The pale yellow light from the lantern Christian Monson carried threw dark, dancing shadows against the gray stone walls of the Fredrikstad (Norway) Prison. Christian hesitated at the heavy oak door that led from the prison office to the cells below. His head was racing. He knew that if his plan to release the two prisoners was discovered, he would also be made a prisoner here.
Christian felt the cold smoothness of the jailer’s keys, and he felt the weight of irrevocable decision. He drew a long, deep breath, inserted the key in the lock, and turned it; there was the clicking sound of metal. With his free hand he pulled the door open. The air from the cells was dank and fetid—the stench of unwashed men and stale cellar air.
Quietly Christian walked down the stone steps to the long rows of cells that the warden of the prison had placed in his care as a night guard. At the bottom of the steps he stopped and hung the lantern on the hook that protruded from the wall. The light fell bright on his face. It revealed a tall, 14-year-old Norwegian boy with bright, sky-blue eyes and straight, tawny-colored hair. His face was smooth and fair and normally full of laughter and mischief, but in the flickering lantern light it was firm and serious.
Christian walked across the floor to the cell on the far left, inserted the key into the lock, and opened the door.
“Elders!” His voice was soft.
The opening door flooded a pool of light onto the floor of the dark cell. The cell was small with no windows, no openings for air or light except a small, barred opening in the door Christian had opened. In the corner of the room was a moldy pile of straw that the prisoners slept on. There were dark areas on the walls covered with a green slime where water seeped in. The air was cold and musty; it stank, a smell that twisted Christian’s stomach even after a year of working in the prison.
Light fell on two villainous-looking men who were standing near the door and waiting. Both wore shaggy beards and long hair, dark with grease and dirt. Their faces were sallow and pocked with small red sores. Their clothes were filthy and tattered, rotting in the damp air.
In the year he had worked in the prison Christian had seen many men who looked like these two—filthy, rotting men with cold, empty eyes that followed him with hate. But these two were different. Their clothes, their hair, and their skin looked the same as any of the men who had spent several months in the prison. It was in the eyes where Christian had noticed a difference; the eyes of these two were warm and alive and strong.
Elder Hanson smiled and grasped Christian’s shoulder with a powerful hand.
“Father in heaven is pleased with your courage, Christian,” he said.
“We had better hurry,” the other man, Elder Nelson, said, stepping out of the cell. “But let’s pray first.”
Minutes later Christian and the two Mormon elders walked out of the prison. Elder Hanson, a tall barrel-chested man, stopped, stretched out his arms, and in a long, slow breath drank in the cold, clean-tasting night air.
“I had forgotten just how good and sweet air can taste,” he said. They stood silent in the dark under a ceiling of bright, winter stars, their breaths steaming in the cold air, the two elders bathing in a sense of cleanness and freedom. Then they began walking down the narrow streets toward a rocky point in the fjord.
They spoke in whispers as they walked.
“Brother Monson, what will your parents do?” Elder Nelson asked.
There was a long silence, and only the sound of their feet tapping on the pavement disturbed the stillness of the night. At length Christian sighed and spoke.
“I don’t know, Elder Nelson. I don’t know,” he said slowly. “I tried to tell my mother, but she wouldn’t listen. And my father—he’s a proud man, proud of Norway, proud of the Lutheran Church, proud of his own beliefs. Like many people around here, he is not tolerant of other beliefs. My mother might understand, but I’m afraid my father will not even try.”
Christian stopped and faced Elder Nelson, his breath making a white plume in the darkness.
“There’s pain in this truth of yours, Elder Nelson.” He turned and began walking again.
Elder Nelson nodded and pulled his coat tighter against the cold. He well understood Christian’s problem. He and Elder Hanson had been put into prison because of that same intolerance. The missionary work had been going well in Norway—hundreds had been baptized—too well for the comfort of the Lutheran Church and the Norwegian government. The government, under pressure from the Lutheran hierarchy (Lutheranism is the state religion of Norway), arrested the Mormon missionaries in the country and put them in prisons like the one in Fredrikstad.
Christian broke the silence again.
“Many years ago, I was very young at the time, my grandfather told me that there are steps in life that can change my future and the future of entire generations. He told me I should take those steps, carefully, in the direction I believe to be right, no matter how difficult they appear to be. I know this is right.”
They reached the shoreline and walked along it until they came to a small cove. The shoreline was rocky and smelled of the ocean and seaweed. There was a light mist on the surface of the water. In the distance, on a low horizon, a bright crescent moon was rising, casting a ghostly silver light on the scene.
The three of them walked out into the water, past the foaming shoreline. The moon climbed higher in the night sky. The water felt warm compared to the night air. There was the sound of waves washing gently against rocks on the shore, soft and rhythmic.
