Must testimony be tied to historical claims?

Call him Ishmael. The man has been coming to church with the missionaries for six or eight months now, and he seems a bit different from other investigators and recent converts we’ve seen in our ward. Most of these people have been, let us say, humble in their financial circumstances and educational attainments. Ishmael, by contrast, seems like someone who will not be needing welfare assistance: he is a doctor, mid-30s, good health, thoughtful and well-spoken.

Before today, you had introduced yourself to Ishmael but had not talked with him at any length. But as it happens, it’s the third Sunday of the month, and you and I find ourselves seated next to Ishmael at the “Linger Longer” in the cultural hall after the meeting block. Following a bit of friendly conversation, you feel bold enough to ask: “So, Ishmael, you’ve been coming to church for a while, and we love having you here. Have you given any thought to . . . being baptized?”

“Of course,” he says. “A lot of thought. Hmm. . . . Part of me really wants to belong to this community. Not because I need a social group or anything– I’m actually more of an introvert– but because, well . . . I hope this doesn’t sound overly dramatic, but I really feel the presence of God here. In your testimony meetings, in your interactions with each other. I think that belonging to this church would help me live a more godly life, if I can put it that way. So, yes, I would like to be baptized. But I’m not sure that I can do that, or that I should do that.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” you answer. “Is there some . . . difficulty? Family, maybe?”

“Word of Wisdom?” I clumsily insert. “Tithing?”

“Oh no,” Ishmael responds. “Nothing like that. All of your commandments and rules of conduct seem to me to be very sound. Inspired, even. I’m far from perfect, of course. But I would happily commit myself to trying to live by the church’s rules. That would a reason to join.”

“What then?”

Ishmael hesitates, then begins slowly. “I’m not sure you’ll understand this. But since you asked . . . . You won’t be surprised to learn that the missionaries are eager to set a baptismal date. And your ward mission leader, Brother Firm, is encouraging as well. But he also explained that I shouldn’t be baptized unless I have a testimony. I asked what that entailed, and he said there are three components to a testimony. You have to have a conviction that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of the world. You have to believe that Joseph Smith was called by God to restore the Church. The First Vision, the Book of Mormon and all. And you have to believe that the Church is led today by living prophets.

“Well, I have no problem with the first of those items. Actually, I used to be a devout Episcopalian– that’s not an oxymoron, as some people seem to think– and I seriously considered going into the ministry. I actually did a year of divinity school before deciding to go to medical school instead, and I became disillusioned mostly because it wasn’t clear to me that many of my divinity school mentors actually did believe in what I regard as the essential truths about Jesus. One thing I really like about your church is that when people say they believe that Jesus is the Son of God or that he rose from the dead, I’m confident that they really mean it in some non-equivocal, non-metaphorical sense.

“I also have no problem with the third component. It’s impressive to me that your church has stayed on track when so many others, in my humble opinion, have wandered down wrong paths. To me, that’s an indication of divine guidance. And I’ve listened to two of your General Conferences now, and I don’t know of a place today where someone could go and be as confident of hearing sound, inspired Christian teaching. Teaching, I might add, that the world today desperately needs. That’s another reason why I would like to be a member, actually; I would like to devote some of my energies to supporting the things your church does.

“I agree completely,” you interject. “That’s wonderful. So . . . I’m still not sure what the difficulty is?”

“It’s with the second component,” Ishmael explains. “Joseph Smith. I’m not the kind of person who would take a big step like this without doing my research. So I’ve read about Joseph Smith. I’ve read quite a lot, actually. And he seems to me to be an impressive, charismatic, truly remarkable character– but, frankly . . . How can I put this in way that won’t be offensive? He seems a bit slippery. Not one-hundred percent trustworthy, if I can put it that way.

“What do you mean?” you ask.

“Well, I don’t want to say too much. These are sensitive subjects, and I really don’t want to offend anyone. But there is . . . well, the Book of Abraham. And polygamy– not just the practice of it, but the way it was practiced, and the disingenuous denials and all. I could go on, but I think you get the point. I know your President Nelson is currently urging members to reread Smith’s account of the First Vision. The official account. I agree that it’s an impressive and uplifting narrative. But somehow I just can’t stop myself from thinking, ‘Well, but that isn’t how he told it the first time he wrote it down.’”

“True,” I jump in. “But there aren’t any real inconsistencies. You wouldn’t expect someone to relate an experience in exactly the same way on different occasions.”

“That could be a long discussion, maybe for another time,” Ishmael replies. “The last thing I want to do is get into arguments, or offend anyone, or undermine anyone’s faith. Maybe I can just say this much? That I’ve read quite a lot on the subject, and thought about it– and I’ve also prayed about this, as the missionaries told me to (I would have done that anyway)– and Joseph Smith strikes me as, let’s say, a kind of magnificent, inspired story-teller.

“But let me be clear: I don’t really have a problem with that. God works in mysterious ways. I don’t see any reason why God couldn’t work through an inspired story-teller. It seems to me that God always, and necessarily, works through profoundly imperfect people to achieve his purposes. What else could He do? So when I was an Episcopalian, we didn’t stake our case on claims about the integrity of Thomas Cramner– or Henry VIII, Heaven help us.

“I would think that what should matter is whether I believe God is working in the church today. And I do believe that. So what difference should it make what I think about Joseph Smith?

“And yet Brother Firm tells me this is an essential part of a testimony. If that’s right, then I don’t think I have, or am likely to have, the requisite testimony. And yet I would like to be baptized– and to do my best to be a faithful member. So, what do you think?”

Ishmael is asking a hard question, I think– a hard question whether or not one shares his opinion about Joseph Smith– and I myself want to reflect a bit more about it. Maybe if I think I have anything useful to say, I might do a post or two on the subject. Meanwhile, what would you advise?

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