With the return to the earth of the fulness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ there have come many insights into the operation and diversity of spirits. Though the culture of early 19th century America wherein the Gospel was restored was already somewhat inclined toward belief in spirits and the supernatural, the Lord’s commentary through Joseph Smith indicates that these beliefs were justified and indicative of the reality of things unseen:
“Behold, verily I say unto you, that there are many spirits which are false spirits, which have gone forth in the earth, deceiving the world” (D&C 50:2)
Declarations like the one above show that the world of spirit around us is not some binary space with angels on one hand and demons on the other, as most Christians would have been apt to believe at the time. Instead we see that spirits are individual and varied in their qualities and characteristics. Joseph Smith later commented on this truth:
“Not every spirit, or vision, or singing, is of God…. Men are ignorant of the nature of spirits; their power, laws, government, intelligence, etc., and imagine that when there is anything like power, revelation, or vision manifested, that it must be of God. Hence the Methodists, Presbyterians, and others frequently possess a spirit that will cause them to lie down, and during its operation, animation is frequently entirely suspended; they consider it to be the power of God, and a glorious manifestation from God. [But I ask,] a manifestation of what? Is there any intelligence communicated? Are the curtains of heaven withdrawn, or the purposes of God developed? Have they seen and conversed with an angel—or have the glories of futurity burst upon their view? No! but their body has been inanimate, the operation of their spirit suspended, and all the intelligence that can be obtained from them when they arise, is a shout of ‘glory,’ or ‘hallelujah,’ or some incoherent expression; but they have had ‘the power.’ The Shaker will whirl around on his heel, impelled by a supernatural agency or spirit, and think that he is governed by the Spirit of God; and the Jumper will jump and enter into all kinds of extravagances. A Primitive Methodist will shout under the influence of that spirit, until he will rend the heavens with his cries; while the Quakers…moved as they think, by the Spirit of God, will sit still and say nothing. Is God the author of all this? If not all of it, which does He recognize? Surely, such a heterogeneous mass of confusion never can enter into the kingdom of heaven” (STPJS, pp. 162, 203 – 204).
From the forgoing we learn that some spirits cause people to be unnaturally still, some cause people to shout, and others cause people to unnaturally move. Joseph Smith’s question in all these cases is what if any intelligence is communicated to man through these spirits? This question is important because the spirit of God has the effect of imparting intelligence—benefitting man with knowledge, light and truth. Other spirits prey on the ignorant in order to retain the reverence and worship due the spirits of God, for when men are in such a state—even if they are shouting praise all day long—these false spirits rejoice since their victims at least aren’t doing the things God would have them do.
In the class of ‘false’ spirits (those not of God), there are spirits that tempt as well as spirits that deceive. Spirits that tempt desire people to follow their enticements to do wickedly; spirits that deceive are like the ones Joseph Smith listed above: non-movers, shouters, movers, etc.—and there are many more classes to learn of by the channel of the priesthood, as Joseph Smith said:
“Every one of these professes to be competent to try his neighbor’s spirit, but no one can try his own, and what is the reason? Because they have not a key to unlock, no rule wherewith to measure, and no criterion whereby they can test it. Could any one tell the length, breadth or height of a building without a rule?… Who can drag into daylight and develop the hidden mysteries of the false spirits that so frequently are made manifest among the Latter-day Saints? We answer that no man can do this without the Priesthood, and having a knowledge of the laws by which spirits are governed; for as no man knows the things of God, but by the Spirit of God, so no man knows the spirit of the devil, and his power and influence, but by possessing intelligence which is more than human, and having unfolded through the medium of the Priesthood the mysterious operations of his devices” (STPJS, pp. 204 – 205).
