Oh Say, What Is Truth?

The living prophets and apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The living prophets and apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ.

What is Truth? I hope this will help shed some light.  The living prophets of this dispensation have spoken the word of the Lord.

From the “Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson” (pgs. 115-121):

Truth is a glorious thing. We sing about it. “Oh say, what is truth?/’Tis the fairest gem/That the riches of worlds can produce.” (Hymns, 1985, no. 272.) The Church and kingdom of God has no fear of the truth.1

We are engaged in the greatest work in all the world-yes, the greatest in the whole universe: the saving and exaltation of our Father’s children, our brothers and sisters. We are the custodians of the truth, the saving principles which, where applied, will build, save, and exalt men.2

Our lives, to be successful, must constitute a constant pursuit of truth-all truth. The gospel encompasses all truth; it is consistent, without conflict, eternal. I have had the privilege of traveling to most parts of this world. I have known presidents and prime ministers-dictators and kings. Nothing I have seen or experienced has changed my resolve to stand with truth.3

Blessed are you if you have a testimony that God has spoken from the heavens; that His priesthood is again among men; that the gospel in its purity and fulness is here to bless mankind; and that we will be judged by its principles. These truths will, if you are wise, take precedence in your lives “over all contrary theories, dogmas, hypotheses or relative-truths from whatever source or by whomsoever” advocated.

As you resolve in your hearts to live the standards of the Church-and you cannot afford to do otherwise from a material standpoint, from a spiritual standpoint, from the standpoint of getting ahead in the world-I hope you will remember that your prescribed standards are a part of a great body of truth-the gospel of Jesus Christ-revealed truth from heaven. Please remember that no discovery of the future will ever be in conflict with the teachings of the gospel. The gospel encompasses all truth. When doubts come to your mind because of instructions you may receive in the classroom, I urge you to remember that time is always on the side of truth, and Mormonism is truth.4

From President Joseph F. Smith:

The religion which we have espoused is not a Sunday religion; it is not a mere profession; it is a most—I was going to say—a most terrible reality—and I believe I would be justified in using that expression, because it savors of life unto life or of death unto death. If it is, and pardon me for using that expression, if it is what we profess it to be, what we have embraced it for, what we believe it to be as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is the most important thing in the world to us, and the results to us in this world and in the world to come will depend upon our integrity to the truth and our consistency in observing its precepts, in abiding by its principles, and its requirements.5

I esteem it a great privilege to be permitted to live and be associated with my brethren and sisters in the great cause in which we are engaged. Personally, I have nothing but this cause to live for, for the rest of my life. It has been very much, almost entirely, the object of life with me, ever since my childhood; and I am very thankful that I have had the privilege of being connected with the missionary work of the Church, and I hope and trust that I may be able to continue in this ministry the remainder of my days. I feel in my heart that there is nothing greater for me, or for any other man living than to be identified with the cause of truth, and I verily believe that we are engaged in the cause of truth, and not error.6

It is so with the Church. From time to time there are characters who become a law unto themselves and they follow the bent of their own “sweet will” until they get themselves into a condition mentally and spiritually that they become a menace to the body ecclesiastic. In other words, they become like a boil, tumor, or carbuncle on the body, you have to call in the surgeon to apply the knife to cut them out that the body may be cleansed from them; and this has been the case from the beginning.7

From President Stephen L. Richards:

Through humility and faith the adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have accepted the truth about life; and while there is much individual dereliction within the Church and consequent restriction of the truth to individuals, the Church as a body is the chief instrumentality of the Lord in establishing the truth among mankind.

The truth about man is that he is a son of God. As a son of God he cannot reach his destiny without bearing the power of God. The power of God is the priesthood. It is essential and indispensable for the performance of the vital things in the life of man here and hereafter. No people, no church could successfully defend and establish the truth without that power…

It is a high privilege and a tremendous responsibility to be the custodians of special truths, vital to the welfare of humanity. The Church of Christ is such a custodian. “If the salt shall lose its savor, wherewith shall the earth be salted?” We cannot be true to our commission and permit the truth to be compromised or diluted. Technically speaking, of course, we cannot impair or dilute the truth, but unfortunately, we may greatly impair the concept and appraisal of truth by the inconsistency of our lives and living, and every man can advance or retard the work of God and the spread of truth to the extent to which he personally adopts its standards….

