A Mormon taxonomy of revelation

A recent post at my brother Luther’s blog discusses three terms which are used differently by Mormons than by most other people: gospel, testimony, and prompting. Luther does not suggest that the three terms have anything particular in common other than their atypical Mormon usage, but it occurs to me that they constitute a very systematic way of classifying revelation, and that when analyzed as such they reveal a gap in the lexicon — a type of revelation for which there is no name.

The table below classifies revelations on the basis of what is revealed and how it is revealed — the content and manner of the revelation, respectively. By public content I mean timeless truths or principles which are applicable to all people (for example, “there is a God” or “thou shalt not steal”). Private content refers to propositions — or, more often, imperatives — which have reference to a particular person in a particular situation and do not necessarily have wider applicability (for example, “thy sins are forgiven” or “give Bob a call”). The manner of revelation can likewise be public (proclaimed to the world through the mediation of prophets, apostles, and scripture) or private (communicated directly to the individual by the Holy Ghost).

  Content Manner
Gospel Public Public
Testimony Public Private
Prompting Private Private
(no name) Private Public


The gospel, as the term is used by Mormons, is not limited to the good news of salvation but encompasses all publicly revealed truths of universal applicability. (For example, the law of tithing is part of the “gospel” for Mormons, though I believe that usage of the term would be atypical in the wider Christian world.) When Mormons are talking among themselves, they refer to the religion they profess not as Mormonism or Christianity, but as the Gospel.

A person’s testimony consists of direct, personal confirmations of gospel principles. There is only one gospel, but there are as many testimonies as there are individual Mormons. Each person’s testimony is a subset of the gospel, constituting only such truths as have been specifically revealed to that individual by the Holy Ghost. The paradigmatic example is the testimony of the Book of Mormon which the reader of that book is encouraged to seek in Moroni 10:4. The content of the Book of Mormon itself is part of the gospel; when the Holy Ghost manifests the truth of the book to a particular individual, typically in response to a prayer requesting such a manifestation, that’s a testimony.

Promptings are direct communications from the Holy Ghost relating to personal matters which are not included in the gospel and are meant only for the person to whom they are revealed. Typically this comes in the form of a sudden “gut feeling” that one ought or ought not to perform some specific action. Every Mormon will have stories to tell of promptings which saved him from danger or directed him to someone in need of help. Actually, the meaning of prompting is somewhat narrower than the above table implies, since it is typically limited to unsolicited revelations in the imperative mood. “Thy sins are forgiven” would not normally be called a prompting but a personal revelation. Even personal revelations in the imperative mood are not usually referred to as promptings unless they come to one unbidden. If, for example, a person prays before making a major life decision (such as getting married) and asks for confirmation that it is the right thing to do, the answer would again be called a personal revelation, not a prompting. If on the other hand one were to ask a more open-ended question — “O God, what career shall I pursue?” — and receive a distinct impression that one ought to become a large-animal veterinarian, which possibility had never crossed one’s mind before — that could well be called a prompting. I suppose the key distinction is that the content of a prompting comes from outside; it cannot be a mere confirmation of an idea the individual was already entertaining.

The final, unnamed category would include public revelations — proclaimed to the world by prophets or in scripture — which are nevertheless of limited personal applicability. It seems odd that such a category of revelation should even exist, but it does. The Doctrine and Covenants is full of such revelations — revelations to specific individuals about specific situations, but recorded and published for all to read in scripture. There is no name for this type of revelation, but the taxonomy implicit in the other three terms draws our attention to its existence.



Filed under Mormonism, Revelation

3 responses to “A Mormon taxonomy of revelation

  1. Well put—better definitions, I think, than my own.

    The Doctrine and Covenants is hardly alone in type-4 revelations if the criteria is simply “recorded in scripture:” the entire canon is laced with “wash in the river seven times” and “come see where I live” and “thy sins are forgiven thee” and so on.

    There is also a class of content between “public” and “private,” content that applies to a large group but not everyone—most often limited by time. Things like “slay every non-Abrahamic person in Canaan” are not private but also not universally applicable.

  2. I think the Doctrine and Covenants is (nearly) unique in that messages to particular individuals about particular situations are stand-alone messages, rather than being embedded in a story. Stories about individuals can often be considered part of the gospel (this is what happened — a timeless truth), and such stories may include divine messages to the individuals involved, but stand-alone individual messages are a different kind of thing. The nearest biblical parallel I can think of would be the pastoral epistles (to Timothy and Titus).

  3. This ‘UnNamed’ Category seems to be applicable to Anecdotes which are intended for ‘The Prepared Mind’; In which a story is told to an Audience of (x participants, but only the One(s with a Prepared Mind will find sufficient meaning or relevance in it to experience Satori ( Enlightenment ) .
    ( ? )
    The Other ‘Example’ that came to mind; ( you should have listed one or two for clarity ) — Is the Story of Samson; In which crazy things happen to him, but are not represented in the general population. One wonders what such stories mean, certainly not literally, but even at some ‘parable’ or Mythological Level
    ( ? ) ( ? )

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