In preparation for the coming ministry of the Savior on earth, John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Lord, announced as he was preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire” (Matt. 3:11). This refers to the gift of the Holy Ghost, which must be conferred by one holding the higher priesthood, or authority, which was embodied in the Savior.
The use of the word fire suggests that those who receive this gift with the right heart can expect something more than mere acceptance of certain principles or even baptism by immersion. The use of this expression elsewhere in scripture bears this out.
While conferring the Holy Ghost in connection with the Savior’s baptism is mentioned in all four gospels, only two of them (Matt. 3:11 and Luke 3:16) mention baptism with fire and the Holy Ghost. Mark records John the Baptist as saying, “I indeed have baptized you with water: but he [Jesus Christ] shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost” (Mark 1:8). In the Gospel of John we read: “John [the Baptist] answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; he it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe’s latchet I am not worthy to unloose. … The same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost” (John 1:26–27, 33). However, the Prophet Joseph Smith restored the expression “fire and the Holy Ghost” in his inspired version to the accounts of Mark and John as well (see JST, Mark 1:6; JST, John 1:28).
While one definition of this expression refers to a cleansing by the Holy Spirit as if by fire, still the scriptures and the writings of the prophets indicate there is something more.
The new convert who has accepted the gift of the Holy Ghost with the right spirit will experience not only a cleansing but a feeling that will give him a new heart and make of him a new person. Sometimes this is immediate, and sometimes it happens over a period of time. But always there is a change for the better. For the longer-standing member of the Church who has become preoccupied with the world or in little ways has allowed his religious life to be more procedural than of the spirit, there is something to be rediscovered (and for some, discovered for the first time) with the baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost.
Jesus Christ when teaching made it clear that while his authorized servants can confer the gift of the Holy Ghost, he is the one who actually bestows the Spirit: “Blessed are ye if ye shall give heed unto the words of these twelve whom I have chosen from among you to minister unto you, and to be your servants; and unto them I have given power that they may baptize you with water; and after that ye are baptized with water, behold, I will baptize you with fire and with the Holy Ghost” (3 Ne. 12:1).
An early Church leader, Charles W. Penrose, said that when the elders laid their hands upon his head, he received the Holy Ghost—“the spirit of revelation, the spirit of prophecy, the same that makes manifest the things of the Father and of the Son.” He said he knew that he received the Spirit; and it was with him from the time of his baptism, “a light to my feet and a lamp to my path; a joy to my soul; opening up the things of God; bearing witness of the truth of this work; and that spirit has led me to righteousness, to truth, to purity of character, and would rebuke me when I attempted to do anything wrong, and encouraged me in performing my duty. And I have ever been ready … to build up this work, because I know it is divine.”1
The power of that soul-changing experience was the strength that established this latter-day work.
Elder John Taylor of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles called it the “fire of truth,” and, speaking to the Saints in 1872, said that “when the elders came and preached unto you it was something like the position of Paul of old—’Their words came … with power and demonstration and with the Holy Ghost,’ and their words and testimony and spirit responded to that spirit which was in your bosoms, and you hailed their testimony as a message of light, and you obeyed it: you went forth into the waters of baptism amid the scorn, contumely, reproach and contempt of the world. … Inspired by the fire of truth you braved the whole of it. … Hence we are here assembled, as on this occasion to day, not by our own wisdom and intelligence, not by the intelligence of the world; … but by the intelligence and inspiration of the Lord of hosts … and by the Spirit of God attending the administration of his elders; and you have known, and comprehended and realized for yourselves the truths which you believed in.”2
The miracle of the manifestation of fire and the Holy Ghost has the capacity to reach within a person’s heart. While that person may have been a bystander regarding the things of God, the power of the Spirit is able to turn such a person into a living witness of this sacred work.
Said President George Q. Cannon: “You can testify because you have received—if you live as you should do—a testimony independent of that which we can give to you, or any argument that we may urge—you have received it, if you have received it properly, from our Eternal Father. You received it in answer to prayer, direct to yourselves—not through any intermediate source, not through any man, but through the Eternal Spirit of our Father descending upon you and bearing witness to you—a testimony that these things are true. You, therefore, are living witnesses of the truth of these things, and know for yourselves whether they are true or not.”3
The scriptures, and even our church history, record miraculous instances when visible flames encircled the humble followers of Christ—literal manifestations of fire and the Holy Ghost—but more often this fire works quietly and unseen in the hearts of those who have received the gift of the Holy Ghost.
