Dreams as Gifts of the Spirit

By Sandra Clark

This archive piece originally appeared in the Segullah Journal in 2009.

During a Sacrament Meeting a few years ago, a man in our ward introduced his talk on “the peace the gospel brings” by reporting a dream in which he fought viciously with the contractor who was remodeling his home at the time who was also not aware about the presence of experts from garage door service around him who would have helped him to fulfill his dream. The man went on to explain that his remodel had been going very well, and he had never fought with the contractor since all the materials were purchased from surepaint.com.au/residential-painting-brisbane/exterior-house-painting-brisbane site that was cheap and best in all ways. He drew an appreciative chuckle from the audience, implying that the dream was ridiculous, and in no way connected to his waking life or to “the peace the gospel brings.”

A few months after his talk, when I heard the man at a dinner party describe contractual disputes he was having with his contractor, I wondered if the dream was more than fodder for a good joke. How might things have turned out differently if he had been willing to consider the dream as a warning and preparation for future problems? Or if he had entertained the possibility that the dream was a gift from God, designed to provide him with more information than he had at present? I wondered too how we have arrived at the point where some Church members discount dreams rather than considering them warnings and prophecies from God.

Research from sleep labs indicates that everyone dreams four to six times a night.[1] Most major religions consider that some but not all dreams come from God.[2]During my two decades of examining dreams as a therapist, college professor, and dream group member, it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between the God-sent and the ordinary. The dream fragments one wants to dismiss as “random neurons firing” often turn out to have great significance.[3] Certainly the more vivid, bizarre dreams demand for attention.

It can be difficult to know which dreams to ignore and which to pay heed to, but our current standard for dismissing most or all dreams cannot be what God intended when He built the dream mechanism into our very biology.[4] Dreams have become a kind of “dead letter office”: a lot of attempted deliveries, but few messages received. If dreams are one method of receiving divine revelation, they are underutilized.

Modern dream researchers generally agree that religious leaders in Western traditions find dreams threatening to their authority and discount the dream’s authority to maintain their own.[5] Despite numerous prophetic dreams in the Old Testament[6] and references in the New Testament to Godsent dreams that guided Joseph and Mary, saved Jesus’s life, and directed Paul on his journeys, many devout Christians today mistrust dreams. This suspicion can be traced to the influence of early Christian theologians Jerome (347-419 CE) and Augustine (354-430 CE), whose writings show the “dangers of dreaming,” although ironically both also report powerful dreams in their spiritual autobiographies.[7] Augustine’s conversion to Christianity did not prevent many sexually explicit dreams from haunting him, and probably led him to deemphasize dreams, a move that influenced later Christian theologians Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther.[8]

Particularly among more conservative Christian movements today, negative attitudes toward dreams prevail. A student of mine once asked if he could write his research paper on the role of dreams in his religion, to which I eagerly assented. His paper explained why his faith discounts dreams and warns its members to beware of them. In another example, a minister friend of mine, who belongs to the same dream organization I do, runs dream groups in his church, and has invited other pastors to come and find out more; not one has shown any interest. Unfortunately, many LDS Church members also show indifferent or suspicious attitudes toward the personal revelation that comes from dreams.

Dreams are an important part of my spirituality—they provide direction, warning, and reassurance. While I have no illusions that my interest in dreams could hold sway among the majority of Mormons, members can benefit by attuning themselves to the metaphorical language of their dreams and by responding in creative rather than indifferent ways. In contrast with other versions of modern Christianity, Mormonism has an established and ongoing tradition that encourages individuals to seek personal revelation. The idea that dreams offer valuable information has been reiterated by many Church leaders throughout our history.