At this point I wish to submit a caution to teachers, particularly those within our Church. I deem it to be regrettable that academic practice not infrequently seems to dictate terminology and types of expression and explanation which often confuse more than they clarify and expound. There are those who apparently regard it as a mark of scholarly attainment to be able to mystify others. I don’t. I look upon clear explanations as the expressions of clear thinking and a high order of intelligence. In religious teaching I believe in calling principles, concepts, and practices by the name by which they are generally known. God and the devil, holiness and sin, faith and apostasy are better understood and have more significance when designated by their right names than when disguised and camouflaged in terminology that not even all the professors can understand.

I feel sure that we spend a larger proportion of our resources for propaganda than does any other religious organization in the world. We make more sacrifices, more widows scrub and wash, more parents scrimp and save, more loving hearts weep and pray within our Church for the propagation of truth throughout the world than among any other people ten times our number who have lived in the world since the days of the early Christians and disciples of the Master.

Is this defense of truth—this unmatched missionary effort, this propaganda of which I speak? It is. Has it been effective in the past? It has. And thousands upon thousands of happy, God-fearing homes, communities, cities, and societies that have won the esteem and the acclaim of the world are the product of this propaganda for truth.

Does the world need this propaganda today? It does. More, perhaps, than in all its history before, because never has there been more widespread evidence of the need of truth and the reign of error than we now behold. For the moment Satan seems in command. His forces are marching roughshod and tramping under their feet the most precious things in life—liberty, mercy, love, human hearts, and little children. Nothing but the power of truth will stay the cruel hand of these sinister forces. Will that beneficent power be exercised in time to save the earth from complete devastation and ruin? It will. How do I know it? I know it by the fact that the truth has been set in the earth, never again to be destroyed. I know it by the fact that truth is mightier than evil, that God is more potent than Satan, and I know it by the inspiration that attends the holy, authentic, restored priesthood of the Lord Jesus Christ.8

From Joseph Smith:

If thou shalt ask, thou shalt receive revelation upon revelation, knowledge upon knowledge, that thou mayest know the mysteries and peaceable things-that which bringeth joy, that which bringeth life eternal. . . .

Behold, thou shalt observe all these things, and great shall be thy reward; for unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom, but unto the world it is not given to know them. . . .9

From President J. Reuben Clark, Jr.:

These are some of the ultimate truths, which God has revealed to us. These truths endure; they are the same in all lands, and among all people, and at all times. They are changeless. They are the truths which must take precedence over all contrary theories, dogmas, hypotheses, or relative truths from whatever source or by whomsoever brought. These ultimate truths may not be questioned. All secular truths will, must, finally conform to these ultimate truths.

He wounds, maims, and cripples a soul who raises doubts about or destroys faith in the ultimate truths. God will hold such a one strictly accountable; and who can measure the depths to which one shall fail who willfully shatters in another the opportunity for celestial glory. These ultimate truths are royal truths to which all human wisdom and knowledge are subject. These truths point the way to celestial glory.10.

Lastly, from hymn 272, “Oh Say, What is Truth?”

(Piano by Marvin Goldstein.  Vocals by Wade and Wanda Lindstrom.  Available on Favorite Hymns of the Prophets, Volume 2.”)

Oh say, what is truth? ‘Tis the fairest gem
That the riches of worlds can produce,
And priceless the value of truth will be when
The proud monarch’s costliest diadem
Is counted but dross and refuse.

Yes, say, what is truth? ‘Tis the brightest prize
To which mortals or Gods can aspire.
Go search in the depths where it glittering lies,
Or ascend in pursuit to the loftiest skies:
‘Tis an aim for the noblest desire.

