An Italian Protestant minister in the early 1900s gives up his ministry for a book without a name. Twenty years later, he discovers it is the Book of Mormon.
“I Will Not Burn the Book!”03222_000_008
The story that follows is Brother Francesca’s account of his remarkable conversion. It is taken from an article in the May 1968 Improvement Era, pages 4–7; from the Deseret News, Church Section, 28 February 1951, pages 12–13; and from a letter that Brother Francesca wrote to Avard Fairbanks. The letter, currently in the Church archives, is the only known account by the author in English of his forty-year struggle to join the Church.
As I think back to the events in my life leading to a cold morning in New York City in February 1910, I cannot escape the feeling that God had been mindful of my existence. That morning the caretaker of the Italian chapel delivered a note to me from the pastor. He was ill in bed and wished me to come to his house, as he had important matters to discuss regarding the affairs of the parish.
As I walked down Broadway, the strong wind from the open sea moved the pages of a book lying on a barrel full of ashes. The form of the pages and the binding gave me the idea that it was a religious book. Curiosity pushed me to approach it. I picked it up and beat it against the barrel to knock off the ashes. It was printed in the English idiom, but when I looked to the frontispiece, I found it was torn away.
The fury of the wind turned the pages, and I hastily read Alma, Mosiah, Mormon, Moroni, Isaiah, Lamanites—except for Isaiah, all were names I had never before heard. I wrapped the book in a newspaper I had bought nearby and continued my walk toward the pastor’s house.
After a few words of comfort there, I took accord of what I should do for him. On the way home, I wondered who the people with the strange names might be. And who was this Isaiah? Was he the one in the Bible or some other Isaiah?
At home, I seated myself before the window, anxious to know what was printed in the book. As I turned the torn pages and read the words of Isaiah, I was convinced that it was a religious book that talked of things to come. But unknown was the name of the church that taught such doctrine, because the cover and frontispiece had been stripped off. The declaration of the witnesses gave me confidence that it was a true book.
I then bought twenty cents’ worth of denatured alcohol and some cotton at the neighborhood drugstore and began cleaning the pages. For several hours I read the remainder of the pages, which gave me light and knowledge and left me charmed to think of the source from which this fresh revelation had come. I read and reread, twice and twice again, and I found it fit to say that the book was a fifth gospel of the Redeemer.
At the end of the day, I locked the door of my room, knelt with the book in my hands, and read chapter ten of the book of Moroni. I prayed to God, the Eternal Father, in the name of his son, Jesus Christ, to tell me if the book were of God, if it were good and true, and if I should mix its words with the words of the four gospels in my preaching.
I felt my body become cold as the wind from the sea. Then my heart began to palpitate, and a feeling of gladness, as of finding something precious and extraordinary, bore consolation to my soul and left me with a joy that human language cannot find words to describe. I had received the assurance that God had answered my prayer and that the book was of greatest benefit to me and to all who would listen to its words.
I continued my services in the parish, but my preaching was tinged with the new words of the book. The members of my congregation were so interested that they became dissatisfied with my colleagues’ sermons. When members began leaving the chapel during their sermons and remained when I occupied the pulpit, my colleagues became angry with me.
The beginning of real discord began Christmas Eve, 1910. In my sermon that evening, I told the story of the birth and mission of Jesus Christ as given in my new book. When I had finished, some of my colleagues publicly contradicted all I had said. They denounced me and turned me over to the Committee of Censure for disciplinary action.
When I appeared before this committee, the members gave what they supposed to be fatherly advice. They counseled me to burn the book, which they said was of the devil, since it had caused so much trouble and had destroyed the harmony of the pastoral brothers. I replied, “I will not burn the book because of the fear of God. I have asked him if it were true, and my prayer was answered affirmatively and absolutely, which I feel again in my soul as I defend his cause now.” I felt then that the day would come when the book would be no more unknown to me and I would be able to enjoy the effects of the faith that led me to solemnly resist the Committee of Censure.
Not until 1914 was I once again brought before the council. The vice venerable spoke in a friendly tone, suggesting that the sharp words at the previous hearing may have provoked me, which was regrettable, since they all loved me. However, he said, I must remember that obedience is the rule and that I must burn the book.
I could not deny the words of the book nor burn it, since in so doing I would offend God. I said that I looked forward with joy to the time when the church to which the book belonged would be made known to me and I could become part of it. “Enough! Enough!” the vice venerable cried. He then read the decision, which was backed by the supreme synod three weeks later: I was to be stripped of my position as a pastor of the church and of every right and privilege I had previously enjoyed.