Joseph Smith Sr.’s Dreams Established Tradition

Remarkable dreams have been part of Mormonism’s heritage since before its inception. This particular gift of the Spirit, apparent in Joseph Smith Sr. and recorded by Lucy Mack Smith, set the groundwork for their son’s prophetic role. In Lucy’s biography of Joseph Smith Jr., she recorded several of her husband’s dreams in the years before young Joseph reported the First Vision. Some were nightmarish, reflecting the nineteenth-century religious landscape Joseph Sr. saw as “either empty and silent or fiercely hostile to true wisdom and understanding.”[9]

The dreams’ barren landscapes perhaps prepared the family for the contempt they would later experience.[10] Spiritual guides in the dreams provided direction and understanding. In one dream, which began in a place of desolation, Joseph Sr. was guided to a beautiful garden with twelve man-sized marble stones that bowed to him in deference. Lucy did not interpret the dream in her writings, but its images implied that despite her husband’s desperate financial travails, the heavens remained aware of and honored him. In another dream Joseph Sr. prayed fervently, suddenly realizing that he must call upon God in the name of Jesus Christ for healing and forgiveness. It was “necessary to plead the merits of Jesus, for he was the advocate with the Father, and a Mediator between God and man.”[11]

Lucy referred to her husband’s dreams as “visions.” Did she identify them as such immediately, or when she was writing her book? The dreams were too striking to forget, and husband and wife identified them as God-sent, despite the sometimes nightmarish, confusing qualities. Whatever other purposes the dreams had, they prepared the parents for their young son’s report that he had seen a vision and had been told not to join any of the religions in their community.[12]

Dreams in the Book of Mormon

Dreams guided not only the Smith family through their trials, they also directed the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi and his family to flee Jerusalem. Revelatory dreams also appear in other places in the Book of Mormon.[13] Prophetic and warning dreams in the Old and New Testaments,[14] Mormon scripture, and Mormonism’s founding family all reinforce the notion that revelations from God come in dreams, and therefore deserve our attention.

Modern Prophets and Dreams

A tradition to pay attention to dreams has continued, intermittently, from Joseph Smith’s day to the present. Prophets and apostles have reported dreams as revelation in general conference and other addresses. In April 2007 PresidentGordon B. Hinckley repeated the dream Joseph F. Smith had while serving a mission in Hawaii.[15] Prior to the dream Joseph felt friendless and despondent. In the dream he took a journey and encountered the martyred prophet, Joseph Smith, who was also his uncle. Upon awakening he said he felt his uncle’s hand in his.

The dream has mythic qualities: it’s a journey story that launched the young boy on his path toward becoming a prophet by placing him before the earlier prophet for whom he was named. It is also a visitation dream, as the future prophet encountered various deceased relatives and leaders. Later in his life, Joseph F. Smith said the dream-vision “helped [him] out in every trial and through every difficulty”[16]— that it was “a literal thing … a reality.”[17] Powerful dreams, whether experienced by prophets or ordinary people, leave such a strong impression that they seem wiser than our own brain waves could create.

In an address to missionaries on October 14, 2008, Elder Richard G. Scott said, “You can learn things from dreams. The Lord will give you important messages through dreams.”[18] Elder Scott has also stated explicitly that self-improvement comes from writing down and learning from dreams.

A recent book by Elder F. Enzio Busche, Yearning for the Living God,recounts several remarkable dreams that guided Elder Busche throughout his life. “Our Heavenly Father has many ways to communicate His willingness to help and guide us … Heavenly Father, in His love for us, shows us a situation in a dream in order to help us learn from it … I have been privileged to receive insight and training that I otherwise could never have assimilated. In fact, dreams had a very powerful influence on my decision to be baptized.”[19]

Perhaps the closest we come to a rhetoric of dreaming in contemporary Mormonism is Elder Busche’s notion that dreams show God’s love for us. He demonstrates their powerful influence with compelling personal and recounted experiences from others.[21] According to Elders Scott and Busche, there is a numinous force well worth examining in the dream world, a living God who reveals Himself to anyone willing to take notice.[21]

While Church leaders often point to the revelation prophets have received from dreams, there are equal numbers of references regarding ordinary people who receive revelation the same way. In April 2005, Elder David A. Bednar told the story of a priesthood leader who dreamed about one of the young men in his ward. When the priesthood leader reported the dream to the young man, asking him for an interpretation, the young man responded, “It means God knows who I am.”[22] Elder Bednar identified the dream as a “tender mercy,” or manifestation of God’s love. By telling the story of a local leader, rather than telling the dream of a prophet, Elder Bednar illustrated that revelatory dreams can come to anyone prayerfully seeking inspiration.

