Why do people join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? Part of that answer lies in the stories of converts of the past. Consider, for example, the Lord’s preparatory work with six individuals converted to the Church during the early Kirtland period—John Murdock, Parley P. Pratt, Sidney Rigdon, Lorenzo Snow, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff.
One factor common to most was participation in some denominational church. The only partial exception was Parley P. Pratt. His family, while devout, did not join a church, because they felt the denominations were at odds with one another. For the other five, however, a basic religious foundation was laid for the most part through their participation in other churches.
Further preparation took place as the Spirit led all six to search for more truth. Inevitably, the Spirit led them to begin their search in the Holy Bible. Because of their study of the Bible and the whisperings of the Spirit, they already knew the gospel before the missionaries preached it to them. They were merely waiting to find it. Their principal question was not what the gospel was, but rather where it was and who had the authority to administer its ordinances. They tested all missionary claims against the teachings of the Bible and the promptings of the Spirit. Even the Book of Mormon was examined against these two criteria. For these men, it was essential that the Spirit bear witness to the truth of the Book of Mormon, and the final assurance came as they found that this new scripture bore witness of the same things the Bible did.
Religious influences within their homes played an important part in preparing all six men to accept the restored gospel. John Murdock’s parents, as well as some of his mother’s relatives, were members of the Seceder Church, a dissenting group from the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.1 William Rigdon, Sidney’s father, was “a stern Baptist farmer who had no tolerance for idleness.”2 Lorenzo Snow’s parents were Baptists. Speaking of her parents, Eliza R. Snow said, “[T]heir house was a resort for the good and intelligent of all denominations, and their hospitality was proverbial. Thus, as their children grew up they had ample opportunities for forming acquaintances with the erudite of all religious persuasions.”3 In addition, Lorenzo’s mother and two sisters, Eliza and Leonora, joined the Latter-day Saints before he did.4
John Taylor’s parents were members of the Church of England and made certain that their son learned the catechism and the prayers of the denomination. In their eyes, the Church of England was the true church, and while John seems to have had little interest in ecclesiastical formality, he did develop a deep reverence for God.5 Similarly, Wilford Woodruff’s family had roots in the Presbyterian tradition and taught their children to reverence the Sabbath and to learn the Presbyterian catechism, as well as scriptural passages.6 When Wilford was eight, a Baptist revival led to the baptism of his stepmother and several other relatives.7 In addition, his father lived Christian teachings by giving liberally to the poor.8
Some of Wilford’s most profound religious education came from an extended family member. Living in the region of Wilford’s boyhood home in Connecticut was a man by the name of Robert Mason who was called “the old prophet” by his neighbors. He, in contrast to his neighbors, believed that there would be prophets, Apostles, and gifts of the Spirit in the latter days. Mason had also had a vision that indicated to him that there was no church of Christ on the earth in his day, but that he would live to see it established. He was often in the Woodruff home. Wilford believed Mason and prayed often that he would be prepared for the Church when it came.9
Parley P. Pratt’s family was not formally associated with any religious denomination, and his father tried to prevent prejudices either for or against the competing denominations. This did not mean, however, that the family did not attend public worship. As opportunity permitted, they attended the Presbyterian, the Baptist, and the Methodist churches. Despite his doubts about denominational religion, Parley’s father made certain that he inculcated in his children’s lives the Christian principles of “integrity, honesty, honor, and virtue.”10 Parley’s brother, Orson Pratt, recorded in his journal that this was in large measure due to the fact that his parents “looked upon the history of ancient Christianity, as recorded in the Bible, as something most sacred and worth possessing. These Bible doctrines, they diligently instilled into the minds of their children, so far as they understood them and often expressed themselves as desirous of belonging to the Church of Christ, if it could be found.”11
In spite of the denominational affiliations these early converts held, they all felt a sense of religious dissatisfaction. John Murdock, Parley Pratt, Sidney Rigdon, and John Taylor were members in their lifetimes of more than one denomination or religious group before joining the Church, and in each move they sought a Christianity closer to that which they found in the New Testament. Brothers Murdock, Pratt, Rigdon, and Woodruff were Campbellites immediately prior to becoming Latter-day Saints. In addition, Murdock, Pratt, Rigdon, and Taylor were denominational preachers during their lives.
