In this episode, Mormon Matters host Dan Wotherspoon and panelists Brent Beal, Brian Johnston, and Jana Riess explore various aspects of one of Mormonism’s most regular (and sometimes it seems regulated) rituals: the monthly opportunity for church members to bear testimony. The discussion ranges from the nature of the expectation that those bearing testimony, including children, will focus on particular truth claims, to the peculiar way Mormonism encourages members to extrapolate from experiences of feeling “the spirit” within a gospel context to conclude that all other LDS claims are therefore true (and even that this is the “one and only” true church), to broader considerations about the expectation that spiritual journeying will end in an expected outcome. Panel members also share their own experiences of learning to appreciate fast and testimony meeting as empathetic listeners for others as well to authentically share their own testimonies.
After listening, we hope you’ll read and then contribute to a great discussion below!
Links to Brent Beal’s two “A Mormon in the Cheap Seats” posts that provided a springboard to this discussion: Build Out, Not Up and On Testimonies
Dan, I was dying to chime in last night and say that Marin (our 11-year-old) recently made a testimony glove at church! It was a surgical glove with little pictures representing the appropriate “know statement” taped on the top of each finger.
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Very enjoyable podcast. It’s got me thinking along lines I have pondered many times, and I’ve never really come to a conclusion that I’m comfortable with. Maybe this would be a good place to voice my quandary.
A. The Church is presumably an incubator for Saints to become more Saintly, to progress spiritually towards Christ-like living and being. Our testimonies should develop along lines taught by Alma and others, to some great level of spirituality such as 3rd Alma & Enoch (power over all the elements), or translation/being caught up into Heaven such as Melchizedek, Elijah or John the Beloved.
But if a Saint begins to have profound spiritual experiences, visions, etc., there seems to be no way to share or understand or contextualize or work through it in a Church setting, because:
B. In the Church since Joseph Smith Jr.’s times, we are taught to keep our experiences to ourselves. JS said “Let us be faithful and silent, brethren, and if God gives you a
manifestation, keep it to yourselves; be watchful and prayerful,
and you shall have a prelude of those joys that God will pour out
on that day, (HC 2:309)”
JS also did not offer any detailed account of how the translation of the BoM occurred, other than to say it was “by the power and gift of God.”
and J. Reuben Clark said:
“The Lord has taught me many things, and He would teach me many
more things if I could just learn to keep my mouth shut.”
..and think of the experience of speaking in tongues that was experienced in the Church form the mid 1840’s up until about the turn of the 20th century. It stopped because we didn’t feel comfortable doing it any more. Much like the sisters stopped giving blessings. AY!
I think it is a good idea, generally, to not discuss such visions or revelations because of the tendency of people to be prideful, to develop followings and set ourselves up as gurus of some sort. OTOH, I deeply regret that those who have exceptional experiences cannot share them in an LDS context, to both help people have faith and hope and an understanding that this *is* a living Church full of the Spirit AND to help the experiencer to make sense of such things in an LDS context, rather than searching elsewhere for understanding, such as occult or magick or some other tradition that does understand and talk about these things but without our standards and restraint, if you will.
So is there a balance that takes all this into account? Is there a way to work this out? Any ideas?
Good, insightful comments. I don’t have an answer. Agree a tremendously difficult balancing act.
Perhaps as a way to draw you out more, though, here’s something anyway: I’m reading more in you than in me a feeling that public sharing of specifics of spiritual experiences is more vital to helping someone than finding those opportunities when they might naturally arise in a private setting after much trust has been built such that this experience and its insights can be received in the proper spirit and without the tinge of force that the person listening must accept it in exactly the same way the first person received it or that the person sharing is indeed looking for followers. In short, I hear your quandary and acknowledge it, but are specifics shared from the pulpit really all that important? Would everyone or even a decent percentage be prepared to receive it and be at all be uplifted by such sharing? Also, is it your sense that it was simply member discomfort that ended speaking in tongues and prevents the sharing of specifics of someone’s exceptional experiences from having their place in today’s church?
Thanks for your response, Dan. I agree with “helping someone than finding those opportunities when they might naturally arise in a private setting” totally. I just wish there was an appropriate place or way to deal with the experience such that we could support each other through it all.
