A Testimony of the Plan of Progression and Eternal Life
Emeritus Dean of Religious Education, Brigham Young University
Editor-in-chief, Encyclopedia of Mormonism
It was a great surprise to me to be included as one of the LDS scholars asked to contribute to this volume. As I contemplate the great minds that have testified of the gospel of Jesus Christ in recent decades, I certainly would not include myself among them. Thus, I trust and hope the reader will accept this humble offering for what it is—a personal testimony of the validity and importance of the plan of progression and eternal life, coming from a fellow member of the Church who has acquired a strong and firm testimony of the work through considerable study, observation, and prayer.
I am firmly convinced that the greatest knowledge a person can acquire in this life is the knowledge associated with the great plan of progression and eternal life of our Heavenly Father, which we refer to as the gospel of Jesus Christ. I am firmly convinced that this knowledge or testimony is available to every person who has the ability to reason and who is willing to learn and obey the laws upon which such knowledge is predicated. I deem it an honor to be asked to share this testimony and these thoughts with you.
Throughout my seventy years upon the earth I have become increasingly aware and convinced that, although all knowledge might be considered important, different types of knowledge are not equal in importance. Also, I have learned that there is a natural sequence or order to the acceptance of certain great truths—that is, the acceptance of some truths must precede the acceptance of other truths. These understandings led me to select early in my college education the goal of becoming a teacher of what I then thought, and now know, to be the "weightier matters" (Matthew 23:23) of life—those truths pertaining to our eternal lives and welfare.
It soon became obvious to me that the sources of truth pertaining to these "weightier matters" were primarily two: first, the scriptures (the will and mind and word of the Lord as revealed to earlier prophets) and second, the teachings of the prophets, seers, and revelators of this dispensation. This understanding led me to read and continually reread each of the books of scripture. It also led me to read all the available words of the prophets, seers, and revelators of this dispensation, particularly the words of the presidents of the Church. Major sources of these words were the publications of the Church, general conference reports, and books containing the major talks and teachings of the presidents of the Church. In the mid-1940s, when I was twenty years of age, these included such works as Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Discourses of Brigham Young, The Gospel Kingdom (John Taylor), The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, Gospel Doctrine (Joseph F. Smith), and Gospel Standards (Heber J. Grant). Reading and studying these books and the talks and other writings of the presidents prompted my compilation and publication of selected statements in 1948 under the title Latter-day Prophets Speak. Since then, I have continued to carefully read the word of the Lord as he has revealed it through the prophets, seers, and revelators of his church.
From these two primary sources—the scriptures and the words of the prophets—I have obtained my testimony, realizing that such testimony can ultimately come only from the Holy Ghost as a result of asking, seeking, and knocking—that is, through prayer.
Obtaining a Testimony
A first question might be "What constitutes a testimony of the gospel?" A testimony of the plan of progression and eternal life might include different elements during different periods of history. But for me, a testimony of this plan in the dispensation of the fulness of times would include at least the following major elements:
1. God exists as an eternal, omnipotent Being. He is the Eternal Father of the spirit bodies of all of us who now live, who have lived, or who will yet live upon this earth. Thus, we are all either sons or daughters of God, and therefore we are brothers and sisters to each other.
2. Jesus Christ is the firstborn Son of God in the spirit; thus, he is our eldest brother in the spirit creation. Jesus Christ is the Only Begotten Son of God in the flesh. He is actually, physically, and biologically the Son of God in the flesh. He also is the foreordained Savior and Redeemer of all mankind. Through his infinite atonement, Jesus Christ became for all of us the Advocate and Mediator with the Father.
3. God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son are separate and distinct from each other in being and in person. However, they are one in doctrine, in testimony, in witness, in purpose, and in goals and ideals. The work and glory of the Father are also the work and the glory of the Son.
4. God reveals his mind and will through chosen prophets, who speak for him. When a prophet is moved upon by the power of the Holy Ghost, he speaks the mind, the will, and the word of God (D&C 68:4). Thus, whether God speaks to mankind directly or through his Son or through his prophets, it is the same so far as mankind is concerned (D&C 1:38).
