatural influences in the general church membership, an experience that he needed before addressing the situation in Kirtland just a few months later.

While Smith wrote about spiritual deception on only a few occasions prior to 1831, the theme was consistent and frequent in his revelations once he arrived in Kirtland. The same month he arrived, he received a revelation with instructions for the church, “give[n] unto you that you may not be deceived.”26 A few weeks later, a revelation associated avoiding deception with exercising wisdom, receiving truth, and taking the Holy Spirit as a guide, promising that those who do will “abide the day” and receive the Lord’s glory.27 Probably the very next day, a revelation warned church members to “beware lest ye are deceived” and gave instructions on avoiding deception.28 These revelations were followed by two more in May, one of which repeated the warning to “be not deceived”; the other, which mentioned the threat of deception four times, specifically stated that the many false spirits that “have gone forth in the Earth” were responsible for much of the deception facing the Saints.29 Finally, a revelation in June had the Lord offering “a Pattern in all things that ye may not be deceived.”30 Within four months of arriving in Kirtland and encountering the religious excess and enthusiasm there, Smith recorded six revelations that dealt explicitly with the issue of deception—twice the number that he had received up to that point.

Another noticeable shift beginning with the 1831 Kirtland revelations is audience. Whereas most of Smith’s previous revelations were directed at individual members or, less frequently, the body of the church collectively, nine of the thirteen canonized revelations received between the time Smith arrived in Kirtland and the June conference address the elders of the church directly or give instructions specifically for them.31 The phrase “hearken, o ye elders,” never used prior to 1831, appears commonly in the revelations of this time. Of course, these revelations often address additional audiences, and many of the instruction to the elders can be applied to others, but the shift to more direct instruction to the elders of the church is undeniable.

Examining the context and content of these revelations suggests that the two shifts identified here are related. With the threat of deception growing in the church due to devious spiritual agencies, Smith came to understand the priesthood, or the elders, as a necessary means of discerning the origin of spiritual phenomena and managing them. The first Kirtland revelation, possibly received the very day that Smith arrived, indicated the importance of government by the elders in properly ordering the church and freeing it from ungodly influences: “hearken oh ye Elders of my Church whom I have called Behold I give unto you a commandment that ye shall assemble yourselves to gether to agree upon my word & by the prayer of your faith ye shall receive my law that ye may know how to govern my Church & have all things right before me.”32 As Smith came to understand the priesthood as a system of government, the necessity for clear laws became apparent, and he organized a council of twelve elders to consider the law of the church and “agree upon [the Lord’s] word.”33 They received the first part of the law through a series of questions and revelatory answers the following week on 9 February, now canonized as D&C 42:1-72. Certain sections of the law addressed questions raised by the abundance of spiritual enthusiasm the previous months, and additional instructions were added a few weeks later,34 but some members were still confused regarding acceptable spiritual operations and sensed that still not “all things” were “right before the [the Lord].”

One of the points of concern was the gift of revelation. As with Hiram Page in New York, some of the Ohio converts, convinced that God was pouring down spiritual gifts upon all the Saints, believed that revelation for the church could be received by anyone with the gift. Some would claim to receive letters from heaven containing revelations that had to be copied down before they disappeared. The issue became particularly confusing when a woman named Laura Fuller Hubbell claimed to have received revelations that qualified her to be an official teacher in the church.35 She was apparently sincere in her belief in the Book of Mormon, and Sidney Rigdon seems to have believed her claims. Smith himself could not immediately detect falsehood, writing that “a woman came with great pretentions to revealing commandments, laws and other curious matters; and, as every person, (almost) has advocates for both theory and practice, in the various notions and projects of the age, it became necessary to inquire of the Lord.”36 The occasion for the resulting revelation (D&C 43), therefore, is clear, but the opening line is surprising. Rather than offering counsel directly to Hubbell or the general church membership or Smith specifically, the revelation opens by addressing the “Elders of my Church,” suggesting that Smith was beginning to think of such issues as matters for ordained men.37 The revelation clearly answers the question that prompted it—only Joseph Smith is appointed to receive commandments and revelations, and only those who are properly ordained are authorized to teach those revelations—but by directing the answer to the elders, the revelation suggests that it would henceforth be the role of the priesthood to detect deception. Significantly, Smith does not negate spiritual experiences altogether—the revelation states that individuals “are to be taught from on high,” not only from the prophet—but those experiences must be properly ordered within the church.38 In other words, Smith continued to encourage individual manifestations of the Spirit, but he increasingly saw the need to regulate public spiritual operations.

