3 reasons Mormons don’t corner the market on truth

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truth

At 185, Mormonism is a toddler religion. And if you’re familiar with toddlers, you understand that after “No!”, the second-most-common word a toddler is likely to utter is “Mine.”

“Mine” here means “exclusive truth.” Mormonism has some beautiful claims to exclusive truth, including sacred prophetic authority, additional scriptures, and radical beliefs about the nature of God and the role of humankind in the eternal scheme of things.

But Mormons have sometimes staked our truth claims too forcefully in ways that aren’t supported by the larger trajectory of our tradition. Calling ourselves “the only true and living church” is an example of this kind of facile overstatement. (Upon hearing this in a sacrament meeting that my Episcopal husband was also attending, I turned to him and whispered that he had better hurry or he would be late for services at his false and dead church.)

Mormonism has long held to exclusive truth claims – this strand was present right from the start when God told Joseph Smith not to join any church then available – but they have always been balanced by other, more inclusive strains. Right now seems like a good time to humbly remind ourselves of three of our own teachings on this score.

1. God calls many people to testify.

One of my favorite passages in the Book of Mormon qualifies the claim to exclusive truth with a healthy dose of humility. This ancient prophecy foretold the skepticism that would greet the Book of Mormon upon its publication. God stops us in our tracks with these words:

Know ye not that there are more nations than one? Know ye not that I, the Lord your God, have created all men, and that I remember those who are upon the isles of the sea; and that I rule in the heavens above and in the earth beneath; and I bring forth my word unto the children of men, yea, even upon all the nations of the earth?

. . . Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written. (2 Nephi 29: 7, 10)

A core tenet of Mormon theology is that God didn’t just speak to the Israelites in Jerusalem, but to the Nephite people in the New World, and many other people elsewhere. Just because we don’t yet know the whole story of God’s interactions with those nations and peoples doesn’t mean that they don’t have their own experiences, sacred texts, and prophets who contribute to salvation history.

The Book of Mormon is crystal-clear here that just because one people possesses a work that they believe contains beautiful religious truth, God isn’t fully contained and domesticated by it. God’s truth has spilled out into the sacred texts of many other groups and nations.

2. The Restoration is a work in progress.

Mormons have a longstanding tradition of believing that God only reveals new truth when we demonstrate our readiness for it. The Ninth Article of Faith states, “We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.”

In other words, God’s not done yet. God still has important things to reveal, things which are a heck of a lot bigger than one denomination. Mormons would do well to maintain a sense of humble openness to truth even if it appears in unlikely places.

There’s a famous saying from Brigham Young that we believe “in all good. If you can find a truth in heaven, earth, or hell, it belongs to our doctrine. We believe it; it is ours; we claim it.”

As Young put it, Mormons have the responsibility and duty to “gather every item of truth,” wherever it is found.

3. Mormons have an unusually capacious concept of the afterlife.

The Brigham Young quote above suggests that Mormons believe in a hell — but if it’s a place where truth can be gathered, it’s clearly not the traditional Christian notion.

For Mormons, “hell” – which we would call “spirit prison” – is not an eternal place of torment but a kind of car wash, a brief holding pen where truth is taught and repentance can occur before people drive off into the sunlight of paradise.

Mormons feel that growth and change continue to occur after this life, and that even those individuals who go spirit prison after death can turn to God there and cross over into spirit paradise. We also believe that when Christ comes again, all of the souls in the spirit world will be sorted out into three eternal paradise kingdoms, and that all the good people of every religious tradition will dwell in eternal bliss forever.

I wish we would focus more in our tradition on remembering these three things and less on the exclusivity that makes Mormons feel special and unique.


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  • Josh

    The idea of the “only true and living church” is in the scriptures. It’s not just something that Mormons came up with to make themselves feel good.

