Testimony Meeting

I just returned from the best testimony meeting I’ve attended in years. What was so very cool about it is that it was dominated by recent converts.

Having grown up in the Church, I tend to be a little jaded about testimonies. I enjoy the personal stories, but the testimonies themselves tend to be expressed in such formulaic, pro forma language that they have very little meaning for me and they just sort of bleed into one another. (My own testimonies tend to be pro forma, too. Maybe this all dates from BRM’s insistence about what the elements of a proper testimony are; I don’t know.)

Anyway, our ward had 17 baptisms last year, with more in the pipeline. And a majority of those who bore testimony today were from that group, including three black sisters–a record in my personal experience. One of these sisters was the young daughter (I think she’s about 10) of another one; this was actually the second time she has come up and borne her testimony, and both times she has done so in the form of a prayer, speaking directly to God. Utterly charming and affecting.

Another testifier, an elderly, distinguished Greek gentleman, had actually prepared notes last night for his testimony, as if he were giving a talk. But his remarks were excellent, even powerful.

These speakers don’t quite have the LDS patter down, and it’s a bit of an adventure as to what exactly they are going to say (for example, I recall a reference to the “holy Father,” which is language you don’t often hear over an LDS pulpit), but to me that is part of their charm. But they have powerful testimonies, and I was deeply affected by them. This is what testimony meeting ought to be.

Afterwards I was chatting with our WML, marvelling at the experience, and he told me that he had taught a lesson on how to give a testimony in GE class last week, and that they had held their own testimony meeting as a practice. He is terrific that way. I tend to assume others know the things I know, which is of course ridiculous; he in contrast takes nothing for granted and teaches these people everything, from the ground up. After SS I peeked in the RS room, where GE is held, and the room was packed and abuzz with activity. It was much more dynamic than the GD class in the chapel. The WML is not someone you would ever have guessed would receive that calling, but he is such a good and decent and humble man, I personally believe he deserves tremendous credit for nurturing our young members. Having been taught all about testimonies and having practiced how to do it, these young members obviously felt sufficiently comfortable to stand up in the real thing and share their feelings about the gospel.

I often dread testimony meeting, with its pro forma recitations by long timers like me and the occasional crazy talk from some guy who needs to go back on his meds. But today’s meeting reminded me of how powerful a genuinely expressed testimony can really be, and of how invigorating it can be to have so many members who are new to the gospel and really excited about it.


  1. Forgive me for injecting cynicism, Kev, but how long do you think it will take them to learn the pro forma expressions and thus lose their charm, their power?

    I try at times to go no huddle with my Mormon language — publicly praying using “you,” for example, or sharing a testimony based solely on the book of Haggai — but it’s almost like my tongue cleaves to my mouth when I do! And so I return to making awkward second person conjugations and following the testimony playbook. Coward.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    You remind me of a missionary companion I had who liked to testify that he knew Lorenzo Snow was a prophet. Although he obviously was yanking people’s chains, I never saw anyone call him on it because, hey, Lorenzo Snow was indeed a prophet, even if it’s not the normal thing to say.

  3. We had a good meeting, too, Kevin. Many of those bearing testimony have English as a second language: we heard from a Dutchman, a French woman, a Ghanaian woman, and a man from England whose accent is as difficult to understand as any of the others. With the exception of the young Ghanaian, these were all long-time members. Yet they still don’t bear formulaic testimonies, and the accents cause just enough of a difficult that you have to listen very closely, and it’s always worth it. We didn’t hear from our Czech or our Navajo as we often do. Eclectic ward.

    Our bishop (a descendant of Hyrum Smith, so obviously he’s also an old-timer) bore his testimony in the middle of the meeting as if he were any other ward member. That was unusual, too, to hear him speak almost anonymously instead of with administrative authority.

    Maybe we avoid some of the formula in our ward now because somewhere along the line the ward dropped it, and so newcomers don’t hear it to pattern their own testimonies?

    Anyway, great meeting here, too.

  4. It seems like there is a standard conclusory testimony, sometimes called the “five finger” testimony–something like bearing testimony of the truths of [1] God, [2] Jesus, [2] BofM, [4] Joseph, and [5] the Church (including its current leaders). I think this is pretty much along the order of what Church leaders have said should be our “testimonies” (in approximately that order of priority).

    Then there is the “subconscious” testimony prioritization emphasized in our community, which can be discerned out of most typical children’s testimonies: “I know [1] the Church is true, and [2] I love my family, in the name of …”

    Then I suppose there are our unvarnished feelings about and experiences with God, scriptures, leaders, church organization, our practical relationship with them in our lives, and the like. These, of course, may or may not fit within the conclusory “five finger” testimony.

    Personally, I prefer hearing more about the frank feelings and experiences than I do about mere conclusory statements.

  5. Unfortunately the converts in my ward are almost never active long enough to bear testimony, let alone to learn the Mormon liturgical lingo.

  6. Aaron Brown says:

    You complement your WML for training the newbies in the art of testimony-bearing, but isn’t it their lack of “knowledge” regarding how to “properly” bear testimony (and get the “patter down”) that was the very source of their power? At least a good part of it?

    I’m with you on the pro forma nature of most of our testimonies. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. I also find myself lapsing into stock phrases myself, but I dislike this sufficiently that I rarely bear testimony these days.

    Aaron B

  7. Does it follow, then, that a “formulaic” testimony must always be less sincere?

  8. Kevin Barney says:

    Aaron, I think what was important was that he helped give them the confidence to stand up there and the assurance that it is ok for them to do so. If no one tells a new convert that they are welcome and even encouraged to go up to the podium and speak, how are they supposed to know this?