The Spirit speaking to and comforting our souls individually of course is the only sure way to do this, but we all are social beings and I think some peer support or commiseration would be nice. I know though that such an innocent beginning could easily morph into an out-of-control Gnostic Mormon sect, which I wouldn’t want.
From my perspective, it’s a lonely road.
Thanks back, Cliff. Love your additional clarification of “wish there was an appropriate place or way to deal with the experience such that we could support each other through it all.” Gorgeous. Poignant. I’m guessing for most in this situation this support can and will come available at some point, but most likely something one must really seek out. Not likely to come from an institution. And/or perhaps this may be just one of those experiences and dynamics that simply call for lament, that are mostly best acted upon by simply letting them sit on our hearts. Many things to learn from experiences like that, too.
Of course there is a balance. As members, we are entitled to receive PERSONAL revelation about our selves, not for the whole church. I don’t know where you attend but in my ward many many people will share their personal revelations. Sisters have not stopped giving blessing if there is no way for a priesthood holder to give it. I wasn’t around in the 1840’s so not sure why talking in tongues has stopped, also not positive that it has.
When you say testifying to specific beliefs can help you feel included in the group. I believe that is only when belief is very superficial. When you begin to understand that what you personally mean by believing something is true is very different than the rest of the group you this type of testifying that the brethren ask us to do makes us feel out of the group.
Similarly what does it mean to say something it true? Does any two people in our wards mean the same thing when they say I know or even I believe the church is true, or the book of Mormon of true, or that President Monson is a true prophet of god?
What is even useful in the act of testifying anyway? It seems that there would be much use in sharing what is transformitive in the teachings of the Book of Mormon, the teachings of the church, or the Prophet. I is not this a way to strart looking at what is in the back pack you are caring, by looking at the transfromitive theologies in the church?
Thanks, Gail. I think the panel discussed some things in all of these areas, but it’s great to get additional framings for more thought on them.
I-Tunes downloaded an old podcast and labled it 045. You may want to check on that. I was able to download it directly from this site.
The wrong one was linked to for about 5 mins, but I discovered the issue when I tested and quickly fixed the issue. I’m guessing you either downloaded during that window or your automatic iTunes sync grabbed it right then. The right one loads there now for sure.
Thanks for writing about this!
It kind of all sounds the same. I love the bishopric. I love you even if I don’t know you. I know the church is true.
From a psychological perspective of the formation of groups, the expression of testimonies can be a powerful way to reassure others of the “truth” of their own beliefs and thus, the soothing of their doubts. The problem is that testifying that something is true doesn’t make it so.
I had a list of other testimony styles (for fun) that I didn’t get to share based on the time schedule:
When someone manages to slip a really deep-doctrine tidbit into their otherwise boilerplate testimony, like testifying of the existence of our Mother in Heaven (most common), the location of Kolob, or perhaps waiting for the call for the saints to return to Adam-ondi-Ahman … stuff like that.
When someone starts testifying about the imminent end of the world and their plans for it.
The long list of things they are thankful for, and often forget to testify of anything like Jesus or the Restoration.
A Testament to Tragedy
The monthly update to tell everyone in the congregation how hard their life has been the past 4 weeks.
The monthly update on what has been happening in their life, often about places they have gone, especially common right after the large summer youth events like a Youth Conference, Trek or Camp.
My wife’s grandmother was never a member of the Church, and she was a funny, strong woman from rural Tennessee. My mother-in-law would try to drag her to Church every once in a while to get a little Jesus in her life, but she would always ask (hear with a bit of a southern drawl) “It ain’t Cryin’ Day is it? If it’s Cryin’ Day then I’m NOT GOING!” It was an amusing way to label it. I remember that fondly.
In response to Cliff
I have shared a number of significant spiritual experiences on rare occasions in what I consider to be appropriate settings – not testimony meetings. This has led to a number of challenging encounters with others and myself..
1. Individuals comment that you are in someway ‘special’ and come to you expecting answers to life’s difficult questions.
