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Mormon Scholars Testify: Robert S. Wood - "Reflections on My Testimony"

TitleMormon Scholars Testify: Robert S. Wood - "Reflections on My Testimony"
Publication TypeWeb Article
Year of Publication2010
AuthorsWood, Robert S.
Access Date29 March 2018
Last Update DateJune 2010
PublisherMormon Scholars Testify
KeywordsDoubt; Faith; Missionary Work; Moroni's Promise; Restoration; Righteousness; Testimony; Truth

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Robert S. Wood

Reflections on My Testimony

Much of my life has been lived between my two ears. As I reflect upon my faith and seek to give my personal testimony, I am hopelessly coded not only to witness to what I know but to probe the foundations of my own witness. The following pages betray that intertwining and probably exceed any space limits that any self-respecting editor would impose!

A testimony is a witness about what we know to be true concerning the most fundamental questions, not only of existence in general, but our own personal life. Moreover, long before I ever heard the word “epistemology,” I sensed that it is important to know and make clear, not only what I know, but the basis of that claimed knowledge.

At the same time, I must confess that I have always had a predisposition toward a belief that life is purposeful and that behind that purpose stands a transcendent and divine order. Both as a child and an adult, I have had an almost magical feeling of awe before a universe that is not cold, uncaring, and random but one in which the glory and the love of God are manifest.

Growing up in the Church, I, of course, had reinforced not only these basic sentiments, but also the specific doctrines of the restored gospel. Many of my friends and acquaintances were not members of the Church, some not even believers at all. So, very early there were discussions, debates, and challenges concerning issues of faith. It was thus important to think about and articulate the coherence and plausibility of that which I had been taught. In a sense, I had in a simple way to make the case, first to myself, that the gospel was a “rational theology.” And, then, there were those occasions that a word, an event, a song, carried a conviction to my heart that went beyond logical discourse.

In effect, by disposition, upbringing, reflection, and experience, I was prone toward faith in God and the message of the restored gospel. But I early on realized that a testimony had to go beyond inclinations, the evidence of the senses, intellectual musings, and received wisdom. A true testimony had to be in some fundamental way definitive. Moreover, it would be architectonic, pointing to fundamentals or first things pertaining to the existence and character of God, the divinity of Christ, the calling of Joseph Smith as a prophet, and the truthfulness of his teachings. Not every question had to be resolved but those premises had to be established.

I recall as an undergraduate at Stanford University, wandering periodically into the campus chapel between classes, when I needed to get away a little bit from the hectic schedule which I often had, both in academics and beyond academics. I recall reading the words of Mrs. Leland Stanford inscribed on the back wall of the memorial chapel, “There is no narrowing so deadly as the narrowing of man’s horizon of spiritual things. No worse evil could befall him on his course on earth than to lose sight of Heaven; no widening of science, no possession of abstract truths can indemnify for an enfeebled hold on the highest and central truths of humanity.”

This is quite contrary to the advice I got in my freshman hall. I don’t know if they still do it, but in those days there were academic advisers who lived in apartments connected with the dormitory. I remember my particular adviser, a professor of English, who periodically would have some of the freshmen come to his apartment where we would hold discussions and socialize. I remember his saying that we had a duty as entering freshmen to adopt a premise or stance of agnosticism, that is to say, of systematic doubt. I thought at the time, and I have thought more since, that this is a false premise. Systematic doubt will only lead to more doubt and ultimately confusion. I thought that there must be a premise or premises in which we can put our confidence. I take those to be “the highest and central truths of humanity.”

The Foundations

When we talk about knowledge or understanding, in the elementary sense, we are really talking about the answers to three questions: what, how and why? It is a fact that modern science, in the sense of a purely empirical and experimental endeavor, has fundamentally broken with earlier scientific approaches, exemplified by Aristotle or Newton, which sought the purpose as well as the mechanics of physical reality. Those earlier scientists and natural philosophers were concerned not only with what is and how things operate, but they were very deeply concerned with why or purpose. Aristotle was peculiarly concerned with a science which has been described as “teleological” —that is, a science which is driven by concerns for the ends or purposes of that which is being examined.

