One Protestant’s Views on Epistemology

Nathan Richardson

The gold plates. I came to know the Book of Mormon is true through prayer and a personal confirmation from the Holy Spirit. My friend wanted to know if it was true as well, but he had a very different idea of how he should find out.

Joseph Fielding Smith said, “When a man has the manifestation from the Holy Ghost, it leaves an indelible impression on his soul, one that is not easily erased. It is Spirit speaking to spirit, and it comes with convincing force. A manifestation of an angel, or even the Son of God himself, would impress the eye and mind, and eventually become dimmed, but the impressions of the Holy Ghost sink deeper into the soul and are more difficult to erase.”1 Spiritual revelation is far and away the most powerful, purest way of coming to knowledge, and it seems that Heavenly Father intended the most important truths to be obtained through spiritual revelation.

Not everyone believes this, though. I had an interesting conversation four years ago with a Protestant friend of mine on this subject, and I thought I would share several snippets because they are directly relevant to the philosophical question of how we know things (epistemology). Unlike most posts on this site, which are led by a main point with it’s supporting quotes, verses, or examples, this one will mostly be led by the conversation we had, and I will comment on things I learned or interesting implications. I hope you enjoy it.

One important note: I want to be very clear that I am not trying to be critical of my friend or denigrate his beliefs. I love this guy, and I plan on being friends with him for a long time, even if we always see this topic differently. I quote from my conversation with him mainly as a contrast—to explore and explain my own beliefs more clearly, which I have tried to base on the restored gospel and the teachings of modern prophets.

An Interesting Conversation

My friend understood the fact that if Joseph Smith was really a prophet, then the Lord’s priesthood and Church were on the earth today, along with all the blessings that would come with them. He had read the Book of Mormon and even met with the missionaries, but try as I might, I could not get him to pray about the Book of Mormon. He wouldn’t try it. This is part of our extensive conversation (I have used his screen name for anonymity):

Wedge: I would like to know why personal revelation is emphasized so much. I had missionaries at my house three times, and they really seemed to stress it.

Nathan: Well for one thing, it’s personal. Heavenly Father knows each of us individually and wants each of us to know at a very internal level the truths about life and His promises.

Wedge: Of course. But in a relativistic age, it is hard for me to trust subjective experience.

Nathan: What other kind of experience could there be?

Wedge: No other kind of experience, but objective evidence.

Nathan: I understand your reservations, I really do. There are wacky people who do crazy things because “God told me to.” But I know from experience that there is something real that comes from God through the Holy Ghost. Of course, the only way to know is to experience it yourself.

Wedge: But there are ways to know that are not experiential. Experience must come, but I do not see it as a good initiator. …

Nathan: I think he does give a lot of evidences and expects us to recognize it, but I really believe that knowledge of truth is incomplete without a spiritual witness.

Wedge: Of course. I understand that. But if the gospel is true, the objective evidence will be for it, with necessity, by the definition of the word true. …2

I was used to the idea that many people in our modern age had strong inclinations toward empiricism, that is, reliance on sensory data and observation. It was a relatively new experience, however, to see a Bible-believing Christian so adamantly promoting this approach. I was accustomed to the means of attaining knowledge about God that I saw in the scriptures—search, ponder, and pray, like it says in the Primary song.

My friend, however, did not see that as a process useful for resolving doctrinal questions. He understood what I meant by “personal revelation” and “spiritual experiences,” but he did not trust them to give him information about whether something was true or not—because those methods are “subjective.” I wanted to persuade him that personal revelation was real and powerful, since I knew that full, deep, lasting conversion is impossible without relying on the Spirit. So I tried to give him reasons to consider setting objectivity aside long enough to consider appealing to revelation:

Nathan: Yes, I believe that in the end, when all things are revealed, we will see that everything pointed to the truth. But we don’t have access to all evidence right now.

Wedge: Since that is the case, the vast, vast majority should point toward it at least. …

Nathan: Do you think that it is vital to come to that objective confirmation in this life?

Wedge: I think the only way one can be confident of one’s beliefs enough to tell others is if they come to the conclusion based upon objective evidence.

