The scene is permanently set in my mind: my parents and I, sitting around the kitchen table, listening to the most fantastic story I had ever heard.
I was eleven when my new Scoutmaster, Ted, visited us that day. Like us, he had been raised Catholic, but now he had joined a new church. Ted explained that after praying for four years to know which church was true, he had been introduced to missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while he was stationed with the U.S. Navy on the island of Kodiak, Alaska. The Church answered many questions he had struggled with for years. When he learned about the Word of Wisdom, he was astounded: during those years he had lost his taste for coffee, tea, and tobacco, but had not known how or why. He was soon baptized.
He told us with great power and conviction that he knew his church was the only true church on the earth, and that this knowledge came in answer to years of prayer. In my hometown of Granby, Connecticut, it was unusual for someone—even from our own church—to come to our home to discuss religion. In conservative New England, the “Connecticut Yankee” is taught never to force his ideas about politics or religion on others. My parents listened to Ted kindly, but they told him frankly that they were not interested.
I was relieved. Changing religions would have burdened our lives with unwelcome social pressure and inconvenience. We were raised to be loyal to our faith, to believe in God, to attend church, and to obey the commandments—and we saw no need to change. We paid little attention to criticism of our faith. There was no doubt but that our church was the true one. We were so established—we had more than 1,500 years’ prior claim on the rest of Christianity. I attended catechism when I was young, but I didn’t enjoy the crowded classes and the stern mood. To me, religion was a more sacred and private matter. Even as a very young boy, I had a strong desire to know and understand God. I read the prayer book my father had when he was a boy, and sometimes at night I considered those prayers, trying to apply them to my life. I prayed my own prayers and learned for myself that God would answer them.
I remained friends with Ted, and though for several years we rarely discussed religion, I never forgot what he had told us. Years later, he told me he had known that someday I would be a member of the Church.
When the time came to choose a college, I looked for a small school in the East where I could play collegiate basketball. I decided on Saint Francis College, a picturesque, private, four-year institution situated on hundreds of acres of rolling green lawn which stretched as far as the North Atlantic coast on three sides. It had been supported for many years by the Franciscan monks.
Academically, my first year in college was devoted almost entirely to an eighteen-credit-hour philosophy/theology/civilization course taught by three professors—a monk who wore the hooded robe of his order, a proclaimed atheist, and a layman. As we began to study the Western philosophers who seemed to have set the mood for the doctrine of my church, I began questioning the teachings of men who claimed the same church and yet contradicted each other on such important questions as who God was, what he was, and how he worked.
Less than half the class seemed settled in their beliefs. Several habitually sat back silently, joining in the discussion only at the point of frustration. Two students—a coed who was rumored to be a witch, and a deep-thinking hippie-type—did have strong opinions. I was not satisfied.
We engaged in ambiguities and arguments that were often heated, yet never came to a firm understanding of truth. We became only more thoroughly convinced that we were now more confused than we had previously thought possible. I became increasingly distressed that people held such conflicting opinions of the doctrine of the “true church.” Grades were determined by how well we presented our own opinions. This approach, though valuable in that it required us to think for ourselves, only added to the confusion.
Among my associates, few students seemed to live by good and constant principles. They were continually experimenting with new “kicks.” Nearly everyone on campus had a gimmick—everything from smoking fifteen “joints” of marijuana a day to living on bean sprouts and broccoli stalks. All, they supposed, to enrich their lives and raise their grade point average. Because of such instability, students generally had little genuine trust in each other.
A diversity of opinion and a quandary over philosophy were rampant on campus. To have your own individual dispute with the evident was accepted and even preferred. I wanted to know the truth, but after studying the words of learned men, and after lengthy discussions, I found little clarity. My eventual response was despair.
I could not understand how anyone could be convinced of anything. I wrote a letter to the only person I knew who seemed convinced of the truth of his beliefs: my former Scoutmaster. I wanted to know what made him so convinced. In my letter I said I wanted to speak to him about his church when I returned home for Thanksgiving. By the time we were able to talk, I had many pressing questions, most of which he answered simply and conclusively. I wanted to know the nature and personality of God, and how God could affect me and my life. I was amazed that my old Scoutmaster could have so many answers. Later I learned that Ted had dyslexia, a disability that distorts visual perception, and he could hardly read. He prayed each time before seeing me, and his prayers were answered as he was able to find and understand the appropriate scriptures. He said he often knew what my questions would be before I even asked them, and the Spirit prepared him with the answers.