    30 “And also those to whom these commandments were given, might have power to lay the foundation of this church, and to bring it forth out of obscurity and out of darkness, the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth, with which I, the Lord, am well pleased, speaking unto the church collectively and not individually—”

  • Lois

    Spirit prison is defined in church lesson material as:
    “the spirits of those who have not yet received the gospel of Jesus Christ. These spirits have agency and may be enticed by both good and evil. If they accept the gospel and the ordinances performed for them in the temples, they may leave the spirit prison and dwell in paradise.”

    I’m sorry, I’ve never been able to countenance the idea that people like
    Mother Teresa will be in Spirit prison while many of us LDS folks–temple endowed–yet far more prideful/self-righteous and nowhere near as charitable will get to skip spirit prison and go straight to “paradise.” Whether that us the correct interpretation or not, that is the belief of many LDS members.

  • Ancient One

    “… with which I, the Lord, am well pleased…” It’s a qualifier.

    Does it mean that there were (in 1830) other “true and living churches” with which God was not well pleased at the time (collectively)?

    I wonder if God is “well pleased” with the LDS church today? Are there many churches that are well pleasing to God?

  • I don’t usually comment

    Josh, that’s interesting you bring up that particular scripture. A while ago, I read that scripture and for the first time was struck by the fact that it could have an alternate meaning… I had always been taught that scripture meant that this church was the only true and living church. But the last time I read it, I had the impression that the church was the only true and living church with which the Lord was pleased. Adding that clarifying part at the end changes the whole meaning of the scripture. Maybe I am wrong. But what if there were other churches that had truth (some or all, you decide), but the Lord wasn’t as pleased with them as he was with the LDS church back in the day? Thus this scripture. And the thought that followed was maybe he was pleased with the church back then, but would he still be as pleased with the church now? I don’t know. Though, perhaps that’s another discussion for a different day.

  • I don’t usually comment

    Ha ha! I must have taken so long to write my comment that yours was posted during the interim. It is refreshing to know I am not the only one who read it that way.

  • Elder Anderson

    This…. along with “the most correct book on Earth”. What does that even mean? After all the changes to the BOM since Joseph Smith made that statement–is it now “the most corrected book on Earth”? Was Smith familiar with every book on Earth in every language in order to make that statement? What about all the other books written after the BOM–are any of them more correct?

  • utahforme

    Truth does not mean the only church with facts that are true. It means authorized. The only church that has the true Apostolic succession. The only church that is the official church. The only one that God claims as his own. It does not mean we are correct about everything and everybody else is wrong about everything.

  • I agree, and for other reasons, as well. The way this is told, people in spirit prison are sitting there, waiting for us to do their ordinances. Once they are done, they are freed from their prison.

    This seems extraordinarily unfair. Not only does it severely punish people for the sins of others (not doing genealogy and temple work), but there are billions of people who have lived and died who left no record of their lives. If they have to wait until their ordinances are done to leave spirit prison, then they will have to wait until some time in the Millenium, after having waited thousands of years already (even tens of thousands, if we believe the widely-accepted concept that Adam and Eve lived much more than 6,000 years ago). It punishes people for random things and things they can’t control.

    I don’t like this teaching and can’t accept it as doctrine.

  • I totally agree, Lois! I have said it for years, that you simply CANNOT tell me that Mother Teresa isn’t making it to the Celestial Kingdom simply because she wasn’t married and wasn’t Mormon. I believe in this church, in the doctrines, I truly truly do. And I staunchly defend those doctrines. But too many in this church have become so prideful in our supposed superiority, and we tend to start believing that being Mormon is the only way to the Celestial Kingdom, or that being the “one and only true church” means we have ALL the answers. Well, if we had all the answers, there wouldn’t be a need for modern revelation, would there? I think there is SOOOO much we don’t know yet, and our job is not to inflict our judgment on other religious traditions, but rather to prepare ourselves, in trusting God, to receive further knowledge. This is why I’m a huge proponent for interfaith. Let’s see what others have to add to our religious experience!

