The Textbook Was a Revelation


Despite my skepticism, I found myself touched by the sheer beauty of the doctrines expressed in the Book of Mormon.

The crackling sounds and dusty scents of autumn are always accompanied by the familiar prospect of filling my head, notepads, and textbook margins with new ideas. So I was drawn to that classroom as much by the slant of September sunbeams as by the invitation of Garth Allred, a family friend, who also happened to be the instructor. The course I was registered for was Book of Mormon, Part 1. Though I was no stranger to the study of religion, I had no idea how radically this one course would affect my life.

When I entered the LDS Institute of Religion building that first day, I was in a state of complete spiritual disorganization. Years earlier, I had abandoned the church of my childhood. I had declared a moratorium on religious seeking, choosing rather to be guided by what the Quakers call the “Inward Light.” I had not prayed at all in the intervening years, doubting it was possible to know even the name of God, much less to speak to him. I had once believed in Jesus as the Messiah, but over time his short life and horrible death had come to seem only a tragic sacrifice by an extraordinary man trying to communicate to mankind the nature of a personal God whom he alone knew.

The inadequacy of this position was not apparent until my four-year-old daughter started to bring me her own questions about God. Having no answers for myself, I had none to give her. But her wonder rekindled in me the desire to know the truth, if there was any to be known.

I had been fairly well educated in my “mother” church. From kindergarten through university, the study of my religion had been a matter of daily routine. I knew very little about other churches, though, so I embarked on a desultory tour of a variety of Christian denominations, as well as a few Eastern religions. The basic questions remained unanswered in all of them: Who is God? Why is the world filled with suffering? And why was God so familiar with ancient people and so silent toward us in these times?

My little girl persisted in expressing her opinions, many of which sounded wiser than those of some of the churches. I was reminded of a phrase from an old book, “And a little child shall lead them” (Isa. 11:6), and I wished that she could lead me somewhere.

By the time Brother Allred invited me to attend his class, the only church in our small Utah community that I had not examined was The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Though I had lived among Mormons for more than a year and had been visited and befriended by many, I had learned little about their beliefs. What I did know had been taught me by my husband, who had once been an LDS missionary but had become what the neighbors referred to as “inactive.” This Institute course seemed an excellent opportunity to understand Utah better. By this time I had little hope that this church would be any different from the others: clear on matters of money and morals, fuzzy on theology and doctrine.

Despite my skepticism, I found myself touched from the very first class by the sheer beauty of the doctrines expressed in the Book of Mormon. I was on the verge of happy tears at nearly every contact with the Book of Mormon—both in class and reading on my own. Our teacher would outline some basic doctrine related to the text, and the class would discuss the applications for daily living. In this manner I was introduced to ideas regarding the premortal existence, the great Council in Heaven, and teachings about agency. The stunning proposition that there is a divine purpose and plan to this life set my head spinning. There were times in class when I was so shaken by the possibility, even the hope, that these concepts might be true, that I actually felt light-headed and weak-kneed.

I was very suspicious of my emotional response, so I deliberately put up a stubborn mental reserve, hoping to short-circuit my vulnerability and be more objective. All these thoughts are recorded in a journal, where I can still verify the changes that took place during those few weeks.

In spite of my detachment, several peculiar things happened. I suddenly felt inclined to pray, though I wasn’t sure who, if anyone, was listening. A growing gracefulness began to occur in my life, a softening toward others. And I felt a swelling of love for my family, filling what had been a widening emptiness.

When I started to pray again, I didn’t know what to say. Then I read 1 Nephi 2:16:

“I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father.” [1 Ne. 2:16]

Since Nephi’s prayer had been pleasing to the Father, I copied it, asking only for a softening of my heart and the ability to believe. Almost immediately I experienced a flood of relief, peace, and confidence that my prayers had been heard. And I began to believe. Eventually there came from this one prayer an undeniable assurance that in the Book of Mormon is contained all the comfort and knowledge I had sought unsuccessfully in everything I had read, from writings about yoga and vegetarian cooking to Carl Jung and C. S. Lewis.

Next I came in my study to the story of Nephi’s great confidence in the Lord:

“The Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” (1 Ne. 3:7.)

I was touched this time by Nephi’s obedience, but felt that he had a great advantage over the rest of us, for the Lord had spoken to him, directly and clearly. Again I wondered why God doesn’t talk to us any more, as he did to people long ago. Why had I never received a personal commandment? I carried the question with me to the next class, but I never had to ask it.

The first sentence Brother Allred spoke that day was, “This is the gospel of happiness.” I hardly heard another word that hour. The moment he made that statement, I was overcome with the sudden recognition that I had already received my own commandment.

It had come seven years before, at a time of turmoil in my life. For fifteen years, off and on, I had been unable to choose either life in a convent or marriage and motherhood. In my former church, true spirituality required celibacy, and from my youngest memory, I had wanted both spiritual progress and to be someone’s mommy.

Late one night, I was trying to take stock of my life. I believed that both desires were worthy and were God’s will for me. My belief had been tested through a series of disappointments. I recall kneeling on my bed, near despair, and literally crying out, mostly in anger, “What do you want from me?”

I don’t claim to have heard a voice, but it seemed that I did, saying clearly, “I want you to be happy.” But because of my disappointments, I felt that answer to be cruelly ironic. So I discarded the entire incident as my own imagining.

Until that day in class seven years later, I had not remembered it at all. Then I suddenly understood that this long-ago answer to an earnest prayer had been a personal commandment. When the teacher said “gospel of happiness” I recognized the way the Lord had prepared for me. In joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I could obey my commandment to be happy by being a mother and by consecrating my life to God.

Eight weeks after completing that Institute class, I was baptized and confirmed.

I never drive by the Institute building without a pang of sweet remembrance of what I discovered there. The completeness of the gospel plan continues to amaze me; I never cease to marvel at what my Father has done for me.

[photo] Photography by Craig Dimond

Carolyn McDonald, a homemaker, teaches Primary in the St. George Twentieth Ward, St. George Utah West Stake.