To the Book of Mormon Apostles, the Savior said, “Blessed are they who shall believe in your words, and come down into the depths of humility and be baptized, for they shall be visited with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and shall receive a remission of their sins” (3 Ne. 12:2). “Thus has it been in all ages, and thus is it in our day,” said Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “After baptism in water, legal administrators lay their hands upon a repentant person and say: ‘Receive the Holy Ghost.’ This gives him the gift of the Holy Ghost, which is the right to the constant companionship of that member of the Godhead based on faithfulness. Either then or later, depending upon the individual’s personal worthiness, the Holy Ghost comes. The baptized person becomes a new creature. He is baptized with fire, sin and evil are burned out of his soul, and he is born again.”4
The witness, the change, the cleansing that comes gradually is no less powerful to the person with the right heart, and he or she is impelled to action whether the experience was a sudden, miraculous manifestation or the quiet workings of the Spirit. “Behold, he changed their hearts; yea, he awakened them out of a deep sleep, and they awoke unto God. Behold, they were in the midst of darkness; nevertheless, their souls were illuminated by the light of the everlasting word” (Alma 5:7).
In describing the baptism of the Holy Ghost and of fire, Elder LeGrand Richards of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said that when he was a young boy growing up in Tooele, Utah, his Sunday School teacher taught of John the Baptist’s assurance that the Savior would baptize with the Holy Ghost and with fire (see Luke 3:16). “I couldn’t imagine what that fire meant when I was a boy but I have lived long enough to know. I have been lifted beyond my own natural abilities under the influence and power of the Spirit of the Lord as I have borne witness of the truth of this gospel upon many occasions until it is a part of my very being.”5
President Harold B. Lee said that to be born again means to be quickened in the inner man. He quoted from Moses 6:66 about Adam and his baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost, it being the “record of the Father, and the Son, from henceforth and forever.” He further said he felt certain that the meaning of this was found in 1 Corinthians 12:3 [1 Cor. 12:3]: “‘No man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say [the Prophet Joseph Smith said that should have been, “no man can know”] that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost.’”6
A worthy person who receives the gift of the Holy Ghost can expect something in addition to testimony. This is pointed out by Elder Marion G. Romney of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who gave a definition of the difference between testimony and conversion:
“A testimony comes when the Holy Ghost gives the earnest seeker a witness of the truth. A moving testimony vitalizes faith; that is, it induces repentance and obedience to the commandments. Conversion, on the other hand, is the fruit of, or the reward for, repentance and obedience. (Of course one’s testimony continues to increase as he is converted.)
“Conversion is effected by divine forgiveness, which remits sins. The sequence is something like this. An honest seeker hears the message. He asks the Lord in prayer if it is true. The Holy Spirit gives him a witness. This is a testimony. If one’s testimony is strong enough, he repents and obeys the commandments. By such obedience he receives divine forgiveness which remits sin. Thus he is converted to a newness of life. His spirit is healed.”7
The progress from testimony to the fire of conversion is outlined in these words by Mormon:
“And the first fruits of repentance is baptism; and baptism cometh by faith unto the fulfilling the commandments; and the fulfilling the commandments bringeth remission of sins;
“And the remission of sins bringeth meekness, and lowliness of heart; and because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost, which Comforter filleth with hope and perfect love, which love endureth by diligence unto prayer, until the end shall come, when all the saints shall dwell with God” (Moro. 8:25–26).
A definition of sanctification also helps point out that there is something more when a person can qualify for the fire of the Holy Spirit and endure to the end. “Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit by which he who is justified is enabled to keep the Commandments of God and grow in holiness (see Hel. 3:35).”8
Sanctification comes from heaven and only comes as the Holy Ghost begins to work within a person. In some instances, people seem to grow into these blessings. Sometimes the glimmer of the Spirit is enough to lead people to baptism, but they can falter if they do not cultivate the gift and fire of the Spirit that has been bestowed upon them.
Consider the experience of an early convert, Luman Andros Shurtliff, who went to Kirtland to see if the Church was true and ended up getting baptized. Following baptism, he nearly faltered until the converting power of the Spirit entered his life.
