My Struggle for the “Easy A”

It was the spring of 1976, my sophomore year at Duke University, and I was not in search of divine truth or any life-changing religious experience. Political science and religion were my two majors, and, with two tough political science classes on my schedule, I was in quest of an easy A in a religion class. Law school was already a primary goal and main preoccupation in my life, and therefore grades were of prime importance.

A number of fellow students recommended Religion 124. The instructor of the class was popular among Duke students, partly because he was the most well-known giver of A’s on the Duke campus.

Religion 124 was entitled “Christianity in America”: no tests, no attendance requirements, no assignments, no reading lists. But the class was no pushover. We were required to write three thirty-page papers, with one thousand pages of reading for each paper.

The subject of my first paper was Evangelical preacher George Whitefield, whose charismatic personality and melodic speaking voice had drawn great throngs. But researching Whitefield had been a suggested paper topic, and so, predictably, it was neither terribly exciting nor even slightly controversial.

For my second topic, I wanted something out of the ordinary, unorthodox.

Sixteen years earlier, my mother had become a Latter-day Saint, and ever since, although we children maintained our loyalty to the religion in which we had earlier been reared, Mom had been subtly teaching us LDS doctrine. Those beliefs jumped out at me now—Joseph Smith in the grove, the Book of Mormon, ancient Jews traveling to America, a life before this one.

They were all fascinating and challenging topics, but still not peculiar enough. And then I remembered the LDS belief that Christ had visited the Americas after departing from Jerusalem following his resurrection. I immediately telephoned Mom for some recommendations as to the sources I should use. She referred me, naturally, to the account beginning in 3 Nephi 11; another source was LeGrand Richards’ A Marvelous Work and a Wonder. [3 Ne. 11]

I wanted to discuss this unique belief free of the passions and emotional investment of the believer. Scholarly objectivity was my goal. Mom wished me well, and I am sure that she hung up the phone realizing that on that day the premortal birthmark of subjectivity, that which we call the light of Christ, burned a little more brilliantly within her son.

Mother had already conveniently provided a Book of Mormon for my bookshelf; after reading the passage she had recommended, I set off for the Duke Divinity School Library. I looked up “Mormonism” in the card catalog and found Sidney Sperry’s Commentary on the Book of Mormon. On the library’s “Mormon” shelf, I was confronted also by less friendly titles. I was not so naive that I had never heard of anti-Mormon literature, and, remaining true to my objective goal, I checked out those books as well in an attempt to strike some empirical balance.

My research began, and soon I could feel that my objectivity was on the wane. To gain some historical perspective on the Nephites, I hastily skimmed several books. Their departure from Jerusalem prior to its destruction and their mode of transportation seemed to be at least possible, if not probable. In another religion class, I had read of the legend of Quetzalcoatl and recognized the Hebraic similarities in the Nephite culture. Most impressive, however, was the unmistakable simplicity which marked Christ’s American gospel.

In his three visitations, I met a straightforward Jesus, a man who was candid and frank. There were no disputations, no harassment, no vindictive tongues, no disdain. His teaching milieu was clean and fresh. There was no political or sectarian pollution of faith. My throat tightened as I read that his American audience cried when the Master could not tarry longer with them.

In Jerusalem, he forgave others for despising him, for abusing him, and ultimately for killing him. In the land of Jerusalem, he would ascend to the mountaintops to find refuge from the interrogating lawyers and the stupidity which stiffneckedness brings. In Jerusalem, he resorted to parables; some listeners were taught about fig trees, but others were deafened by their desires for his death. In Jerusalem, he was “a man of sorrows.” (See Isa. 53:3.)

In the land of Bountiful, though, he confidently decreed, “Have they not read the scriptures, which say ye must take upon you the name of Christ, which is my name? For by this name shall ye be called at the last day. … Therefore, whatsoever ye shall do, ye shall do it in my name; therefore ye shall call the church in my name; and ye shall call upon the Father in my name that he will bless the church for my sake.” (3 Ne. 27:5–7.) Such doctrine was not punctuated with claims of blasphemy. In America they listened, learned, and lived the gospel in harmony for nearly two hundred years following his departure.

