Part 41: CES Letter Testimony/Spiritual Witness Questions [Section E]
By Sarah Allen
There’s a lot of ground to cover today, and it appears the next few questions/concerns are again about discernment. This is ground we already covered during the Prophets section, but we’ll be going over it again in more detail here.
The CES Letter picks up with question/point #6:
- Paul H. Dunn: Dunn was a General Authority of the Church for many years. He was a very popular speaker who told powerful, faith-promoting war and baseball stories. Many times Dunn shared these stories in the presence of prophets, apostles, and seventies. Stories such as how God protected him as enemy machine-gun bullets ripped away his clothing, gear, and helmet without ever touching his skin and how he was preserved by the Lord. Members of the Church shared how they strongly felt the Spirit as they listened to Dunn’s testimony and stories.
Unfortunately, Dunn was later caught lying about his war and baseball stories and was forced to apologize to the members. He became the first General Authority to gain “emeritus” status and was removed from public church life.
It’s ironic that Jeremy is calling Paul Dunn out for inaccuracy and exaggeration when he does the same thing repeatedly throughout this Letter—including in these very paragraphs. Some of Dunn’s stories were exaggerated, yes. Not all of them were, but a fair number certainly were and it was rightfully a scandal when it was exposed.
Dunn was given emeritus status on September 30, 1989, along with seven other people. He was also not even in the first batch of General Authorities to be given that status. As Reddit user WooperSlim pointed out, the “emeritus” status was created when the 1978 Priesthood Revelation was sustained in General Conference, and was later explained in the November 1978 Ensign for those who were confused over its meaning. Seven men were given the emeritus status that day, 11 years before Dunn and the others in his group were given it. Claiming Dunn was “the first” when he wasn’t, and when he wasn’t even alone in being granted that status on the day in question, is easily as much of an exaggeration as the ones Dunn made.
This announcement giving Dunn the emeritus status was made about two weeks after an internal Church investigation began into Dunn’s exaggerations (the second such investigation in as many years). That investigation may have been the cause of the retirement, or it may have been something already in the works. Two weeks is not a lot of time for that investigation to be conducted and for a decision to have been made about what to do about it, but it’s possible. The official reason given and repeated several times by Dunn that it was for undisclosed health reasons, which may or may not be true.
The results of that investigation or its consequences were not disclosed to the public, because the Church does not publicly comment on disciplinary measures taken against individual members unless a leader of prominent status, such as a General Authority, is excommunicated. Dunn was not excommunicated, so whatever disciplinary measures were taken were kept private per standard Church policy. Additionally, they likely didn’t want to publicly embarrass an otherwise good man who had spent most of his life in service to God.
In February, 1991, an article was published in the Arizona Republic newspaper detailing the investigation into Dunn’s stories made by investigative reporter Lynn K. Packer, the nephew of Boyd K. Packer. It quickly gained a lot of traction and was repeated far and wide. That article can be found here, along with a wealth of other articles and commentary on the topic.
Dunn attempted to excuse his behavior by saying that he had combined several events and people into one, changed names on occasion to protect people, and was exaggerating some things to highlight the principles he was trying to teach. The Savior often taught by using parables and fictious stories, after all, and he was doing the same.
I understand the point he tried to make, of course, but they aren’t the same thing. The main difference is that the Savior never told parables with Himself as the star or tried to pass off His stories as true events. By not disclosing that these stories were exaggerated, fabricated, or compilations of multiple events, Dunn was manipulating his audience even if he wasn’t intentionally lying. It was dishonest, and there’s no sugarcoating that no matter how hard Dunn tried to.
However, it’s also true that he started telling some of those stories 40 or 50 years before, and over the years with repeated retellings, Dunn’s brain may have created false memories to back them up to the point where he truly believed he was telling the truth, or at least mostly the truth. Memory is a highly malleable thing, after all. Maybe he didn’t remember exactly what was truth and what was fiction. That’s fair, but he still should have disclosed upfront that some of his stories were exaggerated or combined for effect.