  • James Anthony Weller

    Again, Jana reveals her unconcerned and antagonistic liberal viewpoint. She knows full well that The Lord called this the only true and living church with which He is well pleased. By calling that declaration bold, Mormon overreach she crafting (so she thinks) sent the message that she discounts Joseph Smith’s revelations as fabrications. Jana, why are you so hell-bent on persuading others to despise the Church and disbelieve it? Notice what self-righteous Jana doesn’t ever write: “I prayed to The Father with a willingness to submit to His will, and embrace it, and He told me…” She smugly relies on modern moral relativism to lead the way.

  • Jeff P

    Good thoughts Jana:
    I remember from the Book of Mormon: Alma 31:17 where Alma, in his travels, was ‘astonished beyond all measure’ to encounter a church that stood around and patted themselves on the back saying ‘And again we thank thee, O God, that we are a chosen and a holy people. Amen.’

    As an adult convert to Christianity, I can relate to Joseph Smith’s frustration at hearing all the Protestant churches arguing about who taught the ‘truth’ faith. How ironic it is that the institution Joseph founded ends up doing the same thing, only more.

    When learning about Mormonism, one immediately encounters the teaching that only Mormonism is actually true: that the rest of Christianity is ‘apostate’ and ‘dead’, or as the Gospel Doctrines manual says, teaches a largely false gospel which is ‘predominantly Pagan’. I realize that not all Mormons believe these things, but I notice that even strong independent LDS like Jana and Terryl Givens are very very circumspect when…

  • Jeff P

    Josh:
    Do you remember the story in Alma ch 31, when Alma was ‘astonished beyond measure’ to encounter a church that said it was ‘a chosen and holy people’. As I read the Book of Mormon, I see a nervousness with the idea that one particular ‘Church’ would hold itself up as the one-and-only Church of Jesus.

    As a Protestant, I believe that the Church of Jesus Christ is made up of all who have faith in Jesus Christ and truly seek to do his will. Believing otherwise would make God a ‘particular God’, a thought which is also criticized by the Book of Mormon.

  • Daniel Ortner

    Doctrine is either true or false. It doesn’t become less true because you dislike it.

    That said, D&C 138 reveals that those who believed but had not yet been redeemed from spirit prison were gathered together and were joyful and celebrating the coming of Christ. For those who believe and are only awaiting the completion of saving ordinances, spirit prison need not be a place of suffering at all. Instead, it becomes a place of joyfully learning and anticipation.

  • The first point made me think of this quote from then Elder Ezra Taft Benson (quoting Elder Whitney):

    “Perhaps the Lord needs such men on the outside of His Church to help it along,” said the late Elder Orson F. Whitney of the Quorum of the Twelve. “They are among its auxiliaries, and can do more good for the cause where the Lord has placed them, than anywhere else. … Hence, some are drawn into the fold and receive a testimony of the truth; while others remain unconverted … the beauties and glories of the gospel being veiled temporarily from their view, for a wise purpose. The Lord will open their eyes in His own due time. God is using more than one people for the accomplishment of His great and marvelous work. The Latter-day Saints cannot do it all. It is too vast, too arduous for any one people. … We have no quarrel with the Gentiles. They are our partners in a certain sense.” (Conference Report, April 1928, p. 59.)

    From “Civic Standards for the Faithful Saints,” April 1972…

  • A few things. First, Moroni 7 is a far better scripture to make your point. I used it at my trial, when I was excommunicated for refusing to recant my testimonies of Jesus Christ and the Book of Mormon. It was very powerful, it was also very ignored. Second, your second point is dead on, and I fear the that LDS brand of Mormonism rejects this. In fact, I know that the only reason the Fellowship exists is because the LDS leaders refuse to use the keys that they hold. Thus the Lord has called me and others to do his works. Lastly, to your third point, Spirit Prison is not Hell. It is a type of damnation, but Hell is outer darkness – the place that God and his angels will not do. The burnings are the guild of those never to be saved. Spirit prison is the same place as paradise, it is our attitudes that make the place a type of heaven or hell. Lastly, please be careful of how you use the term “Mormon.” Latter-day Saints are Mormons, but so are the 50+ other Mormon churches out there.

