A Gospel of Conversion

Hartman Rector, Jr.


“The gospel makes evil minded men good, and good men better and women and children better than they have ever been before.”

So said the prophet David O. McKay. To illustrate I would like to share with you a conversion story. The account concerns Louis Novak, a Lutheran minister, and his wife, Alice, and their two children, Kurt and Kristin. Reverend Novak and his wife had been born, baptized, raised, confirmed, and married in the Lutheran Church. It was with a sense of pride on the part of his parents and a sense of duty on his own part that he went through two Lutheran private colleges and a Lutheran theological graduate school to become a pastor in the American Lutheran Church. For nearly fourteen years he and his wife served in the Lutheran Church and endeavored to find truth and spiritual peace. During that period, from all external appearances, they were able to attain a level of income, style of life, social stratum, and educational prestige which left little to be desired. With such stability and high approval from family, friends, and supervisors, it could be said “they had it made.” Yet they were not satisfied. They had haunting insecurity in their souls that something very basic and important was missing in their lives. They could not be satisfied.

The soul that is honest in heart must search.

In Reverend Novak’s words, “As I look back on my life and experience, I realize my dissatisfaction stemmed from a number of areas. [First] I had a deep and negative reaction to my association with my fellow pastors. The strong and seemingly overwhelming stress on church politics, self-advancement, personal glory, financial achievement, and congregational statistics made me feel that true spirituality was seriously lacking.

“[Second] I had deep theological concerns—the order of worship service seemed cold, impersonal, and unimaginative. The great stress on salvation by grace and minimization on works was to me a scriptural contradiction. On contemplating scripture I found that the ‘works’ passages far exceeded the ‘grace’ passages.

“I found myself recoiling at the indifferent reaction of my church leadership to the virgin birth, the creation, the wide acceptance and use of loose translations of scripture and the general lack of response to basic Christian morals.

“Was God really dead, or had He gone into retirement and ceased to care about His creation? Why did He sink into strange and sudden silence with the last word in the Bible?”

On September 1, 1968, Reverend Novak and his family moved to Broomfield, Colorado, where he was made pastor of the Lutheran Church of Hope, a very prestigious and desirable assignment. From all outward appearances it left nothing to be desired, but there was something desperately wrong. Something was missing: there was a feeling of spiritual hollowness in his heart and it was shared equally by his wife, Alice.

Alice was a music educator and in Broomfield she had a number of Latter-day Saint students. She could not help but notice something very special about them. She reported to her husband that she had asked one of her Mormon students if Mormons were Christian. Of course, Reverend Novak knew well the Lutheran position that Mormons were non-Christian. The little Mormon girl boldly stated that Mormons most definitely were Christian.

Alice had been touched by the young girl’s testimony. Next came an invitation from the family of one of the piano students to attend the Broomfield Ward open house. The young student’s family had resisted because they did not think it appropriate to send such an invitation to a Lutheran pastor. But this little girl persisted to the point that the parents reluctantly consented.

On the appointed day Alice was unavailable to attend the open house and Reverend Novak was hosting a regional meeting of the Lutheran Church of Hope. As the time for the open house arrived he had a strange and overpowering urge to leave the Lutheran meeting and attend. He yielded.

As he entered the Latter-day Saint chapel he said he was met by a friendly and concerned gentleman who talked with him and stayed by his side for fully two hours, answering questions, and “just being supportive.”

The Reverend continues, “As the program began, a member of the Seventies made a presentation on the doctrine of the Church which I am sure was inspired by the Holy Spirit. I shall never forget it. From the chapel we were led to the baptismal font by a young priest who explained baptism according to the theology of the Latter-day Saints. This mature presentation by such a young man made a great impression, because I had seriously questioned the Lutheran theology of baptism for years. I sensed that what this young man said was true.

“We then went to the Relief Society room where we were given a beautiful and intelligent presentation. To hear a lovely woman give such a positive and strong testimony was heartwarming to me. We were then ushered into a seminary room to view the film Christ in America. I could hardly contain my excitement as so many of my questions regarding church history were suddenly answered.

“I was currently pursuing a doctorate in religion. Here I was, my doctorate nearly complete and the answers to my quest for the truth coming in the Latter-day Saint chapel! It was probably at this time, at the culmination of so much presented so well, that I was actually converted. I knew that this had to be the true church. My heart was ready but how could I become a part of it all? How hard it is to give up physical security and comfortable tradition. I purchased a Book of Mormon that day and went home elated. I remember telling Alice later, ‘There is something special there. I really felt good at that church. They have something I have never known before.’

“The summer of 1974, after I had received my doctorate, I was in spiritual turmoil. The ward open house remained a haunting reminder that something better was available. One evening the mother of one of the Mormon students called regarding a musical question. For the first time I bared my spiritual turmoil to a patient and understanding ear.