Modern science tends to focus on the “how.” Indeed, the “why” question is either ignored or tends to merge with the “how” question. As science considers whatever is observed, it turns almost immediately to examining how things came to be and how they operate, but with no particular belief or expectation that there is any necessary purpose behind what is observed or the mechanism by which it came to be or operates. There is in contemporary science a bias toward accident, randomness, or chance as the basis of what happens.

Cardinal Baroni, a close colleague of Galileo, speaking of the relationship between the Book of Genesis and scientific research, argued that the Bible “tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” And yet I have the sense that how the universe goes and how to go to Heaven are linked. In the Doctrine and Covenants it is asserted that “all things unto me are spiritual, and not at any time have I given unto you a law which was temporal [that is, confined to the limits of time]” (D&C 29: 34). On another occasion, we read that “that which is spiritual [is] in the likeness of that which is temporal; and that which is temporal [is] in the likeness of that which is spiritual” (D&C 77:2). Our conventional distinction between the secular and the religious, the profane and the sacred, may be immediately useful but, I am convinced, is ultimately inaccurate. And our separation of the academic disciplines—whether in the sciences or the humanities—may advance specialization but miss the unity of the whole of creation.

That may all be well and good, but how can such unity and “first things” be established? One can never attain such certitude simply by ratiocination, empirical experiments, or the authority of others.

When Christ was speaking with Peter, He asked him who men said that He was, and Peter indicated that some said he was John the Baptist returned, or Elijah the Prophet, or Jeremiah or one of the other prophets. And He said to Peter, “Whom say ye that I am?” And Peter answered, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” To which Christ responded, “Blessed art thou Simon Bar-jona, for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto you, but my Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 16:13-17). The Apostle Paul said that no man can say that Jesus is the Christ, save through the witness of the Holy Ghost (1 Corinthians 12:3).

The premise of the architectonic knowledge is in this view faith in Christ, which faith comes through the witness of the Holy Ghost. The 93rd Section of the Doctrine and Covenants tells us that we have a spiritual genetic code, called “The Light of Christ,” which predisposes us to recognize the truth and to resonate to the truth. If that light is not suppressed by sin or by false traditions, we may be able to call upon God and, through the gift and power of the Holy Ghost, certain knowledge will be given.

The Apostle Paul argued that to believe in Christ was dependant on hearing the word of scripture and having it borne to our heart by the witness of the Holy Ghost. That hearing, in and of itself, carries the conviction that He, indeed, is the Christ. “Faith cometh,” he wrote, “by hearing and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). The living word is expository, not argumentative; conclusive, not provisional.

One of the great questions in philosophy has always been, “Is there such a thing as self-evident truth?” Generally, the philosophical community (Immanuel Kant being the significant modern exception) has concluded that self-evident truth can only be analytical, that is to say, the result of a simple logical proposition in which the conclusion is inherent in the premise. Such self-evident truth communicates nothing pertaining to something outside of the logical formula or in the world “out there.”

The contention of the prophets is that there are, in fact, self-evident truths. Self-evident truth comes from hearing the Word, receiving the testimony of one who knows the truth, and, finally, by the compelling witness of the Holy Ghost. That was the premise of Moroni. In speaking to those into whose hands would come the plates he had inscribed and protected, he counseled that they ask of God concerning their truthfulness. (Moroni 10:4-5). Indeed, that is the fundamental premise of the Restoration, which began with the counsel of James, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not, and it shall be given him.” But as you recall, it went on, “Let him ask in faith” (James 1:5-6). Faith in what or whom? Faith in Jesus Christ, which faith has itself been confirmed by the witness of the Holy Ghost.

