In my experiences at home and in the Church, I appreciate more and more the power of bearing testimony. Few accounts in Church history have left a more profound impact on me than these words of President Brigham Young (1801–77), who was influenced by a pure testimony:
“If all the talent, tact, wisdom, and refinement of the world had been combined in one individual, and that person had been sent to me with the Book of Mormon, and had declared in the most exalted of earthly eloquence, the truth of it, undertaking to prove it by his learning and worldly wisdom, it would have been to me like the smoke which arises only to vanish. But when I saw a man without eloquence, or talents for public speaking, who could only just say, ‘I know by the power of the Holy Ghost that the Book of Mormon is true, that Joseph Smith is a prophet of the Lord,’ [the] Holy Ghost proceeding from that individual illuminate[d] my understanding, and light, glory, and immortality [were] before me.”1
Using the scriptures and the words of the prophets, let us examine what a testimony is and how we should bear it.
A testimony is usually defined as knowledge or assurance of a truth that a person declares by the convincing power of the Holy Ghost. The Apostle Paul taught, “No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost” (1 Cor. 12:3). Because the things of God are known only by the power of the Spirit, they must be declared by the Spirit, and that means bearing testimony.
Because a testimony is personal, testimony bearing often begins with the pronoun I. (Parents, missionaries, and Church leaders may at times use we.) A testimony can be identified by the use of powerful verbs such as know, testify, believe, certify, declare, affirm, bear witness, bear record. Often it is a declaration of what you know, feel, experience, or believe, such as “We listened, we gazed, we admired!” (JS—H 1:71, note). Generally speaking, a testimony is short, precise, and concise.
President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, shared the following insight:
“I had an experience in the mission field that taught me much about testimony. In spite of the fact that all seemed to be under control, we were not progressing as we should. It was not something we were doing that we ought not to do so much, I felt, as something we were not doing that we ought to be doing.
“We held a series of zone conferences to improve the spirituality in the mission. Rather than schedule instruction on the mechanics of missionary work, we determined to have a testimony meeting. In the last conference, in the testimony of one of the humble elders, I found the answer to the problem. There was something different about the brief testimony of this frightened new elder. He stood for less than a minute, yet I learned from his expression what it was that was missing.
“The testimonies we’d heard from all the other missionaries went something like this: ‘I’m grateful to be in the mission field. I’ve learned a lot from it. I have a fine companion. I’ve learned a lot from him. I’m grateful for my parents. We had an interesting experience last week. We were out knocking on doors and …’ Then the missionary would relate an experience. His conclusion would be something like this: ‘I’m grateful to be in the mission field. I have a testimony of the gospel.’ And he would conclude ‘in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.’
“This young elder was different somehow. Anxious not to spend an extra second on his feet, he said simply, in hurried, frightened words, ‘I know that God lives. I know that Jesus is the Christ. I know that we have a prophet of God leading the Church. In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.’
“This was a testimony. It was not just an experience nor an expression of gratitude. It was a declaration, a witness!
“Most of the elders had said ‘I have a testimony,’ but they had not declared it. This young elder had, in a very few words, delivered his testimony—direct, basic, and, as it turned out, powerful.
“I then knew what was wrong in the mission. We were telling stories, expressing gratitude, admitting that we had testimonies, but we were not bearing them.”2
The First Presidency has emphasized the importance of brevity and conciseness when bearing testimony: “We are concerned that in some instances, members who desire to bear their testimonies in fast and testimony meeting do not have the opportunity to do so. Bishoprics are encouraged to help all people learn to express a brief, heartfelt testimony of the Savior, His teachings, and the Restoration, so that more members may have the opportunity to participate.”3
Sometimes we can learn much about a principle by identifying what it is not. I have found that a testimony is:
Not an exhortation. Individuals who stand and exhort others in a fast and testimony meeting or even try to call others to repentance, even with the best of intentions, are usurping authority and are often offending others and disrupting the spirit of the meeting.
Not an experience, although experiences may illustrate belief and conviction.
Not an expression of gratitude or love, although these are often appropriately included in our testimony sharing.
Not a public confession.
Not a sermon or a talk on some doctrinal point, although someone may quote a scripture and then testify of it.
Not a long explanation of how you know but rather what you know.
Not merely saying the words “I have a testimony.” It is not inappropriate to say this, but hopefully there is an expression following these words about the doctrines, truths, and principles of which you have a testimony.
After teaching a lesson or giving a talk, a person should usually conclude the message with a formal testimony, the capstone to all that has been said. Full-time missionaries often insert short, concise testimonies following each key principle they are teaching and then conclude with a summary testimony of the key principles taught.
I express a caution to teachers in the classroom or at the pulpit not to overdo it when interspersing testimonies throughout their talks and lessons. Members might not listen as intently by the Spirit to too-frequent testimonies, and investigators may be confused. Worse, they might perceive a testimony as some legal or judicial expression. Simply stated, we might make sacred things common, and then the impact of our testimony is lost. The Lord cautions, “That which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit” (D&C 63:64).
Numerous illustrations of pure testimony appear in the scriptures. Alma knew that to reclaim his people he must bear pure testimony (see Alma 4:19). He tells the people how he knows (see Alma 5:45–46), then bears pure testimony of what he knows:
“I say unto you, that I know of myself that whatsoever I shall say unto you, concerning that which is to come, is true; and I say unto you, that I know that Jesus Christ shall come, yea, the Son, the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace, and mercy, and truth. And behold, it is he that cometh to take away the sins of the world, yea, the sins of every man who steadfastly believeth on his name” (Alma 5:48).
A powerful illustration of pure testimony comes from the account of the Prophet Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon’s vision of the three degrees of glory:
“And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives!
“For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father—
“That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God” (D&C 76:22–24).
The Joseph Smith—History in the Pearl of Great Price is published in pamphlet form for missionary work with the title The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith (item nos. 36081, 32667). In that account the Prophet declares in a simple, straightforward way, “I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation” (JS—H 1:25).
We know that John the Baptist is bearing pure testimony when he uses the phrase bear record:
“And I, John, bear record that I beheld [the Savior’s] glory, as the glory of the Only Begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth, even the Spirit of truth, which came and dwelt in the flesh, and dwelt among us. …
“And I, John, bear record, and lo, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Ghost descended upon him in the form of a dove, and sat upon him, and there came a voice out of heaven saying: This is my beloved Son.
“And I, John, bear record that he received a fulness of the glory of the Father” (D&C 93:11, 15–16).
In some scriptures the Father or the Son bears testimony. For example, Nephi heard the testimony of God the Father, who declared: “Yea, the words of my Beloved are true and faithful. He that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved” (2 Ne. 31:15).
The Savior testified of the Prophet Joseph Smith and of the translation of the Book of Mormon: “He has translated the book, even that part which I have commanded him, and as your Lord and your God liveth it is true” (D&C 17:6).
The Savior testified of Himself: “I am the first and the last; I am he who liveth, I am he who was slain; I am your advocate with the Father” (D&C 110:4).
I have great appreciation for the power of pure testimony. I continue to examine my own testimony bearing to keep it in line with correct principles taught by the scriptures and by latter-day prophets. I testify that there is a divine power accompanying a declared pure testimony.