I know this church is true

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.

32 comments for “I know this church is true

  1. September 7, 2018 at 10:18 am

    This is a great post, Jonathan. Thanks.

  2. SteveDensleyJr
    September 7, 2018 at 10:24 am

    Thanks for writing this. I’ve become increasingly concerned with the criticism of those who say they “know the Church is true.” It seems to me that this is not just an objection to bad grammar. Rather, it is an objection to the idea that we can really “know” anything or that there is such a thing as objective truth. People who make such objections seem wary of anyone stating that they “know” anything, unless they are stating that they “know” that there is no such thing as objective truth. Ironically, it seems that this kind of absolute statement about objective reality is a testimony to which they would not object.

  3. p
    September 7, 2018 at 10:44 am

    “I know the Church is true” tracks closely with “I know the Book of Mormon” is true” – but this latter usage has certainly shifted in the last half-century from literally true, i.e., those civilizations actually existed in the Americas, to something more akin with “true” because it is in some way a revealed scripture that reflects the mind of god. This segue from specific to general makes me very uncomfortable, as if by simply avoiding a historical/archaeological reckoning we are allowed somehow to move on to another paradigm that’s presented as just as conclusive. I’m not so sure. This is a discussion the body of the church needs to have, sooner rather than later.

  4. Dane S
    September 7, 2018 at 10:46 am

    Hear, hear!

  5. Clark Goble
    September 7, 2018 at 10:51 am

    Great post. Like Steve’s comments above, it’s bothered me how people get upset that we even say this. I think I first became aware of all this from an old Mormon Matters podcast where Joanna Brooks, Rhett Tenny and Dennis Potter discussed the issue with Dan Wotherspoon. To me the whole discussion missed the forest for the trees. Further just linguistically it’s not that odd an usage. We talk about true friends and knowing someone is a true friend all the time. I did a post a few years back arguing that the usage is actually also fairly Hebrew. (I’m not a Hebrew speaker so I was following some of Yoram Hazony’s writings)

    P, I think the vast, vast majority of Mormons think there were real Nephites. So I don’t think the usage has shifted. If anything far more today believe that than in the 1960’s going by the polls I’ve seen from that era. I don’t deny that in intellectual circles it’s more acceptable to accept a fictional Book of Mormon today than in say the 1990’s. I’m not sure that’s terribly representative of the Church as a whole though.

  6. sd
    September 7, 2018 at 11:27 am

    Austin’s post was murky enough that I don’t know how much daylight really exists between his view and Jonathan’s. But Jonathan’s post is hard to argue with. Jim Faulconer has another good take on that type of objection to professions of “knowledge”: http://www.patheos.com/mormon/i-know-james-faulconer-06-28-2012.html

  7. September 7, 2018 at 11:59 am

    I like this from beginning to end in a descriptive sense. I object to the prescriptive flavor that seeps out in the last paragraph or two. For someone who does not share in “This Church is true” by this description, the statements from the pulpit sound like a challenge, as in “this statement is defining of true Mormons [intentional], and if you can’t say it that way you don’t belong.” It feels like the OP finishes on that note, and it is on that prescriptive note that I disagree.

    (Disagree in the sense that while people have every right to say it, I think it an incorrect demarcation or boundary.)

  8. September 7, 2018 at 2:04 pm

    The bloggernacle needs more people like brother Green defending the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints from the many who are continually nitpicking or flaunting the imperfections that necessarily exist in the church, church history, and doctrine. After all, we live in a fallen world. The prophets have taught that there is opposition in all things. But that doesn’t mean to magnify the imperfections and marginalize the perfections as many in the bloggernacle are inclined to do in their op-eds.

    High-5 to brother Green

  9. Nat Whilk
    September 7, 2018 at 2:25 pm

    The Oxford English Dictionary gives a definition of “true” that is completely in harmony with the usage Michael Austin decries: Definition III.7.a: “Real, genuine, authentic; not false or spurious; that rightly or properly bears the name.”

  10. Clark Goble
    September 7, 2018 at 2:43 pm

    Nat, read down through the other entries. Without going OED (which probably has a huge list) the second entry for Merriam-Webster’s entries is “properly so called” and “possessing the basic characters of and belonging to the same natural group as.” The third entry is “steadfast, loyal, honest, just.” The fourth entry is “legitimate or rightful.” Even Webster surprisingly misses the other use that we see when a bicyclist trues a wheel which is making it closer to the ideal.

