Testimony

This guest submission is from Morris Thurston, a friend of BCC and the Mormon Studies community.

Last Sunday my wife, Dawn, and I were the Sacrament Meeting speakers in our ward, assigned to speak on “Testimony.” For inspiration, we were directed to the sermon given by Cecil O. Samuelson, Jr. in the April 2011 conference on the same subject.

This was a challenging topic for me. It isn’t that I don’t have a testimony; it’s just that my testimony is a bit different than those we typically hear during fast and testimony meeting. After reviewing Elder Samuelson’s excellent talk, and after much thought and prayer, I decided to try to be honest in discussing the underpinnings of my testimony. While the thoughts I expressed would not have been groundbreaking had they been expressed in the nearly-anything-goes sphere of the bloggernacle, they were unusual in the context of a sacrament meeting in a conservative Orange County, California ward.

It is likely there were some in the congregation who disagreed with aspects of my talk; if so, they were kind enough not to mention it. What gratified me were those members who talked to me afterward and seemed genuinely touched and thankful that I had been able to express what so seldom is expressed in Church. The members of my ward do not read the bloggernacle (I took a poll in my High Priests Quorum and not a single brother was familiar with By Common Consent, or any other blog). For some of them, apparently, these thoughts provided great comfort. If only a few were spiritually touched, I had accomplished my objective.

———————

UNDERPINNINGS OF MY TESTIMONY
Morris A. Thurston
Anaheim, California, Sixth Ward Sacrament Meeting, October 30, 2011

As you have gathered by now, the theme of this meeting is “testimony.” So far as I know, the LDS church is unique in having one Sunday each month set aside for “fast and testimony meeting.” I am aware of one Church member who has lobbied for a second special Sunday each month—one set aside for eating a lot and telling faith-demoting stories. He would call it “feast and acrimony meeting.” In this meeting, he explains, we would hear “those stories of which we are survivors but from which we are not yet healed: of failed blessings, of prophesies unfulfilled, of children raised up in the way they should go, but who promptly depart from it.”[1]

While the suggestion may have been tongue in cheek, I can see its merits. Sometimes it helps to know others are struggling like us and don’t have all the answers.

Every once in awhile someone will try to explain what we should say in testimony meeting; what conclusions we should draw. I’m not particularly fond of a testimony that consists solely of “I know this,” and “I know that.” I like the brief stories that usually precede the payoff. They help me understand the experiences that have led the storytellers to their testimonies. Perhaps I have had similar experiences; maybe I have reached the same conclusion; maybe not. In either event, these testimonies make me think. They impact my soul.[2]

Sometimes we can get into trouble with a “conclusion” testimony. I have an LDS friend who sometimes attends her LDS ward meetings with her Episcopalian husband. At one testimony meeting, a ward member stood up and thanked the Lord that he belonged to “the one and only true and living Church.” My friend leaned over to her husband and said, “Sweetheart, look at the time! You’d better hurry up or you’re going to miss the service at your false and dead Church.”[3]

So what is my testimony? It might be a little different than others, but it is mine. I would like to mention five aspects of it.

First, I believe there is much truth both inside and outside the LDS Church. In this belief I think I stand with Joseph Smith, who said that “we should gather all the good and true principles in the world and treasure them up, or we shall not come out true Mormons.”[4] Another time he said, “One of the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to receive the truth, let it come from whence it may.”[5] Anyone who has listened to a general conference of the Church knows that the speakers frequently quote from non-Mormon sources. Indeed, one would almost think C.S. Lewis was an apostle.

What does this suggest to us about our own personal study? While there is certainly great value in reading the standard works of the Church, I believe it is also important to move beyond them and embrace the truth that exists all around us. One of the reasons Dawn and I host the Miller Eccles Study Group each month is that it gives us an opportunity to hear from outstanding scholars in many fields on subjects pertinent to our faith—to learn truths beyond the four corners of Church instruction manuals.

