Forced Testimony

The last summer we lived in New York, we went to Palmyra for the Hill Cumorah pageant. It was quite a spectacle. We walked around Church historic sites and museums, including a fantastic textile museum that was all but deserted because the tourists were there for the overcrowded LDS attractions.

At every corner, missionaries, either elderly couples or young sister missionaries, were there to point out features of interest, answer questions, and most of all, to testify. They bore testimony to group after group of visitors, all day long, for as many days as they served there. Nothing they said was objectionable, nor do I think they were insincere. And yet it bothered me greatly, this repeated performance of testimony on demand.

We are encouraged to bear testimony to everyone we meet. Our friends, neighbors, co-workers, strangers on a plane; no one is to be excluded from our witness of Christ and his gospel. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard from the pulpit and in Sunday School that if I run into a difficult conversation with someone regarding a gospel principle, that I should just bear my testimony and let the Spirit take care of the rest, the idea being that either the Spirit will witness to the receptive heart of the listener the truth of my testimony, or the listener is too hard-hearted to feel the truth, so I will have done all I could to acquit myself. (My personal thought is that a testimony, by introducing an irrational, often emotional element to the conversation, often shuts down any further possibility of reasonable discussion, and thus automatically ends the conversation. This is not to say that irrational is bad. I think faith is irrational and that is one of its strengths. Too strong an attempt to make faith or matters of personal belief conform to rational laws will either weaken them or open them to rational attacks that they cannot withstand.)

I am not comfortable throwing my testimony around so freely. We have also been counseled that some things are to be kept sacred to ourselves, to only be shared at the right time with the right audience. We hold these things close to our hearts, like Mary, treasuring and pondering them (Luke 2:19). How much of our testimony, the core of our sacred experiences and fundamental beliefs, are things to be held close to our souls, and how much of it is to be put on display for public consumption? Are we to cast our pearls before swine? Or if not swine, those who may have no appreciation for pearls?

And so we have a tension: the imperative to share our testimony, and by so testifying to reinforce and strengthen it, opposed to the need to keep our most sacred knowledge untarnished and protected from the cheapness of overexposure. Perhaps if I had served a visitor center mission, I would have learned how to resolve this tension for myself. As it is, I’m willing to testify when it feels right to me. But it doesn’t feel authentic if I try to force it, and I worry that for me, that lack of authenticity robs my words of the power of truth and Spirit.

Have you felt this tension? What is your resolution?

52 comments for “Forced Testimony

  1. Nothing I hate more than testimony on demand. I’ve done it before and I am ashamed that I did. I will never do it again, ever. A testimony is totally meaningless unless it is spontaneous and from the heart. And the next time some doofus drags his 3-year old up to bear testimony I am going to get up and walk out.

  2. I don’t see children bearing testimony in sacrament meeting as much as I used to. A few, perhaps one or two, if any at all, will get up, on their own or with older siblings. Just last Sunday the bishop read a letter of instruction to the congregation that recommended that children practice bearing testimony at home instead at in fast and testimony meeting. As usual for the past few years, we were also counseled to be brief so that as many people as desired could share their testimonies and to focus on the Savior. Good advice, although it may be a bit prohibitive for those who realize that they have not yet learned to be concise but still feel that jittery unsettledness that means the Spirit is prompting them to speak.

    And this post is not meant to be a criticism of sharing testimony at fast and testimony meetings because those testimonies, for the most part, are shared voluntarily, because the individual feels some need to speak before the congregation.

  3. We still have children bear testimony in our ward, generally without the parent coaxing them. They usually touch my heart with their reaching out to learn to express their joy in life and the love they feel in their lives..

  4. Language can be diluted through repetition. To keep a testimony fresh, spiritually persuasive, and relevant, it’s best to avoid the “I know” pattern, and to simply state truths as they present themselves, referring to recent experience rather than time-worn rehearsed patter. The most spiritual people I know simply sum up at the end by stating “God is great” or “He loves us!”.

  5. We have several children in our ward who bear their testimonies but since they can do it without coaching I think it’s fine.

    However, there is a mother who brings her special needs child up every month and tells this child what to say. Sigh. Of course her own testimony is super inappropriate and makes everyone squirm.

  6. I once lived in a Stake where it was a stated “policy” that all lessons, all talks, all testimonies, all visits (Ht, VT), etc, must be accompanied by a witness regarding Christ. I was in the High Council at the time, and heard the policy and was encouraged to make sure that everyone understood it.

    This policy was strongly encouraged, and even “enforced” as far as a thing like that could be. Here is only one small example: My wife was Primary President at the time, and she had a High Councilor visit her primary one week: He sort of “debriefed” her afterwards, offering his opinion about how things went. Among his list of concerns was that a few of the speakers hadn’t born testimony of Christ at the end of their presentations. (sharing time, music time, etc.) She was strongly encouraged to talk to those people and “correct” them.

    It was not a policy that I liked. Not only did the policy bother me, but it bothered me that it bothered me. That is, I felt guilty because how can you argue against testifying of Christ? Isn’t this His church? Aren’t we there to build our testimonies of Him?