In November 1914, I was called into the Italian army and saw action in France. Once I related to some men in my company the story of the people of Ammon—how they had refused to shed the blood of their brothers and had buried their arms rather than be guilty of such great crimes. The chaplain reported me to the colonel, and the next day I was escorted to the colonel’s office. He asked me to tell him the story I had related. Then he asked how I had come into possession of the book. I received as punishment a ten-day sentence of bread and water, with the order that I was to speak no more of the book.
After the end of the war, I returned to New York, where I met an old friend, a pastor of my former church. He interceded for me with the synod, and I was finally admitted to the congregation as a lay member. As an experiment, it was agreed that I should accompany one of the pastors on a mission to New Zealand and Australia.
In Australia, we met some Italian immigrants who asked questions about the errors in some Bible translations. They were not satisfied with my companion’s answers. When they asked me about it, I once again told the story of Christ’s appearance to the people of America. When they asked me where I had learned such teachings, I told them of the book I had found. The story was sweet to them but bitter for my colleague. He reported me to the synod, and once again they cut me off from the church.
I returned to Italy shortly after. Then, in May 1930, while seeking in a French dictionary for some information, I suddenly saw the entry “Mormon.” I read the words carefully and found that a Mormon Church had been established in 1830 and that this church operated a university at Provo. I wrote to the university president, asking for information about the book and its missing pages. I received an answer two weeks later telling me that my letter had been passed on to the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
On June 16, 1930, President Heber J. Grant answered my letter and sent a copy of the Book of Mormon in Italian. He informed me that he would also give my request to Elder John A. Widtsoe, president of the European Mission, with headquarters in Liverpool. A few days later, Elder Widtsoe wrote to me, sending me a pamphlet that contained the story of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the gold plates, and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon. At long last, I had learned the rest of the story of the torn book I had found on top of a barrel of ashes.
On June 5, 1932, Elder Widtsoe came to Naples to baptize me, but a revolution between the Fascists and anti-Fascists had broken out in Sicily, and the police at Palermo refused to let me leave the island. The following year, Elder Widtsoe asked me to translate the Joseph Smith pamphlet into Italian and to have 1,000 copies published. I took my translation to a printer, Joseph Gussio, who took the material to a Catholic bishop. The bishop ordered the printer to destroy the material. I brought suit against the printer, but all I received from the court was an order to him to return the original booklet.
When Elder Widtsoe was released as president of the mission in 1934, I started correspondence with Elder Joseph F. Merrill, who succeeded him. He arranged to send me the Millennial Star, which I received until 1940 when World War II interrupted the subscription.
In January 1937, Elder Richard R. Lyman, successor to President Merrill, wrote that he and Elder Hugh B. Brown would be in Rome on a certain day. I could meet them there and be baptized. However, the letter was delayed because of war conditions, and I did not receive it in time.
From 1940 until 1949, I was cut off from all news of the Church, but I remained a faithful follower and preached the gospel of the dispensation of the fulness of times. I had copies of the standard works, and I translated chapters into Italian and sent them to acquaintances with the greeting, “Good day. The morning breaks—Jehovah speaks!”
On February 13, 1949, I sent a letter to Elder Widtsoe at Church headquarters in Salt Lake City. Elder Widtsoe answered my letter October 3, 1950, explaining that he had been in Norway. I sent him a long letter in reply in which I asked him to help me to be quickly baptized, because I felt that I had proven myself to be a faithful son and servant of God, observing the laws and commandments of his kingdom. Elder Widtsoe asked President Samuel E. Bringhurst of the Swiss-Austrian Mission to go to Sicily to baptize me.
On January 18, 1951, President Bringhurst arrived on the island and baptized me at Imerese. Apparently, this was the first baptism performed in Sicily.
When I came up out of the water, I said, “I have prayed daily for many years for this moment.” As President Bringhurst and his wife left, I shook their hands tenderly and told them, “My dear Brother and Sister Bringhurst—you can hardly imagine how sweet those words brother and sister are to me. I say them with a feeling of affection and appreciation that I have never before experienced, for I know that you have led me through the door that will eventually bring me back to my Heavenly Father, if I am faithful.”
On April 28, 1956, I entered the temple at Bern and received my endowment. At last, to be in the presence of my Heavenly Father! I felt that God’s promise had been fully fulfilled—the day had come indeed when the book would be no more unknown to me and I would be able to enjoy the effects of my faith.
Brother Francesca died 18 November 1966 at Gesta Gratten (Palermo), Italy. Before his death, he was able to do the temple work for many of his ancestors.