Do Faith-promoting Rumors Promote Faith?

I first heard the now-debunked “Generals in the War in Heaven” story in Seminary, during high school. I quote from FAIRwiki:

You were in the War in Heaven and one day when you are in the spirit world you will be enthralled with those who you are associated with. You will ask someone in which time period he lived in and you might hear, “I was with Moses when he parted the Red Sea,” or “I helped build the pyramids,” or “I fought with Captain Moroni.” And as you are standing there in amazement, someone will turn to you and ask, “Which prophet time did you live in?” And when you say “Gordon B. Hinckley,” a hush will fall over every hall, every corridor in heaven and all in attendance will bow at your presence. You were held back six thousand years because you were the most talented, most obedient, most courageous, and most righteous. Are you still? Remember who you are!

I think I got some sensational goose bumps when I heard it as a teenager, kind of an ooh ahh response. Wow, I am so cool. It seemed to go well with the “noble and great” scripture from Abraham. General in the war in heaven–sure, why not? I filed it away in my list of things that I kind of believed. I was in a believing frame of mind: having gained the beginnings of my testimony, I was pre-disposed to believe anything preached to me. In the years that followed, though, I dismissed that quote and others of its ilk as faith-promoting rumors.

To balance out that quote, let me here cite the First Presidency letter responding to it:

A statement has been circulated that asserts in part that the youth of the Church today “were
generals in the war in heaven . . . and [someone will] ask you, ‘Which of the prophet’s time did
you live in?’ and when you say ‘Gordon B. Hinckley’ a hush will fall, . . . and all in attendance
will bow at your presence.”

This is a false statement. It is not Church doctrine. At various times, this statement has
been attributed erroneously to President Thomas S. Monson, President Henry B. Eyring,
President Boyd K. Packer, and others. None of these Brethren made this statement.

Stake presidents and bishops should see that it is not used in Church talks, classes, bulletins,
or newsletters. Priesthood leaders should correct anyone who attempts to perpetuate its use by
any means, in accordance with “Statements Attributed to Church Leaders,” Church Handbook of
Instructions, Book 1 (2006), 173.

A-ha. So the “general in the war in heaven” idea never came from an official source. When I read a myth debunking, I feel relieved. Whew! I had secretly wondered if it was really true when I heard it repeated to me, even as I dismissed the “faith-promoting rumor.” So I don’t have to believe that after all! Because, I’m not really military, and let’s face it, I’d make a rotten general. What a relief. And up in heaven? I think I’m much more likely to hush in the presence of Joseph Smith, Nephi, and Moroni, than they are to hush in the presence of me.

This particular rumor seems to go beyond the mark–the doctrine to be taught is yes, the youth are special, important, reserved to come forth now. But that’s it. We don’t need more.

Another faith-promoting rumor: A friend of a friend is in the Church Office Building. She finds herself on an elevator with President Hinckley. And the only thing he says to her is, “Do you have your food storage?” (cue the dramatic music)

I heard that one a little while ago. It sounded familiar to me, so I asked my father-in-law, who worked at the Church Office Building twenty years ago. “That story was making the rounds when I worked there, too,” he said. “I heard it with President Benson and President Tanner.”

Does it promote faith, though? Does it help people run out and get their food storage? Are there other faith-promoting rumors that actually do promote faith? Are they worth repeating, these stories we hear, that get endlessly emailed? And do you speak up when someone tells you one that you’re pretty sure is false?

About Emily M.

(Poetry Board) graduated from BYU in Comparative Literature, but it was long enough ago that most of what she learned has leaked out. She would like to mention other hobbies or interests, but to be honest she spends most of her free time reading (although she does enjoy attempting yoga). She used to blog at hearingvoices.wordpress.com. For now, though, Segullah is her only blogging home, and it's a good one.

35 thoughts on “Do Faith-promoting Rumors Promote Faith?

  1. Hmmm. I’m someone who loves a good story, so I asked my husband what he thought. His response, “it seems like an oxymoron that believing something false would increase faith since faith is believing things that are true.” But at the same time if hearing a certain story prompts us to act and those actions do increase our faith, then there you go. Seems like a ‘which came first chicken or the egg’ situation to me. Very thought provoking article- I loved it.