Smith’s new revelation regarding the appropriate channels of divine communication seems to have clarified much of the confusion surrounding the requirements to speak for the church, and it reemphasized the danger of deceptive forces, but it left many questions regarding spiritual manifestations in general unanswered. Staker recognizes that the February revelations served an important purpose, but he argues that they did “little to answer the major disputes over ecstatic worship among members in Kirtland and religious enthusiasm, which remained perhaps the most significant issue within the community.”39 Those claiming to receive revelations were relatively few in number; those experiencing episodes of religious ecstasy were more common—common enough that Levi Hancock worried that he might not be as “pure” as others since he did not experience the same spiritual phenomena. Eventually he simply concluded that “all could not be blessed,”40 but other members of the church were more skeptical regarding the origins of spiritual phenomena. The issue required further clarification and was most directly addressed in a revelation received on or near 8 March that considered the role of spiritual gifts in the church, now published as D&C 46.

This revelation, directed at the entire church, explicitly warned that not all spiritual phenomena come from God. The Saints were to obey the Spirit so that they “may not be seduced by evil spirits or doctrines of Devils.” To avoid deception they were instructed to “seek [. . .] earnestly the best gifts.” These “best gifts,” or godly gifts, were not to be used as signs nor for vainglory; the first criterion of a true gift of the Spirit was that it produce some benefit to “those who love [the Lord] & keep all [his] commandments & him that seeketh so to do.” The revelation then offered a list of some of these gifts, including the gift to “know the diversities of opperations whether it be of God or not” and the gift of “the decerning of spirits.”41 While the revelation did specify certain gifts as coming from God, to the disappointment of some members skeptical of religious ecstasy, it never identified any gift or spiritual operation as definitively false or ungodly. Members were expected to use the Holy Ghost as a guide and judge for themselves the source and value of particular manifestations. Although Smith obviously believed in the actuality of false spirits and understood that they posed a threat to the church, he still hesitated to dismiss any spiritual operation out of hand. The struggle to balance between protecting the church and its members and nourishing the fire and spiritual vitality of the converts continued.

Clearly the revelation on spiritual gifts was shaped by Smith’s immediate context, particularly the threat of supernatural forces and their potential to deceive church members, but the revelation also offers important insight into Smith’s developing conception of the priesthood. Although this revelation is addressed to the entire church, and all are instructed to seek the best gifts and avoid deception, the ultimate responsibility for discerning between appropriate, godly manifestations and false operations rested with the bishop—an office introduced only a month earlier: “unto the Bishop of the Church & unto such as God sahall [shall] appoint & ordain to watch over the Church & to be Elders unto the Church are to have it given unto [them] to decern all those gifts lest there shall be any among you prophecying & yet not be of God.” While Smith hesitated to proscribe particular gifts, preferring that members make their own judgments according to the influence of the Spirit, he came to understand the need for an organization to “watch over the Church.” While the body of Christ would be comprised of many parts and many gifts, it was important that there “be a head in order that evry member may be profited thereby.”42 The new office of bishop, it seems, was to play a key role in the emerging system of administration, designed, at least in part, to help members identify and avoid the influence of false spiritual agencies. A wide variety of spiritual manifestations would continue, but the necessity for oversight was apparent.

As it turned out, encouraging members to follow the Spirit or promising the bishop the power to discern among spiritual gifts was not enough to clarify the matter. Referring to those engaging in spiritual ecstasies, John Whitmer wrote that “many would not turn from their folly, unless God would give a revelation.”43 Consequently, several elders approached Smith, seeking clarification on the matter of spiritual phenomena once and for all. Whitmer recorded that the resulting revelation was addressed to the elders of the church, “in consequence of their not being perfectly acquainted with the different opperations of the Spirits which are abroad in the Earth.”44 Despite the earlier promise that the ability to discern between godly and evil spiritual gifts would be given to those “appoint[ed] and ordain[ed] to watch over the church,” disagreement persisted. Like the overburdened Moses, Smith must have tired of intervening in every dispute, especially in an expanding church. A clear statement about which spiritual phenomena were permitted and which ones forbidden would certainly have come as a relief to many of those involved, but as with previous revelations on the subject, the one Smith dictated on 9 May (D&C 50) continued to emphasize the importance of the elders developing the gift of discernment through the Holy Ghost.

