Conversion and Testimony

Something occurred to me this week while reading Roger Terry’s moving testimony in the most recent Dialogue. Roger takes us back to a theophanic experience on his mission in which his companion recited Joseph Smith’s potent claim that he knew what he had experienced and could not deny it, no matter what persecutors did to him. Roger became converted in that remarkable moment.

Roger’s spirit-filled proclamation of testimony somehow clashed in my mind with the evangelical conversion narrative which it appears to have replaced. For many evangelical Christians (indeed, for many of their progenitors in orthodox Reformed Christianity), the conversion narrative was the demonstration of God’s grace in life, their “election,” to borrow a phrase from strict Calvinism.

In stricter New England Calvinism, one could not join a church covenant without such a testimonial. In revival evangelicalism, such a conversion experience and its associated telling often figured prominently in the less formal welcoming into the body of Christ.

What strikes me is not that these Christian traditions emphasize the importance of a personal narrative of conviction and conversion, but that the content is so different. In evangelicalism, the conversion narrative is often a confession of sinful inadequacy (the “depravity” of strict Calvinism) and the overwhelming grace of God. The emphasis is on the self transformed by God. In one form of Mormon conversion testimony, as exemplified by Roger’s account, the emphasis is on the discovery of truth, the witness that in fact Mormonism is the historical church, Joseph Smith the historical Prophet of Restoration.

What does this mean? Is this merely metaphysico-Christian perfectionism? Are Mormons afraid to confront their Arminianism publicly, so they elide it by emphasizing the Truth quest? Or is the miracle for the Arminian that God would in fact speak from the heavens, and that mighty miracle outweighs any relevance of the self?

Comments

  1. Incidentally, I believe that both models are seen in modern Mormonism. My own early adult theophany found expression in both modes, and many Fast Meetings today contain both expressions of God’s intimate grace and the witness of the historical veracity of Mormonism.

  2. Great post, Sam. I will have to read the Dialogue article.

    My personal conversion at the age of 14 was a mix of historical conversion (a testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the reality of the Restoration) and a realization of my “sinful inadequacy” and a recognition of God’s grace.

    Anyhow, I’m off the read the Dialogue article (if it’s available online–I’m not a subscriber). Well, at least until it achieves legitimacy. :-)

  3. It would seem, as well, that such a testimony is predominantly a 20th century experience, with the Church’s emphasis on the Joseph Smith story starting with Joseph F.

    I think in the early days, it was all about God speaking from heaven, as you say. It was the symbol that the days of miracles have not ceased, notably through the communication of the Book of Mormon. The idea of God speaking to the individual doesn’t seem so foreign to modern evangelicism.

  4. The idea of dividing the rebirth process–as set forth in John 3–into 1)being born to “see” and 2)being born to “enter” tackles the dichotomy doesn’t it?

  5. Jack, I don’t think so. Would you care to elaborate?

  6. J.,

    Narrowing the “clashing” dichotomy to what is experienced specifically by *mormons* in the conversion process, it seems to me that looking at John 3 in the way I mentioned above might allow for both an “aha” experience with regard to truth claims as well as an encountering-God’s-grace-like experience in the rebirth process.

    But, perhaps my narrowing of the context changes the question.

  7. I think I see a sort of two-step process like Jack has mentioned, although I think too often we miss that second part. The first part is coming to realize that Truth and authority have been restored, and receiving saving ordinances. Through these ordinances, the power of the Atonement can more fully be received, thus tapping one into the power of grace and rebirth.

    I think something else that makes us different is that rebirth is a continual process, not simply a day you record in your journal as the day you were born again. We are to ask daily, “Can I feel so now? Have I been born of God today?”

  8. Sam: Roger’s spirit-filled proclamation of testimony somehow clashed in my mind with the evangelical conversion narrative which it appears to have replaced.

    What do you mean “replaced”? Is Roger a former evangelical Christian or something?

  9. Geoff: no, Roger is a lifelong Mormon. I meant that Roger’s testimony clashed with the testimonies of the 18th-19th century evangelicals that I read about in my cultural history work. Instead of testifying that he had been saved by a gracious God, Roger testified that he became convinced that Joseph Smith was a prophet. These are very different contents for what emotionally appear to be similar rites of passage.

    Incidentally, the current issue of Dialogue is a coup. I’ll wait for Kevin’s summary post for details, but I would recommend subscribing just to read the current issue.

  10. Sam – I don’t think Mormons are even aware of their Arminianism. Indeed, I’m not certain we can call what Mormonism is ‘Arminianism.’ Different categories. What this means to me is this

    1)Mormons are practically universalists. That means we don’t need to worry about being saved. That isn’t the good news of Mormonism; it’s not even something we really worry about.

    2)What we do worry about is measuring up to our capacities, or what we imagine God expects of us. This is because the Mormon conversion story is not about being saved; it’s about growing in truth, discovering the potential of humanity, and learning about what Joseph Smith put on top of salvation – that being, exaltation.

    There’s actually an interesting scene in September Dawn. (one of two moments) that gets at this. I’m hoping to write a bit more about it over on Mentality at some point.

  11. One of the reasons I like Joseph’s 1832 account of the First Vision is its emphasis on the individual aspect–Joseph’s receiving forgiveness of sins (at a time before the gospel and its ordinances were restored). See D&C 20:5.