Second, I believe our Church has been and is led by prophets—men inspired by God. I believe these men have our interests at heart and are doing their best to lead us in the right direction. I also believe they are mortal—not perfect, not infallible, but inspired human beings. We know they have made mistakes in the past. We presume that mistakes will continue so long as our leaders are human. But, fortunately, God has given us the right to seek personal revelation to guide our own actions. I believe it is our duty to exercise that right.

There has been much talk recently in connection with the current political campaign about whether Mormonism is a cult. To me a cult is a religious organization that demands blind obedience to a leader. Cult members abdicate responsibility for making their own decisions. I do not believe Mormonism is a cult.

Third, Mormonism is true for me because it works for me. As I reflect on my life I see the Lord’s inspiration and guiding hand in many things and I see the Church as providing the framework to enable me to experience the light of Christ’s gospel.

I was recently asked to contribute a piece titled “Taking the Long View,” to be included in a published anthology of essays on why people stay in the Church.[6] I was honored to be included with a group of twenty scholars from a variety of disciplines. As I composed that piece, and I reflected on the reasons why I value my Church membership, it brought to mind the experiences I have had within the gospel net. A couple of examples are all I have time for.

As many of you know, I served a mission in Norway. When my letter of assignment arrived from President McKay it seemed like the perfect answer to a prayer. I would be returning to the birthplace of my paternal ancestors. However, my first winter was like a dunk in icy water. I was in Trondheim, not far south of the Arctic Circle. During the winter nights the sun rose at about 10:00 in the morning, never getting far above the horizon, and by 2:30 it had disappeared. It was, in a word, depressing.

Like most missionaries in those days, I arrived in the field knowing hardly a word of Norwegian. Rejection was our common experience. The first Christmas, we asked our families at home to send toys for children at a state-run orphanage. We delivered them the day before Christmas and the children were thrilled. The next morning the toys were back on the steps of our church because the orphanage would not accept charity from Mormons. But despite the disappointments and hardships, or perhaps because of them, I flourished and grew.

In those days, I didn’t challenge the accepted wisdom. One Sunday morning, quoting Joseph Fielding Smith, I contradicted a local member with five children who suggested that it was acceptable to use birth control for family planning. I regret that I didn’t use common sense and better judgment. Another time I listened to two visiting missionaries from Scotland—a country where the baptismal rate had reached legendary proportions—talk about how we could use a “six-in-one” lesson plan to baptize children after a soccer game. While I was inwardly skeptical, and never used such methods, I held my tongue. I shouldn’t have.

Despite these challenges, I found inspiration in scriptures. I loved Ether 12:27, where the Lord explains that he gives us weaknesses so we will become humble and have faith in him, and that he can turn our weaknesses into strengths. I decided I wouldn’t worry about the fact that convert baptisms were as rare as a heat wave in Hammerfest. I would do my best, exercise faith, be open to inspiration, and let the Lord take care of the rest. It has worked for me and is one of the underpinnings of my testimony.

A fourth support for my testimony is the wonderful community that is formed as a result of Church activity. We are thrown together in wards based on geography, not on family relationships or common interests. Yet the ward works because the people in it are dedicated to making it work. I have great respect for our stake presidents, our bishops, our Relief Society and Primary presidents. I admire the dedication of our young men and young women leaders and our seminary teachers. I know my contributions pale alongside those of many of you.

Dawn and I are blessed to have been self-sustaining most our lives. But there is great comfort in knowing that if we do need your help, you—like true brothers and sisters—would be there. A few months after we moved into the Anaheim Sixth Ward in late 1977, I was called to the stake high council. We had three children at the time and Dawn gave birth to our fourth right after the move, a girl we named Elise.

We already had lost one baby, Lara, who was born prematurely and lived only ten days. Elise, however, was a full-term, lively baby with sparkling eyes. One day when she was almost four months old, she died suddenly and unexpectedly—a crib death. It was the very worst day of my life.

