Books I Have a Testimony Of

A few months ago, on a fast Sunday, Taryn (my wife) stood up during fast and testimony meeting and expressed her emotional and spiritual conviction of the value of our community fasts. Perhaps somewhat unusually, she didn’t emphasize the spiritual learning or comfort that she received through fasting; nor did she discuss miraculous, divine interventions that had been prompted through fasting. Instead, she talked about the social and economic solidarity reasons that, in Leonard Arrington’s interpretation, were the original reasons for the development of community fast days among the Mormons. In effect, my wife bore her testimony of Arrington’s Great Basin Kingdom, a book that is neither canonized nor even published by the church.

I don’t think that’s problematic in any way; as we all know, Mormonism is said to include all truth, whatever the source. In fact, there are books about Mormonism not published by the church that I have a testimony of. Let me quickly mention three.

I, like Taryn, love Leonard Arrington’s work. The book of his that I have a testimony of, however, isn’t the pathbreaking classic that Taryn loves best. Instead, it’s his collaborative effort with Davis Bitton, Saints Without Halos: The Human Side of Mormon History. Saints Without Halos is a collection of 16 short biographies of people in Mormon history who were never presidents of the church — indeed, most never served in general-authority leadership positions at all, and most never appear in general discussions of church history. Each story is emotionally powerful; each person is fascinating and vividly rendered. The stories cover a range of times from the earliest foundations of the Mormon faith (Joseph Knight, Sr.) through the mid-20th century (T. Edgar Lyon). What could be better than spending a little time getting to know some of the people who’ve walked this path before us, than learning the little ways that their faith experiences parallel or differ from our own?

I also find that I have a testimony of Mark D. Thomas’s book, Digging in Cumorah: Reclaiming Book of Mormon Narrative. Thomas’s book is one of the only examples I can find of his approach to the Book of Mormon: reading the text itself as closely as possible, not with the goal of determining when it was written, but rather to discover how it says what it says. Rejecting the nearly-ubiquitous tendency to import cultural ideas from either ancient Mesoamerica and the Middle East or 19th-century New England, Thomas instead looks at the words on the page. He studies the book’s narrative strategies, symbolism, and structure, an approach that allows Thomas’s book to create a level of appreciation for the Book of Mormon as a document that I’ve never found in any other source. We’ve been famously challenged, by the Doctrine and Covenants and by Ezra Taft Benson, to take the Book of Mormon more seriously. One way I’ve found of doing that is by reading Digging in Cumorah.

Last, but certainly not least, I want to mention perhaps my favorite book from the last decade in Mormon history: Martha Sonntag Bradley and Mary Brown Firmage Woodward’s 4 Zinas: A Story of Mothers and Daughters on the Mormon Frontier. This biography of four generations of women named Zina is so beautifully written that it almost feels like reading a novel. Yet it’s also profoundly grounded in historical evidence, primarily an extensive collection of papers (preserved by the family) written by the Zinas. These women are almost certainly not as well known as some of their husbands (who include Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and Hugh B. Brown), but maybe they should be. After reading 4 Zinas, I feel that each of these women is a hero of Mormonism; their life stories are beautiful epics of faith and commitment. Probably the best known of the 4 Zinas is Zina Diantha Huntington Jacobs Smith Young, the subject of Kris’s beautiful recent post. Get to know her better — and meet her equally amazing mother, daughter, and granddaughter — by reading 4 Zinas.

Are Taryn and I the only folks with testimonies of non-church-published Mormon books? What books do you all have a testimony of? (The scriptures are, I suppose, a given for the purposes of this discussion.)


  1. Mark Twain’s Roughing It, chronicling his misadventures touring the American West, including Utah. Great stories, many of which are nearly true. Gags about the BoM, polygamy, Brigham Young, etc.

  2. In my sophomore economic development class, one of the options students have is to read Great Basin Kingdom. I figure what it lacks in econommic rigor it makes up for by hitting close to home.