On October 23, 1991, Dunn gave an apology in the Church News to the members of the Church around the world that he had offended. This apology was then repeated in other places, such as the Deseret News.
According to those involved, Dunn was not forced to give this apology. He went to the Church leadership and asked if he could, and they agreed.
What about the members who felt the Spirit from Dunn’s fabricated and false stories? What does this say about the Spirit and what the Spirit really is?
It says that the Spirit was confirming the truth of the principles Dunn was teaching with his stories. That’s the Holy Ghost’s job, to confirm Gospel truths. People felt the Spirit when Dunn spoke because he was teaching them true things, even if he wasn’t doing it in the best possible way.
As Michael Ash states, “The Spirit testifies to the truth of those things which ultimately lead people to God, not to ancillary details—fictional, embellished, or misremembered—which serve as mere vehicles for the larger message that they are used to convey.”
I agree with that point. I highly doubt the Spirit was saying that every single word that left Dunn’s lips was true. The Spirit is not a polygraph machine that instantly tells you when someone is lying or not. No big, red, flashing warning lights appear over someone’s head while they’re speaking, telling us when they’re veering away from the truth. Their noses don’t grow like Pinocchio’s when they’re not being honest. That’s not the way the Spirit works.
The Holy Ghost can tell you when someone’s being deceptive, particularly if the principles being discussed are not true either, but His primary responsibilities are to testify of truth and to provide peace and comfort. He can also warn of us personal danger, both physical and spiritual, and He can help us figure out when people are being dishonest. But the whispers of the Spirit take practice to discern, especially when there are conflicting messages such as that yes, the principles being taught are true but no, the stories used to teach them are not.
And some people did know that Dunn was exaggerating. In his own reply to the CES Letter, Jim Bennett talks about how he loved listening to Dunn’s talks while on his mission, though there were times when he thought, “Huh, that sounds too good to be true.” But it didn’t change the principles being taught, so he simply shrugged and carried on. That’s likely the way it went down for many people.
I suspect the Brethren felt much the same way, which is why there were two separate internal investigations conducted over his stories in the years leading up to that article being published. They surely weren’t just doing that for the fun of it. Something caused them to look into it and take steps to try to resolve the matter a year and a half before the article ever came out.
Ultimately, we’re all imperfect people. Some of us may be more imperfect than others at different points in our lives, but none of us except the Savior was ever even close to perfection. And yet, the Father still uses us to testify to others of the truthfulness of the Gospel. The Spirit still shines through our imperfect words and actions and allows others to feel the truth despite those imperfections. That’s what happened with Paul Dunn, and it’s what happens with each of us whenever we teach a lesson in Sunday School, give a talk, or bear our testimony. The Spirit still testifies of truth despite our weaknesses as fallen, mortal beings.
If we believe in the power of the Atonement, we have to believe that Elder Dunn was able to repent and change his ways and grow from this experience. I don’t hold his behavior against him because I don’t want my own mistakes to be held against me forever. I want to be given the chance to change, so he should be given that chance too. None of us is perfect, so we shouldn’t judge others for not being perfect either.
Let us all remember the very wise words of Elder Holland:
So be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work. As one gifted writer has suggested, when the infinite fulness is poured forth, it is not the oil’s fault if there is some loss because finite vessels can’t quite contain it all. Those finite vessels include you and me, so be patient and kind and forgiving.
Our Heavenly Father was still able to use Paul Dunn to teach Gospel truths to a lot of people, despite his imperfections. But He never used Paul Dunn to teach the truthfulness of Paul Dunn’s stories. And just remember, He can use us to teach Gospel truths as well, despite our own imperfections.
