What do Mormons mean by the word “testimony”?

Mormons use the word “testimony” so much that many Mormons don’t realize that nobody else knows quite what they’re talking about. Mormons will say things like “I have a testimony that Joseph Smith was a prophet” or “I have a testimony that this church is true.” But what do they mean? What are they saying? And what is this “testimony meeting” they have on the first Sunday of each month?

When Mormons say they have a testimony of something they are not saying they know 100% that what they are saying is true. On the other hand, they’re also not saying they just think it would nice if it were true. What they are saying is that they have reason to believe something is true. It is an expression of faith, and all members of the LDS Church are encouraged to gain their own testimonies of the doctrines of the church by researching them and praying about them and asking God if they are true or not.

But it would be all too easy if that’s where it left off. It would be great if you could just say “Yeah, I prayed about the Book of Mormon, I feel good, I’m going water skiing.” Being a member of the Mormon faith doesn’t lend itself to helping you be comfortable. It’s not enough just to know and admit that something is true. You actually have to live it. And if that weren’t bad enough, you’re supposed to regularly “bear your testimony” meaning you tell other people what you know. That might be more through your actions than your words, but words matter and Mormons are encouraged to verbally share their knowledge or their testimony with others on a regular basis.

Public speaking is the number one phobia in the United States. Know what #2 is? Death. That’s right, people are more afraid of speaking in front of a group than they are of dying. Or as Jerry Seinfeld put it, most people would rather be the guy in the casket than the one giving the eulogy. So it’s no surprise that some Mormons get nervous when the first Sunday of the month rolls around, because that’s testimony meeting at church.

Every Sunday (with rare exceptions) Mormons have three meetings at church. The most important one is called Sacrament Meeting, and it’s the one in which we take the bread and water in remembrance of Christ’s flesh and blood. After the sacramental ordinance is completed in that meeting, we generally have “talks”. That is, members of the congregation (generally 2-4) get up in front of everybody and talk about a gospel topic, like faith or repentance or helping the poor. People have a hard enough time with this, even though they’re generally asked to give a talk days if not weeks in advance so they have plenty of time to prepare. But on the first Sunday of the month it’s different. Any member of the congregation can go up to the front, stand at the microphone, and bear their testimony, meaning they talk about the gospel things they know and experiences they’ve had that have helped them to know the gospel is true.

This is called “bearing your testimony” or “giving a testimony” and what is said is often referred to as “a testimony.” As in “Hi Jack, I really enjoyed your testimony today.” Jack’s testimony may have been short. He may have stood up and said nothing more than “I know Christ lives and that we can be forgiven of our sins” before sitting down. He may have gone on for 40 minutes talking about how he knows Christ lives and how he knows he can be forgiven of his sins. The length doesn’t matter, what matters is that the testimony is sincere and real. People aren’t supposed to get up and say things they don’t really believe and especially things they don’t even want to believe. I’m sure it happens, but it shouldn’t.

But bearing a testimony and having a testimony are really two different things, and having a testimony is the one that comes first, because if you don’t have it you can’t bear it, although it has been said that bearing it can lead to having it. But leaving that aside for now, let’s focus on the having rather than the bearing.

Having a testimony is important because of the nature of this world. God generally doesn’t throw anything in our face or drop anything in our laps. A large part of why we’re here on earth is so that we can prove to God and ourselves who we really are, and if we could see what’s really going on and God spoke to all of us every day as one man speaks to another then we really wouldn’t have the freedom to choose between good and bad. We’d all choose good because we’d know 100% that we better, or else. It wouldn’t be much of a test. So God keeps things in a sort of limbo. He makes sure that if you want to believe in him, you can find the evidence to support your desire. But if you don’t want to believe in him, he doesn’t present you with proof of himself to force you to believe in him. He wants us to choose for ourselves what we really want, and we prove that every day with the choices we make.

Because we’re in this world where nothing seems 100% certain, a testimony can be an anchor to help us do what is right. In my life, my testimony that there is a God and that God wants me to be doing certain things helps me to be a better husband, father, son, brother, neighbor, and friend. It helps me in my job, my hobbies, my ambitions. If it weren’t that I have something at my core that tells me that God exists, I don’t know what kind of person I would be, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be as motivated to do the things I do. I’d probably eat more Ben and Jerry’s, that’s for sure.

