In a caricature of the LDS testimony, Mormons are said to believe in their religion because of a stray warm feeling that they mistake for knowledge from God. Some gullible persons prays, has a nice feeling, and bingo, we’ve got a convert. That’s not how I see it.
Testimonies may start off small, fragile, and based upon a small number of experiences, but for a mature Latter-day Saint, testimony is typically the sum of many experiences and indeed, experiments, in which the principles and teachings of the Gospel are put to the test. There is a combination of the intellectual and the spiritual, the practical and the mystic, the day-to-day and the occasional rare but real miracle. There are often doubts and concerns that have been plumbed and addressed or put on hold. And along the way, there have been many voices taken into consideration: the voice of witnesses, the voice of skeptics and critics, the voice of reason, and the voice of the Spirit. It’s a complex process that deals with the most complex issues humans confront: What is real? What is beyond this mortal realm? What is my purpose here? Who am I and am I supposed to live? And finally, who or what, if anything, is God?
To the surprise of some of our critics, the teachings of the Church do not focus on blind faith and random emotions, but on experience, even experimentation, as well as studying, seeking, pondering, and also, of course, praying. The approach to gaining a testimony is not taught as a one-time event but a lifelong journey. And since we’ve been discussing science recently on this blog, I’ll point out that the Book of Mormon teaches a testimony-building journey that has some parallels to the scientific method. It even describes that journey as one of putting the Gospel to the test and conducting experiments with the word of God. Here is the relevant passage from Alma 32:
 Now, as I said concerning faith — that it was not a perfect knowledge — even so it is with my words. Ye cannot know of their surety at first, unto perfection, any more than faith is a perfect knowledge.
 But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words.
 Now, we will compare the word unto a seed. Now, if ye give place, that a seed may be planted in your heart, behold, if it be a true seed, or a good seed, if ye do not cast it out by your unbelief, that ye will resist the Spirit of the Lord, behold, it will begin to swell within your breasts; and when you feel these swelling motions, ye will begin to say within yourselves — It must needs be that this is a good seed, or that the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding, yea, it beginneth to be delicious to me.
 Now behold, would not this increase your faith? I say unto you, Yea; nevertheless it hath not grown up to a perfect knowledge.
 But behold, as the seed swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, then you must needs say that the seed is good; for behold it swelleth, and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow. And now behold, will not this strengthen your faith? Yea, it will strengthen your faith: for ye will say I know that this is a good seed; for behold it sprouteth and beginneth to grow.
 And now, behold, are ye sure that this is a good seed? I say unto you, Yea; for every seed bringeth forth unto its own likeness.
 Therefore, if a seed groweth it is good, but if it groweth not, behold it is not good, therefore it is cast away.
 And now, behold, because ye have tried the experiment, and planted the seed, and it swelleth and sprouteth, and beginneth to grow, ye must needs know that the seed is good.
 And now, behold, is your knowledge perfect? Yea, your knowledge is perfect in that thing, and your faith is dormant; and this because ye know, for ye know that the word hath swelled your souls, and ye also know that it hath sprouted up, that your understanding doth begin to be enlightened, and your mind doth begin to expand.
 O then, is not this real? I say unto you, Yea, because it is light; and whatsoever is light, is good, because it is discernible, therefore ye must know that it is good; and now behold, after ye have tasted this light is your knowledge perfect?
 Behold I say unto you, Nay; neither must ye lay aside your faith, for ye have only exercised your faith to plant the seed that ye might try the experiment to know if the seed was good.
 And behold, as the tree beginneth to grow, ye will say: Let us nourish it with great care, that it may get root, that it may grow up, and bring forth fruit unto us. And now behold, if ye nourish it with much care it will get root, and grow up, and bring forth fruit.
 But if ye neglect the tree, and take no thought for its nourishment, behold it will not get any root; and when the heat of the sun cometh and scorcheth it, because it hath no root it withers away, and ye pluck it up and cast it out.
 Now, this is not because the seed was not good, neither is it because the fruit thereof would not be desirable; but it is because your ground is barren, and ye will not nourish the tree, therefore ye cannot have the fruit thereof.
 And thus, if ye will not nourish the word, looking forward with an eye of faith to the fruit thereof, ye can never pluck of the fruit of the tree of life.
 But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beginneth to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.
 And because of your diligence and your faith and your patience with the word in nourishing it, that it may take root in you, behold, by and by ye shall pluck the fruit thereof, which is most precious, which is sweet above all that is sweet, and which is white above all that is white, yea, and pure above all that is pure; and ye shall feast upon this fruit even until ye are filled, that ye hunger not, neither shall ye thirst.
 Then, my brethren, ye shall reap the rewards of your faith, and your diligence, and patience, and long-suffering, waiting for the tree to bring forth fruit unto you.
Those investigating the claims of the Gospel are encouraged to put it to the test by living it and seeing what the fruits are. Yes, faith must be exercised first, even a little particle of faith, but the results of this spiritual exercise will include knowledge and metal enlightenment, not just fuzzy feelings, and from those fruits one can see that at least some part of the Gospel makes sense and can be trusted. But that’s just a beginning. It’s an ongoing process that requires faith and diligence, for testimony is delicate and can be lost. That’s also the point of the Lord’s parable of the sower and the seed. The plant that sprouts up can be choked by materialism, sin, and neglect.
The path toward gaining a testimony of the divinity of the Book of Mormon is also not described as waiting for a random feeling, but a journey of careful study, pondering, and then turning to God to ask if it is true. Mind and spirit are involved, not random emotion. Discerning the voice of the Spirit, of course, is the difficult part where there is not a simple tangible outcome like getting a reading on a thermometer. So no, it’s not a clear-cut scientific process. It’s a journey of changing fallen man into a redeemed saint, and that’s a much bigger and more important thing than even the wonders of science can achieve. In a way, it’s very simple though takes serious effort, but in terms of scientific standards, it’s hopelessly fuzzy and subjective. So no, it’s not as straightforward as, say, rocket science. It’s too big and too important for that.
Mormonscholarstestify.org has some interesting statements from LDS scientists and other scholars that might be helpful on this topic. See, for example, the testimonies written by Carol Anne Clayson, Steven F. Faux, and Laura Clarke Bridgewater. Others you recommend?