    So I’d say that according to Webster to say the Church is true is to say this is properly the Church.

  11. Kris
    September 7, 2018 at 5:58 pm

    I would be interested in hearing how others know the Church is true. I know it is true but I can’t really tell you how I know.

  12. JR
    September 7, 2018 at 6:32 pm

    I must mostly agree with ChristianKimball here though I am one who does share in “the Church is true” in the sense I think Jonathan has very well described, while at the same time being open to other definitions of “true” and “church”. I understand Christian to think that the OP edges too close to “this statement is defining of true Mormons …, and if you can’t say it that way you don’t belong.” Perhaps the common use of that phrase can have that effect, as when we hear adamant speeches in sacrament meeting about the necessity of a personal testimony [meaning saying and believing “I know the Church is true”] because if you don’t have it/say it you will fall away or otherwise fail to confirm to God’s will. I’ve heard that a lot for more than 60 years. For some, it amounts to telling them they do not belong. That seems to me wholly inconsistent with the D&C’s enumeration of gifts of the spirit.

    While I have no objection to most others’ use of that statement, I have found a number of them at all ages who cannot tell me what they mean by it. I’ve encountered others who think it means what Michael Austin has decried; others who know very well they mean what Jonathan says it means. While I think even a 6 year old is capable of understanding the meaning Jonathan finds in the phrase, I’m not convinced that they do if it is not taught to them in addition to the phrase being modeled as what is to be said in F&T meeting. Frankly, I am not only uninspired, but disinspired [did I coin that word?] by the 2 and 3 year olds who get up in F&T meeting to please their parents or to be the center of attention by repeating such stock phrases with no idea what they mean by them. Many years ago as a pre-teen I was utterly confused by such unexplained testimonies because I had no grasp of the variety of meanings of “true” (or, for that matter, “church” or “know”). So my objection to the phrase is really to its use without explanation of how one knows or what one means and then only out of concern for those who will be confused, frustrated, or feel they have been somehow excluded from being “true Mormons [intentional]” because they can’t [yet, if ever] bear testimony in those words. I very nearly walked out permanently on the language training mission (yes, I’m that old) without a word to anyone there or to family because of being expected to testify that “the Church is true” when as a 19-year-old I could not honestly say that, even if only because of lack of understanding what was meant. I don’t want to contribute to the departure of our people by confusing them with unexplained, stock phrases. The most moving testimonies I have heard were explanations of what one believed and why they believed it — most notably in one case even without any use of the word “know”. If F&T meetings are to be meaningful to me, they need more of that and less vain repetition of stock phrases.

    I cannot object to others’ use of the phrase or the meaning Jonathan finds in it, a fully legitimate English language meaning, but I am perhaps too easily frustrated by its too common, too facile use by those who show no sign of grasping that meaning or without really communicating that meaning to those without Jonathan’s level of erudition.

  13. Loursat
    September 7, 2018 at 11:43 pm

    I believe that this church is true, and I agree with most of what Jonathan writes here so eloquently. As christiankimball says, I think that Jonathan is mostly correct in a descriptive sense. However, I consciously avoid saying the words, “I know this church is true.” I avoid these words because they have become a cliché. Their meaning has been diluted so much that I cannot rely on them to communicate my intention.

    I wish that this sentence were a Mormon Shema or Shahada, but I don’t believe that it is. It has no ritual significance. Rote repetition is not the equivalent of ritual.

    I think the most reliable meaning we can assign to this sentence, when it is repeated as it so often is in testimony meetings, is as a statement of belonging. The speaker is saying, “I belong here.” There is considerable value in that, but it is a pretty far cry from the meaning that Jonathan explains in his post.

    I wrote that I consciously avoid saying these words. I have to qualify that. It’s more accurate to say that when I use these words, if I use these words, it’s only in the context of explaining what I mean by them. Otherwise, I can’t feel that I have genuinely expressed my testimony.

