The Power of Evidence in the Nurturing of Faith

Since the publication of the Book of Mormon in 1830, its adherents have sought, found, and enjoyed publishing evidences in its support. What spiritual value do such evidences have? How do bits of knowledge contribute to an increase of faith? How do reason and revelation work together? What is evidence, and how is it related to faith? Without diminishing the essential power of the Holy Ghost in bearing testimony, and knowing that we cannot prove anything in absolute terms, I still speak favorably about the power of evidence. It is an important ingredient in Heavenly Father's plan of happiness.

Both Reason and Revelation

Basic to the discussion of evidence and faith is the relationship between reason and revelation. One of my favorite scriptures is Doctrine and Covenants 88:118, a text that is posted conspicuously on a plaque in the old stairwell between the third and fourth floors of the Harold B. Lee Library: "As all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith." We would do well to post this verse in our own libraries. This passage gives significant place to the role of scholarship in the restored church. It commands us to "seek" (which would include doing research) and to seek "diligently" (we must do it thoroughly and carefully); it obligates us to teach one another (to share our findings generously) and to draw out of "the best books" (which cautions us that some books will be better than others); and it tells us to do all this "even by study and also by faith" (in other words, both are required). Nothing is more fundamental for a Latter-day Saint scholar than to maintain a proper balance between the intellectual and spiritual pursuits of life.

Many church leaders and authors have written about study and faith, and everyone agrees that we should have both.1 President Gordon B. Hinckley has said: "There is incumbent upon each of us… the responsibility to observe the commandment to study and to learn. … None of us can assume that we have learned enough."2 Elder Neal A. Maxwell has affirmed: "If there is sometimes too little respect for the life of the mind, it is a localized condition and is not institutional in character."3 "The Lord sees no conflict between faith and learning in a broad curriculum. … The scriptures see faith and learning as mutually facilitating, not separate processes."4 Elder Boyd K. Packer has said: "Each of us must accommodate the mixture of reason and revelation in our lives. The gospel not only permits but requires it."5

The difficult problem is not whether to have both study and faith but how to get these two together and in what order of priority or in what type of combination. In attempting to describe or prescribe the proper coordination of study with faith, LDS thinkers have turned or may turn to various analogies, as we often must when we are confronted with our deepest intellectual or religious concepts. Each of these metaphors is potentially quite powerful. Some work better than others, but each may offer insight into the roles of scholarly evidence in nurturing or strengthening faith.

Some analogies emphasize that both study and faith are necessary. In the bicycle-built-for-two metaphor, the relationship between reason and revelation is likened to two riders on a tandem bicycle. When both riders pedal together, the bicycle (the search for truth) moves ahead more rapidly. Each rider must work, or the other must bear a heavy and perhaps exhausting burden; but only one (that is faith) can steer and determine where the bicycle will go, although the other (reason) can do some backseat driving.

In another metaphor, these two necessary elements are brought together as in a marriage, with "all the tension, adjustments, frustration, joys, and ecstasy one finds in a marriage between man and woman."6

Similarly, the apostle Paul used the human body as a strong metaphor to show the need for many parts in an organic whole. It would be unseemly for "the head [to say] to the feet, I have no need of you"; they are "many members, yet but one body" (1 Corinthians 12:20-21). As B. H. Roberts has cautioned, let us not have "the heart breathing defiance to the intellect."7 And one might equally add, let us also not have the intellect pounding submission to the heart.

Specific Ways Evidence Nurtures Faith

Although we should not expect to find a sign somewhere that says "Nephi slept here" or a drop of blood on the Mount of Olives that establishes the truth of Christ's ordeal in Gethsemane,8 the world has been told to expect circumstantial evidences of the truth. An 1842 editorial announcing some archaeological discoveries in Central America that was published in the Times and Seasons when Joseph Smith was editor boldly asserts: "We can not but think the Lord has a hand in bringing to pass his strange act, and proving the Book of Mormon true in the eyes of all the people. … It will be as it ever has been, the world will prove Joseph Smith a true prophet by circumstantial evidence, in experiments, as they did Moses and Elijah."9

Without overstating the value of these factors, evidence plays several specific roles in the cultivation of faith. Comments by General Authorities and personal experiences by many people are instructive and have affirmed various functions.

Elder John A. Widtsoe taught that evidence can remove honest doubt and give assurances that build faith. "After proper inquiries, using all the powers at our command," he said, "the weight of evidence is on one side or the other. Doubt is removed."10 "Doubt of the right kind—that is, honest questioning—leads to faith" and "opens the door to truth,"11 for where there is doubt, faith cannot thrive. Elder Joseph Fielding Smith likewise affirmed that evidence, as convincing as in any court in the land, proves "beyond the possibility of doubt that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery spoke the truth."12

Over and over, I have found that solid research confirms the revelations of God. As Elder Maxwell has stated, "That a truth is given by God and then is confirmed through scholarship makes it no less true."13 President Hinckley has said that in a world prone to demand evidence, it is good that archaeology, anthropology, or historical research can "be helpful to some" and "confirmatory."14

