“One True Church” and the Intent Behind the Statement
There is a Biblical theme that is so repetitive throughout ancient scripture that one might expect that a modern-day counterpart would be accepted with enthusiasm. In a world wracked by division and violence, where are the prophets? Where are the visions and the priesthood? Has God ceased to speak to man? Have men ceased to look to God for unity?
There is a little secret about Christian History and the Bible that your pastor might not tell you about. Beginning first with the Puritans, and as a trend that has continued since the foundation of the United States of America, Christianity continued the break away from state-run churches (the Anglican Church, or Church of England) and Christians divided more and more from one another in the “marketplace” of religion. While such an environment of freedom is welcomed, it fostered the unintended consequence of allowing Christianity to bypass the mandate of unity. Aside from division within Christianity, what most Christians pastors might find troubling is that they operate contrary to the Bible’s message. Lost in all of this history, something very interesting happened to remedy this activity and linked first-century Christianity to the present.
In the spring of 1820, in upstate New York, a young boy by the name of Joseph Smith, Jr., who came from a backward, superstitious environment, and whose family often moved from place to place and survived as tenant farmers, recalled a response to a prayer about which church he should join (there was a lot of religious excitement at the time – what came to be known as the “Second Great Awakening”), and this is what he remembered:
I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt” (Joseph Smith History 1:19).
Taken in isolation, this seems harsh to other believers who sincerely follow their faith of their choice. From a theological point of view, this needs to be talked out a little more. What is meant by corrupt or being “all wrong”? Let me begin by saying that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have always valued our first amendment rights and believe that all denominations contain truth.
In order to illustrate what is meant by “all wrong,” imagine two Christians from different Churches and who are speaking on a street corner. One is a member of the restored Church of Jesus Christ and the other is from any number of other churches. In my experience with other Christians, both parties are eager to share their faith and the conversation doesn’t normally end the way it does below without veering off topic. With the luxury of a keyboard, I can finish the conversation and then allow other Christians that might see this and wish to respond:
The member of the Church of Jesus Christ asks you, “are you a Christian?”
Other Christian: Yes
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: Let’s read the entire New Testament right here.
[New Testament read]
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: Is this the community you believe in? Your people, that we just read about?
Other Christian: Yes, I am a Christian.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: So, you are part of a community that is 2000 years old?
Other Christian: That is correct.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: Show me.
Other Christian: What?
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: Show me how you are part of THIS community.
Other Christian: I’m a Christian, and I believe in the Bible.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: So, if I follow you down to your Church, I will see this community, the one we just read about, at your church.
Other Christian: Sure.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: You have apostles?
Other Christian: No
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: You have prophets?
Other Christian: No, we have the Bible and Jesus Christ. My pastor is a man of God.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: You have the priesthood?
Other Christian: The priesthood is for all believers.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: You pastor has the priesthood? Your pastor can baptize you, lay hands, etc., just as we read?
Other Christian: Yes.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: Where did he get this priesthood? Again, from what we just read? How does your pastor have something that existed 2,000 years ago? How was it passed down to your pastor?
Other Christian: The Bible talks about a priesthood of believers. That is what I believe.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: Yes, but HOW does the New Testament treat that priesthood? Who gave it? How was it passed? What happened when the last apostles died?
Other Christian: The Bible says there are no more prophets or apostles.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: What was Paul? Peter?
Other Christian: A special witness and missionary of Christ.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: Apostles?
Other Christian: Yeah, but…
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: Wait a second…What did we just read about Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus?
Other Christian: He was a believer.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: What else.
Other Christian: He had a vision of Christ.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: Did that experience alone give him power?
Other Christian: No
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: What did?
Other Christian: He was told to visit Ananias, who laid hands on him.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: And what does that mean in the New Testament?
Other Christian: He was ordained by another and given power.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: Right. Either to be a disciple in the priesthood of some capacity, but also to be baptized. He was not yet an apostle at this point in this story. Before Paul, who did the Twelve Apostles receive the power of the priesthood from?
Other Christian: Jesus Christ
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: And in the Old Testament, who did Aaron receive if from?
Other Christian: Moses
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: Who did Moses receive it from?
Other Christian: God
Other Christian: And the priesthood is for all believers.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: So, is there a priesthood of Pentecostals, of Methodists, of Anglicans, of Catholics, of Presbyterians, etc.? Is God now a promoter of division?
Other Christian: All you need is to believe in the Bible.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: That’s what we’re doing here, right?