    I love it when someone bears a heartfelt testimony of Christ… or of many other things as well. However, when this policy was in effect, I found myself thinking, when hearing a testimony of Christ, “Are they bearing witness because they feel prompted or inspired to? Or are they fulfilling the requirement?” Perhaps this is what is meant above by “cheapening” the testimony. I believe that different people likely felt differently about this policy. For many, I am sure, the policy was a welcome reminder to keep focused on Christ. I am sure we need that. But in the final analysis for me, it destroyed the most important part of a testimony: its sincerity. To hear the same words over and over, for me (and I understand, this is how I respond, not everyone) is more creepy than inspiring.

  7. Rachel – I quite agree with you. I was a TBM for decades and bore my testimony as I believed it was proper and expected of me as a “Mother in Zion’ and as a ward leader. I was sincere and said the usual rote things. Now, after many life experiences that have opened my eyes to deeper truth (temple divorce, marrying a NOMO, adult children who have left the church, etc,etc,etc) I rarely bear my testimony. Not that I don’t have one because I do. It is no longer the “approved” kind of testimony and it is sacred to me. I am no longer comfortable broadcasting my inner feelings. I do share them on occasion when “moved upon by the Spirit.” If I do share my testimony at church,it is of the simple things in life that are most important – unconditional love of family members, appreciation of the natural world, finding meaning in friendships (NOMO’s mostly now), understanding other people’s beliefs and respecting them. Even then it is a rare thing for anyone on my ward to comment to me later on my testimony. Also – I taught my DD homestudy seminary for a semester and I was supposed to bear my testimony throughout each lesson – I didn’t. As a ward leader for years, I also experienced the expectation of bearing testimony all the time. I did and felt sincere at the time but cringe now at how contrived it all was. I am very turned off by constant testimony-bearing. I believe not it was a way for me and perhaps others to constantly convince OURSELVES of what we thought we believed in…..

  8. Rachel,

    The scriptures tell us not to run faster than we’re able. The tension you describe is normal, and I think it can be resolved. Visitor center guides are there for the history; rather, they’re there for the historical part of the faith story — so they repeatedly bear testimony to visitors. The Savior himself was under assignment to bear testimony to others. All of these can still be meaningful and sincere, as you noted. Yes, some of the pearls might have to be protected — and maybe that’s how the tension is resolved — share enough to be a faithful witness and to encourage inquiry, but also remembering to keep our most sacred knowledge untarnished and protected from the cheapness of overexposure, as you wrote. Some will run faster than others — that’s okay.

    Last month’s First Presidency message on missionary work for the hesitant missionary was great! It lowered the bar, so to speak, so that all of us can feel effective in that work. I appreciated the lowering of the bar and the honest perspective of President Uchtdorf’s message.

  9. I’m of two minds on this.

    On the one hand, I agree it feels forced, awkward, manipulative, corny, and all that. To just out-of-the-blue start bearing a rote ritualized testimony to various people in your life.

    But on the other hand… the honest truth is that a lot of America (my culture) appreciates cheese.

    People here on the bloggernacle tend to be more cerebral and pride themselves on a certain sense of taste that extends to their sense of personal authenticity. We have high standards.

    But not everyone else does. And I’ve seen some people who were able to sincerely present those corny testimonies get real hearfelt responses from people. So I wonder if the problem isn’t with the cheesy testimonial, but with me for being so cynical and jaded.

    Either way though, I’ve found my own ways to naturally work my enthusiasm for the Gospel into my conversations. I’m really enthusiastic about religious matters, and it tends to infect my conversation. So it naturally comes out.

  10. Another last thought –

    You have to learn to do something awkwardly and poorly, before you can do it well.

    So why deny people the right to do it poorly?

  11. For me, bearing testimony is actually just me trying to [be a witness] to my own experience in as truthful way as possible. So that talking about a hike I took as a kid, or how I came to love this or that thing, is as much a part of my testimony as a principle that was revealed to me while reading the scriptures (or whatever else I might have been reading), or an especially potent experience in the Temple. In conversation, I can think of myself as exploring a kind of common frontier with whoever I’m speaking. If I am speaking truthfully (as possible) about the landscape the conversation involves, I am already [bearing witness]. The conversation has to be a genuine exploration on both sides, so that I mistrust attempts to hijack that process with any attempt to create a spiritual experience – or in other words, circumnavigate the other person’s freedom by manipulating them into ‘feeling’ something. The entire process of sharing truthfully is the spiritual experience, since the Spirit attends truth.

  12. Rachel, Thank you for your post. I teach Gospel Doctrine and have been instructed to bear my testimony at the close of each lesson. If I have spent adequate time researching the subject being taught, then I find I can bear a brief, but sincere testimony of a specific gospel principle. There have been a few times, however, when it felt forced and I wish I had not done it.

    I used to eschew bearing my testimony on Fast Sunday because I am not a weepy, wear-my-heart-on-my-sleeve kind of person. I thought this meant that I didn’t have the proper spirit. I have learned, though, that I can testify of things I believe, in my own way. There are a few subjects which DO make me weepy and I tend to steer clear of them. This goes to your point about sharing sacred things publicly. There are some things which I hold too sacred and personal to share. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.

