Let me address directly the question of knowledge and doubt. Many Latter-day Saints (including many who have grown up in the church) are now re-examining their faith and are questioning whether or not they really believe the claims of the church to be true. In our information age we have a world of knowledge quite literally at our fingertips, and that has changed the landscape dramatically. Certain aspects of church history that are difficult to understand, or that might be troubling to many – and which in earlier years the Church might have wished to avoid having to explain or try to defend are now widely available and are freely examined by far more people that ever before.
To help, the church has launched it's own public re-examination of it's past, and has embarked on a journey of scholarship and transparency that is wonderful. A number of scholarly gospel topics essays have been written to address controversial subjects in history and doctrine. Projects like the Joseph Smith Papers – which is an effort to publish (in hi-res photography) every shred of original source material we have about the founding leader – have been launched to wide acclaim. As we gain distance from the past, we also gain new perspectives that naturally come as an advantage of hindsight. We see this reflected in some of the conclusions reached in the essay about blacks and priesthood, for example.
Usually Latter-day Saints who are struggling with doubts have started to do some reading into church history, or they've heard podcasts produced by former church members or others somewhere in the middle of a faith crisis themselves. They often haven't, until fairly recently, paid much attention to church history. But now they are drawn into a world of questions about complex historical events, and often find themselves floored as they learn new things they never heard discussed in sunday school.
The information has been out there and available in various places for years, including even in the Ensign magazine, but the more controversial topics have been avoided in official Sunday church curriculum. I don't want to get to off-track here, but if you want to learn more about how people have reacted, and what the church is doing, I encourage you to take a look at Michael Otterson's recent address at UVU.
One observation about questions though – they are easy to come up with – but challenging questions often take time, patience, and much research to answer. This is a fact that is often exploited on message boards, online comments, and general anti-Mormon literature such as the much touted "CES letter" (see also Michael Ash's "Bamboozled by the CES letter" or debunking-cesletter.com). It's a simple and effective tactic to launch a lot of challenging questions at your opponent – when in reality each question requires a well-researched essay (or book, or a few books) to start to get at an answer. History is challenging and often messy. Even with the best scholarship available we can only attempt to understand the full context that played out with decisions or events that happened nearly 200 years ago.
It's certainly not wrong to study history or learn, quite the contrary. We should all study and learn as much as we can, and I for one welcome all the wonderful resources that have become available for us to learn and uncover the stories of the past. I think it's fascinating to study history, particularly the history of the Latter-day Saints. But I would encourage all who want to pursue a real study of church history to seek books and articles from reputable scholars that are well documented. If you're struggling with something you saw on Youtube, Wikipedia, or Facebook... you might consider purchasing a few well-researched books on the subjects.
Isn't it worth a few dollars and some serious time before you decide to throw your faith away? Take a look at what multiple scholars have to say on the subject. Don't make a decision based on the first thing you happen to see. At the very least you could search the subject on the BYU Studies academic journal site, and get decades of research (including a ton of book reviews) pretty quickly. We have a scriptural mandate to seek wisdom and learning "out of the best books" (D&C 88:118).
I would also encourage you to slow down and be patient. I think people often start wading through material online and over the matter of a few days or weeks their whole world crumbles apart. Slow down, realize that these questions can take a while to go through. I would also encourage you, in addition to reading academic material - to continue in prayer and scripture study. If you are struggling with doubt, both approaches are important. Prayer and scripture study alone will probably not resolve the questions you have about early church history - for that you need research and scholarly information. But if you're struggling to find truth without the Spirit, you're not going to get far. That is what the rest of this article is about.
I love this wonderful quote from one of our past church leaders (which incidentally Jeremy Runnells included in his CES letter as well):
“If we have the truth, it cannot be harmed by investigation. If we have not the truth, it ought to be harmed.” - President J. Reuben Clark
But we should also remember the words of Paul in the New Testament as he prophetically described the last days. He described people in our time as:
"Ever learning, and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth." (2 Tim. 3:7).
The LDS church makes very specific and bold claims about it's founding, and it's authority. For example, it claims to be God's original church restored again after a period of apostasy during the middle ages. It claims to be the one true church re-established on earth by God through a young man who was called as a modern-day prophet. The church claims that Joseph Smith was literally visited by God and Jesus Christ, and by other angels and ancient bible prophets - who bestowed God's priesthood authority on him. The church teaches that the Book of Mormon is an actual ancient record translated by the gift and power of God, and that we have living prophets and apostles in our day who have the very same authority and power as those of Jesus' day.