John Taylor was a Methodist and became a local Methodist preacher in England. He continued in that role in Canada until his questioning spirit led him to stand at variance with Methodist theology.12
John Murdock, seeking a place where the ordinances of the gospel were administered, first joined the Lutheran Dutch Church. He later affiliated loosely with the Methodists, for whom he occasionally preached after he withdrew himself from fellowship with a Baptist group whose strongly Calvinistic position he could not accept. In 1827 he joined the Campbellites but became dissatisfied when he learned that Alexander Campbell denied the gift of the Holy Ghost.13
Both Parley P. Pratt and Sidney Rigdon began their formal church affiliations with the Baptists, although Parley, at around age fifteen, lived in the home of William S. Herrick, a Presbyterian of whom he spoke very highly. At about age eighteen he became concerned with eternal things and ultimately requested baptism from a Baptist group. During a delay in his baptismal date, he became convinced that the church wasn’t patterned after the New Testament Church.14 After searching further, he joined the Campbellites in 1829.15
Sidney Rigdon “professed religion” at age twenty-four and became a member of the Regular Baptists. He became the pastor of a Baptist Society in Pittsburgh in February 1822, but finding himself theologically at odds with the Society, he ultimately left the ministry and entered the tanning business. However, after meeting Alexander Campbell and Walter Scott, he experienced a renewed enthusiasm for the ministry. While Rigdon continued officially in the Baptist communion through the Mahoning Association in Ohio, from 1826 on he preached the Campbellite message with his own personal variations.16
Lorenzo Snow and Wilford Woodruff never joined an established church before they became Latter-day Saints. As an infant, Woodruff was baptized by a Baptist minister, but never joined the church.17 Snow attended Oberlin College, a Presbyterian-affiliated institution, but he was not impressed by the religious beliefs he found there. He states in his journal that “through a disgust to their inconsistencies, and opposing principles, I never attached myself to any religious society.”18 Some of this antipathy was undoubtedly due to a chance meeting, on his way to Oberlin, with David W. Patten, who profoundly impressed him with his depth and reasoning about the restored gospel.19 Apparently, Lorenzo tried to introduce some of his colleagues at Oberlin to the restored gospel. He found some interested20 and others judgmental. Referring to the latter, he wrote, “I very soon became disgusted with their system of intollerance religious tyrinay and bigotry, and as I felt to proclaim and suport the principles of Joseph Smith as far as I knew them which all were biterly opposed to therefore my removal from the College was warmly reccommended by the authorities.”21 (Original spelling, punctuation, and capitalization preserved here and elsewhere in article.)
Thus, four out of these six men sought to serve God through the established denominations of their day. All, however, felt that there had to be more to the gospel than was being preached in the various denominations. Consequently, when they found a denomination that closely resembled the New Testament Church, they knew that it was that for which they had been searching. This longing to find a church that reflected the Church of the New Testament was supported by some deep spiritual experiences. The stories of John Murdock, Parley P. Pratt, and John Taylor will serve as illustrations.
At seventeen, John Murdock had an accident that led him to covenant with the Lord that if the Lord would spare his life, John would serve him from that time on. Later, when he was around age twenty-five, he was engaged in prayer when a vision was opened in which he found himself before the bar of God being asked whether he “had commemorated the death and sufferings of the Saviour, by obeying the Ordinances.”22 As a result, he immediately began to seek a society where such ordinances could be found.
His study of the Bible convinced him that immersion was the proper form of baptism, that infant baptism was unnecessary, and that faith and repentance must precede baptism. He also contemplated what it meant to be born of water and of the Spirit, as recorded in John 3:5. He recognized that to be born of water was to be baptized, and after reflection he learned that to be born of the Spirit was to receive the Holy Ghost.
Further study led him to conclude that none of the extant denominations were authorized by God. If that was so, then who had the authority to baptize or to administer any ordinance of the church? Murdock finally concluded, “If the [denominations] are out of the way, as we [Campbellites] believe, they have lost all authority, and … the only way the authority can be obtained is, the Lord must either send an angel to baptise the first man, or He must give a special command to some one man to baptise another.”23
It was shortly after this realization that he learned of Mormon missionaries in the area. His first reaction was that they were of the devil, but “I was immediately checked in my feelings, and I made no more harsh expressions respecting them.”24 Murdock’s concern was whether these missionaries were the persons authorized by God to bring that for which he had been searching. “I said, If it be so, their walk will agree with their profession, and the Holy Ghost will attend their ministration of the ordinances. And the Book of Mormon will contain the same plan of Salvation as the Bible. I was sensible that such a work must come forth, but the question with me was, are these the men that are to commence the work?”25
After reading the Book of Mormon and talking with missionaries and others who had already accepted the restored gospel, John Murdock received from the Spirit a confirmation of the truth of the things he had been told. With that assurance, he entered the waters of baptism. His comment about the event summarizes his search. “This was the third time that I had been immersed, but I never before felt the authority of the Ordinance, but I felt it this time and felt as though my sins were forgiven!”26
Under his mother’s guidance, Parley Pratt’s spiritual education began with the Bible when he was seven. He read the great stories of Joseph in Egypt, of David and Goliath, of Jesus and his Apostles, and loved them all. By the age of twelve he was reading the book of Revelation and contemplating the martyrs and the millennium. Reading the scriptures highlighted for him the spiritual differences between the ancient Church and the churches of his day. When he asked his father why this was so, he was told that times and circumstances had changed. In response, Parley “still continued to study the scriptures to learn how to be saved.”27 It was at this point that he sought baptism by immersion from the Baptists, and though he still saw a disparity between the ancient and modern churches, he attended meetings and tried to keep the commandments of Jesus as best he could. Yet he could not escape the feeling that he had not found Christ’s Church.
