Examining Moroni’s Promise

January 5, 2004 | 19 comments
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Moroni’s Promise has had increasing use in missionary work and in the church generally, starting with (I believe) President Benson’s emphasis on using it to show that the Book of Mormon is true.

Now, in a recent blog entry, Dave critiques Moroni’s Promise as essentially being an unfair test, which allows church members to accept positive results but disregard any negative results. Dave writes:

There’s an ugly side to Moroni’s Promise if you don’t play along with the Mormon script. “[I]f ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of [the Book of Mormon] unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:4). So obviously (to the convinced Mormon) a person who doesn’t get nice Holy Ghosty feelings about the Book of Mormon (1) is insincere; or (2) is sincere but irresolute, lacking real intent; or (3) is sincere and determined but lacks faith in God. Plenty of outs here; if a seemingly sincere person fails to admit to nice feelings about the Book of Mormon, it’s obviously not the prayer method or the Book of Mormon that is flawed, it’s the person. There’s something wrong with them and it’s obvious what it is: they are insincere, they lack intent, they are unfaithful.

Dave’s critique highlights an interesting question for us as members: Is Moroni’s Promise a valid test? Is it really, as Dave suggests, a stacked deck? And if so, what implications does that have for members who are encouraged to base their testimonies on it? (Or are we?)

Dave seems correct in his initial argument that as a logical or scientific test, Moroni’s Promise is not particularly rigorous. It requires sincerity and faith, and both of these are unverifiable inputs. If the desired output (receiving a testimony) is not acheived, a church member can simply claim that one of the unverifiable inputs, such as sincerity or faith, was set at the wrong value. (Is there a formal term for this kind of reasoning?)

The next question is much trickier. Given that Moroni’s Promise is not a rigorous test, what should this mean to church members?

One possibility is that many church members’ testimonies are based on Moroni’s promise (especially given its use in missionary work), and if so, that they should be subject to reexamination. (To be fair to Dave, let me note that this idea is an overstatement of his position — but, I think, a genuine possible result of showing that Moroni’s Promise is not rigorous).

I don’t think that such drastic action is required. Church members are encouraged to rely on the Spirit for guidance. However, church members are also almost universally aware of the difficulty (for some, the near impossibility, it seems) of distinguishing between the Spiriti and their own feelings.

Given this difficulty, I’m not sure that most church members base their testimonies solely or even primarily on Moroni’s Promise. (In addition, not all church members have tried Moroni’s Promise.) I think testimonies are generally based on a number of related factors, and that a main ingredient for most members is their general observation of the church and assessment that it is a good place for them to be. Moroni’s Promise may play a role, but it is not a constantly-invoked compass in a straight logical line, ruling all decisions.

To use an example, if I am offered a cigarette, I don’t engage in this chain of reasoning:

I read the Book of Mormon and prayed, and felt good, therefore the Book of Mormon is true; the Book of Mormon was translated by Joseph Smith, therefore Joseph Smith was a prophet; Joseph Smith who is a prophet received the Doctrine and Covenants, therefore it is true; therefore I should not accept the cigarette.

Rather, my thought process is a lot less linear and lot more reflexive. I have been conditioned to obey the Word of Wisdom. A number of factors enter into this mental conditioning: My reading of the scripture, my assessment that it is correct, my prayers and experiences with scripture generally, my observations of church members, my experience in the church, and probably a host of other factors.

I suspect that most members are similar to me. Their testimonies are not based on Moroni’s Promise, but on a variety of experiences in the church, and the basis of their testimony may change and shift over time. Mine certainly has.

Of course, for one category of people, Moroni’s Promise is paramount, and that is new members. Missionaries use Moroni’s Promise regularly, and most new converts rely on it strongly when they initially join the church. However, if they are to grow at all, they will begin finding other sources of testimony. By the time the hit a year or two in the church, the will have begun to weave the tapestry of testimony, of which Moroni’s Promise will now only be one thread.

To sum up, I found Dave’s discussion very interesting. I recognize that Moroni’s Promise is not a rigorous test. But, I felt good when I prayed about the Book of Mormon, and I am willing to accept that feeling as part of the tapestry — one of many factors — that makes up my my testimony.

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19 Responses to Examining Moroni’s Promise

  1. Nate Oman on January 5, 2004 at 1:34 pm

    It seems that Dave’s criticism amounts to the claim that Moroni’s test is non-falsifiable. The problem is that there are lots of human knowledge that doesn’t seem to fit the test of falsifiability. Not only would we need to jettison Moroni’s promise but a whole bunch of other stuff as well. In general, this is a problem with various forms of philosophical skepticism. We deploy it against one particular belief set that seems vulnerable, but there is often nothing to keep the idea for chewing its way through lots of other belief sets in ways that are not really tenable.

