An interesting discussion has sprung up over at Bob and Logan’s blog (which really needs a catchier name) on the nature of truth. What exactly do church members mean when they say that something (the church, the principle of tithing, the law of gravity) is true? What variations are there in the definition of this word?

At the very least, there seem to be two major categories of “truth” —

First, there are statements of fact, which can be true or false in a boolean, yes-no way. For example, the statement “Joseph Smith was born on December 23rd” is a statement of fact which is true. “Joseph Smith was born in February” would be a statement which is false.

Second, and more to the point, are instances where church members affirm that “the church is true” or “I know the church is true.” In this sense, “true” seems to mean based on correct principles; reliable; or perhaps “legitimate” (as in “the true heir to the throne”). When members recite their testimony as a matter of fact, it is an interesting question — what do they mean by “true”?

In fact, the dictionary lists several definitions of the word “true,” many of which would give very different meanings to the oft-repeated phrase “the church is true.” One set of definitions is:

true ( P ) Pronunciation Key (tr)
adj. tru·er, tru·est

1. a. Consistent with fact or reality; not false or erroneous. See Synonyms at real1. See Usage Note at fact.
b. Truthful.
2. Real; genuine. See Synonyms at authentic.
3. Reliable; accurate: a true prophecy.
4. Faithful, as to a friend, vow, or cause; loyal. See Synonyms at faithful.
5. Sincerely felt or expressed; unfeigned: true grief.
6. Fundamental; essential: his true motive.
7. Rightful; legitimate: the true heir.
8. Exactly conforming to a rule, standard, or pattern: trying to sing true B.
9. Accurately shaped or fitted: a true wheel.
10. Accurately placed, delivered, or thrown.
11. Quick and exact in sensing and responding.
12. Determined with reference to the earth’s axis, not the magnetic poles: true north.
13. Conforming to the definitive criteria of a natural group; typical: The horseshoe crab is not a true crab.
14. Narrowly particularized; highly specific: spoke of probity in the truest sense of the word.
15. Computer Science. Indicating one of two possible values taken by a variable in Boolean logic or a binary device.

However, later in the definition, we find the following, which I found helpful:

Word History: The words true and tree are joined at the root, etymologically speaking. In Old English, the words looked and sounded much more alike than they do now: “tree” was trow and “true” was trowe. The first of these comes from the Germanic noun *trewam; the second, from the adjective *treuwaz. Both these Germanic words ultimately go back to an Indo-European root *deru- or *dreu-, appearing in derivatives referring to wood and, by extension, firmness. Truth may be thought of as something firm; so too can certain bonds between people, like trust, another derivative of the same root. A slightly different form of the root, *dru-, appears in the word druid, a type of ancient Celtic priest; his name is etymologically *dru-wid-, or “strong seer.”

The etymology suggests that “truth may be thought of as something firm.” This makes sense when we view testimony. Members are attesting to the firmness of the gospel. And in this way, saying that “the church is true” may be simply saying that it is firmly based on correct principles.

(A related thought — does the constant repetition of “I know the church is true” merely signify personal knowledge of an objective fact? Or does it signify a variation in the idea of truth — that truth is not truth unless it is known? If no one knows that the church is true, is it still true?)

12 comments for “Truth

  1. Kaimi, You strike a chord with this topic. When I attended BYU as a non-member, the strange use of the word “true” jumped out at me. While I understood the gist of the expression, “I know the Church is true,” I could not figure out why everyone used the same unusual phrasing to express a fairly straightforward idea. I assume that this phrasing has been passed down through generations in the Church, but I still don’t like it and I never use it.

  2. Along the lines of what Gordon says above, I once heard “I know that my roommate is true” in a testimony meeting at BYU. I am not making this up. And I had to wonder what metaphysical requirements of truth this roommate was measuring up to. Perhaps there is a Platonic ideal Roommate and we can compare our roommates to this ideal along the quality of “Roommateness” or “Roommatehood.”

  3. Kaimi, now it is my turn to refer you to BNL’s (aka Bob and Logan) blog to find my response to your post.

  4. I don’t want to repeat what I said over there, but I think we have to keep separate “true” as a property of propositions from truth in a broader sense. Consider when we speak of truing a rim of a bicycle. There are many other senses I won’t go into.

    The problem is that philosophy has, the past few centuries, tended to look at truth in terms of fully determined propositions. If you move away from that rather limited perspective then I think the use of “truth” in the LDS faith makes far more sense. I mentioned Peirce, who’s philosophy intrinsically involves levels of indeterminacy. But one could just as easily turn to many other philosophers.

    If there is a problem with “truth” it is because we have lost “truth” and replaced it with merely the “true.”

  5. By the context of testimonies I’ve heard, I’d guess that greater than 98% of testimony-bearers make truth-statements about the property of a proposition when they bear their testimony. They intend “I know the church is true” to be interpreted as “the church is what it claims to be: God’s only church and the only conduit to heaven.”

    Aware of the accepted meaning of this phrase, those desiring to base their testimony on something like “firm principles” avoid the typical formulation.

  6. Kaimi,

    I expected “Truth” would attract more discussion. Maybe everyone is out standing in line for Return of the King.

    Churches aren’t true, only statements about churches are or can be true. To say “the Church is true” makes as much sense as saying the weather is true or the chair I’m sitting on is true.

    I think the group testimony meeting usage of “I know the Church is true” is really people making the assertion “I am true to the Church,” which is a statement of commitment and loyalty. No problem with that.