  3. Antonio Parr says:

    1. “Sacred Journey” by Frederick Buechner, the most stirring spiritual autobiography of the 20th century.
    2. Blaise Pascal’s “Memorial”, found in his clothing after his death: “Fire. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, The God of Jacob. Not of the philosophers and intellectuals.… The God of Jesus Christ.”
    3. “The Best of Lowell Bennion”: some of the best writings of a modern prophet.
    4. “Walden’s Pond”: the journal of a man seeking to live deliberately: “If a man advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours”.

  4. Hm. There are alot for me. In the genre of Mormonism, I will have to go with Ehat’s thesis and In Sacred Lonliness.

  5. Antonio Parr says:

    Oops — if this is a Mormon-related publications only discussion, then I’ll stand by Lowell Bennion’s “The Best of Lowell Bennion”, which is as true as any book that I have ever read.

  6. Unfortuantely I missed her testimony!
    To answer your quetsion, CS Lewis jumps to my mind imediately. But no work in particular.

  7. Mormon Sisters (ed. Claudia Bushman, originally self-published by a feisty and wonderful bunch of women, now reprinted by U. of U. press)

    Jan Shipps’ Mormonism

    C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces

  8. Mike Parker says:

    Stephen Robinson, Believing Christ — should be required reading for every Latter-day Saint.

    Richard Lloyd Anderson, Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses — the most important book on the Book of Mormon published in the last 50 years.

    Eugene England, Why the Church is As True As the Gospel — the essay by that title is golden, and the rest of the book is excellent, too.

  9. Julie in Austin says:

    The new McKay and Kimball biographies.

    A Prayer for Owen Meany.

  10. Every version of “Mormon Doctrine”.

    Wait this is the sacred satire thread correct?

  11. Frank,

    I haven’t read Great Basin Kingdom, but I understand that Brigham’s ideas about how to pursue development (autarky, basically) were quite different than what you would probably recommend as a development economist. Do you say anything about that in your class?

  12. Stapley (#4),

    Ehat’s thesis minus the stuff based on forgeries, right? I enjoy his thesis as well, by the way.

  13. ed,

    I don’t currently spend time on it in class. Personally I would think that the autarky was useful if you are worried about feds or mobs coming in and dismantling your religion– and I think that was obviously a going concern. If your trading partner plans on stealing your goods and then shooting at you, I am doubtful even Ricardo could make free trade a net gain for all parties.

    But I should go back and read it again and look for the autarky stuff as that wasn’t really my focus when I first read it.

  14. Brent Hartman says:

    I like “Mormon Doctrine”. It helped lead me to the book “Adam-God”, by Craig Tholson, which led to my conversion. I also like “Women of Mormondom”.

  15. Last Lemming says:

    It’s been 25 years since I read it, but I recall thinking that what was described in Great Basin Kingdom resembled nothing so much as the Great Leap Forward (which was occuring just as the book was being written).

  16. Yes, minus the thirty million deaths from starvation.

  17. Matt Thurston says:

    Off the top of my head, and in no particular order:

    The Wilderness of Faith: Essays on Contemporary Mormon Thought, edited by John Sillito, Signature Books

    In Sacred Loneliness by Todd Compton

    Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi by Robert Flanders

    Sojourner in the Promised Land: Forty Years Among the Mormons by Jan Shipps

    Stages of Faith by James Fowler

    David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Greg Prince

    Blood of the Prophets by Will Bagley

    Believing History by Richard Bushman

    The Backslider by Levi Peterson

    A Brief History of Everything by Ken Wilber

    The Prophet Puzzle: Interpretive Essays on Joseph Smith, by Signature Books, edited by Bryan Waterman

  18. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 9
    A Prayer For Owen Meany

    Would not have expected a John Irving novel to pop up on this thread. Isn’t that the one where the main character winds up getting his arms blown off in a bizarre grenade/basketball incident toward the end of the story? IMO, Irving’s novels have been all downhill since The World According to Garp.