The sceptre may fall from the despot’s grasp
When with winds of stern justice he copes.
But the pillar of truth will endure to the last,
And its firm-rooted bulwarks out-stand the rude blast
And the wreck of the fell tyrant’s hopes.

Then say, what is truth? ‘Tis the last and the first,
For the limits of time it steps o’er.
Tho the heavens depart and the earth’s fountains burst,
Truth, the sum of existence, will weather the worst,
Eternal, unchanged, evermore.11

You know who wrote that hymn? Br. John Jacques:

In the great intercessory prayer that Jesus offered for His apostles, He asked the Father to “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (John 17:17). Truth and righteousness are intimately linked. How we live flows from and contributes to what we know to be true. As a matter of urgency, the prophets and apostles have always invited the people to come to a knowledge and testimony of the most fundamental truths of existence. The overarching task of withstanding the evils of the world and standing unwavering in the winds of change is to know and be sanctified by the truth.

Born in Leicestershire, England, in 1827, John Jacques joined the Church in 1845 and commenced himself doing missionary work in his native land. In 1856, he migrated to the United States where he joined the ill-fated Martin handcart company. Before the rescue of the Martin and Willie companies on the snow-swept plains of Wyoming, he lost his eldest daughter. From 1869 to 1871, he served again as a missionary in England and later became assistant Church historian.

Why did this noble man abandon his home, undertake with his family the rigors of a handcart journey to the Great Basin, and raise his voice throughout his life to proclaim the gospel? In a word, because he had discovered the Truth. There are many things that are true, but John Jacques not only posed the question that Pilate put to Christ, “What is truth?” but pursued the query to include: What is the nature of the universe? Does life have a purpose beyond the multiple and diverse goals that each of us pursues? Is there a god? If so, what is the nature of that god? What is man’s relationship to Deity, and what is man’s destiny? The answers to such inquiries transcend time and space. They are not limited to a particular culture or historical period. Above all things, having discovered the truth, one’s life is dramatically changed, as was John Jacques’s, who found that truth in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. That discovery and his commitment to it, above all things, explain the choices and the actions of his life.

Exhilarated by this discovery, John Jacques wrote the eloquent words of what became one of the great hymns of the Restoration, “Oh Say, What Is Truth?”…

Many times over the years, I have met people who, like John Jacques, have been brought up short by the realization that there is something that endures beyond the passing mores, philosophies, and practices of the time and defines what is true and right. Often, this understanding transforms not only their thinking but also their lives.

In the mid-1980s I participated in a series of discussions between officials from the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The subject of the talks was the possibility of naval cooperation between America, Britain, and Russia. This happened at a time when the USSR was undergoing massive social transformations, indeed, far beyond what we then understood. The negotiations took place in all three countries.

On one occasion we were meeting in the United States. All three delegations were housed together in a conference center, where our discussions also took place. One evening I went out for a walk. Upon returning to the hotel, I discovered the head of the Soviet delegation, looking very pensive, sitting alone in a lobby area lighted only by a single table lamp. I didn’t know whether or not I should disturb him, but he invited me to join him. Then began a conversation that I shall never forget.

He said to me, “The great difficulties we are now facing in the Soviet Union are really not economic or political in character. They are in fact spiritual. All the `gods’ whom we have worshiped have failed us and we know not where to turn. Dr. Wood, have you ever heard of an American prophet by the name of Joseph Smith?”

As you can imagine, I was taken aback by the question! I answered that yes, indeed I had, told him of my membership in the Church, and inquired why he asked. He said that his mother, who lived in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), had met some representatives of the Church from Finland. They had given her a book, written in English, to read, and she had passed it on to him. He had read it while in the airplane coming over to the United States from Moscow. The book was by Elder LeGrand Richards and was entitled A Marvelous Work and a Wonder. He then said, “Now that I know you are a Latter­-day Saint, let me see if I have grasped the key concept of this book.” He then gave a remarkable exposition of Elder Richards’s ­thesis. He began, “As I understand it, Joseph Smith brought together two ideas that are generally in conflict with each other and combined them in a remarkable synthesis. On the one hand, the Latter­-day Saints believe that mortality is but a moment in eternity and that men and women do not spring into existence at birth and are annihilated at death. We existed before birth and shall persist after death. Moreover, there is a link between those who are yet to be born, those who now live, and those who have passed beyond the grave; there is, in fact, communication across those seeming barriers. Some who have lived have returned and communicated with the living, and there is a great cooperative enterprise that links the unborn, the living, and the dead, aimed at their mutual salvation and perfection. You’re mystics.”

