Matthew Bowman: Exploring the LDS spin on near-death experiences, the apocalypse and Chad Daybell

There’s a reason these writings about the afterlife and the end times gained traction among a number of Latter-day Saints.

Let’s say you’re not a regular follower of the paranormal. You don’t know who (or what) Mothman is. You’ve never heard of the Akashic Records. You probably, though, have heard about near-death experiences.

What the “near-death experience” actually is depends on whom you ask. Neuroscientists describe it as the product of neurons firing in particular ways under particular stress — subjective, existing within the brain of the experiencer. Many religious believers understand them as objective, actually occurring in space and time. Psychologists and scholars of religion emphasize that the stories people tell about their experiences tend to reflect their contexts; they see the divine beings they expect to see and hear messages already meaningful to them.

The term became popular in the mid-1970s to describe a cluster of experiences surrounding dire medical or life-threatening conditions. In 1975, psychiatrist Raymond Moody interviewed more than a hundred people for his book “Life After Life” and cataloged nine elements of the “near death experience”— from a feeling of peace to a sensing of ascension toward a light to encountering other intelligent beings. He argued that humans had been reporting things like this for as far back as records went. Moody’s book broke through, as media types say. Moody appeared on “Oprah.” His book sold in numbers comparable to, say, John Grisham or Stephen King. And people began using the term.

Including members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. By the 1980s and ‘90s, Latter-day Saint writers and publishers were putting out book after book describing how near-death experiences affirmed Latter-day Saint understandings of the afterlife. These days, the term is indexed in the church’s official history “Saints,” referring to the dramatic moment when Wilford Woodruff’s wife Phebe stopped breathing, and then returned to life to tell her husband that she had left her body and encountered her messengers who guided her back to it. Glenn Pace, then a general authority, used the term in 2005 to describe what had happened to him when his heart stopped beating on an operating table. He claimed he found himself hovering out of his body, only to be directed back to life with the command that “Your work is not yet finished.”

Latter-day Saints have thus put near-death experiences to work to elaborate on and confirm their ideas about the afterlife. More recently, they have done other sorts of work, too. They have become a rhetorical space where church members tell stories that weave their faith together with other forms of spirituality, sometimes accepted and sometimes rejected by the mainstream church.

Betty Eadie and New Age Mormonism

(Amazon) The bestselling "Embraced by the Light," by Betty Eadie.

The night of Feb. 8, 1993, I was in the eighth grade. When my parents bundled my sister and I into the car headed to Woods Cross High School, only a mile or two from our house, I was mostly annoyed. Increasingly so when it turned out that — according to the Davis County Clipper — 5,000 to 7,000 other folks from northern Utah had the same idea, and the freeway exits, roads and high school parking lot were so jammed that the event was 40 minutes late. I was cold and grumpy and unhappy that we ended up having to sit in the gymnasium instead of the auditorium, waiting to hear the event piped in over speakers.

Then Betty Eadie showed up and started talking about what happened when she died in 1973.

Her 1992 book, “Embraced by the Light,” was the most successful product on the booming interest in near-death experiences that followed Moody’s book. It got her on national television and sold millions of copies.

Eadie describes how, while recovering from surgery, she briefly entered a state of clinical death. She found herself hovering in midair, then seeing three men who guided her down a tunnel. There she encountered members of her family, some already dead and one, a small girl, yet to be born. She said she also met Jesus, visited a vast “library of the mind,” and toured a gorgeous heavenly garden. Jesus eventually persuaded her to return to life with new knowledge about the workings of heaven and earth.

Eadie joined the LDS Church before she wrote the book, but she doesn’t explicitly reference it in the text. Back in the bleachers at Woods Cross High, though, I perked up when I heard some ideas I recognized. She talked about remembering her life in the spirit world before her birth, about God as her literal father, and told of a spirit trying to get his future parents to fall in love, a story that echoed the then-popular Latter-day Saint musical “Saturday’s Warrior.” These things appear in the book too.

It also struck me that those ideas were mixed with others I didn’t, at the time, recognize. For instance, Eadie spends a lot of time talking about energy and auras. According to the book, everybody radiates energy, and those energy fields are affected by our words, our moods and how others treat us. We must work to project positive energy — “good vibrations,” as the saying goes — and as we do so we can influence others, the course of events, even the material world. Certain people are gifted to see the energy auras around others and wield energy on behalf of themselves and others.

These ideas are rooted in the 19th-century New Thought and spiritualist movements, which taught that one’s thoughts could impact reality in measurable ways — through energy and fluids (the “luminiferous ether”) that our scientific tools simply cannot yet detect. The concept is influential across the New Age movement — “energy work” finds adherents from neopaganism to astrology.

‘Visions of Glory’ and the apocalypse

(Amazon) "Visions of Glory," by John Pontius.