All empirical knowledge of origins and mechanisms is provisional. It is subject to further enlightenment, further understanding, different instruments of observation, different analytical premises, propositions, or theoretical constructs by which we try to make sense of the things we observe. That is how science advances, as it should.

But there is a knowledge which undergirds that and which is more certain. Though it may not be complete at any particular time, it has about it an air of permanency—in the words of Jean Jacques, “eternal, unchanged, evermore,” overstepping the limits of time. It is that knowledge which comes through faith in Christ and by the witness of the Holy Ghost.

It is also a fact that learning by faith implies action. Joseph Smith went into a grove of trees, not asking which church was true but asking which church he should join. He went in there seeking counsel as to how he should act. Knowledge that comes through the Spirit is not simply abstract learning; it is transformational learning.

In the first instance, it transforms the mind. We literally have a change of mind. As the Apostle Paul said, concluding his discussion on the knowledge that comes from the Spirit, we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:11-16). That mind impels a change of thought and action quite different from that which is apart from it.

Moreover, I am struck with the response of the father of Lamoni to the preaching of Aaron: “O God, Aaron hath told me that there is a God; and if there is a God, and if thou art God, wilt thou make thyself known unto me, and I will give away all my sins to know thee…” (Alma 22:18). If one wishes definitive knowledge, one must be prepared to make radical change. It is possible to be a good physicist or historian without being a good man. It is apparently impossible to know the “highest and central truths of humanity” without being prepared to transform one’s character.

In the Doctrine and Covenants we read the counsel to let virtue garnish our thoughts, and then the doctrine of the priesthood as the dew from Heaven would distill upon our souls and our confidence would wax strong in the presence of God. The Holy Ghost would be our constant companion, and our scepter, an unchanging scepter of righteousness (D&C 121:45-46). We shall think as Christ would think and act as Christ would act. As we come to greater knowledge, it implies that we will immediately translate that greater knowledge into greater righteousness and, as we do so, we ascend an ever higher mountain, and we can see further than we’ve ever seen before. The knowledge of Heaven is further revealed to us. We can see deeper and further because we have ascended a higher mount which takes us from the “what” and the “how” to the most profound of the “why” questions.

The Apostle Paul held that false understanding and disordered thinking were at the very foundation of personal and general apostasy. He spoke of a reprobate mind, defined as unprincipled or depraved, and held that the carnal, the worldly or sensual, mind is “enmity against God” (Romans 1:28; 8:7). The great tragedy of an apostate society is, he wrote, “having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart” (Ephesians 4:18). And he was fully aware that this blinding of the heart, this creation of a reality and an identity inimical to God, was because of the machinations of the cosmic world of evil. He saw the struggle as against “the authorities and potentates of this dark world, against the superhuman forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12 NEB). One is reminded of John Milton’s portrayal of Satan in his epic Paradise Lost, where Satan exclaims, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, and a hell of heaven.”

The great struggle for truth and righteousness is in the first instance played out in the mind of each one of us. Who we are and our relationship to Deity depend upon what we focus our thoughts upon and how we cultivate the sentiments of the mind. Hence, Paul counseled us to be “transformed by the renewing of [our] minds” and to put on the whole armor of God, the armor of truth, integrity, peace, and faith, which first spring to life within the mind. (Romans 12:2; Ephesians 6:13-16) Then will we be able to stand and to withstand the challenges of life—knowing who we are and knowing the Father and His Son, being led and taught by the Holy Ghost.

Once we have submitted ourselves to Christ as master and teacher, our passions, appetites, and even the imaginations of our heart are disciplined by that great teacher, and we come to know the truth more profoundly, and we understand that which is good and how we should act and how we should think. I believe with Plato that, not only do we have a higher understanding of that which is true and good, but as well that which is ultimately beautiful. Our senses are more greatly attuned to the harmony of Heaven, and we see things and hear things and understand things and feel things in a more profound way. The noise of much of contemporary society is blocked out.