We decided to bury Elise next to Lara at Forest Lawn in Hollywood Hills. We didn’t invite or expect anyone from the Anaheim Stake to make the two-hour round trip to the cemetery, where we had planned a small, graveside service for family. But when the time came, there was our stake president, members of the high council and their wives, members of the Anaheim Sixth Ward, as well as friends from our former ward in Glendale, letting us know they were family too and shared our grief. It is comforting and faith promoting to know that our ward family really does stand by us and offer true Christian service when needed.

Which is the fifth underpinning of my testimony—that ours is a gospel of Jesus Christ. When it works best it is a gospel of love and inclusiveness. It is a gospel of compassion. It is a gospel that teaches service unto the least has as much value as service unto the greatest.

There are things about the Church that my testimony does not encompass. I think women are just as capable of receiving revelation as men and should be given a greater leadership voice. I think we should love and support our gay brothers and sisters who desire to enter into a committed relationship. I’m not sure that polygamy is really an eternal principal. I think the Brethren should be allowed to wear colored dress shirts.

But I’m comforted that an apostle has said, during my lifetime: “The Church is not so much concerned with whether the thoughts of its members are orthodox or heterodox as it is that they shall have thoughts.”[7] So I will continue to have thoughts, continue to seek personal revelation, and try to remember that I am human, and therefore fallible, just like every other Church member. And I will continue to strive to keep that greatest of all commandments, that we love one another.

This, then, is my testimony, which I leave with you … [etc.].

______________________________________________________________
[1] Neal Chandler, “Beyond a Shadow of Certitude: Field Notes From a Stupor of Thought,” Sunstone, February 2000, 37.
[2] I am indebted to the discussion on Mormon Matters, No. 45, “The Mormon Practice of Bearing Testimony,” (and in particular, the remarks of Brent Beal), for kindling my thought on this point.
[3] Jana Riess, “Tributaries of Faith,” Sunstone, December 2007, 23.
[4] Joseph Fielding Smith, comp., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1977) 316.
[5] Joseph Smith sermon, July 16, 1843, in Andrew E. Ehat and Lyndon W. Cook, eds., The Words of Joseph Smith: The Contemporary Accounts of the Nauvoo Discourses of the Prophet Joseph (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1980), 229.
[6] Robert A. Rees, ed., Why I Stay: The Challenges of Discipleship for Contemporary Mormons (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 2011), 53-64.
[7] Hugh B. Brown, An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown (2d ed., Edwin B. Firmage, ed.) (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 139.

Comments

  1. Nicely done. I have always treasured that statement by Hugh B. Brown about thoughts, heterodox or orthodox. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Morris, I do not know you, but I would have enjoyed being in your ward when you gave this talk. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  3. That was lovely! Thank you!

  4. Morris, you probably don’t remember me (I married into the Ouzounians), but as a former 6th Warder, thank you for a great summation of the conflicts that many of us struggle with, and the glorious spiritual high notes that such humanity enables.

  5. I think it was great.

  6. Beautiful. Thank you.

  7. Very nice. Thank you for sharing this with a wider audience.

  8. Julie M. Smith says:

    Thanks.

  9. Morris,
    Thanks for this post–I can imagine that it was indeed very well received, and meant a great deal to many people who heard it (and are reading it now).

    Several of your anecdotes and examples would probably make for excellent stand-alone discussions…for another day.

  10. Steve Evans says:

    Enjoyable and poignant, despite a paucity of references to the Bible Dictionary, Webster’s, or Edgar Guest poems.

  11. Amen.

  12. I really enjoyed this. Thanks.

  13. Armand Mauss says:

    Thanks, Morrie. I see again here the qualities that I have come to know and love during our regular associations in recent years. I’m always gratified to see how closely our thinking converges in so many ways. I must be thinking correctly!

  14. There is nothing in this talk to which I take exception. I agree with pretty much all of it, and relate to a good portion of it. Yet, for some reason it leaves me a little cold, and I’m struggling to identify why.

