Evangelical Questions: The Holy Ghost

by Jennifer Roach, MDiv, LMHC

Welcome back to Come Follow Me with FAIR: Faithful Answers to New Testament Questions. My name is Jennifer Roach and today we’re going to talk about the Holy Ghost. As you know we’re going through the Come Follow Me readings and addressing common questions that Evangelicals ask about our faith as we go along. Our purpose here is not to fuel debate but to help you understand where your Evangelical friends and family are coming from so that you can have better conversations with them, and perhaps even be able to offer them a bit of our faith in a way they can understand.

I will remind you about the FAIR Conference August 2-4 in Provo, Utah. You can buy tickets and come in person, or you can stream online for free. Go to FAIRLatterdaySaints.org to sign up for streaming. Did you know that Don Bradly will be speaking too? Don has an amazing story. First off, he is a proper historian, and if you haven’t read his book on the Lost 116 pages you really should. And Don has been working with Latter-day Saint historical documents his entire career. But what I find most fascinating about him is that he left the church for a good while. On his way out he wrote a letter to his bishop that, in his words, was so severe that when he decided he needed to come back he feared that he would not be allowed based on that letter alone. He tells a touching story of how his bishop welcomes him back by saying something like: This is the Lord’s church and if you’re not allowed to repent here, where would you be allowed? So he rejoins the church and has done lots of amazing work since then including on the Joseph Smith Papers. At FAIR he will be giving a talk about evidence of Joseph Smith’s actual religious sincerity – contra what some critics say that he was a charlatan for money or power. Don has this really great way of explaining some of the truly confusing things that Joseph does in the context of his sincerity. I might be looking forward to Don’s talk more than I am my own.

Okay, so today we’re going to talk about the Holy Ghost. Our text in Come Follow Me is in the early part of the book of Acts and there is a lot going on. As an aside, you know, we’re not covering the narrative of the story here in these episodes. We’re pulling out issues as they come along where there would be interesting inter-faith discussions. But there is so much going on in the story I would just encourage you to listen to some of the other Come Follow Me podcasts that cover that aspect much more in detail. All of the Scripture Central (used to be called Book of Mormon Central) podcasts do this well, and others too. Anyway, the things that are happening in this part of Acts are very much driven by the Holy Ghost. And that’s where we land today.

And we’re going to talk about 2 aspects of this. First, the Gifts of the Spirit, and second, the question of who has the Spirit and how do they listen to what is being said?

Gifts of the Spirit

And here we are going to branch out a bit from the broad Evangelical group we normally talk about. Under the umbrella of “Evangelicals,” there are a number of positions various groups take on the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit. And there is a continuum – on one side are Evangelicals who really barely want to talk about the Spirit, all the way over to the other side that only really ever wants to talk about the Spirit. Evangelicals on the other side that do not like to talk about the Spirit are worried about one thing, and people who want to mostly talk about the Spirit are worried about another. And to be honest, most of the Evangelicals we’ve talked about in this series are on the side where the Spirit just isn’t talked about much. Those folks are worried that relying too much on the Spirit – and not the written scriptures – has a high potential to lead someone astray because of the subjectivity involved. People on the side that really only want to talk about the Spirit are worried that those on the other side have over-intellectualized faith in a way that has been boiled down to mere cognitive assent without any real power behind it. One of the ways Evangelicals talk about this is by talking about Speaking in Tongues, or glossolalia.

There are a lot of Evangelical churches that participate in speaking in tongues, some of the biggest ones are the Assemblies of God. They have 68 million members worldwide and trace their roots back to the Azuza Street revivals around 1910. The Vineyard Churches which have 2500 congregations around the world (they give statistics on congregations, not members.) And lots of smaller groups or independent churches that might have names with, “Holiness” or, “Apostolic” in them, plus lots of others.

And when we say speaking in tongues what we mean is that they will sometimes speak in an unknown language – meaning not any actual language you can study – but an unknown language. And then, usually, someone else in the congregation will give an interpretation of what those words meant. In doing this they are trying to listen for what God might be teaching them through supernatural means.