He began teaching me things that had taken him years to learn. He told me of a restoration. The term itself had great significance to me. The possibility was staggering. The apostasy had become evident to me, and it seemed clear that the reformation was only that—an attempt to reform a fallen condition. The idea of a complete restoration, with a true prophet and continual revelation, intrigued me.
That Christmas Ted gave me a copy of the Book of Mormon, challenging me to read it and to pray to know if it were true. Astonished after reading several pages, I put it down nearly as fast as I had picked it up. I knew that if it were true, I had belonged to the wrong church all my life. There are few things more humiliating than having to admit that your beliefs on such a delicate subject as religion are untrue. Yet as I read the Book of Mormon, I found it difficult to refute 520 such adequately witnessed pages. I was fascinated by the book itself. I carried a copy wherever I went for the ensuing two and one-half years and openly spoke of this curious work to people from New York to Newfoundland.
Shortly after receiving the copy of the Book of Mormon, I attended my first Mormon church service. The Scoutmaster and his wife had told me that church would be informal, but that didn’t begin to prepare me for the experience. Imagine—meeting in a common room that opened into a basketball court for extra seating. There didn’t seem to be any central figure on which to focus. People stood up, walked around, and sat down, seemingly at will. In my church we did those things together. It was difficult to hear, especially the young speakers, over the crying of their even younger competition. I couldn’t believe it when a Boy Scout went to the pulpit to receive an award. I was unaccustomed to seeing anyone but clergy at the pulpit. Perhaps my reaction was exaggerated, but I wasn’t sure what I was attending—a church service, a town meeting, or a court of honor.
After my first discussion with Ted, I felt threatened, and frantically began a more thorough study—inquiring of Ted and, on the other hand, consulting with the priests and philosophy professors. My old Scoutmaster amazed me with his many and varied thought-provoking questions and answers. I remember sitting at his home for hours discussing, of all things, religion. There was something so good about what he told me, how he told me, and what I felt. It was a sweetness I had not known before. Even at 3 A.M., I didn’t want to leave. Ted often chastized me for my attitudes and conduct, but for reasons difficult for me to understand, I kept coming back for more. By the middle of my second year at Saint Francis, my values had changed. I stopped playing basketball and devoted more time to my studies and my investigation of the Church—in search of truth.
But before I could accept something as truth, I had to learn what truth was. I reasoned that truth must be sure and absolute knowledge. It was obvious to me that there were many truths, such as the truth of mathematics, which said that if I added one and one, in the most common language of mathematics, I would get two. Generally, science and philosophy did not satisfy my thirst for the definite conclusions of truth that I sought. Science seemed limited to empirical experimentation; and although philosophy attempted to discuss the spiritual, in many cases it seemed to clutter the truth with outrageous speculation. I found the dominant religious philosophies of the Middle Ages, whose influence is greatly felt even today, born in apostasy and nurtured in ignorance.
Ted referred to and described what he said were two truths contained in scriptures: first, the truth of history, an actual account of the Lord’s dealings with his people; and second, the truth of righteousness, the commandments, the will of God for his children. Ted told me of new commandments—new to me—that he said were the will of God. I asked, how could the true philosophy incorporate laws that must be obeyed so strictly and specifically? I could understand why absolute truth about God had to exist, but I could not understand why systems of different laws could not coexist with God’s sanction. I mistakenly believed that an individual could discover the true philosophy within the bounds of any system of laws. How else could the Oriental or the Indian, bound as he is by tradition, gain salvation? I reasoned. And that was the problem—I was trying to reason my way to truth, rather than rely on faith. But still the Lord blessed me with understanding.
The answer came—unexpectedly—in two law courses I was taking. In each of the classes, the professors taught that it is the purpose and object of laws to maintain peace, order, and stability within a community. It struck me then that this was the purpose of God’s laws. Obeying them created peace and harmony within the individual and within the community. If God had laws (and he must), and if he had a proper interpretation of them (which he must), a community that followed those laws would be God’s perfect community, one of peace and order—pure peace and order. A community where the people of God could live together in peace and harmony. A kingdom where God could dwell.
I looked for an organization that had the laws, the principles, the rules of conduct which would create and maintain a kingdom of God. I was open-minded enough to think it didn’t have to be a church—it could be a club or lodge or political group. As I looked, the answer was obvious: the Mormons. Their church was the only organization that had all the principles which, if followed, could establish and prosper a kingdom of God. I knew then that I had to join the Church. This was an answer to my questions and prayers. By studying, I gradually gained the courage to be independent of the traditions of my friends and family, of social patterns and pressures. I soon developed the faith to be baptized.