  2. Adam Greenwood on January 5, 2004 at 1:37 pm

    I don’t think you have to qualify the statement so much, Kaimi. The fact that some people didn’t get answered (or even that I didn’t get answered in my desultory early attempts) and that the promise has a built-in explanation for such failures in no way detracts from the remarkable spiritual manifestation that answered my sincere prayer. Any robust world view will defy scientific verifiability because it will be able to account for everything.

  3. brayden on January 5, 2004 at 2:21 pm

    Dave’s thought reminds me of a discussion I had once about Mormonism and positivism. Many Christian sects embrace a purely positivist view of salvation – by your works ye shall know them. The most extreme form of this is Calvin’s protestant ethic, which asserted that salvation was predestined and that the only way to ascertain the status of the saved on this earth was to observe their earthly success (e.g. wealth and prosperity). The LDS seem to buy into this a little in that we think God blesses the righteous, often through material prosperity, but we also believe that blessings are largely subjective. Even the poor are blessed in our view, although their blessings may come in the form of attitudinal characteristics, such as humility.

    Moroni’s promise is one example of this subjective emphasis in Mormon doctrine. Only the individual can know when he or she has received a testimony because it is only within his or her experiential purview. The bishop can’t come along and declare a testimony on someone based on their outward degree of competence/obedience. The problem with this kind of subjective test, as Dave notes, is that it is completely falsified or confirmed by the individual in question. Only he or she can relay the results of the test to the larger public (aka bishops, family, friends). Unlike a positivist science, which rests on the assumption that a validity test is apparent to all, the subjective test of a testimony is completely internalized.

    I think I agree with Kaimi when he says that the sources of testimony lie elsewhere – in actions that are more discernable to the public. For example, missionaries can be fairly certain that a testimony is flimsy and may not withstand Satan’s buffeting if the person refuses to read the BOM. Or a bishop can be certain that a member’s testimony of tithing is not very well-founded if he or she has never paid tithing. In other words, although the subjective part of a testimony may be internalized and completely non-falsifiable, there are other more external (public) manifestations of testimony that secure that good “Holy-Ghosty” feeling.

  4. Renee on January 5, 2004 at 2:56 pm

    I never considered it a test, just an opportunity. Similar to how I feel about Moses telling people to look upon a serpent or the words of John 3:17 telling me what I will get if I believe.

    There are plenty of people who don’t believe in Christ but that doesn’t make Christ any less valid as the Savior to the world, IMO.

    If someone get’s a negative answer or no answer to prayer about the BoM, it is entirely probable that something is holding their faith or sincerity back at this time. It doesn’t mean the BoM is any less valid.

  5. Jeremiah John on January 5, 2004 at 2:57 pm

    Saying that there is “an ugly side” to a categorical promise may be the same as saying that such a promise may be a false one. Surely this is what seems to be the case in Dave’s case. For members observing an investigator’s study of the Book of Mormon, the promise itself forces them to either withhold judgement or come to one of the aforementioned “outs”. But this is not because the believers are trying to explain religious phenomena (if this were the case, maybe it would make sense to call the promise a kind of scientific test, as it is, I can’t see how it does). Rather, members are trying to reconcile their own spiritual experiences with those of other truth seekers. But the very nature of these experiences means that this reconciliation will be far from scientific. Rather than taking these easy, judgemental “outs”, I think more often beleivers simply withhold judgement of other’s sincerity, etc.

    Brayden: The idea that lack of righteousness always or almost always is a sign of a lack of testimony is very common in our culture, but it contradicts many other parts of our tradition, evern more than it does the rest of the Christian tradition. This is because this idea assumes that knowledge is sufficient for righteousness–once we know the truth, we will do the right invariably. The idea is attractive, but it runs counter to the very Mormon idea of “teach me all that I must DO.”

  6. clark goble on January 5, 2004 at 3:01 pm

    I think positivism is a big danger, especially the way many judge Mormonism. However I think the bigger problem here is the *assumption* that the way Moroni 10:4 is answered is by “feelings.” I’d not that Moroni never claims that. He merely says it will be “manifest.” To assume that this manifestation comes only in some particular way, i.e. some ecstatic feeling, is very erroneous in my experience. Think through your own life. Do all answers to prayer come in that fashion? Relatively few do. In fact with many, I only recognize the hand of God in hindsight. God frequently answers me through prompting others. That doesn’t mean that the Holy Ghost isn’t at work. However it does mean that his ways are far more subtle than I think many assume.