Despite the fact that the 9 May revelation failed to enumerate godly and ungodly gifts, it did help Smith further refine his understanding of the role of priesthood authority in the church. The revelation immediately took up the issue of false spirits, affirming that there are “many spirits which are false spirits which have gone forth in the Earth deceiving the world,” just as the elders who had approached Smith had suspected, and it reemphasized the need to be guided by the Spirit in order to discern among them, but it also added something that had not been present in previous revelations on the same subject. “He that is ordaned of God & sent forth,” the revelation states, “is possessor of all things for all things are subject unto him both in Heaven & on the Earth the life & the light the spirit & the power.” Not only was the priesthood necessary to properly discern spiritual agencies, as Smith had taught two months earlier, but it also had authority over them. A clearer relationship between the authority that would come to be known as the priesthood and supernatural beings emerges from the elders’ request that Smith seek a revelation clarifying the origin of the spiritual phenomena present in the church. Though they did not receive a list or chart of offensive behaviors, they did receive instructions that as they were purified and cleansed form sin, they would be able to “ask whatsoever you will in the name of Jesus & it shall be done.” The revelation further instructed, “as ye are appointed to the head The spirits shall be subject unto you.”45 Though elders had no inherent power over supernatural beings, those who were properly ordained carried with them the authority of heaven. The priesthood would be the structure through which God’s power would flow, the head to govern and bless the body.

With this new understanding of an authorized framework that would speak for the church in discerning among diverse spiritual manifestations and through which the power of God would be channeled to command false spirits, Smith prepared for a conference during the first week in June. In this conference, which all the elders of the church were asked to attend, issues regarding false spirits and the role of the priesthood would finally culminate. Despite the revelations given on these subjects over the course of the previous four months, many doubts remained, and questionable practices continued. The conference itself was actually disrupted by incidents of spiritual ecstasy, contortions, and tongue-binding, but after the conference, religious enthusiasm among Mormons virtually disappeared. The turning point was the ordination of certain elders to the “high priesthood.” Such an ordination may seem strange to today’s Mormons who associate “high priesthood” with terms like higher or Melchizedek Priesthood and understand that this priesthood is conferred upon men when they are ordained elders, but the modern definitions of higher and lower or Melchizedek and Aaronic priesthoods would not be clearly articulated until later. In 1831, Smith tended to think of authority in terms of office rather than priesthood. The most probable explanation for the ordinations during the June conference is that Smith believed that new authority would come with ordination to the new office of high priest and that this new authority would fulfill the promise that the elders would be “endowed with power” at the conference.46

There are two reasons why the ordination of elders to the high priesthood seems to have put an end to spiritual enthusiasm in Kirtland. For one thing, the first ordinations were immediately followed by spiritual phenomena that Smith eventually determined were actualized by evil spirits or the devil. The ordinations began on 4 June with Lyman Wight, who went very pale and possibly cramped back his hands. He claimed to see Jesus Christ, and Smith and the others present seemed to accept this manifestation as divine.47 Subsequent ordinations, however, were more troubling. Upon his ordination to the high priesthood, Harvey Whitlock was apparently seized by some supernatural force. As Levi Hancock described it, “he turned as black as Lyman was white. His fingers were set like claws. He went around the room and showed his hands and tried to speak, his eyes were in the shape of oval O’s.” Hyrum was immediately disconcerted, telling his brother, “‘Joseph, that is not of God,'” to which Smith responded, “‘Do not speak against this.'” Hyrum insisted that Smith inquire of God as to the source of the manifestation, which he apparently did. After bowing his head for a “short time,” he “got up and commanded satan to leave Harvey.”48 At this, Whitlock was apparently freed, but Leman Copley immediately somersaulted through the air, landing on his back on a bench. Another exorcism took place, followed by more throughout the day.