    For me the truest book is definitely:
    Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture
    by John Shelby Spong

    Bishop Spong’s writings are probably the reason why I did not wind up an athiest.

  19. For those who’ve mentioned ISL by Compton, can you tell me why. I keep meaning to read it but keep putting it off. Can someone convince me to start. Thanks.

  20. ISL is primarily a collection of biographies of early Mormon women. The strength and faith of these women in the face of overwhelming obstacles is uplifting and inspiring.

    The men don’t come out so well, but I think most women aren’t too surprised by that.

  21. Julie M. Smith says:


    I was reading APFOM at the time I was converted. The theme in the book that God had a plan for Owen somehow resonated with me.

  22. Refuge
    A Mormon Mother

    Not “Mormon” books but jumped to mind as being “true” in the Tim O’Brien kind of way:

    A Separate Peace

    Anna Karenina
    The Brothers Karamazov

    Interesting to me that personal narrative and fiction leapt first to consciousness considering I spend my days reading quite different material.

  23. As long as we’re moving outside the sphere of LDS books, here’s mine: Why I’m not a Christian by Bertrand Russell (whose father, Lord John Russell, 1st Earl of Amberly and arguably the most important Victorian prime minister, was instrumental in shaping the policy of Great Britain toward the CSA, as discussed on the recent thread about Gods of War)

    It’s just a bunch of popular essays–Russell never wrote anything serious about religion. But it’s presents a well-written look at some of the seedier, the sinister, and often the sillier sides of religion:

    I am sometimes shocked by the blasphemies of those who think themselves pious-for instance, the nuns who never take a bath without wearing a bathrobe all the time. When asked why, since no man can see them, they reply: “Oh, but you forget the good God.” Apparently they conceive of the Deity as a Peeping Tom, whose omnipotence enables Him to see through bathroom walls, but who is foiled by bathrobes. This view strikes me as curious.

    Surely, this here is truth.

  24. Brad Kramer says:

    Melissa — Right there with you on the Bros K.

    I’d add to the mix Nibley’s Approaching Zion; Gene England’s Making Peace; Gandhi’s Autobiography; W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz; J. K. Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces; Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is Within You; Martin Buber’s I and Thou; Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart; and (most of) Peter Singer’s Writings on an Ethical Life.

    Roasted, I’m also a huge fan of Thomas’ book. Have you seen this commentary yet?

  25. Since we have moved out of the sphere of Mormon books, and others have mentioned fiction books, I’d have to say that I have a testimony of Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe.

    Ian stumbles into the Church of the Second Chance, and if the church really existed, I’d go join it. (Maybe.)

    The central tennent is that yeah, Jesus loves you and all, but if you do something wrong, it is up to you to spend your life making it right. I know it smacks of not trusting in the Atonement, but in a charitable light, I think it falls in line with being “saved after all we can do.”

  26. The Brothers Karamazov. I predict that it will finally be canonized next month at conference. I am not sure when the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book will be up for a vote, but hopefully soon.

  27. Steve Evans says:

    The Miracle of Forgiveness. No, really!

  28. R.W. Rasband says:

    The Collected Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer.

  29. Mark Butler says:

    Here’s mine (aside from the Holy Scriptures, of course):

    Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (ed. Joseph Fielding Smith)

    The Constitution of the United States of America (as amended minus the 17th amendment)

    Alexander Hamilton et al., The Federalist Papers

    Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion

    Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, first half only. (latter half is much too autocratic)

    Jacobus Arminius et al., Five Articles of the Remonstrants

    [I am sure there are others I cannot recall at the moment, plus numerous historical works]

  30. Steve,

    The Miracle of Foregiveness made me feel like I wanted to die.

    And after reading it, I suspected the death would be long and drawn out, mercilessly horribly painful, as would only be fitting a sinner such as I.

  31. Crystal, me too! And that was when I was 14 and my biggest sins were not writing enough sappy notes to the girls in my class when I was Beehive president!!