  2. I grew up hearing how kids of my generation were “Saturday’s Warriors.” While maybe it could sometimes be a good thing to believe you have a calling or a mission, it can also be quite disillusioning when the truth is finally revealed (we are obviously not Saturday’s Warriors–maybe late Thursday night or early Friday morning?).

    As a parent I try to listen to the stories my kids hear from friends and even from their teachers and help them see such stories in an objective light. I try to teach them a healthy amount of skepticism without stomping on their budding faith. But I pretty much believe adults are on their own. Although when I hear such stories over the pulpit it’s hard to refrain from the occasional eyeroll.

  3. That is a tough question. Years ago someone on the AML-list said that it didn’t matter if a story was true or not if it increased faith. That rubbed me wrong. Does it matter whether the story about the First Visision is true? You betcha. I do try to speak up when I hear a rumor being passed off as true, but I know people who love passing along these kinds of stories and seem to gain faith from them. Seminary tends to be a breeding ground for them, it seems.

  4. I don’t know that these made-up stories promote faith, but they might promote action or a good feeling about yourself. Those things might contribute to faith, but they aren’t faith.

    I wish we could just stick with what is true. There’s enough truth out there that we don’t have to make anything up.

  5. I think this stories always end in one of two ways. Everyone around either laughs and tells another version, or people say, “Wow, that’s crazy” and that’s the end of it. My uncle said he wants to write a book about Mormon Myths, kind of like Mythbusters for Mormons.

  6. I sure wish there were snopes.com for Mormon urban legends! I hear this stuff all the time. My favorite are sightings of the Three Nephites. Kind of like superheroes who swoop in and rescue people in need. Who wouldn’t want to believe that?
    I think those faith-promoting rumors are kind of like telling each of your kids that they are your favorite. Not exactly true, but it makes them happy, so no big deal.

  7. Faith promoting rumors generally bug me to no end.

    Some of the rumors can even be self-serving at best, and malicious at worst. An associate of mine started looking into a food storage “scare” email with several quotes in it, and it turned out to be quite entertaining. The first quote was attributed to fake general authority. His first name, middle initial, and last name all belonged to General Authorities, but not the same one. It’s actually a fun game: Marvin S. Kimball! Earl A. Merrill! Robert J. Young! The next quote in the email was supposedly given by a visiting general authority at a recent Elk Ridge Stake Conference (the adult session, I’m sure). Only problem is, my friend lives in Elk Ridge, and there is no such entity as the “Elk Ridge Stake.” After that, there were quotes by someone who isn’t even a general authority, but has his own web site (it turns out he IS a member of a bishopric), where (conveniently) you can purchase emergency preparedness and food storage supplies, along with a few books (by him) on the subject, along with several others . . . .

    Joseph Smith taught that faith is only faith when it is based in truth (serious paraphrasing from the Lectures on Faith, there). So I would have to answer that, no, faith-promoting rumors do not build faith. In the long run they do not even influence us for good. When the deception is at last discovered, the person who believed in it will find that portion of their faith undermined, and I believe that seeds of doubt can then take hold, and begin to undermine real testimony.

  8. I was a sucker for faith promoting rumors when I was growing up–desperate for (and lacking) gospel discussion in the home, I was eager to hear and believe it all. The tough times I had in early college and on my mission were very much exacerbated by incorrect understandings of the gospel. It took a bit to sort things out. I did the pendulum swing towards skepticism and anger at how misled/gullible I was. I think I am mostly grounded and not too gullible most of the time. But . . . it must be a deep part of my personality because I still occasionally embarrass myself because I have believed something or not thought it through as logically as I should.

    Anyway, I am with mayorofcrazytown’s husband, that faith promoting rumors cannot promote true faith, because the belief is based on a falsehood.

    Great post–and I think I’m going to like FAIRwiki!

  9. My experience with some of these stories, particularly concerning food storage, is that they try to motivate people to action using fear and intimidation. That just isn’t the way the Savior teaches, so why should we? And, of course, they’re just dishonest.

