Does the Mormon's personal testimony prove the LDS Church is true?

En Espanol

The following article was taken from chapter 27 of Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson’s newest book Answering Mormons’ Questions: Ready Responses for Inquiring Latter-day Saints (Kregel, 2013). Click on link to order directly from Amazon.

Latter-day Saints generally believe their ability to discern doctrinal truth comes through a “personal testimony,” which is also known as a “burning in the bosom.” There are several passages Mormons reference, but most prominent is James 1:5 in the New Testament. This was a pivotal verse for Mormonism’s founder Joseph Smith, who claimed that he prayed to God for wisdom when he was fourteen years old. James 1:5 says,

“If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.”

The official First Vision account says that Smith’s prayer was answered in 1820 as he knelt in the woods near his upstate New York home. Located in the last chapter of the Book of Mormon, Moroni 10:4 also is regularly referenced by Mormon missionaries. It says,

“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”

An investigator is told that, through prayer, God will help a person understand that Mormonism really is true. Doctrine and Covenants 9:8 reads,

“But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it is right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.”

While Mormon testimonies will vary, they often sound very close to the following: “I testify to you that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, that the Book of Mormon is a true history of ancient America, and that Christ’s restored church is led by a true and living prophet.” Even when confronted with information that is contrary to their belief system, many Mormons remain firm in their faith by clinging to their subjective feelings.

Tad R. Callister, a member of the Presidency of the Seventy, told this story at the end of a general conference address:

Some years ago I attended one of our worship services in Toronto, Canada. A 14-year-old girl was the speaker. She said that she had been discussing religion with one of her friends at school. Her friend said to her, “What religion do you belong to?” She replied, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons.” Her friend replied, “I know that church, and I know it’s not true.” “How do you know?” came the reply. “Because,” said her friend, “I have researched it.” “Have you read the Book of Mormon?” “No,” came the answer. “I haven’t.” Then this sweet young girl responded, “Then you haven’t researched my church, because I have read every page of the Book of Mormon and I know it’s true.” (“The Book of Mormon—A Book from God,” Ensign, November 2011, 76.)

Notice how the Mormon girl’s subjective feeling outweighed her friend’s research. Did the Mormon girl in this story ask her friend to see what she found? Callister doesn’t say. The conclusion is that it is somehow heroic to allow feelings to take precedence over investigation.

Setting the Test’s Parameters

While it is important to be respectful to our Latter-day Saint friends and not minimize their experiences, we need to point out that the rules have been rigged since the prayer’s request really has but one answer. After all, the investigator who declines the invitation to pray may be accused of not believing in prayer. On the other hand, those who agree to pray but don’t receive the “right” answer will probably be thought of as not having a sincere heart, real intent, or adequate faith. In response to the question “Shouldn’t Moroni’s promise always work” with someone who “has not received a testimony of its truthfulness?”

Daniel Ludlow, the director of LDS Church Correlation Review, confirms this suspicion:

God cannot and does not lie, and his promises made through his prophets are sure. Therefore, any person who claims to have followed the various requirements but says he has not gained a testimony should check to see which step he has not followed faithfully or completely:

He should read and ponder the Book of Mormon—all of it.

He should remember the methods God has used in working with the peoples of both the Book of Mormon and the Bible—and ponder these things in his heart.

He should put himself in a frame of mind where he would be willing to accept (receive) all of “these things”—the Book of Mormon, the Bible, and the way God works with men.

“With a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ,” he should ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Jesus Christ “if these things are not true.”

He should be able to recognize the promptings and feelings which will be evidences to him of the truth of “these things” (including the Book of Mormon) as they are made manifest unto him “by the power of the Holy Ghost.”

There is a psychological edge that the Mormon missionaries have when someone agrees to their challenge. After all, the investigator may eventually get the “right” answer in an attempt to please the missionaries, close family members, or friends who have come to the same conclusion. In the end, one’s good feelings may win the day, even if the object of the prayer is false.

It should be noted that Joseph Smith disregarded the immediate context of James 1:5, which speaks of gaining wisdom, not knowledge. Wisdom is the proper application of knowledge. In this verse James tells his Christian audience to ask God for wisdom when they are undergoing trials and temptations, not for testing various truth claims.(See James 1:3-4, 12-15 to understand the context.) First John 4:1 tells believers to “try [test] the spirits.” Why? Because many false prophets have gone out into the world. The Bereans in Acts 17:11 were considered noble because they “searched the scriptures daily” and tested Paul’s words against what God had already revealed. In other words, Christians are to test all truth claims with the Bible, not with subjective experiences, even if that experience involves a supernatural “vision.”

When a Mormon friend brings up Moroni 10:4 in a conversation, you might ask your acquaintance whether his or her feelings have always been accurate. At one time or another, all of us have been fooled by our feelings, no matter how sincere we might have been. For example, Mormons believe that marriage is not only for life but also for eternity. Should it be assumed that the many Mormon couples who are divorced did not pray about their relationships beforehand? Surely knowing information about another person that could have exposed potential behavior problems—such as drug addiction, sex addiction, pornography issues, inward apathy to God, or repressed anger—would have helped with making a more informed decision.

Yet how many Mormons must have “felt” God’s approval in relationships that were tragically doomed from the beginning? The Bible makes it very clear that subjective feelings can be deceptive. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?” Proverbs 14:12 warns, “There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death,” while Proverbs 28:26 adds that only fools trust in their heart. Because everyone is a fallen and sinful creature, it is possible to be swayed by emotions and desires. To believe something is true merely because one feels it to be true is no guarantee of truth. Jesus commanded His followers in Mark 12:30 to love God “with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.”

Paul explained in 2 Timothy 2:15 that the believer must make the effort to study in order to correctly understand truth. In the next chapter (3:16–17), he added that all Scripture given by inspiration of God is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” so that the man or woman of God might be competent and equipped to do good works. Christians are commanded in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 to “prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” While it is true that faith does involve believing things that can’t be proven, it is foolishness to believe something that has already been disproven. If the Bible disproves a spiritual truth claim, it must be rejected.

If praying about the Book of Mormon is the means for finding truth, shouldn’t this test also apply to other religious books? It is curious how very few Mormons have taken the time and effort to read (and pray about) the scriptures of other religions. Using the rationale that people should pray about Mormonism’s scripture, why shouldn’t every religion’s scriptures—such as the Qu’ran (Islam), the Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita (Hinduism), and the Tripitaka (Buddhism)—also be read and contemplated through prayer? How can the Mormon know the accuracy of Mormonism until he or she personally tests all religions in this way?

Though we should most certainly use prayer to guide us in our search for truth, it should not be the only litmus test. Hopefully, prayer will lead us to the information we need in order to make an informed and proper decision.

MRM offers a free study guide with the book Answering Mormons’ Questions that can be helpful for the leader of a group book study. See here.