There was yesterday a New York Times article that was interesting to read as it tried to discuss what was seen as a growing trend of Mormons who are doubting their faith after researching the Church and its history online. I do not want to discuss the specific members discussed and quoted in this article — it is not my place to judge another person’s testimony or what causes them to doubt what they believe — but I do want to discuss some aspects of faith and doubting and what I feel can and should be done when people who want to believe are presented with issues that seem to contradict what they have believed and attempt to shake their faith.
First, (and this is just me personally, I do not wish this to be taken as any sort or form of official Church doctrine) I find that I make a distinction in my mind and in my conversations between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Church of Jesus Christ. Although I do firmly believe that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the “only true and living church” (D&C 1:30), I also recognize that the Church is an organization run by individuals who, though striving for perfection, are nowhere near that goal. We read in the title page of the Book of Mormon, “if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God”
I had a companion on my mission who had a saying, “Christ has established a perfect Church; And then he let hosers like us in.” I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ was restored to this earth through the prophet Joseph Smith, and from that point, the Church has been run by humans, who are, by definition fallible. And, so I make a distinction between the Gospel of Jesus Christ, being the doctrines and the principles and the ordinances, and the Church of Jesus Christ, which is the organization. I know that the Gospel is true, but the Church, though perfect at its inception, is vulnerable to individuals. We may have a person serving in a specific calling who may be, for whatever reason, teaching wrong doctrine or misusing their position. Even Joseph Smith recognized this potential, and warned priesthood holders against this, “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39). This does not mean that the Church or the Gospel is wrong or no longer true, it means that it is being run by men who are not yet perfected in Christ.
This also reminds me of something that I was told as I was preparing to go through the temple for the first time, participating in the ordinances that are performed only there, which can be odd or confusing the first time, being very different from any other ordinances performed in the Church and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A good friend, who was one of my young men leaders, told me “Remember — You knew the Church was true yesterday. It is still true.”
That helped me as I was confused at first by what I experienced in the temple, which is a very formal and symbolic. I knew that the Church was true, I had a testimony of that gained by faith and prayer and study, and that testimony did not rely on what went on in the temple. I knew that I had a Father in Heaven who loved me, for I had felt his love through his spirit as I had begun developing my personal relationship with him. I knew that the Book of Mormon was true because I had read it and studied it and prayed about it and received confirmation by the Holy Ghost. And if the Book of Mormon is true, then Joseph Smith was a prophet, called by God to bring forth that book and restore the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And if Joseph Smith was a prophet called by God
to restore the Church and Gospel of Jesus Christ, then the Church that was established through him is true. What I experienced in the temple did not change that testimony, it merely added some new information that I needed to consider, ponder, and pray about and gain a testimony of independently.
I also want to point out that what this article is discussing – members of the Church finding information that causes them to doubt or question – is nothing new. This has been happening since the very beginning of the Church. Early members found the Church and gained testimonies and were baptized, and some then fell away as they continued to learn things about the Church and its leaders. The story is told in the Church of one man who left the Church after he saw Joseph Smith playing with small children because he believed that a prophet should be more dignified and solemn than to have time or inclination for such activities. His idea of how a prophet should behave did not match what he saw in the prophet Joseph Smith. (Which, I’ll point out, is odd, since a prophet should be the one most like our Savior, who also spent time with young children.) The only difference is that today, with the prevalence of the internet, information is more easily accessible, and so maybe there are more members who are finding information that may cause them to rethink what they have been taught or what they have believed.
I am also somewhat surprised that this article was published in the first place. It is essentially only saying, “Hey, there are some people who are members of this one church who are finding stuff online and now they are not sure if they believe their church anymore.” Not such groundbreaking news, especially in a world that is becoming more secularized and less religious overall. But, I wonder if this article would have been published had it been about any other religion. Would it be a NYT front page if it were written about Muslims beginning to doubt their faith based on things they had read online about the life of Mohammed? Or if it were about Catholics doubting the infallibility of the Pope because they began to read online about the history of the Catholic Church?