“But how does someone get a testimony? I mean, I still don’t know what that means.” you might say. “How can you claim to ‘know’ something is true?”

For me, I feel as though I’ve always had a testimony that God existed and that there was a plan. It has always made sense to me and I feel like it’s who I am. I can understand the logic people use to explain there is no God, but I don’t believe it. But I’m not very good at explaining how I know God exists. One analogy is to ask you to state whether you know somebody exists when they walk behind a wall and you can’t see them anymore. I’m not asking whether they’re in a certain location, I’m asking you whether that person exists as a human being. You would likely say that of course they still exist, even though you can’t see them. How do you know they exist? Somebody could argue with you and essentially prove to you that you have little if any proof to show that this person exists. You might even be swayed by their arguments. And yet afterwards you would say, “Well of course the person exists, all these hypothetical arguments about how they might not exist are interesting and logical, but I just saw the person walk behind the wall and of course that person still exists.”

Well, if I see someone go behind a wall I know that they exist. And in a similar way I also know that God exists, even though I didn’t just see him a second ago, even though I have no recollection of ever seeing him. But I feel his presence in a way that isn’t subject to scientific scrutiny, at least not with the scientific knowledge we have right now.

You might call all this brainwashing and ridiculous if you don’t believe in God. That’s true, this is what brainwashing would look like. But answer me this, is it any different than how things would look if God does exist?

Comments

  1. This is an excellent post. I am a practicing, return missionary, BYU graduate Mormon and I have only just recently began to face the dilemma of “knowing”. I mean actually knowing. I get uncomfortable in meetings when members say something like “I know the church is true” because there’s really no way to “know” anything for sure – much less concerning religion. At the end of my Sunday school lesson today I actually stuttered and faltered because I customarily end by bearing my testimony and telling my class that I know the church is true. But I couldn’t say it today. I don’t know. I’ve chosen to believe it and I think there are valuable and irreplaceable lessons to be learned in this church so I plan to continue my course. Would I be wrong to continue to teach my children something that I don’t in fact know to be true? I’ve just had so many inner conflicts lately with this and I don’t feel comfortable
    sshsharing this with friends or family so I was glad ti find your post about the meaning of testimony. Also, if you have any advice or feedback at allI would appreciate it. Have you ever faced a similar situation or had a similar question? How can we base everything about the church on a feeling when everyone else also claims to have felt and know the truth in every different truth? There must be something more concrete.

    • Hi Solomon, I think the challenge you face may have to do with an assumption you've made as expressed by your statement "…there’s really no way to 'know' anything for sure – much less concerning religion." I think that's an assumption to be questioned, although that's not saying much because I think all assumptions should be questioned.

      If we want to dig down to the core of things, the first question to ask is whether there is anything we can know, and if you follow this to its logical conclusion we have to start with asking whether we can know that we exist, not "we" as a group, but you individually. How do I know that I exist? Do you believe Descartes statement "I think therefore I am"? True, there are arguments even against this, but I take is as fact and I believe anyone must if they are to make any subsequent thought meaningful.

      The next question might be "Does anything else exist?" One could posit that all mental activity is self-contained and there is no such thing as external stimuli, or that what has the appearance of external stimuli has a figment of imagination, but let's leave that for later and just assume we accept this for the moment, or at least that we don't get hung up on it.

      The next question I would ask would be "If other things exist, what is the most important 'thing' for me to be aware of existing?" I would argue this is God. If he does exist, then our situation is quite different than if he doesn't exist, arguably of greater difference than if anything else does or doesn't exist.

      If we can arrive at the point of knowing that we do exist, that other things exist, and that God exists (not that I've explained yet how we might come to knowledge of the latter two) then the next logical question might be "If God exists, who is he, what is he like, and what am I supposed to do about it?"

      At this point, someone comes along with the Bible or Book of Mormon and says "This contains things God said." The logical reaction to this would be to ask "How can I know this is true, that these words really are the words of God?" Simply reading the words, or the mere existence of the words, does not imply that they are what they appear to be. Neither the Bible nor the Book of Mormon can prove themselves to be true in and of themselves, nor can they prove each other to be true although they may add evidence to the case. There must be a source of knowledge external to either book.

      Unfortunately, I must continue this response later, as I have to go to my church meetings now.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>