If you spend any time in church-related settings with Mormons — members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — it won’t be long before you hear phrases like this:
- “I know the Church is true”
- “the only true church”
- “the only true and living Church on the face of the earth”
That last one is scripture for us.
What do we mean when we say our Church is true? What don’t we mean? Should you be offended, if you’re not a Mormon?
More precisely, what do I mean and not mean? (Others may wish to speak for themselves.)
First, we must look for a few moments at what is for me sacred history. However, it is not necessary for this discussion that you accept it as truth.
The Mormon idea that there is one true church and it’s ours is anchored directly to a cornerstone of Mormon faith: what we call Joseph Smith’s First Vision. (If we were more precise with our wording, we might call it his First Visitation.) It’s hard to remain a devout Mormon without accepting that this thing literally happened, but some do. I don’t know that I would.
In 1820 Joseph Smith, Jr., was 14 years old and living in upstate New York. There was religious tumult in the region. Some of his family had joined one church; some had joined another. Joseph had joined none of them. He had studied the Bible and pondered a key question at length, apparently for years.
One of Joseph’s several extant accounts of his experience is canonized scripture for us. There are three other accounts, dictated to scribes at different times and for different audiences and purposes; if this aspect of the history interests you, you might read a recent article posted at LDS.org, comparing the accounts and addressing their differences. I quote the canonical version here, a book called “Joseph Smith — History” in our Pearl of Great Price. It has a single long chapter, which I used to have memorized. (I’ll include verse numbers.)
8 During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit. In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was bright and who was wrong. . . .
10 In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?
One day, while reading in the New Testament, Joseph was struck by a passage in the Epistle of James, which reads, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him” (James 1:5). He said:
12 Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.
13 At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God.
He decided to pray aloud for the first time in his life, and he went to a grove of trees not far from his home to make the attempt. It was early in the spring. I have been there at that season; there would have been no leaves on the trees, and the place he chose was about as close as he could be to home and still have some privacy.
To make a longer story short, here’s what happened when he prayed:
16 . . . I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.
17 It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!
These two Personages were God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ, as you might have gathered from what One said to the Other.
Time Out for Two Things
Let’s pause for two notes.
First, I emphasize again that, despite my conviction that this account is literally true — that it actually happened — you don’t have to believe it to understand this essay. If you want to believe it, so much the better. Or if you prefer to think of all this as one of the more amazing and widespread frauds ever perpetrated on the human race, or if you simply don’t care, that’s entirely up to you. My object here is to explain, not to proselyte.
Second, consider the earth-shaking theological implications, if this is true. Much of the Christian world preached (and still preaches, mostly) that the heavens are closed, that there is no more revelation from heaven after the events recounted in the New Testament, and no ongoing need for apostolic or prophetic authority. Likewise, it was widely believed, and still is, that God was not a personal being, and that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost were simply (“simply” is the wrong word) three manifestations of the same Deity.
In other words, each of the three words in this phrase comes with its own doctrinal cataclysm: “saw two Personages.” Saw. Two. Personages.
Joseph Gets His Answer
Joseph’s object in praying was to get an answer to his question, so he would know what to do — specifically, which church to join.
18 . . . No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right . . . and which I should join.
19 I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.”
20 He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time.
To put it mildly, them’s fightin’ words. Small wonder Joseph ended up murdered by a mob in 1844 — not that there weren’t more provocations to come.
Let’s parse a few words.
I take “they were all wrong” to mean that none of the current churches was “the true church” (see below), and that each proclaimed some errors. I do not believe this means that everything every church was preaching was false. That would be impossible.
I take “those professors were all corrupt” to mean that what the various preachers professed was impure, that is, not entirely true — in another word, corrupt. I do not think it means that all clergy in all other churches were or are corrupt men and women, let alone evil.
I take “all their creeds were an abomination” not to mean that the preachers or the believers were an abomination, but that their creeds contained basic, crucial errors about the nature of God. Bear in mind that these creeds identified the Holy Trinity as a single, omnipresent (yet nowhere present) being (if “being” is the right word), without body parts or passions — the very doctrines exploded by Joseph seeing two Personages.
As regards “having a form of godliness, but [denying] the power thereof,” recall that these churches taught that the heavens were closed. That is as fundamental a denial of the power of God — if the heavens are not, in fact, closed — as I can imagine. If it is not a denial that God has power, it is at least a partial denial that mortals have access to that power.
What I Don’t Mean
I’ve foreshadowed some of this, but here are some things I don’t mean when I say the Church (of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is true. I’ve encountered each of these in my church experience, as a member, local leader, or missionary — most often, I think, as sincere questions from people who sought to understand, not to condemn.
Some of these require more explanation than I can reasonably give here.
