If you have been paying attention to the news about UFOs spreading across the media over the past few years and then took a look at recent polling, you could be forgiven for thinking that nearly half your fellow citizens of the United States believe that aliens might be regularly visiting our planet.
After all, Ipsos reported just last month that 42% of Americans said that they believed in unidentified flying objects. At the end of July, Pentagon whistleblower David Grusch testified before Congress that the U.S. military is in possession of technology and “biologics” produced by nonhuman intelligence. And that comes after a 2017 New York Times article revealed that the Pentagon had been studying UFOs (calling them “UAP,” for unidentified aerial phenomena) for several years, including several baffling videos recorded by Navy pilots of apparent craft doing things that seem to defy the laws of physics. I write about these trends in my new book on UFOs, titled “The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America.”
The confusion about UFOs might be a first clue that they can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It also can help us understand why there has long been an association between UFOs and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Evangelical and secular critics of the Utah-based church like to point to the association as a way to make the faith look variously strange, occult or silly.
But for the past 80 years, a good number of Latter-day Saints have also welcomed the association. In what some scholars call the modern age of the UFO, ever since a wave of sightings in 1947 spurred military investigations and a great deal of media interest, Latter-day Saints have pointed to the phenomenon as either entirely consistent with their faith or even proof of it.
But the divergent ways Saints interpret UFOs reflect different ways of understanding what their faith actually is. There has long been a division among UFO investigators between advocates of what is often called the “extraterrestrial hypothesis” and what is sometimes called the “interdimensional hypothesis.” These divergent ideas, in a Latter-day Saint context, point to very different visions.
God is a scientist
Advocates for the extraterrestrial hypothesis argue that UFOs are mechanical craft built in another solar system and piloted to Earth. Their makers are creatures like humans on Earth, albeit the products of different evolution and eons ahead in terms of scientific progress. This is the story of UFOs we get in movies and novels, and some Latter-day Saints have found these ideas congenial to their own beliefs.
These folks are the heirs to a strain of theology going back to Brigham Young that peaked with the early 20th-century writings of church leaders like B.H. Roberts or John Widtsoe. These people argued that if the “supernatural” meant outside the laws of nature, the supernatural did not exist. God was God because he had most thoroughly mastered the laws of the universe. God is a scientist, in his own way, at home in reality as we understand it, and merely eons ahead in education and progress.
Lynn Hilton’s book “The Kolob Theorem: A Mormon’s View of God’s Starry Universe” is an excellent example of this sort of work taken to its possible conclusions. Hilton believes that God lives in the physical center of the Milky Way and that the galaxy is divided into a series of concentric rings. Upon the fall of Adam and Eve, the Earth was expelled from the innermost ring to the edge of the galaxy, where it exists today. In his way, Hilton simply takes the naturalistic theology of other church members to its logical conclusion.
Hilton does not explicitly endorse extraterrestrial life, but many other Latter-day Saints have. In his book “Faith Precedes the Miracle,” former church President Spencer Kimball explains that God has created many worlds populated with his children. Kimball then states that “interplanetary” conversation was evidently real, since humans “may speak to God and receive answers.” Therefore, Kimball says, “Are planets out in space inhabited by intelligent creatures? Without doubt.”
Neither Hilton nor Kimball took the final step — asserting that UFOs were therefore spacecraft from those creatures. To be clear, neither likely believed the idea. But many Latter-day Saints did and do. Warren Aston is a frequent contributor to Latter-day Saint publications like Book of Mormon Central and Meridian Magazine and author of the “A Mormon Looks at Aliens and UFOs.” He is a vocal advocate not simply for the extraterrestrial hypothesis but also for its grounding in church doctrine as he understands it. Similarly, in his “Aliens and UFOs: Messengers or Deceivers” Latter-day Saint lawyer James Thompson maintains that many UFOs are craft built and sent from righteous societies on other planets in support of the work of God.
Think ghosts, not ‘Star Trek’
The extraterrestrial hypothesis thus has much support, but the interdimensional hypothesis is gaining ground. It posits that UFOs are not simply a more advanced form of our own spacecraft but instead represent a fundamentally different way of experiencing existence. They are not craft flown across space; they rather flicker into our world from different planes of existence, anomalies that violate the laws of the universe as we understand them — more in common with ghosts than “Star Trek.” Believers of this idea point to the strange behavior of the craft on the Navy videos as evidence.
And such a way of understanding strange lights in the sky is becoming increasingly popular among Latter-day Saints influenced by the esoteric world of the New Age movement. Though hardly a cohesive force, New Age writers have, since the 1960s, woven together the rhetoric of science with European occultism and Asian cosmologies into a vast unseen universe, an ascending hierarchy of cosmic beings and light and dark powers humans can access through psychic powers and rituals like channeling, meditation, alternative medicine, exorcism and magic. UFOs have become integral to the New Age movement, and Latter-day Saints inclined to it have embraced them accordingly.
Some of these people are quite popular. John Pontius’ “Visions of Glory: One Man’s Astonishing Account of the Last Days” has more than 3,300 reviews on Amazon, nearly 80% ranking it with five stars. I tried to locate it in Davis County’s library system recently. The system owns eight copies, but all were checked out, and three patrons were waiting for one to be returned. For a decade-old book, this is an impressive showing. Similarly, Julie Rowe was excommunicated from the church in 2019, but before that, her books, including her own vision of the apocalypse “A Greater Tomorrow,” were popular enough that the leaders of the Church Educational System had to warn against their use.
Rowe, Pontius and many others like them share with other Saints a belief in science but, like other New Age believers, they are far more suspicious of conventional establishment science than most Latter-day Saints are. Pontius speaks of “spiritual technology” not simply more advanced than that of human beings but also utterly incomprehensible without proper spiritual initiations. Rowe describes “intergalactic travel,” among 13 particularly significant planets, but for her those journeys are metaphysical, the business of being “in the spirit,” not the result of any particular technology.
The way they speak of strange lights in the sky is far different from Aston or Thompson’s technology. Pontius describes “pillars of fire” that connect heaven and Earth and guide church members to Zion. For Rowe, Joseph Smith’s visions of heavenly beings were, essentially, extraterrestrial visitations. Angels, Jesus Christ and others traveled across the galaxy to Earth through spiritual power alone.
Scholars often argue that the draw of UFOs in American popular culture signals something about us: our awe of technology, for instance, or our worry about our inability to control it. Or, perhaps, our distrust of the state that might be hiding things from us. If this is the case, the divergent interpretations of UFOs within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints might signal that while traditional materialist theology remains strong, the influence of the New Age movement on the faith is gaining steam.
Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of “The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America.”