These are pretty outlandish claims to many people. Many would say it's astonishing or even ridiculous to believe such things in our modern day. Most Christian churches today don't even claim to be true, they only claim to be good. They teach the bible, but make no claims to any modern revelations or authority coming from heaven. In fact some believe that it doesn't matter which church you go to, and that they are all true. But how can thousands of churches teaching different doctrines all be true?
It's another way of saying that there are no requirements at all to get into heaven (if heaven exists) and that God is happy with us no matter what we do. But if we're going down that road we might as well just throw the bible out too. Why did God need nearly 1600 pages to tell us it doesn't matter what we believe?
So then, assuming some reality (truth) does exist, how do we come to know it? Is the Bible true (literally) or is it not? Is it only partly true? Perhaps some of the events and stories have symbolic meaning – or did those miraculous events actually happen? If it is true, and there were really such men as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Peter, and John – men who received revelations and spoke with God, then why should it be so impossible for God to speak in our day, or even to visit men on the earth? What difference does the date on the calendar make?
If there is a God in heaven and if He put us here, then surely he would give us some way to find him again? Would he not give us some method by which we can come to know, to learn, to connect with him?
Science tries to use the scientific method for discovering truth. This has been the way we have discovered so much about the natural world around us, and has led to great discoveries in the fields of medicine, technology, biology, etc.. It's a wonderful tool to help us learn about the physical world - and even the larger physical universe. But if we wish to find God, and to establish a real connection with him, the scientific method is the wrong tool.
God has given us a way to know truth with absolute certainty. It is the precious gift of the Holy Ghost. Consider these many scriptures that describe the role of the Holy Ghost in teaching truth:
"But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things..." (John 14:26)
"I have many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth..." (John 16:12-13)
"Believe and repent of your sins and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, even as our fathers, and ye shall receive the Holy Ghost, that ye may have all thing made manifest..." (Moses 8:24)
"...he will manifest the truth of it [the Book of Mormon] by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things" (Moroni 10:4-5)
"...for the Spirit speaketh the truth and lieth not. Wherefore it speaketh of things as they really are, and of things as they really will be..." (Jacob 4:13)
"...Behold I testify unto you that I do know that these things are whereof I have spoken are true. And how do ye suppose that I know of their surety? Behold I say unto you they are made known unto me by the Holy Spirit of God. Behold I have fasted and prayed many days that I might know these things of myself. And now I do know of myself that they are true, for the Lord God hath made them manifest unto me by his Holy Spirit; and this is the spirit of revelation which is in me." (Alma 5:45-46)
To Oliver Cowdery the Lord gave some very special instruction that can be helpful to any of us who lean more toward the analytical side of things. Oliver was a young school teacher working in Palmyra NY area, and first learned about the gold plates from Joseph's family as he boarded with them in 1828. He felt a desire to learn more about these plates, and to know if the account was really true. One evening Oliver knelt in prayer and while praying received a spiritual witness about the story of the plates, so that he was convinced they were real -- and he decided to journey to where Joseph was then living (in Harmony, PA) to offer his assistance. He was eventually able to meet Joseph Smith and work together with him as a scribe during the Book of Mormon translation process.
It was early on during the translation work, some time in April 1829, that it seems Oliver began wonder again -- perhaps to feel some concerns or doubts about what they were doing. He wanted to get another confirming witness from God that what they were doing was right. So Oliver asked Joseph Smith about it, and Joseph prayed to God. Oliver had not told Joseph of his earlier spiritual witness.
The revelation we have as D&C 6 is the result, which includes the following:
"Behold thou knowest that thou hast inquired of me and I did enlighten thy mind; and now I tell thee these things that thou mayest know that thou hast been enlightened by the Spirit of truth; Yea I tell thee, the thou mayest know that there is none else save God that knowest the thoughts and the intents of thy heart...
Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things.
Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?
And now behold, you have received a witness, for if I have told you things which no man knoweth have you not received a witness?" (D&C 6:15-24)
Later that same month the Lord continued to instruct Oliver about the workings of the Spirit, and about how revelation is received. Oliver desired to not only transcribe the words as Joseph translated - but he desired to be given the same power Joseph was given, to be able to translate also. The Lord taught him:
"Oliver Cowdery, verily, verily, I say unto you, that assuredly as the Lord liveth, who is your God and your Redeemer, even so surely shall you receive a knowledge of whatsoever things you shall ask in faith, with an honest heart, believing that you shall receive a knowledge concerning the engravings of old records, which are ancient, which contain those parts of my scripture of which has been spoken by the manifestation of my Spirit.