I shocked Ted that Easter break when I told him that I was ready to join the Church. Returning again from school that May, I attended church three Sundays in a row, met the missionaries for the first time, and during that period took the missionary lessons and was baptized. My only regret was that I had not found the strength to accept the Church sooner.
My first conversion—an intellectual one—was soon inadequate. Through studying the teachings of men and the teachings of God, I found that some arguments against the true gospel seem, at times, more convincing than arguments for it. Not only are the philosophies of men very persuasive and usually easier to live, but reason alone is in most cases sufficient to the convincing of the natural man. The gospel of Jesus Christ, however, is not always persuasive to the natural man, entrapped as he is in the entanglements of logic and reason. Sometime, somewhere, that person who would be truly converted to the Church, be he member or not, must be humble and submissive enough to have an overwhelming desire to know the truth. Not just to continue the aimless, well-worn path from philosophy to philosophy to mythology, but to seek to actually know God’s absolute truths and to live them.
If it were not for the witness of the Spirit to confirm truth to us, we would be as confused and perplexed as the philosophies themselves. Through keeping baptismal covenants, we lay aside the natural man. As a result, we create the void which necessitates a spiritual witness; reason alone is no longer sufficient. This seems to fulfill the words of Moroni: “Dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith” (Ether 12:6). By obeying the commandments, we become worthy of further witness. The Savior said: “If any man will do [God’s] will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:17).
It was some time after my baptism that I desired a stronger spiritual confirmation. My prayers were sincere and of real intent. I desired the witness spoken of by Moroni, that I might know with firmer witness that the Book of Mormon was the truth, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that the Church was led by a living prophet. The answer to these prayers did not come with lights and thunder; it came quietly, one evening when I was sitting with friends. A warm feeling came over me, and my mind was enlightened with the pure knowledge that the teachings of the Church were true. The Holy Ghost had fulfilled Moroni’s promise and revealed this in a beautiful manifestation, in an unexpected place and time. I wanted to leave the room, to be by myself, but etiquette allowed only a silent prayer of thanks. My spiritual conversion enabled me to gain not only a stronger doctrinal conversion but also a conversion to other Church members. I began to see the members and the meetings in a different light.
I could see the hand of the Lord in my life. I came to appreciate my parents, who taught and lived gospel principles and, without knowing it, set an example that made it possible for me to accept the truth. I came to appreciate a friend who, even after several years, didn’t give up, who reminded me that I was “not the type of person who would settle for anything but the best.” I came to appreciate the time and patience spent with me in mending a seared conscience and softening a hardened heart. I came to appreciate an alma mater which fostered a thirst for truth, even with its motto: Lucens et Ardens, “light of mind with fire combined.”
The summer I was baptized I returned to school, becoming, I am quite sure, the first Latter-day Saint to attend Saint Francis College. A day or two after an intense discussion with a philosophy professor (a doctor of canon law) who claimed to have a copy of what he called “The Book of Moroni,” I noticed at the library a stand of extra books on sale for a nickel or ten cents apiece. Alongside some philosophy books was a copy of the Book of Mormon—an old paperback edition with a binding that had never been broken. My heart sank. There, in a library of the greatest books, was the greatest of them all, going for a nickel.
Some at Saint Francis were displeased with my conversion, but my friends respected me for my beliefs and convictions. I never lost a friend for joining the Church or living the principles of the gospel; I did, however, learn who my friends were. Most became closer, intimating that they felt they could trust me.
I completed my bachelor’s degree and moved home to Connecticut to face my first calling in the Church—deacons quorum adviser and Scoutmaster. I had been a member of the Church for seven months when we came to the lesson on missionary work. I read President Kimball’s statement that every worthy young man should go on a mission. I thought that my going would be a good example to the deacons. Praying about it eliminated all doubt: it was the right thing to do. I talked with my bishop, he sent in the papers, and I was called to the Nevada Las Vegas Mission.
Missionary experience proved to me the value of a personal testimony. I feel that the most powerful influence members have on their neighbors and friends is the strength of their own testimony, expressed. I hope to use every opportunity to bear witness and to teach by example, even if it is simply in the presence of an eleven-year-old Boy Scout.