The Mormon Testimony and Wishful Thinking

By Sharon Lindbloom
25 July 2017

At the Mormon Church’s 2017 Seminar for New Mission Presidents last month, LDS apostle D. Todd Christofferson spoke on the power of the Book of Mormon in converting people to Mormonism. In his remarks, Mr. Christofferson told the story of a returned missionary who was struggling with his faith after learning of several conflicting accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision. In an effort to comfort the doubter, according to LDS Church News,

“The apostle…told the young man that with a testimony of the Book of Mormon, he need not be unsettled or feel his faith had been shaken.

“ ‘I was shocked to hear him say that he didn’t know that the Book of Mormon was true,’ he said. ‘How is it possible that a faithful, successful missionary could not have received that witness? . . . Presidents, Sisters, please don’t let this happen with any of your missionaries. Be sure that each one does what is necessary so that he or she does not leave the mission without a sure conviction of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and all that implies.’”

Mr. Christofferson’s counsel is really interesting. He wants to be sure missionaries do not leave their missions without having gained a testimony that the Book of Mormon is true. But by the time Mormon missionaries leave their missions they have already spent between 18 months and two years asserting the truthfulness of the book while using that assertion to convince people that Mormonism is true as well. Wouldn’t it be more prudent – and honest – for a missionary to gain a testimony of the Book of Mormon before telling potential converts that it’s true? What was Mr. Christofferson thinking?

The story he told was about a young man who was struggling with his Mormon faith. It seems that Mr. Christofferson believes a testimony of the Book of Mormon is an anchor that will secure a doubting Latter-day Saint to the Church. So perhaps his counsel to make sure missionaries believe the Book of Mormon is true, before going home, reflects his concern for member retention. Even so, it seems odd that a Mormon Church leader is apparently untroubled at the idea of a missionary testifying of something he doesn’t actually believe.

But then, this idea isn’t new within LDS leadership. At another Seminar for New Mission Presidents, this one in 1982, apostle Boyd K. Packer taught,

“It is not unusual to have a missionary say, ‘How can I bear testimony until I get one? How can I testify that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that the gospel is true? If I do not have such a testimony, would that not be dishonest?’

“Oh, if I could teach you this one principle. A testimony is to be found in the bearing of it! Somewhere in your quest for spiritual knowledge, there is that ‘leap of faith,’ as the philosophers call it. It is the moment when you have gone to the edge of the light and stepped into the darkness to discover that the way is lighted ahead for just a footstep or two…

“It is one thing to receive a witness from what you have read or what another has said; and that is a necessary beginning. It is quite another to have the Spirit confirm to you in your bosom that what you have testified is true.” (“The Candle of the Lord,” Ensign, January 1983)

In the case of the above-mentioned returned missionary, evidently the Spirit did not confirm that what he was testifying was true, and Mr. Packer did not address the question of whether bearing a testimony when you don’t actually have one is “dishonest.” Like Mr. Christofferson, he seemed to be more concerned about the missionary gaining a testimony than whether the missionary was telling investigators the truth.

Yet another LDS apostle has encouraged Mormons to freely give false testimony, indicating that this might even be the best way for someone to get his or her own personal testimony:

“Another way to seek a testimony seems astonishing when compared with the methods of obtaining other knowledge. We gain or strengthen a testimony by bearing it. Someone even suggested that some testimonies are better gained on the feet bearing them than on the knees praying for them.” (Dallin Oaks, “Testimony,” General Conference, April 2008)

At last April’s General Conference, LDS leaders “testified” to various “truths” at least twenty-five times. Another five “bore witness” of one point or another. How are these testimonies to be understood? Past LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley taught,

“This testimony is now, as it has always been, a declaration, a straightforward assertion of truth as we know it.” (“My Testimony,” Ensign, May 2000, 70–71 as cited in Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Gordon B. Hinckley, 2016, Chapter 9 [see commentary by Eric Johnson])

Given the counsel Mormons have been provided by some of their spiritual leaders, I’m not convinced. It seems to me that a Mormon testimony has a pretty good chance of being nothing more than wishful thinking — perhaps merely an attempt by the testifier to convince himself that Mormonism is true. So when a Latter-day Saint insists that he or she knows the Book of Mormon is the Word of God, or knows Joseph Smith was and is a true prophet, or knows the LDS Church is God’s true church on the earth, there’s no reason to believe that personal testimony is firmly rooted in the heart and mind of the bearer. Such a testimony provides Christians with a great opportunity to challenge that wishful thinking with God’s truth — and to point Mormons to the One who not only knows the truth, but who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6).