CES Reply: Testimonies

I apologize for the pause in posting here – lots going on at the moment. Picking up where I left off with my reply to Jeremy Runnell’s “Letter to a CES Director,” with Jeremy’s original words in green:

Testimony/Spiritual Witness Concerns & Questions:

Every major religion has members who claim the same thing: God or God’s spirit bore witness to them that their religion, prophet/pope/leaders, book(s), and teachings are true.

Hmmm. Are you sure about this? Because that’s not actually how non-LDS Christians tend to operate.

You’d be hard-pressed to find Catholic sermons where priests implore their parishioners to pray to know whether or not the Catholic church is true, or whether the Pope has been called of God. They rely on the weight of Catholic history and tradition and the argument of apostolic succession to establish their authority.

And while it’s true that Protestants emphasize a spiritual experience with Jesus, they, too, lean on arguments from authority when it comes to any specific theology. The a priori assumption is that the Bible is infallible, and biblical proof-texts take precedence over Mormon-style claims of spiritual confirmation.

Joseph Fielding McConkie on page 83 of his book “Here We Stand,” says that he has “frequently asked classes of returned missionaries if they ever met anyone who, while professing a belief in the Bible, could at the same time honestly say they prayed to know if it was true. I have yet to receive an affirmative response to that question.”

More McConkie, from the same book, pages 43 and 44:

An anti-Mormon book that uses the title God’s Word Final, Infallible, and Forever gives its readers three standards that, if followed, will assure that they will not be caught in the Mormon net. Each of these standards, we are to assume, is rooted in the Bible. First, as readers we are warned not to pray about the message; after all, it is reasoned, people have been deceived by their prayers. The second warning is not to trust our feelings, because, we are told, feelings can also be deceptive. The third warning is not to trust our minds, for “our minds are reprobate.” So, the book concludes, if we refuse to pray, to trust our feelings, and to use our minds, there is no chance the Mormons will get us. (That was the only conclusion in a lengthy book which I was able to agree.) What than are we to trust?

The answer is, of course, the Bible.

The premise that everyone has direct access to heaven and can – and should – receive personal revelation as confirmation of truth turns out to be a uniquely Mormon idea.

Just as it would be arrogant of a FLDS, Jehovah Witness, Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, or Muslim to deny a Latter-day Saint’s spiritual experience and testimony of the truthfulness of Mormonism, it would likewise be arrogant of a Latter-day Saint to deny their spiritual experiences and testimonies of the truthfulness of their own religion. Yet, every religion cannot be right together.

Have you ever had a Jehovah’s Witness bear their testimony to you? A Muslim? A Catholic? That’s just not how it works. Jehovah’s Witnesses will spend all day long citing Bible verses to build a legalistic case to support their position, but never in a million years would they interrupt their Bible bashing by saying something like, “I know the Jehovah’s Witnesses are true because the Spirit told me so.”

You’re looking at everything through a Mormon lens, and the frame of reference for other faiths is actually very different, which, I think, is due to the fact that they believe the scriptural canon is closed. There is no attempt to seek additional revelation because scripture, be it the Bible or the Koran, is all the revelation we will ever have or need, and it would be blasphemy to ask God for any more.

As for the FLDS, you may have a point, as they share a theological history with us. Except a shared theological history with the mainstream LDS Church hasn’t prevented the Community of Christ from abandoning any exclusive claims to truth. Mormons are actually far more unique here than you seem to realize.

LDS member in 2014: I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet. I know the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the one and only true Church. I know the Book of Mormon is true. I know that Thomas S. Monson is the Lord’s true Prophet today.

FLDS member in 2014: I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet. I know the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the one and only true Church. I know the Book of Mormon is true. I know that Warren Jeffs is the Lord’s true Prophet today.

RLDS member in 1975: I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet. I know the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is the one and only true Church. I know the Book of Mormon is true. I know that W. Wallace Smith is the Lord’s true Prophet today.

LDCJC member in 2014: I know that Joseph Smith was a true prophet. I know The Latter Day Church of Jesus Christ is the one and only true Church. I know the Book of Mormon and the Book of Jeraneck are true. I know that Matthew P. Gill is the Lord’s true Prophet, Seer, Revelator, and Translator today.

Where’s the Catholic testimony in your examples? The testimony of the Jehovah’s Witness or the Muslim? Your original premise was that all churches operate this way, yet you only use groups rooted in a common theology as your examples. You would never hear a Catholic, Protestant, Jew or Muslim bear this kind of testimony.

It’s also telling that you have to reach back to 1975 to find an example of what the RLDS would say, because a modern Community of Christ member surely wouldn’t speak this way.

That leaves us with the FLDS and the LDCJC, two tiny splinter groups rife with corruption, fraud, and pedophilia. Do I think we’re right and they are deceived? Absolutely.

Same method: read, ponder, and pray. 