After a period of withdrawal into the wilderness to preach the gospel to the Indians, Parley returned, married, established a farm in eastern Ohio, and there heard the preaching of Sidney Rigdon, who at that time preached his own brand of Campbellite doctrine, though he was a Baptist minister. “Here was the ancient gospel in due form. … But still one great link was wanting to complete the chain of the ancient order of things; and that was, the authority to minister in holy things—the apostleship, the power which should accompany the form. … However, we were thankful for even the forms of truth, as none could claim the power.”28
At the beginning of 1830, Parley felt a strong compulsion to prayerfully search the writings of the prophets. He was amazed at how his understanding of God’s purposes was expanded, especially of “the restoration of Israel, the coming of the Messiah, and the glory that would follow.”29
Shortly after Parley’s intense study of these things, he met a minister in upstate New York who told him of a “strange book” that a young man who lived in the vicinity claimed to have translated—the Book of Mormon. The next day, Parley saw the book for the first time and began eagerly reading it. Almost immediately, the Holy Ghost bore witness to Parley of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon and of the restoration of the ancient order with the same authority that had been revealed in biblical times. On the Sunday after his baptism into the Church, he was asked to preach. He states, “The Holy Ghost came upon me mightily. I spoke the word of God with power, reasoning out of the Scriptures and the Book of Mormon.”30 He, too, had found what he sought.
John Taylor’s story is one of strong spiritual promptings. As a child he had a vision in which he saw an angel holding a trumpet to his lips and sounding a message to the nations. Though he did not know then the meaning of the vision, it had significant impact on him. As a boy, he spent many hours in prayer and Bible study, believing that all good gifts came from God. After he was called to be a Methodist lay preacher, he was traveling to fulfill an appointment when the Spirit impressed upon him the need to go to America. After immigrating to Toronto, Taylor joined a group of men who were dissatisfied with the theology of their day because of “the wide difference between modern and primitive Christianity, in doctrine, in ordinances, in organization and above all, in spirit and power.”31 They saw no correlation between the ancient organization of Christ’s church as displayed in the New Testament and what they saw around them.
“They believed that men who accepted the gospel should have bestowed upon them the Holy Ghost … and all the powers, graces and blessings as experienced in the Christian Church of former days. They believed that Israel would be gathered, … that judgments would overtake the wicked, and Christ [would] return to the earth and reign with the righteous; they believed in the first and second resurrection, and in the final glory and triumph of the righteous. But while they believed all these things, they recognized the fact that they had no authority to act in the premises and organize a church. … It was evident to them they could not perform this work unless called of God to do it, and they were painfully conscious of the fact that not one among them was so called.”32
The group fasted and prayed for a messenger to come to them. Meanwhile in Kirtland, Heber C. Kimball, in a prophecy filled with promises to Parley Pratt and his family, called Parley to journey to upper Canada, where he would find “a people prepared for the gospel, and they shall receive thee, and thou shalt organize the Church among them, and it shall spread thence into the regions round about, and many shall be brought to a knowledge of the truth, and shall be filled with joy; and from the things growing out of this mission, shall the fullness of the gospel spread into England, and cause a great work to be done in that land.”33
Parley’s first encounter with John Taylor’s group was met with coolness. But when he finally had an opportunity to preach, the group found his message congruent with what they had already discovered in the scriptures. For three weeks, John Taylor followed Pratt closely. He wrote down eight of Pratt’s sermons and compared them to the Bible. Convinced that Pratt taught the truth, John Taylor and his wife were baptized on 9 May 1836.34
Thus, like John Murdock and Parley Pratt, John Taylor was led by the Spirit and by scripture to recognize and accept the fulness of the gospel.
What of the other three men? Their stories are much the same. They each longed for the church they saw in the New Testament but could not find in the world around them. Sidney Rigdon, seeking the New Testament church, joined the Campbellites.35 Lorenzo Snow was not especially interested in any church, having found his experience with Presbyterianism anything but satisfying. Even so, when the seeds planted by David W. Patten began to grow during Lorenzo’s study of Hebrew in Kirtland, his first reaction was to compare it with the New Testament church.36 Wilford Woodruff was taught by the Spirit that the Lord was about to set up his kingdom.37 When Wilford finally heard the gospel, that same Spirit bore powerful witness that this was what he had sought.38
It is evident that all six men were prepared by the Lord for the restoration of the gospel long before they ever encountered it. The principal agents of preparation were the Holy Bible and promptings of the Holy Spirit. In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they found that for which they had been prepared—Christ’s church in its fulness.
We know that in our own day, the Lord is preparing many of his children for the fulness of the gospel in exactly the same way he prepared these early Saints. Many of tomorrow’s members of the Church are growing up in religious homes. They are learning of God’s justice and mercy and love. Many are learning of Jesus Christ and his atonement. They are learning to pray and to seek God’s guidance. They are growing within their diverse religious settings. They may be Catholics, Lutherans, Muslims, or Hindus, but they are being taught foundational principles of religion. Many are exploring the scriptures for themselves and discovering that there is more to the gospel than they have yet been taught. They hunger and thirst for all that the Lord has in store for them. They are being prepared for the fulness, just as surely as were John Murdock, Parley P. Pratt, Sidney Rigdon, Lorenzo Snow, John Taylor, and Wilford Woodruff.