  14. Clark Goble
    September 8, 2018 at 12:55 am

    It seems to me D&C 46 makes clear “To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful.” To demand knowledge by everyone seems to go against God’s own word. We should seek after knowledge but not pretend it if we don’t have it – nor disparage those who don’t.

  15. Richard
    September 8, 2018 at 9:13 am

    Excellent posts by both Jonathan and Michael, that set me off pondering for the past hours. I first opened the statement in D&C section 1 by the Lord himself on ‘his’ Church being “the only true and living” church. Then I started reading the verses back and forth in context and discovered a few interesting details that might add to this dialogue, help us avoid the ‘testimony trap’ and be the savored salt and shining light the Lord asks us to be.

    First, the purpose of the founding of the church is clear to the Lord: “That the fulness of my gospel might be proclaimed by the weak and the simple unto the ends of the world, and before kings and rulers.” So yes, that city upon a hill that cannot be hid, was founded, and we – though weak – are to be its citizens. Here I find a – substitute – description of what is ‘true’ about the church, namely that it is a vessel for the fullness of the gospel. In my testimonies I rarely want to use the contrary distinction true – untrue (say if a visitor from a different church hears me talk about my church being true, it infers that his church is untrue, and this might invoke a defensive stance), but rather the gradual distinction more or less ‘full’ (the same visitor would then ponder if maybe this church contains more (true) insights of the gospel than his own and enters into an inquisitive learners’ stance). The end goal is that this fullness of the gospel ‘fills’ the earth, and we can be collaborators (‘servants’) if we choose to be so.

    Second: “Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.” He then lists their weaknesses and sins: “And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent; And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.” It reaffirms that God is able to do his work through weak vessels as ourselves, given we repent. It seems like a transferal of responsibility: God ‘dispenses’ certain knowledge to his servants, and then sets us up with the task to spread it. This includes of course the Book of Mormon, of which the Lord testifies in a way by confirming that it was translated by his power and mercy: “And after having received the record of the Nephites, yea, even my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., might have power to translate through the mercy of God, by the power of God, the Book of Mormon.” So the Lord gave this book to assist in the effort of spreading his gospel, but it is up to us to organize this work. Then comes the need for a church organization.

    Third: “And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth”. This seems to point to the ‘development’ this church (of ours?) is intended to make, out of obscurity and into the light, growing in stature like a living entity, a body of (organized) saints who are ‘true’ to this calling of spreading this fullness of the gospel that has been dispensed to them by the Lord himself. So it seems here that ‘true and living’ are connected to one another, giving us a charge to be ‘true and living (= developing, growing)’, both collectively and individually, to that given responsibility (stewardship?).

    Forth: “, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually—“. So I guess, if the body of Saints is true to this calling and stewardship, the Lord is well pleased. And yes, as a body (or ‘church organization’), we are very loyal to that calling. The question – I assume – the Lord want to pose us here is: but are we true to this calling individually, as members of the body? I think we must agree that not every individual member is ‘true’ to these covenants and promises made or is developing and growing in spiritual stature (becoming more ‘saintly’). But luckily, the truthfulness of the church does not depend on individual members.

    Then (fifth) the Lord warns: “For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance;” The ‘for’ is not unimportant, because it links the words ‘true and living’ to our individual truthfulness to the gospel and the way we live it. We can make the church more true, as a member of its body, by living the fullness of the gospel more fully and by joining in the great calling the Lord gave us to spread it. Then again, the calling to spread the gospel is taken up by every Christian on earth, in varying degrees of loyalty and truthfulness. So it is a joint effort, but one in which I think the Latter-day Saints have a – covenanted – specific calling, to which we can be true. We have received things that others might not have (or that have been lost), and that we can add (or restore), to a fulness.

    So in a F&T meeting, we could hear these words uttered in addition to the words that are already engrained in our routine: “I know this church is true to its calling to spread the fullness of the gospel. And so am I.” Another rendition could be: “I know that the gospel truths that I have found in this church, were received from God through living prophets, and that this continues on. I know this through a personal confirmation by the Holy Spirit, that testified to me that these things are true.” One could testify this also for separate principles of the gospel, and in that way help spreading (more) truth.

  16. Richard
    September 8, 2018 at 9:23 am

    So it truly is ‘our’ church: The Church of Jesus Christ (his part) of Latter-day Saints (our part). What’s in a name? A lot apparently.

