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Mormonism and the Question of Truth


by Latayne C. Scott

Summary


The Mormon concept of, and approach to, the subject of truth is radically different from that of the Bible in at least nine ways. A Mormon sees truth as (1) constantly changing, (2) as going, in culture and practice, far beyond written doctrine, (3) as determined by subjective feelings, and (4) as often divorced from its history. (5) The Mormon approach to truth is compromised by a heritage of deception as practiced by leaders from founder Joseph Smith to today's Elder Paul Dunn. In addition, (6) truth to a Mormon is "layered" in the way that it is presented to prospective converts. And (7) the Church itself routinely edits both its own history and doctrine to make it seem consistent and palatable. In practice, therefore, (8) truth often yields to what the Church views as expedient. In the final analysis, (9) the Mormon concept of truth depends upon the character of its god, who as defined by LDS doctrine is constantly changing and himself ultimately human in nature.


The most basic Mormon statement of faith, known as "bearing your testimony," is taught to young children to repeat from their first chance to speak in a "fast and testimony meeting" until their dying day. It consists of a very simple yet psychologically potent affirmation: "I know the Church is true."


I believe from my own past experience as a Latter-day Saint that for most Mormons this statement encompasses two elements. First, to be a member of the only "true" church implies that all other churches are "false." Second, I believed (as wholeheartedly faithful Mormons do) that this emotional confirmation of the Church's truthfulness was supported by continuing revelation.


Now, after eighteen years' distance from the Mormon Church -- years in which I have matured as a Christian -- I see that the biblical concept of truth is diametrically opposed to the Mormon one. This is borne out in nine major areas which involve not only the Mormon Church's view of history and veracity, but its world view and theology as a whole.


TRUTH AS CONSTANTLY CHANGING


As a faithful Mormon I was confident that, because of continuing revelation from God to the prophet of the church, whatever my leaders told me took into account new developments in human history. I reasoned, for example, that since the birth control pill hadn't been invented until the twentieth century, it was useless to look for clues about its rightness or wrongness in a flawed, 2,000-year-old book (the Bible) when I had a direct line to God through His prophet on such issues. I was proud that Mormon doctrine is flexible, believing that although it can conform to contemporary situations, all new revelation dovetails with previous doctrines without contradiction.


Of course, even the most unbiased and cursory study of Mormonism reveals that the church's doctrine has undergone major changes in the past 160 years (with polygamy being the most obvious example). The official explanation of doctrines which conflict with prior teachings is that the church's "prophet, seer and revelator" -- its president -- is authorized as the only one who "writes something or speaks something that goes beyond anything that you can find in the standard church works" (i.e., its scriptures).[1]


Mormons have told me that such changes are really no different from those Jesus made when He came to earth and dramatically altered the way we are to worship. Indeed, Hebrews 7:12 emphasizes that a change in covenant necessitates a change in law. But the cataclysmic, one-time change in law that Jesus -- Himself the "fulfillment of the law" (Matt. 5:17) -- instituted can hardly be equated with the way that Mormon doctrine, as formulated by its various prophets, has waffled on major issues throughout its history. (Bible students will note that one's perception of truth is often progressive. In 1 Corinthians 3:2 Paul scolded his readers for letting their worldliness keep them on a diet of doctrinal milk when they should have matured in their understanding. However, there is a vast difference between one's own changing perception of truth and the Mormon belief that doctrinal truth itself is subject to ongoing revision.)


TRUTH AS WRITTEN ON THE MORMON HEART


As any sociologist can attest, the practices and beliefs of a people are determined by their world view. This refers to the way they process information about the world and life based on their preconceptions and past experiences. These preconceptions and experiences often influence attitudes and behavior more than any formulated doctrine. This is especially true in Mormonism, which as a subculture (and not merely a religion) structures a world view that is often beyond an outsider's understanding.


For example, while there is very little written doctrine about the function of the special undergarments to be worn at all times by Mormons who have received their temple "endowments," there is a rich heritage of folklore describing how these sacred garments have saved soldiers from bullets, fire victims from burns, and others from death. Virtually all Mormon children learn such stories and grow up with them as a part of their world view.


In Early Mormonism and the Magic World View, Mormon historian D. Michael Quinn notes that "the magic world view and practice of magic rarely substitute for religion, but do manifest a personal, rather than institutional, religious focus. Although one may label magic and religion in various ways, it is more difficult to differentiate between external manifestations of the two."[2]


For this reason, the Christian trying to communicate biblical truth to a Latter-day Saint must never forget that the Mormon's substructure of faith often extends far beneath the level of formal, written doctrine. When I began to write The Mormon Mirage (Zondervan, 1979), which tells of how and why I left the Mormon Church after ten happy years, I was especially grateful that I had extensive written notes of meetings I'd attended as well as the journal I'd kept. These still illustrate to me that there is often a considerable difference between the way a system of thought is taught and the way in which it is believed and practiced.


TRUTH AS DETERMINED BY SUBJECTIVE TESTIMONY


If one asks any Latter-day Saint for the primary proof that the Book of Mormon is true, he or she will assuredly point to the promise it gives in Moroni 10:4--5: "And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost." A physical sensation called a "burning in the bosom" is the spiritual confirmation from the Holy Ghost often said to accompany the conviction that a given thing is "true."


Not only written scripture is subject to such subjective confirmation. J. Reuben Clark, Jr., who was a counselor in the church's First Presidency to three of its prophets, once advised members that "we can tell when the [General Authorities] are 'moved upon by the Holy Ghost,' only when we, ourselves, are 'moved on by the Holy Ghost.' In a way, this completely shifts the responsibility from them to us to determine when they so speak."[3]


Mormon truth, then, is in one sense the domain of the heart and its perceptions. This is in distinct contrast to biblical teachings (which nowhere invite the reader to subjectively "test" them) and in direct opposition to the Bible's repeated warnings that the heart is deceitful and unreliable (e.g., Jer. 17:9; Prov. 19:21).


The introduction of new doctrine is a touchy subject for Mormons, showing that there are limits to this subjective ap