A casual study of websites and books that seek to discredit or expose The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints shows that these polemics usually fall into one of two broad categories. The first is the outlandish claim, statements such as "Mormons have horns that come out in the moonlight," or "Mormon missionaries kidnap women and carry them off in secret tunnels to their conclaves in Utah." In today's society, most people can quickly dismiss such statements and recognize their silliness.
The second general category is much trickier to understand and is one that has confused some faithful members of the Church and is a prime reason why a few choose to leave. This is the "because of statement X or event Y, I’ve decided the Church is not true" category. While the specifics vary, at the core of these questions is a misunderstanding regarding the following:
1. What is doctrine and what is the role of the General Authorities in the Church?
2. What is a testimony and what must be done to keep it?
What is doctrine?
So what is the true “doctrine” of the Church?
In the October 2012 General Conference, Elder Neil Anderson of the Twelve reaffirmed the definition of doctrine. He stated, “There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find.” This is not a new concept, but it is the core to understanding much of the problems brought up by those seeking to discredit the Church.
A statement spoken or written by a member of the Church, even if that person happens to be a presiding authority in the Church, does not necessarily make it a pronouncement, or even correct explanation, of doctrine. Elder McConkie was free to write whatever he chose to in his book Mormon Doctrine, but the members of the Church are not bound to follow it or even agree with it.
Let's take a look at an example of this. Floating around the Internet are various versions of statements supposedly made by Joseph Fielding Smith stating his opinion that man would never land on the moon. It appears true that this was his opinion for several years. In the first edition of his book Answers to Gospel Questions he wrote, “… it is doubtful that man will ever be permitted to make any instrument or ship to travel through space and visit the moon or any distant planet.”
Later, following the Apollo moon landings and the death of President David O. McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith became president of the Church. At a press conference following his assumption of Church leadership, he was asked by a reporter about this statement. President Smith replied, “Well, I was wrong, wasn't I?”
But I thought the prophet was infallible?
This quote, and others like it, get much publicity as a “smoking gun,” interpreted by some as sure evidence that the men we sustain as prophets, seers, and revelators are nothing of the sort. But, this implies a false standard that does not exist. If the question of revelation as applied to the Church leaders leads one to believe that the Lord will not allow his Church to be led astray in any minute-by-minute sense or that the Church leaders are never wrong in their opinions, then infallibility is being claimed for the Church and its leaders in a way that they would never claim for it or for themselves.
Humans are, by definition, human. We are all entitled to our opinions, thoughts, and biases. If, in the late 50’s, Joseph Fielding Smith thought that man would never make it into space, it only “proves” that he was a mortal man with the opinions and biases that all of us have.
“But wait,” some of our detractors say, “what about statements concerning doctrine made by your prophets?” A few may question their faith when they find a statement made by a Church leader decades ago that seems incongruent with Church doctrine. Let’s go back to what has been taught since Joseph Smith and was recently restated by Elder Neil Anderson in October 2012. “The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find.”
The leaders of the Church are honest but imperfect men. Remember the words of Moroni in The Book of Mormon, “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father … ; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.”
So, if 150 years ago Brigham Young made various statements regarding the so called “blood atonement,” statements that have not been repeated before or since, it does not mean the Church ever had this as official doctrine. If, on the other hand, he or any other Church leader made a statement that has since been repeated and taught by the other members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, and those statements are published and repeated frequently by subsequent Church leaders, then you know you have found true doctrine.
Can church leaders be fooled?
Along the same lines is the idea that if a Church leader ever does something foolish then he/she is obviously not inspired of God. One unusual public issue that affected the Church was the Mark Hofmann bombing case in Salt Lake City in October 1985. Beginning in 1980, Hofmann had sold, donated, or traded numerous documents that he alleged were connected with historical events of the Church. Then in October 1985, homemade bombs tragically killed two innocent individuals. A third bomb a day later severely injured Hofmann.
After a year of uproar in the press concerning the documents, document dealing, and responsibility for the bombings, Hofmann was indicted. As part of a plea bargain arrangement, Hofmann confessed to having forged the documents and to having committed these murders as a diversion from his fraudulent dealings. He was sent to the Utah State Penitentiary. Elder Dallin H. Oaks explained, “These forgeries and their associated lies grew out of their author’s deliberate attempt to rewrite the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
From the beginning, Church leaders had expressed caution about the documents. As Elder Oaks reminded, “President Gordon B. Hinckley repeatedly cautioned that the Church did not know whether these documents were authentic.” At a CES symposium, Elder Oaks stated, “The news media are particularly susceptible to conveying erroneous information about facts, including historical developments that are based on what I have called scientific uncertainties. This susceptibility obviously applies to newly discovered documents whose authenticity turns on an evaluation of handwriting, paper, ink, and so on. As readers we should be skeptical about the authenticity of such documents, especially when we are unsure where they were found or who had custody of them for 150 years.”