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: Whose experience is more like Paul’s? Joseph Smith’s and all Latter-day Saint leaders since, or the various pastors and preachers in other Christian sects?
Other Christian: The Latter-day Saints.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: Of the faiths that emerged from the First and Second Great Awakening, which sect of Christianity had an experience or foundation that most resembles what we read all throughout the Old and New Testament?
Other Christian: The Latter-day Saints
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: I asked earlier: HOW does the New Testament treat that priesthood? Who gave it? How was it passed? What happened when the last apostles died?
Other Christian: Christ gave his apostles power. It is passed on to new disciples and apostles. I presume the power ceased with their deaths? The Catholic Church assumes this power continued with their church, but as Protestants, we reject that.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: But you don’t reject that priesthood was important in the New Testament, right?
Other Christian: No, it is important.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: So, wouldn’t it be important to find out who has it today?
Other Christian: Of course.
Member of the Church of Jesus Christ: What is keeping you from discovering this and telling others about it?
You: … [this is where you, the reader come in if you are not Latter-day Saint. How would you respond similarly or differently in this conversation?]
In a work setting or a family function, this conversation rarely goes so smoothly or with such persuasion. Where would you direct this conversation differently as a member of the Church? As another Christian?
It is a common phrase you hear in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that “our church is the only true church.” It is often repeated by well-meaning members at fast and testimony meetings, once a month in chapels. This trend originated with the answer to Joseph Smith’s prayer. Repeating from above, Smith recalled that God told him “that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong” (Joseph Smith – History 1:19).
Members of the restored Church claim to have the same priesthood power that Christ gave his apostles in the New Testament and the means of passing that power down through an unbroken line (a claim that has been long asserted by the Catholic Church).
All religions are good and hold some truth. We shouldn’t be so quick to say or imply we are the only one with truth. We might not be saying it, but it sounds like it to other people. “Our books and our church are the only way,” whether we say that or not, that is how we are perceived. In other words, to others, the Church of Jesus Christ is just another religion claiming to have divine inspiration and new scripture – kind of like Islam. Since that is a hot topic, where is their priesthood?
Islam can lay claim to Gabriel and his visitation to the prophet Muhammad, Evangelicals can claim a “priesthood of believers” and having a desire to serve, but faithful members of the restored Church believe God was directly involved, as well as those who held the priesthood in the New Testament, who, through a series of theophanies, interacted with Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in passing on that power in the modern-day. Of all the faith traditions that came out of the First or Second Great Awakening, I would offer the challenge that none of them offered a turning back to the New Testament quite like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Neither does Islam. Members of the restored Church claim to have the same priesthood power that Christ gave his apostles in the New Testament and the means of passing that power down through an unbroken line (a claim that has been long asserted by the Catholic Church).
But isn’t it sufficient to know the Bible and to have a desire to serve? Not according to the New Testament. Speaking of this desire, current Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ, Dallin H. Oaks said:
The Bible is clear that priesthood authority is necessary and that this authority had to be conferred by the laying on of hands by those who held it. Priesthood authority did not come from a desire to serve or from reading the scriptures. When that priesthood authority was lost through apostasy, it had to be restored by those resurrected beings who had held it in mortality and who were sent to confer it. That happened as part of the Restoration of the gospel, and that priesthood authority, together with the keys necessary to direct its operations, are in this Church and no other.
Extending an invitation for all truth-seekers to increase their experience with Christ and the scriptures, former president, and prophet of the Church, Gordon B. Hinckley said:
“To these we say in a spirit of love, bring with you all that you have of good and truth which you have received from whatever source, and come and let us see if we may add to it.”
All religions have truth and add tremendous values to the lives of their adherents. The restored Church simply makes a claim that invites others to know more. As such, we should be careful to say we are the ‘one true church,’ even within the walls of our own congregations. Our words have power and we should be more precise in what we mean. As Christians, or Bible believers as a whole, are we making the scriptures more complicated than necessary, and is it just a matter of time before believers come to know these subtleties of the scriptures and become one?
 Dallin H. Oaks, The Only True and Living Church. https://www.lds.org/youth/article/only-true-living-church?lang=eng
 Gordon B. Hinckley. The Marvelous Foundation of Our Faith. https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2002/10/the-marvelous-foundation-of-our-faith?lang=eng
Scott Thormaehlen received his Master’s in History in 2016 and taught U.S. History in the Lone Star College system in Houston, Texas and for Alvin Community College. His writings have appeared in Accuracy in Academia, the Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies at Sam Houston State University, LDS Living, Meridian Magazine, and East Texas History – a project by Sam Houston State University.