“A Witness from the Holy Ghost,” Ensign, July 1984, 22
Every dedicated student has at one time or another faced the challenge of trying to make a connection between studying about an idea and determining whether that idea reflects truth. Some persons will often assume truth in whatever they study. Others sometimes falsely assume that no ultimate truth can be found. They feel that with learning comes always a greater awareness, and, consequently, a changed and new perspective is always being discovered about the way things really are.
Many discussions on learning reason that discovering truth is only possible when exhaustive study has compared opposing positions. Then, one is to distill from those comparisons a narrow consensus of truth. It seems ludicrous, under such reasoning, to even suppose that one can know an idea to be true before that person understands fully the major premises and important details upon which that idea rests. Unfortunately, while this approach may serve for determining the truth of many ideas, the approach is frustrating for the truth-seeker who has neither the time nor the resources to undertake such exhaustive study.
Thus, this relationship between simply studying and determining what is really true presents a kind of cart-before-the-horse dilemma. Must extensive study always take place before one discovers truth? Or can one know the truthfulness of an idea before he fully understands the major premises of the idea? For example, throughout my high school and early undergraduate college days, extensive study seemed to be mandatory if I were to understand truth—if in fact there was any truth to be understood. Consequently, in religious matters, I was somewhat skeptical that I would ever really discover real truth until I was old and gray and had done a lot of learning and comparing.
It took the following missionary experience to help me realize in a major way that discovering truth can occur in some cases prior to extensive study. That is not to say that study becomes irrelevant once truth is understood. Rather, study takes on a new emphasis once one realizes that the idea he is learning about is true. This new emphasis is reflected in the Lord’s admonition to “seek learning … also by faith.” (D&C 88:118.)
A raindrop splattered suddenly on the page, smearing the street name and apartment house number. The remaining scribble in the tracting book translated as “check the Yugoslavian lady in the first apartment on the right.” Well, I thought, a quick door approach will do, minus the Book of Mormon explanation. She probably won’t be interested anyway. This day has really been cold and drab, like the drizzle seeping through my trench coat.
My new companion’s reluctance made it my turn once again to give the approach. I was too tired and cold and impatient to offer him any words of encouragement. As we approached the apartment-house entrance, I shifted the knapsack from one shoulder to the other. The two German copies of the Book of Mormon in the bottom of the knapsack, which my companion had placed there that morning against my recommendation, were weighing on my back.
My personal reluctance to speak about the Book of Mormon in door approaches and to carry German copies of the book was based on a rationalization: we didn’t have a translation of the Book of Mormon which the majority of Yugoslavian guest workers could read. The native tongue for most of these workers was Serbocroatian. How could they gain for themselves a testimony of something they couldn’t understand? How could they “receive these things,” as is admonished by Moroni, if the pages appeared to them as nothing more than undecipherable gibberish? True, some could read German, but the majority were not comfortable with that language.
I remember an experience I had with a group of gypsy families from Eastern Serbia whom my companion and I had tracted out the previous week. Because of their impoverished circumstances, three families were living in one small apartment. They were amused that we had come all the way from America to speak with them about religion, and so they readily let us in the door.
Three men were over in one smoke-filled corner of the room playing cards and drinking slivovitz. Another group, of both adults and children, was sitting on a couch and an odd lot of chairs conversing and finishing a dinner of boiled chicken, bread, and cabbage. A few gathered around as I began to give a modified version of the first discussion concerning Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and Christ in America.
As soon as I had mentioned the Book of Mormon and had shown them a blue-covered copy of the German version (which they admitted they couldn’t read), a girl in the group burst out that some of our “colleagues” had been there the previous day and had left a similar book, and that it was in a language they could understand.
I unsuccessfully attempted to point out that their book was from another religion. Finally, a man in the group spoke up and said that they would read the book that was in their language and understand our message that way. With our limitations of language, we knew without the Book of Mormon in their language we would make no immediate headway on that topic.
It was under these circumstances that my enthusiasm faded for introducing the German Book of Mormon to non-German reading Yugoslavians. Even so, my companion and I walked up the steps to the apartment house. A single light bulb hung precariously over the entryway revealing the broken floor tile and peeling plaster of the stairwell. As we turned to knock on the door, we noticed a lady making her way up a winding cement staircase from the basement, her arms around a large tub of freshly hand-laundered clothes. The calluses on her gnarled hands contrasted sharply with the fair complexion of her face and her jet-black hair which was pulled back neatly under a brightly colored scarf.
I stepped away slowly from the apartment door and spoke to her. After acknowledging that we were missionaries, I remarked halfheartedly that we could come back later since the hour was so late. Yet, she consented to our entering the apartment.
We entered her apartment, and I ran through an abbreviated version of the first discussion, talking about Joseph Smith, the First Vision, and the Book of Mormon, in about five minutes. I followed with a testimony of the truthfulness of what I had just said and then asked if she would like to know more, expecting of course that she would say no and ask us to leave. Instead, she asked whether we had a copy of the Book of Mormon she could look at. My companion quickly retrieved one of the German copies from the knapsack which had been poking me in the back all day. He wryly smiled, as if to say, “I told you so!”