I do not believe that everyone in every other Church is evil or an enemy. Nor do I believe this of atheists or agnostics. There are villains, fools, and saints in every church I have encountered, including mine. But the churches and religions of which I am aware have fine and godly people, who are doing their best to live their lives according to their understanding of God’s will. The atheists and agnostics I know try to live good, moral lives.
I do not believe that every member of another church’s clergy is evil or an enemy. The ones I have known — Christian and non-Christian ministers alike — have been amazing and, yes, godly.
I do not believe that only Mormons will go to heaven. I actually believe that almost everyone will eventually reach one degree of heaven or another, and relatively very few souls will spend eternity in anything that might be construed as hell. (This one definitely requires more explanation, but not here and now. I will note my belief that attaining any degree of heaven requires the grace of Jesus Christ.)
I do not believe that everything taught in every Mormon meeting or class is pure truth sent from the mind and mouth of God. Nor do I believe this of every word in books, lesson manuals, magazines, videos, or web sites published by the Church. Nor do I believe this of every spoken or written word of the President of the Church, though I acknowledge him as a prophet of God and a frequent conduit for heavenly truth.
Even if mortal humans were otherwise equipped to traffic perpetually in pure truth, we don’t have a perfect language to support the effort. More broadly, any church full of humans will have its imperfections. (Here’s a fine recent sermon touching this theme.)
I do not believe that Mormons (individually or institutionally) currently have the answer to every question of eternal consequence. Similarly, I do not believe that other churches and their members are wholly without divine truth or answers to such questions. (I cannot believe this, because they and I believe at least some of the same things, so we must be either right or wrong together on those points.)
I do not believe that you have to be a Mormon to have God answer your prayers or communicate his will to you, or for him to bless you in many other ways.
I do not believe that being a Mormon automatically makes me better, smarter, wiser, or more pleasing to God than any given non-Mormon; or that being a Mormon automatically makes me right, if you and I disagree on points of doctrine or its proper application to real life.
I do not believe that a Mormon leaving the Church for another church is always a bad thing for that person. It may actually be a step forward in that individual’s quest for the divine. (That’s a larger topic for another day.)
I do not believe that I cannot find holiness in Catholic, Russian Orthodox, or Jewish worship services — to name some places where I have found it.
I also do not believe that I should make this list any longer, though I could. Let’s move on.
What I Mean
I won’t belabor the next few milestones of Mormon history. I will simply say the following:
I accept as truth that Jesus Christ restored his Church to the earth in 1830, through the Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. How it was lost and had to be restored, after the death of Jesus’ original apostles, is a tale for another day.
I accept that Christ delegated to this Church his authority — that is, authorization to act in his name for the salvation of the human family — and also sent a flood of expanding, clarifying, reconciling truth to it. (Not all truth, and there surely is more to come. We could use more.)
I therefore accept that, when ordained LDS priests (a generic term) administer sacraments (which Mormons usually call ordinances) to members of the Church, from baptism to the marriage sealing ordinance at the altars in our temples, they do so with God’s own authority, and their acts are recognized for time and eternity in the heavens. By these sacraments we enter covenants with God, where, subject to our faith and obedience, he promises to endow us with power sufficient to serve him in this life and the fulness of grace necessary to save us eternally in his highest heaven.
What I mean when I say the Church is true is simply this: it is the one organization on earth which operates at every level with Jesus Christ’s own delegated authority to administer salvation to the Father’s spirit children — that is, the human race.
I gratefully acknowledge that many churches and organizations please God, do godly things, and advance the salvation of the race. Some of them do it spectacularly well. There simply are a few things they cannot do, because the authority to do them is elsewhere.
These are the pillars of what we Mormons are pleased to call our testimonies, the most fundamental things we believe and know — those on which the rest of our religious lives are built:
- that God is our Father;
- that Jesus Christ is his Son and our resurrected Savior, Redeemer, and King;
- that Joseph Smith saw what he said he saw and heard what he said he heard in the grove in 1820;
- that the Bible and the Book of Mormon (and other holy scriptures) are the word of God revealed through his prophets, given to us, above all, as testaments of Jesus Christ;
- that true (but mortal) prophets and apostles have continued in an unbroken line in the Church from Joseph Smith to the present day; and
- that God’s own delegated authority has its earthly place in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (Because Mormons have to have their own terms for everything, we like to speak of this as “priesthood keys,” which are also a topic for another day.)
Again, I’m not insisting that you believe any of this. But now, perhaps, you understand what Mormons mean and don’t mean when we make an audacious claim: that our Church is true in a way that distinguishes it from all other churches on earth.
We are near the very center of Mormon faith and the core of my own religious convictions. Thank you for treading respectfully — whether in belief, doubt, skepticism, or outright denial — on my sacred ground.