“In the morning I went to the office and bought a Book of Mormon and started [home], intending to get onto the stage road as soon as I could. … Soon my thoughts ran thus. I had [been] to Kirtland and was on my return. I knew that some of the neighbors had partially known my feeling and were watching me, and as soon as I got [home] would ask me questions relative to my discoveries, and what I had learned about the [Latter-day Saints]. What could I tell them? I could tell them I had been [baptized] and confirmed a member of the … Church, and what evidence have I obtained more than I had years ago? Not any. Have I received the Holy Ghost since I was [baptized]? No more [than] when I was [baptized] before. Did I believe the Book of Mormon? No more [than] I did four years ago. Do I believe that Joseph Smith Jun. is a Prophet of God? No, I do not. At this I was shocked at my situation and began to call on the Lord in earnest. And while I was praying, something came on my head … and passed gradually down through my whole system, removing all pain and made me a sound man from the top of my head to the soles of my feet. As soon as this was past, I heard a … voice above me say, ‘Joseph Smith, Jun. is a Prophet of the Most High God, raised up for the restoration of Israel in these last days, and the Book of Mormon which you hold under your arm is true and brought forth for the restitution of the scattered remnants of Jacob.’ … I was in the road a sound man praising God.”9
What creates the setting so that fire and the Holy Ghost might be sent from heaven to bless the lives of members? It comes by following the scriptures and the teachings of the leaders of the Church. Here are a few examples:
President Howard W. Hunter: “Developing spirituality … will not happen by chance, but is accomplished only through deliberate effort and by calling upon God and keeping his commandments.”10
President Gordon B. Hinckley: “I feel deeply that far too few of our converts have read the Book of Mormon. I feel that far too few have any understanding of the history of the Church. … Those we teach need the Spirit and the conversion power of that great and sacred volume [the Book of Mormon].”11
President Thomas S. Monson, First Counselor in the First Presidency: “The spiritual nature within us should not be dominated by the physical. It behooves each of us to remember who he or she is and what God expects him or her to become.”12
President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “The Holy Ghost communicates with the spirit through the mind more than through the physical senses. This guidance comes as thoughts, as feelings, through impressions and promptings. It is not always easy to describe inspiration. The scriptures teach us that we may ‘feel’ the words of spiritual communication more than hear them, and see with spiritual rather than with mortal eyes.”13
President Spencer W. Kimball: “Nothing builds spirituality … more than regular temple attendance.”14
President Kimball: “The gift of the Holy Ghost grows with worthiness. If you are baptized when you are eight years old, of course you are a child, and there is much you would not be expected to know. But the Holy Ghost comes to you as you grow and learn and make yourselves worthy. It comes a little at a time as you merit it. And as your life is in harmony, you gradually receive the Holy Ghost in a great measure.”15
“Have ye spiritually been born of God? Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts? …
“Can ye feel so now?” (Alma 5:14, 26.)
How does a person know when he or she truly has received the witness of the Holy Ghost? The person will know it by how he or she feels (see Mosiah 5). The Spirit will touch a person who may have been passive in the drama of life and make of him or her a witness to the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and all it stands for. As Elder Marion G. Romney said, “No person whose soul is illuminated by the burning Spirit of God can … remain passive. He is driven by an irresistible urge to fit himself to be an active agent of God in furthering righteousness and in freeing the lives and minds of men from the bondage of sin.”17
There is also a sense of unity that comes with the outpouring of the Spirit. As one becomes united with the Spirit, he or she also becomes united with fellow members and leaders—“fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).
If the Spirit is not in a member’s life, he or she should review the qualities just mentioned to see what is missing. “Spirituality is not a function of occupation or calling,” said Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “Spirituality is determined by personal outlook and priorities.”18
The baptism of fire and the Holy Ghost is from the presence of the Lord. It has the power to testify of the Father and Son, of Joseph Smith and living Apostles and prophets, and of the truthfulness of this work. It can also cleanse from sin, make of us at heart a new person, heal our souls, cause us to feel a love toward God and our fellowmen, and build within us a desire to become witnesses of his holy work. It can become a guide to our personal lives and help us make right decisions.
The Spirit is the only thing that can truly change people’s hearts. It is a gift of God and brings inward peace. It is offered to all who will humble themselves before the Lord, accept his truths, and are willing to live by those truths. “For our gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power [fire], and in the Holy Ghost, and in much assurance” (1 Thes. 1:5). This reality of the power of the Spirit is expressed in a verse from the hymn “Sweet Is the Peace the Gospel Brings”:
May we who know the sacred Name
From every sin depart.
Then will the Spirit’s constant flame
Preserve us pure in heart.19