5. God has a kingdom through which he administers his affairs in regard to mankind. His Son holds the keys of that kingdom and administers the affairs of the kingdom in heaven. Christ has now and has had in the past a kingdom upon the earth over which he presides. This kingdom on the earth presently has the formal title of "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints"; it is the only true and living church upon the face of the earth today.
6. Joseph Smith was the first prophet of the dispensation of the fulness of times. His successors, the presidents of the Church, hold the keys of the kingdom under his direction, and Joseph Smith holds them under the direction of Jesus Christ. Thus, the living prophet on the earth holds the keys of the kingdom and is directly responsible for administering the affairs of the kingdom.
7. The Book of Mormon is indeed "Another Testament of Jesus Christ"; it was prepared under his direction and was translated by his gift and power. This sacred volume contains an account of the Savior's dealings with his people in the Americas as well as his appearance to them as a resurrected being. The Book of Mormon is the word of God.
Other persons might include additional elements in their explanations of what constitutes a valid testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But, to me, those listed above are the essential elements of such a testimony.
A second major question might be, "What must a person do to obtain a testimony of the gospel?" Elder Bruce R. McConkie has suggested the following steps:
Any accountable person can gain a testimony of the gospel by obedience to that law upon which the receipt of such knowledge is predicated. This is the formula:
1. He must desire to know the truth of the gospel. . . .
2. He must study and learn the basic facts relative to the matter involved. . . .
3. He must practice the principles and truths learned, conforming his life to them. . . .
4. He must pray to the Father in the name of Christ, in faith, and the truth will then be made manifest by revelation "by the power of the Holy Ghost. And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things."1
This formula may appear to be almost too simple, but I believe it contains all the essential elements. Note that it involves the action of our innermost being—the hoping and the desiring, the studying and the learning, the determining to practice or live, and the praying. Thus, by the time we have acquired a testimony through the application of these steps (and I know of no shortcuts), we have internalized this knowledge. Therefore we are much more apt to conform our lives to these truths, and we are much more apt to receive the promised blessings. What a marvelous plan it is that in this life we acquire a testimony only through the power of our spirit, acting upon the principle of faith.
These definitions and explanations should help us arrive at two fundamental conclusions: First, it should be abundantly clear that the acquisition of a testimony does not require an education in a formal classroom setting, nor are testimonies limited to "scholars." A testimony must be acquired on a personal basis and comes only as an individual earnestly hopes, desires, studies, learns, lives, and prays about the basic truths upon which a testimony is based. Second, our total thinking or reasoning powers must be involved in acquiring a testimony.
This second conclusion prompts me to list a few attributes or characteristics of our spirit (the source of our thinking or reasoning powers) so we can better appreciate this power and also the eternal blessings that flow from a testimony of the gospel.
1. Our spirits are the real eternal part of all of us. They have always existed and will always exist. They can be neither created nor destroyed:
Man was also in the beginning with God. Intelligence, or the light of truth, was not created or made, neither indeed can be. (D&C 93:29)
The mind [spirit] or the intelligence which man possesses is coequal with God himself. . . .
The intelligence of spirits had no beginning, neither will it have an end. . . .
Intelligence is eternal and exists upon a self-existent principle. It is a spirit from age to age, and there is no creation about it.2
We know . . . that there is something called intelligence which always existed. It is the real eternal part of man, which was not created or made. This intelligence combined with the spirit constitutes a spiritual identity or individual. . . .
The spirit of man, then, is a combination of the intelligence and the spirit which is an entity begotten of God.3
2. Our spirits are the part of our beings through which we gain knowledge. Although theologians, philosophers, and social scientists may disagree on the name or title or description or extent of this power we have within ourselves (a few terms they have suggested are ego, consciousness, will, intelligence, and mind), it is the power by which we think and make conscious decisions. We acquire all our knowledge, whether of a spiritual or physical nature, through the power of our spirit.
3. The spirit has the power to learn, understand, and comprehend by itself, independent of the physical body. Thus, before the spirit was clothed with a physical body, it could learn the spirit laws that governed its existence and thus could receive the consequences (blessings or punishments) associated with action in the realm of such law. Even though a veil of forgetfulness came upon us at the time of birth into a physical body, our spirits still possess the power to learn.