    As far as “testifying” to nonmembers, I CANNOT force myself to stand before them and proclaim the same things I do in church. I think it is because of some of the concerns you raised, primarily the concern that it will turn the person off completely to any meaningful dialogue. I believe that just as the mysteries of God are imparted to us line upon line and precept upon precept, so too, should our testimonies be shared with acquaintances, little by little. I bear a stronger witness of Jesus Christ by being a faithful and righteous follower, than if I get up on my soap box. Once a person gets to know me I am able to bear witness in small, meaningful ways, without the fear of sermonizing.

    I appreciate your post. Thanks for sharing.

  13. I loved that Presidency message in the Ensign, also. I had a fun time with that message while home teaching. I took it as a message that every person is different in how we address people. There are the natural preachers who love to approach people and give their testimonies and anything else that might be out there. I think the natural preachers have a way with people that doesn’t turn others off whereas a person who is forcing themselves on people would turn off their target.
    I’d say that my dad is not a natural, but he feels compelled to turn all conversations into situations for testifying. Awkward is a nice way to put the situation at that point.

  14. I agree with Thomas. I have no problem sharing my testimony with friends outside my faith tradition, because I do not say it in the approved correlated way–i.e., the “five finger testimony” about particular truth claims, or using words like “I testify” or “I know”. And what I say relates to whatever we are discussing. If a discussion is about “God”, I share my doubts, my beliefs, my hopes and experience–not in terms of God’s having a body or the Mormon understanding of the Godhead, but in terms of a caring, loving God who never gives up on any of God’s creation. If it relates to organized religion, I share my thoughts about the good and bad that can come from it, the sense of community and help that can be available in a healthy religion, the perspective and potentially healthy worldviews that may come. If it relates to our own faith traditions, I share the reasons and feelings, pluses and minuses I perceive to my own church, why I belong and participate, why I accept the particular truth claims and what they mean to me. This is almost always in the context of both parties discussing our own perceptions and faith paths. My practice is never to invite someone to attend with me nor to send missionaries, unless interest is clearly expressed. I am very comfortable with this, because I have no agenda other than understanding and authentic sharing, and I never steer a conversation in that direction. For me, friendship means listening and sharing, openly and frankly, but with no intent to change a friend. And, yes, believe it or not, I have been a part (a surprise to me) of individuals’ deciding to follow, or to follow again, the LDS tradition. For me, testimony is more about authenticity and honesty–warts and all–than it is about following a particular script or outline or party line.

  15. Elder Bednar has a youtube video talking about ‘natural’ testimony. He uses it when talking about teaching our children, but it applies to all contexts in which a fast sunday testimony would be inappropriate.

  16. Your two concerns about testimonies are trivial compared to the real problem surrounding them.

    The testimony is the church’s secret weapon. It’s what the church stands or falls on. Intellectually, the evidence supporting the claims of the church is very mixed and not likely to convert the objective, thoughtful person.

    The tesimony is the unique thing the church brings to the discussion. It’s its greatest strength, and it’s greatest weakness.

    Greatest strength because the LDS Church among all other religions I’ve had any experience with actually provides a recipe for determining if its claims are true. Other Christian religions seem to argue the rationality or Bible-compatibility of their doctrine, or say nothing more than, “It’s a matter of faith.”

    These things are useless to the questioning person. “A matter of faith” simply means there is no evidence to support it, you just gotta take their word for it. (They’ll say you’re taking God’s word for it, but it’s them speaking the words to you, not God.)

    Bible-compatibility just delays the ultimate question. So what if your doctrine conforms to the teachings of the Bible? How do I know the Bible isn’t just the Hebrew version of Greek myths? Where’s THAT evidence? Whatever evidence they might claim exists is not conclusive, and we’re back to the same “You just have to take it on faith.”

    Rationality doesn’t work at all, because rationality requires certain common assumptions to build on, which do not always exist between two people, and we’re back to having to take the assumptions on faith, otherwise we’re offering up arguments that can never be conclusive.

    Then there are Muslims who, as far as I’ve ever heard, never make any attempt to defend the validity of their doctrine (except by the point of a sword) yet are willing to die and kill for it, which illustrates why all this uncertainty over the truthfulness of theological claims is so dangerous.

    But Mormons say they can give you a step-by-step recipe that, if followed, will lead to God himself telling you it’s true. That’s some pretty powerful stuff, and the only theology I’m aware of that offers up genuine evidence that could actually be conclusive.

    That’s the strength of the concept of a testimony.

    The weakness of it is, it doesn’t work. Not really.

    In the end, evidence based on a Mormon testimony amounts to a feeling. Now by the reports of many people, it can be a pretty powerful feeling, one that drives them to utter the words, “I know!” One that convinces them “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that God spoke to them.

    But it’s still just a feeling. Psychologists can account for such feelings in nondivine ways. The human psyche is a marvelous, complex thing that can literally dupe itself. Mormons who have that “testimony” will insist it couldn’t be anything but God speaking to them–they just know it–but it still brings us back to, “You have to take that on faith.”