I answered that, while I was uncomfortable with the word mystic, his summary was quite ­accurate.

He then continued. “At the same time, the Latter­-day Saints seem very concerned with improving the lot of mankind in mortality. They do not believe that happiness is simply for another world but needs to be established here through common temporal as well as spiritual efforts. You seem to be community builders. You’re very pragmatic as well.”

I replied that he had correctly concluded. He then exclaimed, using words that clearly resonated with me, “Praise be to the man who brought forth such concepts! Such ideas are the salvation of my people.”

I told him that I had another book that he needed to read. In the trunk of my automobile I had a small box filled with a Russian edition of the Book of Mormon. Knowing I was going to be with a gathering of communists, one of my daughters had given the books to me and said, “Maybe you can find the occasion to distribute some of these!” Well, clearly, if ever there was such a moment, it had come. I retrieved a copy from my car and presented it to this man who was posing once again the age­-old question, “Oh say, what is truth?”

The Apostle Paul counseled the Romans to be transformed by the renewal of their minds; that is, changed according to true understanding. The transformation associated with the discovery of the truth has been variously described as a liberation and a mighty change of heart. Ultimately, the inquiry after truth compels us to transcend the ephemeral values of the particular society and culture of which we are a part. It invites us to participate in the life of the divine.

In the mid­-eighties, little did I think that in a few years the question that had changed John Jacques’s life would so affect the life of this Russian official as well as countless numbers of his countrymen. The two chapters that follow are intended to explain how we come to know the truth and demonstrate how that knowledge transforms lives. (Robert S. Wood, The Complete Christian. Link.)

I testify, to all those who ever come to read this, in clarity of words that cannot be misunderstood, that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is God’s true church on the earth today, the one and only church which has a fullness of God’s truth that He is willing to bestow on anyone who comes to embrace it. I know this. I have experienced it personally and in the lives of others. I testify that one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is the Christ, and that this is His Church and His gospel and His truth (Rom. 14:11; Mosiah 27:31; D&C 76:110; D&C 88:104). There is no single other church on the face of this Earth that has the countless truths that stand in the LDS Church today. Every other church combined still does not equal it.  There is no other church that has the authority of God’s priesthood to save mankind and bring them back into the presence of God our Father. There is no other man upon the Earth today who has the keys of the kingdom to receive truth and revelation which can exalt mankind, but Prophet and President Thomas S. Monson. This is the truth. And I solemnly witness and testify of it, and will stand by my word for all of eternity.

The Prophet Joseph Smith has proclaimed to an ungrateful and fallen world:

Our missionaries are going forth to different nations . . . the Standard of Truth has been erected; no unhallowed hand can stop the work from progressing; persecutions may rage, mobs may combine, armies may assemble, calumny may defame, but the truth of God will go forth boldly, nobly, and independent, till it has penetrated every continent, visited every clime, swept every country, and sounded in every ear, till the purposes of God shall be accomplished, and the Great Jehovah shall say the work is done.12

  1. Seattle Washington LDS Institute Dedication, 29 October 1961. []
  2. God, Family, Country, p. 129. []
  3. MIA Vanguard Program, Salt Lake City, Utah, 13 June 1960. []
  4. CR April 1959, Improvement Era 62 [June 1959]: 457. []
  5. Gospel Doctrine, 107 []
  6. Gospel Doctrine, 108 []
  7. Gospel Doctrine, 113 []
  8. Defense of Truth, 148-53 []
  9. D&C 42:65, 68 []
  10. Charge to President Howard S. McDonald at his inauguration as president of Brigham Young University, Nov. 14, 1945, delivered by J. Reuben Clark, Jr., in behalf of the First Presidency, IE1946Jan:60-63 []
  11. Hymn #272 []
  12. HC 4:540 []


