Critical thinking among faithful Mormons

I’m motivated to share this essay based on much recent dialog between myself and a reader who calls himself Evangelical. Mr. Evangelical seems to be intelligent and writes well but also seems to be under a false impression that Mormons can’t think for themselves and that they don’t know how to think critically or objectively.

You can read some of his comments on my essays, “Are Mormons Christian?” or “The new Mormon History – Grant Palmer”, “Burning of the Bosom – Feelings from God,” and “Objections to the Book of Abraham.” I’ve enjoyed our dialogs but have been mystified by his lack of understanding of the Mormon testimony.

I have tried several times to explain and clarify the process of personal revelation but he just doesn’t seem to get it. If you want to have an intelligent conversation with Mormons, I suggest that it would be extremely helpful to understand what we mean when we refer to our testimony. He seems to equate it to emotional feeling.

The Mormon testimony

When Mormons say that they have a testimony, it is usually the culmination of several things. It is a combination of much study, intense prayer, some fasting, perhaps the giving up of some long-held habits or ideas and most importantly, the receipt of knowledge imparted directly to the spirit through the Holy Ghost.

And that’s the part on which I focus. I wonder if Mr. Evangelical thinks that we base our religious conviction purely on feelings, or more aptly, on emotions. As I tried to explain to him, feelings and emotions are two separate things. I don’t think I’m the only one that defines emotions as biological and feelings as spiritual.

It’s a difficult thing to define and even more difficult to explain the difference between the two, especially if you’ve never thought about it. We believe that one way God communicates with us is directly to our heart and mind. We call this revelation. Revelation is usually accompanied by feelings of the love of God.

The heart and mind

That’s why the sharing of a testimony by a Mormon can be such an emotional thing. It can be difficult to control the emotions when one remembers the feelings of love that accompanied the revelation received when praying about some truth. However, it is not the emotional reaction that constitutes the receipt of a testimony.

A testimony is revealed knowledge from God on some subject. We usually do not receive revelation without requesting it in prayer. When it is received, it may not come all at once. It may take hours, days or longer to have a prayer answered and to know the mind and will of the Lord on a subject that we want to understand.

We cannot pray our way to an understanding of things. We have to study things out, make a decision and then take it to God in prayer to ask for a confirmation. If it is a correct decision, we will feel it in our heart and know it in our mind. That is a different kind of knowledge that the world does not generally understand.

Inspiration and revelation

One of the best ways I can think of to describe revelation is to equate it to the process of receiving inspiration. Have you ever been faced with a problem and done some serious thinking about how to solve it? Then suddenly, perhaps when you are not thinking about it, an idea pops into your mind that helps to solve it?

We can safely call that inspiration. I attribute inspiration to God or to the influence of angels or to the Holy Ghost. Revelation is similar but in addition to studying a subject out, you then come to your own conclusion and present it to the Lord in prayer, asking specifically for a confirmation to know if it is right or wrong.

Most faithful Mormons are very familiar with this process and use it often, both in their everyday life and in their work in the church. We can pray for inspiration and ideas then come to us. We study things out, come to conclusions, and then pray for revelation. Sometimes it comes right away and sometimes we must wait patiently.

Study it out in advance

The point of this essay is that you can’t just pray your way to revelation. Although there are times when revelation comes unrequested, as in warnings, for the most part, we must study our subject, think about it, ponder it, analyze it and then come to some sort of conclusion before we ask for a confirmation of our conclusion.

That’s where the process of critical thinking comes in. Sometimes we get hung up on wanting to fully understand a subject by making sure that we read the opposing viewpoints. Strangely enough, this is not a necessary part of the process in coming to a knowledge of the things of God. And that is where we get criticized so much.

I do not need to know what the people who hated Joseph Smith had to say about him when I study his life. It helps provide background and historical context but it is not required reading to be able to say that I have critically thought about the man and his claims. I can study his work and then go directly to God for confirmation.

Criticism and critical thinking

The same is true for the process of studying the Book of Mormon. I do not need to read the criticisms of the book to be able to say that I have studied it and am ready to present it to God to know if it contains truth. The Book of Mormon should be able to stand on its own, without supporting documentation or opposing criticism.

People who are educated are used to the process of considering critical reviews as part of their objective studies of a subject. Unfortunately, sometimes they forget to include original research in their studies and never get around to actually reading the Book of Mormon, or selected portions of it, with the intent to understand it.

The Lord called the Book of Mormon a marvelous work and a wonder. I like that because it accurately identifies the method of the coming forth of the book to be very unorthodox. Angels, gold plates, Urim and Thummim, an uneducated farm boy – all these are unusual to say the least. How can one be objective about this?

Summary and conclusion

The Mormon testimony is not comprised solely of emotional feelings. Yes, it does contain that. Who could not help but be affected emotionally when God pours his love into your soul as part of the process of receiving a testimony? But the most important part of a testimony is the revealed knowledge that is spiritually received.

In order to receive the knowledge that we talk about when we bear our testimonies, we must have met the requirements of studying a subject and pondering it in our hearts and minds. Only then can we take it to God in prayer and ask for a witness of the spirit that what we have studied, pondered and concluded is God’s word.

We invite all people everywhere to study our claims objectively, listen to what we have to say about modern revelation and then to take it to God in prayer in an effort to receive the promised witness of personal revelation. I and millions of others can and do share our personal witness that this process works as promised.


LDS Scriptures that teach this basic doctrine:

1. Moroni 10:3-5 – The promise of a personal witness
2. D&C 8:2-3 – The spirit of revelation defined
3. D&C 9:7-9 – We must study it out first

9 thoughts on “Critical thinking among faithful Mormons”

  1. Thanks. This presents a valid bridge between the thinking individual and direction of the spirit. Too many in our society would like to see people give up the spiritual in favor of “thought” but the fact of the matter is that we, as humans, are incomplete without both. We cannot be whole without both thought and spirituality.

  2. Excellent summary, Tim. This really is a fundamental misunderstanding of those who view Mormonism as a cult – and one of the assumptions that leave me shaking my head as much as just about anything else.

  3. Lighthouse Prayer Line

    Hi Tim,Great post! Very enlightening!If you her the opportunity, would you please say a prayer over the requests on the main page of our site?God bless you and your family,Mark, Lynn, Brooke & Carleywww.LighthousePrayerLine.orgps – Please consider following our blog or link to us by grabbing one of our free ble buttons (top sidebar). 🙂

  4. I am your typical OTOH (On The Other Hand) person. I always find another way of looking at things. But when I come to spiritual truth, when the Spirit speaks to my mind and my heart/spirit (however you define it – see, I’m doing it…), all I can do is say, “what do I know”. It is a feeling of enlightenment, exhilarating and awe-inspiring. Joseph Smith called it “feeling pure intelligence flow to your soul” or something like that. If some critic points out some seeming inconsistency, I may think about it, but often the answer I get is, in time I will understand. And the time has often come in the last three decades. The Lord has kept his promises abundantly.It really is hard to explain this thing to a person, who has not experienced it.

  5. Those who think Latter-day Saints are not critical thinkers really have missed essential components of our religion and culture.A typical LDS congregation (that I have been part of) will have multiple scientists, lawyers, historians, readers of vast numbers of books, school teachers, and educated people in a wide number of fields.Mormons are “thoughtful” people, not just in the sense of caring for others, but also in the sense of pondering deeply the Bible, Church doctrines, the nature of Christ, etc. etc.I loved the recent lesson (Ch. 29) in the current priesthood manual that states (p. 344): “We deem it a just principle, … that all men are created equal, and that all have the privilege of thinking for themselves upon all matters relative to conscience. Consequently, then, we are not disposed … to deprive any one of exercising that free independence of mind which heaven has so graciously bestowed … as one of its choicest gifts.”The quote above comes from the words of Joseph Smith, and it applies to both Latter-day Saints and those outside of our religion.Personally, as a Latter-day Saint I feel great academic freedom to be an independent thinker. I have honestly tried to listen carefully to our prophets and apostles, and then come to my own conclusions, often using the steps you mentioned in your essay. Frankly, my friends (those who know me) say I am “fiercely independent.” I consider it a compliment, but actually my entire Mormon congregation is filled with “free” thinkers.Deep spirituality begins with VERY deep thinking. (I have not quite achieved deep spirituality, but I am working on it).

  6. “no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost”1 Cor 12:3” 16 And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. 17 And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. “Matthew 16″32 And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures? “Luke 24Traditional christianity is bound by the false tradition of the cessation of revelation, i.e. the Bible is it.

  7. Great post as usual Tim! I have to add one of my favorite quotes about testimony. Elder Scott in the Oct. 2001 Conference said:”A testimony is fortified by spiritual impressions that confirm the validity of a teaching, of a righteous act, or of a warning of pending danger. Often such guidance is accompanied by powerful emotions that make it difficult to speak and bring tears to the eyes. But a testimony is not emotion. It is the very essence of character woven from threads born of countless correct decisions." (emphasis added).Link to the whole article:'ve found that being a member of the LDS Church allows me to be more open-minded and critically-thinking than I could otherwise be.

  8. This post reminds me of a quote by Blake Ostler from his presentation at the FAIR Conference, “Spiritual Experiences as the Basis for Belief and Commitment.””Now the experience that I had, at least the way I experienced it, was both cognitive and affective and involved both the head and the heart. The burning in the bosom, or the heart, is called that because it’s at the very center of the human soul. It is, essentially, what we are. Now it involves affective components, or feelings, but it also involves a sense of pure knowledge and enlightenment; at least it did in my case. I felt like pure knowledge was being poured into me. I believe that most often this experience comes just as it did to me, in conjunction with intense and sincere study, searching and thoughtful pondering. There’s something else I’d like to point out, it cannot be experienced or produced at will, but is experienced as coming from another source than one’s self; at least that’s how I experienced it. Another thing, I knew, but I can’t tell you how I know, or how I knew then. It also involves, and at least it did for me, a sense that this is something that is very familiar to me; I’ve always known this, I’m not learning it for the first time, it’s very familiar to me.”

  9. Hey Tim, great points. I’ve had similar conversations with evangelical friends. Like you, I’ve found the need to start with “how we know” first, because until they get that, they won’t get anything else we believe. Here’s a conversation I had on that topic with a

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