    Did you want the experience so badly, your subconscious created it for you? Did you really commune with God, but misunderstood what the experience meant? Sometimes people claim hearing words or seeing visitations, but most of the time the claim is just a feeling, powerful or quiet, and feelings DO NOT convey information. An assumption is made that the feeling is a response to whatever the person was doing at the time. But that’s subjective inference, not evidence.

    For example, if you’re sitting in a Mormon chapel and “feel the Spirit,” you are likely to conclude that you felt the Spirit BECAUSE you’re sitting in a Mormon chapel, therefore the church is true. It’s how the church conditions you to interpret such an experience.

    But is that valid? Or did the experience come because you were trying to communne with God and succeeded in making a connection, and just HAPPENED to be doing it in a Mormon chapel? Could you have had the same experience sitting in a Catholic cathedral? A Jewish synagogue? A Muslim temple? I would imagine Catholics, Jews, and Muslims would claim that’s true.

    My last girlfriend said she “felt the Spirit” testifying to her about the validity of her patriarchal blessing while receiving it, but decades later realized that, in spite of her efforts to remain faithful and take the steps that blessing instructed her to take to bring about the blessings it promised, the promises never came true. She couldn’t understand what that had all been about. Why did she feel that when the blessing turned out to be a lie?

    The only theory I could offer her, outside of “Because the whole concept of God and spirituality is bogus” (which I don’t believe) is that maybe the feeling came to her because in seeking her patriarchal blessing, she was attempting to be in the frame of mind to commune with God, and that’s precisely what happened! The fact that it happened during the receiving of a patriarchal blessing was irrelevant.

    “Seek and ye shall find, ask and it shall be given unto you, knock and it shall be opened to you.” She was seeking communion with God, and he gave it to her, because that’s what he does. Doesn’t have to mean he gave it to her BECAUSE she was in the process of receiving a Mormon blessing from a Mormon authority. It could have been IN SPITE of that.

    And we’re back to, “You just gotta take it on faith.”

    Believe it or not, I say all this as a preliminary set-up to the points I want to make.

    Because this testimony thing is what the church lives or dies on, and because a testimony is built on such a shaky foundation–a feeling–it’s imperative for the church to condition (if you don’t like that choice of words, you should be happy I didn’t say “brainwash”) everyone to be predisposed to having that feeling.

    This takes the form of “practicing” testimonies, of testifying to “strengthen” the testimony, and of offering you prepackaged interpretations of what any spiritual experience you have should be understood to mean.

    “Did you feel something in church? That’s the Spirit testifying to you that the church is true!”

    “Did you feel something reading the Book of Mormon? That’s God testifying to you the Book of Mormon is true, and that means Joseph Smith really was a prophet, and that means the church he founded is true, and that means the LDS Church today is true because it’s the legitimate descendent of that church, not any of its other offshoots.”

    Prepackaged recipes for interpretation of spiritual experiences, courtesy of the church!

    The church has distorted the word “testimony” to mean something the word doesn’t mean. A testimony is a statement of what a person knows through experience. You take the witness stand in court, you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But that oath does not mean testifying to what you believe, to what in your opinion is the truth. It means what you KNOW from experience is true. If you try to pass off your opinion as a testimony of the truth, the opposing lawyer is gonna call you on it so fast your head will spin.

    “Testimonies” in the church are not testimonies. They’re a custom-invented concept to help bolster the claims of the church. If you say, “I KNOW the church is true,” or “I KNOW principle XXX is true,” you’re not testifying. You’re presenting your opinion.

    The proper response to “I know the church is true” is, “How do you know?” At that point, you ARE in a position to testify–of the things you’ve experienced that led you to conclude the church is true. And at that point, your listener is in a position to decide if he thinks your testimony is persuasive or not.

    But none of this has to do with “knowing” something. It only has to do with presenting evidence and making a personal assessment on whether the evidence is persuasive.

    This is why the Mormon concept of “testimony” is not testimony at all. The presumption is that the Spirit will witness to the truthfulness of the “testimony” the LDS person gives, and that’s why it’s a testimony. But that just brings us back to the feeling thing. It’s all based on a feeling.

    If you’re told to practice your testimony, as kids are–whether in church or at home is irrelevant–you are literally perjuring yourself. If you bear your testimony for the purpose of strengthening it, you’re perjuring yourself. If you bear your testimony because you have an obligation to (like you’re a missionary), but don’t necessarily mean the things you are expected to say (maybe you believe, but don’t feel you KNOW), you’re perjuring yourself.

    And perjury is a fancy legal term for lying your ass off.

    That’s the real problem with bearing your testimony on cue, or under obligation, or to “strengthen” it. You’re lying to people. You’re telling them you know when you don’t.

    And since the point of the testimony is to change people’s entire lives, lying to them about it is pretty serious stuff.

    In fact, testifying to strengthen your testimony is literally using Hitler’s technique of propaganda to “Tell a big lie, tell it often, and people will believe you” on yourself. Because if you say “I know,” but you don’t know–you only believe or hope it’s true–you are lying!

