There is something unique about the work of the Church that rests within the souls of those who have come into the gate of faith in Christ, repentance, and baptism. It is born of the Spirit of the Lord and takes us beyond the knowledge that the Church is true. It is a matter of the heart and of the soul, and it has the capacity to change us like nothing else can. It is the spirit of conversion, and it is at the center of this great latter-day work. It has the power to change people’s hearts and bring them to Christ through repentance and baptism. It has the power to draw people into the kingdom of God and make of them new people.
The scriptures teach us two basic steps in the conversion process. First, the Savior commands us, “Declare whatsoever thing ye declare in my name, in solemnity of heart, in the spirit of meekness, in all things.” Second, “I give unto you this promise, that inasmuch as ye do this the Holy Ghost shall be shed forth in bearing record unto all things whatsoever ye shall say” (D&C 100:7–8).
The first step is to declare the basic truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ in solemnity of heart and meekness—not just teaching the gospel, as one with no authority might teach a principle, but declaring “in my name.” The sons of Mosiah understood the importance of preparing themselves, “for they were men of a sound understanding and they had searched the scriptures diligently, that they might know the word of God.
“But this is not all; they had given themselves to much prayer, and fasting; therefore they had the spirit of prophecy, and the spirit of revelation, and when they taught, they taught with power and authority of God” (Alma 17:2–3).
The Prophet Joseph Smith said that no one can bear testimony that Jesus is the Christ except by the spirit of prophecy (see Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith , 269). It would seem, then, that the sons of Mosiah studied the scriptures, gained a good understanding of the gospel, declared those principles, and then bore testimony by the power of the Spirit.
Alma also taught with this kind of power and authority. When he delivered a powerful address to the people of Gideon about the coming Lord, he did not just teach but spoke as one having authority:
“Yea, I say unto you come and fear not, and lay aside every sin, which easily doth beset you, which doth bind you down to destruction, yea, come and go forth, and show unto your God that ye are willing to repent of your sins and enter into a covenant with him to keep his commandments, and witness it unto him this day by going into the waters of baptism.
“And whosoever doeth this, and keepeth the commandments of God from thenceforth, the same will remember that I say unto him, yea, he will remember that I have said unto him, he shall have eternal life, according to the testimony of the Holy Spirit, which testifieth in me” (Alma 7:15–16).
The witness of the Spirit is the second step of this conversion process. For a conversion to take place that will cause one to turn away from the world and embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, the one being taught must not only hear the gospel but also have borne to his heart by the Holy Ghost that what is being taught is true.
Some years ago when I was a young missionary, we were teaching from a missionary plan that centered around our showing that each point was logical, reasonable, and scriptural. It was a good program, but in our eagerness we came down rather heavily on the side of proving to people that the gospel was true. We had many teaching experiences but were somewhat limited in our success.
I remember one experience where we were teaching a young family. We had presented the Book of Mormon, and the husband was reading it, determined to prove the promise that a person who read it would know the Church was true. Each time we would come, he would say something like, “I’m up to page 225, and nothing yet.”
To help him get a testimony of the Book of Mormon, we decided to fast and pray prior to one of our visits. The discussion went well, as they usually do with special preparation. When we returned for the next discussion, the wife said, “We have been waiting for you to come this week. When you were here last week [we would only go once a week in those days], we felt a most wonderful feeling of peace and warmth in the home. It lasted for two or three days, and we were wondering if it would return when you came again.”
As vivid as this experience was, we did not try to explain to them that this was the witness they were seeking. I am afraid that we did not do a very good job of helping them identify the promptings of the Spirit. We had become so preoccupied with proving the gospel that we had not prepared our investigators so they could expect a spiritual confirmation to accompany the teaching of the principles.
Although this particular incident of confirmation was greater than most are, it still points out that a key to the process of conversion is the Holy Ghost bearing record. We had assumed the burden of proof for the gospel rather than teaching and testifying of the truth and inviting the investigator to pray and expecting confirmation to come concerning the truths he had been taught and had read about in the Book of Mormon.
Conversion cannot come until the Holy Ghost bears record of those truths that are taught. President Brigham Young said: “I had only traveled a short time to testify to the people, before I learned this one fact, that you might prove doctrine from the Bible till doomsday, and it would merely convince a people, but would not convert them. You might read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation, and prove every iota that you advance, and that alone would have no converting influence upon the people. Nothing short of a testimony by the power of the Holy Ghost would bring light and knowledge to them—bring them in their hearts to repentance. Nothing short of that would ever do. You have frequently heard me say that I would rather hear an Elder, here or in the world, speak only five words accompanied by the power of God, and they would do more good than to hear long sermons without the Spirit. That is true, and we know it” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young , 246). Teaching the gospel is important, but until it is accompanied by the power of the Spirit it will lead only to intellectual assent.
