Friday evening. Our branch presidency meeting was in session.
“If we didn’t have on the books those inactive members whom we know nothing about,” the branch clerk said emphatically, “our reports would look much better. Isn’t there something we can do about it? Some of these families have never been near the Church in thirty years; nor have they any desire to come.”
My counselors began to debate the point with the clerk. But I fell silent for a time, thinking back to the home I was raised in, and the hardships and inactivity of our family. …
As a ten-year-old consumed with curiosity, I sat on the floor in my parents’ bedroom one day and rummaged through the bottom drawer of father’s dresser. I came across an old book bound in black, with double columns of print on every page—rather like a Bible. But it wasn’t a Bible. I had seen the Bible often enough in school to know that.
I flipped through some of the pages. On several of them the verses had been blocked out in red crayon. I read some of these blocked passages. One in particular struck me. It read:
“Now the heads of the Lamanites were shorn; and they were naked, save it were skin which was girded about their loins, and also their armor, which was girded about them, and their bows, and their arrows, and their stones, and their slings, and so forth.
“And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers.” (Alma 3:5–6.)
Indians! I thought. Those are American Indians! The passage seemed to enter with great force into my mind. I reread it and pondered it; and then I read a few more passages from the book. After a while I heard my brother calling, so I replaced the book carefully in the drawer—and forgot about it for the next twelve years.
World War II was on. These were bleak, dark years; years of queues and ration books and fuel shortages; years in which the seeds of delinquency were sown as children were left to fend for themselves while their parents fought the war. They were the years of old teachers brought from retirement to cope with overcrowded classrooms; and of pupils returning to empty homes in the late afternoon to struggle with the breakfast washing-up and to fix themselves a little toast and dripping for supper.
And they were lonely years; in the confusion of war, parents went one way and children another. And in between was a deep gulf of silence, hardly ever crossed by either.
Years passed. I was hospitalized for fourteen months of illness. Then I was home again, twenty-one years old, engaged to be married, jobless, and confident that the world had a place for me.
Yet in spite of my confidence, the world in many respects was still dark. Mother was in a sanitarium. In a large bedroom I shared with my brother upstairs, he lay recovering from pleurisy of a particularly aggressive nature. Father was rarely home, his spare time after work being spent with mother at the sanitarium. We had a younger sister still at school; she was pale and quiet and rarely laughed.
I spent my days reading and walking, and in writing long letters to various friends in the hospital. Beyond that, my days were empty and my soul hungered. One April afternoon there came a knock at the front door, and when I went to answer it, two men in dark overcoats and black Homburg hats were standing on the doorstep.
“Henry William Dixon?”
“No, that’s my dad. Out to work at the moment, I’m afraid. Is there anything I can do for you?”
“Well, actually we are elders from your father’s church. While going through the records we found him listed there, and since he has not been seen for several years, we thought we would come and see how he is getting on.”
“Well, he’s not getting on too well. But all this is rather curious. He has not been to any church to my knowledge for the last twenty-one years. Which church is it?”
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Your father is a deacon in that church; and though he has not attended for many years, he is still a member. Has he ever mentioned the Church to you?”
“Never in all my experience.”
“Would you like to know more about your father’s church?”
“Yes, I believe I would. I am very curious.”
“Well, we have another appointment this afternoon, but we could meet with you in our chapel at four tomorrow afternoon. Would that be convenient?”
In the battered, red-tiled, freezing kitchen at No. 23, Booth Street, Handsworth, Birmingham, England, I received my first exhilarating lesson on the gospel of Jesus Christ—the subject being the Godhead. When it was over, I was given a small pamphlet The Joseph Smith Story. I took the pamphlet home and dropped it on my brother’s bed. He read it eagerly and put it away to read again.
On my second visit to Booth Street I was taught how to pray, and I stumbled and stuttered through my first conversation with my Heavenly Father, the palms of my hands sweating, my face afire. I also took another pamphlet home, which disappeared as rapidly as the first.
On my third visit to Booth Street, I was introduced to the Book of Mormon. The missionary present bore fervent testimony concerning the sacred volume. And then he gave me a copy of the book. I handled it for a moment and then handed it back to him.
“Have you no desire to read it?” he asked in surprise.
“Very much so, but I will borrow my father’s.”
“Does your father have one?”
“I am almost sure he does.”
Suppertime at home was quiet until I broke the silence. “Hey, dad, do you think I could borrow your Book of Mormon?”
His head shot up in astonishment. “Well—er—yes. I’ll get it for you after supper.”
And he did. From the bottom dresser drawer came a familiar black-bound volume which he placed in my hands without comment, but eyeing me very intently as he did so.
I read the book in three days, hardly pausing for food or sleep. Every page was a revelation, having a quality of light that seemed to cast all the dark shadows from my mind. I knew the book was of God. As I read, I was a boy again sitting on a bedroom floor, taking that same book from father’s dresser drawer, and reading red-crayoned verses. I felt like a man turning homeward.
When I had finished the book, my brother took it up; and after my brother, my fiancé. And after a while, we were all baptized. Then, as district missionaries, my brother and I preached the gospel to our sister; and every time we bore testimony to her, her tears fell like rain upon the carpet, so deeply was she moved by our words. Now we are all active Church members, and all three of us have been married in the temple.
But a mystery remained to be solved.
Some years after my conversion, when I visited father, I asked, “Dad, why did you never mention the gospel to your children?”
He took a deep breath, looked out the window for a moment, and then he said, “I never mentioned the gospel or the Church to any of you because I did not feel worthy to do it. But I never ceased to pray that one day all of you would hear it preached by an authoritative voice and be converted. I have yearned for that blessing, in spite of my sins.
“Actually, there was a time when my father’s family was very strong in the Church. My parents were converted in the early years of this century and raised us children in accordance with the gospel. My mother was local Relief Society president. But when they emigrated to California in 1926, I stayed behind to marry your mother. Her parents were bitterly opposed to the Church, and under the stresses and strains of that period, I soon became inactive and lost contact. Although I never doubted the Church, I began to do things far removed from its teachings. My conscience would haunt me concerning you children; but once a rift in communications is made, it is very hard to reestablish them. I am grateful that you children have joined the Church. I imagine the elders were surprised as well. They came looking for me, a hardened pike, and found a shoal of minnows.”
The reminiscing over, I turned my attention again to the problem presented to the branch presidency meeting in the chapel. I knew what we should do.
“Brethren,” I said, “admittedly we do have many members who seem to be a burden to our books and show little prospect of ever being active in the Church. But while we have them, we have waters in which the missionaries can fish. Perhaps some of the members have become as “hardened pike,” some are disaffected, and some will turn against us; but surely the answer lies in the cast of the net. Often we catch nothing; but then the voice of the Lord will whisper, ‘Cast the net on the right side,’ and when we do so, we are ‘not able to draw it for the multitude of fishes.’ (John 21:6.) Don’t you agree?”
Three hands were raised in solemn agreement; and we moved on to the next item of business.