We learn from this instruction that the Spirit works both in our minds and in our hearts. Thoughts can come into our mind from God, and feelings can also come from God. The spirit can (and does) work using both channels. It's sometimes difficult for people to know if they have felt or received a divine communication. Sometimes the Holy Ghost is speaking to us, and yet we question and think perhaps we're just having random thoughts, or that we're wishing something to be true.
How do we know when a thought really comes from God, and not just our own mind? This can be a difficult question to answer, even for seasoned members of the church – allow me to share this personal experience that has helped me:
I served as a missionary from 1989-1991 in Florida. During one period of my mission I served with a brand new missionary who was himself struggling with his testimony. A major concern for him was that he did not think he had ever felt the Holy Spirit, or any spiritual witness or prompting. I was struggling with how to help him. One day we were out knocking on doors as missionaries often do, and we were hitting all the doors along the right side of a certain street, planning to finish up at the end of that street.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a particular home across the way, not along our planned route. A thought came to me – "You should go over there and knock at that door." I said nothing, and instead I brushed it off, assuming that it was just me... wishful thinking I supposed. We walked a little further on, and still there was a quiet but subtle feeling like we should go over and knock on that door. However, being a bit dense, I still said nothing to my companion.
As I was thinking this over, my companion turned to me and said "I think we should go over and knock at that house over there." The very house I was also feeling prompted to visit! So of course I agreed and we walked across the street to the house.
We knocked at the door, and a woman answered – she was probably in her mid-40's. The moment she saw us, she burst into tears. We awkwardly attempted to introduce ourselves, and to try to figure out why she was crying. She said she knew who we were, and that she was a member of the church but hadn't been to church in many years. She invited us in and we spoke for a little while.
She told us that this particular day had been "the worst day of her entire life". She was in the middle of a divorce, and had reached her lowest point emotionally and spiritually. She said she had just been trying to figure out what to do, when we knocked at her door. When she saw us, she knew exactly what she needed to do, and that God wanted her to come back to church.
I remember her asking us "Why did you come to my house? Did someone send you?" We did not have her on our records as a church member in that area. We assured her that no one had sent us, and told her how we both felt a prompting to come and knock on her door. There wasn't much else we needed to do there, she came to church the next Sunday and continued coming after that.
I've thought about that experience many times over the years since then. For my companion it was wonderful to be able to tell him – "Look, you felt that prompting from the Holy Ghost - it wasn't just a random thought." And for me, it was instructive to realize how soft, yet how persistent the prompting was. It was not an emotion (in this experience), but rather it was a quiet thought, and if it wasn't for my companion I would have ignored it completely.
One might ask, why does the Holy Spirit work that way? Why wouldn't God make it crystal clear when he wants you to do something? Sometimes impressions and feelings of the spirit are unmistakable. But often the prompting is quiet, and soft. We sometimes call the Holy Ghost the "still small voice". I'm not sure I can answer why, but that is how it is.
There have many times since that day when I have felt promptings similar to this, and many experiences I might share (and so might thousands of other church members) - but this one serves as a good illustration. This is also not the only way the Spirit communicates with us. He can also bring us feelings of deep joy, peace, love from God, and a feeling of his divine approval. It's difficult to describe but very real.
One further bit of instruction the Lord gives to Oliver Cowdery is helpful to us as well, it's found in Section 18 of our Doctrine & Covenants:
"Behold I have manifested unto you, by my Spirit in many instances, that the things you have written are true; wherefore you know that they are true." (D&C 18:2)
Sometimes we can be led to doubt spiritual experiences that we've had. Perhaps this was the case with Oliver. The Lord reminded him that he had already received witnesses, many in fact. Again, what greater witness can there be than from God?
Do we think that if we study out questions of church history, and do research into this or that, and perhaps even find some satisfactory answers to our questions... do we think this would lead us to know that the church is true? It would only satisfy us for the moment. Soon we'll encounter other questions and we're back in the same position again.
If we seek real knowledge about truth, ultimate knowledge we can rest on – and that will bring our souls peace, such knowledge can only come by the Spirit of God. Long ago the apostle Paul wrote:
But as it is written, Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.
But God hath revealed them unto us by his Spirit: for the Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God.
...the things of God knoweth no man, but [by] the Spirit of God.
But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Cor 2:9-11, 14)
If we wish to come to a knowledge of the things of God, we must do it in God's way. Reason and intellect alone will not get us there. There is no way around this basic fact. People can complain that it's too difficult, or say it's never going to happen to them, or say it's too hard or that it takes too much time. All of those excuses are irrelevant. To know God one must receive revelation. It's as simple as that, and there is no other way.