    I guess what I’m looking for in a testimony is evidence — evidence that God exists, that He participates in our lives, that the atonement is real, that the church was actually instituted by God, etc.. I’m looking for a witness to this evidence. I’m not so interested in what a person believes or doesn’t believe as much as why she believes it and why she feels it comes from God. I’m even thrilled when people give evidence, from their personal experience, of the divine origins of secondary principles, such as fasting, family history, or sharing the gospel.

    If someone bears testimony specifically of the church and all they have is “it works for me, despite all the things wrong with it”, that may be all they have, and they shouldn’t be expected to say more. But it doesn’t do much for me. It’s not just that it lacks anything differentiating (a member of any church could say the same thing), but there’s also no evidence that there’s a connection to the divine. Shoot, mountain-biking works for me despite giving me scars all over my body, and in a sense I’d say it’s a gift from God. But evidence of the divine? Kind of weak.

    Please don’t get me wrong, Morris, I realize there’s much more in your talk than that, and my last paragraph was meant to illustrate my gut feel rather than give criticism. It’s probably more an indictment of me than it is of your talk. I really don’t mean this as an attack. An accumulated lifetime of experience under the Lord’s guiding hand is certainly more substantial than, for example, a one-time spiritual experience. But still — what did all that study and lifetime of experience convince you of? What is it evidence for? Of what has it made you sure, or at least believe strongly? And why do you believe it came from God, and not somewhere else?

  15. We already had lost one baby, Lara, who was born prematurely and lived only ten days. Elise, however, was a full-term, lively baby with sparkling eyes. One day when she was almost four months old, she died suddenly and unexpectedly—a crib death. It was the very worst day of my life.

    Bless your heart, that is so terribly sad.

  16. I really enjoyed this. Thanks.

  17. Kevin Barney says:

    Morris, this was outstanding. You’ve got a lucky ward…

  18. Martin (#14):

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I agree with you that I have no proof that my experiences come from God. I would suggest that nobody can produce objective “proof” that something is of God. A testimony is necessarily a subjective thing.

    You mention that you are “thrilled when people give evidence, from their personal experience, of the divine origins of secondary principles, such as fasting, family history, or sharing the gospel.” I’m pleased that these stories inspire you, but to use your own argument, where is the proof that a particular blessing (or curse) is the result of divine intervention? When someone says, “I fasted, and I was blessed,” where is the evidence that one is connected to the other? Doesn’t it come down to belief (or, if you will, “faith”)?

    I have been blessed in more ways than I can count. Is it because I am more righteous or faithful than the next person? As much as I’d like to think so, I doubt it. But I do believe there was a divine hand in the formation of the Church and that those who currently lead the Church receive inspiration. That doesn’t mean I believe everything our leaders do or say is inspired. And it doesn’t mean I know it or can prove it.

    That was the point I tried to make in my talk. I didn’t expect it would resonate with those who think they have proof that the Church is true, or with those who think everything our leaders say and do comes directly from God. But those people hear what they want to hear almost every Sunday. I was hoping to speak to the mostly silent members of the congregation who, like me, aren’t sure, but who nevertheless believe.

  19. “I was hoping to speak to the mostly silent members of the congregation who, like me, aren’t sure, but who nevertheless believe.”

    Thank you. I wish more people would speak to that particular audience. The Lord gave this charge to Peter: feed my lambs. Every child of God deserves to be spoken to and uplifted when they go to church in hopes of receiving even if a crumble to nourish their soul. You probably provided a feast.

  20. I loved this talk! Thanks for sharing it.

  21. Molly Bennion says:

    Morris, you had me eating out of your hand when you started with Neal Chandler, surely one of our finest writers, but it was your honesty that made it a good meal.

