Chapter 7: Testimony Meetings
Mormons attend three hours of Church every Sunday. It generally consists of three, hour-long meetings that typically occur in the following order:
Here they take the sacrament as talked about in previous chapters. After the sacrament, talks and sermons are given from leaders and various members of the ward. It is often a dreaded assignment to speak in sacrament meeting.
Here everyone goes to their assigned class to learn about the gospel and church doctrine on various subjects. The children go to Primary, the youth are split up by age into different classes, and the adults are normally all together.
Priesthood, Relief Society, and Young Women’s classes
Here all the men attend classes with their respective Priesthood offices, i.e. Deacon, Teacher, Priest as I talked about in previous chapters. The young women attend classes dictated by their age, and the women attend Relief Soceity, essentially an all women sunday school class.
The content and style of the second and third meetings will be addressed in later chapters. For now I am going to concentrate on sacrament meeting, more specifically fast and testimony meeting. Fast and testimony meeting is a special sacrament meeting that occurs on the first Sunday of every month. Members of the ward are supposed to fast for 24 hours this day, though the only time I went the entire 24 was during my mission. It was normal for me to completely forget until the night before and just skip breakfast and lunch the next day. I’m positive I was not the only one that did this. Regardless, members are supposed to be fasting and typically should fast for something. For example, when I was ten my grandfather had a heartattack and the next fast Sunday we all fasted and prayed for a healthy recovery. This is a spiritual practice not unique to Mormonism.
In fast and testimony meeting, after everyone takes the sacrament, anyone in the congregation is invited to approach the pulpit and bear their testimony. This legal-sounding phrase, “bear testimony”, is extremely common in Mormonism. In fact, if you search Google for those two words, the first link is an article from the Church’s website entitled What does it mean to bear testimony?. Here’s the first paragraph from the article:
A testimony is a spiritual witness, given by the Holy Ghost, of the truthfulness of the gospel. When we bear testimony, we declare to others what we know to be true by the power of the Spirit. The foundation of a testimony is the knowledge that Heavenly Father lives and loves us, that Jesus Christ is our Savior, that His gospel has been restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith, and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Savior’s true Church.
In summary, the basic idea is that the Holy Ghost has supposedly told you that these things are true and you are able to claim that you know them to be true. The extreme majority of testimonies typically start out with “I’d like to bear my testimony that I know this Church is true.” Other common statements and sentiments expressed include “I know Joseph Smith was a prophet”, “I know Christ lives”, “I know Heavenly Father answers prayers”, and “I know he loves me”. The word “know” is very important in this situation. If you had prayed to God and felt that what you were praying about was true, according to Mormons, you know that it’s true. Yes, this leaves plenty of room for confirmation bias and self-deception to take place, but I was taught that this was a legitimate and valid way to determine truth.
Testimony meetings tended to be powerfully spiritual in the sense that as someone was bearing their testimony with conviction, many others in the room were inspired and touched by that conviction and understood that to be the Spirit confirming the truth of what this person was saying. The Church teaches that the best way to help someone to feel the Spirit, and therefore know of the truthfulness of the Church, is to bear powerful testimony. Here is a video that I showed regularly to people I was teaching on my mission. It’s the story of how Brigham Young supposedly found his testimony of the validity of the Church. The story goes that Brigham was skeptical of the Book of Mormon and the teachings of Joseph Smith. Then a man said to him that he knew the Book of Mormon was true and at that moment Brigham said he knew it was all true. Here is this idea summarized straight from Mormon scripture1:
…for when a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth it unto the hearts of the children of men.
In the Mormon community, there is almost an inside joke that there is always some 12 or 13 year old boy in every ward who gets up every testimony meeting and becomes emotional while bearing his testimony. In my ward, I was that boy. I remember the first time I got up to do it at the age of 11. I believe my Mom had just gone to the pulpit — which in hindsight seems wrong because my Mom hates public speaking — and gave her testimony and I followed suit. I got up there and began spitting off what I had heard everyone else say. “I know the Church is true. I know Joseph Smith was a prophet” etc. I remember making eye contact with a woman in the ward who served with the Primary children, so I knew her fairly well. She had a tear in her eye which triggered my emotions, which I credited to the Holy Ghost. I often cited that as the moment when I gained my testimony.
Right before I turned 12, we moved to a different city in northern Utah County. After a year or maybe two of attending Church there, I got very comfortable standing up and bearing my testimony in front of everyone. I’m a fairly emotional person and it is not rare for me to cry when talking about things I am passionate about. As a 12 year old feeling the Mormon Spirit, I was a total water faucet every time. I quickly adopted quality public speaking skills and was able to powerfully bear testimony of the things that I supposedly knew to be true. Many times after fast and testimony meeting, adults in the ward would approach me and thank me for what I said and that they felt the Spirit. As time went on and I got older, I learned to control my emotions to some extent and got better at public speaking and continued to bear my testimony regularly, though not quite as frequently as when I was younger. On my mission when teaching people about the Church, I would do so daily, up to a dozen times a day as missionaries are taught to do so very frequently.
Growing up, I remember there being a distinct pressure put on the youth to “gain a testimony”. As I said, I had mine from a young age so I don’t remember feeling it, but I remember seeing more intellectually honest friends stressing out over it. I believe that if I had not gained it, my anxiety to do so would have been through the roof. As was said in chapter 4, several of the questions in the bishop interviews are regarding one’s testimony of the Church and Joseph Smith. Typically if a youth couldn’t affirmatively say that they had a testimony of those things, the bishop would ask if they had a belief in them which they would then answer, yes. With my current worldview, the distinction between knowledge and belief here sounds so silly to me because they were the same thing. But Mormon doctrine teaches that you must have a knowledge and not just simply a belief. To be fair, some more independent thinking Mormons will counter that statement and say that it is Mormon culture that teaches that and not Mormon doctrine. While I currently disagree with that rebuttal, I think it is a fair assessment.
The pressure to have your own testimony only intensified in testimony meetings and especially in testimony meetings that happened outside of sacrament meetings. Every summer the youth go on what the Mormons call youth conference. The planned activities vary from ward to ward and year to year. A couple times we went river rafting in Southern Utah. Another time we did a bunch of service projects around our neighborhoods. But almost inevitably there would be a testimony meeting at the end of it all. All the youth would get up one by one and bear their testimony as well as relate an experience they had that validated their beliefs. Often people would be overcome by emotion and be crying. In a way, I still find it beautiful: the idea of a group of dozens of people finding common belief and conviction and sharing it with each other. But then I remember the inadvertent shaming that would occur when one youth struggling to find their testimony would feel the pressure to get up in front of everyone and talk. Often, there would only be one or two at the end of the meeting that hadn’t done so. Sometimes on top of being the only one not to have spoken, there would be verbal peer pressure to get up and speak. I’m not comfortable saying this was common, but I definitely saw it happen more than once. Again, the Mormon culture of shame and guilt is strong.
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