    Now if you’re really convinced you know, go for it! Testify! But realize, the sentence, “I know XXX is true” is not your testimony. That’s opinion based on your conclusions of what your personal experiences mean. To be truly “testifying,” you have to enumerate those experiences, because that’s what a testimony IS, then acknowledge that “I know” is your personal conclusion, not your testimony.

    But that wouldn’t be nearly as powerful as uttering “I know!” and calling that your testimony. “Testifying” as the church uses it really means “swaying with emotion,” and humans generally make emotional choices, even when they think they’re making rational ones, so statistically the Mormon concept of testimony will be more persuasive.

    But that doesn’t necessarily make it truthful.

    In other words, it’s all just a form of propaganda. I use that word with no intent to insult. It’s simply an accurate label for what a Mormon testimony really is.

    But the church has to do it that way, because the church stands or falls on “testimony,” as they define it.

    (PLEASE NOTE: nowhere in all this did I ever actually insist the church is not true, or that the spiritual witness is invalid, or that you can’t know the truthfulness of whatever you’re “testifying” to. But my points are still valid even if all these Mormon claims really are true. So please do me the courtesy of not dismissing my points with the label “anti-Mormon.”)

  17. Great post and thought provoker. Where I am in my life, I have a difficult time with the whole “I know” kind of testimony. I believe that when Jesus told us to have faith and be believing and we would be saved, he was telling the truth. Not that we have to “know”, but to have faith. I think that we have WAY overdone the idea that a testimony has to be a certain way (Testimony glove) in order to be a real testimony, and that we are compelled to say “I KNOW….”. Perhaps this is simply the colloquialism that we use in the church, when in reality we’re simply saying that we believe or have faith in some point or another.

    I think it would be refreshing to hear more of “I have faith in Jesus and his message” or “I believe in Jesus and that JS was the prophet of the restoration” since I’m not so sure that so many people in the church really “KNOW”.

    This is how I approach my “testimony” with others at work not of our faith. For example, when a co-worker lost a son to cancer, I wrote him that my faith is that he will yet see and hold his son again. He commented to me that he appreciated my comments.

  18. A couple of thoughts:
    1. Missionaries are called to bear testimony. For them, repeatedly bearing testimony in the setting you mention would not be forced.

    2. My daughter had an experience in a school setting where she was weekly challenged by her born-again believing classmates. The classmates approach was to claim interest in Mormon beliefs, but the questions were in fact challenges and attempts to “prove” the errancy of my daughter and the other LDS students. This went on for weeks. She would come home and express frustration at the attitude of the born-again believers (I have always taught my children to respect other’s beliefs and look for common ground). I told her that they weren’t interested in finding common ground and that she was better off bearing her testimony and leaving it at that. (Yes, that tactic is a conversation ender. Sometimes that is what is called for.) One day, one of the Mormon students, who is also a very sensitive young woman, hearing the Book of Mormon denigrated one too many times, broke into tears and bore testimony of the Book of Mormon, saying, “I love this book.” The whole tenor of the conversation changed. Forever. The spirit touched the born-again believers and they no longer approached the Mormon kids in an attitude of disputation. I guess that is my long-winded way of saying, sometimes bearing testimony really is the best approach.

  19. I’m not sure if it’s a side-note or perhaps it’s more on-point than I originally thought:

    I like the phrase “I’m learning . . . ” For me it captures the paradoxical nature of faith and belief. It isn’t complete or finished or perfect, but there is an element of surety. It also conveys the sense that I expect at some point in the future, however distant, to be able to say “I have learned” or “I know.”

    More to the point of forced testimony bearing, I wonder if sometimes we [not as a euphemism for “you, Rachel,” but actually “we as members”] get too focused on the content of our beliefs and trying to defend, justify, or prove them. In reality, I think the most powerful message we can share with others is how those beliefs shape and bless our lives. So, what if instead of viewing testimony as an assertion that I know a particular statement to be true, what if I just assume that it is, and focus on the good stuff?

  20. “some things are to be kept sacred to ourselves, to only be shared at the right time with the right audience. We hold these things close to our hearts, like Mary, treasuring and pondering them”

    I definitely agree with this. I’m not saying you ought to bare your testimony on the spot to everyone you have a conversation with. And you’ve picked perhaps the most extreme example of what you consider over-bearing.

    But generally, do you find the every day Latter-day Saint shares their testimony too much, too little, or just right? I personally feel like too often we keep our light hidden under a bushel than we cast our pearls before swine, as it were.

    But more to the point, Mary was keeping personal heavenly visitations and manifestations to herself. Joseph seemed to have discovered the wisdom in this after sharing his vision with others initially, and it seems he subsequently held back for a time.

    I’ve had personal experiences I don’t intend to share, indeed it was clear to me not to share the specific relevant details. They are certainly a part of my testimony, but not discussing certain details doesn’t mean I should hold back my testimony.