  10. Thanks for the great comments! I agree that the Spirit does not testify of things that aren’t true. It seems like there’s a general consensus that the impact of faith-promoting rumors ranges from either mostly harmless, kind of huh, how about that, to potentially faith-damaging.

    In the situation I mentioned above, when my friend told the story about President Hinckley, I just kind of nodded and smiled, thinking privately, “that’s gotta be a Mormon Urban Legend.” I didn’t call her on it. It was too awkward. But with the “war in heaven” quote, we’ve been asked by the First Presidency to debunk it whenever we hear it. It’s not to be taught or quoted in lessons or over the pulpit.

    So, did I have a similar responsibility with the President Hinckley story?

    I don’t know. To me, when you mention a General Authority, and tell a story about them, or what they said this one time, you ought to be able to cite a source, or have been present for the event, or else be one degree removed from someone who was. But if I questioned every single speculative story I’ve ever heard, and asked the teller to cite chapter and verse, that would just be annoying.

    Thoughts?

  11. I am a super skeptic. If I can’t read it in the Ensign, in a book published by the church, or on lds.org, I refuse to repeat anything that supposedly was said by a general authority. I think that is how it always should be. How do you get everyone else on that same boat?

    What do you say, for example, when you get a circulating email about something earthshattering a general authority said in someone’s aunt’s stake conference? How am I supposed to verify that? Why should I believe that what he may or may not have said is for the whole church and not just for that stake? How do I respond to the sender of the email that they need to give a source, or not send it on—because that’s how “faith-promoting rumors” get started.

  12. A friend recently put one of those emails on her blog, so I actually posted a comment about the recent letter reminding us why we shouldn’t pass on notes from comments. She took down the post and thanked me for pointing that out, saying she wasn’t sure how to respond to the email. I’ve never done that before and I don’t usually say anything in conversations either. When I was a Primary President I did make it a point in training sessions to remind teachers to use things from official sources, but at that time it was within my stewardship to say stuff like that to them.

  13. Um, I meant passing on notes from conferences. My comment didn’t really make any sense, did it?

    One thing I don’t like about this stuff is that it promotes the idea that our own spiritual experiences are not as valid as those of general authorities. I would much rather hear a talk based on an individual’s personal struggles and revelations than one filled with cute little stories. Personal experiences as told by the people involved are much more spiritually powerful.

  14. If there really is some important and earth shaking news to tell in my second aunts stake conference, the Prophet and Quorum of the Twelve would have a responsibility to share it with the general membership of the church, wouldn’t they?

    If something really did apply to us, or was important for us to know, they would tell us.

    Like I’ve never ever been taught in any formal church meeting or church manual that I’m supposed to take the sacrament with my right hand. Is that some sort of secret doctrine? Or is it just speculative?

  15. I have a real problem with faith promoting rumor. The first part is the general feeling of mistrust any gossip and rumor promote. If none of these were forwarded or started then perhaps (perhaps mind you) there would be a teensy bit less skepticism out there. I would love to trust things that I hear, but I no longer do because of the things forwarded to me through email. I almost always check to find a source for something told to me. Some would say that is being smart and a part of me says research is always good. Another part misses being able to just simply trust.

    Additionally, working in Primary those rumors, if they are taught to children can damage testimonies. If they believe they are true, what happens down the road when they find out they’re false. Do they trust teachers? What about the spirit they felt during the lesson – what if they thought they felt it was in true because they believed their teacher? Do they then doubt the Spirit the next time it is telling them that something is true?

    It seems to me if we really wish to promote faith and move to action we would do better to use actual words, quotes, and stories spoken by the apostles and prophets since they are so readily available.

  16. I can’t stand stories/rumors like that. Like mommom said, they’re cheap and manipulative, and I think they falsely teach people that goosebumps = the spirit. I think people have a terribly difficult time distinguishing something that is emotionally manipulative from a true spiritual experience, and these fictional stories that are designed to give people a little thrill just contribute to that problem. I refuse to forward/repeat things like that. It bugs the heck out of me.