And the scriptures promise that this spiritual witness of truth, this personal revelation, can come to any person. The Savior taught:
"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened." (Matthew 7:8)
There are some scriptures however that make room for those of limited faith who have been unable to recieve a spiritual witness of truth. For example:
"To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. To others it is given to believe on their words, that they also might have eternal life if they continue faithful." (D&C 46:13-14)
This is still in the category of spiritual gifts, and for some that is as far as they are able to go. Perhaps there are those who simply cannot get past their own analytical or intellectual nature, or they have some other personality trait that makes it very difficult to feel or recognize spiritual impressions. Yet they are willing to believe (they choose to believe) based on the experiences and testimony of others. They are good people, and if they continue to keep God's commandments they will be able to go on to eternal life.
I presume that this condition is temporary – the phrase "that they might also have eternal life if they continue faithful" indicates that eventually they will receive their own spiritual knowledge, and not always be in a position of having to rely on the experiences of others.
This is similar to the faith to be healed:
"And again, it shall come to pass that he that hath faith in me to be healed, and is not appointed unto death, shall be healed.
And they who have not faith to do these things, but believe in me, have power to become my sons, and inasmuch as they break not my laws thou shalt bear their infirmities." (D&C 42:48, 52)
It is not for us to judge. Perhaps for some reason God holds back for a longer period with some than he does with others. One of the results of learning and study is that we begin to examine and question our long-held beliefs and traditions. It is a natural experience particularly for students as they begin their studies at a college or university. This can be quite good, an honest examination of our faith is a very necessary step in the development of a stronger and more mature faith.
Of what value is a faith that has never been challenged? Or beliefs that have never been tested and refined by examination, argument or reason? A faith supported by honest and patient study, and confirmed by a deep and quiet spiritual witness, is the kind of faith that can take us through the storm.
While blind faith is certainly no virtue – neither is unrelenting doubt. Some say they will only ever believe if they see with their own eyes. They seek a sign, some miracle is called for, before they will open themselves to any belief in God or spiritual things. This thinking is not new, doubt and skepticism are as old as Adam. All prophets through history have been trying to get people to believe in God, trying to convince them through preaching the word -- that these things are real.
"For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe." (1 Corinthians 1:21)
God doesn't give miracles or signs to satisfy the curious or convince the skeptic. He requires men to have some faith first. Signs only come to confirm our faith – it is precisely the opposite of what most people would like. Moroni commented on the story of Ether, a prophet who lived and taught his people thousands of years ago:
"And it came to pass that Ether did prophesy great and marvelous things unto the people, which they did not believe, because they saw them not.
And now, I, Moroni, would speak somewhat concerning these things; I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen; wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith. (Ether 12:5-6)
Alma counseled people to at least hold on to the "desire to believe". He called this exercising a "particle of faith" and said to then "let this desire work in you" (Alma 32:27). He taught that as we act on this desire to believe, we would see and feel the positive results. Our understanding would then begin to increase, and our minds would be enlightened by the Spirit, and the word would begin to become "delicious" to us (Alma 32:28). This causes our faith to grow.
In other words, we do not believe based on some blind acceptance of the word - rather, we have performed an experiment. We have opened our hearts and mind to the word, and acted on this for some period of time - and we have seen and experienced results. Then we can draw the conclusion that the word is true. Surely this is a line of thought that even the most analytical can accept?
This search for spiritual knowledge, and a witness borne through the power of the Holy Ghost is critical. I hope that what I have written has been of help to someone – although I confess my desire to round up these scriptures has been mostly for my own benefit, and to remind myself of these things. I gain a great deal of personal strength as I examine the scriptures - and I also find that the Holy Ghost helps me recall particular verses and to see how they relate.
I share my witness that revelation can be received, and that a spiritual confirmation can come to those who patiently and honestly study and seek for it. I know because it has come to me. That spiritual guidance is the best and most reliable witness of pure truth. When the spirit speaks to your heart and mind, all doubt and debates are over, and as the Lord told Oliver Cowdery - you know.
There is one last scripture that I wanted to work in here. It is this:
And at that day, when I shall come in my glory, shall the parable be fulfilled which I spake concerning the ten virgins.
For they that are wise and have received the truth, and have taken the Holy Spirit for their guide, and have not been deceived—verily I say unto you, they shall not be hewn down and cast into the fire, but shall abide the day. (D&C 45:56-57)
I hope that we can each strive to gain and keep that Holy Spirit in our lives. Like the oil in the lamps of the five wise virgins, it cannot be shared with others – each must gain his own witness to be prepared.