At the conclusion of the Hofmann trial, the Church’s Public Communications Department issued a statement that read, in part,
“We extend again our heartfelt sympathies to the families and associates of all whose lives have been so deeply affected by the bombings and related events of the past months. It is our hope that the healing process may now be hastened for those who have suffered these tragedies. … Like other document collectors throughout the nation, the Church has relied on competent authorities in document acquisition and with the others has been a victim of the fraudulent activities which have now been acknowledged in the courtroom.”
These events were greatly exaggerated by the news media of the day, and those embellishments have been repeated many, many times, so much so that the errors are reported as the truth, instead of the other way around. But, at the end of the day, one core truth remains. The Historical Department of the Church purchased or traded for some 47 forged documents. Surely, some argue, if this church was really guided by revelation then none of this would have happened.
But why would the Lord allow this to happen?
For better or for worse, the Lord is raising and teaching the leaders of the Church just as much as He is any of the rest of His children. And they have and will continue to make mistakes. Are these mistakes substantially deleterious in any saving sense to the Church or its members? No. Are they of value in the tutoring of both individuals and the Church, helping to prepare each soul for eternal life? Absolutely. Let us note again that neither the Lord nor his leaders has ever claimed that the Church--or its leaders--would be infallible, only that its saving works would be efficacious, or "true."
It is remarkable to me to watch the operations of the Church and to see the inspiration and guidance of the Lord at work even in small things on a day-to-day basis. But, since the days of Joseph Smith and on into the present, the Church has been administered by real people doing the best they know how and seeking the guidance of the Spirit with varying success and attentiveness--and mistakes have been, are being, and will continue to be made by the sincerely striving but imperfect mortals involved. And, the Lord will allow such tutoring for the sake of, not at the expense of, our salvation. That there are mistakes is not the question; that there are so few in an organization so large, so multicultural, so expensive, and so very personal in its reach is quite extraordinary, I believe, and witness to the Divine inspiration involved.
If the Church does not claim to be infallible, how can we believe it is true? What the Church does claim is that its doctrine, scriptures, priesthood authority, ordinances and prophetic leadership are valid and reliable in time and eternity to lead mankind to eternal life. In my mind, that is exactly the kind of truth we should all be looking for.
So what is a "testimony" and how do I get one?
So, humans are fallible, and doctrine is a true principle taught unitedly by those we sustain as apostles and prophets. Understanding those principles can help a sincere seeker of truth understand many of the supposed problems with events in Church history. But what about the hundreds of little things that can cause testimonies to be weakened? The snide remarks, the pride, the hurt caused by the actions of others? Instead of focusing on specific examples, let’s explore some general truths that can be applied to many, if not most, of these situations.
In the October 2012 General Conference, Elder Bednar taught the following regarding testimony and conversion. “My message focuses upon the relationship between receiving a testimony that Jesus is the Christ and becoming converted to Him and His gospel. Typically, we treat the topics of testimony and conversion separately and independently. However, we gain precious perspective and greater spiritual conviction as we consider these two important subjects together.” He then referenced the conversation between Christ and Peter wherein Christ asked, “Whom say ye that I am?” and Peter replied, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15–17).
As is evidenced in Peter’s reply and the Savior’s instruction, a testimony is personal knowledge of spiritual truth obtained by revelation. A testimony is a gift from God and is available to all of His children. Any honest seeker of truth can obtain a testimony by exercising the necessary “particle of faith” in Jesus Christ to “experiment upon” (Alma 32:27) and “try the virtue of the word” (Alma 31:5), to yield “to the enticings of the Holy Spirit” (Mosiah 3:19), and to awaken unto God (see Alma 5:7). Testimony brings increased personal accountability and is a source of purpose, assurance, and joy.
Seeking for and obtaining a testimony of spiritual truth requires asking, seeking, and knocking (see Matthew 7:7; 3 Nephi 14:7) with a sincere heart, real intent, and faith in the Savior (see Moroni 10:4). Fundamental components of a testimony are knowing that Heavenly Father lives and loves us, that Jesus Christ is our Savior, and that the fullness of the gospel has been restored to the earth in these latter days.
But how does one “know” that these things are true? A common thread among the Internet postings of those who have left the Church is the idea that it is either impossible to “know” things simply by a feeling or, perhaps most common, that the “poor ignorant members of the Church” claim to know something but don’t “know” anything. They contend that if Church members would study the “real,” “secret,” and “hidden” history, then they would realize that what they “know” is false and based on a lie.