  1. Posted July 31, 2008 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing these quotes. They are a fascinating look into what leaders of the church were concerned about 50-60 years ago. There seemed to be a great deal of anxiety about higher education and its effects on religious belief around the time of WWII. Of course, this coincided with fears about communism and secular movements around the world.
    I for one am grateful that we have moved passed this insecurity. I am thankful that the Lord’s prophets and apostles adopt a slightly more informed and nuanced view today.

  2. Posted July 31, 2008 at 5:57 pm | Permalink


    They were still prophets, and their words are as true today as they were then. President Eyring’s words on “the only true Church” were spoken in April. As were Elder Holland’s. (From my One True Church post).

    A belief that we don’t have the same kind of worldly influences and even more secular movements that stand in complete defiance to the gospel of Jesus Christ in the world today, is naive. The world is getting worse, not better. It will continue to spiral downward until the Savior comes.

  3. Posted July 31, 2008 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    20 For behold, at that day [last days] shall he [the devil] rage in the hearts of the children of men, and stir them up to anger against that which is good.
    21 And others will he pacify, and lull them away into carnal security, that they will say: All is well in Zion; yea, Zion prospereth, all is well—and thus the devil cheateth their souls, and leadeth them away carefully down to hell.
    22 And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance.
    23 Yea, they are grasped with death, and hell; and death, and hell, and the devil, and all that have been seized therewith must stand before the throne of God, and be judged according to their works, from whence they must go into the place prepared for them, even a lake of fire and brimstone, which is endless torment.
    24 Therefore, wo be unto him that is at ease in Zion!
    25 Wo be unto him that crieth: All is well! (2 Nephi 28:20–25)

  4. Posted July 31, 2008 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

    Hi Bryce,

    I really love reading these quotations! It thrills me to see that all of these men can testify to the exclusiveness of the church without necessarily repeating each other verbatim. They have set the clearest possible example for us, that we are to find and employ the best possible expressions for each situation in which we attempt to articulate the central elements of our faith.


  5. Posted July 31, 2008 at 9:13 pm | Permalink

    Just for the record, I never said we need to repeat the Brethren verbatim, but, yes, they have set the example for us. Pay particularly close attention to President Stephen L. Richards comments:

    At this point I wish to submit a caution to teachers, particularly those within our Church. I deem it to be regrettable that academic practice not infrequently seems to dictate terminology and types of expression and explanation which often confuse more than they clarify and expound. There are those who apparently regard it as a mark of scholarly attainment to be able to mystify others. I don’t. I look upon clear explanations as the expressions of clear thinking and a high order of intelligence. In religious teaching I believe in calling principles, concepts, and practices by the name by which they are generally known. God and the devil, holiness and sin, faith and apostasy are better understood and have more significance when designated by their right names than when disguised and camouflaged in terminology that not even all the professors can understand.

  6. Posted August 1, 2008 at 5:02 am | Permalink

    Hi Bryce,

    Love the quotation from President Richards! Couldn’t agree more! I NEVER let students use technical vocabulary without some attempt at understanding. One of the words they struggle a lot with is “truth.” They tend to cite various authors on truth without analyzing what those authors are actually saying about truth. But “I agree with Professor X” does not an argument, or an analysis make, no?

    So I concur, it’s important to define the words we use. For example, I think the best way to get at the question of whether or not “the true church” might be adequately or profitably expressed as “the authentic church” in some contexts probably rides on the overlap between “true” and “authentic” in those contexts. Although church leaders seem to have used the former expression more often than the latter this does not mean, as you correctly note, that we must invariably use the former when we talk about our exclusiveness.


  7. Posted August 1, 2008 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    I disagree Mogget. And your sarcasm is showing.