That’s not the Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim method. In fact, for the centuries preceding Vatican II, the Catholics actively discouraged Bible reading in favor of study of church traditions.

Different testimonies. All four testimonies cannot simultaneously be true. This is the best God can come up with in revealing His truth to His children?

All four testimonies, huh? No more references to Muslim testimony meetings? You’re conceding here that the seeking of a testimony is a practice only rooted in the LDS tradition. 

But to answer your question – yes, this is the best God can come up with in revealing His truth to His children. We ask, and He answers. Of course, our access to heaven is predicated on our faith and our righteousness, so it shouldn’t be surprising that groups engaged in financial fraud and child rape are far less likely to gain that access and therefore far more likely to be deceived.

Only .2% of the world’s population are members of God’s true Church. This is God’s model and standard of efficiency?

No, this is God’s way of telling us we need to do our temple work, which will eventually provide 100% of the world’s population, past and present, with the opportunity to fully accept or reject the gospel. Mormons are astonishingly inclusive here in a way that no other religion can match.

Praying about the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon does not follow that the LDS Church is true. The FLDS also believe in the Book of Mormon. So do 20+ Mormon splinter groups. They believe in the divinity of the Book of Mormon as well.

And they are right to do so. In the case of the FLDS and the LDCJC, they are also engaged in grievous sin, which distorts their ability to have the companionship of the Holy Ghost. As for the other groups, they’re at varying levels of belief in the Book of Mormon. The Community of Christ has essentially downgraded it to the status of inspired fiction, and other groups have done the same.

Praying about the First Vision: Which account is true? They can’t all be correct together as they conflict with one another.

We covered this. They’re actually quite consistent with each other, and you see conflicts that aren’t there.

If God’s method to revealing truth is through feelings, it’s a pretty ineffective method.

That’s true, which is why this is only part of God’s method. D&C 8:2 gives us this promise: “Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost.” [Emphasis added.] Yes, the heart and its feelings are part of the equation, but they are also accompanied by the imparting of intelligence. Spiritual experiences are intellectual as well as emotional. Joseph Fielding McConkie used to say that the Lord has never given us a mindless revelation. Genuine spiritual experience sink deeply into every part of us, and they are far more profound than just warm fuzzies.

Perhaps the best example of this is Joseph Smith’s own experience in reading James 1:5. He describes his personal revelation in the following terms:

“Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did;” – Joseph Smith – History 1:12

There’s a powerful feeling here, yes, but there’s also deep intellectual engagement. “I reflected on it again and again.” The Spirit does not require you to leave your brain at the Church’s front door.

We have thousands of religions and billions of members of those religions saying that their truth is God’s only truth and everyone else is wrong because they felt God or God’s spirit reveal the truth to them.

If that’s truly the case, then you ought to provide the testimonies that demonstrate this. Outside of the LDS tradition, that’s not generally how other religions define their relationship with their church or with God.

Joseph Smith received a revelation, through the peep stone in his hat, to send Hiram Page and Oliver Cowdery to Toronto, Canada for the sole purpose of selling the copyright of the Book of Mormon, which is another concern in itself (why would God command to sell the copyright to His word?).

Perhaps because it could provide the fledgling Church with revenue in order to fulfill its mission. Same reason he asks us to pay tithing, really. 

Glad you got another mention of the rock in the hat in there, though. I was beginning to think you’d forgotten about it, as you’d gone several paragraphs without bringing it up.

The mission failed and the prophet was asked why his revelation was wrong.

Here’s the revelation in question. It’s hard to read, because it’s a direct transcription from the Joseph Smith Papers, complete with original spelling, grammar, and some digital detritus thrown in the mix:

Blessing2 & Behold I also covenanted with those who have assisted  him in my work that I will do unto them even the same3  Because they have done that which is pleasing in my sight  4(yea even all save M◊◊tin only5 it be one only) Wherefore be  dilligent in Securing the Copy right of my Servent work  upon all the face of the Earth of which is known by you  unto unto my Servent Joseph & unto him whom he willeth  accordinng as I shall command him that the faithful & the  righteous may retain the temperal Blessing as well as the  Spirit[u]al & also that my work be not destroyed by the workers  of iniquity to their own distruction & damnation when they  are fully ripe & now Behold I say unto you that I have coven anted & it Pleaseth me that Oliver Cowderey Joseph Knight Hyram  Page & Josiah Stowel shall do my work in this thing yea  even in securing the right & they shall do it with an eye single  to my Glory that it may be the means of bringing souls  unto me Salvation through mine only Begotten Behold I am  God I have spoken it & it is expedient in me Wherefor I say  unto you that ye shall go to Kingston6 seeking me continually  through mine only Begotten & if ye do this ye shall have my  spirit to go with you & ye shall have an addition of all things  which is expedient in me. & I grant unto my servent a privelige  that he may sell through you speaking after the manner of  men for the four Provinces7 if the People harden not their hearts against the enticeings of my spirit & my word for Behold it lieth in themselves to their condemnation & or to their salvation  Behold my way is before you & the means I will prepare  & the Blessing I hold in mine own hand & if ye are faithful  I will pour out upon you even as much as ye are able to  Bear & thus it shall be Behold I am the father & it is through  mine only begotten which is Jesus Christ your Redeemer amen [p. 31]”