This experience was apparently not incidental to the ordinations. Smith had told the elders that as part of their new authority, the “man of Sin should be revealed” at the conference.49 Most probably assumed he meant that clear instructions on how to identify the influence of Satan would be given, but afterwards they interpreted the possessions as the fulfillment of Smith’s prophecy. As Ezra Booth said, “It now became clearly manifest, that ‘the man of sin was revealed,’ for the express purpose that the elders should become acquainted with the devices of Satan; and after that they would possess knowledge sufficient to manage him.”50 Smith may have hesitated to immediately declare Whitlock’s response as an evil manifestation due to his own experience preceding his First Vision. He may have been waiting for Whitlock to overcome the evil power on his own and possibly receive a divine manifestation.51 It is also possible that Smith, with his sympathies regarding spiritual manifestations, was still reluctant to judge others’ spiritual experiences or that he was simply unable to discern the nature of the manifestation without applying the recently revealed principle that when a spirit is manifested that an elder cannot understand, he is to ask God to give him that same spirit, knowing that it is not of God if he does not receive it. Whatever the reason for the hesitation, the decisions to interpret Whitlock’s behavior as actuated by an evil spirit and cast out the devil effectively settled months of dispute. Quite simply, many of the elders seemed only to be waiting to see how Smith would respond to unusual spiritual operations, and with nearly the entire adult male membership present on this day of conference, this experience seems to have finally affirmed the position of those opposed to the widespread enthusiasm.

The second reason why aberrant spiritual behaviors virtually ceased after the June conference has to do with the nature of the high priesthood and the expectations that Smith and others had regarding its authority. Noting that Smith ordained Wight with the gifts of “casting out devils” and “discerning spirits” at the same time he ordained him to the high priesthood, Staker argues that the high priesthood ordination was “directly connected with the gift of discernment.”52 Apparently, Smith also connected the high priesthood to “keys,” understood at this time as the ability to bind or seal. Although he would later associate sealing keys with Elijah’s appearance in the Kirtland Temple in 1836, Smith began in 1831 to conceive of the high priesthood as the authority to oversee contact between the tangible and spiritual worlds and officiate transactions between them. Just as Peter had received keys that would allow him to bind in heaven what was bound on earth, Smith now maintained that the newly ordained high priests possessed the authority to transcend temporal boundaries. By the end of the conference, Smith understood the priesthood not as a store of power, but the proper system through which God monitored the interactions of all his children on both sides of the veil. With this new authority and understanding, Smith and others felt confident in their ability to discern and govern spiritual agencies. Reflecting on the era years later, he remembered that “the false spirits were easily discerned and rejected by the light of revelation.”53

Though the immediate problem of false spirits was resolved at the June conference, the development of the priesthood in connection with the discerning of spirits and the governing of spiritual agencies was just beginning. As the doctrine of keys developed and its meanings multiplied, Smith sought additional ways that ordained men could properly oversee the intersections between mortals and spirits or resurrected beings. Patterns of detection eventually culminated in the temple ritual, which was understood, at least partly, as a way to properly discern false spirits from true and assist humans in transcending the veil through the proper authority and organizational system. The experiences of 1831, therefore, were critical in helping Smith conceive of the priesthood as the authoritative pattern of exchange between the two worlds. The priesthood had the authority to part the veil, but it was also charged with guarding it. The challenge for Smith was to monitor that boundary to prevent deception without sealing it off. Sometimes the result was chaotic, with the understanding of the priesthood racing to catch up to abundant and diverse supernatural manifestations, but, whatever its challenges, Smith’s was always a church of great spiritual vitality.




Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Vintage Books, 2005.

Cowdery, Oliver. “Letter VIII.” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 2, no. 1 (October 1835): 195—202.

Davidson, Karen Lynn, David J. Whittaker, Mark Ashurst-McGee, and Richard L. Jensen, eds. The Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844. Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2012.

Ehat, Andrew F., and Lyndon W. Cook. The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980.

Fluhman, J. Spencer. “The Joseph Smith Revelations and the Crisis of Early American Spirituality.” In The Doctrine and Covenants: Revelations in Context, edited by Andrew H. Hedges, J. Spencer Fluhman, and Alonzo L. Gaskill, 66—89. Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008.

