A Testimony: What it is Not!



Testimony meetings are important to the  Sometimes I am torn on whether or not to attend Fast and Testimony meetings. Having over 35 years of experience within the LDS church I have heard and seen some bogus "Testimonies." In Stockton, California, I had the opportunity to hear from members of the church express themselves that set the stage for all other members who bear the testimonies. Thus, a theme is born in fast and testimony meetings. One of those themes was to give thanks and vocal exemplary honor to one of its members who was out in the audience. The first man to get upon the pulpit expressed his gratitude and honor to a brother whom he had named. The next person got up and did the same. Finally, the third testimony was by a woman who bore her testimony about Jesus Christ. 

In this same ward I had invited a non-member (a co-worker of mine) to attend a "fast and testimony meeting." To my surprise, that day we had our then current Bishop released and another set in his place. Most of the testimony meeting was focused by the members upon how great they liked their previous Bishop but how wonderful this new Bishop will be. I was so embarrassed. My co-worker/friend left very early in the meeting and I do not blame him for doing so because I would have left too if it were not for my inviting him. 

At another time in California, a 50-year-old woman got up and bore her testimony about how the Lord answers prayers by reminding her through the Spirit that she needed to brush her teeth. (She prayed that the Lord would remind her to brush her teeth.)

In Mapleton, Utah, I have heard members stand at the pulpit and share extremely personal experiences such as one dying and entering into the spiritual realms and seeing God. Others get up simply to hear themselves speak with a planned agenda to teach rather than to testify. Others like to call the ward to repentance with which I had the privilege to hear from one member in my current ward. Others like to shock and wow the members with miraculous experiences they have either heard of or participated in. Others believe that telling very sad stories coupled with weeping's and sobbing are testimonies that are supposed to inspire (oh! and by the way crying is a sure sign that their "testimony is true.")

I have been driven to write this article because of the pain and embarrassment that I often feel in our LDS testimony meetings. It has gotten to the point that I feel like bringing popcorn and a soda to sit back and enjoy the entertaining show. However, it is few and far between that once in a blue moon there is a handful of members who bear their testimony to the saints that strike my very heart wherein my heart burns and my mind is becomes full of ideas and thoughts veered to aid me in my personal struggles. 

If there were, one thing that I can get across to the members of my faith it would be to drill into the minds of the Saints of both what a testimony is and what a testimony is not. Hierarchical leaders of the church have made many statements about testimony meetings and the role it should play into the hearts and minds of the Saints. This blog aids me to be quite frank and candid about a subject that I otherwise could not be upon the pulpits of the LDS church.

According to the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a testimony can be defined by its nine part contrary of What A Testimony is Not.

Not an Exhortation.
There is within Mormonism perhaps a tension between accepting ones priesthood calling "…to warn, expound, exhort, and teach,"[i] but not at the pulpits of the Church. However, the question must be asked, "when and where is it O.K. to exhort and when and where is it not ok to exhort?"
On one hand, we are asked to magnify our callings though teaching and exhortations while on the other hand we are told not to teach, preach and exhort during testimony meetings. The Doctrine and Covenants say that the duties of the priesthood are, "to warn, expound, exhort, and teach, and invite all to come unto Christ." While on the other hand you have hierarchal priesthood leaders asking the saints to avoid that during sacrament meetings. Elder Henry B. Eyring once said, "Those who have prepared carefully for the fast and testimony meeting won't need to be reminded how to bear testimony should they feel impressed to do it in the meeting. They won't give sermons nor exhortations nor travel reports... as they bear witness."[ii]

One man in my Mapleton Utah home ward got up in fast in testimony meeting and told the Saints to repent of any evil that they had committed because the Lord will forgive them. I was greatly offended at the time because I considered this so-called, "testimony" an illegitimate lay member claim to power. This type of exhortation insinuates that the "preacher" has him mote out of his own eye who is able and worthy to cast the beams out of its members eyes. His motive was to many obvious in that he desired to influence the behavior and views of the Saints to recognize him as a holy and spiritual man. Elder Jay Jensen of the Seventy once said, "Individuals who stand and exhort others in a fast and testimony meeting or even try to call others to repentance, even with the best of intentions, are usurping authority and are often offending others and disrupting the spirit of the meeting."[iii]

At another time, President Spencer W. Kimball once stated to a group of youth the seriousness in counseling each other by way of testimony through exhortation. "Do not exhort each other; that is not a testimony. Do not tell others how to live. Just tell how you feel inside. That is the testimony. The moment you begin preaching to others, your testimony ended."[iv]