  • Hi Jana,

    Thanks for the article. By the way did you see the recent documentary on Joan of Arc? It was on BYU tv. Really a fantastic show.

    In any case Elder Holland among others declared there belief in the miracles that occurred because of the faith of Joan. What was also interesting is that we have a very detailed witness of her life because she was tried in a court of religion.

    Of course as Latter Day Saints because we believe that all are God’s children it is easy to see that Joan was inspired of God. That she received many answers to prayer. And the outcome of her faith was both astonishing and miraculous.

    But perhaps even more interesting is the idea of Priesthood. The Doctrine & Covenants suggests that a descendant of Aaron has priesthood authority to be a bishop. But at last keys are necessary for this authority to be engendered.
    We do have priesthood keys in these Latter Days, but obviously we more than any other people believe that revelation and…

  • Danny S

    James, why do you feel justified in name-calling and otherwise ascribing motives to Jana? You call her unconcerned, antagonistic, liberal, hell-bent, self-righteous, and smug. You know her that well? Your comments don’t reflect favorably on you as a christian or the faith you profess. A brief survey of her prior posts shows her regard for the LDS church. A regard I no longer have after decades of faithful service in the church. I do believe Smith’s so-called revelations to be fabrications. Why? Because of evidence-based thinking rather than a reliance on emotion as a means for determining truth. Just read church-approved sources. Based on your own life experiences, are Smith’s explanations plausible? When was the last time an angel appeared to you or ANYBODY you know to force that individual to keep a commandment? Smith says an angel with a drawn sword threatened him for not marrying a 14-year old girl. You actually believe that? What does that say about agency?

  • Debbie Snowcroft

    Reason #1: Mormonism was invented by Joseph Smith, and Smith was a con man. Who would expect a con man to corner the market on truth?

    Reason #2: See reason #1

    Reason #3: See reason #2.

  • SanAntonioRob

    I recently had a very loving church leader make some eye-opening points about Christ’s establishment of a church among the Nephites.

    First, he had already established a church among the Apostles in the old world. Yet he does not appear to identify the Nephite church as a branch of the church in Jerusalem. It appears to be its own church, despite the 12 leaders being identified as ‘disciples’ as opposed to ‘Apostles’.

    Second, the Nephites appear to have had the Gospel previously, teaching of Christ, baptizing in his name, with a church that taught the Gospel. Yet Jesus establishes a new Church with no “tie-in” to the previous church identified.

    His end conclusion was that although he is loyal to the church and has faith in the Gospel, he fully expects Jesus to continue this trend in the Millennium. That trend being to establish a unified organization when He returns, not continue previously established churches, no matter how “true”.

  • SanAntonioRob

    What I took from that is that faith in the LDS Church as “the one and only true Church” is the wrong focus. Have faith in the Gospel. Have faith in Christ and His Atonement.

    As a final point – over the last few decades we have strongly backtracked from our previous interpretation that the “Great and Abominable Church” from scripture refers one specific organized religion, namely the Catholic Church. It instead refers to Satan’s teachings, his false doctrine and “gospel”. Regarding the Restoration and the scriptures discussing it, the parallel would be that Christ’s Church also does not refer to a single organized religion. Instead, it would refer of true teachings, true doctrine, Christ’s Gospel. I believe in truths that appear only to be taught in the LDS Church. But does that mean it is Christ’s exclusive, eternal organized religion? I don’t believe so.

  • Mike

    Clearly, the church does not own the market on truth, if we even have any truth at all. As far as authority, Joseph saw his brother in the celestial kingdom who was never a member or had his temple work done. So much for authority. The problem as I see it is not the church is young but the foundation it is built on is sand.

  • Dan

    Danny – – – it was possibly the same angel with a flaming sword guarding the way to the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. . . otherwise, it would seem that you do not believe in revelation from above. . .