Question/point #7 is another long one, but it begins:
- The following are counsels from members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on how to gain a testimony:
“It is not unusual to have a missionary say, ‘How can I bear testimony until I get one? How can I testify that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that the gospel is true? If I do not have such a testimony, would that not be dishonest?’ Oh, if I could teach you this one principle: a testimony is to be found in the bearing of it!” — Boyd K. Packer, The Quest for Spiritual Knowledge
This is a fantastic talk, and President Packer was right. He was talking about Alma 32 and experimenting upon the word. His advice was to share the testimony you already had even if it wasn’t perfect, and as you gave it away, it would be replaced something stronger:
There is something else to learn. A testimony is not thrust upon you; a testimony grows. We become taller in testimony like we grow taller in physical stature; we hardly know it happens because it comes by growth.
You cannot force spiritual things. … Do not be impatient to gain great spiritual knowledge. Let it grow, help it grow, but do not force it or you will open the way to be misled.
… It is one thing to receive a witness from what you have read or what another has said; and that is a necessary beginning. It is quite another to have the Spirit confirm to you in your bosom that what you have testified is true. Can you not see that it will be supplied as you share it? As you give that which you have, there is a replacement, with increase!
To speak out is the test of your faith.
Bear testimony of the things that you hope are true, as an act of faith. It is something of an experiment, like the experiment that the prophet Alma proposed to his followers. We begin with faith—not with a perfect knowledge of things. That sermon in the 32nd chapter of Alma is one of the greatest messages in holy writ, for it is addressed to the beginner, to the humble seeker. And it holds a key to a witness of the truth.
The Spirit and testimony of Christ will come to you for the most part when, and remain with you only if, you share it. In that process is the very essence of the gospel.
Is not this a perfect demonstration of Christianity? You cannot find it, nor keep it, nor enlarge it unless and until you are willing to share it. It is by giving it away freely that it becomes yours.
It’s a beautiful talk full of beautiful doctrine. When we share our testimonies, they become stronger because the Spirit confirms the truth of our own words to us. But we can’t force that spiritual growth, and if we try, we open the door to be misled by a spirit that is not from God.
The next quote Jeremy shares is from President Oaks:
“Another way to seek a testimony seems astonishing when compared with the methods of obtaining other knowledge. We gain or strengthen a testimony by bearing it. Someone even suggested that some testimonies are better gained on the feet bearing them than on the knees praying for them.” —Dallin H. Oaks, Testimony
Another really excellent talk that I hope everyone reads. This section of the talk is about how testimonies aren’t passive, but are gained and grown through taking action, something that we actually have a duty to do:
The first step in gaining any kind of knowledge is to really desire to know. In the case of spiritual knowledge, the next step is to ask God in sincere prayer. As we read in modern revelation, “If thou shalt ask, thou shalt receive revelation upon revelation, knowledge upon knowledge, that thou mayest know the mysteries and peaceable things—that which bringeth joy, that which bringeth life eternal” (D&C 42:61).
Here is what Alma wrote about what he did: “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” (Alma 5:46).
As we desire and seek, we should remember that acquiring a testimony is not a passive thing but a process in which we are expected to do something. Jesus taught, “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:17).
This is where the paragraph Jeremy quoted is inserted, and then President Oaks continues with the following:
… Those who have a testimony of the restored gospel also have a duty to share it. The Book of Mormon teaches that we should “stand as witnesses of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that [we] may be in” (Mosiah 18:9).
One of the most impressive teachings on the relationship between the gift of a testimony and the duty to bear it is in the 46th section of the Doctrine and Covenants. In describing different kinds of spiritual gifts, this revelation states:
“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.
Those who have the gift to know have an obvious duty to bear their witness so that those who have the gift to believe on their words might also have eternal life.
There has never been a greater need for us to profess our faith, privately and publicly (see D&C 60:2). Though some profess atheism, there are many who are open to additional truths about God. To these sincere seekers, we need to affirm the existence of God the Eternal Father, the divine mission of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and the reality of the Restoration. We must be valiant in our testimony of Jesus. Each of us has many opportunities to proclaim our spiritual convictions to friends and neighbors, to fellow workers, and to casual acquaintances. We should use these opportunities to express our love for our Savior, our witness of His divine mission, and our determination to serve Him. Our children should also hear us bear our testimonies frequently. We should also strengthen our children by encouraging them to define themselves by their growing testimonies, not just by their recognitions in scholarship, sports, or other school activities.