Not an Experience
Most adult testimonies are of course proceeded with either how they received their testimony or they explain the why of their testimony. Although common sense tells that people want to not only know what you are testifying about there is usually a story that led you to that testimony. However it must be realized that the story in and of itself is not a testimony, "although experiences may illustrate belief and conviction."[v]

Not an Expression of Gratitude or Love
"Although these are often appropriately included in our testimony sharing,"[vi] it is not considered a testimony. Sometimes I hear members of the church stand at the pulpit and address the audience with the ritualistic words, "I would like to bear my testimony and say how much I love my mom and dad…" with short stops to catch their breath from a hyperventilated cry. This is not a testimony but a confession that they have not been open with their feelings privately with their parents or whomever they are expressing gratitude and love for. Others critically call this type of public thanks and gratitude a "Thank-a-mony" rather than a "Testimony." Hartman Rector, Jr once said, "Much of what we call testimony bearing is not really testimony at all -- it is a statement or expression of public thanks. It is good to be thankful, but public thanks is not testimony."[vii] At another time we read from Henry B. Eyring, "Because they will have already expressed appreciation [thanks] to people privately, they will have less need to do it publicly. Neither will they feel a need to use eloquent language or to go on at length."[viii]

Not a Public Confession
Within LDS scriptures we find a peculiar doctrinal statement, which reads, "But remember that on this, the Lord’s Day, thou shalt offer thine oblations and thy sacraments unto the Most High, confessing thy sins unto thy brethren, and before the Lord."[ix] Does this mean that if one has been having problems with pornography that he is to confess before the saints? God forbid! Not in my entire 35 years of being an active member of the LDS church have I yet experienced a public confession upon the pulpits of the church. 

Not a Sermon
When I see someone bringing their scriptures up to the pulpit at a fast and testimony meeting you can count on being preached at. There are members of the church who enjoy the sound of their own voice. Bloviating instead of Bearing becomes their way to impress rather than inspire. "Long winded pompous discourses" at a fast and testimony meeting are a waste of the members time who desire to get up and give a short testimony. Members of the church have conveniently labeled these "testimonies" as "Storymonies" or a "Storymony." Spencer W. Kimball once said, "A testimony is not an exhortation; a testimony is not a sermon (none of you are there to exhort the rest); it is not a travelogue. You are there to bear your own witness. It is amazing what you can say in 60 seconds by way of testimony, or 120, or 240, or whatever time you are given, if you confine yourselves to testimony. We’d like to know how you feel. Do you love the work, really? Are you happy in your work? Do you love the Lord? Are you glad that you are a member of the Church?"[x]

At another time he said, "Just tell how you feel inside. That is the testimony. The moment you begin preaching to others, your testimony ended."[xi] There is a very interesting story related by Robert L. Millet that fits perfectly into this section of sermonizing. He says, "In a May 2, 2002, letter, the First Presidency expressed concern that some expressions in fast and testimony meeting were precluding the opportunities for all members desirous to bear testimony--suggested that we “learn to express a brief, heartfelt testimony of the Savior, His teachings and the Restoration, so that more members may have the opportunity to participate.”


A few years ago in one of my Book of Mormon classes at Brigham Young University, after I had finished a discussion of Alma 4:19 and of the matter of bearing pure testimony, a student spoke to me after class. He said: "Brother Millet, I wanted so badly to bear my testimony in yesterday's fast meeting in my BYU ward, but I knew that I didn't have anything original to say. I didn't have a special message to deliver." This experience highlights a problem we sometimes see in the Church: the presumption that one has to deliver a message, preach a sermon, or make some original contribution to the meeting. There really is no need for the members of the Church to worry one tenth of a second about coming up with something to say, about leaving the congregation with a lasting message, about giving a talk."

Not a Long Explanation of How You Know but Rather What You Know

Not Merely Saying the Words “I Have A Testimony”
Just because someone says the words, "I have a testimony" does not mean that it then becomes a testimony as if you have "commanded the powers of heaven" to then bring the rest of your words to a fruitful spiritual smorgasbord that the members can partake of. I have heard many testimonies throughout my life that don't even use the words "I would like to bear my testimony." The terminology and structure of that one sentence has become so well used that it has become the signature opening statement of all testimony bearing members in the United States. Some consider the statement too mechanical and robotic. Oft times missionaries are told that if they don't know what to say in conversation situations that they are to resort to bearing their testimony. Having served my mission in France I am well aware of this instruction to the missionaries to "fall back" on your testimony when all else fails. The reason why we probably hear it so often is because it is not only said to often but people resort to it when they become nervous.  