    When considering Moroni’s words, I think we often neglect to read verses 8 on. Comparing that with D&C 46 is especially pertinent. I’d suggest that some “know” by faith and not something more tangible. (See D&C 46:14) Whether that ought to count as knowledge, is, of course debatable. Platinga and other reformed epistemologists would say yes. I’m a bit more cautious on that point. But I think within the context of Moroni’s use, it counts.

    The point is that the positivist approach, which demands unambiguous *evidence* does conflict with Moroni. There we are often more engaged in an interpretation of signs – signs that are often more subtle than they sometimes appear. (Although clearly not always – my own experiences have been quite unambiguous)

  7. brayden on January 5, 2004 at 3:20 pm

    Jeremiah: My point is not that we should judge others’ testimonies based on their actions. I was using the philosophy/paradigm of positivism to point out that Mormons do not really believe that testimonies are externally validated, although I might be talked into believing that the formation of testimonies rests on some kind of externally-visible action. I actually tend to gravitate towards the “thou shalt not judge..” camp of Christianity.

    Clark: I agree with what you’re saying about the means God uses to answer our prayers, but we still believe that for a testimony to be formed one must internalize his or her experiences and this is often done through feelings. Many psychologists claim that knowledge acquisition (not just of the spiritual variety) is always based in emotion. To say that feelings are only one way that God touches us is ignoring the fact that all cognitive input is mediated through emotional experience. This is why some people, the emotionally sick perhaps, may have a hard time recognizing the presence of the Holy Ghost. There is too much noise that distorts their spiritual experience for them to correctly interpret it. Anyway, I agree with you that the Holy Ghost is not just some entity that roams around Earth pushing our emotional buttons, but I still think that all of our spiritual experiences are emotional, in some way or another.

    Again, this is the real problem with our use of the positivist analogy in Mormonism (e.g. put it to a test, experiment upon his words, etc.). We do not really believe that testimonies can be externally validated because they are so emotionally constructed.

  8. clark goble on January 5, 2004 at 3:31 pm

    Bayden, I more or less agree with what you say, although would simply say that it points out the ambiguity of our word “knowledge.” I would not say that in most cases we can say *knowledge* acquisition is always based upon emotion. Perhaps *belief* aquisition. But I think to confuse those two is a very large epistemological problem. (One of many that exist within the psychological community)

    But that, of course, highlights the issue. We all have frequently unique senses to the term “knowledge.” When examining Moroni we *assume* that he is using it with the same criteria that we do. Thus the problem of a positivist reading Moroni 10.

  9. clark goble on January 5, 2004 at 3:40 pm

    One last point before I quit posting for the day.

    I’m not convinced that even within the positivist view that Moroni’s claim is unfalsifiable. Perhaps not for everyone, but the positivist need not adopt scientism. There can be evidence not public in a simple fashion.

    I’ll leave that point alone, however. I think the big problem with misreadings of Moroni is summed up by Dave. “If it feels good, believe it.” His critique simply is, what if it doesn’t feel good? Beyond the problem of feelings (not mentioned in the relevant texts) there is the problem of “good” and what that means. In the context of Alma 32 I think we have a consequentialism far more involved that Dave’s characature suggest. The “good” is not simply “enjoyable.” Certainly many things are enjoyable that are not good. (Drugs being the obvious example) And I think Dave overlooks that rather important point. (Even if it appears that he is making a similar point)

    We can know by the power of the Holy Ghost. But I think sometimes our expectations of *how* we’ll know keep us from seeing the answers to our prayers.

  10. Kaimi on January 5, 2004 at 3:42 pm

    I agree that it is probably best not to visualize the Holy Ghost as a personal button-pusher.

    However, sometimes leaders and members act as though it is a formulaic reaction to certain stimuli. You know, hit your knee with a reflex hammer, and your leg will move. Read the Book of Mormon and pray, and you will feel the Spirit, which is a still small voice or a burning in the bosom.

    Seconding what Clark writes, in my experience and observation, the Spirit manifests itself differently for different people. I don’t think we can rely on the idea, sometimes implied, that there is a Spirit-on-demand function which members can invoke by following a formula. For many (most?) people, spiritual experiences are special, non-formulaic events.