  17. Richard
    September 8, 2018 at 10:22 am

    I continued reading about this relationship between the Book of Mormon, the fulness of the gospel, the calling to spread it and the role of the church in D&C 10:45-70. Very powerful.

  18. Gkkhgffg
    September 8, 2018 at 8:59 pm

    I agree that mormons use that phrase said schema. They should not. They should use the schema. Then use the articles of faith. Focus on Christ’s rightness rather than our trueness…

  19. Xander
    September 10, 2018 at 1:45 am

    The post captures the very essence of what most LDS believers appear to mean when they say, “I know the church is true.” They mean that the LDS church has the most correct understanding of doctrines among all Christian denominations. They express a belief that they had a revelation from the Holy Ghost that the central ideas that are taught in the LDS church are actually true and reflect reality.

    The rank-and-file LDS believers are absolutist in their beliefs about the core doctrine of the LDS church. The leaders are absolutist as well and encourage such absolutism. Repeatedly we hear conference talks that encourage certainty and knowing.

    Hence I can’t understand why so many people in the ‘Nacle promote this push for an understanding Mormonism as an expression of uncertainty and metaphorical truth. Probably because many fear offending believers of other Christian denominations and religions. Probably because it is more difficult to defend ideas that one holds with certainty. Also because it is easier to paint the skeptics and doubters as certainists and absolutists and then call them unintellectual in so doing. I think that any believing blogger who tries to refute skeptics by trying to paint them as closed-minded absolutists needs to be honest with their motivations, which are, that they are trying to defend the absolutist doctrines of the LDS church.

  20. JR
    September 10, 2018 at 6:21 am

    It seems to me that there is a significant difference between Xander’s expressed perception of most LDS believers’ meaning (“the LDS church has the most correct understanding of doctrines among all Christian denominations… [the speaker] had a revelation from the Holy Ghost that the central ideas that are taught in the LDS church are actually true and reflect reality”), on the one hand, and Jonathan’s meaning, on the other, (“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.’ ”) Xander’s comment doesn’t seem to acknowledge any such a difference. And there we have a demonstration of part the confusion — at least mine.

    I’ve also had enough conversation with and observation of 2 and 3 year old, and some older children, to be fairly confident that at least most of them do not mean anything like what Xander has told us LDS believers appear to mean. The frequent repetition of the phrase by 2 and 3 year olds is only a part of the clichéd use of the phrase Loursat commented on. It happens in my ward too frequently for me.

    I expect to continue to be uncertain what any particular speaker means by “the Church is true” until that speaker explains it. There are a variety of possible meanings in the use of that phrase. A speaker might mean one, some, all, or none of them. When I used the phrase, I meant what Jonathan said; that is how I understood such revelation as I had on the subject — that revelation certainly did not go as far as what Xander thinks most LDS believers mean and I see no reason to suppose that my understanding of a revelation should not grow or change. I suspect Jonathan’s reading is the primary meaning of the use in D&C 1, though even that text has broader possibilities — at least if one ignores the comma added by editors and not in the manuscript as it appears in the JSPP. Side note: Were I to adopt Jonathan’s explication now, I might want to be careful to note that “enjoys divine approval” does not mean all of its people (see D&C 1), or all of its teachings or actions enjoy divine approval. (See DHO on a distinction between continuous and continuing revelation and consider mistakes made by various church leaders at multiple levels and acknowledged by them or other leaders.)

    So, with Loursat, I cannot feel I have genuinely expressed my testimony, or even part of it, if I use that phrase without further explanation. For myself, I cannot think I have understood another’s testimony accurately if she uses that phrase without further explanation — but that does not need to get in the way of an empathetic or spiritual response to that other person’s expression of genuine feeling.