    The one that really annoys me is the mission in China thing. Ugh.

  17. I have always poo-pooed faith promoting rumors. BUT, we moved into a stake in Salt Lake where one of those faith promoting rumors–which I am sure you’ve heard–actually happened, with verifying witnesses and everything. That sort of put me in my place. Because, while I don’t think these stories should be preached over the pulpit (if they ARE true, they are sacred and should be treated reverently), like it or not, we are a church that explicitly believes in miracles, speaking in tongues, etc.

  18. Excellent responses. Just to add my two cents. I was really glad when several years ago they came out and changed the type of stories they printed in the Friend. They used to print made up stories around a theme, but now all the stories are at least “based on a true story.” As someone who loves fiction, at first I was upset about this, but since serving in Primary, I’ve come to understand how necessary it is for children to hear true stories and how difficult it is for them to understand fiction.

    (I’m not knocking fictiton. I love fiction. It can be powerful and life changing, but I just want to say with kids, as others have said … truth is important).

  19. I’m like Dalene. I grew up in the Saturday’s Warrior generation. But even as a kid I knew that thing must be filled with fuzzy doctrine. I’m with Sue–I struggled for years with the emotional equals spiritual.

  20. faith-promoting story — Any story that makes you feel glad you’re a Mormon, even if you can’t bring yourself to believe it. — Orson Scott Card, Saintspeak: A Mormon Dictionary (Orion Books, 1981)

    I was largely weaned off of faith-promoting rumors as a teenager when I saw a close friend — the one who introduced me to the Church — leave the Church in part because of chasing after some of the stranger rumors.

    Likewise, as an undergrad at BYU, I saw people get very caught up in these rumors. Again, some of them drifted away from the Church, following what they called “the higher law” or “the inner circle”. Sigh.

    Some of these rumors are harmless, many have a kernel of truth in them, and they do often “make us feel glad to be a Mormon.” But I think human nature is to embellish, intensify, and create authority for the rumor, and therein lies the danger.

    The miracles of the Restoration were largely intermittent and stretched out over many years. Yet we tend to see them collapsed into a constant, great spiritual outpouring. We ignore that for most members of the early Church, life was largely difficult and humdrum — except when they were being burned or driven out of their homes. We see the (comparatively prosperous and comfortable) humdrum of our own lives and want to intensify it spiritually — and we resort to ‘faith-promoting rumors’ as a result. ..bruce..

  21. Justine, I was taught to take the Sacrament with the right hand when I was young–maybe in primary? I heard it used to be policy, but was later removed from the handbook. Anybody know about that?

  22. Thanks to everyone for excellent comments–you have made me see this issue with more clarity. A few responses:

    I think Sue makes a great point–it’s easy for those sensational stories to be confusing, so that we mix up ooh ahh chills or an emotional reaction with the Spirit. It’s ironic then that they seem to breed in Seminary, as Annette pointed out, among teenagers who are just starting to figure out what’s the Spirit and what’s emotion. I know that I still deal with that sometimes–just because a story makes me cry, that doesn’t automatically make it true.

    C., my son loves the based-on-true stories in the Friend. And I find that it’s very important to him that the stories really happened–he knows that because these other kids chose the right, or felt the Spirit, he can too. He’s asked me several times as we read if this or that story is true. We are fiction fans at our house as well, but I can see why the Friend is all about based-on-true stories now.

    I also think that Red’s point is well-taken: we do live in a Church that believes in miracles. I’ve read Elder John Groberg’s books, and he witnessed and performed amazing, true miracles. So did Matthew Cowley… all documented, with witnesses and so forth. We believe in miracles… they are sacred, though. I found myself wondering, Red, what your stake’s story is. But that’s the point–if you repeated it here, then it would be a story from this person who posted on a blog but it really happened I swear. Instead of a truly sacred experience that some people were privileged to witness. So when I real miracle gets bandied about as an urban legend, it loses its truth value, even if it was true to begin with.