Just like with President Packer, President Oaks is encouraging us to grow our own testimonies and that of others by bearing them. I can personally attest that this is true. As I’ve been working on these posts this year, I’ve born my testimony many, many times to you guys. And each time I do, it gets that much stronger. Between the studying, the praying, the leaning on the Spirit, and the bearing of my testimony, that testimony has grown so much this year. It’s been an incredible thing to me to see how much my own faith has increased by working on this project.
The last quote Jeremy gives us is by Elder Neil L. Andersen from yet another great talk:
“It may come as you bear your own testimony of the Prophet…Consider recording the testimony of Joseph Smith in your own voice, listening to it regularly…Listening to the Prophet’s testimony in your own voice will help bring the witness you seek.”* —Neil L. Andersen, Joseph Smith
In this talk, Elder Andersen teaches us, “The importance of Joseph’s work requires more than intellectual consideration; it requires that we, like Joseph, ‘ask of God.’ Spiritual questions deserve spiritual answers from God.”
… Each believer needs a spiritual confirmation of the divine mission and character of the Prophet Joseph Smith. This is true for every generation. Spiritual questions deserve spiritual answers from God. … Brothers and sisters, let me give you a caution: you won’t be of much help to others if your own faith is not securely in place.
… The negative commentary about the Prophet Joseph Smith will increase as we move toward the Second Coming of the Savior. The half-truths and subtle deceptions will not diminish. There will be family members and friends who will need your help. Now is the time to adjust your own spiritual oxygen mask so that you are prepared to help others who are seeking the truth.
A testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith can come differently to each of us. It may come as you kneel in prayer, asking God to confirm that he was a true prophet. It may come as you read the Prophet’s account of the First Vision. A testimony may distill upon your soul as you read the Book of Mormon again and again. It may come as you bear your own testimony of the Prophet or as you stand in the temple and realize that through Joseph Smith the holy sealing power was restored to the earth. With faith and real intent, your testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith will strengthen. The constant water balloon volleys from the sidelines may occasionally get you wet, but they need never, never extinguish your burning fire of faith.
To the youth listening today or reading these words in the days ahead, I give a specific challenge: Gain a personal witness of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Let your voice help fulfill Moroni’s prophetic words to speak good of the Prophet. Here are two ideas: First, find scriptures in the Book of Mormon that you feel and know are absolutely true. Then share them with family and friends in family home evening, seminary, and your Young Men and Young Women classes, acknowledging that Joseph was an instrument in God’s hands. Next, read the testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith in the Pearl of Great Price or in this pamphlet, now in 158 languages. You can find it online at LDS.org or with the missionaries. This is Joseph’s own testimony of what actually occurred. Read it often. Consider recording the testimony of Joseph Smith in your own voice, listening to it regularly, and sharing it with friends. Listening to the Prophet’s testimony in your own voice will help bring the witness you seek.
So, as you can see, their full words give more context and clarification to the things they were actually teaching. Jeremy is going to twist these quotes into something unrecognizable in a minute, but before I dive into that, I do want to point out something else. At another point of his talk, Elder Andersen shares something relevant by quoting Elder Maxwell:
“Studying the Church … through the eyes of its defectors,” Elder Neal A. Maxwell once said, is “like interviewing Judas to understand Jesus. Defectors always tell us more about themselves than about that from which they have departed.”