“Not long after this our family was invited to their family home evening. We came away so warmed; yet how impossible it seemed for us to make such a change. My job, security, comfortable life, social standing, family ties, house, pension—it all flooded through my mind. Yet how does one in the name of Jesus Christ preach and teach that which he knows is not true?

“Finally in the fall of 1974, although things were still going well at my parish, I knew in my heart that a change was necessary. I knew I was spiritually starved and I was even more concerned for the spiritual malnutrition of my family.

“And so it was that on October 25, 1974, an especially beautiful day in Colorado, as I left the University of Denver where I was pursuing a second doctorate, a strange and overpowering urge came upon me to go to the Colorado Mission home. I had memorized the address long before and so, although I had many other pressing matters on my agenda, my automobile seemed to refuse to go anywhere except to 709 Clarkson Street. I kept telling myself I merely wanted to drive by to see what the mission home looked like.

“I remember, however, that I did stop the car in front of the house, my intention being only to look the place over from the outside. I remember sitting there for a moment intending not to shut off the engine. But somehow the engine did shut off and I sat there and looked at my watch. It was noon—12:35 P.M.—and I told myself it was inappropriate to call on anyone during the lunch hour. But I remember getting out of the car. I remember standing on the sidewalk at the base of the steps thinking, ‘This is a nice place and I’ll just turn around now and go back to the car. I have no business here. After all, I am a Lutheran pastor.’

“But instead I labored up those steps. I must have rung the buzzer because the door opened. There stood a bright-eyed missionary. He invited me in. I said, ‘I really shouldn’t be here today. Besides, it’s lunch hour.’ He said, ‘We are through eating.’

“I almost panicked. Why was I here? How could I get out of this one? So I said, ‘I want you to know something. I am a Lutheran pastor and I’m here because I’m interested in all the world religions. So I thought I’d stop by and see what the Mormons are all about. I don’t want to take too much of your time because it is the noon hour.’ The young man explained again, ‘We are through eating.’ One thing led to another; all the while I was reminding them that I was a minister of the gospel and, therefore, not a good prospect.

“Somehow we spent an hour or two. I apologized upon leaving that I had taken so much time and wished them well, reminding them again that I was a Lutheran pastor and therefore not a prospect. As I drove away I had a warm feeling in my heart and yet a nagging fear that these good missionaries just might believe that I wasn’t a prospect!

“One day later the bright-eyed missionary telephoned me at my office in the Lutheran Church of Hope, of all places! How glad I was he called! During the conversation he asked if he and his companion could come over and meet my family. The next evening two missionaries came to our home and the process of our conversion continued to develop step by step, logically and without hesitation. On January 25, 1975, three months and five hours exactly from the time I rang the door bell at the Colorado Mission home, our family entered the waters of baptism at the Broomfield Ward Chapel. After half a lifetime of searching, finally our joy was full.

“Kurt and Kristin relished the new challenge and associations of the Church. They grew and matured beautifully. It was a joy to see them blossom as they learned the ways of Christ’s true church on earth. Alice and I equally relished the joy of having found the truth. Our hearts were finally at peace.

“We had a great desire and sense of urgency to go to the temple and there to have our family sealed for all time and eternity. As soon as we were able to go to the Salt Lake Temple following our first year in the Church, we eagerly went. The support of so many people who accompanied us was tremendous. The sealing for all time and eternity was one of the most glorious occasions of our lives.

“The reason for the urgency of going to the temple and being sealed as a family was realized when just two weeks later a tragic automobile accident claimed the life of our eleven-year-old daughter Kristin. As we stagger under the heavy loss and grieve her mortal absence in our lives, and as we examine and study the process of the accident, we know in our hearts that it was the will of Heavenly Father to call her spirit unto Himself. We are strengthened and comforted in the knowledge that her joy is full. We have gratitude in our hearts that the timing of our Heavenly Father was so kind and merciful.

“At a time such as this we can only ask questions and stand amazed as we ponder the answers: What if we had not joined the true church of Jesus Christ and given this gift to Kristin? What if we had delayed the conversion to a more convenient time? What if we had not gone to the temple with a sense of urgency when we did? What if we had not given Kristin the great joy of Primary, Sunday School, sacrament meetings and family home evenings?

“During the week before the accident Kristin had asked her mother if it would be possible for her to go back into the temple. She had loved it so.

“On a lonely Kansas cemetery there stands a gray monument. On it are the four names of our family. At the bottom are engraved these words: ‘This family is sealed for all time and eternity.’ Behind the tears of temporary loss our eyes show the clear and joyous knowledge that our decision was truly the correct decision.”

Surely the gospel does make “good men better and women and children better than they have ever been before.” In the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.