    I have experienced something akin to the rebirth described by many of my evangelical friends and I can even point to a day that it occurred. To me, it is one thing to “know” that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, that Joseph was a prophet, that the LDS Church is “true”, etc . . . . It is quite another things to feel God’s grace and love extended individually to me, a sinner. A sort of healing, transforming experience. In a sense, and for me, these were two different types of “conversion”–one was mental/intellectual–an acceptance of certain truth principles, the other a feeling in my heart of hope, joy and peace, that I matter to God and, as Moroni said, by coming unto Christ can become perfected, or made whole, in Him.

    I do not doubt that for many Latter-day Saints, the two types of conversion or testimony come together, but they were separate for me. And for some Latter-day Saints, the key messages of which to bear testimony are the distinguishing truth claims of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But for me, the most healing and transforming message or truth claim is that God loves all His children and extends His grace and love to all (including me), rescuing us from despair, discouragement, sin and shame–sometimes sooner, sometimes later.

    And, in this respect, the gospel as understood in our faith tradition does not differ tremendously from the way it is understood in others. And for that reason, I rejoice when my friends in other faiths have “found” God and experienced His love and grace in their own way.

  12. Thanks Sam.

    I think you bring up an interesting point in this post and I have been thinking about it this weekend. It seems to me that it shows how influential the assumptions we bring with us when we approach the Lord are in determining the interpretation we give the spiritual experiences. When a creedal Christian (especially one with Calvinistic assumptions about depravity) approaches God in prayer she already assumes that she is totally depraved and bound for an eternal hell. So when she feels a powerful manifestation of the Holy Spirit she generally interprets that to mean she is now saved from the eternal fire she used to be on track to get. When a Mormon approaches God in prayer she assumes that she is a beloved child of God already. So when she feels a powerful manifestation of the Holy Spirit she generally interprets that to confirm her assumptions about her divine lineage and that she is on the right theological track with regard to her religion (ie, she is more convinced than ever that Mormonism is the true church.)

    I should add that most evangelicals I know assume that we Mormons simply can’t receive that kind of revelation because they are convinced that we are indeed unsaved and bound for an eternal hell. If we receive the kind of revelation from God that we claim to receive then 1) We must be saved and 2) We get a lot more revelation from God in general than they do. Now neither of those conclusions are remotely acceptable to most evangelicals (and probably to any creedal Christian) so they come up with other explanations to tell themselves. (Some have told me it is really the devil answering our prayers, others mostly like to avoid the subject…)

    Now from a practical standpoint I would argue that the Mormon view on this is more spiritually healthy than the creedal view on it (assuming God really answers Mormon prayers as we claim of course). Evangelicals (especially Calvinist-leaners) often assume “once saved always saved” so there is no expectation of regularly experiencing such revelatory experiences after the first one. The Mormon view is that we are basically engaged in a great game of spiritual “Redlight/Greenlight” with God here on earth and when we ask God yes or no questions the powerful burning in the bosom one feels in response is simply a yes answer from God — not a one-time ticket out of the eternal torture chamber. So Mormons are taught to seek and expect lots of personal revelation along these lines while it seems to me that creedal Christians think it is and should be a very rare occasion.

    This is all a rambling way to say yes, I think we Mormons view revelation as being a sufficient miracle in itself and our rejecting of total depravity makes that plenty for us.

  13. Will Schryver says:

    I think there is a definite distinction to be drawn between the classic “touched by the grace of God” sense of commune with the divine and the kind of “revelation” that entails specific knowledge or the confirmation of specific knowledge. Indeed, I would assert that the latter species of revelation is the more pedestrian of the two, and the one less likely to produce any real form of spiritual transformation in the recipient. I have known many people in my life who have had a spiritual confirmation of some foundational aspect of Mormonism (i.e. the first vision, the Book of Mormon) and yet who have never become partakers of what most would understand to be the fruit of the atonement.

    They (or perhaps I should say “we”? – a reluctant confession) are willing to believe in this or that as being true. Indeed we may say we know these things to be true. But, as Stephen Robinson has famously noted, it is easier to believe in Christ than it is to believe Him; to truly believe and activate the atonement; to believe He can change you. The simple experience of having intelligence communicated to our souls in such a way that we remain permanently convinced on that particular score is a far cry from the transforming experience had by some – an experience that “has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, that we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.”

  14. The simple experience of having intelligence communicated to our souls in such a way that we remain permanently convinced on that particular score is a far cry from the transforming experience had by some

    This depends entirely on what that “some score” is I think.

  15. I think the experience may be quantified into the two basic categories in question, but we should be careful not to lose the idea of fluidity in the process. Indeed *any* communication from heaven is likely to edify the recipient which (imo) = that much more conversion.

  16. Matt: important points. I would confess that I’m using Arminian in the vague sense it is almost always used, of someone who preaches that salvation depends in an important way on the will and/or acts of the believer. Whether LDS are currently practical universalists is an intriguing question, though I would agree that perfectionism is close here. I think I choose Arminianism because of the ways that we backpedal from frank perfectionism as a compromise with Protestantism.

  17. I agree with #1. I think both strains of experience of the divine, the experience of being saved/forgiven and the transmission of knowledge, are present in how many LDS live the Gospel. However, I would agree that the “gateway” experience with which we introduce most investigators to the Gospel is a pure “transmission of knowledge” experience. We tend to find the other type of experience expressed as a person grows and matures in the Gospel, while at the same time, their knowledge is constantly growing and being affirmed by subsequent spiritual experiences.

    I am open to having this generalization challenged by those who have seen specific contrary instances.