4. When our spirit came into our physical bodies, we became living souls (Genesis 2:7). The spirit gives life to the physical body. It is the spirit that enables the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the fingers to move.
5. The spirit works with and through the physical body in obtaining further knowledge. The senses of the physical body provide additional means by which the spirit may obtain knowledge:
If I had time to enter into this subject alone I could show you upon scientific principles that man himself is a self-registering machine, his eyes, his ears, his nose, the touch, the taste, and all the various senses of the body, are so many media whereby man lays up for himself a record which perhaps nobody else is acquainted with but himself.4
6. The spirit can obtain a testimony of the plan of progression and eternal life only through its own power, although the Holy Ghost will provide a confirming witness. That is, each person must obtain a testimony by himself or herself; one person cannot give another person a testimony:
By the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. (Moroni 10:5)
And the Spirit giveth light to every man that cometh into the world; and the Spirit enlighteneth every man through the world, that hearkeneth to the voice of the Spirit. (D&C 84:46)
During the fifty-two years I have been associated with institutions of higher education in our country and abroad, I have felt that a limiting factor in the growth of some intellectuals in spiritual matters is their unwillingness to accept these basic truths concerning the spirit and its powers. Thus, they have limited themselves because of their refusal to accept earlier verities upon which the latter truths are based. This self-limitation is imposed by members of the Church and nonmembers alike. It seems to me that part of the limitation has come to some through their reluctance to believe in any power greater than the power of man. A second limiting factor is their unwillingness to bestow on man the power to progress eternally. Perhaps a third limiting factor has been the inability or unwillingness of many to determine which of all the truths known to them are the most important.
Philosophers and others have debated the nature of truth throughout the centuries. Unfortunately, the world does not have the Savior's answer to Pilate's question, "What is truth?" (John 18:38). Fortunately, we have the Savior's response, as revealed to his prophet in modern times: "And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come" (D&C 93:24). In other times and places we have learned such verities as these: truth is eternal,5 "truth embraceth truth" (D&C 88:40), all truth might be encompassed into one grand whole. Thus, one of our goals should be to search for truth wherever it might be found. It is in such a search for truth that a testimony might be obtained.
The acquisition of truths associated with a testimony of the plan of progression and eternal life would be a blessing indeed, and, as we have learned from modern scripture, is a blessing predicated upon obedience to law (D&C 130:21). Several experiences have helped convince me that a knowledge of the truths associated with a testimony of the gospel is the most important knowledge of all. In closing, let me share with you one of these experiences.
An Exercise in Priorities
Sister Ludlow and I have been blessed with nine children—one son and eight daughters. These children have blessed us with forty-one grandchildren. We have tried over the years to promote special activities that would help keep the larger family close together so that cousins, for instance, could feel a love and concern for each other.
Until recent years, most of the family would gather together for a bounteous and delicious Thanksgiving meal. Then after the meal, one by one, we would share with each other the blessings for which we were especially grateful during that year. One year I was particularly sensitive to the fact that most of us were mentioning material blessings as those of greatest significance—a new bicycle or car, a color TV, air-conditioning in the home, and so on. Very few blessings of a spiritual nature were mentioned.
So that year, after the family had completed their expressions of gratitude for their blessings and had dispersed into smaller groups for other activities, I went into a separate room, took several sheets of paper of various colors, and cut each sheet into eight pieces. Then I wrote on each small piece of paper one particular blessing. I placed blessings that seemed to be in the same category on the same color of paper. For instance, blessings of a material nature were written on goldenrod; blessings of a family nature were written on green; blessings of a community or educational nature were written on yellow; blessings of a physical nature were written on brown; and blessings of a religious or spiritual nature were written on blue.
I then mixed up all of the pieces of paper and placed them on a large table so each of the blessings could be easily read. The older members of our family (we decided to include those eight years of age and up) were then invited to arrange themselves around the table according to age so we could participate in a "Choose Your Blessings" activity. I explained that the purpose of the activity was to "prioritize" our blessings to determine which blessings were the most important. In order to do this, each person, in turn, had to decide which one of the blessings remaining on the table he or she would rather lose, remove from the table the piece of paper containing that blessing, and then explain why he or she felt that particular blessing was not as important as those remaining.