  11. brayden on January 5, 2004 at 4:18 pm

    Okay, so we all agree that the function of the spirit isn’t to push our emotional buttons. But I still think there is some validity to the idea that knowledge acquisition is emotional. Can anyone think of a learning experience that was completely emotionless? Ceasing to feel emotions is as impossible as ceasing to think. The blah feeling we sometimes associate with lack of emotion is in fact a kind of emotion. I think psychologists’ general point (and believe me, I don’t usually find myself supporting psychological claims) is that emotion is an important mediator of cognitive learning. Without it, we would have a hard time retaining any kind of experience and the lesson learned.

  12. clark goble on January 5, 2004 at 4:32 pm

    I think we ought to keep separate the way we form and store memories or connections from a more logical consideration of when we are justified in knowledge. As I said, I think psychologists confuse those.

    Certainly there are emotions involved. I’d even agree they are essential. Indeed I’d go so far as to say we can’t do anything in a purely unemotional way. Emotions are part of the operation of our brain.

    However when “feelings” are used in the context of religious knowing I think something a little more controversial is meant than what the psychologists are addressing. Don’t get me wrong, I think emotions can act as a “sign” for some information.

    For instance those of us who are a little more “mature” in recognizing and feeling the spirit can immediately tell when the spirit leaves. That can be a sign that (a) I’m doing something God doesn’t like or (b) I’m in a place that is bad or dangerous. (I should hasten to add that I don’t mean mature in a pejorative sense, more in the sense of mature in language use treating the spirit as a kind of language or at least sign-system)

  13. Dave on January 5, 2004 at 5:41 pm

    I have enjoyed all your comments, and I’m pleased Kaimi weighed in with a comment as well. His “Spirit on demand” comment nicely summarizes some of what I see as a problem. Sunday discussions of the topic have become so cut and dried that prayer is often presented as something like a gimmick. Recall that Brigham Young studied the Book of Mormon for two years!! before he was willing to give his assent, which at least provides the requisite time and engagement to support a claim of learning and enlightenment.

    Just expanding the range of manifestations of the Spirit doesn’t, I think, get around the problem. An investigator who says, “I prayed and felt X” is going to get assurance that X is the Spirit speaking to him. The Catholic next door who explains she felt Y when attending mass or reciting Catholic prayers would, I think, never be told by a Mormon that Y was the Spirit manifesting the truth of Catholicism to her. It doesn’t matter much what X and Y are. Or, to state it another way, if you told a Mormon you read a book, prayed about it, and got a spiritual confirmation, he would want to know what book you were reading before he would tell you whether it was a spiritual assurance or just an emotional response. Hmmmm.

    In fairness, other denominations play something like the same game–they rely on their own spiritual experiences as confirmation and are unlikely to credit a Mormon’s experiences in the same way, regardless of content.

    A reasonable conclusion is that prayer and prayer responses (or other manifestations you propose) are not really driving people’s religious convictions. That was exactly my point in paragraph 5 of my weblog post when I discussed the pragmatic basis of religious belief. People should, I think, come to a better understanding of the (reasonable and pragmatic) bases of their own convictions and be free to talk about it honestly.

    I disagree with Nate’s summary of this approach as simple skepticism. Granted, there’s an element of skepticism in self-examination, but it’s “Pauline skepticism”: test all things and keep the good. Don’t believe everything an angel tells you. That’s straight from Paul.

  14. Jeremiah John on January 5, 2004 at 5:58 pm

    I think that Clark is onto something here, when he talks about the unwarranted assumptions about the Holy Ghost and Moroni’s promise. Missionaries very frequently constructa daisy chain of proof texts to go with key assumptions, which produces a very stylized picture of what it actally means that the truth of these things will be made manifest by the power of the Holy Ghost, and by the Holy Ghost you may know the truth of all things.

    So the story goes that you should pray about the Book of Mormon, and if you do it right you should get an answer sometime during the next few visits. This answer will come as “good feelings”, probably sometime at night around the time of prayer, and the feeling should last from a few seconds to a few minutes.

    Now, this “method” is not explicitly taught of course, and as I said when this does not occur I beleive that missionaries are typically not judgemental but just keep trying to help. But this view of things seems to come to the fore when we start talking about Moroni’s promise as a method or test.

    It should be of interest to us that the scriptures frequently talk about recieving knowledge by the power of the Holy Ghost, but say little about “what this is like”, or how this feels. It is somewhat of a distortion to say that Galatians 5:22 definitively answers this question, since that scripture is not really talking about revelation or gaining knowledge by the Spirit. Gal. 5:22 is only helpful if we assume that we learn truth from the Holy Ghost not by having him actually teach us, but by having him with us in greater degree and then spotting his fruits within us, which we are then to interpret as evidence in favor of whatever we are near.