I extended the book toward her and asked if she read German. She said no. I began to pull the book away, explaining that we unfortunately didn’t have a copy she could read and understand. She persisted in having me give her the copy, however, and so I did. Her rough fingers gently flipped through the introductory pages containing the pictures of Joseph Smith, Moroni, and the civilizations of ancient America. She asked various questions about the pictures and then concluded by requesting that we leave the book with her for a few days. She said that she had a friend who spoke German and that she would like to show it to this friend.
My mind immediately recalled a similar incident in which the “friend” turned out to be a leader in a local sect which was very unsympathetic to our cause. I finally agreed, however, to let her keep the book. We didn’t set a specific time to come back. I said simply that we would come back in a few days.
We departed, and my companion remarked that the encounter had been very successful. He said he felt confident that we really had a golden contact. I mumbled a skeptical “sure,” still very doubtful.
A few days later it was my companion’s turn to plan the day’s activities. He suggested that we go back to the Yugoslavian lady with whom we had placed the German copy of the Book of Mormon. I agreed, but was still convinced that we would run into a dead end. We found her home, and I proceeded to ask her how her experience had been in showing the Book of Mormon to her friend. She said that her friend had been unavailable over the past few days, but that she herself had looked through the book and studied the pictures and had even prayed about the truthfulness of the book as I had told her Moroni had admonished readers to do. She then said that she felt the book was the true word of God.
I was dumbfounded by her statement. After so many rejections I was a little uncertain about her sincerity. I inquired again about her ability to read German. She repeated that she couldn’t read German but that she had thought through our previous discussion and had prayed. My initial reaction was one of mistrust. How, I thought, could she have a testimony of a book she can’t even read!
In the meantime, my companion had recognized that she really did know the Book of Mormon to be true and became excited by the prospect. He encouraged me to teach her more. I began back at the beginning with the discussion of Joseph Smith and the First Vision, still somewhat suspicious of the situation. We finished that meeting and went back for others. After a few weeks of learning, the lady was baptized. In time she did receive a copy of the Book of Mormon which she could read and understand for herself.
After she had first affirmed that she knew the Book of Mormon to be true, I noticed a marked difference in her interest and ability to learn gospel principles, compared with other investigators we had taught before. She seemed almost like a little child, wide-eyed and anxious to savor everything we had to say. She was not like other investigators, intent on critiquing our every word in order to prove or disprove the truthfulness of our message. Her knowledge of the Book of Mormon and the gospel grew by leaps and bounds, unlike anyone I had worked with before. She seemed to be exactly the person Moroni had in mind when he spoke of those who “receive these things” (Moro. 10:4) and have the truth manifested unto them, and yet she had not “read these things.” (Moro. 10:3; italics added.)
I have pondered many times the significance of this experience. For a long time, I continued to find it difficult to believe that anyone could come to a knowledge of truth without having done a significant amount of study. Only recently have I gained an inkling of what might be the significance of that Yugoslavian lady’s conversion story.
It is possible to know the truthfulness of an idea before having learned all the details about that idea, because of the witnessing power of the Holy Ghost. As one seeks truth, God can impart unto an individual, because of the person’s faith, the understanding that an idea is true, despite a lack of extensive knowledge about that idea. Once having received a witness of truth, the person can focus his learning on that witness and thereby “seek learning … even by faith.” (D&C 88:118.) Alma preached, “And now as I said concerning faith—faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” (Alma 32:21.)
Certainly, the knowledge that an idea is true is not given to an individual in every case before he has done some study, as we learn from the experience of Oliver Cowdery in his attempts to translate the Book of Mormon. The Lord admonished Oliver by saying, “Do not murmur, my son, for it is wisdom in me that I have dealt with you after this manner.
“Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me.
“But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it is right, and if it be right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right.” (D&C 9:6–8.)
In contrast, the Prophet Joseph Smith’s experience of obtaining and preserving the gold plates is a good example of when an understanding of truth occurred long before any extensive learning went on. The Prophet understood so strongly that the gold plates contained truth that he was able to battle mobs, suffer persecutions, and generally make great sacrifices in order to safeguard the plates. All this occurred before he actually had a chance to learn of the doctrinal messages of the book.
Why is there an apparent difference in these two experiences? Undoubtedly, there are times when the Lord is anxious for us to focus our learning directly on how truth is to be applied in our lives. Then, having received a witness of truth, we avoid having to spend time determining whether an idea is true and can move directly to the process of learning to apply that truth to our day-to-day affairs.
Our Heavenly Father, therefore, does us a great service when he blesses us through the Holy Ghost with a witness of truth. With a witness from God, we have in our grasp “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1.) With such “substance” and “evidence,” we become anxious for further light and knowledge from our Heavenly Father, as in the case of the Yugoslavian lady. Our learning is focused toward understanding our Heavenly Father’s will for us and understanding his thoughts and his ways, which are not our thoughts and our ways.
It is important, therefore, that we consistently strive with all our effort to stay in tune with the Spirit. Only by staying in tune with the Spirit can we qualify to receive the witness of truth from God and thereby be directed in the important learning of our lives. By staying in tune with the Spirit and receiving from time to time witness of truth, we make more effective use of this mortal probation and progress more quickly toward exaltation.