Mormonism, even in its more modern version today, does firmly believe in the visitations of spirits, good and bad, as well as resurrected beings. After all, the church’s genesis involved the presence of an evil spirit, followed by the appearance of two resurrected divine beings, to its founder, Joseph Smith. In fact, in Mormon scripture, there are specific instructions on how to discern good spirits from bad. It’s found in Doctrine & Covenants, Section 129:
1 There are two kinds of beings in heaven, namely: Angels, who are resurrected personages, having bodies of flesh and bones—
2 For instance, Jesus said: Handle me and see, for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.
3 Secondly: the spirits of just men made perfect, they who are not resurrected, but inherit the same glory.
4 When a messenger comes saying he has a message from God, offer him your hand and request him to shake hands with you.
5 If he be an angel he will do so, and you will feel his hand.
6 If he be the spirit of a just man made perfect he will come in his glory; for that is the only way he can appear—
7 Ask him to shake hands with you, but he will not move, because it is contrary to the order of heaven for a just man to deceive; but he will still deliver his message.
8 If it be the devil as an angel of light, when you ask him to shake hands he will offer you his hand, and you will not feel anything; you may therefore detect him.
9 These are three grand keys whereby you may know whether any administration is from God.
I’m sure there are other churches that have specific instructions on how to discern a supernatural visitor. It’d be interesting to compare notes. (It’s a Mormon thing to be sure but there are likely tens of thousands of Latter-day Saints, the majority probably missionaries, who are confident enough in their faith to want to put the “handshake” test on a spirit.) In one of my favorite Mormon-themed novels, “Brother Brigham,” by D. Michael Martindale,” the protagonist, C.H., visited by a spirit claiming to be Brigham Young, applies the handshake test. The spirit rather coyly avoids the test, by both asking C.H. if he wants to shake hands and saying he’d rather refuse. The “ruse” works on the human.
Spiritual manifestations were ubiquitous in the LDS Church in the 19th century. I’m reading Todd Compton’s new biography of Jacob Hamlin and his visits with spirits included his late father. The early Parley P. Pratt (read his autobiography) had so many communications with spirits, good and bad, that the young prophet, Joseph Smith assigned Pratt and others to go through the branches of the Mormons in May 1831, specifically to discern which spiritual manifestations were legitimate, or of the devil. You can read Smith’s charge to Pratt and others in Doctrine and Covenants, Section 50.
Members of the church are encouraged when they relate tales of being privileged to have a connection to positive vibes from the spirit world, or if they overcome the presence of an evil spirit, trying to add to their stress, depression, or tempt them to do wrong. However, it’s considered more appropriate to share such experience with intimates, such as family or close friends, or in a setting such as the LDS Fast and Testimony meeting. Occasionally, I hear a spirit anecdote in a class such as Sunday School, but not as often as I imagine such were related 150 years ago in Mormon wards and branches.
There is a strict rule, though, to the Mormon encouragement of communication with spirits. It must be a spiritual manifestation that reinforces the faith. In my job as a journalist, I have infrequent communications with persons who — as Mormons — claim heavenly visitations that told them that the church was not being directed as God wanted. These persons have either left the church or been excommunicated. One of the more poignant, and sad cases of this was my short correspondence with a woman, soft-spoken who sincerely told me that she had received revelation from spiritual sources that told her to tell the faithful to stop using sanitized versions of cuss words, such as “heck,” “darn,” “shoot,” and so on. She took this message from ward to ward, refusing entreaties to stop, until she was excommunicated.
For those who want to learn more about how angels and spirits fit into Mormon culture, there’s a fascinating article in a 2010 issue of the “Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies.” (here). In the piece, Benjamin E. Park, University of Edinburgh, School of Divinity, provides an overview of the early Mormon embrace of communications with spirits, which included a belief in guardian angels. Park notes that the LDS belief in communion with the other world was often a point of contention with other ministers. In debates, primarily with Parley P. Pratt, ministers would argue that while divine communication is possible, it’s not probable given Christ’s message and the Bible, and certainly would never be wasted on Joseph Smith’s Mormons! Park’s article also provides more early Mormon viewpoints on what angels are, even classifying them by degrees! It reads:
Apostle Orson Pratt argued that there were “four grand divisions,” including spirits or angels not yet embodied, spirits or angels currently embodied, spirits or angels disembodied yet waiting to be resurrected, and spirits or angels embodied in an immortal tabernacle.
An editorial in the Mormon newspaper, likely penned by William Phelps, divided angels into three categories: archangels, resurrected personages and the angels which are ministering spirits.
This latter editorial goes into the most detail as to the nature and function of angels, making the revealing statement that “it is evident that the angels who minister to men in the flesh, are resurrected beings, so that flesh administers to flesh; and spirits to spirits…”
What’s fascinating about these old, arcane references from the 19th century is that they are doctrine very similar to what I was told, usually in conversation, sometimes in church classes, as a youngster growing up in the faith. Despite there being less emphasis on visits from spirits in the temple or elsewhere, it remains a strong tenant of Mormonism and one component that builds a testimony among many members.