    Aside the fact that this seems unlikely and without scriptural support, and aside from the fact that we may have joy, or at least relative peace or goodness with us without receiving a spiritual witness, we have no reason to beleive that the Holy Ghost will not inspire joy, peace or goodness in us when the appropriate response would not be to affirm the nearest truth-claim being made. E.g. we may find ourselves in the midst of bitter ideological struggle; in this circumstance a feeling of peace or goodness would probably not be (and should not be) interpreted as divine confirmation of the last claim one has heard.

    I think that in general we accept a wide variety of kinds of revelation, simply because that is the way revelation comes to us. But the imperative to recognize the ‘influence of the spirit’ (the weakest part of the committment pattern, IMO), seems to lead to a simplification of revelation in some cases.

  15. Gordon Smith on January 5, 2004 at 11:01 pm

    Great discussion. Thanks to Dave for starting it, and thanks to Kaimi for bringing it here. A few thoughts …

    Clark suggests that we can receive answers to prayers in many ways other than “good feelings” (no doubt true), and that he sometimes does not see the hand of the Lord except in retrospect. (Same here.) In his most recent comment, however, Dave asserts: “Just expanding the range of manifestations of the Spirit doesn’t, I think, get around the problem…. [P]rayer and prayer responses (or other manifestations you propose) are not really driving people’s religious convictions.”

    I don’t want to detract from the main flow, but rather than just saying “Clark and Dave are both right to some extent” (probably true), let me pose the following questoins: is the Mormon preoccupation with the number of members in the Church correlated to insecurity over the validity of answers received to Moroni’s “test”? (In my view, yes.) If so, is this inappropriate? Perhaps the relative success of the Church should be a sign of the truthfulness of the underlying Gospel. I have no doubt that we use it that way. For example, we look at the dwindling Community of Christ, to mention just one example, and we just “know” that they veered off the road. Another example: we are particularly keen to point out the success of missionaries in predominantly Catholic countries (e.g., the Philippines, South American countries) because we have the sense of conquering the “great and abominable Church.” Don’t we all use this external evidence to bolster our faith?

    On the other hand, we view setbacks as the workings of the Adversary. I am sitting in a dorm room in India at the moment, and if my information is correct, there are no missionaries here. They have been kicked out. We don’t view this as a “sign” that Hinduism is true, but rather as a sign that Satan is at work.

    Bottom line: we probably are not very rigorous in evaluating faith-promoting evidence, and I agree with Dave when he says, “People should … come to a better understanding of the (reasonable and pragmatic) bases of their own convictions and be free to talk about it honestly.” All of that said, I continue to trust my own feelings, which have served me pretty well.

  16. mardell on January 6, 2004 at 12:51 am

    This assumes that the Holy Ghost will always tell people that the Book of Mormon is true / to join the church.

    Maybe you need to find God first through another route. Someone might read the Book of Mormon but not be ready to be a member. Mormonism is kind of extreme. So maybe the Holy Ghost does guide them, not to join the church. They can join it later, even if they have to in the afterlife.

    We don’t have any right to tell people that they didn’t feel the Spirit. They don’t have the gift of the Holy Ghost but the Spirit still guides them. Mormonism is not always the right choice for everyone all the time. Some people need smaller steps.

    I knew a person who grew up LDS who as a teenager was inactive. She then left the church to become an atheist when she was in college. And then, years later she became a Jew. Her family was concerned, but prayed and got a good feeling that this was what she needed. She needed to find God first. The rest could come later.

  17. Adam Greenwood on January 6, 2004 at 11:30 am

    I’m not sure what we’re arguing about here. I read the Book of Mormon, prayed about it, and was given a taste of the Tree of Life. What’s the problem with that?

  18. clark goble on January 6, 2004 at 2:16 pm

    On my mission were were almost always careful about describing the spirit. Yes we always used the reference in Galatians, but used it to note the diversity in fruits. However when the spirit was there strong, it was almost always easy to identify it and the investigators would recognize it. The problem was making it a habit so that they could come to discern and act on it. Typically if they could make it to a third discussion with constant manifestations of the spirit they would get converted.

    I also agree with Mardell though. I think the line of development is more circuitous than we might think for many people. If the goal was simply to baptize everyone, the Lord would have gone about things quite different and not made it so most of his children don’t really hear his word.

  19. clark goble on January 8, 2004 at 8:25 pm

    I’d posted a link to Brant Gardner’s commentary on the Book of Mormon over in the “influential texts” thread. As I was thinking about it I think his comments on Moroni 10:4 are perhaps interesting as well.

    http://frontpage2000.nmia.com/~nahualli/LDStopics/Moroni/Moroni10.htm