    Also, I find myself agreeing with FoxyJ–I really prefer to hear about someone’s own stories. We don’t have to rely on secondhand General Authority stories for the Spirit-we have access to it ourselves.

    bfwebster–love the definition, and I think your analysis is accurate too.
    John C.–love your blog’s title ;-)

    And Matt, thanks for posting the link clarifying the right hand Sacrament issue.

    Finally, I agree with Justine–we have access to so many real resources now, and we have the internet to search them, that it’s pretty easy for us to teach pure doctrine and not have to resort to made-up or unsubstantiated stories.

  23. I heard one where someone asked President Hinckley what he thought he’d be remembered for, and he answered (wryly? ruefully? sternly?) “The prophet no one listened to.” I still don’t know what to think about that one — I mean, I think it’s got to be a true experience for all propehts that people don’t listen to them enough, but I have a hard time imagining him saying that without a bit of a twinkle in his eye. So, like I said, I don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me if it’s a legend.

    I don’t see why someone would need a prophet on an elevator to ask them whether they have their food storage — we all know we need it anyway, right? I hate the sensationalist idea that “Well now we *really* need it.” We’ve always needed to follow that instruction. (Not that I have mine in place yet . . . because I don’t listen to the prophet.)

    I believe in miracles, including some Three Nephite stories . . . but I agree that it’s a pretty good sign they’re not true if they’re treated sensationally rather than reverently.

    Matt: My mom (some time ago) was saying how it’s always puzzled her that the Lord would prefer one hand over the other, but that she’d learned (somewhere — sorry, I don’t know her source) that anciently the right hand symbolized mercy, while the left represented justice — so it’s not that one hand is better or more righteous or sacred than the other, but rather that those who aren’t on the Lord’s right hand are those who are subject to justice rather than mercy. (Is it okay to quibble with Elder Nelson in his pre-Elder Nelson days? Anyway, I guess you could go on to say that if the right hand is the mercy hand, that makes it special.)

  24. IMHO, one should spend time during the Sacrament thinking about repentance, forgiveness, and the atonement, not worrying about which hand to use. Strain at a gnat and swallow a camel.

  25. Thanks, Matt. Good to see some understanding and basis for the banter I’ve heard over the years. It was easy to assume it had something to do with “The right hand of the Lord”, but I had never seen any reference for it before. I guess that teaches me that I have easy access to verification for alot of these issues.

  26. The hand thing, in Islam, has to do with ritual (and physical) purity and particularly which hand you use for selected acts of bodily maintenance. Incidentally, my grandfather was punished for using his left hand to write in Hebrew school; I assume that has more to do with symbolism than any “this hand is used for icky stuff” taboo, since it happened in 1920s New York. See, also,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left-handedness

    I thought it was extremely cool, when learning Russian, that the word for “right” exactly matches all of the English meanings (handedness, correctness, truth, etc.) despite the words looking so very different (technically, they come from the same Indo-European root and sound somewhat similar to one another; I was easily impressed when first learning Russian.) It makes me laugh inside to hear the same Mormons who complain about Catholics being stuck to outmoded and obviously pagan traditions, then turn around and say that you must take the Sacrament with your right hand, in any case — prejudice against left hands is one of the most archaic traditions I can think of that’s still around, and certainly predates infant baptism and the use of Latin and candles and heavy robes in a liturgical context.

    As far as faith-promoting rumors actually promoting faith? Not in my experience. They have helped me distinguish between earthly and heavenly authority; I’m not sure how helpful it is to be 15 and saying to yourself “the Bishop sometimes testifies of things I know aren’t so, and God doesn’t seem to mind that I know it” during Sacrament meeting, though. I’ve also got a bit of a tin ear when it comes to other people’s spiritual experiences now: I find it hard to distinguish between Sister X crying at a testimony fireside and Sister Y weepily relating the tale of the “little birdies” two days later in Sacrament meeting.

  27. About fake stories to promote faith, where does church promoted fiction like “The Testaments” fit in? Except for the appearance of Christ in the Americas, it is all fiction. I know a lot of people who were inspired by that piece of fiction.