There have even been instances in the scriptures of the Lord utilizing false spirits to accomplish his purposes, which false spirits could only be detected by those with knowledge from God. In one famous instance, the prophet Micaiah saw a vision that explained why 400 other so-called prophets were themselves being deceived:
“I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left. And the LORD said, Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead? And one said on this manner, and another said on that manner. And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the LORD, and said, I will persuade him. And the LORD said unto him, Wherewith? And he said, I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so. Now therefore, behold, the LORD hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets, and the LORD hath spoken evil concerning thee” (1 Kings 22:19 – 23).
Among the deceiving variety of spirits (which includes, again, the non-movers, the shouters, the movers, and now also the liars) there are also weepers and laughers. Those terms may sound almost silly, but, more properly stated, we may declare them as spirits that make people cry and spirits that make people laugh. Of course crying and laughing are normal human motions, so how can the false spirit version be detected? By this key: excess or apparent inability to control these motions. Such spirits prey on weakness that they may obtain influence by their ministrations. For example, weepers often manifest themselves in modern Latter-day Saint congregations seeking to bring undue admiration to the words of the people they animate. Of the laughers the Lord has warned:
“Sanctify yourselves that your minds become single to God, and the days will come that you shall see him; for he will unveil his face unto you, and it shall be in his own time, and in his own way, and according to his own will. Remember the great and last promise which I have made unto you; cast away your idle thoughts and your excess of laughter far from you” (D&C 88:68 – 69).
Twenty-six years after that revelation was received, Orson Pratt commented on the difficulty the saints had in learning its weighty implications and reforming their character thereby:
“We have learned…practically, the necessity of ceasing from all light-mindedness and levity and excessive laughter. But there are many, I am sorry to say, who have not learned the first principle of this lesson. We have learned that we can be cheerful without yielding to much laughter; for this is accounted in the revelations of God as sin in the sight of Heaven” (Orson Pratt, JOD 7:310; see also D&C 59:13 – 16).
The fact that loud, excessive laughter is counted ‘as sin in the sight of Heaven’ shows again the varied nature of false spirits, for although we might want to classify them as either tempters or deceivers, the fact is that yielding to their influence in any degree is inconsistent with the character of those called by God to inherit his kingdom (see also JS—History 1:28). As Richard G. Scott explained, besides constituting sin yielding to false spirits additionally impedes one’s ability to receive true revelation, the spirit of God being competed out of the mind from lack of self control:
“There are some practical principles that enhance revelation. First, yielding to emotions such as anger or hurt or defensiveness will drive away the Holy Ghost. Those emotions must be eliminated, or our chance for receiving revelation is slight.
“Another principle is to be cautious with humor. Loud, inappropriate laughter will offend the Spirit. A good sense of humor helps revelation; loud laughter does not. A sense of humor is an escape valve for the pressures of life.
“Another enemy to revelation comes from exaggeration or loudness in what is stated. Careful, quiet speech will favor the receipt of revelation” (Richard G. Scott, “How to Obtain Revelation and Inspiration for Your Personal Life,” Ensign, April 2012, p. 46)
Echoing the Lord’s sentiments in D&C 88 (quoted above), George Teasdale reaffirmed that we will never realize the most sought after blessings of the spirit and of Heaven without controlling ourselves against the influence of these false spirits:
“We should sanctify ourselves before, the Lord, and live holy and pure lives…. We never can be upon Mount Zion unless we save ourselves from this untoward generation. We must practice the principles of righteousness. We must give up our follies, our light speeches, our loud laughter” (George Teasdale, JOD 25:20).
In summary, there is a diverse spectrum of false spirits gone forth in the world to distract men and women from accomplishing the work God would require of them. Some accomplish this by luring into the paths of wickedness and destructive behavior, while others accomplish this by preying on a lack of physical control by our own spirits, injecting their influence over the minds of the unaware. As Joseph Smith indicated, intelligence is the hallmark of the spirit of God and the increase of its influence is directly correlated to the harnessing of the mind:
“The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God. How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God, than the vain imaginations of the human heart!” (STPJS, p. 137).