Reverence, Not Faith, Is the Key to an Expansive Mormonism

Jon Ogden is the author of When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Seek a Quality Life. We’re glad to have him as our guest.

“If you desire peace in the world, do not pray that everyone share your beliefs. Pray instead that all may be reverent.” — Paul Woodruff

One morning in southern California, my missionary companion and I were biking to an appointment when we saw a man sitting on his front porch. Like any good missionaries, we stopped to talk to him.

The moment we stopped, the man called out that he didn’t want anything to do with us.

At the time, comments like that only emboldened me.

I told him that we wanted to share the most important message in the world — that God had once again called a prophet to speak to everyone on Earth.

He just stared at me. “You believe that?”

“I don’t believe it,” I said. “I know it.”

“You know it?” he asked. “How do you know it?”

I explained, still sort of shouting across the yard, that I had prayed and God had sent an assurance it was true. Hearing this, the man smirked and once again said that he didn’t want anything to do with us. I tried to continue my pitch, but he immediately cut me off and wished us a good day. As a last resort I asked if I could give him a pass-along card, but he said no. My companion and I got back on our bikes and rode away.

Something about the man’s smirk stayed with me and made me realize just how overbearing I’d become. Before that moment I had thought that if I just expressed my faith with absolute confidence, people would open up and listen to my message.

Instead, my zealous faith created a division.

It was an instance where faith worked contrary to reverence.

Faith Versus Reverence

In Mormonism, the word “reverent” is frequently used as a synonym for “quiet” — especially as it relates to children. Perhaps the word makes you visualize a young child folding her arms at the front of a Primary room, or perhaps it calls up the Primary song “Reverently, Quietly.”

While being quiet is a good thing in a busy and loud world, the word “reverent” has a bigger meaning. It comes from the Latin word reverentia, which means “to stand in awe of something.”

As the philosopher Paul Woodruff writes,

Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control — God, truth, justice, nature, even death. The capacity for awe, as it grows, brings with it the capacity for respecting fellow human beings, flaws and all.

In other words, you nurture reverence as you experience awe — a mix of surprise and fear — in the face of something bigger than yourself. This in turn causes you to respect other people despite your differences.

By contrast, if you feel confident that you’ve already figured out the major mysteries of the universe, you are less able to feel awe. You’ve lost your capacity to see that which lies outside of your control and you therefore believe that you’re somehow superior to other people — that you’re chosen and other people aren’t. This is an unfortunate side effect of the overzealous faith that often surfaces in Mormonism (expressed with the phrase “I know”).

As Paul Woodruff writes, “Reverence is not faith, because the faithful may hold their faith with arrogance and self-satisfaction, and because the reverent may not know what to believe.”

That is, a self-assured faith often prevents reverence. It says, “We have all the truth, and all those other people out there only have part of it.”

Unfortunately, “all those other people out there” often includes Mormons who doubt. In this way faith becomes divisive even within the same Mormon community.

This is problematic in an era when many Mormons have discovered uncomfortable facts about their religion and are uneasy with the dominant church narrative as a result. These members often feel uncomfortable expressing their faith with certainty. They recognize that such indomitable expressions of faith create an insular, narrow religion.

Reverence Bridges Differences of Belief

It’s clear that if we want a more expansive Mormonism — one that welcomes those who believe and those who doubt — we must learn to nurture reverence.

This doesn’t mean that we should replace the phrase “I know” with “I don’t know” in our vernacular. After all, statements of disbelief can be just as smug and divisive as statements of belief can be, especially when they’re used to boast about the speaker’s supposedly superior knowledge. In this way, people use disbelief as a weapon, to make other people feel less than.

Instead, nurturing reverence means we should focus on declarations of awe and retellings of profoundly beautiful experiences. Within Mormonism, reverence surfaces in hymns such as “How Great Thou Art” and “For the Beauty of the Earth” — declarations of amazement at the grandeur of something bigger than us, especially as it relates to nature.

These declarations of awe lead to a more expansive religion, one that recognizes that we are all small compared to the grand mysteries of life.

As I reflect on my experience that morning as a missionary, I can’t help but think of how I could have responded to the man’s request to be left alone. Here he was, taking in the beauty of the morning, and I interrupted to lecture him about my indomitable faith. Maybe there was something he taught me: That sitting still and experiencing beauty is an act of reverence, one that all humankind can have in common.


  1. Lovely, thoughtful post. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. I certainly need this reminder. Thank you for allowing your experience to help others.

  3. Really liked this.

  4. A wonderful perspective and entirely compatible with or even conducive of Stendahl’s three rules of religious understanding and his accompanying perspective of holy envy.

  5. I’ve been thinking about just this lately as I’ve read the new book (and struggled with the new book) ‘Worship.’ I love the idea of reverence/worship being about awe and finding ways to express/feel that awe as a connection to God. I get really, really stuck at church though. Because the reverence/worship/awe during the three hour block points to devotion to the church organization itself more than to God. And I have such problems with the church that it feels like I’m being suffocated when I try to worship under such circumstances. On my own, in my private devotions, I find God easily, but don’t know what to do about Sundays. (I realize this is my personal issue, but sometimes its nice to state stuff outloud.)

  6. Jon, thanks for such a thoughtful post. I’ve thought back to some similar moments from my mission, and some even after and I have to be kind to myself in remembering that for me at the time, I was doing my best, but also, and thankfully, my real sense of spiritually does not exist much in speaking zealously about all the things “I know”, but rather resides much more peacefully in all the things I don’t.

  7. My favorite primary song is “Reverence is Love”

    Rev’rence is more than just
    quietly sitting:
    It’s thinking of Father
    A feeling I get when I think of his blessings.
    I’m rev’rent, for rev’rence is love.
    When I’m rev’rent, it shows
    in my words and my deeds.
    The pathway to follow is
    And when I am rev’rent, I
    know in my heart
    Heav’nly Father and Jesus
    are near.

    I’ve grown up believing that reverence for God and life is love, and I am glad to add another perspective to reverent worship.

  8. Thanks. It doesn’t take a lot to shift the discourse. Expressing faith as an “I know” or in terms of logic and proof is problematic. It takes very little to turn the phrase and action to “important to me” (that’s awe or reverence) or “sufficient to get me out on a mission to tell you” (that’s Joseph Smith’s faith as a principle of action). That’s how I was taught.

  9. I really like the poem by Jack Agueros where he talks about how much he loves tostones. About how on the seventh day of creation God was really in the kitchen making tostones because it takes all day to make them. How God taught his angels to make tostones. And if I remember correctly, the poem ends with a line “And when I eat tostones, I feel holy.”

    Profoundly beautiful experiences abound. Thank you for the thoughtful post.

  10. Unfortunately, I have not found that *an Expansive Mormonism* has often been a valued goal. Personally, I love the feeling of awe and revering and I seek experiences that inspire them as a necessary and vital part of life.

  11. Kol, I had that song in my head as I read this post, too :)

    One of my favourite parts of loving people is getting to catch glimpses of how I think God must see them, and the reverence and awe I am given to feel in those moments.

    Thank you, Jon, for sharing Paul Woodruff’s words, and your experiences :)

  12. Yes, yes, yes. Thank you for articulating this. It really hit home.

%d bloggers like this: