Russell M. Nelson
This is an edited version of a talk delivered at Brigham Young University on 27 August 1985.

Truth—and More

Those privileged to work in a university have a bond of brotherhood denoted by the very name “university.” The first three letters, uni, imply “unity—to be one.” The next syllable, vers, comes from the Latin word meaning “to turn.”

All of us are literally “turned as one” toward a mutual goal, sharing a common commitment to truth, and to its omniscient Author. An international brotherhood binds scholars together even across political boundaries. Rising majestically above the babbling sea of European languages, one word has emerged unaltered as a symbol of that unity—university. At least in Latin, Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish, the stem of the word is the same. Only the grammatical ending differs among these languages.

From varying backgrounds and disciplines, we are joined in one common goal—to turn as one to the truth and to the other noble purposes for which a great university stands.

If my message deserves a title, I would choose “Truth—and More,” inviting you to consider the deficiency of the notion that simply knowing truth somehow flees us from any thoughtful consideration of its use and its power.

The mission of the university is indelibly intertwined with the glory of truth. Its researchers discover the truth, its teachers proclaim the truth, and its service to society applies the truth.

When I was in medical school, I was taught that one must never touch the human heart, for if one did, it would stop beating. That was the limit of our knowledge of the truth then. I remember our first experiments on animals during which we tenderly dared to incise the chest and open the pericardium (the sac around the heart) only after injecting novocaine to anesthetize the heart so it “might not know” we were coming. It worked. Subsequently, we found that the heart continued to function even if we didn’t anesthetize it. It beat merrily on its way even if we touched it, held it, or stitched it. As a result of these more detailed experiments and the work of many researchers, all designed to find more of the truth, safe surgery on the heart has now become routine in most nations of the earth.

That background, drawn from my own personal experience, may serve to distinguish “relative” from “absolute” truth. In fact, early in my professional training, one instructor said that everything taught in medical school should have a sign posted on it: “This is our present understanding of the truth—until it is later shown to be false.”

Of course, the truth isn’t “relative.” It is only man’s understanding of the truth that is “relative.”

Researchers realize that only a small sample of the totality of “absolute” truth is known. Therein lies the allurement of research. There are few rewards as exciting as the discovery of truth, through research well performed.

But truth proclaimed by Deity is as absolute as Deity, who defined such truth as “knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come.” (D&C 93:24.)

The glory of truth is revealed in these words of the Master: “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:31–32.)

Truth literally makes us free from the bondage of ignorance.

Many great people have been imbued with a passion for truth. One of those was John Jaques, born in England 7 January 1827, a son of Wesleyan Methodist parents. In his youth, he recorded that he was earnestly seeking the true religion. After intensive study with LDS missionaries who taught him the gospel, he was baptized and became a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1845 at age eighteen.

John’s austere father, upset upon hearing this news, wrote: “I wished you … to attend the Wesleyan Chapel. They [the Mormons] do not teach you … to honor and obey your parents. I … hope you will give up the idea of belonging to such a party. … It is fiction.”

John’s reply, written 14 March 1847, when he was but twenty years of age, included these words:

“Dear Father, I would pray that I may be led and guided into all truth that I may understand the things of the Kingdom of God and carry my ideas to you … and be enabled to understand truth. …

“Before I conclude, I will … bear … humble testimony to the truth of the work which the Lord has commenced.

“Since I [joined the Church] my eyes have been opened and I have been able to understand the truth. I can bear testimony to the truth … of the doctrines … in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

John then likened the truth of the gospel to a diamond, while comparing “the low smattering of education of religionists” to “a rivulet’s common pebble.” (Stella Jaques Bell, Life History and Writings of John Jaques, including a diary of the Martin Handcart Company, Rexburg, Idaho: Ricks College Press, 1978, pp. 19–21.)

At age twenty-three, John Jaques wrote these immortal lines:

Oh say, what is truth? ’Tis the fairest gem
That the riches of worlds can produce,
And priceless the value of truth will be when
The proud monarch’s costliest diadem
Is counted but dross and refuse.
Yes, say, what is truth? ’Tis the brightest prize
To which mortals or Gods can aspire;
Go search in the depths where it glittering lies
Or ascend in pursuit to the loftiest skies.
’Tis an aim for the noblest desire.
The sceptre may fall from the despot’s grasp
When the winds of stern justice he copes,
But the pillar of truth will endure to the last,
And its firm-rooted bulwarks outstand the rude blast,
And the wreck of the fell tyrant’s hopes.
Then say, what is truth? ’Tis the last and the first,
For the limits of time it steps o’er.
Though the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst,
Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,
Eternal, unchanged, evermore.

(Hymns, 1985, no. 272.)

Brother Jaques spent his last years in the historian’s office of the Church, where he labored as an assistant to the historian from 1889 until his death 1 June 1900.

It is of interest that earlier, as an elder, he became an active missionary affiliated with a branch at Stratford-upon-Avon, the home of William Shakespeare.

Speaking of the Bard, we recall the statement made through his character Polonius: “This above all: to thine own self be true.” (Hamlet, Act 1, Sc. 3.) Perhaps less well known are these lines spoken by Isabella in Act 5 of Measure for Measure:

“This is all as true as it is strange:
Nay, it is ten times true; for truth is truth
To th’end of reck’ning.”

That expression closely mirrors the teaching of the Lord: “Truth abideth and hath no end.” (D&C 88:66.)

The search for truth is not only institutional, it is individual. Thirty years ago, as we were embarking on an uncharted sea early in the development of human open-heart surgery, I scheduled only one such operation a month. Each operation was a skirmish with terror, usually bringing us face-to-face with death, with the unknown, and with limitations imposed by our own ignorance. That confrontation forced us to return to the laboratory to overcome the inadequacies encountered during the previous experience. Then, when fortified and prepared by solving a specific problem, we would enter again the whirlpool of another experience, learning little by little some of the truth upon which the principles of safe open-heart surgery one day could stand.

Truth was there all the time. It was absolute—part of the incontrovertibility of divine law that we had to know if we were to succeed. We moved toward that light a step at a time, gradually leaving in darkness the specters of fear, chance, and disaster.

My experiences as a surgeon taught me the remarkable potential for truth. It is a powerful sword—an instrument that can be wielded just like a surgeon’s knife. It can be guided well to bless. But it can also be crudely applied to wound, to cripple, to damage, or even to destroy!

May I give you an illustration? Imagine a surgeon who has just operated upon a patient and found cancer invading vital organs of the body. It is widespread and beyond cure. With this knowledge, the surgeon approaches the family and the patient and coldly announces that the patient has advanced cancer, that he is beyond hope and is doomed to die. While discharging his duty to share that information, the surgeon has told the truth, but with utter abandon has then walked away from the turmoil that “truth” has left in its wake.

Another surgeon, with that same information and with compassion, approaches the family, speaks the truth, and then mercifully indicates that, even though the road ahead will be difficult and challenging, the patient and the family will not be forsaken. They will be supported with all the resources available to him as their caring physician.

Important as truth is, often we need truth and more.

Emily Dickinson expressed this concept poignantly: “The truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind.” (Poems of Emily Dickinson, sel. Helen Plotz, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, p. 14.)

As a slogan that encourages truth and more, I like the four-way test of Rotary International:

1. Is it the truth?

  1. 2.

    Is it fair to all concerned?

  2. 3.

    Will it build goodwill and better friendships?

  3. 4.

    Will it be beneficial to all?

In holy writ, the word truth is coupled with the word mercy or its cognates forty-seven times. Truth is joined with forms of right or righteousness in forty-two passages of scripture.

The psalmist wrote, for example: “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (Ps. 85:10.) This verse is then followed by the prophecy of the coming of the Book of Mormon: “Truth shall spring out of the earth; and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” (Ps. 85:11.)

A similar message comes from the Lord through the book of Moses: “Righteousness will I send down out of heaven; and truth will I send forth out of the earth, to bear testimony of mine Only Begotten.” (Moses 7:62.)

We all might measure truth with the standard of mercy, if obedient to these passages from Proverbs: “Do they not err that devise evil? but mercy and truth shall be to them that devise good.” (Prov. 14:22.) “By mercy and truth iniquity is purged.” (Prov. 16:6.)

Those privileged to hold membership in the restored Church might well remember this psalm: “All the paths of the Lord are mercy and truth unto such as keep his covenant and his testimonies.” (Ps. 25:10.)

The psalmist added this observation: “But thou, O Lord, art a God full of compassion, and gracious, long-suffering, and plenteous in mercy and truth.” (Ps. 86:15.)

Otherwise, the sword of truth, cutting and sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel, might not be governed by righteousness or by mercy, but might be misused carelessly to embarrass, debase, or deceive others.

I am reminded of a personal experience that you may find amusing. I was serving as a consultant to the United States government at its National Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. Once while awaiting a taxi to take me to the airport after our meetings were over, I stretched out on the lawn to soak in a few welcome rays of sunshine before returning to the winter weather of Utah’s January. Later I received a photograph in the mail taken by a photographer with a telephoto lens, capturing my moment of relaxation on the lawn. Under it was a caption, “Governmental consultant at the National Center.” The picture was true, the caption was true, but the truth was used to promote a false impression. Yes, truth can even be used to convey a lie.

Indeed, in some instances, the merciful companion to truth is silence. Some truths are best left unsaid.

My mother expressed that thought to me often with this simple phrase: “Russell, if you can’t say something nice about someone, say nothing.” I might add, incidentally, that her injunction became a real challenge to me, as my entire professional life required my telling each patient about the abnormalities that he or she possessed.

We live in a day when politicians occasionally dig for “truth” that would degrade an opponent. We live in a time when some journalists may not be content to report the news, but instead work to create news through journalistic techniques designed to demean another’s work of worth. We now live in a season in which some self-serving historians grovel for “truth” that would defame the dead and the defenseless. Some may be tempted to undermine what is sacred to others, or diminish the esteem of honored names, or demean the efforts of revered individuals. They seem to forget that the greatness of the very lives they examine is what endows the historian’s work with any interest. But these temptations are not new. President Stephen L Richards expressed similar concern some thirty years ago:

“If a man of history has secured over the years a high place in the esteem of his countrymen and fellow men and has become imbedded in their affections, it has seemingly become a pleasing pastime for researchers and scholars to delve into the past of such a man, discover, if may be, some of his weaknesses and then write a book exposing hitherto unpublished alleged factual findings, all of which tends to rob the historic character of the idealistic esteem and veneration in which he may have been held through the years. …

“If an historic character has made a great contribution to country and society, and if his name and his deeds have been used over the generations to foster high ideals of character and service, what good is to be accomplished by digging out of the past and exploiting weaknesses, and perhaps a generous contemporary public forgave? …

“Perhaps, with propriety, we might look into … their objectives in destroying this idealism for our heroes and great men of history. Perhaps … their investigation and writing are prompted by a desire to show that men can be human, with human frailties, and still be great. If they were to say that that was their purpose, I would be inclined to doubt them, and much more inclined to believe that their writings were prompted by a desire to make money out of sensational, unsavory disclosures.” (Where Is Wisdom? Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1955, p. 155.)

Extortion by threat of disclosing truth is labelled “blackmail.” Is sordid disclosure for personal attention or financial gain not closely related?

Paul perceived the wise judgment needed in wielding the powerful sword of truth as he taught: “Strive not about words to no profit, but to the subverting of the hearers.

“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, … rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Tim. 2:14–15; italics added.)

Rightly dividing the word of truth portends responsibility to communicate it accurately and without perversion, taking care not to injure or destroy. Hence so many scriptures caution the need to join truth with righteousness. Here are six examples:

“David my father … walked before thee in truth, and in righteousness.” (1 Kgs. 3:6.)

“Who shall dwell in thy holy hill?

“He that walked uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart.

“He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbour, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbor.” (Ps. 15:1–3.)

“Christ … is the word of truth and righteousness.” (Alma 38:9.)

“They did begin to keep his statutes and commandments, and to walk in truth and uprightness before him.” (Hel. 6:34.)

“The fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth.” (Eph. 5:9.)

“Let every man beware lest he do that which is not in truth and righteousness before me.” (D&C 50:9.)

Another pertains to the second coming of the Savior:

“Thus saith the Lord of hosts …

“They shall be my people, and I will be their God, in truth and in righteousness.” (Zech. 8:7–8.)

Don’t misunderstand. I do not decry the revealing of negative information per se. A prosecutor who uncovers an embezzlement combines both truth and justice. A journalist who rightly reports betrayal of official trust combines truth with righteousness. Physicians who determined that old-fashioned “blood-letting” did more harm than good strengthened truth with light.

Too often, however, negative information is presented to further negative ends. In such cases, the facts are sometimes distorted, taken out of context, or at least badly understood.

Any who are tempted to rake through the annals of history, to use truth unrighteously, or to dig up “facts” with the intent to defame or destroy, should hearken to this warning of scripture:

“The righteousness of God [is] revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.

“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” (Rom. 1:17–18.)

I repeat: “The wrath of God is … against all … who hold the truth in unrighteousness.”

To anyone who, because of “truth,” may be tempted to become a dissenter against the Lord and his anointed, weigh carefully your action in light of this sacred scripture:

“These dissenters, having the same instruction and the same information … yea, having been instructed in the same knowledge of the Lord, nevertheless, it is strange to relate, not long after their dissensions they became more hardened and impenitent, and … wicked, … entirely forgetting the Lord their God.” (Alma 47:36.)

When teachers and writers leave the lofty ethics of their honored professions, passing from legitimate reporting to feasting on sensational and pointless disclosures that appeal temporarily to a flattering few, their work slants more toward gossip than gospel. Even worse, if they “lift up [their] heel against mine anointed, saith the Lord, … their basket shall not be full, their houses and their barns shall perish, and they themselves shall be despised by those that flattered them.” (D&C 121:16, 20.)

Scriptures teach us that the pleasantries of prosperity, if tainted by seeds of selfishness and dissension against the Lord (or his anointed), comprise a dangerous combination. These verses are a solemn warning to us all:

“The very time when he doth prosper his people, yea, in the increase of their fields, their flocks and their herds, and in gold, and in silver, and in all manner of precious things … for the welfare and happiness of his people; yea, then is the time that they do harden their hearts, and do forget the Lord their God, and do trample under their feet the Holy One—yea, and this because of their ease, and their exceedingly great prosperity. …

“Yea, how quick to be lifted up in pride; yea, how quick to boast, and do all manner of that which is iniquity; and how slow are they to remember the Lord their God, and to give ear unto his counsels, yea, how slow to walk in wisdom’s paths!

“Behold, they do not desire that the Lord their God, who hath created them, should rule and reign over them; notwithstanding his great goodness and his mercy towards them, they do set at naught his counsels, and they will not that he should be their guide.” (Hel. 12:2–6.)

In this country, academic freedom is something each of us prizes highly. Those in other countries envy this opportunity enjoyed in our great nation. It is a privilege that will be fostered by keeping our university healthy, strong, and in favor with God.

Each member of the Church bears the weight of responsibility to consider the instrument of truth and more. If truth is used by anyone in any degree of unrighteousness, others, in the spirit of unity, must act, bearing a responsibility to turn and to help enlarge that person’s perspective.

For if the true and righteous people are silent, those who use truth in unrighteousness will prevail. Speaking from his viewpoint in history, Winston Churchill observed “how the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous, … how the middle course adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life may be found to lead direct to the bull’s-eye of disaster.” (The Follies of the Victors, pp. 15–16.)

We must realize that we are at war. The war began before the world was and will continue. The forces of the adversary are extant upon the earth. All of our virtuous motives, if transmitted only by inertia and timidity, are no match for the resolute wickedness of those who oppose us.

Every individual associated with this Church should think, speak, and write throughout the world in consonance with this proverb:

“For my mouth shall speak truth; and wickedness is an abomination to my lips.

“All the words of my mouth are in righteousness; there is nothing … perverse in them.” (Prov. 8:7–8.)

The word truth is used 435 times in the scriptures. I have studied each of them. In 374 of those instances, truth is coupled in the same verse with some form of a strengthening term:

spirit

59

mercy(-iful)

47

right(-eousness)

42

holy(-iness)

36

judgment

23

light

23

grace

22

good(-ly, -liness)

21

love

18

peace

16

just(ice)

13

faith(-fulness)

12

loving kindness

11

wisdom

10

soberness

5

sanctified

4

kindness

3

sincerity

3

free

2

godliness

2

long-suffering

1

valiant

1

Total

374*

* NOTE: In some verses, there is duplication of these listed terms.

 

The vast majority (374/435) of scriptural references to this weighty word exemplify the importance of truth and more.

What do these figures tell us? Just as oxen may be equally yoked together to accomplish what one could not do alone, so the power of truth is augmented if equally yoked with righteousness or with mercy or with the spirit of love.

This concept extends beyond the walls of the university. It applies to our companions and children at home, where truth can even foment bitterness at times. Unless we couple truth with love and kindness, our focus may narrow to the tube of toothpaste squeezed at the top, the dust and cobwebs of work yet undone, the evidence of fingerprints on glass, or the hand-tools misplaced.

Truth, like justice, can be harsh and unforgiving when not tempered by mercy.

But when truth is magnified by mercy or refined by righteousness, it can be converted from a force that can destroy to a force that can bless.

Ours is the glorious privilege of searching for truth, teaching the truth, and applying it righteously in service to others. We are sons and daughters of God engaged in his work.

As we embark on this great labor, I would invoke a blessing that success and joy may be ours. May we turn in unity toward the purpose that binds us all together—a commitment to truth and more—here, in our homes, and wherever we walk. May the deserved peace of heaven crown our efforts.