  32. 22, 24, & 26:

    I agree with Brothers Karamazov. You may be interested in an essay published some years ago in BYU Studies entitled “The Gospel of John as Literature.” I quote the first paragraph:
    If I were challenged to name my favorite literary work, my thoughts would quite naturally turn to those remarkable novels by Russian authors—The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, or Doctor Zhivago—which, in my opinion, have no equal and even rank among the world’s semisacred books. I would be hard pressed, however, to choose among the Russians, universal and profound as their writing is for me. If pressed, I would probably settle for The Brothers Karamazov, whose epigraph, incidentally, is from the Gospel of John.

    Perhaps we should add Dostoevsky’s other great novels—Crime & Punishment, etc.

  33. Job by Joseph Roth

  34. Persig — Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance.

    Frankel — The Search for Meaning

    Definitely the Brothers Karamozov

    Card – Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow

    Augustine — The Confessions

    Kierkegaard – Works of Love

    Aquinas — Summa Theologica

    Ehat — the Words of Joseph Smith

    Shakespeare – Julius Ceasar

  35. Thanks to everyone for your testimony books. I find this discussion really interesting; people have evidently had profound experiences with books that I wouldn’t have expected!

    Crystal and Kristine, I agree with you on The Miracle of Forgiveness! I had the same experience. So I’d love to hear a bit more from Steve about what he found in the book that we missed.

    Brad Kramer, I have seen the Book of Mormon commentary that you linked to. I think it has a mixture of ideas that bring us back to the text in a fresh and interesting way, but also ideas that really lead us away from the text. To take an early example in the text, the discussion of colophons in 1 Nephi 1:1-3 really doesn’t bring additional information to the Book of Mormon text; instead, it leverages the text in support of a formal-critical argument about the book’s origins. I really prefer analysis that pushes us further into the scriptural text, rather than analysis that uses the text as a springboard for external arguments.

  36. A few books:

    A Thoughtful Faith (ed. Barlow) (with the exclusion of one of the essays)
    The Personal Writings of Joseph Smith (ed. Jessee)
    Dialogues with Myself (England)
    An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown
    Women’s Voices (Godfrey, Godfrey & Derr)

  37. At this juncture in life I find it difficult to have a testimony of anything, especially “church” books. But I have felt quite edified recently by these two books:

    “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”

    “The Wind in the Willows”

  38. #7, Kristine: Amen on Till We Have Faces. A profound work.

  39. Maybe Steve is just without sin (even the omission kind, which I’ve got to say is where I felt most condemned)!

    But seriously, I think it is entirely possible to have a testimony of things that don’t make us feel good. I think that feeling so sure of the truth of what I read is what left me feeling so condemned. It wasn’t that I thought there was a disparity between the truth and what I read; I think it was the disparity between what I read and what I did (do) that left me so sure of my own guilt.

  40. Wow, I’m so thrilled to be in the company of fellow Dostoyevsky appreciators! The Brothers Karamazov would certainly be high on my list, but even moreso The Idiot and Crime and Punishment. I also agree with Anna Karenina, and I would add The Illiad. There are a few novels by Nevil Shute that go on the list, notably “Round the Bend”.

    My deepest testimony in literature, though, is reserved for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I think. I do get the same flood of light from reading Tolkien that comes to me from the Book of Mormon. The one that tells me God is speaking directly to me in a loving and personal way. Tolkien himself, and all his friends, prayed fervently for God to use them in some way to further His work, when they were very young. And when he was writing LotR, he said that oftentimes he had to wait and find out what happened next, that he wouldn’t have any idea, at times, and then when he waited it would come to him what happened. He almost but not quite likens it to revelation in his letters to Christopher during WW2. He sort of hints that it is a bit like that. He was a deeply religious man. There are descriptions in his letters of revelations he received during Mass, and so on. To me, LotR is very, very close to scripture.

  41. I bear witness of Witness, by Whittaker Chambers. Knocked my socks off.

  42. gst, me too.