This is part of a larger point that I wanted to quote because Elder Maxwell was always so spot-on in his assessments. In that same talk cited above, he stated:
There are those who chronically misunderstand the Church because they are busy trying to explain the Church from the outside. They are so busy believing what they want to believe about the Church that they will not take the time to learn what they need to learn about the Church. They prefer any explanation to the real explanation. Some prefer to believe the worst rather than to know the truth. Still others are afraid to part the smokescreen of allegations for fear of what they will see. Yet one cannot see the Louvre by remaining in its lobby. One cannot understand the Church by remaining outside. A non-believing but fair critic of the Church, a friend of mine, once said that the Book of Mormon was the only book some critics felt they did not need to read before reviewing it.
Some dismiss the Church out of hand for not being trendy in its theology and for being authoritarian. To such I say, better a true theocracy with a little democracy than a democracy without any theology. Yes, the kingdom of God is a kingdom; there is no “one man, one vote” rule between its King and its citizens.
Some insist upon studying the Church only through the eyes of its defectors—like interviewing Judas to understand Jesus. Defectors always tell us more about themselves than about that from which they have departed.
Some others patiently feed their pet peeve about the Church without realizing that such a pet will not only bite the hands of him who feeds it, but it will swallow his whole soul. Of course we are a very imperfect people! Remember, however, that while it is possible to have an imperfect people possessed of perfect doctrines (indeed, such is necessary to change their imperfections), you will never, never see the reverse: a perfect people with imperfect doctrines. The more people there are who bear false witness concerning a true movement, the greater the need for us to be true witnesses of the Savior and his way of life. We can be noble even when we are being treated ignobly. We not only can be, but we must be.
This is what the CES Letter and other documents like it do. They bank on you not being willing to do the research and discover the truth for yourself. They throw the “testimonies” of dissenters like Jeremy Runnells or John Dehlin at you in the hopes that you’ll believe their words and twisted takes instead of your own experiences. They’ll point out that the world has different ideas of right and wrong in the hopes that you’ll come to believe the Church is wrong. They’ll harp on their same criticisms over and over again, hoping to wear you down until you start agreeing with them.
That’s why you need your own testimony, and that’s why you need to share it with others: to strengthen your own faith, to help increase the faith of others, and to be a dissenting voice of your own from the mainstream, declaring the truthfulness of the Gospel to those who will have ears to hear it. There are a lot of people out there who are looking for the truth, and a lot of them are being driven away from the Church of Jesus Christ because of those loud detractors. There simply aren’t enough faithful members standing up for the truth wherever they can. But, like President Oaks pointed out, it’s our duty to do that to help strengthen those around us.
Jeremy puts his infamously bad spin on these quotes here:
In other words, repeat things over and over until you convince yourself that it’s true. Just keep telling yourself, “I know it’s true…I know it’s true…I know it’s true” until you actually believe it and you have a testimony that the Church is true and Joseph Smith was a prophet.
Do you see how he twisted that concept into something almost unrecognizable from what the speakers were actually saying? And yet, he expects you to trust him instead of them.
That isn’t at all what any of them were saying. They were not saying to lie your way into a testimony or to repeat it until you convince yourself of its truth. They were saying to bear the testimony you have in order to let the Spirit help you grow it into something bigger. If you can truthfully say you know the Church is true, say it. If you can’t say you know, but you believe, say that. And if you can’t say you believe, but you hope, then say that.
The more you share it, the stronger your faith will grow. Eventually, as you also continue to share your testimony and also do your own studying and learning, your testimony will grow until that hope turns into belief, and that belief turns into knowledge.
How is this honest? How is this ethical? What kind of advice are these apostles giving when they’re telling you that if you don’t have a testimony, bear one anyway? How is this not lying? There is a difference between saying you know something and saying you believe something.
Talk about chronically misunderstanding because you’re too busy believing what you want to believe!
None of this bears even a passing resemblance to what these men suggested doing in their talks. They never said to bear a testimony you don’t have, nor did they say to lie and claim you know when you don’t. Their full talks make those things abundantly clear. They are trying to teach you how to learn for yourself that the Church is true, so you can help others learn for that for themselves, too. It’s honest and ethical because they’re telling you to bear the testimony that you already have. They are not telling you to lie and say you know more than you do. That’s something that Jeremy straw-manned into their words.