I can remember many experiences of the truth being taught and the Spirit’s witness, but one of the most impressive took place in Sydney, Australia, a few years ago while I was mission president there.
Elder Mark E. Petersen (1900–84) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had come to attend stake conference and had agreed to speak at an investigator fireside. The meeting was at the Parramatta Chapel, and over 500 had crowded into the building. We had especially asked the members and the missionaries to bring investigators who had been taught before and had previous experience with the Church. Many of these were in attendance. We knew in advance that the meeting was going to be special, and so it was.
As Elder Petersen opened the scriptures, the mantle of his calling touched the hearts of everyone there. For 45 minutes he taught, by the Spirit, the apostasy and Restoration. His whole soul seemed to reach out and touch the hearts of the people with these great truths. Following the meeting, eight who had been previously taught now asked for baptism. In the succeeding days there were others who were brought into the kingdom. I was at the New Zealand Temple one year later when a couple who had been converted and baptized as a result of that meeting were sealed. As I chatted with them, they again made mention of that special evening and the power with which Elder Petersen taught the principles of truth. It was a perfect example of teaching the principles of the gospel and the Spirit’s witness.
Said President Gordon B. Hinckley:
“As missionaries teach by the Spirit, there will be a response by the Spirit. We teach the lessons to bring about belief. We urge prayer and the study of the scriptures along with meditation and pondering to bring about conversion. The Lord has said: ‘Whosoever believeth on my words, them will I visit with the manifestation of my Spirit; and they shall be born of me, even of water and of the Spirit’ (D&C 5:16). …
“This is the conversion process as I understand it. It is more than a thing of the mind; it is a thing of the Spirit. I believe that baptisms that come about in this manner will represent true conversions” (new mission presidents’ seminar, 24 June 1981).
An essential part of the conversion process is for the investigator to study the scriptures and pray. Without prayer, the missionaries are in a position of trying to convince the investigator the gospel is true. The burden of proof is on the missionaries. Once the investigator can be encouraged to get on his knees and ask for himself, the burden of proof begins to rest upon the person who is making the request.
Let the missionaries teach. Let them testify of the truth. Let them pray for the investigator. But all of this will be of little avail if the investigator does not humble himself and ask the Lord in prayer. Ask and ye shall receive; knock and it shall be opened unto you; seek and you shall find—all point out that a person first has to honestly inquire of the Lord before expecting an answer (see D&C 88:63).
The next thing one must do is plan to do something about it as he or she comes to know it is true. The Lord does not satisfy the curiosity seeker who has no intention of acting upon the truth. If a person knows the gospel is true, he has a responsibility to put his life in order and receive the gospel for his own benefit and blessing.
Sometimes the teacher of the gospel will lose sight of the end result. If a major challenge to investigators is the Word of Wisdom, for instance, sometimes the missionaries will labor with people to give up smoking until not smoking becomes the major message. While the Word of Wisdom must be complied with, we have found that if investigators are taught the gospel and the Spirit has borne witness and this witness has been confirmed by personal prayer, they then have a greater desire to conform their lives to the commandments. The major thrust has been conversion, which means they know they must be baptized. Even praying to know if the Book of Mormon is true will not lead to salvation unless the person is guided toward baptism by the right authority. Such things as paying tithing or giving up smoking, which are extremely important and cannot be overlooked, then become part of the requirements so they can do what the Lord wants them to do and enter the kingdom. They now have strong reasons to comply with the commandments. Keeping true conversion at the center of the missionary effort leads to more people willing to keep the commandments before baptism and prepared to continue to keep the commandments after baptism.
The prayer of faith is an indispensable part of the whole process: “But ye are commanded in all things to ask of God, who giveth liberally; and that which the Spirit testifies unto you even so I would that ye should do in all holiness of heart, walking uprightly before me, considering the end of your salvation, doing all things with prayer and thanksgiving” (D&C 46:7).
The question is raised as to how someone might know that the Spirit has borne witness of the truth. The procedure given us in modern revelation is the pattern: “But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right, and if it be right I will cause that your bosom shall burn within you; therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (D&C 9:8).