The combination of cultural influences in Eadie’s book set the stage for what followed: a veritable tidal wave of Latter-day Saint near-death narratives that, like “Embraced by the Light,” blend Latter-day Saint language and motifs with those of other groups.

Most famous is John Pontius’ “Visions of Glory: One Man’s Astonishing Account of the Last Days.”

In his introduction, Pontius explains that the book recounts the experiences of another man whom he called “Spencer.” (Since Pontius never identified Spencer, I won’t here, though it is clear Spencer was not simply a fictional authorial tool for Pontius and nor was he Pontius himself.)

The volume’s structure and framing resemble Eadie’s book, but Pontius’ version of the near-death experience takes a radical turn from Eadie’s gentle New Age reconciliation with the universe toward a grimmer and more apocalyptic end.

In “Visions of Glory,” Spencer dies on an operating table. He sees his body as though he was hovering above it. His entire life passes before him. He then recovers. So far, not so different from Eadie. But Spencer keeps having visions, often in similar dire, life-threatening situations.

The book’s second half documents a tremendously long vision. Massive earthquakes strike Salt Lake City. Foreign troops invade the United States. Plagues and floods wreck the nation’s infrastructure. Latter-day Saints build Zion communities in the wilderness, and eventually a temple in the New Jerusalem in Missouri. There is a “mark of the beast” that separates the wicked from the righteous. A holy people return from the North, where they have been living in a cavern under the earth with prophets and scriptures of their own. A red planet passes through the sky. And Christ returns to govern the globe.

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Harry Anderson's "The Second Coming." The book "Visions of Glory" describes Jesus' return to the Earth.

In some respects, Spencer’s story resembles the end-times narratives popular among conservative evangelicals in the Cold War tumults of the 1960s and ‘70s — identifying obscure symbols from the Bible’s Book of Revelation with nuclear wars and attack helicopters, fears of global war and international organizations, and so on.

But the book’s apocalypse is more distinctly Mormon than it is evangelical. It contains an accumulation of virtually every end-times legend, scriptural reference to the apocalypse, and Scout camp story that circulated among Latter-day Saints throughout the faith’s history. It delves into the “White Horse Prophecy” and seemingly every other statement attributed to church founder Joseph Smith — but written down decades after his death — that circulated on faded Xerox copies and in self-published books of prophecy across the 20th century. It places all the action in the United States. It centers the concept of priesthood and presents various priesthood-holding men as playing critical roles in the building of a new righteous society. While its take on Mormonism is more esoteric than the gauzy divine family of Betty Eadie, it is equally distinctive.

While Eadie draws on the New Age, “Visions of Glory” uses language drawn from the “spiritual warfare” movement popular among some American evangelicals. These groups describe virtually all negativity, evil or crime in the world as the consequence of demonic spirits, tempting and directing humans. They take the notion of spirit possession seriously, and warn that humans, being sinful and spiritually weak, are often under the domination of some spirit or another. Pontius describes a similar state of affairs. Individuals, he writes, are always surrounded by evil spirits capable of pushing, prodding and even possessing us. The apocalypse, he explains, is in part a process of priesthood driving dark spirits from the earth.

Chad Daybell and the apocalypse

(John Roark | The Idaho Post-Register via AP, Pool, File) Chad Daybell appears during a court hearing in 2020.

Chad Daybell, the Latter-day Saint writer who, with his second wife, Lori Vallow, is accused of slaying family members they believed to be possessed by dark spirits and black energy, is perhaps the best known of Latter-day Saint near-death experiencers of the past 10 years, and he is also the most successful at blending the impulses of Eadie and Pontius.

Like Spencer, Daybell described a series of visions after a near-death experience that illustrated a coming turbulent Armageddon, complete with wars and the mark of the beast. Like Eadie, Daybell also embraced the world of New Age energy work; his books speak of energy healing and auras. But he joined that system to the language of spiritual warfare. The world his visions opened him to was one full of spiritual energy; of dark spirits who sent out negative vibrations that could overwhelm and possess humans, and of light spirits (like himself, he believed, and Vallow) sent to earth with the ability to see those dark spirits and command and control them. Near-death experiences, for Daybell, were a way to see the coming end times and to prepare for them spiritually as well as materially.

It’s telling that writers like Eadie, Pontius and Daybell all gained a tremendous following, and it’s not a sign of credulity or ignorance. Rather, these people sell books because of their ability to blend a variety of cultural languages, to offer answers and explanations for suffering and uncertainty, and, ultimately, to offer the possibility of power and control in a world that often seems out of our own hands. Dismissing them as silly or marginal is to ignore why they are appealing — and that makes it hard to solve the problems they point to in other ways.

Matthew Bowman is Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University.

Matthew Bowman is the Howard W. Hunter Chair of Mormon Studies at Claremont Graduate University and the author of 2023′s “The Abduction of Betty and Barney Hill: Alien Encounters, Civil Rights, and the New Age in America” and 2012′s “The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith.”