Where Mormons Go to Find Ghosts

June 10, 2007

By Ann

Today I was introduced to the ghost of Johanna Henderson.

Latter-day Saints have a very concrete and specific understanding about ghosts. They don’t call them ghosts, of course. They are called those who have passed on, or our kindred dead, or the people in the spirit world. In LDS doctrine, the dead are very much alive. The spirit is separated from the body, but it lives on, doing missionary work to those in the spirit prison (if they were members) or accepting/rejecting the gospel from their spirit prison (if they were not members.) As eternal, uncreated intelligences, our spirits live on after we are dead, assigned to another sphere where they work and wait for the resurrection.

Encounters with these ghosts come in a number of forms: visions, dreams, and even claim visitations. Wilford Woodruff was “waited on … for two days and two nights” by the spirits of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, insisting that he perform their temple work. That’s a lot of ghosts! An old friend had a vision of his beloved deceased wife when he was serving in the temple. I’ve heard dozens of people speak of feeling a presence with them when they were doing temple ordinances for the dead: “I just know s/he accepted the work that was being done.”

The place where the world of the living and the world of the dead intersect is the temple.

I find dichotomy in temple work. The ceremony itself is full of symbols, open to a variety of interpretations. The people who go there a lot say they always learn something new. But the symbols are anchored in the physical. The promises we make are very specific, and there is nothing abstract about them. In his recent interview with the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, Richard Bushman described the temple as a sacred space – a physical location dedicated to spiritual things. This is characterized not only by the space itself, which is “set apart” for sacred work, but also by the work itself: physical persons performing actions on behalf of spirit beings. The dead are with us there, in the form of little pieces of paper (pink for girls, blue for boys) carrying their names, their spouses’ names, and date stamps indicating any temple work that has already been done.

LDS are encouraged to look for ghosts. Once again, they don’t call it that. It’s genealogy. In order to do temple work, we need to know who the people are first. We are encouraged to research our family history, dig up our ghosts, and do their temple work. This is how I encountered Johanna Henderson. A family member researched his family, found enough information about Johanna to submit her name to the temple, and they handed me the piece of pink paper with her name on it.

I did not have any sense of her presence today. It was my first time back at the temple in a very long time, and I was preoccupied with other things. Remembering what to do when, remembering the temple covenants. Remembering which film I liked best (I only saw one), and analyzing the production values (not a very spiritual focus, I’m afraid.) I was glad to be doing this for Johanna, though. When the promises I had forgotten came up, I was able to remind myself, “This is for Johanna. This is not for me.”

If she is out there, maybe she appreciates it. And if she is not, somebody she never met thought about her today, over 150 years after she was born.



  1. I got a little tripped up with the “uncreated” part here: “As eternal, uncreated intelligences…” What do you mean by that?

    So your assertion here is that the temple is where Mormons go to look for Ghosts? It’s an interesting way of looking at it, but I think the popular notion of “looking for ghosts” has quite a different feel than what Mormons are doing in the temple — but in both cases, it is certainly a liminal experience in the Turner/VanGennep way of looking at ritual/rites of passage. Whether it is a creepy old house/cemetary or the otherworldess of the temple, I think it is right to think of it as a liminal space. Interesting read.

  2. “Uncreated” is probably just redundant. Intelligences are co-eternal with God and not created by him.

    I realize that “ghosts” has a different connotation than the departed in the spirit world. Given our claims to have visions and even visitations from these dead souls, the thing itself is the same, even if the motivation and the methods are quite different. We, too, seek the dead, but not in creepy old houses. If we’re trolling cemeteries, it’s because we’re researching our dead ancestors.

    I hadn’t thought of temples as a liminal space, but that’s an excellent description.

  3. BTW — are you the same Ann that was on John Dehlin’s Mormon Matters podcast (and earlier Mormon Stories podcasts)? I just listened to it on my flight from the US to Tokyo (twice). If so, I feel like I know you — weird how that happens.

    Okay — I see what you meant by uncreated — meaning no beginning, no end, right? I always thought of intelligences as being seperate from ghosts or spirits, thought. I grew up with the hand in the glove definition of spirit — no one ever stopped to suggest that the bones or the cells in the hand were like the intelligences. That might just freak kids out. I’ll have to try it.

  4. Yes, Glenn, that’s me. Thank you for the kind thoughts. I’m pretty exposed, am I not? It suits my need for a spotlight, even if the stage isn’t exactly Broadway.

    I think you are right about the intelligences phrase. I don’t think the doctrine is that spirit=intelligences. Rather, God organized or “birthed” these intelligences into spirits. I wonder what are the components of a spirit that are separate from our intelligences. We’re getting into angels on pinheads territory with that particular rhetorical question.

  5. Right — the realm of speculation — a glorious playground. I have often wondered if the intelligences thing isn’t a bit like reproduction as we know it here. You have the female who carries these eggs that are formed when they are in their mother’s womb. It’s a nice thought to me — the idea that my daughters (10 and 6) are carrying around the eggs that will (or at least may) become their future children. I like the idea that maybe God (the Mother part of God — or maybe even the Father) has intelligence eggs like that — and that maybe even in their mortal “embryo” stage they carried us around somehow. Maybe we are carrying around intelligence that someday might grow to become spirits etc etc. It makes me feel more connected to the whole thing if I think of it like that — whether it holds any water or not, I like that little fiction I created for myself.

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