Home / Testimonies / Phillip C. Smith

I grew up in a good LDS family with believing parents. My father was a positive role model though we had few gospel discussions over the years. My mother, though always faithful and active, was a wonderer and a questioner. She probed gospel-related issues and frequently discussed with me about this or that Church position. It was invigorating.

My need for and commitment to questioning and probing stem also in part from an experience my mother had with her great uncle, Heber J. Grant, then President of the Church. She asked him one day if he had ever doubted the truthfulness of the gospel. He responded that he had never doubted, but that he had wondered about many things. This is an important distinction to me, to wonder and question but do so with faith.

We did not do some of the things families do today to enhance faith and spirituality (we did not have Family Home Evening, for example). In addition, many of my parents’ friends who spent time in our home were college professors who were either non-LDS or lapsed LDS. The content of much that was around me thus was largely intellectual, with occasional criticisms of the Church made in my presence. Our home environment was overall a rather non-structured mixture of religious and secular influences.

I don’t remember when I did not have a testimony, a firm one even with frequent and constant attacks on my beliefs since I was a youth. When contemplating words and official actions of Church leaders, I usually feel agreement and acceptance. Attacks upon the Church, as I have discovered through examining many of them carefully, have not compromised its truthfulness. The gospel plan to me, as I understand it, seems mainly rational, intellectually credible, and sensible. Church organization, programs, and rituals have, in the main, acquired deeper significance or at least apparent relevance for our day.

Some gospel-related statements made by active Church members bother me a little, though, because they don’t represent how I see things. For example, I have on occasion encountered ideas about biological evolution at variance with my perspectives (I see nothing wrong with viewing evolution as the process whereby God incorporated non-human life forms on this earth). I try to remember that the Church is a divine organization full of imperfect people like myself, some seemingly at times misinformed. I believe that there are no basic truth conflicts between true religion, accurate history and valid science.

While an undergraduate I became aware of religion-related ideas that made sense to me and of others that did not. Several of my teachers at Utah State University and the University of Utah were critical of the Church, though this did not bother me but rather stimulated me to seek correct answers. My doctoral experiences at Stanford University particularly helped me see better, though, that all opinion and inquiry, humanistic, scientific, or religious, is in reality based ultimately on some kind of faith. I learned that scholars are exercising faith when they assume that their inquiry methods are valid, and that ethical ones will seek also to avoid coming to unwarranted or premature conclusions.

My Stanford professors helped me see also that most social science research findings lack adequate validity, and thus yield questionable conclusions. Most important, I learned how to assess the validity and reliability of scientific and historical studies and claims I encounter. As I examine and pray about gospel-related issues raised while in college and since, I find that overall my understanding grows and my faith is strengthened.

I try to apply inquiry methodology as appropriate to gospel-related matters. For example, while at Stanford I examined Fawn Brodie’s book on Joseph Smith carefully as to its historical source validity and correctness of interpretation. I came to see discrepancies between what she said about Joseph Smith and validated history. It became clear to me that her book tells us much more about Fawn Brodie than about Joseph Smith. Such attacks on the Church are not a sufficient indicator of its truthfulness but are definitely a necessary one, as intimated by the Lord in Matthew 5:10-12. I would start to worry if we ever get to the point that no one, inside or out, tries to find fault with the Church.

While most faithful Church members I know choose to ignore criticisms of the Church, and that is certainly an acceptable choice given 1 Nephi 8:33, I am often curious about such attacks, though upon examination I find them to be fundamentally flawed. Such criticisms leveled against us can be responded to usually in ways that reaffirm to me intellectually our credibility and help reinforce spiritually the truthfulness of the restored gospel. I have learned in the main to wait on those issues where correct answers still elude us. I still have questions, for example, about some of Joseph Smith’s views and actions relative to plural marriage. I believe that there are reasonable, accurate answers, but I haven’t heard any yet that truly satisfy all of my questions.

Of the many intellectuals like myself I know of in the Church, most have succeeded in operating successfully within President Grant’s faith-questioning paradigm and, although conversant with criticisms directed against the Church, are, like me, not really troubled by them. I appreciate and learn much from the many bright, faithful, articulate Church members around me, and from earlier ones who have responded to criticisms.

I have had a number of spiritual experiences that affirm for me that there is someone or something greater than man who can and does interact with us as he wishes. This greater being, who I believe is our Heavenly Father, has touched my life often. His interventions are not necessarily testimonies per se of the restored gospel, but they have drawn me nearer to him and resulted in reaffirming my testimony of matters related to the restoration. After such times I feel a greater assurance that the gospel is true.

On those occasions when studying and thinking about a gospel-related issue does not seem to be at all resolvable but is yet compelling, I have done what helps me, and that is make a real sincere, determined effort to gain some kind of answer from our Heavenly Father. It is often difficult for me to get close enough to him to really feel some kind of communication from him, due (I believe) to my weaknesses rather than his desire to respond. I try to act upon what I think our Heavenly Father would have me do, since his help and approval are central to my progression. His view of critical matters is more important to me than that of anyone else. I know he wants me to search, examine, and reason about things related to the gospel. The idea of blind obedience, faith, and action, without thinking and pondering about issues, has simply been impossible for me.

The Church issue of greatest concern I have faced was the former exclusion of African-Americans from holding the priesthood and receiving temple blessings. The issue bothered me and caused considerable discomfort. I really did not know what to say to those who brought it up. I read a number of books and articles related thereto from the 1950s on, but simply did not gain from them a clear, compelling understanding or feeling, one that was spiritually and emotionally satisfying. I watched several good friends who struggled with this issue drop out of Church activity. I did not feel then, nor do I today, that leaving the Church is a productive or wise course of action in such cases.

I do not remember the day or even the year, although it was in the late 1960s or early 1970s, but I finally got to a point emotionally and spiritually where I could ask with faith what I should do to gain a sense of peace on this issue. I can remember on a special day receiving what to me was a clear answer to prayer on the matter, which was “don’t worry about it.” I did not know at the time if this meant that something satisfying was forthcoming soon, or that I should content myself indefinitely with the status quo. In any event, I ceased to worry about it but to wait upon the Lord and his prophets. The revelation in June 1978 was, accordingly, a wonderful resolution.

What I have discovered most importantly for me is that the key to continuing faith, obedience, Church service, and inner peace on my part comes with my successful attempts to approach personal righteousness and closeness to God and serve faithfully in the Church. At those times when I resist temptation, my heart is pure. I feel that my actions are pleasing to God and I am at peace. My mind is then clear and I am happy. This is probably the strongest part of my testimony, that righteous living and service to others in the Lord’s way invite the Spirit of God, and this spirit gives me increased confidence that the course of life I am pursuing, being faithful to and active in the Church in spite of my weaknesses, is the right way to go.

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I grew up in Wisconsin, California and Utah. After receiving a Ph.D. in sociology from Stanford University I taught at both the University of Utah and Brigham Young University-Hawaii. The best thing I have done in mortality, second to trying to live the gospel, is to have married Ruth Ann Hafen. We are the parents of eight children.

Posted August 2010