Knowledge from Heaven: “God shall give unto you knowledge by his Holy Spirit, yea by the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost” (D&C 121:26, 33).

I have been surrounded, in the words of Paul, by “a cloud of witnesses.” But the core of my testimony comes from witnesses of the Spirit which I cannot deny. Such witnesses, I have discovered, depend on acting on the promptings, most significantly in changing the way I live. I have an intellectual conviction of the truthfulness of the restored gospel, strengthened by interaction with good men and women. Such conviction may, however, always be subject to doubts. Transcending such understanding and its periodic doubts and anxieties, however, is the knowledge received by the Holy Ghost, which is in a deep sense ineffable. I thus often remark that, while I have many questions, I have no doubt.

I have recounted on many occasions how in my sixteenth year I sought in prayer a confirmation of the validity of the Book of Mormon. I was moved to ask that question, not only by the famous exhortation in Moroni 10:4, but by Moroni’s invitation in his concluding words, “Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, and deny yourself of all ungodliness…his grace is sufficient for you” (Moroni 10:32). So powerful was that confirmation that I have confronted the various challenges to the Book of Mormon with equanimity and the confidence that every question would in time be answered—which they have and continue to be.

As I have sought to follow the precepts of the gospel and to sacrifice and consecrate as called upon, one door of “pure testimony” after another has swung open. Such openings have been manifest in large and small ways.

In a remarkable way, my testimony borne of the Holy Ghost has come in response to Church calls. I have never sought for position or “callings,” but I have had inbred a sense of duty in response to such calls. Despite inconvenience or some (generally misplaced) sense of sacrifice, I have always accepted the call to serve. Over the years it has become apparent that the calls were acts of grace by which I came to know more profoundly the truth that would make me free.

As a young man, I had always assumed that I would serve a mission. It was part of my family culture. But I would be less than candid if I said that I went on a mission with a profound desire to share the gospel. Yet that experience in retrospect shaped in myriad ways the whole trajectory of my life. The general experience deepened my testimony, but I still thrill with the memory of specific incidents in which the Spirit spoke directly to mine.

When I went on my mission I had questions and some concerns concerning Joseph Smith’s teaching about the nature of God the Father. It is worth noting that before going on my mission, I had studied what was called academic French—that is, I was taught to translate written French into English. I never heard it, spoke it, or wrote it, but I could translate it with some facility. Hence, when I arrived in Geneva, Switzerland, I was completely at sea; I could not understand anything or say anything. Write it down for me and I would be OK! I could give a simple “door approach,” but that was it. One day my companion was giving a discussion to an investigator and I sat, as usual, uncomprehending. Suddenly, without any immediate awareness, I understood everything that was being said. I realized that my companion had stumbled into a discussion on the very thing that had troubled me. Without thinking I began to expound upon the teachings of the Prophet and the more I spoke the more I came to understand—and know. After the discussion, my companion said “Frere Wood, you’ve been holding out on me!” But the fact is that my facility in understanding and speaking was still months away.
On that same mission, I remember meeting President Henry D. Moyle and Elders Hugh B. Brown and Richard L. Evans and receiving a vivid and direct whispering of the Spirit of their apostolic calling. Most powerfully, along with the other missionaries of the French Mission, I attended the dedication of the London Temple. I shall never forget the moment when President David O. McKay entered the room and we spontaneously stood to sing “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” Some may write off these experiences as simply “inspirational moments” or a kind of youthful “hero worship,” but to this day I can feel the witness of the Spirit, external to myself, declaring the fact that the apostolic keys are upon the earth and that we are guided by a prophet.

A most powerful witness has come from my assignments in which I have had to call men and women to various positions. Many of those calls went beyond and some even seemed to defy logic, but there is no question that I was acting under the direction of the Spirit. Many times I have called people that I have never met before. My first experience as a regional representative in reorganizing a stake was with Elder L. Tom Perry. I shall never forget as we came together in the conviction that an individual that neither of us knew should be called as stake president. All alternatives were crowded out and the witness of the Spirit was unequivocal. I thought that this first experience was a tender mercy of the Lord to help me in this assignment, which, in a sense, I know it was. However, it was the beginning of an experience which was reenacted in every stake that I have visited. Often I would come home from a conference and my wife would ask, “Well?”, and the answer always came, “The Church is true!”