2. You start to believe you are ‘special ‘ and have the answers to all of life’s questions.
3. Certain members believe you have joined the crazy gang.
4. You come to realise you have joined the crazy gang.
5. You come to expect that these experiences will continue throughout your life.
6. When these experiences subside you begin to question if they are real or imaginary.
7. As an appendage to number six, you begin to question your worthiness.
8. In the end, you wish you had kept quiet.
9. Finally, you recognise that these spiritual experiences are not necessarilly faith promoting; though you often long for them coupled with a surety that they are true and testimony enhancing.
In conclusion as the saying goes: Sometimes it is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all possible doubt.
Thank you, Gandhi! Appreciate your openness and your wonderful ability to share your self-examination and striking insights so compellingly. Much, much to let sink in.
Thank you again, Gandhi!
I think the reason that many people feel a need to share these experiences is to assure others that they still happen. Unfortunately. as you have outlined, the end result is usually more or less than you expected. I have shared some of these experiences with my family and written them in my personal journal where they will be locked away most likely.
I have read that one may know when one is qualifying for the Celestial Kingdom when one is following the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. If the Holy Ghost inspires one to testify in Fast and Testimony Meeting or other places regardless of what may be said, me thinks one should let it fly, come what may.
Thanks for another great podcast! Prodded by MormonMatters #44, I downloaded several older podcasts from Sunstone which I am thoroughly enjoying. One in particular came to mind as I listened to this topic of testimony bearing. At the 2005 symposium, Tom Kimball leads off a discussion on “The Ethics of Doubt”. His raw and poignant remarks remind me that what troubles me most about the act of testimony bearing is that it is used as a marker of “allegiance” above all else. At least that has been my experience along the wasatch front. This has been difficult for me as I try to maintain my integrity in expressing my thoughts to my Bishop and SP. I feel like my attempts to be honest about what I “know” are viewed askance and as disloyalty to the church.
Does anyone ask God anymore if the church is true and if Thomas Monson is His true servant, or do people just want to talk about what they think?
It would be wonderful if people spent more time between themselves and God and and spent less time expressing and comparing opinions of the church.
Anything that leads a person to ask Him is useful. Anything that leads to more discussion is a useless.
One problem with this generation is it thinks google knows the answers.
Ah, but this generation knows it can get answers from google. This generation has an unprecedented amount of information at their fingertips and they are not afraid to use it.
Sometimes God does not answer in a clear way, if at all. If one person (you or anyone else) feels they have received concrete answers from God, great. I’m glad. For others the discussion is an important way to find those answers. When someone feels they receive an answer from God when they are young and have a limited grasp of the gospel should they not continue to investigate their religion? Should we not continue our search? For some it really doesn’t matter that there are things that don’t make complete sense or that their understanding is incomplete. For others, the investigation continues, perhaps for a lifetime. The discussion is not useless. It is the way to further understanding. If it were not so, we would not be subject to 3 hours of church on Sunday and countless other instructional activities during which discussion is an important part. Sure, quiet time for meditation, prayer, or introspection is important, but discussion is also. Do not discount any person’s search no matter how they choose to conduct it. Thank you, Mormon Matters, for continuing the discussion.
Why go to church at all if I can gain more merely by spending more time with God and less time talking to members? Have you spent time asking God if the Dalai Lama is God’s true servant? If the Pope is? Or are you so certain of your beliefs that you need not ask? I’m a professor (I know, I know…baggage) and my experience has shown that doubt breeds learning and experimentation, certainty stops knowledge and learning dead in its tracks. That seems contrary to the idea of eternal progression (an therefore learning or growing in knowledge) to me.
All this time I thought that curiosity promoted learning. Now I know from that it’s only doubt. Answers to prayer from the Holy Ghost or God I would suggest simply are answers that cannot be had by any other method. You will not find it in a book I am afraid even though book learning is good and necessary at times to promote asking. That is one reason why the Catholics and the Mormons do not believe that the scriptures and other books are not without error and are not a substitute for asking God in prayer.
