I have never been a big fan of testimony meetings for a variety of reasons, but maybe my opinion is starting to shift.
I recently taught the May Sunday School youth lesson from Come Follow Me “What does it mean to bear testimony?” Since I teach 12-13 year olds, including my own son, I wanted to find a game or object lesson to help illustrate testimony. I found the idea for a puzzle on the church’s website.
I showed the class a partially constructed puzzle. My son immediately shouted out “It’s a goldfish in a bowl. Boom!” I said it wasn’t a goldfish. Another boy agreed with my son: “It’s definitely a goldfish.” I assured the class again that the picture was not a goldfish. The puzzle object lesson seemed to be working in ways not intended, demonstrating that some people draw wrong conclusions based on scant evidence and their own personal assumptions.
What is a testimony?
All Christians use the term testimony. From Wikipedia:
Christians in general use the term “testify” or “to give one’s testimony” to mean “the story of how one became a Christian”; less commonly it may refer to a specific event in a Christian’s life in which they believe God has done something deemed particularly worth sharing. Christians often give their testimony at their own baptism or at evangelistic events. In the current age of the Internet, many Christians have also placed their testimonies on the internet.
Mormons use this term slightly differently than other sects of Christianity.
In Mormonism, testifying is also referred to as “bearing one’s testimony,” and often involves the sharing of personal experience—ranging from a simple anecdote to an account of personal revelation—followed by a statement of belief that has been confirmed by this experience. Within Mormons culture, the word “testimony” has become synonymous with “belief.” An individual who no longer believes in the religion is referred to as having “lost their testimony.”
Types of witnesses
Based on these definitions, testimony bearing is very similar to a witness giving testimony in court. In court cases, there are several different types of witnesses:
- Percipient witness or eyewitness. Testifies what they perceived (or observed) through their five senses.
- Hearsay witness. Testifies what someone else said or wrote.
- Reputation witness. Testifies about the reputation of an individual or organization when that reputation is material to the dispute at issue.
- Expert witness. A person who allegedly has specialized knowledge relevant to the matter of interest which knowledge is used to shed light on the testimony of others, including documentary evidence or physical evidence.
Of course, eyewitness testimony has been proven to be notoriously unreliable, and the majority of testimony bearing in church is of that type. Ultimately, what others testify is mostly for their own benefit, not for ours. We only rely on what we can testify from our own perspective. And yet, conclusions we draw may be incorrect.
I also wondered about the analogy whether we all have the same puzzle when we finish putting it together, do we have all the pieces, and do we have some pieces from other puzzles mixed in?
The puzzle of conversion
I shared snippets from my mother’s conversion story throughout the lesson. You can actually see her constructing her own puzzle in the way she describes what was happening. Here are some of the puzzle pieces:
Snippet 1: While living in Freeport, we started going to the Baptist church again. We felt it was important for Sue and Mary to get some religious training. However, it turned out they were getting none. All they had for these young children was a nursery where they put puzzles together and had milk and cookies. I was very disappointed about this. I wasn’t getting anything out of the Sunday School classes myself, so I started attending the Lutheran church service right after the Baptist Sunday School by myself. In other words, I was attending both on the same day (each Sunday). I began feeling like a hypocrite and was very unhappy with the situation. I didn’t really like the Lutheran minister either. He was very unfriendly, as were all the members there. No one ever spoke to me. Not even my cousins who were in the choir.
Conclusions: My mother felt unwelcome and uneasy about being neither in nor out of the two congregations. She also didn’t find the teaching to be very useful for either the kids or herself.
Snippet 2: I had hoped that Royal would join my church at first, and he had hoped that I would join his. When seven years had passed since we married, it became obvious neither one of us was going to give in. We decided to pray for help. We had to consider that there was a possibility that neither his church nor mine was God’s true church. We tried to get the Baptist minister to visit us, and he kept promising to do so, but never kept his promise. We found that he had left for a pastorate in a larger community which of course paid more money. They had trial ministers for some time and none of these came either. I asked the Lutheran minister to come, which he did, but not when Royal was home. He said it was up to me to convert him, and when I did, it was his job to baptize or “sprinkle” him. This did not impress me, since I had tried seven years to convince him and failed. We both felt that the Baptist and Lutheran churches couldn’t possibly be God’s true church. We had prayed for help and both of their ministers had failed us miserably.
Conclusions: The ministers failed to meet my mother’s needs when she was praying for them to help. She concluded they weren’t part of God’s church.