Hancock, Levi W. The Life of Levi W. Hancock. Typescript. L. Tom Perry Special Collections. Harold B. Lee Library. Brigham Young University.

Hedges, Andrew H., and Dean C. Jessee, eds. The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Volume 2: December 1841 – April 1843. Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2011.

“History of Joseph Smith.” Times and Seasons 4, no. 5 (January 16, 1843): 71—73.

Howe, Eber D. Mormonism Unvailed: Or, A Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time. Painesville, OH: Printed and published by the author, 1834.

Jessee, Dean C., Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman, eds. The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Volume 1: 1832-1839. Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2008.

Park, Benjamin E. “‘A Uniformity So Complete’: Early Mormon Angelology.” Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies 2, no. 1 (2010): 1—37.

Pratt, Parley P. Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1985.

Prince, Gregory A. Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995.

Smith, George A. Untitled Sermon, 28 November 1869. “Minutes of Meetings Held in Provo City.” Early History of Provo 1849-1872. Harold B. Lee Library. Brigham Young University. Microfilm 979.2 Z99 v.2.

Staker, Mark Lyman. Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting for Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations. Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2009.

“Try the Spirits.” Times and Seasons 3, no. 11 (April 1, 1842): 743—48.

Whitmer, John. From Historian to Dissident: The Book of John Whitmer. Edited by Bruce N. Westergren. Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995.

1. Levi W. Hancock, The Life of Levi W. Hancock, Typescript, L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, 26.

2. See Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1985), 48; M. S. C., “Mormonism,” Painesville Telegraph, February 15, 1831; John Whitmer, From Historian to Dissident: The Book of John Whitmer, ed. Bruce N. Westergren (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 57.

3. George A. Smith, Untitled Sermon, 28 November 1869, “Minutes of Meetings Held in Provo City,” Early History of Provo 1849-1872, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Microfilm 979.2 Z99 v.2. Original spelling preserved throughout.

4. As Benjamin E. Park notes, Utah Mormons were involved in heavy debates with a growing Spiritualist movement in Utah at the time George A. Smith made this statement. Benjamin E. Park, “‘A Uniformity So Complete’: Early Mormon Angelology,” Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies 2, no. 1 (2010): 27.

5. See Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Volume 1: 1832-1839 (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2008), 88; Karen Lynn Davidson et al., eds., The Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844 (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2012), 212—14.

6. Andrew F. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1980), 119.

7. Ibid., 12.

8. J. Spencer Fluhman, “The Joseph Smith Revelations and the Crisis of Early American Spirituality,” in The Doctrine and Covenants: Revelations in Context, ed. Andrew H. Hedges, J. Spencer Fluhman, and Alonzo L. Gaskill (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008), 78.

9. There is evidence that Oliver Cowdery referenced his ordination by divine beings or messengers in his early missionary activities, though no recorded statements to that effect made by him prior to 1834 exist. A Painesville [Ohio] Telegraph article reporting on Cowdery’s preaching en route to Missouri on his 1830 mission to the Lamanites suggests that Cowdery acknowledged the need for authorized “credentials” granted directly from heaven: “Those who are friends and advocates of this wonderful book [the Book of Mormon], state that Mr. Oliver Cowdry has his commission directly from the God of Heaven, and that he has credentials, written and signed by the hand of Jesus Christ, with whom he has personally conversed, and as such, said Cowdry claims that he and his associates are the only persons on earth who are qualified to administer in his name.” “The Book of Mormon,” Painesville Telegraph, 7 December 1830.

10. Gregory A. Prince, Power from on High: The Development of Mormon Priesthood (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 3.

11. Davidson et al., The Joseph Smith Papers: Histories, Volume 1: Joseph Smith Histories, 1832-1844, 212—14.

12. Presumably, Cowdery received his information from Smith himself. The letter was printed in the church newspaper The Messenger and Advocate, and Smith never made any attempt to discredit or revise the account. Oliver Cowdery, “Letter VIII,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 2, no. 1 (October 1835): 197.

13. Ibid., 198.

14. Andrew H. Hedges and Dean C. Jessee, eds., The Joseph Smith Papers: Journals, Volume 2: December 1841 – April 1843 (Salt Lake City: The Church Historian’s Press, 2011), 145; see D&C 128:20.