The entire point they were making is that gaining a testimony is an active goal that takes work on our parts. We can’t just sit back passively and have a testimony drop into our laps, fully intact. We have to begin with a seed and then nourish it until it grows into something solid, strong, and tall. One of the ways we do that is by sharing it with others. Another way is by study. That includes reading all of the words of the prophets, not just cherry-picked paragraphs from their talks removed of all context. If you read through these full talks, their point becomes clear. None of them at any point suggested you try to lie about the state of your testimony or keep repeating it over and over again until you start to believe it.
And yes, there’s a difference between saying you know something and saying you believe something. None of these brethren ever said to say more than you honestly can. President Packer literally said to bear a testimony of the things you hope are true and that you can’t force spiritual things. He didn’t tell us to lie and say we know they’re true when we don’t. He didn’t say to keep saying it until we convince ourselves it’s true, either. He said to bear a testimony of the things you hope for, and that you can’t force yourself to believe when you don’t. It’s the exact opposite of what Jeremy claims he said.
To wrap up this point/question, he continues:
What about members and investigators who are on the other side listening to your “testimony”? How are they supposed to know whether you actually do have a testimony of Mormonism or if you’re just following Packer’s, Oaks’, and Andersen’s counsel and you’re lying your way into one?
Again, nobody is counseling anyone to “lie their way into a testimony.” That’s the very opposite of what they were saying. I also think the idea of anyone having a testimony of “Mormonism” is bizarre. I don’t have a testimony of “Mormonism.” I don’t even know how you would define “Mormonism,” as I suspect that it means different things to different people.
My testimony is that God the Father, His Son, Jesus Christ, who is the Savior and Redeemer of the world, and the Holy Ghost are real. The Father and the Son really appeared to Joseph Smith in a grove of trees. Joseph Smith was really a prophet of God called to help restore the fulness of the Gospel to the Earth. The Priesthood was really restored. President Nelson and all of the other prophets between Joseph and him are also real prophets of God. The Book of Mormon is really scripture, just as much as the Bible, the Pearl of Great Price, and the Doctrine and Covenants are. Joseph Smith really did translate ancient records by the gift and power of the Holy Ghost. The Atonement is real and works wonders in our lives if we only allow it to do so. It’s the only way we can return to live with Them again someday.
Regardless, the way any of us can know whether someone’s testimony is real or not is by the very thing that Jeremy has been disparaging throughout this entire section: the Holy Ghost. He is the one who can give us that assurance. The Savior Himself has told us that this assurance of the Holy Ghost is the greatest witness we can ever have.
He told us that. It’s not a mystery. The Holy Ghost is the key to all of this. The Spirit is how we can know for ourselves whether what we’re hearing is true or not. Sometimes, it takes practice to learn how to discern His teachings. Sometimes, we get it wrong. Sometimes, it’s such a quiet, small voice that we may miss it entirely if we’re not alert for it. Other times, it’s an incontrovertible witness that we can never deny. We just have to put in the work to learn how to hear Him, and to help Him help us to grow our testimonies.
He can’t do that without us putting in the work alongside Him. Your testimony is not going to just magically appear one day, fully intact. Nor will it stay strong without any help. You have to share it, and you have to study and take the sacrament and follow the voice of the Spirit, and as you do, your testimony will renew and strengthen.
It’s the only way…so, it’s no wonder that critics are attacking it as hard as they are. Ask yourself why that is. Why are they so intent on making you doubt the Holy Ghost is real? Who gains from that? It’s not God, and it’s certainly not you. Don’t let them take that away from you. Listen to the Spirit, not to dissenters who would try to pull you away from the truth.
Sources in this entry:
Sarah Allen is brand new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. A voracious reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises and began sharing what she learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.