For me, the bottom line is that faith is not something bought once and placed upon a shelf. Faith needs to be exercised daily. I also believe strongly in the Joseph Smith First Vision story as the heart of what Mormonism is. As I have written before, the story of Joseph Smith’s First Vision is not only the foundation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, being the experience whereby Joseph was called to be the prophet of the Restoration, it provides the model for all members of the Church and all who are researching the Church. The promise and the challenge that is contained in the last chapter of the Book of Mormon,
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.
And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
That promise is the same that is found throughout the scriptures, even the Bible as well,
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.
But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. (James 1:5-6)
My testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and my testimony of the Church of Jesus Christ is not based upon the historical accounts of the Church or its early leaders. When I read different things online or in other sources about the early days of the Church, I return to the foundation of my testimony, that I have prayed and received a witness from the Holy Ghost that this is true. I refer also to the story of Alma the younger in the Book of Mormon, who was the son of the prophet, and as such must have been taught the Gospel as a boy and a young man, but decided to reject that and go about with the sons of the king, Mosiah, seeking to destroy the church of God. As he was going about he was visited by an angel and was unconscious for a period of three days, struggling within himself, being harrowed up by his sins. And then he called upon the name of Jesus Christ and was filled with an indescribable joy. One would think that such an experience would solidify and cement one’s testimony forever. One could always remember the visit of an angel as proof that there is a God and the forgiveness received through Jesus Christ as proof of the Atonement, the core principle of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And yet, when Alma, some years later, was teaching a group of people he described how he had come to know that the Gospel was true.
Behold, I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know of myself that they are true; for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit (Alma 5:46).
That is how a testimony must be gained and how a testimony must be kept. As I wrote earlier, a testimony is not bought once and placed on a shelf. It has to be dealt with daily, it has to be re-won daily, regained daily. I think back to that promise at the end of the Book of Mormon, where he says, “When ye have received these things . . . “ I believe he means, “Whenever ye shall receive these things . . . “ Whenever we read the Book of Mormon, whenever we receive the Gospel of Christ, whenever we receive new information we are asked and invited to ask God, in the name of Christ, if they are true.
I also believe that testimonies need to be built upon the foundation of the basic principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and not upon individual members of the church or on any historical accounts. Those may be good places to start building a testimony; maybe someone needs to lean upon another’s testimony until theirs is strong enough to stand alone, but an individual’s testimony of the Gospel or the Church of Jesus Christ cannot stand for long resting upon the testimony of another. It may be that that other individual does or says something at some point that is not in keeping fully with the Gospel of Jesus Christ — that is possible since we are all only human, and still subject to the natural man. And if an individual’s testimony were based upon the actions of this person and they saw them acting in a way inconsistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that would certainly cause them to doubt their testimony and their faith.
On the other hand, though, if an individual’s testimony is built upon the principles of the Gospel, such as Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, or Repentance and Forgiveness through the Atonement of Christ, or the confirmation of the Holy Ghost that the Book of Mormon is a true book of scripture containing Gospel truths revealed to God’s children living on the American continent, then that testimony is not easily shaken when confronted with information about the conduct of other individual members of the Church, or with historical facts about the early days of the Church. We can follow the advice given by the Book of Mormon prophet Helaman to his sons:
And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless woe, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.
Testimony and Faith are, and must be, individually won and maintained. As mentioned, one can start out by leaning upon another’s faith, such as children who listen to their parents and believe because their parents do. But, there will come a time when every individual will need to develop their own testimony, independent of any other person. And that is what I love about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: it not only invites every individual to develop a personal testimony and a personal relationship with God, it teaches that this personal relationship with God is necessary for salvation. There are a few times when the Lord has said “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not” and applied those commandments to the whole of mankind, but for most of our day-to-day decisions he asks that we counsel with him and he has promised that he will lead us and guide us throug his holy spirit.
- Some Mormons Search the Web and Find Doubt (richarddawkins.net)
- Morman religion suffers a bad case of the internet (news.techeye.net)