Sometimes I am uncomfortable with how we speak of testimony, especially in online Mormonism. Sometimes bloggers claim that we wrongly say “I know” when we can’t possibly know according to some arbitrary, supposedly scientific definition of “know,” but can only “believe” or “hope.” A less common and more extreme version of this narrow definition of testimony is the insistence that an apostle is not qualified to be a special witness of Christ until he has had a face-to-face encounter with the Savior, or even that it is possible and necessary for each of us individually to have a visitation of the Savior.
These faulty understandings of what a testimony is trivialize the experiences and convictions that cause us to bear witness of what we do know. After all, if you’re always waiting for an angel with a flaming sword to greet you on the path or a booming voice of thunder from heaven to declare the truth to you – both appeals to your natural senses – you may fail to recognize the more subtle appeals to your mind and heart and soul that are the sources of most true testimony.
But I’m also uncomfortable bearing direct testimony online very often – it isn’t what you expect when you come here, I can’t know who is reading or how you’re responding, and I prefer most often to let the testimonies of the historical record stand in for my own.
The experience of T. Edgar Lyon, for example, in recognizing that you do know:
T. Edgar Lyon (1903-1978) was a missionary, mission president (the Netherlands), holder of degrees from the University of Utah and University of Chicago, president of the Mormon History Association, and one of the finest professors the LDS Institutes of Religion ever had. I don’t think anyone who has ever read much of his writing can doubt either the sincerity of his faith or the quality of his intellect.
In 1940 Ed Lyon spoke to the Relief Society about why the sisters should study theology as an organization, and how learning to bear testimony in Relief Society would lead them both to recognize the power of their own testimonies and to help their children recognize budding testimonies. From his talk:
I think the young people today should have stronger testimonies than any of the generations of the Church who have gone before them, and I believe they are just as good if not better than any generation the Church has ever produced. They are living in a different world, one in which it is more difficult to secure a testimony or to maintain one. They are surrounded by educational systems that stimulate them to question, even at times to question experiences that have been vital religious forces in their lives. So they have to struggle against greater odds as they seek to gain their testimonies, and they need help to find expression and to find themselves.
Many of them, it seems to me, have a mistaken concept of a testimony. They have attended fast meetings and other meetings at which people have borne testimonies, and they seem to feel that a testimony is a fixed quantity or a specific amount of something, that it is something that you have or you do not have. They seem to feel that it will suddenly dawn upon one when he has it. They think that if they say they have a testimony they will not be telling the truth unless there has been something happen in their lives that has brought them to a realization of it; and they think, more often than not, that this should be something in the form of a miracle.
I think it has been a very common thing for many of our young missionaries in their farewell addresses to state that they do not have a testimony of the Gospel, but that they hope they will have one when they return. Personally, I believe that some of them are not telling the whole truth when they say they do not have a testimony. I think what they mean is that they have not yet been able to think their way through experiences and teachings so that they have the assurance that this is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I had that brought forcibly home to me through an experience that occurred during the trans-Atlantic voyage when we were on our way to the European mission field in the years shortly after the first World War. A group of missionaries from the Intermountain States were traveling to the various European missions. One of the missionaries in that party had stated that he had no testimony of the Gospel, but he hoped he would secure one in the mission field. The second night out, as a group of the missionaries were sitting in their deck chairs at the stern of the ship, a lady approached and commenced talking with them. In the two days of the voyage, she had become acquainted with most of them. She was a cultured refined woman from Richmond, Virginia, a member of one of the Protestant denominations of that city. Her husband was the senior member of the board of wardens that employed the pastors. She was a wealthy woman, and she had lost her only son in the World War. He was buried in France, and she was going over to visit his grave.
It so happened that one of the missionaries in the party had a striking resemblance to her son, and it was that which had attracted her to the group. She made a proposition to this young missionary. She said, “I have taken a great liking to you. I had all my hopes centered in my son, who is now dead. We had dreams of him becoming a minister in our church, and now he has been taken away. Our ambitions are about alike, and I do not see why you could not accept my proposition. I would like you to forego this venture you are going on, and I would like to send you to one of our seminaries to be trained as a minister. when you get through, I will guarantee that you will be employed in one of our finest churches. You may live at my home, and I will take care of you as though you were my own son.”
This missionary, who did not have a testimony, started telling the woman why he could not accept her offer. For about one and one-half hours he discussed all the doctrines and teachings of Mormonism, and gave some of the finest reasons one could think of as to why it was impossible for a Latter-day Saint to accept the proposition. As the boys were returning to their rooms that evening, one of the missionaries said to him, “I thought you did not have a testimony of the Gospel; why, you have been bearing it for one and one-half hours on the deck.” “Well, is that what you call a testimony!” Suddenly, there dawned upon this boy the realization that this thing he had been thinking of and mulling over in his mind and observing through all his years of study in the auxiliary organizations at home was in reality the stuff of which a testimony is made.
A testimony is not a static thing. It seems to be able to grow, to become stronger in assurance, more intense in conviction, and more powerful in spirit, or it may disintegrate, decline, depending upon the spirituality of the person who has the testimony. We need to bear in mind the thought that testimonies grow from experience. We find in the discourses of Brigham Young that he stated that he had come to believe that practically everything that he believed had come to him as a result of experiences. He had gained his testimony because of experience with spiritual values, through study of the Scriptures, through attendance at meetings, through prayer, through his preaching, through his baptism and confirmation, and through the Priesthood he bore; it came into his life through a series of experiences that gave to him the conviction with which he spoke. The testimony he had when he joined the Church was certainly different from the one he bore when the great Tabernacle was completed years later. His testimony was not lost during that time, but it had grown more intense and much broader because of his experiences during the many years he was prophet and leader of the Church.
I believe that our young people, in most cases, who are actively attending our church services, our auxiliary meetings, our young men who bear the Priesthood as deacons, teachers and priests, are actually, step by step, gaining a testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What they need, largely, is something to make them realize it. It may be a more intense experience of prayer. They have had the spirit of God conferred upon them by the process of confirmation, but they need to be awakened to the realization of the spiritual powers and forces that are theirs. Perhaps they need to be faced with some challenging circumstance that will make them realize that they have a testimony and help them to piece together these things. In many respects their testimony is something like a jig-saw puzzle – they have all the parts, but they need to sort them and put them together. When they have done so, they see the Restored Gospel of the Church of Jesus Christ, with its spiritual power, through the Holy Ghost. That is the experience that has come to their parents, their relatives and friends, and especially the prophets of the Church.
I believe as Latter-day Saints we fail to sense the problems our young people are facing. I often think we continue to believe that they must wait until some marvelous thing happens whereby this testimony becomes a reality. We need to teach them that testimonies grow constantly, that they grow step by step; and while the testimony of an eighteen-year-old might not be the same as the Church authorities’, nevertheless that testimony can be real as far as his experience and understanding are concerned. Our young people are heirs to these blessings because of membership in the Church, and the spirit of the Holy ghost is their heritage.