  28. Thanks for the link, Matt. Interesting, Sarah–I had never thought of the ancient prejudice against left hands aspect. I also dislike the “free the birdies” story.

    RC, I think that Church-promoted fiction is different because it’s billed as fiction from the get-go, whereas faith-promoting rumors, whether or not they began as truth, are always billed as true. We’re told to suspend disbelief as we watch “Testaments,” but told to believe in the rumors.

    I … was not among those inspired by “The Testaments.” I wanted to be. But the only part I really enjoyed was the part I recognized as true from the Book of Mormon: when the Savior came. It’s almost as though the movie makers wanted us to think their story had the same truth value as the original text that inspired it (which I think may be where you’re coming from). And, well, IMHO, it didn’t.

  29. Emily, In “The Testaments” I think the fictional lead-up to the Savior’s visit helps the viewer to see the Nephites as real people, and helps put scripture-supported events into a bigger picture.

    I just finished reading Alma, and like usual, created scenarios in my mind to match the narrative. Each time I read the Book of Mormon I’m a little older and have a better understanding of the “messiness” of the human condition.

    My “mental movie” of the events of the Book of Mormon gets more life-like (not necessarily more accurate, but more fleshed out) each time through it. Each time through, the characters get more real for me. That increasing real-ness helps me better see and apply the lessons.

    I think it was President Kimball who called for movies to be made of the Book of Mormon. President Benson made a similar appeal.

    I think it would be impossible to make a realistic movie, and also portray nothing but the scenes and dialogue in scriptures. The Book of Mormon especially is a summary, with the majority of the action from days/weeks/months/years summarized into a few sentences. Aside from sermons/speeches, blow-by-blow detailed narratives and dialogue seems to be the lesser portion of the Book of Mormon.

    When heroic and momentous events take place, they are probably not generally seen as such by the majority of the participants or contemporaries. When Nephi killed Laban, do we view it as Lehi might have, a young man being led by the Spirit, having a conversation with God, rising up to a scary challenge, and fulfilling a divine assignment? Or do we see it as Laman might have, the little brother who murdered a defenseless man in cold blood, and who likely taunted him later with “Are you going to kill us like you did Laban if we don’t do what you say?”

  30. Bookslinger, thanks for your comments! I am not opposed to creating art from Book of Mormon scripture (see here), and I agree that such art will of necessity create characters, scenes, and dialogue that aren’t present in the actual text. I just didn’t really like what was done in Testaments–personal taste, I suppose. At some point I may watch it again and feel differently. I remember being pretty disappointed the first time I saw it, though, because I went to it wanting to like it, and I just didn’t.

    Should I feel obligated to like/support art I don’t really enjoy, just because it’s based on the Book of Mormon? My own answer to that has to be no. Being based on the Book of Mormon is a good starting point. But I don’t feel like I should have to like it just because it’s got scripture in there someplace. I will try–I am always delighted when I find art I enjoy. But I need to have the freedom to dislike art based on scripture without feeling like I’m disliking the scripture itself.

  31. I was taught that it’s OK to use fiction to illustrate a point as long as you tell your audience up front that it’s fiction.

    I cringe remembering BYU Sunday School…where the teacher was privy to the “special secret meanings” of each word in a scripture.

    Is it just that age? EFY and college…when you chase spiritual fire! Songs and stories that make you cry. Mysteries of God that people feel called to expain in great detail. Faith inspiring guesses. Bleh!

    I crave the real. I don’t want to know the 3 different words it can translate to from the greek. I want to gain practical knowledge. My favorite is when the teacher teaches the lesson and stops to say ‘I have a hard time working this into my daily life, but here is something I try…’ and then other people add. How do YOU teach your children to have faith? How do you promote a loving environment? get the kids to stop fighting? banish depression?

    Don’t sit there and let me think you’re perfect – show me what you struggle with so I don’t feel so alone. Tell me what you’ve tried..what’s worked and what hasn’t. I don’t go to church to see your walls. How does that help anyone?

    I don’t want you to show me the scripture that proves I should get rid of the TV. I want advice on how to blend real life and spiritual things into a workable balance.

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