The arrogance of the second part is particularly offensive to the many, many well-educated members of the Church who have devoted their lives to the pursuit of knowledge by study and also by faith and who love the Church not in spite of their education but because of it. These members recognize that testimonies, or a sure knowledge and witnesses of the divinity of this work, don’t come from earthly studies or philosophies. Instead, testimonies come from careful experimentation, hypothesis, and continued growth. They become converted to the gospel after they try living it and find its fruits to be good, not before.
Some claim that when members say they “know the Church is true” based on a feeling that this testimony is based only on an emotional response and is, therefore, not grounded on anything “solid.” And they are partially correct in the assumption that emotional responses to events are not a solid foundation for a factual claim. However, when members of the church speak of testimony they generally are not speaking of a purely emotional event. Unfortunately, in the Church, we often describe our spiritual experiences with words that can be misleading to those who have not had, or who have forgotten, sacred spiritual experiences. We talk about light, joy, happiness, burning, etc. These might be the same words used by some to describe the euphoria felt when a favorite sports team wins a championship or when one watches an effective feel-good movie. .
While the words may be the same, the feelings and experiences behind those words are very different. Similar to the challenge of describing salt to those who have never tasted it, describing to others the act of receiving revelation or promptings from the Holy Ghost can be difficult. To have these experiences and understand what is meant by the words used, one must first act, and then continue to act, in a way consistent with the teachings of the Savior.
My testimony is not very strong. How can I get it back to where it used to be?
Elder Bednar taught, “The essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ entails a fundamental and permanent change in our very nature made possible through the Savior’s Atonement. True conversion brings a change in one’s beliefs, heart, and life to accept and conform to the will of God (see Acts 3:19; 3 Nephi 9:20) and includes a conscious commitment to become a disciple of Christ.”
“Conversion is an enlarging, a deepening, and a broadening of the undergirding base of testimony. It is the result of revelation from God, accompanied by individual repentance, obedience, and diligence. Any honest seeker of truth can become converted by experiencing the mighty change of heart and being spiritually born of God (see Alma 5:12–14). As we honor the ordinances and covenants of salvation and exaltation (see D&C 20:25), “press forward with a steadfastness in Christ” (2 Nephi 31:20), and endure in faith to the end (see D&C 14:7), we become new creatures in Christ (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). Conversion is an offering of self, of love, and of loyalty we give to God in gratitude for the gift of testimony.”
“For many of us, conversion is an ongoing process and not a onetime event that results from a powerful or dramatic experience. Line upon line and precept upon precept, gradually and almost imperceptibly, our motives, our thoughts, our words, and our deeds become aligned with the will of God. Conversion unto the Lord requires both persistence and patience.”
This is by divine design. If we had all the answers on Day One, we would have no room to grow. No chance to make mistakes, learn from our mistakes, and then become better people. This process of conversion and “knowing” takes a lifetime of dedicated effort and concentrated actions. President Uchtdorf , when talking about this process said, “How do we do this? By following the example of the Savior, by incorporating His teachings in our daily lives, by truly loving God and our fellowman. We certainly cannot do this with a dragging-our-feet, staring-at-our-watch, complaining-as-we-go approach to discipleship.”
“When it comes to living the gospel, we should not be like the boy who dipped his toe in the water and then claimed he went swimming. As sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, we are capable of so much more. For that, good intentions are not enough. We must do. Even more important, we must become what Heavenly Father wants us to be.”
“Declaring our testimony of the gospel is good, but being a living example of the restored gospel is better. Wishing to be more faithful to our covenants is good; actually being faithful to sacred covenants—including living a virtuous life, paying our tithes and offerings, keeping the Word of Wisdom, and serving those in need—is much better. Announcing that we will dedicate more time for family prayer, scripture study, and wholesome family activities is good; but actually doing all these things steadily will bring heavenly blessings to our lives.”
“Discipleship is the pursuit of holiness and happiness. It is the path to our best and happiest self.”
And, therein lies the secret to knowing. Knowing requires doing. Doing leads us to increased understanding and happiness. This is why questions (as defined in the previous section) get answers and doubts do not. Once you cut yourself off from the Lord by refusing to obey Him, He can’t bless you.
President Uchtdorf continues, “Brothers and Sisters, if you are struggling with your testimony for any reason, there is a way back. We must humble ourselves, give up our pride and forgive those around us. Let us resolve to follow the Savior and work with diligence to become the person we were designed to become. Let us listen to and obey the promptings of the Holy Spirit. As we do so, Heavenly Father will reveal to us things we never knew about ourselves. He will illuminate the path ahead and open our eyes to see our unknown and perhaps unimagined talents.”
“The more we devote ourselves to the pursuit of holiness and happiness, the less likely we will be on a path to regrets. The more we rely on the Savior’s grace, the more we will feel that we are on the track our Father in Heaven has intended for us.”
Then we can again stand up and with the full power of God testify that we know of His truths because of the results of the experiments we performed.