Not a Time to Entertain
Recently in my home ward (though not a testimony meeting but sacrament talk) was given wherein the man explained his conversion from Catholicism to Mormonism. More than half of his talk was geared towards comedic Mormon culture traditions and how he ended up dying in an accident and was privileged to see the Spirit World and even God himself. The only worthwhile words were the last 30 seconds wherein a testimony was uttered about Jesus Christ. Henry B. Eyring says that people who are truly desiring for others to feel the Spirit in testimony meetings, "won't give sermons nor exhortations nor travel reports nor try to entertain as they bear witness."[xii]

Crying and Tears Are Not a Testimony
Let's face it; having to have to stand before hundreds of members is bad enough let alone getting all emotional to the point that you start to cry. Some are even crying while they are walking up to the pulpit. However, just because someone cries while at the pulpit does not mean that they are under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Joseph F. McConkie once stated, "There are some in the church who “ride on an emotional wave. If it brings a tear to your eye or raises the hair on your arms, it must be revelation. They love the sensational and the dramatic but quickly lose interest in the scriptures and the basic principles of the gospel."[xiii] Some people are so choked up in their testimony that speech is almost impossible. Oft times when I have born my testimony I have felt the tears swell up and the choking of my words quite embarrassing but it happens. I am only trying to make the point that just because someone cries does not sustain that message as being a testimony. Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles once stated, "Often such guidance will be accompanied by powerful emotions that make it difficult for you to speak and that bring tears to your eyes. But a testimony is not an emotion. It is the very essence of righteous character."[xiv] Robert L. Millet has a fascinating story that presses on this very matter.

One Mutual night as I came out of my bishop's office, I noticed that the Laurel class was huddled in the hall in the midst of what seemed to be quite a fascinating discussion. They appeared to be talking about one of the young women in their class who had during the last year slipped into inactivity in the Church. I heard one of the girls say, with some enthusiasm: "Well, I can tell you this much-she doesn't have much of a testimony." One of the others challenged her: "How can you say that? How do you know?" The first replied: "Well, you think about it for a minute. I've seen her bear her testimony many times, and I've never seen her cry once!" There was a pause, a moment of reflection on the part of twelve young ladies, and then a rather visible concurrence. Most of them nodded in agreement and said: "She's right about that." I was flabbergasted.

More than twenty years ago I taught several classes of eleventh graders in seminary. My fourth period class was a remarkable group. During the first part of the year, however, I noticed something a bit unusual. Day after day for about three weeks I noticed that every devotional (to start the class and set the spiritual tone) involved some kind of death story. Somebody was dying or giving their life or blood or something. I pulled the class president aside after the third week and asked: "Fred, what's the deal with the devotionals?" He didn't follow me. "I mean, why all the morbid stories in our devotionals? Why are we so hung up with death?" Fred responded verbally in a polite manner, but the look on his face betrayed the fact that my question had totally mystified him. "Brother Millet," he came right back, "how else are we going to get the kids to cry?" I said, "Oh, I understand." I didn't follow up on the conversation at the time, but felt it was best to wait until I had thought through my response.

There's no question that when we have a genuine spiritual experience we may be touched emotionally. Tears come easily for some of us, and there should never be the slightest embarrassment about such a thing. And yet we do ourselves and our youth a tremendous disservice if we begin to believe that an emotional experience is always a spiritual experience. Tears may come, but they should never be manipulated or elicited or sought for"[xv]




[i] Doctrine and Covenants 20:58-59
[ii] Henry B. Eyring, "Witnesses for God," Ensign, Nov 1996, p. 32
[iii] Bearing Testimony BY ELDER JAY E. JENSEN Of the Seventy October 2005
[iv] The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, ed. Edward L. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982
[v] Bearing Testimony BY ELDER JAY E. JENSEN Of the Seventy October 2005
[vi] Bearing Testimony BY ELDER JAY E. JENSEN Of the Seventy October 2005
[vii] Hartman Rector, Jr., Conference    Report, April 1974, p. 159
[viii] Henry B. Eyring, "Witnesses for God," Ensign, Nov 1996, p. 32
[ix] Doctrine and Covenants 59:12
[x] New Era, Aug. 1981, 6
[xi] In Stoker and Muren, Testimony, 139.
[xii] Henry B. Eyring, "Witnesses for God," Ensign, Nov 1996, p. 32
[xiii] Joseph F. McConkie The Spirit of Revelation 1985 127
[xiv] The Power of a Strong Testimony Richard G. Scott General Conference 2001
[xv] ."Bearing Pure Testimony" Robert L. Millett (The Religious Educator, vol. 1, Spring 2000, [Provo: The Religious Studies Center, BYU], pp. 26-45.)




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