Likewise, in October 1999, President Henry B. Eyring spoke of a man whose numerous losses were restored in a dream, which he interpreted as a “glimpse of the future.”[23] And Elder Dallin H. Oaks reported a similar glimpse of the future from a Nigerian physician who had a dream in which he “saw his good friend speaking to a congregation.” When the man later saw the exact scene in waking life, he investigated and joined the Church.[24] Such stories repeatedly demonstrate that revelation from God appears in dreams and implicitly invites listeners to receive revelation in a similar manner.

Personal Revelation

When I tell Church members I teach college students to recall and interpret dreams, I hear remarkable dream reports. A young woman shared a series of “precognitive” (a Jungian term) or prophetic dreams about her future husband, who is black. First she dreamed of holding hands and kissing an unknown black man. Later she dreamed she was in a wedding dress at the Los Angeles California Temple with the black man, whom she met a few months after the dreams. She said she would never have considered dating him, but the dreams “opened her mind” to the possibility and prepared her to love him.

Another ward member reported that during her darkest moments as a suicidal teen, her dreams of Jesus gave her the strength to live. When she was introduced to the Church, she dreamed of Jesus again and asked Him whether or not she should join. He responded, “You decide.” In telling me the story, this woman said it was the “perfect answer” for her, because she didn’t want to feel coerced into the decision. The dream verified for her that Jesus knew her personally. The dreams I hear reaffirm that revelation occurs regularly in dreams for those who have the faith to believe in them.

Since I began recording and studying dreams more than twenty years ago, I have amassed a large supply of dream reports that range from puzzling, shocking, and boring to eerie and inspiring. From a dream I knew I was pregnant with my third child (unplanned) before a test confirmed it. From a dream I knew I should make a shift in my career that would lead to more opportunities to share my passion for dreams.

From another remarkable dream I was given the precious gift of forgiveness when I needed it most. Several years ago, when my father was dying, I was walking with my mother one morning when she said something very hurtful to me. I was so upset I gathered up my family and returned home to California. I knew as I drove away I would never see my father again and I was devastated. I prayed to know what to do with the inner turmoil, but was unable to see through the hurt. One night I dreamed I was in my mother’s bedroom, standing next to her, saying, “I forgive you.” I leaned over and kissed her cheek. I felt my mother’s skin on mine as I awoke. A short time later my mother called and said, “I dreamed that you came to see me and forgave me. You kissed my cheek so tenderly that it felt real.” Prior to the dream I was in no mood to forgive my mother. Yet the forgiveness I extended in the dream, without my volition, had a carry-over effect. The dream turned around our strained relationship permanently. I have come to trust that dreams provide feedback about my behavior, the truth as to how I feel about something, guidance regarding life-long lessons, and glimpses of God.

If I interviewed members in every ward of the Church, I would meet many people with stories of profound dreams that changed their lives. I would no doubt encounter those particularly gifted with dream revelations, and hence dream prophetically regularly. One remarkable dreamer dreamed of an uncle’s car accident before it occurred, a sister’s pregnancy when no one was supposed to know just yet, a Peruvian earthquake before she heard news reports, and a friend’s fraternity house troubles which he had told to no one.[25] She recognizes true dreams and reports them to those she dreams about, but often this gift feels more like a curse, as Cassandra- like she faces the shocked, unnerved glances of those around her.[26] We live in a culture that favors rational, scientific knowledge. To take seriously the information found in dreams requires attuning one’s self to a metaphoric landscape few understand.[27]

