This statement is not nonsensical or trite. It is the essence of our belief in six words. It is, in its own way, even lyrical.
One occasionally hears objections to the effect that statements can be true, or friends can be true, but how can an organization be true? I started writing this post some time ago, before Michael Austin’s recent post and not in response to it, but his post can serve as a thoughtful and well-written example of the genre. Michael writes:
I simply can’t comprehend what it might mean for a group of 15 million people or so to “be true”—or, for that matter, to be untrue. Statements can be true. Ideas can be true. Accounts of specific events can be true. But a Church, it seems to me, needs to have some relationship to truth other than just being it.
In his post, Michael expresses his concern about the danger of asserting that the church is true. I think Michael is responding not to “I know this church is true,” but to another statement he may hear in those words: “I know this church is truth.” That would indeed be a much different claim, but it is not our claim. Fortunately our prophets have been quite open to truth wherever it may be found—“If you can find a truth in heaven, earth or hell, it belongs to our doctrine,” as Brigham Young put it.
In other cases, puzzled appeals are made to popular dictionaries, as if “the church is true” were some strange Mormon usage. It’s not, but the answer is not so much a matter of dictionary definitions but of history.
There is a long tradition of debate about the true church. From the sixteenth century, we have examples such as Michael Hillebrandt’s Von der Einigen warhafftigen heyligen Christlichen Kirchen (“On the one, true, holy Christian church”; Dresden, 1536 [VD16 H 3669]); an anonymous tract, Von der rechten und waren Christlichen Kirchen Notwendige frag und disputation (“Necessary question and disputation concerning the correct and true Christian church”; Mainz, 1541 [VD16 V 2627]); and Tilemanm Heshusen’s De vera Jesu Christi ecclesia eiusque authoritate libri II (“Two books on the true church of Jesus Christ and its authority”; Jena, 1572 [VD 16 ZV 7868]). In English, we have The Plain Man’s Guide to the True Church or Edward Hawarden’s The true Church of Christ, shewed by concurrent testimonies of Scripture and primitive tradition (1738).
These examples are not hard to find, and a concerted search would turn up many more. It seems apparent that the usage is particularly common in environments of religious competition. When multiple churches are claiming divine sanction, the question inevitably rises: Which is the true church, the vera ecclesia, the wahre Kirche?
The collocation “true church” also has scriptural support in the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants. This usage of “true” also occurs in the Bible in reference to God: “But the Lord is the true God, he is the living God, and an everlasting king,” in contrast to idols and the gods of Israel’s neighbors. The question that sent Joseph Smith into the woods to pray used right as a synonym: “My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right.”
This usage of true isn’t unusual. If the king’s son and his two stunt doubles are all claimants to the throne, you can ask “Which one is the true prince?” without inviting puzzlement about the relationship between royalty and truth.
In short, “this church is true” is a concise way of stating: “In the ongoing, centuries-long controversy over which of the many churches in existence enjoys divine approval and possesses divine authority, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is that church.”
Is “the church” or “this church” true? It’s probably more common to say “the church,” with the speaker pointing from him- or herself to the institution over there. But I rather like the deixis of “this church,” with the speaker situating him- or herself on the inside and pointing to the church all around us.
“I know.” If the final two words are the subject of confusion, the first two words are the subject of offense. How can anyone claim to know something as unknowable as the mind of God concerning an earthly church, especially when the claimant is six years old and needs a step stool to reach the microphone? And for an adult to make the same claim, so the complaint goes, is arrogant and presumptuous to the extreme.
Perhaps. But the two words “I know” succinctly describe the goal of the church’s catechetical and proselytizing efforts. Joseph Smith described the result of his seeking the true church in just those terms: “For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it.” The First Vision is no mere founding myth. The church sees in it a practical and reproducible guide for children’s religious instruction and for interested nonmembers: read the scriptures, contemplate, pray, learn, know.
“I know this church is true” is also a guide to what the church is good at: being the true church of Jesus Christ. If that’s what you’re looking for, church leaders say and do a lot of things that may be of interest to you. If you’re looking for something else—a spiritual home that is modest about its truth claims, for example, or an effective structure for enacting positive social change, or just about anything else—you are likely to be frustrated. Some of the church’s deepest commitments as an institution are to the idea that finding the true church of Jesus Christ is vitally important, and that the mind of God concerning the matter can be known. This is our spiritual DNA, our reason for existing as a church.
“I know this church is true.” It is our Shema, our Shahada: Hear, o Zion, the church, our church, is the true church. As a statement of faith, it is appropriate for any age and it bears repeating, as it may require years to fully comprehend its implications.