  22. Thanks, Morris. I’ve enjoyed your cordial hospitality and tolerance of opposing views in our M-E meetings.

  23. Morris, it resonated with me.

    Martin, I find myself left cold by those testimonies that are all about proof. To me, so much of it is selection bias or misattribution. Proof in something unprovable just doesn’t work for me. I respect that it does for others, but to Morris’s point, you hear plenty of that already in F&T meeting. I find that type of testimony to be a heartfelt assertion of belief, not actual evidence as the narrator feels it is.

    Some of those testimonies do strike a chord for me, but not because they give me certainty – just because I can tell how much the experience touched that other human being; I feel empathy and kinship.

  24. This was lovely, Morris. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  25. Brave! Thanks for sharing.

  26. I would point out to Morris and hawkgrrrl that Martin never said anything about “proof,” but rather “evidence.” I like to hear about the “evidence of things not seen” when others bear their testimonies. I do not accept assertions of “proof,” in part for the reasons hawkgrrrl states. The failure to make that important distinction doesn’t take Martin’s objection seriously.

  27. “If only a few were spiritually touched, I had accomplished my objective.”

    I’m sure you accomplished it both in the meeting and here.

  28. Philip Bradford says:

    I enjoyed your remarks and comments. Thank you for sharing.

  29. I am hoping Martin will clarify, because I’m not sure what he was bothered by. Maybe he could give more concrete examples of what he finds appropriate evidence.

  30. I have actually attended your ward – for the blessing of a baby whose parents only lived there briefly.

    I’m nowhere near as coherent as you, but I once bore a testimony to the effect that I don’t have a “testimony” in the way most congregations seem to expect. I don’t “know,” I’ll never “know,” and I won’t claim to “know.” Some of my ward family couldn’t understand, but several did. I have issues, many of them the same as you referenced in your talk. But there’s a feeling that keeps me coming (and familial obligations), and I share many of your underpinnings, so I fulfill my callings and do my level best to live the way I think God would have me live (except I think I’m much, much lazier than He wants). I’m also more dis-inspired by proof or evidence testimonies (as much as I’d LOVE some kind of proof of anything – I do not trust my feelings), and I also admit that while I am incredibly blessed, it cannot be because I am better than others, because frankly I’m not all that great.

    The Miller Eccles group sounds really interesting. I’m an OC girl, I think I will come and have a listen. Thank you.

  31. Thanks for this post. I really enjoyed the talk. I need to be in a ward where this kind of talk could be given. . .

  32. We’d love to see you at Miller Eccles, Melissa. Next one should be pretty great–Terryl Givens, whose biography of Parley P. Pratt was just published by Oxford University Press, will speak to us.

  33. This was a great talk!

  34. As someone who has been inactive for over 30+ years, who never attends (except during my semi-annual trek to Utah to see family), and yet who cannot seem to leave the Bloggernacle alone, I was very affected by what I read. I kinda wish I might have met some people like you years ago . . .

  35. This was lovely to read on a sunny morning in New England. Thanks for sharing it and for the brief reminder of why I love Hugh B. Brown.

  36. Absolutely loved this! Thank you so much for sharing.

  37. Great talk – It gives me a burst of inspiration to try to vocalize some of the more progressive aspects of my testimony in a ward setting, and not just in the bloggernacle!!

  38. waterspout says:

    Thank you Morris. You put into beautiful, straightforward words, what I have been trying to convey to my husband (who left the church) about my own testimony for years.

    I printed your talk & offered it to him, saying, “This man’s testimony is almost exactly how I feel – if you’d like to know what kind of Mormon I am, you can read it.”

    He read it, and thanked me for it. So I wanted to thank you for posting and sharing it with us.

  39. I can’t say anything that hasn’t already been offered by others, but I really enjoyed reading your talk. I like how you didn’t apologize that your testimony wasn’t as traditional as others. You stated your positive beliefs enthusiastically. I’m glad you received validation from ward members, and from many on this site. I welcome the day when an honest testimony like this could be offered in any ward in the church without concern over the effect it may have on others’ perception of the testifier. Thank you for sharing this here.

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