Sometimes people receive dreams for the specific purpose of helping others. Several years ago my former college roommate, a nurse by profession, had a visitation dream of a labor and delivery doctor who had died suddenly of lymphoma in his early fifties. They had worked together professionally and he was her favorite doctor to assist. In her dream Cyndi sees him standing by the elevator in his running shorts and says, “What are you doing here?” She thinks but does not say, “You’re dead.” He said to her, “I need a wedding, a phone call and a delivery.”[28] Cyndi recalled feeling overjoyed to see him, and happy when she awoke, but puzzled. The metaphorical message of the dream confused her, yet it was vivid enough she could not dismiss it. She called me to help her make sense of the dream, and I said, “Sometimes when dead people come to visit in dreams, they need something from you.” Although the dream provided no clear instructions, Cyndi took an empty notebook around to all the people on the labor and delivery unit and said, “I’ll take care of your patients while you write something about Dr. Skidmore.” When the book was full of warm, personal, funny love letters about a beloved doctor and friend, Cyndi called and arranged to leave it in the Skidmore mailbox. A few days later, Mrs. Skidmore called Cyndi and said, “I wanted to hear about my husband’s work life, but he never talked about it. I thought when the children were grown I would have the chance to hear that important piece, and then he died so suddenly that I didn’t get to know him as a doctor. I felt that loss deeply. It helped me to hear from other people who loved him and missed him. You have given me the one thing I thought I could never have.”

Although there is no way to scientifically prove that the dead can find ways, through dreams, to comfort their loved ones and aid their grief process, Cyndi’s claims that the dream remains her most extraordinary experience perhaps adds weight to the notion that relationships extend beyond the grave. Cyndi believes that Tom Skidmore found a way to help his wife grieve. Besides being a beautiful example of a tender mercy, the dream operates as a conduit between heaven and earth.

Why Not Listen?

There are many people who rarely recall their dreams and have never experienced God’s tender mercies in dreams. Attitudes toward dreaming from prophets and apostles have been consistently positive, but few take the hint and seek the information their own dreams contain.

One reason for ignoring dream messages stems from unease with ambiguity. Dreams often require a “wait and see” attitude, even when we want certainty. When I look back at the dream journals from my twenties, I see that that the first year or two of recording dreams yielded messy cleanup work from childhood trauma rather than the ineffable encounters with Deity I sought. The cumulative effect of attending to dreams regularly, however, has been that I get moments of insight after I stay with the mystery long enough.

Dreams can appear as metaphorical mazes that shock and de-center us, requiring contemplation and action. For example, when I dreamed of a mountain lion, I looked up mountain lions online; I drew one and did some writing until I could feel its fierce energy. When I dream of Emmylou Harris, I play her music, and consider my associations to her. If my first thought is, “she harmonizes well with others,” then my dream might address a harmony that needs to occur in my own life, and hasn’t yet, or a harmony that happened, perhaps unexpectedly. Asking questions of the dream images brings understanding.[29]

Images in dreams are forms of energy that offer healing gifts, but not if we dismiss them as irrelevant. Simply setting a notepad and pen by one’s bedside indicates desire for additional information about his or her life journey. Drawing dream images, writing a poem, taking a photograph reminiscent of a dream, or calling the friend who shows up in a dream are all legitimate responses which may, in turn, generate a dream reply. When one writes down dreams regularly, extraordinary dreams occur more often. Developing a gift of the Spirit, like any other gift, requires time and focus.

During the October 2003 general conference, Elder Richard G. Scott said, “I encourage you to discover who you really are. I invite you to look beyond the daily routine of life. I urge you to discern through the spirit your divinely given capacities.”[30] Dreams provide one way to move beyond “daily routines” and discover “who you really are.” That I hear as many remarkable dream narratives from those who have never heard of revelation as from people who have had spiritual experiences suggests their importance. God has ensured that the information He gives is as close as the pillows we sleep on. Like other forms of revelation, we have to ask and then wait for understanding. If we trust that God’s love manifests itself in dream narratives, spending time with them will yield the equivalent of a banquet table, overflowing with spiritual food that we can partake of regularly.

Barbara Bishop has an undergraduate degree in English from the University of Utah, a PhD in English from UCLA, and a master’s in counseling psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. She has worked as a therapist and is currently an associate professor of English at Marymount College in Palos Verdes, California, where she teaches dreams and literature. She is married to Brent Pace and has three beautiful boys, about whom she dreams regularly.

[1] Robert L. Van de Castle, Our Dreaming Mind (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994), 231.

[2] Kelly Bulkeley, Dreaming in the World’s Religions: A Comparative History (New York: New York University Press, 2008),
3, 20; Van de Castle, 54.

