“I’m used to people saying something that’s not always true but just keep on repeating it and ultimately hoping I’ll believe it”
During the debate last week, Governor Romney made this statement in response to President Obama’s arguments about his tax plan. This particular phrase resonated with a lot of former Mormons, in light of the age-old Mormon practice of bearing testimonies. Within Mormonism, members are taught that the most effective way of strengthening your belief is to bear your testimony. In other words, if you repeat your testimony often enough, you will believe it.
In this spirit, every first Sunday of the month is fast and testimony meeting. Members are expected to abstain from food and drink; during sacrament meeting, in lieu of prepared talks, the service is devoted to members standing up and professing their faith in the Church. Testimonies are thought of as key missionary tools; the idea is that if a member is resolute and assertive in professing their faith to others, then conversion will follow suit.
As a kid, fast and testimony meetings were uncomfortable and tedious. Sacrament meetings seemed even longer than normal, as the majority of the hour was marred by uncomfortable silences, punctuated by the occasional member that felt pressured into standing up to break the monotony. A common sight – one that inspires tears of joy in many members – are the testimonies of small children. Parents will bring their children up to the podium, where the bishop will get a small step for the child to stand on, lower the microphone, and the parent will whisper words into the child’s ear, who will then repeat the testimony word-for-word.
From the halting words of small children to the elaborate testimonials of adults, the majority of testimonies consist of the following phrases; “I know this is the one true Church and that Jesus Christ died for our sins. I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. I know that the Book of Mormon is the word of God.” There are many variations or elaborations on this theme. Many members will also talk about how happy the Gospel makes them or how their faith has helped their lives. But the basic testimony is always the same – “I know” or “I believe”. In all of the hundreds of testimonies I heard over the years, I can count on one hand the number of times I heard someone express doubts or unhappiness concerning the Mormon Church. The few times I did hear dissension, the shock reverberated throughout the congregation for weeks. A recent public example is a Youtube video of a man voicing his concerns about Prop 8. After the bishop could not persuade the man to stop speaking, the microphone was cut, effectively leaving the man voiceless. The culture of conformity runs deep; people either voice the consensus view or keep their silence.
The lack of dissension can be attributed to two main undercurrents within Mormonism. The first is a culture of obedience. Members are taught to follow their leaders; these men are thought to be called of God in a very literal sense of the word. An important aspect of church membership is obtaining and keeping a temple recommend. To obtain a temple recommend, members must pass regular interviews during which they are required to uphold Mormon leaders. Even after getting a temple recommend, local leaders have the power to pull a member’s temple recommend at any sign of disobedience. Being temple-worthy – and by extension upholding the authorities - is a very serious matter within Mormonism. The temple is where members make covenants that they believe are necessary to obtain salvation.
The second undercurrent is unique to the practice of testimony meetings. In the words of Dallin H. Oaks
“We gain or strengthen a testimony by bearing it. Someone even suggested that some testimonies are better gained on the feet bearing them than on the knees praying for them.” Dallin H. Oaks, April 2008 General Conference
To paraphrase the words of my local leaders – “The more you bear your testimony, the stronger it will become.” As teenagers, my peers and I were constantly urged by the leaders to practice bearing our testimonies. I always felt very uncomfortable bearing my testimony. I thought that the Mormon Church was true. I believed that the Mormon Church was true. But there was an intense pressure from the authorities to say that you knew the Mormon Church was true. You knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the Mormon Church was true. And the rational part of my mind knew that the fact of knowing was impossible. But I had been raised to place complete faith in the authorities and so I too stood up and said “I know this Church is true.” I did so because I trusted my leaders and their advice; I thought that saying I know the Church is true, even when I felt uncomfortable doing so, was the right thing to do. Looking back, I realize that by following their directives, I contributed to an environment in which members felt alone in their doubts. When I started questioning – and doubting – I too felt alone.
No matter how many times I repeated my testimony, I never learned to believe it.