Deciding On an Approach

I thought it was interesting that the advantage he saw to objectivity is it’s conveyability to others. I can agree with that, and I discussed that quality in Epistemology: How We Know Things. But that does not mean revelation is unconveyable. While I cannot convey spiritual knowledge to another’s heart, the Holy Ghost can. My role is to be a witness to others that it happened to me, and recommend that they try it for themselves.

I don’t think I agree with his view that the vast majority of observational/sensorial evidences should necessarily point to the gospel (I can even imagine Heavenly Father intentionally weighing things differently, to force us to rely on the Spirit). But I let it go for the moment because I wanted to focus on something more important.

My friend seemed to have based his entire religious beliefs on rational empiricism. He was pretty firm. He wanted objective evidence of the Church’s claims. It was so tempting to refer him to FARMS or FAIR, where he could probably find several well-reasoned articles that would feed his desire for proof. Maybe such resources could eventually lead him to pray about the Book of Mormon. I wondered, should I just have accepted his grounds of discussion and talked about physical proofs of the gospel?

I didn’t, though. In my next post, I will explain why. In the post after that one, I will share how the rest of the conversation went.


1. Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 2:151; cited in Gospel Principles, p. 36.


2. Personal communication, 2 May 2004, live internet chat.


  1. Well that’s one thing I love about talking to this friend—we can get into pretty in-depth discussions without there ever being contention. He’s a classy guy, and there was never any reason for the Spirit to leave. I know what you mean though—you don’t find that every day.

  2. Nathan,

    I really like this post, and I especially like the lead in quote from Joseph Fielding Smith. I am going to look into that one some more.

    Receiving truth through the Spirit and via empirico-rational means is an important issue for Latter-day Saints interested in epistemological issues. I have said on a number of occasions that truths received through the Spirit are more certain than truths gained through empirical means. I am talking about the sort of spiritual experience where you know that God is communicating something to you through your spirit. As you point out, these are very powerful and long-lasting experiences. They grow, while, on the other hand, memory of our empirical experiences tend to fade.

    I find it interesting that those who have a perfect knowledge of God’s existence (e.g., Joseph Smith and the brother of Jared) know it through two ways. First, they see God with their own eyes, and second, they receive a witness from the Holy Ghost that the personage they are looking at is the everlasting God of heaven and earth. A perfect knowledge requires both—the empirical and the spiritual.

    Until the day when we receive a perfect knowledge of Him (when every knee bows and every tongue confesses), we can be certain in the veracity of our limited (not yet perfect) knowledge that we have been through our various spiritual experiences.

  3. Thanks, Dave. I agree that this is one of the most important topics for Latter-day Saints. One of our most unique doctrines is continuing revelation, and the way those revelations are received puts us in an entirely different category from the rest of Christianity. That’s one reason this topic has always interested me, even since junior high. It’s what everything else in the restored gospel is founded on.

  4. The power of sin implies the possibility of becoming a slave of sin and the devil. Those, then, who are greatly under the power of sin, and so go to hell, cannot truly be called free men. They are blinded and brutalized by satisfying the promptings of their brute nature, and thus renounce their glorious freedom, to sell it for a bestial gratification.

    He only is truly free who wills and does what God wishes him to do for his everlasting happiness Now, as we have seen, God wishes that all should be saved in the Roman Catholic Church. Those, therefore, who believe and do what the Church teaches, do not lose their liberty; on the contrary, they enjoy true liberty, and make the proper use of it.

    Hence, the greater our power of will is, and the less difficulty we experience in following the teaching of the Church, the greater is our liberty. Accordingly, Catholics, who live up to the teaching of the Church, enjoy greater liberty, and peace, and happiness, than Protestants and unbelievers, because they are the children of the light of truth, that leads them to Heaven; whilst those who live out of the Church are the children of the darkness of error, which leads them, finally, into the abyss of Hell.

  5. Hi Micky,

    I totally agree that living God’s commandments leads people to greater liberty and greater happiness. And even though we all fall short, we’re still better off for trying. I think our happiness increases to the degree that we’re able to follow the Lord’s commandments, and that’s one reason he gave them. Thanks for your comment.

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