Not sure if you can see the emphasis I added in there, but the revelation includes a phrase that this will be fulfilled only “if the People harden not their hearts against the enticeings [sic] of my spirit & my word.” The people hardened their hearts, and so the copyright wasn’t sold, and the revelation wasn’t wrong. Pretty straightforward.

Joseph decided to inquire of the Lord regarding the question. The following is a quote from Book of Mormon witness David Whitmer’s testimony:

“…and behold the following revelation came through the stone: ‘Some revelations are of God; and some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil.’ So we see that the revelation to go to Toronto and sell the copy-right was not of God, but was of the devil or of the heart of man.”
– David Whitmer, An Address to All Believers in Christ, p.31

Testimony written 57 years after the fact when Whitmer was deeply disaffected with Joseph Smith and was providing reasons why Joseph should be seen as a fallen prophet. (Tangentially, this 57-years-later testimony is also our main source for the rock-in-the-hat story you love so much, and its late date and Whitmer’s disaffection are the reasons the McConkies and the Joseph Fielding Smiths of the world reject the hat/stone idea.)

Whitmer didn’t participate in going to Canada, and accounts from those who accompanied Joseph on the trip contradict Whitmer’s opinion. The contemporaneous document makes it clear that the Lord told Joseph that the people of Canada had a say in whether or not the copyright would be sold. Whether or not Joseph actually said what Whitmer says he said does not change the fact that the actual outcome was consistent with the revelation.

How are we supposed to know what revelations are from God, from the devil, or from the heart of man if even the Prophet Joseph Smith couldn’t tell? 

That’s an outstanding question. The fact is that we each have an individual responsibility to discern truth from error. “By the power of the Holy Ghost, ye may know the truth of all things.” (Moroni 10:5) That’s a promise given to all, not just prophets.

What kind of a god and method is this if Heavenly Father allows Satan to interfere with our direct line of communication to Him? Sincerely asking for answers?

I don’t accept the premise of your question, as it’s based on the idea that the revelation re: the Canadian copyright came from the devil, which I don’t believe it did. I will say, however, that the Lord never interferes with agency, and people can receive “answers” that conveniently coincide with the answers they wanted or expected, which is a case of mistaking their own desires for the will of God. 

I do, however, believe that when our hearts are pure and we are truly sincere, the Lord’s voice will cut through any attempts by Satan to stifle it.

5. As a believing Mormon, I saw a testimony as more than just spiritual experiences and feelings. I saw that we had evidence and logic on our side based on the correlated narrative I was fed by the Church about its origins. I lost this confidence at 31-years-old when I discovered that the gap between what the Church teaches about its origins versus what the primary historical documents actually show happened, what history shows what happened, what science shows what happened…couldn’t be further apart.

And yet here I am, still a believing Mormon who has looked at all the same documents that you have, and I still see we have evidence and logic on our side, as well as spiritual confirmation of that truth. How is that possible? Maybe it’s because at every opportunity to interpret that same evidence, you take the point of view that is the most critical of Joseph and the Church and refuse to give the LDS argument the benefit of any doubts.

I read an experience that explains this in another way:

“I resigned from the LDS Church and informed my bishop that the reasons had to do with discovering the real history of the Church. When I was done he asked about the spiritual witness I had surely received as a missionary. I agreed that I had felt a sure witness, as strong as he currently felt. I gave him the analogy of Santa; I believed in Santa until I was 12. I refused to listen to reason from my friends who had discovered the truth much earlier…I just knew. However, once I learned the facts, feelings changed. I told him that Mormons have to re-define faith in order to believe; traditionally, faith is an instrument to bridge that gap between where science, history and logic end, and what you hope to be true. Mormonism re-defines faith as embracing what you hope to be true in spite of science, fact and history.”
And far be it from me to second-guess someone else’s experience. What’s interesting, though, is how critical you are of those who bear their testimonies when confronted with difficult information, yet that’s exactly what you’re doing here. This person is bearing their testimony of the untruthfulness of the Gospel. It’s impossible to argue with a testimony, which may be why so many people, when backed into a corner, toss that out as the best they can do.

For my part, all I can say is that my experience has been markedly different than this one, and I don’t believe for one second that Mormons “have to re-define faith in order to believe.” I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one.

Tomorrow: Following the Spirit

CES Reply: Kinderhookin'
CES Reply: Following the Spirit

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