People need to study what they are reading in the scriptures and what they are being taught. They need to ponder it and think about it. Then they need to ask our Heavenly Father if it is true, and if they do this with sincerity of heart, with a desire to act upon the truth, they can expect feelings and impressions that will confirm the truth. “Yea, behold, I will tell you in your mind and in your heart, by the Holy Ghost, which shall come upon you and which shall dwell in your heart” (D&C 8:2). “Therefore, you shall feel that it is right” (D&C 9:8).
What I have seen regarding people coming into the Church is that the Lord seems to touch people with the same truth but in different ways. In each case there is the confirmation of the Spirit, usually associated with feelings of peace and assurance. The feelings always edify and bring one in harmony with the Lord’s Church. Some people, however, wish to reach “beyond the mark” (Jacob 4:14), as it were, and seek for those things they are not prepared for, with no intent to act on the truths they have already received. The Lord moves us from faith to faith and from grace to grace according to our faith, sincerity, and ability to understand. He urges us to receive the milk of the gospel before the meat. These words by the Prophet Joseph Smith are an excellent guide:
“We would say to the brethren, seek to know God in your closets, call upon him in the fields. … Be virtuous and pure; be men of integrity and truth; keep the commandments of God; and then you will be able more perfectly to understand the difference between right and wrong—between the things of God and the things of men; and your path will be like that of the just, which shineth brighter and brighter unto the perfect day” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 247).
No two conversions are exactly the same. The Lord uses the same divine process but seems to deal with each of us just a little differently according to our faith, our abilities, and His plans for us. Yet if I were to think of an ideal conversion, it would probably be along the lines of the following experience of a husband and wife:
“We have all been overcome by the friendliness and fellowship that we have enjoyed with everyone we have met so far in the Church, and the power of the Holy Ghost and priesthood that we can now feel working in us and the Church. Now I would like to tell you a bit about ourselves and how we came into the Church and what we are doing now. First of all, I have my wife to thank for coming to find the church of God, as I would have probably turned the missionaries away, believing the Church to be a pagan one, worshiping Joseph Smith. My wife had investigated the Church before but hadn’t joined.
“I was out at the first visit of the missionaries, and my wife invited them back on a night that I had the whole evening home and didn’t tell me so that I would be there when they called. As I listened to the first discussion, I found that my beliefs were very similar to theirs and I got very interested in the setup and workings of the Church. We investigated the Church, asked many questions of the missionaries, prayed to God for His guidance, and decided to join the Church.
“Since joining, I feel like a kid with a new toy that I have been wanting for ages and have just received, if you know what I mean. We are going from strength to strength, looking forward to Sundays for Sunday School and priesthood meetings. I have been ordained into the Aaronic Priesthood. Today I was called to become a second counselor in the Sunday School, and I was set apart after sacrament meeting. On this Thursday evening coming, we are having an investigating family over for a family home evening, and the elders have been here helping us this evening to prepare for this. We are very happy and excited about this challenge and pray that the Holy Ghost will work through us.”
I recognize, however, that we have people coming into the kingdom with a whole variety of strengths and weaknesses and that the Lord holds His arms out to all His children who will prayerfully receive His doctrine, feel the promptings of the Holy Ghost, and enter into the straight and narrow gate as prescribed by the Lord. Each person finds himself at a different level of faith and dedication and needs to be helped in order to go forward from there.
President Marion G. Romney (1897–1988), then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, taught that a person who has a testimony may not also be converted. The two are not necessarily the same. He said that a testimony is a witness of the Spirit given when a person is taught the gospel. And then if the person responds to that experience, it causes the person to repent and obey the commandments and thus be baptized. Conversion, on the other hand, means knowing your sins have been forgiven and having your spirit healed. He said that a person will know he is converted by how he feels (see Conference Report, Oct. 1963, 24).
It is important to help new members understand that there is more to the journey than just testimony but that pursuing the journey in faith and obedience will bring the fire and the Holy Ghost spoken of—the change of heart that has the power to heal souls and to receive the confirming witness that one’s sins have been forgiven. Sometimes this conversion comes quickly, but more often it is the gradual growing experience that follows baptism and is guided by the gift of the Holy Ghost. All of this leads a person to the peaceful influence of the temple and its saving covenants.
President Hinckley once said: “In the conversion process, the teaching should be so complete and the endorsement of the Spirit so real that there will be no disruptive challenges to the convert after he or she is in the Church. Such matters as the Word of Wisdom, tithing, Church responsibility, should all have been adequately covered” (new mission presidents’ seminar, 24 June 1981).
When we teach with the spirit of conversion, investigators and new members will be converted by the same spirit. Faith and obedience will result, and all will be edified and go their way rejoicing.