  21. Xander
    September 10, 2018 at 11:20 am

    JR,

    You’re omitting a key part of the OP, in which Jonathan says that true is a synonym of right when Joseph Smith asked God which of the sects was right. From that we know what follows: God gave a series of revelations to Joseph Smith, and on that basis Mormonism became more correct in its doctrinal understandings than other Christian sects. There is no tension between what I wrote and what the OP is writing. It can be clearly inferred from predominant LDS discourse that the idea of the church being true means not only that its leaders have authority from God, but also that they have received God’s revelations which are absolute truth. The same can be inferred from the OP. After all, what good is that authority from God if you can’t use it to make authoritative claims about doctrine? The leaders and rank-and-file members don’t treat the Doctrine and Covenants, for instance, as tentatively the words of Jesus Christ (at least those which Joseph Smith claims to be the words of Jesus). They just plain are. And it is overtly assumed to be such whenever D&C is quoted from.

    “I expect to continue to be uncertain what any particular speaker means by “the Church is true” until that speaker explains it.”

    I have spent my whole life in the LDS church, and I am assuming that you have too (or at least many, many years in it). I have been to hundreds of discussions and been on a mission where I regularly talked with my companions, members, and investigators about the LDS church being true. Repeatedly, time after time after time, people clearly meant truth as accuracy in describing reality. I have every reason to believe that you’re being obtuse and intellectually dishonest about your experiences with LDS people when they say “I know the church is true.”

    “I’ve also had enough conversation with and observation of 2 and 3 year old”

    Seriously? Wow. Just wow. You criticize me for assuming what LDS obviously and clearly mean when they say that the “church is true” and then you proceed to tell me what they mean based on your interactions with 2 and 3 year-olds????? Absolutely laughable. Talk about jumping the shark big time.

  22. JR
    September 10, 2018 at 12:16 pm

    Xander — This: ” I have every reason to believe that you’re being obtuse and intellectually dishonest about your experiences with LDS people when they say “I know the church is true.” ” is both false and needlessly and uncharitably insulting.

    I had understood Jonathan to speak of Joseph’s use of “right” as a synonym for “true” in the sense he then stated “in short” and I quoted. That is not the same as your version, which I agree is undoubtedly what some people mean by the phrase in question. There is indeed some significant overlap between your version and Jonathan’s, but they are not the same and I am clearly unable to help you see that.

    I did not say anything about what LDS obviously and clearly mean by the phrase in question on the basis of interactions with 2 and 3 year olds. My point goes only to the fact that they do not all mean the same thing and I do not always know what any one of them means based upon what someone else has said they mean.

    Good luck trying to persuade anyone of your rightness with insults.

  23. September 10, 2018 at 3:16 pm

    Xander, please keep it charitable. There’s no call for your last 1.5 paragraphs. You can do better than that. Also, you’re making a quick and, I think, unwarranted jump between revelation, authoritative claims about doctrine, and absolute truth. I think most church members are quite capable of recognizing gradations such as: a commandment for our time, truth revealed line upon line, a revelation using the language and culture of the time. I do believe in absolutes – but also in identifying them with caution.

    But JR and Xander bring up a good question: My argument is that “the church is true” is a valid usage, but what do people actually mean by it? It’s probably not useful to try to ask people for precise definitions, because most of us can’t define the words we use, at least not without a lot of work. That doesn’t mean the words are meaningless, only that pinning down definitions is hard.

    My guess is that most people have in mind a combination of senses that is not easily pried apart: that of all the churches in existence, the church uniquely enjoys divine sanction; that the authority used in conducting ordinances is valid; and that the statements of church leaders correspond to supernatural reality. I believe that the sense I argued for in my post is usually present, not as a matter of definition, but because of the history and the pedagogy. There was a historical debate about which was the true church, and this debate is an important part of the context for teaching the First Vision and for what it means to acquire religious conviction, to “gain a testimony.” (“The only true and living church” in D&C 1:30 is a response to this historical debate, so it’s pointless to argue for another interpretation based on splitting hairs over punctuation; people were asking which one of all the churches was true, not which of all the true churches was the God-pleasing one.)

    The use of “this church is true” in testimony meeting is formulaic, but of course it’s formulaic: formulas get to be formulas by concisely expressing something important. We learn to speak by mastering formulas. Sooner or later we realize that there’s more to mastering a formula than merely repeating it. If repeating a formula is appropriate to someone’s current spiritual development, the repetition can be profound. As for myself, I don’t think I’ve ever used the formula verbatim in bearing testimony (so I’m not sure why Christian thinks I’m trying to prescribe its use; there’s enough to disagree with on the Internet without having to dig for hidden prescriptivism). Like JR, if I just left it at mere repetition, in most circumstances I would be leaving too much unsaid for it to be an authentic representation of what I was trying to say. But for other people, or perhaps for me in a specific situation, it might be enough.