15. In addition to Smith’s 1831 revelations and other writings discussed here, see also Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, 8—12, 44.

16. “Try the Spirits,” Times and Seasons 3, no. 11 (April 1, 1842): 744. Though commonly attributed to Joseph Smith, recent scholarship indicates that “Try the Spirits” may have been a collaborative effort with either John Taylor or William W. Phelps. See Park, “‘A Uniformity So Complete’: Early Mormon Angelology,” 27n.

17. Mark Lyman Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting for Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2009), 119.

18. Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Vintage Books, 2005), 146.

19. Whitmer, From Historian to Dissident, 57.

20. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, 48.

21. Letter to Hyrum Smith, 3-4 March 1831, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed 10 July 2013, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/letter-to-hyrum-smith-3-4-march-1831

22. Ibid. Letter to Martin Harris, 22 February 1831, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed 10 July 2013, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/letter-to-martin-harris-22-february-1831

23. Letter to Hyrum Smith, 3-4 March 1831

24. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 147.

25. Smith wrote that Moses was confronted by Satan, who coveted Moses’s worship of God and attempted to deceive him. This portion of the translation was first published in January 1843 in the Times and Seasons. “History of Joseph Smith,” Times and Seasons 4, no. 5 (January 16, 1843): 71—73.

26. Revelation, February 1831 — A [D&C 43], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed 10 July 2013, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/revelation-february-1831-a-dc-43

27. Revelation, circa 7 March 1831 [D&C 45], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed 10 July 2013, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/revelation-circa-7-march-1831-dc-45

28. Revelation, circa 8 March 1831 — A [D&C 46], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed 10 July 2013, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/revelation-circa-8-march-1831-a-dc-46

29. Revelation, 7 May 1831[D&C 49] , The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed 10 July 2013, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/revelation-7-may-1831-dc-49; Revelation, 9 May 1831 [D&C 50], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed 10 July 2013, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/revelation-9-may-1831-dc-50

30. Revelation, 6 June 1831 [D&C 52], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed 10 July 2013, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/revelation-6-june-1831-dc-52

31. See D&C 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 50, and 52. The revelations Smith received on 9 February and 23 February were later combined into a single section (42) of the Doctrine and Covenants.

32. Revelation, 4 February 1831 [D&C 41], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed 10 July 2013, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/revelation-4-february-1831-dc-41. Bushman dates the Smiths’ arrival as 1 February, possibly because Smith later wrote that he arrived “about the first of February.” See Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, 145. Staker, however, believes that the Smiths did not arrive until 4 February. See Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting for Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations, 101.

33. Ibid.

34. The remaining portion of “the Law” was received on 23 February (D&C 42:73-93).

35. John Whitmer identified her only as “a woman by the name of Hubble.” Whitmer, From Historian to Dissident, 37. She has since been identified as Laura Fuller Hubbell. See Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting for Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations, 111.

36. February 1831, History, 1838-1856, volume A-1, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed 10 July 2013, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/history-1838-1856-volume-a-1?p=107

37. Revelation, February 1831 — A [D&C 43]

38. Ibid.

39. Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting for Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations, 114.

40. Hancock, The Life of Levi W. Hancock, 26.

41. Revelation, circa 8 March 1831 — A [D&C 46]

42. Ibid.

43. Whitmer, From Historian to Dissident, 58.

44. Revelation, 9 May 1831 [D&C 50]

45. Ibid.

46. Revelation, February 1831 — A [D&C 43]; see Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting for Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations, 158.

47. Eber D. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed: Or, A Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time (Painesville, OH: Printed and published by the author, 1834), 188—89; Hancock, The Life of Levi W. Hancock, 32.

48. Hancock, The Life of Levi W. Hancock, 32.

49. Whitmer, From Historian to Dissident, 71.

50. Howe, Mormonism Unvailed: Or, A Faithful Account of That Singular Imposition and Delusion, from Its Rise to the Present Time, 189.

51. See Staker, Hearken, O Ye People: The Historical Setting for Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations, 160.

52. Ibid., 167.

53. January-February 1831, History, 1838-1856, volume A-1, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed 10 July 2013, http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/history-1838-1856-volume-a-1?p=99