Discerning a Spirit

By James P. Harris

Elder James E. Talmage was cautious when writing about spiritual experiences in his journal. For instance, when he would refer to something profoundly moving that had happened during a meeting of the Twelve and First Presidency, he would typically write something like, “This was a day long to be remembered by the brethren.” It was rare when he’d give much detail at all, making the two experiences presented here quite unusual.

It happens that the two detailed journal entries below relate to the gift of discernment of spirits (D&C 46:23) regarding the worthiness of people with whom he would meet. He still does not give names of those involved, but perhaps he felt freer to talk about experiences that might serve as a warning to later readers who are on hypocritical or dishonest paths.

The first instance is found in his 19 August 1922 entry, in which he describes something that took place while he was on assignment to a Blackfoot, Idaho, stake conference:


Here I take occasion to record a manifestation of Divine over-ruling such as I have witnessed on a few occasions, the last of which is an occurrence of this day. A man who had been excommunicated years ago on proof of gross transgression had recently been readmitted to the Church by baptism on his profession of repentance and on the recommendation of his Bishopric. Application had been made by him, and this had been transmitted to the First Presidency, to receive his former blessings by the ordinance of the laying on of hands. The matter was referred to me. I interviewed the man in the presence of the President of the Stake, and the manifestation to which I refer is that of the Divine power compelling a man to tell the truth against his will. It was evident that this man had falsified to his Bishopric as also to the Stake Presidency. Under questioning, evidently against his desire and literally with the gnashing of teeth, he confessed to other sins than those for which he had been dealt with and to recent transgressions. The evil one has very great power over him, and I fear will continue to hold it unless the man is genuine and whole-souled in his repentance. Of course, I declined to officiate in the ordinance of restoring to him his former Priesthood.


Another instance in which Talmage felt he discerned something amiss among those he was serving while he was the president of the European Mission (1925–1927). While touring Lyon, France, Talmage related in his journal entry of 13 December 1926 the following impression:


With a few exceptions the missionaries manifested a splendid spirit and reported good work done. But there were exceptions. I felt greatly depressed and oppressed while some of them were speaking, particularly so in the case of one. Try as I would I could not rid myself of this feeling, though I thought of the possibility of its being in part due to my sorrow over the bereavement that has befallen our family [Talmage was informed the day before by telegram that his brother George had died]. The feeling grew upon me as I was addressing the missionaries, and toward the end I was led to speak of the seriousness of any one Elder lowering the standard of missionary achievement by unworthy actions. Up to that time I had not known who was so seriously at fault; but I had the conviction that there was one man there who had grievously sinned; and while I was speaking I looked into his face and knew the awful fact. Without indicating the individual I spoke plainly, saying that I knew there was one man there who had fallen into transgression, and that there were others who were not entirely free. After [we] had returned to the hotel, two brethren came and told of their sinful lives prior to their coming into the mission field, but stoutly protested that they had kept themselves clean from sexual sin while in the field. It was late when I retired, weary and sorrowful.


The following day, Talmage wrote of what occurred following the taking of a mission picture:


I spoke to the man concerning whom I had so strong an impression yesterday, drew him aside, and told him that he knew himself to be the man to whom I had made reference. He acknowledged that he had been living in sin. . . . In answer to my questions he confessed to long continued transgression in his having been guilty of fornication before he came into the field, and during the greater part of his mission service, now amounting to about two years and a half.”


Later that day, President Talmage presided over a Church court, during which he had the unfortunate duty of excommunicating this missionary.