When I ask God if the Dalai Lama or the Pope are His servants, I get the answer that they are. However, they are not the prophet that has the keys to the ordinances of Eternal Life and Salvation. I might add that all of Gods children here on the earth that are doing good are his servants regardless of denomination or creed. All good comes from God. The LDS are merely the facilitators of the Priesthood for the winding up scene here on earth.
How’s that for a testimony?
“Answers to prayer from the Holy Ghost or God I would suggest simply are answers that cannot be had by any other method.”
The biggest problem I see with this assertion is that it is purely anecdotal. Your answer is going to be different from my answer despite the fact that it is the same god to whom we are praying and, presumably, the same holy ghost that is supplying the answers. It is impossible to falsify one’s anecdotal experience.
“When I ask God if the Dalai Lama or the Pope are His servants, I get the
answer that they are. However, they are not the prophet that has the
keys to the ordinances of Eternal Life and Salvation. I might add that
all of Gods children here on the earth that are doing good are his
servants regardless of denomination or creed. All good comes from God.
The LDS are merely the facilitators of the Priesthood for the winding up
scene here on earth.”
A catholic that prays about whether or not the pope has the divine authority of god could well have a spiritual experience that makes them believe the catholic church is the one and only true church and the pope has the priesthood authority. Does that make it wrong? Nope. There is no way to prove their answer was wrong, nor is there any way to prove your assertions are right.
I appreciate your testimony, but that is all it is to me. I have had my own anecdotal experiences that may or may not jive with yours. Neither of us is wrong. Neither of us is right, either. Testimony is the voicing of our perceptions. I enjoy listening to others stories. People are fascinating. I must say, of all the meetings, fast and testimony meeting is the best. We have the opportunity to see into the souls of people. Unfortunately, with the advent of things like the testimony glove and guidance on what is acceptable, we are losing out on some of the true gems of spirituality. We should not use testimony meeting to stand on the rameumptum and say the same things the last guy said, we should have the opportunity to voice true spiritual experience and recognize that all people, have the right to their own perception of truth.
I guess that you have never experienced a Priesthood Blessing miracle? But then I guess that PBMs are not quite enough empirical evidence as most miracles can be explained away. However, why does it happen so frequently in the church?
At least that has been my experience, that it does.
I personally enjoy testimony meeting, simply because of the
human-ness of it all. It’s wonderful to have people share a portion of
their life experiences (yes, even travelmonies and even the little kids
who know that their parents love them; now that’s testifying of
something that someone knows is true) and relate how they have affected
them spritually. I have rarely heard a scripted talk where the speaker
actually speaks from their experiences and their hearts, so when someone
stands in F&T meeting ands shares part of their life experience, it
is actually refreshing. I get to know their personal context and gain
better love/empathy/etc. for them. I really think that it’s a horrible
shame that we get direction from corporate headquarters of what a
“valid” testimony is and that it should basically be the “glove” and
nothing else. It absolutely sucks the life out of personal expressions
of faith. Why stand at all, except to say that you affirm and are
marching to the same beat as everyone else.This
seems so empty.
What also seems funny is when I hear someone say
in F&T meeting that they “know” the glove stuff, and then I run into
them in the store or on the street and they tell me about a struggle
they might be having. I may say to them, “Well, luckily God is in
charge, so He is on your side and I’m sure it will work out.” Most
often their reply is “I hope so, this is really difficult”. Does this
sound like someone who really “knows”? You get the point.
biggest dislike of testimony meeting probably relates the semantics or
vocabulary that we use in the church. I’m not sure that all those
people standing and “testifying” really “know”. But what I am thinking
here is that in the book of Alma we learn that faith is supposed to take
you to “knowledge”, and then your faith is dormant. Yet, we are told
to walk by faith, and it is the fist principle of the gospel and I have
heard more talks on faith probably more than any other topic. Also,
biblically, we are told that those who believe in Christ will be saved,
not necessarily those who “know”. So why is so important culturally or
semantically to have to testify that we “know”? I would be perfectly
fine to hear someone in F&T meeting to simply say, I believe in
Jesus Christ and the gospel, and have everyone be accepting of that.