[3] Kelly Bulkeley, An Introduction to the Psychology of Dreaming (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1997), 58-59; see also Gayle Delaney, “The Dream Interview” in New Directions in Dream Interpretation, (New York: State University of New York Press, 1993), 196; Jeremy Taylor, “The Hesitant Dreamer” in Dreamingscaping: New and Creative Ways to Work with Your Dreams, eds. Stanley Krippner and Mark Robert Waldman, (Los Angeles: Roxbury Park, 1999) 3-10.

[4] Van de Castle, 228-235.

[5] Dreaming in the World’s Religions, 191; see also Jeremy Taylor, Where People Fly and Water Runs Uphill (New York: Warner Books, 1992), 115; Lionel Corbett, Psyche and the Sacred: Spirituality Beyond Religion (New Orleans: Spring Journal Books, 2007), 208-212.

[6] Scott Noegel, “Dreams and Dream Interpreters in Mesopotamia and the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament)” in Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming, ed. Kelly Bulkeley, (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 54-59.

[7] Dreaming in the World’s Religions, 178.

[8] Dreaming in the World’s Religions, 183-186.

[9] Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984), 39; Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958), 48-49,64-65, 66, 68.

[10] History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, 64-65.

[11] History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, 66.

[12] Joseph Smith and the Beginnings of Mormonism, 39.

[13] 1 Nephi 1:16, (Nephi claims his father had written many things which he saw in visions and dreams); Ether 9:3

[14] Dreaming in the World’s Religions, 168-170; see also Noegel, 54- 60.

[15] See also Boyd K. Packer, “Washed Clean,” Ensign, May 1997, (he refers to Joseph F. Smith’s dream).

[16] Gordon B. Hinckley, “I Am Clean,” Ensign, May 2007. For another reference to a prophet dreaming of a previous prophet, see Robert R. Steuer, “Being Teachable,” Ensign, May 2002.

[17] Packer, “Washed Clean.” Ensign, May 1997.

[18] Reported to me by Clark Bishop, who was present during the address. Elder Scott’s address was broadcast on KBYU a few weeks later, with the omission of the example of his own dream. Perhaps the more intimate setting, rather than a recording studio, made the dream recitation seem appropriate.

[19] F. Enzio Busche, Yearning for the Living God (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2004), 77.

[20]20. Busche, 49; see also 77-79, 117, 226, 228, 248, 267.

[21] Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958). Otto uses the word “numinous” to describe sacred experiences or encounters with the holy.

[22] David A. Bednar, “The Tender Mercies of the Lord,” Ensign, May 2005.

[23] Henry B. Eyring, “Do Not Delay,” Ensign, November 1999.

[24] Dallin H. Oaks, “All Men Everywhere,” Ensign, May 2006.

[25] A. Callister, personal communication, September 15, 2008 and October 20, 2008.

[26] Callister reports that “true” dreams are more vivid and have more energy that carries over into waking life. They cannot be forgotten.

[27] For an example of the ways in which scientific thought invites skepticism regarding dreams, see Frederick Crews and Kelly Bulkeley, “Dialogue with a Skeptic” in Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming, Ed. Kelly Bulkeley (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 361-377. Crews objects to phrases like “numinous power of dreams” because they suggest that some dreams have a source beyond brain waves.

[28]. Cynthia Stanger, personal communication, August 1993, November 2008, and January 2009.

[29] For creative ways to work with dreams see Jill Mellick, The Art of Dreaming, (Berkeley: Conari Press, 2001). For ways to interpret dreams see Robert Hoss, Dream Language: Self-Understanding Through Imagery and Color (Innersource, 2005).

[30] Richard G. Scott, “Realize Your Full Potential,” Ensign, November 2003.

About Sandra Clark

Sandra Clark Jergensen's writing (most often about food) has been published in Gastronomica, Apartment Therapy, The Exponent, and at Segullah, where she was once the Editor-in-Chief, and now as Features Editor. Sandra geeked out on food and writing as a master's student food studies at University of Texas, Arlington. She makes her home in California where she runs without shoes, foster parents, teaches cooking, develops recipes, and struggles to take pictures with her eyes open, and sometimes all at the same time. She is the owner and creator of thekitchennatural.com.

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