  21. I bear testimony to other people all the time of principles that I strongly believe are true and just. Most of the time I feel that the testimony was uplifting to both myself and those hearing it. But I don’t usually mention Joseph Smith, Jesus Christ, or the Book of Mormon in the testimony. I simply tell people what I have come to believe to represent true morality, mercy, justice, etc. through my own experiences and observations. I don’t feel the need to try to impose an institutional tradition (a lot of which I haven’t internalized to be true) on people, but simply share with them what I have learned through my own experiences.

  22. In my ward we have a 13 year old boy who bears his testimony first every month and has since he was 8, as instructed to give it by his father.This young man runs up almost tackling anyone in his way, and repeats the same trite message mixed with what bad things his older sibling have done to him in the last month and some questionable and funny family stories there is very little said of Christ, Prophets,or the BOM.It has sadly become a joke of sorts in our ward, going on and on setting the tone for the meeting. Others do not get up because of it. We are missing out on lifting each other and sincerely testifying of Christ.I believe my testimony to be sacred, it is hard won and so dear.I share it as moved to and I feel sad to see it become tarnished as a common thing to banter around. On demand testimony is not my style but it can be for others, tolerance and love need to be on all sides. I’m try very hard each Fast Sunday to remember that.

  23. Thank you all for the lovely comments. This kind of honest sharing, be it confident or tentative, is exactly what I needed today. We are all learning, and as we share and receive with sympathy we are all made better. Thank you.

  24. Sandra, there have been times when I’ve heard an inappropriate testimony and decided I needed to get up and bear mine to sort of get the mood back on track, rather than decide the meeting is ruined.

  25. There is something disingenuous, and even creapy, about having a child memorize and practice the repetition of a testimony they have no understanding about. Terrified children, frozen at the pulpit, while a parent whispers the mantra in their ears is a strange thing to behold. The practice seems more in line with China under Mao, or North Korea.

  26. Doug, on the other hand, my children grow up in a gospel centered home (notwithstanding our failings) where they watch conference, listen to talks, and listen to hymns, read scripture stores, more than they watch tv/movies or play video games. Its one of their favorite things to watch the Christmas devotional or conference. In fact, I can hear the little voices echoing, “Conference!!! Conference!” as they run around the halls to watch a talk. Sure their staying power isn’t long, but they love to have it on and listen.

    They play missionary and have often played “church” (setting up chairs and taking turns giving talks, leading music and singing). All without prompting on our part.

    I can only guess the reason why is that church is a big part of their life not just on Sunday but at home too. And truth be told, we don’t do the best job of holding routine FHE or daily family scripture study (in the sense of getting up together every morning)

    So, I find it insulting and demeaning that you’d attack little children such as mine or others who excitedly get up to bear their testimony.

    I assume the best of other kid’s intentions and I presume they aren’t any different then mine in the sense that they sense something special about the gospel and love it and are trying to act it out the way they see done in the world around them.

    For a time it was hard to get our kids out of the chapel as they’d want to run up to the stand and pretend they were holding a church meeting. Now they run out to the doors to help hold them open for everyone.

    Kids look around and learn what’s “good” and emulate and try to do it all on their own. You may choose to reference Mao when seeing these things, but I think the Savior said a thing or two about becoming as a little child.

  27. I used to swear I’d never whisper a testimony in their ears, but then I became a parent.

    I’ve had my kids beg me to go up there, then freeze in terror once they’re up. So I’ve whispered in order to get them over the stage fright. Kids understand far more than you think they do. My children, both younger than 8 years old, have given me spiritual insight and demonstrated surprisingly sophisticated understanding of Gospel principles.

  28. In a way, familiarity breeds contempt. The stage hands who hear the actors repeat the same lines night after night, and who know that they are doing it just for the paycheck, and witness the actors’ behavior after the final curtain comes down may become inured to any truth or wisdom in the lines. But that does not negate the possible effects, perhaps even ennobling, of the spoken lines upon the audience, who also know that the actors are being paid, and who also know “it’s just a play/movie”.

    Missionaries, even visitor center missionaries, may also be actors on a stage, at least to some degree. (But the fact they are unpaid says something about the sincerity.)

    We hear testimony quite often in the church. We are too familiar with the perhaps overused boiler plate phrases. We often get inured to or even bothered by the sometimes mawkish or occasional over-emotive testimony bearer, or those who try to use emotion to invoke or substitute for the Spirit. We know the people, or types of people involved. We know what each other is like Mon-Sat. We know what kinds of shenanigans those “kids” did prior to their missions.

    We are like the stage hands. And we shouldn’t blame Shakespeare or his works if the actors’ performance, either on or off stage, doesn’t live up to the lofty concepts of the Bard’s works.

    But the non-members who hear those visitor center or younger missionaries are the audience that’s there for what is likely just one performance. They NEED to hear the message, regardless of the imperfections in the actors or the delivery.

    Seth R has a good point. Awkward testimony is sometimes the warm-up practice. I would also say that such clumsiness is the camoflauge that the Lord uses to hide his pearls in the open. Clumsiness and weakness in His messengers is the stumbling stone intentionally placed to trip the proud.