Now, in our Latter-day Saint church, most people think of “the gift of tongues” as meaning the gift of learning foreign languages proficiently by supernatural means. Speaking in an unknown language is called glossolalia. And speaking in a known language that you do not have proficiency in is called xenoglossia. These are not “gibberish” sounding languages but actual languages that missionaries might teach in. And we have lots of examples of this all throughout our history. But many Latter-day Saints seem surprised to learn that besides practicing xenoglossia – the supernatural learning of unknown languages – the early Saints also practiced glossolalia, the speaking of unknown languages. In fact, at a church conference in 1833 Joseph Smith opens the meeting with prayer and then speaks in tongues, glossolalia, followed by others who do as well. You can read about that incident at the website for the Joseph Smith papers in Documents Vol 2. John Witmer writes a letter that same year talking about how one of their meetings contained singing in tongues. An article on the church’s website LDS.org talks about Elizabeth Ann Whitney singing in tongues. Brigham Young said that speaking in tongues felt Electrifying. The Nauvoo Relief Society Min Book talks about them. Here is a quote from that book, “Councillor Cleveland stated that she many times felt in her heart, what she could not express it in our own language, and as the Prophet had given us liberty to improve the gifts of the gospel in our meetings, and feelings the power resting upon, desired to speak in the gift of tongues; which she did in a powerful manner.”

Now, don’t get the wrong idea and think it was some free-for-all where reason and good teaching could be substituted for speaking in tongues. We also get lots of statements like this one that is in the RS Min Book, but there are plenty of other similar ones spoken by Joseph Smith and others. But the Min Book quote is, “If any have a matter to reveal, let it be in your own tongue. Do not indulge too much in the gift of tongues, or the devil will take advantage of the innocent. You may speak in tongues for your comfort but I lay this down for a rule that if any thing is [p. [40]] is taught by the gift of tongues, it is not to be received for doctrine.” And a short time later Joseph teaches, “As to the gift of tongues, all we can say is, that in this place, we have received it as the ancients did: we wish you, however, to be careful lest in this you be deceived. … Satan will no doubt trouble you about the gift of tongues unless you are careful; you cannot watch him too closely, nor pray too much. May the Lord give you wisdom in all things.”

Around the turn of the century, turning to 1900, a lot of cultural things were happening in the church and in society. Values were shifting away from the supernatural and toward science and order. The Victorian era ends in 1900. This was in all of society, not just in our church. But people were interested in the emergence of a slick modern era (such as it was) and not what felt like ways from the past that might have been a bit embarrassing. By 1904 there is a letter in the Improvement Era recounting the former prominence of speaking in tongues in the LDS Church and lamenting the loss.

So as unusual as this kind of worship sounds to most Latter-day Saints today it was very much practices in the early days of our church and they considered it a very sacred and special thing.

I imagine that talking about that history with an Evangelical friend who practices these gifts of the Spirit or speaking in tongues would be just fascinating.

Okay, on to the other part I want to talk about here…

One of the questions I get from lifelong members a lot is: How is the experience of having the Holy Ghost now compared to before? Sometimes they are surprised to hear that I’ve been able to listen to the Spirit since childhood and have never felt deprived of it. I think there can be a cultural belief among some that people in our church are the only ones who have the Holy Ghost, which certainly is not true, and certainly not what our leaders have taught. But members sometimes think that – and I can understand why.

You might not be aware of this but just recently the Missionary department released a new version of Preach My Gospel. I was delighted to see this subject come up in one of the changes.

The Old version of Preach My Gospel says…
“We receive the baptism of the Spirit through an ordinance called confirmation. This ordinance is performed by one or more priesthood holders who lay their hands upon our head. First they confirm us a member of the Church, and then they confer the gift of the Holy Ghost upon us. This is the same ordinance that is referenced in the New Testament and the Book of Mormon.”

And all of this is correct. None of this truth has changed. However, the new version of Preach my Gospel brings an additional layer of clarity. It says, “The Power of the Holy Ghost is the witness that comes to sincere seekers of truth before baptism comes through the power of the Holy Ghost. All people can receive a testimony of Jesus Christ and His restored gospel through the power of the Holy Ghost. The Gift of the Holy Ghost: The Prophet Joseph Smith said: ‘There is a difference between the Holy Ghost and the gift of the Holy Ghost. Cornelius received the Holy Ghost before he was baptized, which was the convincing power of God unto him of the truth of the Gospel, but he could not receive the gift of the Holy Ghost until after he was baptized.'”

And this change brings a delightful clarity I think. The Holy Ghost is what makes anyone anywhere tune their heart toward God’s truth, even the tiniest bit. So of course he is active in people who have not yet made a profession of faith.

More Come, Follow Me resources here.


Jennifer Roach earned a Master of Divinity from The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, and a Master of Counseling from Argosy University. Before her conversion to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints she was an ordained minister in the Anglican church. Her own experience of sexual abuse from a pastor during her teen years led her to care deeply about issues of abuse in faith communities.



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