It’s been awhile, but I think that the temple recommend questions don’t
ask if you “know”, they simply ask, “Do you believe….” or, “Do you
Like you, I take my tablet computer with some good
reading on it and slip into something more meaningful when I get the
empty glove testimonies. I personally hope that F&T meeting can
still be a loosely run meeting with personality.
One other thoughtSo
why is it that corporate dictates what we should say as a “valid”
testimony without allowing room for the context? I mean, F&T
meeting would be nothing more that 36 “glove” recitations. Kind of
everyone chanting the same mantra. Why is it then, that the “special
witnesses” that “know” seem to be the only ones allowed to give long
recitations of experience or pithy story that precede their “special”
knowledge testimony. General Conference is or should be the ultimate
F&T meeting, considering that you have the 16 prophets, seers and
revelators who are supposed to give testimony to the world, yet we never
hear from them all. Perhaps they should each just stand in turn and
give their special “glove” testimony and sit down.Heresy? Sorry.
Thank you for this episode. I’m sure this wasn’t the easiest discussion to have. I like the perspectives of the various panelists, and it helped me to start reframing Mormon testimonies. I, like so many others, bristle at words like “know” and “true,” but now I have some new ways to consider what I hear.
— Thanks. I hear you.
Don’t want followers. Don’t want to be ‘crazy’. Don’t want elitism. Don’t want pride.
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I thought Brent’s comment about how people at our church reject the legitimacy of spiritual experiences at other churches. I guess that is true. Some do that. What I find oddest about that is I have had spiritual experiences at other churches myself. Would they reason that away with the idea that I am entitled to spiritual experiences anywhere because I am a member of the church? Hmmm….
Dan, would love a link to the Wayne Booth article you mentioned where he has dialogues with his former selves. Ro at least the title of the article so it can be googled. Thanks. Nice job everyone.
If he’s done it in an article or essay, I’m not aware of it. But here is a link to Amazon’s page about his autobiography in which he uses this literary device very effectively. http://www.amazon.com/My-Many-Selves-Plausible-Harmony/dp/0874216311
Loved this discussion.
Brent’s apprehension to participate really resonates with me; not knowing how to contribute without being disruptive or challenging others’s feelings and testimonies. But last testimony meeting, I stood up for the first time in more than 3 years. It happened because I had a strong desire to share what I would describe as my first new-order-mormon spiritual experience.
Reading Christian Smith’s book “Soul Searching” about a month ago I had a moment of pure peace and love over my decision to remain in the church with my husband and kids even as I wrestle with atheistic feelings. Smith’s research uncovered that LDS teens, more than any other teens, have “adults in life to turn to for support, advice, and help who are part of [their] religious congregation or youth group.” When I got up, I told my ward about what I’d read, and the intense love I felt for Young Women leaders who take care of my daughter in ways that I might not be able to.
Brent talked about not knowing how to share experiences without having a conclusive testimony moment. I struggle with that as well. Truthfully, it is what has kept me in my seat these last several years. But after sharing my feelings about Christian Smith’s research, I simply closed by saying something along the lines of, “it is my testimony that this church is a good place for my kids. This church is an especially good place for my teenage daughter to feel loved by other adults who care about her not because they are being paid to, but because they want to.”
It felt good to participate again.
Chanelle, Thank you for sharing your experience. I really liked your comments and they resonate with me. I love hearing people talk from the heart during Fast & Testimony meeting. I wish that it was more acceptable to express doubts, fears, and faith struggles at the pulpit. Thanks again for expressing your honest feelings no matter where you currenty fall on the faith spectrum.
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Chanelle, thanks for sharing your experience. I really appreciated it.
Bearing testimony is an important tool in the brainwashing of the cult that is the LDS church.
KISS (Keep it simple, Saint.) If you read the last paragraph of every conference talk since they started publishing them, you’ll see every testimony is a simple declaration no longer than a two or three sentence paragraph. Anything more than that strays from a testimony and becomes a facebook style confession of details most people reel from or could easily find difficult to relate to. Very seldom do long winded testimonies have the substance necessary to carry them off. Testimonies need to be brief, sincere witnesses of what you know to be true or what you believe if you haven’t been blessed with a sure knowledge yet.