The activity proceeded rather quickly and smoothly for several rounds. Soon all blessings of a material nature were removed, while many of the other types of blessings (including all of those of a spiritual nature) remained. As the activity progressed, participants discovered that it became more and more difficult to decide which blessing should be discarded, as all the remaining blessings seemed important. This was the real soul-searching part of the activity, and we learned a great deal about each other.
Frankly, I had not thought beforehand what final ten or five or even two blessings might remain on the table near the end. My major purpose in preparing and suggesting the activity was simply to stimulate members of the family to realize that spiritual blessings—those that have eternal consequences—are infinitely more important than the material blessings many of them had mentioned earlier.
Finally, however, only a "tremendous ten" remained, then a "fabulous five," and at last only two blessings remained. They were "Having a Living Prophet" and "Having a Testimoy of the Gospel." With only these two blessings remaining, it was my wife's turn to choose which blessing she would forfeit. After taking a few minutes to explain to all of us the extreme importance of a living prophet, Luene concluded, "But a testimony of the gospel is most important"—and she left that sole blessing on the table.
Luene and I have participated in this activity on numerous occasions since then, including with semester-abroad students in Jerusalem and with full-time missionaries in western Australia. Almost without exception, the results have been the same—the blessing remaining last of all, and hence the one considered to be most important, is "Having a Testimony of the Gospel."
I have pondered these results many times, and each time I become more convinced of the importance of a testimony. Without a testimony, we would not listen to the living prophet. What difference would it make whether or not we have the scriptures if we do not have a testimony? Without a testimony of the gospel, we would be unlikely to search the scriptures diligently. What difference would it make whether or not we have a temple nearby if we do not have a testimony of the gospel? Without a testimony, we would not be interested in receiving the blessings of the temple and extending them to our progenitors. The obvious conclusion is that a testimony of the gospel gives meaning, significance, and importance to all of our other blessings.
Shortly after Thanksgiving in 1985, Luene was invited to speak in our new home ward in Salt Lake City—the Canyon Road Ward. She told of our earlier experience with the family in the "Choosing Your Blessings" activity, including the fact that in the long run having a testimony of the gospel is more important to an individual than having a living prophet.
President Ezra Taft Benson was a member of our ward and happened to be present for that sacrament meeting. You can imagine Luene's concern in delivering her talk, but she presented the facts just as they had occurred. As soon as the meeting was over, President Benson came over to Luene and greeted her with the words, "Sister Ludlow, you are absolutely right. A testimony of the gospel is the greatest knowledge a person can acquire in this life. I wish every member of the Church could have heard your talk and testimony today."
Later, President Benson prepared a First Presidency message in the Ensign on this subject, entitled "Valiant in the Testimony of Jesus."6 His statement serves as a confirming witness that a testimony of the gospel is indeed the most important knowledge a person can acquire on this earth.
In his classic address at the October 1988 semiannual general conference of the Church entitled "I Testify," President Benson closed with this stirring testimony:
I testify to you that a fulness of joy can only come through the atonement of Jesus Christ and by obedience to all of the laws and ordinances of the gospel, which are found only in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (See Articles of Faith 1:3).
To all these things I humbly testify and bear my solemn witness that they are true, and I do so in the name of Him who is the head of this church, even Jesus Christ, amen.7
This type of testimony is available to all who will keep the laws upon which such a blessing is predicated. I also bear humble witness that I know these things are true.
1. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966), 786–87; emphasis in original.
2. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1961), 353–54.
3. Joseph Fielding Smith, The Progress of Man (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1973), 11.
4. John Taylor, "Discourse," December 14, 1884, in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (Liverpool: Latter-day Saints' Book Depot, 1886), 26:31.
5. Smith, The Progress of Man, 325.
6. Ezra Taft Benson, "Valiant in the Testimony of Jesus," Ensign, February 1987, 2–3.
7. Ezra Taft Benson, in Conference Report, October 1988, 104; or "I Testify," Ensign (November 1988), 87.