When I was a Protestant seminary student, I worked night shifts with a Mormon, who became a very close friend of mine. Somewhat amazingly (some might say providentially), he had an uncle who was a pastor of the same Presbyterian denomination as myself.
I asked my friend if he and his Presbyterian uncle ever had any religious conversations. He said no, not really, though his uncle had once given him a popular book articulating various Protestant teachings. I asked my friend what he thought of the book, and he replied that he was unimpressed — not so much with the book, but with his uncle’s approach. “He didn’t ask me to pray about what I read,” said my Mormon friend.
For those unfamiliar with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or LDS, for short), that response may seem unusual. Don’t the contents of the book matter more than the subjective way they are presented? Yet, as former LDS elder Jeremy Christiansen explains in his excellent religious memoir From the Susquehana to the Tiber, those who understand LDS teaching will not be surprised by my friend’s perspective.
“You don’t just believe Mormonism. You know it is true,” writes Christiansen. “You know that Mormonism is true with a level of epistemological certainty that is hard to describe to an outsider. This is what drives everything.” Both Mormons and prospective converts are told that if they sincerely ask in faith, the Holy Ghost will personally reveal to them, through some perceivable spiritual experience, that the Book of Mormon is true.
This is why my LDS friend was perturbed by his Presbyterian uncle’s attempt at evangelism. If that Protestant religious book was true, the best way to determine its truth would be to pray about it and wait for the promptings of the Holy Ghost.
No spiritual promptings, no truth.
Christiansen, now a Catholic, acknowledges this is an emotive, subjective experience. But the testimonial experience is central to LDS religion, not just at the time of one’s initial conversion, but throughout the Mormon’s life. “The central concept of Mormonism,” Christiansen explains, “is that these experiences will be ever present in your life, continually reaffirming that Mormonism is true.”
Indeed, individual LDS wards (relatively equivalent to a Catholic parish) have monthly “fast and testimony” meetings during which LDS members stand up and present their testimonies to the congregation. These usually involve reaffirmations that the Book of Mormon is true, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, etc. In each case, the emphasis is on how LDS members know, with every fiber of their being, that the essentials of the LDS religion are true.
Perhaps somewhat unusually for an evangelical-turned-Catholic, I’ve had a lot of close Mormon friends over the years. A Mormon friend helped me install hardwood flooring in my kitchen (in the middle of the day he offered his testimony and asked me to read the Book of Mormon and attend church with him). Mormon friends have hosted me for dinner with their families, babysat my children, and written positive Amazon reviews of my books.
Conversing with Mormon friends about their faith, I’ve learned a lot about their beliefs and practices, and developed quite an appreciation for their faith community, even if I think their teachings are erroneous. That’s why I think Christiansen’s book is so powerful: he offers an insiders’ perspective on LDS, of a young man who had what seemed like legitimate spiritual experiences, who suffered joyfully through a two-year mission in Argentina, and had every intention of living a faithful LDS life.
And yet, as Christiansen grew older and raised a family, he was plagued by doubts and questions about LDS teaching. Thank God, he encountered the claims of the Catholic Church — largely mediated through the witness of St. Thomas More and the early Church Fathers — so that his faith in Christ might be properly and fully realized. Many other Mormons, I’ve found, end up abandoning faith altogether, presuming that other religious traditions are built on as flimsy logical and ahistorical grounds as that of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Christiansen does an excellent job of articulating those manifold problems. There’s the complete lack of historical evidence for anything described in the Book of Mormon as it pertains to North America, the many historical anachronisms contained in the book, and that the text bears a striking resemblance to the 1769 edition of the King James Bible. There’s the extensive documentation of Joseph Smith’s years spent as a village magician engaging in occult practices; he was even apprehended and put on trial in New York for these activities in 1826. And there’s the extensive historical evidence of Smith’s polyamorous activities: he married dozens of women between the ages of fourteen and fifty-six (this also, not surprisingly, got him in trouble with locals).
We could also mention LDS theological peculiarities. The flip side to the Mormon emotivist strain is an anti-intellectual fideism, which enables LDS members to reject critiques (like those listed above) by simply waving them off as evil attempts to defame a true prophet — doesn’t their personal testimony loom larger than such “evidence”? LDS teaching is also a modern manifestation of the ancient modalist heresy, in which God the Father and Jesus simply represent different “modes” of the divine, rather than the Niceno-Constantinopolitan trinitarian belief that God is three persons, one nature. There’s also the unseemly fact that the LDS long resisted abandoning polygamy, as it also resisted granting blacks access to the priesthood, because of a “direct commandment from the Lord,” according to one 1961 statement.
Over the years, I’ve raised many of these objections to my LDS friends. Perhaps my delivery hasn’t always been the best, but I’ve been surprised at how little traction they get. The reason for this ineffectiveness, I surmise, has to do with what Christiansen so ably articulates: the centrality of the Mormon testimony. It doesn’t matter how powerful your criticisms of Mormonism are, you still have to address that subjective, individual experience of religious conversion, which is reinforced on a regular, if not daily, basis.
For that reason, I’d like to offer a few suggestions for those interested and eager to engage with Mormons, whether they be friends, coworkers, or young missionaries arriving at your door. For starters, I’d recommend showing legitimate interest in trying to understand their faith — both their own individual story and also LDS teachings. And don’t try to immediately disprove them; just listen, ask follow-up questions and demonstrate you’re truly interested in them. Whenever LDS missionaries are in our neighborhood, my wife and I always invite them over for a meal; as Christiansen explains, the missionary life is a hard one, with few perks. A good meal can go a long way. They’ll ask to share their testimony, or perhaps a video. Let them.
If you’ve developed some rapport with your LDS interlocutor(s), share your own testimony. Emphasize the role of prayer and the Holy Spirit, as much as it is relevant with your own faith journey. But also emphasize the role of logic and reason, that Catholicism appeals not just to the heart, but to the mind, as well. The Church doesn’t shy away from its long and sometimes thorny past.
Occasionally, after sharing a short version of my testimony, I’ll ask them some version of the following question: “I firmly, strongly believe that God has helped me see that the Catholic Church is truly the Church that Jesus Christ founded. You firmly believe that church is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What happens when two well-meaning people who’ve both had spiritual experiences come to contradictory beliefs? How do we decide whose experience is more true?” I’ve never once gotten a satisfactory or remotely coherent answer to that question.
Of course, that’s not necessarily surprising. The LDS religion is, after all, a fideistic one, that implicitly allows for faith and reason to be in tension, if not open antagonism. No Mormon would ever admit that their religion is rationally incoherent and historically falsifiable, but they are effectively catechized to prioritize their individual subjective experience over logic and history.
For those LDS members, like Christiansen only a few years ago, who feel a certain unease with those logical or historical problems, my last piece of advice is quite simple: buy them this book. Or, if you’ve got the time, challenge them to read it if you agree to read the Book of Mormon. I have a feeling there’s a lot of Mormons out there who’ll benefit from Christiansen’s excellent testimony and clear critique of the LDS religion. Though perhaps that’s just my bosom-burning.
• Related at CWR: “To be deep in history is to cease to be Mormon: An interview with Jeremy Christiansen” (Dec 6, 2022) by Paul Senz
From the Susquehanna to the Tiber: A Memoir of Conversion from Mormonism to the Roman Catholic Church
By Jeremy Christiansen
Ignatius Press, 2022
Paperback, 260 pages
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