Your testimony is public. The experiences that brought about your
testimony generally aren’t. They should be guarded as sacred, something special between you and
the Savior. Rarely did the Savior commission anyone to go and tell
everyone about the blessings received at His hand. Only if the Spirit
compels you to reveal the substance of your testimony, should you
mention much about it.
Christ didn’t seem to relish the public knowing much of his personal relationship with each of his followers unless there was a specific reason. Otherwise, most experiences should be treated as personal and sacred, best discovered in a journal after you die. Unless you feel compelled by the Spirit to spill your guts, you really aught to keep them to yourself or simply share them with your family and possibly friends.
Another issue in bearing testimonies is the risk that false witnesses can be borne or experiences are attributed to spiritual sources when they may have been coincidental or just part of the standard mortal experience.
Plus, it’s a delicate matter to protect a testimony meeting from strangers walking in off the street making declarations of their own interpretations of the truth as they see it. I’ve seen that happen more than once.
I agree that it would be nice to be able to share sacred experiences in a public LDS forum where Saints are of a like Mind & Heart. But the truth is, we are not this way. We have never been farther from being truly united with God as we are today, so it makes sharing these experiences in a public forum inapropriate. Just as I think it did in Joseph’s day when the members failed at their attempt to estalish Zion…The heavens were once again sealed and the eyes of the Prophets after Joseh, were closed. (No more Revelation ). We continue to rely only on what Joseph has given to esatbalish the Lord’s Church. But New Revelation is required to build the Lord’s Kingdom of Zion.
Since that time, there have been many tares sown among the wheat and far outnumber the wheat. This to me is why attempting to share such sacred experiences only causes most members butts to pucker, & therefore the increased admonition to keep these things to ourselves. We are surrounded by unbeleivers in these things.
I believe it will only be when there is a separation of the wheat from the tares in the church, that open disourse is able to resume. Because these things ARE beneficial to the Lord’s Children, but only for those who truly desire them. Zion will be built upon these Dreams & Visions of many righteous saints, but not until the separtion occurs, in my opionion. And New Revelation breaks forth in the form of a New Man like Moses.
I’ve been searching for church-related inspirational blogs/sites and I got here. Being able to visit a lot of different sites, I’ve been pretty doubtful since there are some which says they are Pro-LDS when they’re being the opposite. This site, I just can’t figure out yet.
I have to say I like the topic that you chose. Many members of the church bear their testimonies in a way that is quite, unnecessary. We have been taught by President Kimball that “a testimony is not an exhortation; a testimony is not a sermon (none of you are there to exhort the rest); it is not a travelogue.” Sadly, many members still do it that way. Nevertheless, I still love hearing their stories for they uplift me in one way or another.
Now, about your discussion proper, I found so many disagreeable things there.
First, it bothered me that the panelists stated they are against people saying that the Church is true. I’m not sure about the word they used. Did they used “disagree”? I forgot. But the idea is the same— they do not believe it is true or appropriate. WOW. That is totally confusing. You are all active in the church and you’re saying you don’t believe that this is “the only true and living church”?
Brothers and Sisters, you should definitely put down all the books you’re reading, calm the eagerness to know about the so-called deep doctrines, and invite a pair of missionaries in your home. Ask them about the apostasy and the restoration. They will teach it to you in the simplest way possible. And then, listen to them when they testify about the truthfulness of this church.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the restored church. Nowhere you can find the Priesthood power on this earth but in the Church. Seriously, you have a lot of “learning the basics” to do.
Also, yes, we can know if the Church is true through the Holy Ghost. Moroni 10:5. “…truth of all things.” Knowing the truth through prayer is not only limited for the Book of Mormon. I’m a member of the church because I did that. I asked Heavenly Father in prayer if the church is true and if Joseph Smith is a prophet of God. I received an answer. The investigators I taught received an answer. How? Doctrine and Covenants 8: 1-3.
I’ve taught a lot of people as a missionary and they’ve told us that they believe on the teachings of their church because it seemed true. They used logic and so-called facts. As members of the Church, we rely on the source of Wisdom. We asked and we received, we knocked and it was open to us. The Holy Ghost is the testifier of truth. That, I know. Know? Yes.