The Untestimony Meeting

by: hawkgrrrl

March 26, 2013

I was exposed to this idea on a couple different occasions:  disaffected or disbelieving members share their experiences that led to their de-conversion in a group setting.  It made me really uncomfortable, essentially for the same reasons that Testimony Meetings make me uncomfortable.

Here are a few hallmarks of both testimony and untestimony bearing:

  • Pressure to conform to “norms” in how we talk about our experiences and beliefs (or doubts).  Among believers, the pressure it to overstate, quantify, and provide evidence supporting belief.  Among unbelievers, the pressure is to overstate, quantify, and provide evidence supporting doubt.
  • The creation of a common language to describe our feelings.  This vernacular also reduces our ability to express the full nuances of our experience through a common shorthand, and it also results in cliche.
  • Memories are often fabrications.  We begin to believe the altered versions of events that we imagine at a given time.
  • We imbue meaning into events that are complex or could be interpreted in multiple ways.
  • Our personal narratives crystallize, even if they are misremembered, oversimplified, or misunderstood.
  • Publicly committing to a version of events, a perspective, a personal creed, etc.  I like to keep my options open.
  • Sharing what is deeply personal and subjective and putting it on display for public consumption.
  • Seeking (even unconsciously) to persuade others to our perspective.
  • Comparing our narratives with their own and with their approval of our narratives as a way to bolster our own credibility either in the group or in believing our own version of events.

But given my personal distaste for the above reasons, I should also point out some positives.  When someone is sincere, avoiding cliche or declarations of certainty or attempts to prove the unprovable, we can really feel a human connection that we don’t get through standard preaching, lesson teaching, or “talks.”  We don’t have to take the person’s story at face value or assume it is fully accurate and binding to us in order to develop empathy for the person who is sharing a deeply personal experience and the meaning it holds for them.

In that vein, the testimonies (and untestimonies) I really like are the ones that are authentic, personal, and not hyperbolic in assigning meaning to their memories of life events.

What do you think?

  • Why are Mormons so addicted to testimony (and then untestimony) sharing?
  • Do you see testimony sharing as more positive or negative?  Why?
  • Have you been uncomfortable with someone’s conclusions in their testimony (or untestimony)?  Why?


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15 Responses to The Untestimony Meeting

  1. Hedgehog on March 26, 2013 at 2:44 AM

    I’m in the group that finds testimony meeting uncomfortable. I generally dislike all that public emotion, with a pretty much captive audience. I don’t like that ‘I know..’ is so over-used. Especially because some of the opinions and ideas that get included in the ‘I know..’ umbrella is stuff I wouldn’t agree with, and wouldn’t want my children to grow up believing to be true.

    I dare say overstating is a danger when one feels really passionate about something in either direction. I don’t know that it necessarily solidifies a viewpoint, as much as being a measure of where one is at the time. I know I’ve looked back on things and thought, maybe that wasn’t as bad as I had painted it, or that there were other factors at play of which I was unaware, so personally I think my views soften with time on most things, though not all (sometimes events just reinforce the hard-line). I suppose the danger lies in being with a group that reaffirms ones own view (echo-chamber), and excludes others. Which is why I like W&T. It’s great to see that wider spectrum of opinion and experiences :-).

    There was a recent New Era article (, presumably designed to address the discomfort many feel with the whole ‘I know..’ language, and to explain what members mean when they say I know. I’m not sure that I am comfortable with the way we redefine language to suit our own ends though.. Anyway, we had a talk on that subject in sacrament meeting this week. The speaker started off by saying that when she was growing up in the church (a while back, she’s my parents generation), it was more common to hear ‘I believe..’ rather than ‘I know..’ in testimony meetings. I’d find it refreshing to hear more of that now.

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  2. Brad on March 26, 2013 at 5:22 AM

    To me, testimony meetings are all about forging community. The language of certainty is potent stuff for binding the group together (and this works even better when we are defining our own group against the profane world that encircles us).

    When us doubting Mormons find ourselves outside the towering wall of testimony that serves so well to hold the community together, I don’t think it is really surprising that a lot of us feel the urge to replace it with another wall. Too often we define ourselves by appealing to the same ingroup psychology that helped to push us out in the first place.

    I’ve come to really love testimony meetings. This is partly because I find myself in a ward with plenty of people willing to take off their correlated ‘testimony gloves’ and talk about the application of the gospel to their own lives, but it is partially because I realize that when people are saying ‘I know’ they are really saying ‘I belong’ and they don’t always realize that there is an implicit ‘(and if you don’t know, you don’t belong)’ tagged on to the end of their proclamations.

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  3. Jeff Spector on March 26, 2013 at 8:01 AM

    The first Church meeting I ever attended was a Fast and Testimony meeting. And I was quite amazed that folks would be willing to get up and share their feelings about the Gospel and how it affected their lives.

    I still appreciate that we are willing to do that. I try to overlook the other issues that we all “know” about. And, when people say “I know” I also know what they mean. It doesn’t really bother me. And, I do know that some people really do “know.” It’s not just a cliche phrase to them.

