In 2004, Davis Bitton (former Assistant Church Historian, former president of the Mormon History Association, former University of Utah history professor) gave a presentation at the FairMormon Conference called “I Don’t Have a Testimony of the History of the Church.” It is a good talk with some excellent points – it is from the apologist perspective but it’s well worth reading.
From this talk:
“A number of years ago, I was asked to speak to a combined priesthood group in the Federal Heights Ward. At the conclusion of my remarks, someone asked the following question: ‘What effect has your extensive study of Church history had on your testimony?’ I wasn’t really prepared for the question. The first words out of my mouth were: ‘I never had a testimony of Church history. My testimony is in the gospel of Jesus Christ.’”
I feel the same way as Professor Bitton although I’d say it this way: I have a testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That testimony is not just based upon study but upon spiritual and temporal experiences that have changed me fundamentally – I am no longer the man I was. I have entered a path, through the birth of the Spirit which is the gate, that leads to knowing Christ with a surety in this life. I am seeking to navigate that path – to come unto Christ, who waits at the end of this road (incidentally, I suspect He also walks the path in disguise to help us along the way). However, I don’t have a testimony of the history of the Church. Don’t get me wrong – I believe strongly that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. The Book of Mormon which he translated, and many of the revelations he received have been the key catalysts in my experiencing the birth of the Spirit. The “fruit” I’ve received from Joseph Smith has been sweet.
Lectures on Faith 2:56 says:
“We have now clearly set forth how it is, and how it was, that God became an object of faith for rational beings; and also, upon what foundation the testimony was based, which excited the enquiry and diligent search of the ancient saints, to seek after and obtain a knowledge of the glory of God: and we have seen that it was human testimony, and human testimony only, that excited this enquiry, in the first instance in their minds—it was the credence they gave to the testimony of their fathers—this testimony having aroused their minds to enquire after the knowledge of God, the enquiry frequently terminated, indeed, always terminated, when rightly pursued, in the most glorious discoveries, and eternal certainty.”
In addition to the testimonies I have received from the “ancient saints” in the Bible, I have the “human testimonies” contained in the Book of Mormon plus the testimony of Joseph Smith which has excited my desire to inquire into, seek after and obtain a knowledge of the glory of God for myself. The doctrines taught in the Book of Mormon and by Joseph Smith are proven true if they terminate in the most glorious discoveries and eternal certainty, if I rightly pursue them. So far, they have proven true in my life – I have followed the doctrine taught and experienced a mighty change of heart – I have been born again. And if laying my whole soul on the Lord’s Altar resulted in entering the Gate, I have anecdotal proof that the Book of Mormon is true, as these doctrines are taught in plainness there. And if the Gate which leads to the path is true – and it is, then that gives me hope that if I endure to the end of the path, I will come unto Christ in this life and know Him with a surety and be redeemed, as taught in 3 Nephi 11, 2 Nephi 32 and Ether 3. There is no more glorious a discovery than the person of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself and no promise of eternal life more certain than one that comes from His lips to you.
This is where I spend my time and focus in this life – on seeking the Lord Jesus Christ. In the past I have studied quite a bit of Church history. At first, I found it faith promoting (and pride inducing…), but at a certain point it became faith destroying. I had to really learn to sift the wheat from the tares, because previously it had been hard to tell the difference and I’d assumed that if it came from what I thought was one plant, it should all be wheat. The realization that someone had sown tares among the wheat was a shock and made me bitter for quite a while – I felt betrayed by the Church whose history was not as I’d been led to believe by them. However, because I’d already experienced the birth of the Spirit – IT DID NOT SHAKE MY TESTIMONY IN THE GOSPEL OF JESUS CHRIST or in the human testimonies of those that had guided me to that experience, including the Prophet Joseph Smith. I KNOW that the Lord lives and has the power to fundamentally change hearts, because He’s changed mine – and that was after years of trying and failing to change my own.
There are issues with the history of the Church. For some aspects, I don’t know what to believe. There is a lack of access to primary, contemporary sources without which you can’t be sure of the truth, some may no longer exist or perhaps never did – and there are ulterior motives which seem to justify “lying for the Lord” among even the most senior Church leaders over the course of the whole history of the Church. This has created some small stir and division amongst the people, some apologists crying “Lo, here!” and other apostates, “Lo, there!” What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? How shall we know it?
I am not advocating for ignoring Church history – I think it’s vitally important to understand that there are tares among the wheat so that you can identify the difference and only keep the wheat. But there are others who know much more about these things than I do and I would commend you to them – as well as to primary sources like the Joseph Smith Papers. Sadly, some of these people have been excommunicated now from the Church for pointing out the issues – but that doesn’t make the issues any more real. For me, these actions by leadership are another proof point along the road the Lord prophesied about in 3 Nephi 16, 20-21 – that the Gentile Church WILL reject the Fullness of the Gospel of Christ, if it hasn’t already.
So, how shall we know the truth? We must go to the source – go to God in mighty prayer. We must truly study the scriptures and revelations we’ve been given so that we can connect with God in this life. We must enter the Gate via the baptism of fire and navigate the Lord’s wilderness until He manifests Himself to us in the flesh – and then we must push on, valiant in the Testimony of Jesus, doing the things which He shall say unto us that we should do. Among these will likely be to proclaim the truth of what we’ve experienced to others, so that they can have a “human testimony” to arouse their minds to enquire after the knowledge of God for themselves.
With that in mind, rather than following the Church's Church History/D&C lesson plan for Come Follow Me, I will focus the Gramarye blog in 2021 on the doctrine of Christ contained in the revelations and teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I have identified 24 sections of the Doctrine and Covenants which I will combine into 14 posts. Following those, I will publish 6 posts on the Lectures on Faith (which was canonized as scripture in the D&C during the entire life of Joseph Smith) and 4 posts from various chapters in the book Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Altogether, that adds up to only 24 posts for the year, so I’ve decided to publish each “Questions” post and leave it up for a week before publishing thoughts on the answers. My hope is that the Questions will promote more of a conversation with God than a debate with me – and a discussion with Him about saving doctrines is the only conversation that is really important anyway.