In Jerusalem, he knelt alone in Gethsemane and perspired blood; in America, he knelt again, but this time in the multitude’s midst, and wept, not for the sins of the world, but because his joy was full.

In Jerusalem, they mocked him openly and desecrated him beneath the inscription “King of the Jews”; in America, so great and marvelous was that which they saw and heard that no transcription was allowed.

After being introduced to this other chapter in the gospel narrative, I was rationally persuaded, but not unequivocally convinced. My quest for the easy A and my study of the American visit of Jesus had led me to the inner recesses of Mormon doctrine.

Then a late night’s research brought to light this startling idea: Man can become like God. I read that astonishing chapter heading again and again in an anti-Mormon tract, then continued to read, notwithstanding my disbelief. It seemed strange doctrine indeed. I looked at my watch. Mother was already asleep. To facilitate my own sleep that night, I came to the only logical conclusion that such an objective scholar could reach: “Boy, that goes to show you, those anti-Mormons will go to the most extreme lengths to discredit those poor Mormons.” The next morning I was so confident in that conclusion that I telephoned Mom immediately.

“Hi, Mom, the paper’s going well. I haven’t begun writing yet. I called to check … well, I was reading this anti-Mormon book last night, and it said …” Then I swallowed hard and asked, “Mom, Mormons don’t believe that man can become like God, do they?

“Oh, uh huh, well, yeah, I guess it’s not all that strange.” Dazed, I just hung up. Well, my professor would be spared this unorthodox tidbit, and for the moment I decided not to include it in my own new theological diet as well. It was time to write.

I cloistered myself in a cramped, obscure little library room that had one table, two chairs, and a bank safe that contained ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. (Ironically, my handwriting has never been the same since.) I would spend five hours there every evening alone, and I became very protective of my territory because of the pressures that were increasing daily from my desire to know the truth. I wanted privacy not only to write but just to think and think again. (Now, as a Latter-day Saint, I call it pondering and meditating.)

Writing about Christ in America was a traumatic ordeal, not because of the paper’s length, but because of the subject’s penetrating depth. The more I wrote, the more I realized that I was doing something far beyond composing a mundane book report. I was adopting a new creed, a new way of life, complete with new dreams and new priorities for the future.

And that is what made the gospel so scary, and why I was so eager to be left alone. Before covenants can be made, habits must be broken. I had languished far too long in my ivory tower of intellectual elitism. I was guilty on several counts of idolatry. First, I was a co-conspirator with the Egalitarian camp which argues that God created individuals and therefore those individuals have the right to worship him in their own personally prescribed ways. Second, I was a religious transient, the anonymous parishioner. Religious institutions struck me as confining. Like the young New Yorker, Joseph Smith, I had been from tent to tent and had seen the preachers displaying their goods before the admiring crowds. And for too long I had wandered more than I had wondered.

I was disappointed, disillusioned, and disenchanted. But now my writing had brought me before that critical door to which the Savior alluded. (See Matt. 7:7.) Although I had lost my ability to knock so many years before because debilitating disease had confined me to a wheelchair, my faith had not atrophied. I wanted to know the truth. And I knew the answer would come, because it had come before in my life during times of great trial.

During one of those times of trial, I had found someone who apparently had been just as desperately in need of an injection of faith. I had opened the Bible to David’s prayer; it seemed he had written it for me.

“Bow down thine ear, O Lord, hear me; for I am poor and needy. …

“Be merciful unto me, O Lord: for I cry unto thee daily. …

“In the day of my trouble I will call upon thee: For thou wilt answer me. …

“I will praise thee, O Lord my God, with all my heart: and I will glorify thy name for evermore.” (Ps. 86:1–12.)

And so, the answer did come in that small library room. There were no miracles, no heavenly tutors, but neither was there anything sophomoric about the sublime truths I included in my paper (which earned me an A-) and incorporated into my life. The Book of Mormon is true. God lives. Jesus is more than the misunderstood miracle worker of the New Testament, and more than the glorious three-day visitor of 3 Nephi. He is our Savior and Redeemer.

I remember Religion 124 fondly now, and pray that I may never cease praising God for allowing me to seek that “easy A.”

[illustration] Illustrated by Scott Snow

J. Stephen Mikita, assistant attorney general for the state of Utah, serves as a seventy in his Salt Lake City stake.