    Sure, I could complain as much as anyone. but why?

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  4. IDIAT on March 26, 2013 at 9:48 AM

    I think the definition of “testimony” found in True to the Faith is best and most succint, and why we are encouraged to bear brief testimonies in F&T meetings. If you stick to the foundational stuff, the other principles of the gospel (outlined in the Gospel Principles manual) are pretty safe. It’s when one wanders beyond the foundational and basic gospel principles that trouble comes about.

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  5. Aaron R. on March 26, 2013 at 2:40 PM

    Testimony meetings are a potent reminder for me that there are people in my ward who I care about and who I can serve. Because it is a ritualized space for self-expression it enables (and very often permits) people to share something of themselves that we would ordinarily miss. Of course, ritualizing that space also creates constraints on those expressions but because that is very much a feature of most religious spaces I think it is still a quite remarkable and often refreshing break to our other forms of worship. Having said that, there are still problems with how we practice it.

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  6. jks on March 26, 2013 at 7:47 PM

    I love it because it means you don’t have to be popular to get up and participate. Everything from talks to callings is by invitation. I love to hear what people want to share (mostly).

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  7. Greedy Reader on March 26, 2013 at 8:28 PM

    Are we really addicted to testimony sharing?

    I once browsed a church-produced book of suggested youth activities and, for every activity, it prescribed ending with a testimony meeting.

    Somebody is addicted to testimony sharing, but it’s not me.

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  8. ji on March 26, 2013 at 10:10 PM

    I like testimony meetings, too, for some of the reasons others have shared — but I also share Greedy Reader’s thought in no. 7 — we can overdo a good thing…

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  9. MD on March 27, 2013 at 7:50 AM

    We have too many ward crazies who get up every month and use the fast and testimony meeting as their personal therapy session. It is not spiritual uplifting, it is super creepy (and I know many people in my ward who feel the same way).

    One of the crazies also permits her young child to scream in the microphone. Definitely not cool.

    I’d love to do away with f&t meetings. I’d love to have talks assigned to people who will actually speak on a spiritual message (last Easter I convinced an inactive family to come to church and the talks had NOTHING to do with Easter or Christ at all). When I mentioned this to the bishop he said that he assigned them to talk about Christ and the Resurrection. So why doesn’t he bring a smackdown on the ward and tell people to stick to the topic?).

    Although I will grudgingly admit the talks last week were pretty good (visiting HC and his daughter), I fear what will happen this Easter Sunday.

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  10. alice on March 27, 2013 at 8:58 AM

    I usually end up feeling like the people who “know” so much actually don’t and are expressing a sometimes desperate need to really have a genuine conviction. What’s more, the people who “know” rarely have any tolerance for anyone else knowing something different or of lesser degree.

    What I’m saying is spare me from the people who “know” and let me share the company of those with sincere questions and open hearts.

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  11. Mike S on March 27, 2013 at 12:13 PM

    I get up extremely rarely at testimony meetings – it’s probably been years. Too many people are enamored with the phrase “I Know…”. As I have gone through life, there are fewer and few things I “know”. I hope for things. I pray for things. I think things are right or wrong. But I always accept the fact that I may also be wrong about something. Since there seems to be little room for someone who can’t say “I know” in the current environment, I just stay silent.

    I assume there are many people just like me, because the same people get up month after month and say basically the same things month after month. But … you can turn this to your advantage through Testimony Bingo :-)

    Make a square (3×3, 4×4, 5×5) before testimonies start with the “regulars”. As each person gets up, you can cross off their square. First person to make a line wins. It’s fun for the whole family.

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  12. Roger on March 27, 2013 at 3:07 PM

    We were told on my mission that were to testify that we “knew”…. and if we didn’t we were to study, fast and pray (and let’s not forget: repent) until we did. You could go to zone conferences and hear “without a shadow of a doubt” and “with every fiber of my being” until you thought 30 of the 40 missionaries present had their callings and elections made sure.

    It was easy to get carried away…….

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  13. Chad on March 27, 2013 at 4:24 PM

    The only thing I don’t want during testimony meeting is for the same people to get up each dang month and eat the the meeting time. Let others get up. Share your testimony once a quarter. If you feel the need, do it in FHE or to the guy on the street. I am tired of the same people with the same testimonies each month.

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  14. hawkgrrrl on March 29, 2013 at 3:09 AM

    I agree with Greedy Reader that people seem to be addicted to testimony bearing, and it is ironic that Mormons who leave the church want to bring that with them, but I suppose that it’s because it builds a sense of community because people have shared similar experiences and that reinforces their existing beliefs.

    Whether it’s testimony or untestimony, though, perhaps it’s important to see it for what it is. You don’t “know” and you can’t prove. All you can do is share your own experiences and conclusions and your gratitude for the community.

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  15. Cori R on May 3, 2013 at 5:30 PM

    I don’t know how people can “know” all of ths stuff any more than they can, in between sobs, “love each and every one of us.” Still working on understanding the importance of testimony meeting. Actions speak louder than words in my mind.

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