Snippet 3: A strange dream occurred about this time. We were praying and looking for the church church of Jesus Christ when I had this dream. I dream I was being chased by some unseen assailant which I greatly feared. I was jumping from one ice floe to another across a river. When I got to the other side, I suddenly saw a white clapboard church loom up before me. I felt this was my place of sanctuary. As I approached it, I looked up and expected it to say it was a Lutheran church since it resembled the one of my childhood. I was shocked to see it said Baptist church on it. At the door was a minister in a black robe similar to the ones worn by Lutheran ministers. This very smooth talking man invited me in and said, “See, your name is written in my book.” I looked to see, but there was nothing written there. Then I awoke from the dream. I pondered the meaning of this dream and decided not to tell Royal or he would say it meant I should join the Baptist church. There were so many inconsistencies in the dream that I couldn’t understand it.
Conclusions: The dream was confusing but disturbing, so she set it aside. Later she saw it as part of the conversion process.
Snippet 4: We were not only praying to find out which was the true church, but were studying the New Testament in the Bible to find out what his original church was really like. We studied it about a year together. The missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints came to call. My mother had always taught me to invite anyone in saying they were representatives of God, so I did. I knew who they were because we had listened to missionaries before when we lived on Bailey Avenue in 1950 and 1952. At that time we weren’t ready for their message. They had 32 lessons the first time, and we got bogged down and disinterested somewhere along the way. In 1952 we were doing pretty well until we decided to treat them to popcorn and Pepsi Cola. They told us they couldn’t drink the cola because of the caffeine in it and explained that we’d have to give it up also if we joined the church. We were pretty hooked on Pepsi at the time and felt that if the church was that narrow minded, we didn’t want to have anything to do with it. The next appointment we had with them we decided not to keep it and went to a movie instead.
Conclusions: The missionaries were nice enough, but the church was narrow-minded and there were too many lessons.
Snippet 5: In 1954 they came the third time. This time we had been properly prepared and were ready to accept their message. I met with them first during the daytime and soon was ready to be baptized. Elder Blain refused to do it and said he wanted my husband to join also. I told Royal about the strong spirit (the Holy Ghost) that was with the missionaries, and I knew they were telling the truth. He agreed to listen also but never seemed to find the time. He was painting the outside of the house. Elder Blain said that if he didn’t have time to stop, he would help him paint and talk to him there. Royal finally was ashamed of himself and gave up on the painting to come in and listen. He wasn’t as convinced as I was and was about to quit. Elder Blain was an emotional person and cried when he bore his testimony. Royal was raised in the school that said men didn’t cry. It wasn’t manly. I was very impressed because I also am an emotional person and understood how the missionary felt. About this time Elder Blain was transferred out and Elder Johnson was sent in. He was better able to communicate with Royal. He was a more logical type, and so was Royal. Royal agreed to join also and the date was set. Then Elder Blain was transferred back just in time to baptize us.
Conclusion: Both had different conversion needs; they needed a different approach to decide to join.
Snippet 6: We had the Word of Wisdom from the Doctrine & Covenants section 89 explained to us about what was good and bad for our bodies. I think I really had them sweating. I said I wouldn’t give up coffee until the last minute if I had to give it up for the rest of my life. I was in the habit of drinking about ten cups a day. I kept my word and didn’t drink coffee after my baptism. Royal had more to give up than I had. He smoked, drank coffee, and occasionally drank beer, but he also made the commitment and gave them up also. It wasn’t too hard to give up these things because we felt it was a revelation from God telling us what was good and bad for the bodies he had given us to take care of while on this earth. In scripture he calls our bodies a temple which should not be defiled by harmful things.
Conclusion: The commitments went from being “narrow-minded” to being a revelation, an obligation easy to meet.
Snippet 7: We were baptized at the YMCA pool. I was afraid to go under the water. Elder Blain told me to take a deep breath and hold it. I was still breathing in when I went under and came up sputtering. I said I had been baptized inside and out. It was a very elating experience. We both were happy and knew we made the right decision. The next day at church, we were given the Holy Ghost, and I was certain I had finally found God’s true church. This was a real experience I had never felt before. I felt a warm feeling swoosh down over me when they said, “Receive the Holy Ghost.” Royal said he also had a warm feeling when he received the Holy Ghost.
Conclusion: They concluded that what they had been taught was true because they had spiritual experiences that matched the teaching.
A Mosaic of Partial Puzzles
We went back to the partially completed puzzle again, and we finished putting the pieces together as a class. They finally saw that it was a jellyfish, not a goldfish in a bowl. They had seen the round shape of the jellyfish’s body and concluded it was a bowl, and the tentacles had been mistaken for goldfish fins. Sometimes we see what’s not there. Sometimes we don’t see what is there. Sometimes we draw wrong conclusions about what we’ve seen.
So it is with testimony.
Fast & testimony meeting is a mosaic of these partial puzzles, a conglomeration of stories that people conclude are evidence of a loving God or proof that the church is true or whatever their other conclusions may be. The idea of universal experience is illusory, and yet these glimpses of humanity can be very inspiring.