  24. Xander
    September 10, 2018 at 6:03 pm

    Why does it feel like pulling teeth to get believing LDS bloggers to acknowledge what should be patently obvious by what is meant when LDS believers say something is “true” (i.e., church, Book of Mormon, prophets, etc.). It is ever so apparent in the discourse of the common believers that true means that the central doctrines correspond to reality (of course, the typical believer acknowledges that there are some peripheral teachings whose truthfulness is unclear, but this doesn’t apply to central teachings, which are also quite extensive and laid out). And the intended meaning of true in the LDS world has always been this way up until only very recently when secularism replaced Protestant competitors as the main opponent. For most bloggers, the hypothetical secular opponents’ arguments weigh heavily on the mind. The concern is not so much the correct interpretation of the Bible and recognizing revelation through the spirit, but the reconciling of the LDS truth claims with reason. It appears that many bloggers on the topic of truth are trying their darnedest to find loopholes that they can slip through to avoid the blows of this hypothetical secular person’s arguments that the LDS is either untrue or its truth claims lack sufficient evidence in order to paint the latter as attacking a strawman and misunderstanding the supposedly ever elusive nuance of the LDS teachings (which leaders have long promoted to be plain, clear, and simple). The LDS leaders and the rank-and-file (sorry, JR, it should be obvious that I am not including 2 and 3 year-olds in this category) emphasize and reemphasize a set of central truth claims that they are absolutist about. This should be as plain as day. But the more liberal-thinking blogger does not want to be pinned down by these and engages in long-winded, overly verbose game of extreme mental contortionism in order to try to avoid acknowledging what should be obvious. Jonathan’s post and comments are leaning in a more intellectually honest direction when it comes to what is meant by “true”, but so many other bloggers and commenters are the weaselliest little fiends on this question. Engaging with them is like playing a game of whack-a-mole, and like the game, the main strategy to win is to whack hard and fast. Of course, sometimes they still get you by acting like a flopping ball player who cries foul at everything.

  25. JR
    September 10, 2018 at 6:32 pm

    I hesitate to respond to Xander at all, but I do have a question and a minor explanation. Question: are you the same person as Daniel C. or simply one with a near identical style of argument, insult, and whack-a-mole references? Explanation: My personal issues and confusion with the phrase in question are very old — long predating the internet (and therefore blogs), and predating any time when “secularism replaced Protestant competitors as the main opponent.” Further, I am not in the least interested in defending Mormonism or LDSism or whatever against Protestant of secular “opponent.” Accordingly, Xander’s latest has nothing at all to do with me beyond his possible conviction that I am too dense to grasp what is patently obvious to him. That may be. I would be pleased to know that my experience and ability to read and thought processes are not like his. Of course, there are also other possibilities, but I’m done here.

  26. SDS
    September 10, 2018 at 7:50 pm

    As this discussion reflects, when people say “I know the Church is true,” they may mean different things by those words. It’s not just those listening but also those speaking who may not know precisely what the words mean when spoken by a given person on a given occasion. For many of us, after all, life involves an ongoing reflection on all of those terms– “I,” “know,” “the Church,” “true”– and the same person’s understanding of the words may develop over time.

    It seems to me that this is as it should be, and that we would be misguided to require too much precision. At the very least, the person who voluntarily stands up and says “I know the Church is true” seems to be affirming a) that he or she has felt the presence or approval of God in some aspect of what we call “the Church” and b) that he or she feels and wants to maintain some solidarity with “the Church.” These seem to be prima facie good things– things to be approved and encouraged– even though they will likely be refined as time passes.

  27. September 11, 2018 at 5:51 am

    Jonathan, it is honestly surprising to me that you can say “I don’t think I’ve ever used the formula verbatim” and call it “our Shahada.”

  28. September 11, 2018 at 10:16 am

    Christian, it’s a case where mastery is demonstrated by variation rather than repetition. The formula is no less important, but expectations for its use are different.