    Another cool thing is that one of the black sisters wore a sleeveless dress, but no one in our ward harassed her over it. Unlike on my mission when an investigator came wearing a nice pants suit, she takes not two steps into the chapel, and some guy accosts her on the inappropriateness of her outfit. She of course turned on her heel and walked out, and we never saw her again. I came this close to punching the guy out right there in the chapel.

    Jack, no, of course not. A formulaic testimony can be just as sincere–just less affecting.

  9. UnicornMom says:

    This is going to sound bitter – probably because it is. I wish people wouldn’t “Talofa” or “Aloha.” What, exactly is the point?

    One of these days I’m going to get up and say “Good MORRRRNing!” or “Grüß Gott!” and expect everyone to say it back to me, continually saying “I can’t hear you!” until they yell.

  10. Aaron (#6), how many times have we heard you say the same thing, over and over?

  11. UnicornMom, there is not a thing wrong with you doing that, and in Hawaii at least, when someone said Good morning or whatever, the congregation always responded. I still expect a response when I say it, but alas, the boring mainland wards are too stuffy. :)

  12. Our Testimony Meeting was preempted today by a change in the bishopric. This is only the second time I’ve ever experienced this, and it was much better than the last one (which was on easter sunday and was really bad.) This was better.

  13. I must confess that I dislike formulaic testimonies too, especially when they come from young children who mimic what their parents tell them.

    So what happens this morning? My 6-year-old says he wants to give his testimony. And that he did, with help from his 13-year-old brother. How could I say no to that?

    I’m not sure what it did for anyone else, but my heart was touched — not because of the words, but because of the sincerity with which they were said, by both the 6-year-old and the teenager.

  14. Aaron Brown says:

    Steve, I’m not getting your point.

    Aaron B

  15. UM,

    Don’t say “Grüß Gott” in a German-speaking ward. This (charming, IMO) greeting is verboten among Mormons because of the repetition of the word “Gott.” When I was auf Mission people would say Grüß Gott to us and we would say Guten Tag or Grüß Sie back. It killed me that I couldn’t say Grüß Gott in Austria. That, along with not being allowed to use Du, were severe annoyances. Now that I live here again I say Grüß Gott at every opportunity (making up for 2 years’ of lame Guten Tags). But I can hardly conjugate Du.

    It must be very hard to be an Austrian Mormon and have Grüß Gott be unkosher. It would be like banning “hi.”

  16. In fact, I’m adding it to my Mormon guerrilla organisations:

    “Saints for Two” (lock the Sunday School classrooms and hide the keys)

    “International Mormons Against American Domination” = IMAAD (remove basketball hoops from international cultural halls and replace with locally-appropriate sports equipment; Canadians get a hockey rink, Europeans get soccer goals)

    and now,

    “Heiligen für Grüß Gott”

  17. Kevin wrote – “These speakers don’t quite have the LDS patter down, and it’s a bit of an adventure as to what exactly they are going to say … but to me that is part of their charm.”

    Kevin – I whole-heartedly agree with you. Isn’t that a welcome indication that we are truly becoming a world-wide church and that members, new and old, are not afraid to inflict their own cultural idiosyncrasies into their (our) faith. A welcome site and sound in all of our testimony meetings.

  18. Kevin Graham says:

    From a sociological perspective, testimonis are merely the flip side of teh same coin as apostate narratives, paricularly the atrocity tale.

    Some of you might be familiar with Juliann’s off and on comments regarding apostate narratives and the purpose of an atrocity tale. Well, LDS testimonies are essentially the same thing on the other end of the spectrum. They are used to gain acceptance into a particular group, which is probably why we hear it so much from recent converts.

  19. UnicornMom says:

    Ronan – I served in the Germany, Munich (than Germany, Munich/Austrian) mission and spent most of my time in the Black Forest. They say it there all the time without any problem. Maybe we should salt the Austrians with some good old Schwäbisch colloquialisms. I’m in the mood to gender some old-fashioned Bestürzung.

    Maybe I’ll just bear my entire testimony in German. Nostalgia. At the very least, it’d wake a few people.

  20. Kevin, I’m going to argue with you about the “not as affecting” conclusion. The very best testimony I heard yesterday was from a departing senior missionary, who with her husband has served here for 18 months. (They arrived one month in advance of Katrina.) Everything about her testimony was straight by the book, but it was one of the most uplifting things I’ve heard in weeks.

    Methinks that Holy Ghost guy might have something to do with it.

  21. Yesterday we had a testimony given by a recent convert. He’s a tall African-American gentleman who speaks from the heart. He’s been a member for maybe a year. I always enjoy hearing his prayers and thoughts on the rare chances he gets up to share them, because he hasn’t been completely acculturated yet. It really is fun to hear a testimony in a person’s own words – a sort of spiritual language they are putting together for themselves.

  22. Ronan,

    I am surprised to learn about the local prohibition against “Grüß Gott.” I recall a member in the Ruhrgebiet giving a talk about living a godly life and mentioning his desire that we all incorporate that phrase into our vocabulary as a way to have Him in our thoughts more often.

  23. Re: Lorenzo Snow (#2).

    Shortly after joining the church, I realized that all the things I had a testimony of (God/Jesus/BoM/Joseph) were also applicable to the RLDS church. Shortly afterwards, Elder David B. Haight visited our stake conference, and I received a testimony that he was a true apostle. And that finally connected all the dots.