Sunday, May 22, 2011

Inspiration or Revelation? Yes.

We believe all that God has revealed, all that he does now reveal, and we believe that he will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of God. (Articles of Faith 1:9)

One of the hallmarks of the restoration of the gospel is that the heavens are still open, that God today operates by Amos’ Old Testament teaching, “Surely the Lord God will do nothing, but he revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7).

We also know, thanks to Joseph Smith’s experience, that God also reveals himself to individuals to answer prayers. Joseph followed the New Testament admonition of James to seek wisdom where he lacked it (see James 1:5), and received an answer he did not expect.

In today’s church, apostles and others speak of revelation and inspiration interchangeably. One may receive personal revelation or inspiration for one’s sphere of responsibility – for personal use, for one’s family as a parent, for one’s organization as an auxiliary leader or one’s quorum for a priesthood leader. This revelation may extend to callings to be issued, lessons to be taught, counsel to be given, service to be rendered. One should not expect to receive revelation beyond one’s scope of responsibility, however. I should not presume to receive inspiration for my bishop or for the church in general.

Some seek to distinguish between inspiration and revelation. Orson Scott Card in a recent article in Mormon Times, for instance, suggests revelation is more rare than inspiration (and more meaningful). A recent commenter on another blog suggested specific limitations for revelation, including that it must be written down and is given in the first person as if the Lord were speaking. This comment draws on a rather long article at Zomarah, and both suggest that because revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants are written down and published, all revelations must be.

I can’t support either Card’s or Zomarah’s point of view.

My dictionary defines inspiration: “to communicate ideas, etc., by a divine agency.” And revelation: “Something revealed” (which is defined: “to uncover and allow to be seen”). (The Oxford English Dictionary, which provides context over time, makes clear that in the 1800’s revelation referred to “communication of knowledge to man by a divine or supernatural agency” – quite similar to our modern definition of inspiration. The OED confirms that inspiration is “special immediate influence or action of the Spirit of God upon the human mind or soul.” )

The Bible dictionary in the LDS scriptures confirms the definition of revelation: “The English word revelation is translated from a Greek word apocalypse, meaning to make known or uncover.”

The Bible dictionary continues: “Continuous revelation from God to his saints, through the Holy Ghost or by other means, such as vision, dreams or visitations, makes possible daily guidance along true paths.”

The Guide to the Scriptures, another study guide available at, says revelation is “communication from God to his children on earth. Revelation may come through the Light of Christ and the Holy Ghost by way of inspiration, visions, dreams, or visits by angels.” The same guide says inspiration is “divine guidance given to man by God. Inspiration often comes by the Spirit in a variety of ways to the mind or heart of a person.”

Of course the scriptures teach us about receiving personal revelation. Moroni reminds us that through the Holy Ghost we may know the truth of all things (Moroni 10:5). Section 6 of the Doctrine and Covenants reminds us of Oliver’s experience seeking a testimony of Joseph’s work. The Lord repeatedly reminds him that he spoke peace to Oliver’s mind. And in Section 8 the Lord teaches Oliver that answers will come in his mind and in his heart (verse 2). Finally Section 9 completes the triptych by counseling Oliver to study it out in his own mind before bringing a solution for ratification. That counsel is similar to Moroni’s in his 10:3 that we should ponder the circumstance under which we received the Book of Mormon before seeking to learn of its truth.

We see the pattern repeating itself in the modern church. Before President Hinckley announced in 1998 the audacious goal of 100 temples by the year 2000, he had spoken at conferences for the three years prior about how the subject of temples and temple work had weighed on his mind. He spoke of the need to bring temples closer to the people, and he introduced the rather revolutionary idea of smaller locally-staffed temples that could be built and operated at significantly lower cost than larger more traditional ones. Whether that direction came in a first person dictated revelation or through the process outlined in Section 9 is immaterial to me. The Prophet of the Lord was directed to make a radical change in the way temples can be built in order to advance the Lord’s work. As I attend one of those smaller temples today in my area, I feel the confirming witness of the Lord’s guidance in that direction.

Edward Kimball’s biography of President Spencer Kimball’s presidency details the process President Kimball followed in seeking and receiving revelation regarding the extension of priesthood blessings regardless of race – a long process of his actively seeking, and finally receiving, the Lord’s direction – and the process of President Kimball’s helping his fellow apostles to gain the same witness that he did. And President McKay’s biography by Prince and Wright confirms that he sought similar revelation but did not receive it. We do not have a text of the priesthood revelation, nor do we know the form it took, but we have accounts of the spiritual manifestations associated with it as the Lord’s will was revealed to his prophet.

Carol Clark writes in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism:

"Inspiration" and "revelation" are sometimes used interchangeably by LDS leaders in explaining the source of prophetic authority. The First Presidency of the Church said, "Moses wrote the history of the creation, and we believe that he had the inspiration of the Almighty resting upon him. The Prophets who wrote after him were likewise endowed with the Spirit of revelation" (MFP 2:232). President Wilford Woodruff later noted, "This Church has never been led a day except by revelation. And He will never leave it. It matters not who lives or who dies, or who is called to lead this Church, they have got to lead it by inspiration of Almighty God" (MFP 3:225). [MFP refers to Messages of the First Presidency.]

For me, the dichotomy between inspiration and revelation is a false one. I’m grateful for the revelation that guides the church, and the revelation I can receive of its truth.


  1. Hey, that's cool you referenced my article. I've had some interesting fine tuning in my understanding since I wrote my article. I plan on writing a follow up sometime.

    I love the title of this article. Your examples of revelation/inspiration are somethings I've had to consider in my world view.

    I agree that the dichotomy between inspiration and revelation is a false one. My article however was focused on revelation/inspiration intended for the institutional operation of the church, not simply revelation for one's self.

    Revelation/inspiration are the exact same mechanism for the conveyance of information from God to man.

  2. Zo-ma-rah,

    Thanks for your comment! I appreciate that this subject (like so many) invites a great deal of study and learning.

    As I was rereading the chapters in Ed Kimball's book on his father's presidency, I was struck again by the power of revelation to a living prophet. But I also regained an appreciation that revelations like the one on priesthood and temple blessings are also not an every day event; there is value in recognizing that those institutional revelations may not be common or easily obtained.

  3. I am studying for a lesson I'm teaching in a few weeks and ran across your message. I appreciate your insights and thought you might be interested in dalin h oaks thoughts in a BYU devotional sept 1981. He uses the two very interchangeably and eloquently. Good insights as well.

  4. Sorry, title "Revelation", under byuspeeches, or just google oaks.

  5. Anonymous, thanks for the reference to Elder Oaks' talk.

    I was impressed by Elder Scott's discussion of this issue in last conference. He seems to have drawn a distinction, but was careful to couch it for purposed of his talk only. When we discussed his talk in a TFOT lessons recently, the idea that his distinction was for his discussion came up and was generally accepted as valuable to his discussion because of what he was teaching at the time.

  6. Thank you for this talk. I enjoy learning about inspiration and revelation in my own life.