  29. “I think faith is irrational and that is one of its strengths. Too strong an attempt to make faith or matters of personal belief conform to rational laws will either weaken them or open them to rational attacks that they cannot withstand.”

    Faith in Christ is the most reasonable and rational thing imaginable. Faith in anything else is irrational. I testify that this is true.

  30. Bookslinger, I think you miss an important diistinction. If I were to ask you what you, personally, thought of Shakespeare and you responded by reading Hamlet to me, I’d probably find you annoying. People go to performances for different reasons than they have conversations and to pull a bait and switch on them in those contexts is troubling.

  31. Brian, sorry, I didn’t see bait-and-switch as part of the OP. I was trying to address her question about how to resolve the tension between sacredness versus routinized, sometimes awkward public testimony.

  32. 1- I think we need continual reminders of proper testimony bearing, i.e. don’t lecture me during your testimony.
    2- Last Sunday I appreciated the heartfelt testimony of a sister who said she is clinging to the Lord’s Gospel during a trial she is experiencing right now.
    3- Yet in the same meeting a 9 yr old boy was at the pulpit with his little brother and doing the coaching/whispering thing with no parents in sight. I’m sure his parents found it cute as they sat far back in the chapel but I found it out of place.

  33. I can’t say “I believe,” when I really do know anymore than I can say “I know” when I believe or merely have a gut hunch. I think our sincerity and honesty shows. Let’s just tell our children to be honest about it and let it stand. I’ve heard a few “I’m sure about this and unsure about that” testimonies that were very powerful. And King Lamoni’s sincerity and honesty is a great example for us all.

  34. Awkwardness may be an issue, due to the discomfort of either the testifier or the audience. I think what really worries me is that a testimony may become too polished, that what was once difficult to say because it is so sensitive a part of you becomes something said by rote, so the emotional and spiritual connection of the testifier to the words of their own testimony becomes weak. I don’t want my testimony to become lines that I recite, and if I were in a situation where I had to bear witness so repeatedly, such as described in the OP, I think I would either become too emotionally raw and vulnerable to function normally or I would have distance myself from my own words enough to perform them without opening myself so much. At it’s worst, it seems exploitative of sincere belief and manipulative of emotions all around. At it best, though, as many of you have pointed out, true testimony has a way to cut through posturing and pretense and bring love and faith to all who hear it.

  35. Old Man, your comment about “I believe” and “I know” reminds me of a problem. Words must be defined socially in order to be of use for communication. In the circles I run in, “I know” has a *very* narrow meaning which simply cannot be satisfied by the vast majority of speakers at testimony meeting – probably all of them, in fact. Thus, I am bothered when they use the phrase “I know” because they don’t, as to how I understand the words. Others are less strict with their definitions and so it doesn’t bother them as much, but in a diverse and increasingly technical culture it behooves us to be measured in our choice of words, IMO.

  36. Brian, I’ve felt that same frustration with what I considered sloppy language usage in the past. But I realize that most people bearing testimony in an LDS context are using a prescribed formula and jargon without consciously thinking about the way those particular words are used outside of this very specific construct. They are simply using the culturally appropriate language to attempt to express what is often unexpressible. I think we should accept such testimonies in the same good faith in which they are offered, and not fault individuals for lack of creativity or strict accuracy in use of language. After all, we can’t all study early Wittgenstein.

  37. Great post, Rachel. I really like what you said in #33 too:

    “I don’t want my testimony to become lines that I recite, and if I were in a situation where I had to bear witness so repeatedly, such as described in the OP, I think I would either become too emotionally raw and vulnerable to function normally or I would have distance myself from my own words enough to perform them without opening myself so much.”

    I think Seth R. has a good idea above that perhaps different people just like different things. But my small experience with this type of forced testimony bearing (visiting Nauvoo) was that it came across as worse than useless. It made the missionaries sound like robots or members of a cult. I doubt really that more practice would make them better; I think they would just sound like more polished cult members. I would vote that forcing people to bear testimony is just fundamentally flawed. Let the historical site guides tell people about the history and bear testimony as they feel moved to. I just don’t think it works to prescribe that it happen at the end of each presentation, or whatever.

  38. My 3 oldest kids all decided they wanted to go and bear their testimony last year they were ages 6 and 7. (two of them were 6 I have twins)

    I told them I’d go up with them but they would have to do it themselves and it was really hard to make them do it themselves. I did end up helping a little after a long a pause to suggest something they might say, but there was plenty of awkwardness and silence all around.

    Afterwards I ended up bearing my testimony and my desire for my children to know for themselves the truths of the gospel.

    After sacrament meeting several people came up told me how great that thought of what I did was.

    I’d rather them model my methods rather than my conclusions.