Evidence also makes the truth plain and plausible. In 1976 Elder Maxwell predicted: "There will be a convergence of discoveries (never enough, mind you, to remove the need for faith) to make plain and plausible what the modern prophets have been saying all along."15 I believe that this prophecy has been amply fulfilled in the last twenty years. Literally hundreds of newly discovered insights converge on the same supporting conclusion. Certain things that might at first have appeared outrageous, on closer inspection have turned out to be right on target. The ancient Jaredite transoceanic migration that lasted 344 days (see Ether 6:11) ceases to seem so fantastic when that turns out to be exactly the length of time it takes the Pacific current to go from Asia to Mexico.16 The oddity of Nephi's making new arrows when only his bow had broken suddenly becomes plausible when one realizes that arrows and bows must match each other in weight, length, and stiffness,17 again making "plain and plausible" what the Book of Mormon has said all along.

In an important sense, evidence makes belief possible. I am very impressed by the words of Austin Farrar in speaking about C. S. Lewis and quoted by Elder Maxwell on several occasions: "Though argument does not create conviction, lack of it destroys belief. What seems to be proved may not be embraced; but what no one shows that ability to defend is quickly abandoned. Rational argument does not create belief, but it maintains a climate in which belief may flourish."18

Thus, evidence in a sense brings people toward belief. Some people have the gift to believe quite readily (see D&C 46:13–14), but most people need evidence, clues, and inducements to believe because they are by nature stubborn. Alma told the poor in Antionum that it was blessed to believe in the word of God "without stubbornness of heart, yea, without being brought to know the word, or even compelled to know" (Alma 32:16); but being "brought to know" is better than never coming to know at all. I have been "brought to know" many things by means of evidence, even though that evidence has fallen short of compelling me to know.

Evidence is also useful in articulating knowledge and defending against error and misrepresentation. Scholars can serve important roles "as articulators" of evidence, and when combined with "submissiveness and consecration," solid academic research can be useful "to protect and to build up the Kingdom."19 If people misunderstand the thoroughly Christian character of the Book of Mormon, I would hope that statistical evidence about the pervasive references to Christ in the book would be quite arresting and informative.20 I would hope that evidence about the distinctively personal testimonies of Christ uniquely borne by ten Book of Mormon prophets would be deeply impressive and convincing.21

Evidence helps to keep pace in the give-and-take of competing alternatives: Do you expect "incontrovertible proof to come in this way? No, but neither will the Church be outdone by hostile or pseudo-scholars."22 The historical facts in support of Joseph's testimony, to quote Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, leave one "speechless absolutely, totally, and bewilderingly incredulous," at the bald suggestion that Joseph Smith simply wrote the Book of Mormon.23

Perhaps most of all, evidence promotes understanding and enhances meaning. In all our study, we should seek understanding.24 Just as traveling to the Holy Land has richly enhanced my understanding of the world of the Bible, as it has for many people, evidence provides essential building blocks in understanding the full character of the Book of Mormon. Many factors, like the doubled, sealed documents, help me understand this record better as a powerful and ancient testament, for to be understood, our facts must be placed "in their proper context."25 Evidence helps to put many parts of the Book of Mormon in context.

A clear delineation of evidence also strengthens the impression left by any text on the mind and soul. Evidence has a way of drawing my attention to subtle details that otherwise escape notice on casual reading. With evidence about ancient Israelite festivals in mind, I read with heightened attention and gratitude the text in Mosiah 3:11 about Christ's blood atoning for those who have "ignorantly sinned," because it was of primary concern on ancient holy days to purify the people from all their iniquities (see Leviticus 16:21–22), with special reference being made to sins committed in ignorance (see Numbers 15:22–29).26

Marshalling evidence builds respect for the truth. I have been amazed and pleased to watch the Book of Mormon win respect for itself and for the gospel of Jesus Christ. I had long appreciated and valued the Book of Mormon, but it was not until I began to see it speaking for itself before sophisticated audiences, especially in connection with such things as chiasmus and law in the Book of Mormon, that I began to sense the high level of respect that the book really can command. On many grounds, the Book of Mormon is intellectually respectable.27 The more I learn about the Book of Mormon, the more amazed I become at its precision, consistency, validity, vitality, insightfulness, and purposefulness. I believe that the flow of additional evidence nourishes and enlarges faith.28

Finally, the presentation of evidence impels people to ask the ultimate question raised by that evidence. Once a person realizes that no one can explain how all this got into the Book of Mormon, the honest person is at last at the point where he or she must turn to God to find out if these things are indeed true. Elder Bruce R. McConkie advised readers to ask themselves over and over, a thousand times, "Could any man have written this book?"29 By asking this question again and again, one invites all kinds of ideas that may bear one way or the other on the answer to that question. As ideas surface, evidence can help the reader explore those possibilities and inevitably return with increased intensity to the question, "Could any man have written this book?" If one will ponder the great miracle of the Book of Mormon, Elder McConkie promises, "the genuine truth seeker will come to know," again and again, "by the power of the Spirit, that the book is true."30