  • GregK

    Punctuation matters.
    Read these two sentences:
    “This is my only knife with which I whittle.”
    “This is my only knife, with which I whittle.”

    The first implies (but we cannot know for certain) that I have more than one knife. The second explicitly states I only have one knife, and that I whittle with it.

    The comma makes quite a difference in meaning here. The comma in the above scripture also makes that difference: it is the only true and living church, and that the Lord is well pleased with it.

    It certainly in no way says he is well pleaded with other churches (never says with which I am more pleased,or the most pleased, etc.).

    Within context, it is clear that Josh and utahforme are correct in their explanations.

  • Greg Kenner

    Intentionally or not, Jana has set up a classic straw man argument. Mormon teaching is NOT that no other church has any truth to it, goodnesss in it, or good people therein. The teaching is that the Mormon church, and it only, has the true priesthood authority. To borrow from utahforme’s comment: the only true Apostolic line of authority, the only church God claims as His own, the one he established to restore Christ’s original church, etc.

    I am trying to give Jana the benefit of the doubt here, but it is hard for me to understand how a knowledgeable, active LDS person could so fundamentally misunderstand this teaching.

  • Danny S

    Dan, I appreciate your comment and question. Let’s just say I am unwilling to conflate what is a seminal moment in the LDS creation story with Joseph’s need to be commanded to marry a 14-year-old. Especially since polygamy was abandoned in that form approximately 50 years later. Some eternal doctrine! Keep in mind that Joseph was already polygamously married at the time of the angel’s supposed appearance. Why the over-the-top intervention of God for something Joseph had already obeyed, at least partly? Those of us now applying rational thought have difficulty reconciling the Mormon version of heavenly priorities, ie, sending an angel to Joseph for the 14-year-old instead of, say, instructing Joseph to boil his water thus saving countless lives, including teen girls that heaven apparently cares so much for. Put more crudely, I’m calling BS to that particular assertion in the relevant church essay.

  • Sam

    Jeff P., Your definition of Christ’s church is also consistent with Mormon Scripture in the Doctrina and Covenants (D&C 10:67-68):
    “Behold, this is my doctrine—whosoever repenteth and cometh unto me, the same is my church.
    Whosoever declareth more or less than this, the same is not of me, but is against me; therefore he is not of my church.”

  • Elder Anderson

    @Greg
    Generous of you to give Dr. Riess the “benefit of the doubt” (as you put it) regarding her level of understanding. I mean, she only has a PhD in religious history and has co-authored a comprehensive book about Mormonism. I expect her grasp of the topic dwarfs your own.

  • Greg Kenner

    You have addied nothing substantive to the discussion. Can you explain where I am wrong? Or is your argument simply “she is smarter so she is right”?

    And to clear it up, I said I was TRYING to give her the benefit of the doubt, but conceded it was hard to do considering she is a knowledgeable person. That means I am leaning more towards her being disengenuous. Understand now?

    You have completely missed the mark.

  • Elder Anderson

    ‘Or is your argument simply “she is smarter so she is right”?’

    Yep. That’s pretty much it. I’d have said “more knowledgable” though.

    Read her article again. Think about it carefully. See if there’s any possible way you might have misinterpreted something and that Jana does, in fact know what she’s talking about and is making perfectly valid points.

    I think you were so eager to show off that you commented without thinking. If I can get you to be more thoughtful and humble, maybe I have added something to the conversation.

  • GregK

    No thanks. “Read it all over again” is not at all helpful to the conversation. If, instead, you’d like to make a counter-point to anything I’ve actually said, feel free. Otherwise, take care.

    BTW – Her intelligence and/or knowledge does not make her right. Or do you take anything anyone ever tells you as the truth, even when your own knowledge tells you that person is totally wrong, just because you think they are more knowledgeable than you on the general subject? There is simply no way their opinion could be wrong? Until someone even more knowledgeable than the first comes along and tells you something different? Come on man, do I really have to explain this?