  29. Xenophon
    September 11, 2018 at 2:18 pm

    “And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually—” (D&C 1:30)

    During a fast and testimony meeting in a small branch in the midwest, a little boy stood at the pulpit and declared: “I know that Jesus Christ is true.” Truer words were never spoken. If Jesus Christ is true, and He is, and if He really communicated the words in the verse above to the Prophet Joseph Smith, and He did, then why not believe Him? All the internet wrangling in the world won’t change the truth of Christ’s statement regarding His church, namely, that it is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth.”

  30. Clark Goble
    September 11, 2018 at 3:15 pm

    Xander, I think most understand what is entailed by the phrase. I think they more object to the particular way its phrased. Many in this thread don’t mind people saying that this is Christ’s church, or that we have the authority. They dislike the phrasing or blindly repeating it. Now some, as I mentioned earlier, object to the very linguistic form. That’s just plain silly though. (IMO) The more performative aspect of the phrase is more interesting. I’d simply note that those who object to people saying “I know the Church is true” as empty probably don’t object to other performative statements like “I love you.” The reality is that we have numerous such performatives that have a ritualistic aspect in their repetition. As with any such statement we can say it an mean it or merely be going through the motions. I’d just point out to people who don’t like the phrase that this ability to emptily and insincerely say something happens regardless of the words we happen to use.

    SDS, certainly people can mean different things by those words. In general though I think saying it comes with some basic claims – especially when typically followed up with “I know Joseph Smith was a prophet” and the other statements often part of a testimony. Ultimately for most people what they’re doing is signifying their testimony and not describing their testimony. And that is perfectly fine.

    Now of course there will be some who mean something different by it. To take an obvious example that pops up on blog comments a lot, those who don’t think the Book of Mormon is historical but think it historical fiction may still say the standard statements but mean something different from what I suspect the majority mean.

  31. SDS
    September 11, 2018 at 5:43 pm

    Clark, you are probably right about what most members understand “I know the Church is true” to mean. But I think there’s also some value in recognizing a more minimalist and flexible content to “I know the Church is true.”

    Many members probably understand “the Church is true” to encompass a whole package of propositions. (There is a God who loves us. Joseph Smith was called to restore the Church. God reveals his will to us through Church leaders. Priesthold holders have real authority to bless others. This list could be quite lengthy.) And my observation is that for most members, when they say “I know the Church is true”, they are often speaking on the basis of confirmation and direct conviction with respect to some of those propositions. Maybe the Book of Mormon, or priesthood blessings, or something else. They go on to infer that the other propositions are correct– because these come as a package. Or so they assume. So when they say “I know the Church is true,” they may indeed intend to affirm the whole package. But they have real, genuine, direct conviction regarding parts of the package; the rest is perceived entailment.

    There’s nothing wrong with this in itself. But my observation is that there are quite a few once sincere members who come to think that some propositions in the package are untenable. Maybe the Book of Abraham, or the First Vision (in the official account), or the divinely-revealed status of polygamy, or whatever. And because the whole set of propositions was always taken to be a package, they conclude that even the parts about which they did have a direct conviction must be mistaken as well. They must have been deceiving themselves, or whatever.

    This seems to me deeply unfortunate. You want to say to people in this position: “Okay, you may be convinced that propositions x, y, and z are unsustainable. But that’s no reason to forget what you do know, and what you do have a genuine conviction of. You (or maybe we) may have gotten some of the inferences and entailments wrong, but don’t abandon the core of what you had– and should still have– a genuine testimony of.”

    Which is why I want to say that at its core, at a minimum, “I know the Church is true” means “I’ve experienced the presence and approval of God in ‘the Church’ and I want to maintain solidarity with it.” The rest I think we can work with.

    Sorry about the lengthy comment.

  32. Clark Goble
    September 11, 2018 at 9:04 pm

    I don’t disagree. Once we move from denotation to the various connotations of the phrase I think we’re all fairly clear on what people mean. And, like you, I think most people have some things explicitly confirmed and some things inferred. Some times those inferences are erroneous. And clearly people who may not share what the majority believe about the common connotations, may wish to be more careful about what they say so as to not make people infer they agree. Of course I suspect many just don’t care about that and use the same language even if meaning something slightly more compact.

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