I believe that I have at times been called to serve simply because I was getting to be too full of myself and too taken with the cares of the world. And each time, the Spirit has guided, taught—and changed. I was taken aback recently when someone talked about Church “politics” and the fact that one “advances” in the Church because of some talent or quality of personality. In my observation and personal experience, I can say that this is wide of the mark. I have seen how ordinary individuals, with no particular charisma or skill, have been raised up as on eagle’s wings and how very talented and dynamic individuals have been humbled as they stood in the presence of the Lord. It is a fearful thing to deny this mighty work of the Spirit.

Finally, the famous opening words of Nephi as to being born of goodly parents are most applicable to my testimony. In my parents, siblings, wife, daughters and their husbands, grandchildren, and extended family, I have seen miracles and works of righteousness that confirm the divinity of the restored Church. I am awed by the rational coherence of the gospel plan and thrilled by powerful moments of inspiration. But the fruits of the Spirit that I see within my own family and among countless others bespeak eternal truth.

As long as I can remember, I have believed that Jesus is indeed the Christ and my personal savior. On occasion this has been reinforced most powerfully. I was called as a stake president in late November and, after a very busy month, Christmas Eve arrived. In my family, we have always had a simple ritual on Christmas Eve. We light a fire and some candles, turn on the Christmas tree, and have a special supper. Then we sometimes plays games or have skits and then sing some “fun” Christmas songs—e.g., Jolly Old Saint NicholasRudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, etc. —and then everyone opens one present. Afterwards we transition into a more sacred observance and sing some of the great Christmas carols. I then read the story of the nativity, after which we sing one last carol and have family prayer. On that Christmas Eve many years ago, we re-enacted the annual ritual and I began to read the account of the birth of Christ. As I read, something quite dramatic happened to me: I began to see what I was reading. It was as if I were there. I began to weep and could not continue. My wife, Dixie, had to conclude the reading. Neither I nor my family will forget that tender moment. Years later, I was standing in the assembly room in the Salt Lake Temple and heard President Gordon B. Hinckley administer the oath pertaining to the Seventy, that we would bear solemn and certain witness that we know that Jesus is the Christ. My mind went back to that Christmas Eve and I thought, “There are many things I cannot do, but that I can do. I know the Word was made flesh and dwelt among men, that He atoned for all mankind, was raised triumphant from the grave, and will return in glory.”

I have been placed in one situation or another where I have had to seek the guidance of the Spirit and have literally experienced the doctrines of the priesthood distill upon my soul as the dews from heaven. (D&C 121:45) God does live, Jesus is the Christ, the Father and the Son appeared to the boy Joseph Smith, and this Church is indeed the instrument of the Lord’s purpose to save and glorify His children. All other knowledge pales in comparison.


Robert S. Wood was released from the Second Quorum of the Seventy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during October conference of 2009, having been a member of that quorum since April 1999. He had previously served, among other callings, as a missionary in France, a bishop, a stake president, a regional representative of the Twelve, and an area authority seventy. He currently presides over the Church’s Boston Massachusetts Temple.

Dr. Wood received a bachelor’s degree in history from Stanford University and a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University. He has taught at Harvard University, Bentley College, the University of Virginia, and, in the Netherlands, the University of Tilburg and the University of Groningen. At the time of his call as a general authority, he occupied the Chester W. Nimitz Chair of National Security at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, where he was dean of the Center for Naval Warfare Studies. He twice served as director of the Chief of Naval Operations’ Strategic Studies Group.

He and his wife, the former Dixie Leigh Jones, are the parents of four children.

Posted June 2010