  43. Two books that I have a strong testimony of are F. Enzio Busche’s Yearning for the Living God and Hugh B. Brown’s memoir, An Abundant Life, edited by Edwin Firmage. After the second or third chapter, Brother Busche’s book is a profound, completely can’t-put-it-down exploration of spirituality; and Brother Brown’s memoir was my first introduction to the intracacies of Church leadership from a very faithful but distinct voice.

  44. I think we’ve all been brought up not to question other people’s testimonies. I’m not quite sure why that is. If someone says “I believe that the Earth was literally created in seven twenty-four periods”, it’s OK to suggest that there might be another interpretation. But once someone says they have a testimony of the same, no response is possible.

    So, I feel really awkward saying this, but what is this testimony of fictitious (and non-fictitious) books that people claim to have? Surely, we’re not just saying the book has some amount of truth. One might as easily have a testimony of the dictionary. But then is a testimony simply that we get a warm and fuzzy feeling when we think of something? That it has helped us to live better lives? If so, do I have a testimony of Mahler? Of my wedding pictures? Of the blanket that my great-grandmother made for me?

    Maybe, and maybe that’s all a testimony should be — a listing of things that give meaning to our lives. There’s something valuable about coming together once a month to share such lists. Particularly if we recognize them as such, if I need not feel ashamed because Brother X has a testimony of XYZ and I don’t.

    But if a testimony is meant to be something more, then perhaps we should all be careful to reserve its use as such? In fact, if a testimony is a declaration of faith, or knowledge that comes from faith, then it probably makes no sense to say: “I have a testimony of the Book of Mormon,” but rather we should say something like: “I have a testimony that the Book of Mormon is factually true” or “I have a testimony that the Book of Mormon can change lives.”

    By the same logic I would humbly submit that it would make little sense to say: “I have a testimony of The Brothers Karamazov”, although it might make sense to say: “I have a testimony that The Brothers Karamazov better captures the human condition than any other book I’ve read.”

  45. I testify to the truth of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition. I cannot, however, vouch for The American Heritage Dictionary.

  46. I have a testimony that the phone book is true, because sure enough there I am, Navin R. Johnson.

  47. jp, good questions. In my initial post, I actually meant to say that I had a testimony of the books I’d listed in the sense that they had deepened and enriched my faith and my spirituality. I clearly can’t speak for the others in this thread–but these aren’t just books that I like. They’re books that connect me with God.

  48. I wouldn’t really equate testiminy with warm and fuzzies. I’ve never really felt particularly good about the things I have a testimony of (at least not in the burning in one’s bossom, warm and fuzzy, gee, I love Jesus sense), and I don’t think that’s what people mean when they say they have a testimony of a certain book.

    I would also second what RT said in the comment above mine.

  49. jp,
    To me it means that while reading and pondering the work, I was struck by how TRUE it was, how the writer was speaking truth to my spirit.
    that’s why CS Lewis jumped to mind, and why I was then ashamed to have forgotten “Aproaching Zion”, which hit me as strong as the scriptures with truth and need to make real life changes.
    I don’t see how “testimony” can apply to fiction, but maybe somebody who’s said it will explain.

  50. I was waiting for someone else to answer, but I think that “testimony” applies to the principles within the fiction, not the fiction itself.

  51. Cchrissyy challenged (#49): “I don’t see how “testimony” can apply to fiction, but maybe somebody who’s said it will explain.” I will reply.

    President Faust stated in the April 2006 conference: “Indeed, as the First Presidency stated
    in 1978, we believe that ‘the great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.’” I believe great works of literature such as “The Brothers Karamazov” contains “moral truths” and falls within the plain meaning of the First Presidency’s statement.

    Indeed the New Testament supports this. Consider the parables of Jesus. I’ve heard no one claim that the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” reports an actual occurrence. It does, however, teach great truths. In much the same manner, “The Brothers Karamazov” teaches great truths although it reports events that did not actually occur.

  52. I have a testimony of Linux. Take a look at this, guys.

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