    Except that loyalty to organizations often requires a degree of untruthfulness. Sometimes being “true” or loyal to an organization requires a degree of untruthfulness: selling a product, electing a candidate, even proselyting for one’s denomination. It’s the tension between true = loyal and true = truthful that makes Mormon use of the word “true” problematic.

    LDS leadership, the beneficiaries of institutional loyalty, place a lot of emphasis on loyalty (have you noticed?). Being true (= loyal, speaking in view of the interests of the organization rather than by any independent consideration of the truthfulness of one’s statements) seems to become rather more important than being truthful. That appears to be the yardstick that is being applied in excommunicating intellectuals and chasing professors out of BYU these days, a practice that has really only gained momentum in the last ten or fifteen years. I find the practice troubling, although few other Mormons seem to share my concern.

  7. I honestly *don’t* think that true or truth as used in testimonies reflects propositions. It of course does sometimes. But without spending the time over the next few fast Sundays to make an analysis, I’d say that probably only about 1/4 of uses fit that model. I honestly think it is a use picked up as people hear the word used. I don’t think people really think about how it is used. They just instinctively use it (as is the case with most language use)

    Dave said something I want to focus on though. “Churches aren’t true, only statements about churches are or can be true.” This seems quite difficult to assert. Consider the following rather common English sentences:

    “He was a true friend.” “He was true to his vows.” “Stand fast and true.”

    Those are ones still in the common venacular. If we move to venacular that has become more uncommon, such as the truing of wheels, then we see the sense of truth can be quite wider. Given its religious use I personally believe that these earlier but more uncommon uses have been preserved in church. However they can also be found in the connotation of truth still popular where it means upright, faithful, and loyal.

    This isn’t really an issue of what we mean by truth in a testimony. Rather it is a simple semantic point regarding truth. Most complaints about testimonies I’ve heard really are focused on the semantic issue rather than deeper philosophical ones.

  8. Clark,

    Maybe I’ve been reading too little into people’s testimonies, but my guess is that you’ve been reading too much.

    There’s hardly a more important question to church members than whether the church is what it claims to be: God’s only church and the sole conduit to heaven. Because 99% of the world rejects this claim, it is natural for members to affirm to one another that, despite the contrary views of the world, they believe the church is what it claims to be. The short hand expression for this thought is, “I know the church is true.”

    To avoid being misunderstood by their listeners, those trying to express a more nuanced statement about the truth of the church should avoid this formulation.

  9. My guess is that the genesis of church members’ statements about the church being true is in D&C 1:30 where the Lord says that the church is the “only true and living church upon the face of the earth.” From there, it would only be natural for people to say the church is “true” or “I know the church is true” for that is the same basic statement the Lord made.

    As for loyalty, it seems to me that loyalt has to be an integral part of believing we are led by a modern prophet and apostles. It seems we can’t be very truthful to the claims our church makes without being true in a loyalty sense. Just look at the many who fell away from the church who were at one point key figures in the restoration, Oliver Cowdery, Martin Harris, David Whitmer, etc. They lost out on blessings because they could not remain true. The Church did not leave them, they left the church. Why. Because the Church was led at the time they left by God’s chosen spokesman. If we honestly believe we are led by prophets and apostles who hold the keys of God’s kingdom on earth, then in order to be truthful (i.e. honest) we must be true (i.e. loyal).

  10. Matt, I certainly understand where you are coming from. However I truly think that the meaning of the *sentence* “I know the church is true” entails far more than the proposition “this church is God’s only conduit and is accepted by God.” I’ve been considering this issue for more than a decade since a bunch of people started complaining about the phrase being semantically meaningless. (Admittedly this was on the old Mormon-l back when BYU ran it)

    I don’t have time to say much to it, but perhaps I’ll write up something a tad more substantial on my own web site. Please understand, I’m not disagreeing with what you are claiming is entailed by the sentence. I am saying that it entails far more, however.

  11. Clark,

    I’ll watch for more extended comments on your web site, but it seems like a fairly straightforward inquiry. It’s the kind of question that can easily be overanalyzed.

    Two different contexts. First, I think when people are speaking one-on-one they are generally using “the Church is true” as Matt describes it, as shorthand for “I accept and affirm every claim the Church makes.” I think we all have a fair understanding of what that usage is intending to convey substantively. Even so, that blanket affirmation is also a statement of trust. The speaker is acting as a character witness for the Church (or those speaking on its behalf) at least as much as the speaker is affirming specific propositions.

    Second context: When a Mormon makes that statement in front of a meeting, the trust and commitment component is stronger and the substantive component is weaker or irrelevant. That’s okay–it’s a religious service, not a graduate seminar. It’s designed for people to show their faith, draw faith from others, and build commitment and conviction. Other denominations have similar devices (Catholics and high-church Protestants march up publicly to partake of their sacrament emblems, while other Protestants and fundamentalists have their own “me too” rituals).

    I admit your twist on a “true Church” is clever, and it resembles the idea of measuring used elsewhere. Two that I can think of are the plumb line metaphor used in Amos 7:7 and the famous writing on the wall in Daniel 5 which declared that the king had been weighed in the scales and found wanting. Great Sunday School lesson material, but I don’t think people are actually using the term that way in relation to their opinion of the Church.

    Now leaders might use that term as applied to wayward members who are not being “true” as you suggested, meaning upright, faithful, or loyal. That’s where I find the use of the term “true” confusing or even misleading; better to stick with the terms upright or loyal if that is what’s being addressed.

  12. I’ll save my main comments for whenever I can take the time to write something more formal. I’ll just point out that my explanation explains why, linguistically, people might say odd things like “I know my roommate is true.” This isn’t some mistake, but rather is taking one use of “true” and applying it to other contexts.

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