“So strange and unusual appearances”

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Cover of the new Interpreter Foundation docudrama “Undaunted: Witnesses of the Book of Mormon” (created by Ryan Knowlton)

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I was delighted to see short thirty-second commercials aired on KSL-Television for the Performers Foundation docudrama Unwavering: Witnesses to the Book of Mormon. (I believe eight of them will have aired this weekend, in total.) Unwavering will be made public on May 24, 2022, in just under two months.

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From an account of Elizabeth Brotherton Pratt (1817-1897), an English convert to Mormonism who emigrated to Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1841, as reproduced in Hyrum L. Andrus and Helen Mae Andrus, Personal Insights from the Prophet Joseph Smith (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009), 140:

After my father and our family apostatized and left, I felt very sad. One evening, on going to bed, I felt discouraged, and my sister, who had been dead for several years, came up to me, called me by my name and said, “Don’t worry, you’re fine. ; you have a job for me to do.

I wanted to know what she meant, but she was gone. Two days later, the Prophet preached on baptism for the dead.

As soon as the baptismal font was ready, I officiated for my sister as she had requested.

This story struck me, because there is a similar one in my own family.

My father joined the Church relatively late in his life. (I baptized him the same night I was set apart as a missionary; my brother confirmed him as a member.) Years later, he became very involved in family history research. At some point, however, he discovered that someone else was submitting genealogical records regarding his family for temple ordinances, and he was quite perplexed. He was, he believed, the only member of the Church in his extended Scandinavian Lutheran family.

To his surprise, we eventually discovered that the daughter of his favorite cousin (a cousin who had died several years earlier) had joined the Church in Colorado and had submitted names for temple work. (My parents lived in California.) When I first met her, she told me the story of her conversion and how, shortly after her own baptism, her father had appeared to her in a dream (in done, I believe, in several dreams over a period of time), encouraging him to do some kind of “work” for him. At first she didn’t understand what he was talking about. She didn’t yet know anything about ‘proxy work for the dead’. Eventually, however, she learned what was planned, did her work, and then continued to do family history work and temple work afterward.

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Oliver B. Huntington (1823-1907), who was baptized a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1836, does not always strike me as a completely reliable source. (Maybe I’m being unfair, but here goes.) I know of other accounts, however, that parallel Oliver Huntington’s recollections below, which are included in Hyrum L. Andrus and Helen Mae Andrus, Personal Insights from the Prophet Joseph Smith (American Fork, UT: Covenant Communications, 2009):

I spoke with an 88-year-old lady who had lived with David Whitmer when Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery were translating the Book of Mormon in an upper room in the house. She was only a girl and saw them come down from the translation room several times when they looked so excessively white and strange that she asked Mrs. Whitmer the cause of their unusual appearance. But Mrs. Whitmer was unwilling to tell the young girl engaged the real cause, as it was a sacred event connected with a holy holy work that was opposed and persecuted by almost everyone who heard of it.

The young girl felt so strangely at seeing such strange and unusual apparitions, that she ended up telling Mrs. Whitmer that she would not stay with her unless she knew the cause of the strange looks from these men. Sister Whitmer then told him what the men were doing in the room upstairs, and that the power of God was so great in the room that they could hardly bear it. Sometimes the angels were in the room in their glory that almost consumed them.

This satisfied the young girl and paved the way for the adoption of the gospel. She is the mother of Stephen Bunnel and the Bunnel family of Provo. (121-122)

I know of at least one other source for this basic story – although, as far as I know, neither it nor any other source mentions an almost unbearable “power of God”. . . in the room” or the presence in the room of angels “. . . in their glory. These details may be historically accurate, of course, but there’s also a sizable chance that they represent the ever more dramatic growth of an oral legend or even Oliver Huntington’s own conscious or unconscious embroidery of the tale.

However, and without bothering to research them, I have accumulated a considerable number of independent personal recollections from a variety of self-proclaimed eyewitnesses who describe the face of the Prophet Joseph Smith as “shining”, “luminous” or “transparent”. at or near the moments of revelation. Weird, yes. But that’s what they say.

And this next little passage is either a second story corroborating an episode from the first Mormon settlement of Commerce, Illinois, which soon after became Nauvoo, or an entirely separate but parallel story:

I spent an evening with my niece, Lucia Godfrey, and related the details of how her father once died while living with Joseph Smith, and how he was raised from the dead by the Prophet. He was in the air above and saw the entire transaction, as well as the crying and mourning of the parents. (123)

The other such episode I have in mind concerns the healing of Elijah Fordham, I believe. I am struck by the similarity of these accounts to literally dozens of “out of body experience” accounts that I have read or even personally heard, in which the “experiencer” finds himself watching from the corner of a room . or for that matter above where his body is in medical crisis.

Some reviewers have assured me that such accounts have been influenced by the model described in Dr. Raymond Moody’s 1975 bestseller. life after life. And I actually expect that some fraudulent narratives have indeed been constructed in precisely this way. But that suspicion seems hard to sustain for an experiment that allegedly occurred in the late 1830s and was written down no later than several decades before Dr. Moody was born.

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