    If not one of the Brethren has ever used the term “authentic” as an adjectival modifier to describe the Church, in place of “the true church,” then I believe it heresy to use it. Period. Doing so is just mystifying the point. “The true church” is the expression that is generally known and used. Are we holding to the iron rod, or wandering into mists of darkness?

  8. Posted August 1, 2008 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    This is a sidenote, but an honest question: Where do you generate your quotes? I haven’t kept up on the LDS software market since Infobase 10 years ago. What are you using and do you like it? Thanks.

  9. Posted August 1, 2008 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    GospeLink. It’s fantastic. Completely redesigned for 2008.

  10. Posted August 1, 2008 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    If I may, I think I can clear up some of your confusion about the criticisms offered here. The question is not, and never has been, whether or not the church is “true.” That has been conceded by all. The only question is what does “truth” mean, a point that your post promises but does not deliver. As the Richardson quote indicates, there is a technical vocabulary in different fields. Each field has one, such as science, law, medicine, etc. The standards by which “truth” is understood in each of these disciplines is different. The same is said of philosophy and literature. For instance, to say that a poem speaks the truth about love, or fear, or paranoia is not the same as saying that gravity, or evolution, or global warming are scientifically true. So, the question is in what sense the church is true, or with respect to what, and the attempts by some here to use synonyms of truth to express the need to define truth is in no way an attempt to argue that the church is not in fact true.

  11. Posted August 1, 2008 at 9:52 am | Permalink


    If you do not think that the prophets have defined what truth means here, in direct quotations I have listed at length, then you are truly blind. In the gospel, we understand truth by the standards of the gospel, only, and not by anything the world might present. President Benson said, “The gospel encompasses all truth.” The Church is true in every sense of the word.

  12. Cynthia
    Posted August 14, 2008 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Bryce, calling TT “blind” because he doesn’t read or interpret quotes like you do is quite chilling to honest inquiry. I understand that you are an apologist, but please, keep the sanctimoniousness out of the responses.

    The “true” church expression, I believe, began to be seriously expounded when the early church spread to the 4 winds after the death of Joseph Smith. Brigham and the Saints who followed him stated almost continually that theirs was the “true” church (meaning, the church that claimed the mantle of Joseph)….as opposed to those who stayed with other apostles in Illinois or Texas or Michigan.

  13. Posted August 14, 2008 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    TT said:

    “The only question is what does ‘truth’ mean, a point that your post promises but does not deliver.”

    How much more do the prophets and apostles of the Church have to say for TT to understand what “truth” means? Saying that the Brethren have not expounded quite clearly what “truth” means in these many statements is being quite blind, and I’m not going to be shy in saying it. It’s not that TT didn’t read or interpret the quotes like I did; it doesn’t look like he read them at all.

  14. Cynthia
    Posted August 15, 2008 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    I believe the prophets and apostles have also said that we do NOT have all truth at the present time, that more will be revealed–and certainly that is a fact. The human species, I believe, is not capable at this point of comprehending the smallest bit of the absolute truth that the Lord has. We might get glimpses and small flashes of insight but “truth” is what is, and was, and is to be.

    I do believe that the Lord, in his mercy, has given us the commandments because we are so in the dark. His prophets, when speaking as prophets, guide us as to behavior that will assist us in our earthly pilgrimage. The words of the Lord are the “iron rod” we are to hold to. We are in a fallen and dark world where human intention and problems infect all sorts of communication–and no one is totally above it.

    So whenever a human being says anything–even good things–we are told to go to the Lord himself and ask for guidance. Agreed? I don’t think the Lord is monolithic or He wouldn’t have asked us to do that.

2 Trackbacks

  1. [...] I need a sabbatical all of the sudden.  See also my post on the hymn “Oh Say, What is Truth?“ [...]

  2. [...] Another time when I felt so inspired was when I spouted a sonnet, “A Reply to Sonnet 18.”  I don’t write sonnets folks.  I leave that up to my wife!  See also my post on the hymn “Oh Say, What is Truth?” [...]

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