  39. My biggest issue with children going up to the stand to bear their testimonies is not over the ability of a child to be sincere (who’s to say that a child can’t have a testimony), but over the image that it projects. Picture yourself as investigator attending a Mormon church for the first time and they see droves of young children going up to rattle off some repetitive lines about how the church is true and so on and so forth. It makes the church look like a cult that brainwashes its children with a radical dogma. And for those of you who openly encourage their children to go up to the pulpit and especially the whisperers, I beg you, for the love of the Almighty, please don’t do that. You don’t need to do that and you’re only hurting the church by doing that. And there are more than enough complaints from faithfuls over children testimonies for the leaders and the members to give this matter serious consideration. In fact I remember not too long ago a letter from the leadership encouraging parents to have their children simply practice bearing their testimonies at home. Why not just keep it at that, and then let them go up on their own when they’re a little bit older.

  40. I actually think some kids do it right. They sometimes say exactly what they mean, much to the chagrin of their parents and the delight of the audience!

    I really think that we should encourage various faith and knowledge statements in our testimonies. There are things that “I know.” There are other aspects that “I believe,” still others that “I hope,” and yet others that “I doubt” or even that “I am clueless” about!

    I also believe that it is vital that if we (experienced Latter-day Saints) say “I know,” that we should give an explanation of HOW we know. So many use “I know the Church is true” without any explanation of how they know and what they mean by that statement.

  41. Chris, sorry you feel attacked and insulted; that was not my intention. As a father and grandfather, we reserve putting on a ‘show’ that is meant to reflect more on us than it is a sincere exhibition of the spirit moving through our kids. If kids are heading for the door it may be that they were forced to echo words they never felt. We always close our FHE’s with testimony bearing… and sometimes coach our kids through their first efforts. There is no truer display of the spirit, than when a recalcitrant child moves to the podium on their own and says what is in their heart, not in their ears.

  42. I also believe that it is vital that if we (experienced Latter-day Saints) say “I know,” that we should give an explanation of HOW we know. So many use “I know the Church is true” without any explanation of how they know and what they mean by that statement.

    Truth. Testimony is the recounting of the firsthand experience of witnesses. Almost never do I hear of how the purported witnesses know what they claim to know. I make it a point when I bear witness to recount the experience(s) from which I am drawing my conclusions.

  43. Rachel, re # 35, I suppose that’s all well and good to those inside the culture, but I suspect it could be off putting to visitors who might expect more out of those who say “I know” than is currently able to be offered.

  44. I have this sort of sneaking suspicion about those who are claiming that their children are “just getting up to bear their testimonies” that we aren’t quite hearing the full story. Going up to a pulpit in front of strangers to rattle off a mimicked lines isn’t just something that children, out of their own volition, up and decide to do. This type of behavior is a product of some sort of conditioning that occurs either within the home or at church, more likely the former. Not that conditioning is an inherently negative thing (it’s just what we do to discipline children’s behavioral patterns). But let’s be a little more upfront about why children are going up to bear their testimonies. This is not some sort of bottom-up attitude that children are organically acquiring just from being in the church environment.

  45. “Its one of their favorite things to watch the Christmas devotional or conference. In fact, I can hear the little voices echoing, “Conference!!! Conference!” as they run around the halls to watch a talk. Sure their staying power isn’t long, but they love to have it on and listen.

    They play missionary and have often played “church” (setting up chairs and taking turns giving talks, leading music and singing). All without prompting on our part.”

    Really? Come on.

  46. Steve, cut Chris some slack. He couldn’t have better described a Mormon version of the Flanders family if he had tried, but that doesn’t mean he’s making it up. It is entirely possible for some parents to inculcate an sense of earnest enthusiasm in their children (although some cynical parents unexpectedly find themselves with children like this, and some actively faithful parents have disinterested or skeptical children despite their efforts to do everything right). Either way these bright-eyed Pollyannas are a big part of Mormon culture.

  47. Steve (#45),

    I HAVE heard non-LDS children identify the spirit without prompting. Others have explained that they have learned things from their dead grandparents who appeared to them, and one five-year old asked me and my missionary companion for a copy of the Book of Mormon because she said it made her “heart warm.” The girl’s mother was a prostitute and a drug addict and was close to passing out during the discussion. (Yeah, we needed the numbers.) So I doubt she was prompting her daughter. We gave the girl the book. That experience really rattled my cynicism.

    I think we often underestimate the spiritual abilities of some children. And as Rachel Whipple has alluded to, we often find our minds influenced by the negative religious stereotypes conveyed in current media. But there is a rich spiritual life within the church for many individuals and it does get lost in the standard phrases we hear in testimony meeting. I almost want to scream out “How do you know?” or “Why do you believe?”

  48. OK, you’re right. I was probably being too hard on Chris/skeptical of his claims, and yes I don’t doubt that children can feel the spirit independently. But I’m talking specifically of children going up to the pulpit during F&T meeting; it really seems like is better explained as conditioning from the top-down rather than an organic bottom-up phenomenon.

  49. Never criticize, belittle, complain or demean those who have the courage to stand up and bear their testimonies. Not only do you destroy your own self confidence but perhaps even the confidence of others who want to get up but then are drowned out by the feelings that judgemental saints have placed upon them. Your words matter to other people. As you demean and judge others who are upon the pulpits of witness bearing testimony, you are rightly destroying your own self confidence to get up and bear your testimony if and when that time comes. Nothing good comes out of it.


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