Christian thought back over the past two months, about the long hours he had searched and compared the catechism of his church with the Bible and the teachings of the two elders.
He remembered the warmth deep inside when he found the answers for which he had searched and prayed. With the memory a peaceful feeling washed over his mind, over the pain he felt in the weight of decision.
In the moonlight Elder Hanson raised his arm to a square. in his mind’s eye Christian could see John the Baptist and Christ in the Jordan River and he could hear Paul speaking on being buried and raised again with Christ. He heard Elder Hanson’s voice and the baptismal prayer. He felt the power of the prayer and a sudden rush of water.
Before the first reds and golds of morning streaked the horizon, the two elders were back in their cell and Christian was at the desk, in the front office of the prison, waiting for the day guard to relieve him. In the quiet stillness of morning he wondered where this step he had taken would lead him, and he wondered how he would tell his parents.
A week passed and he had been able to keep his secret. But now he was in the Lutheran church, last on a bench, seated with others his age. His mother and father were also there, sitting on the front row in the middle of the church, a place of honor reserved for parents on confirmation day. At 14, members of the Lutheran Church are considered ready for full membership. On confirmation day they appear before a congregation and answer questions on the Lutheran catechism asked by the pastor.
The new tunic Christian was wearing, as bright and clean as new snow, felt rough on his skin. His mother had given it to him that morning. There was tightness in his stomach; his heart was pulsing hard and strong, and his tongue was dry and rough in his mouth. Christian knew he couldn’t lie about his beliefs; he had to tell the truth.
At last it was his turn. He stood up from the bench and walked toward the pastor. His father was smiling with pride. Christian’s legs felt weak and his mind clouded with confusion. The church was full, and he felt everyone’s eyes upon him.
The pastor’s voice, high and loud, echoed in the church.
“Do you believe in God?” it chanted.
“Yes,” Christian’s voice was small. He whispered a prayer.
“Can you describe God?” The voice asked.
There was a vast silence in the great building. Christian felt as if the world were watching and listening. Then, a clearness and strength came into him from some unseen deep well. His voice was strong and clear.
“God is not a being without body, parts, or passions; and he does not sit on the top of a topless throne. God is a good, kind, Heavenly Father, who hears and answers prayers, and man is made in the image of God.”
For the first time in the service the pastor looked up, his eyes wide and questioning. Christian turned and looked at his father. He saw a face that was stone hard.
The pastor continued the questioning, and Christian answered according to his new beliefs.
The pastor finished the chanted catechism questions, looked solemnly at Christian, and in a hiss of voice said, “You answer as if you were a Mormon.”
“And if I do, I’m proud of it,” Christian replied.
Christian’s father, Hans Monson, stood, his face red and his eyes fierce under heavy brows. He glared angrily at Christian, slammed the tip of his oak cane heavily against the wood floor, turned, and walked from the building, his cane cracking loudly with each step.
That night Christian received the beating from his father that he had expected for days. After that, with the help of his mother, he was able to avoid his father for several days. Then one evening while he was bringing wood into the house and stacking it near the fireplace, his father came into the room.
Christian felt his heart race and blood flush his cheeks. There was a moment of terrible silence. Hans Monson, a thick-chested man, a woodcutter by trade, suddenly struck at the boy with his cane. Christian avoided most of the blows that followed, but whenever the cane reached him, it caused a painful welt on his flesh.
Out of breath Hans Monson stopped, his muscles tense and his blonde hair wet with perspiration. Christian, feeling faint, stood. His face was pale.
“Father, I know it’s wrong for me to disobey you. I’m sorry for that, but I’m not sorry for what I did. I know it was right, and I’m not afraid to be beaten for the gospel, for truth.”
Breathing heavily Hans grabbed a large piece of wood from the fireplace stack and threw it. He threw wood at Christian until the stack was gone; then he opened the door and told Christian to get out.
“There’s no room here for a Mormon devil,” he shouted as Christian left. The door slammed. That was the last Christian would see of his father.
The night air was biting cold. Christian felt weak, overpowered by pain, confusion, and a terrible sense of loss. He still felt love and respect for his father. He staggered to the barn and fell on a pile of oat straw.
Later in the night Christian felt a soft hand touch his shoulder. His mother sat next to him on the straw.
“Why? Why did you have to do it, Christian?” she asked. Her voice was full of tears.
“I studied it, and I prayed about it. I know it’s true,” he answered, feeling strength in his own words. “I tried to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen. I cannot deny what I know to be true. It would be like denying Christ, our Savior. I could never do that, no matter how much it hurt.”
In the cold, musty darkness of the barn, they talked until the pearl-gray light of dawn came. Christian felt the warmth of a bond between him and his mother tighten stronger than it had ever been; it grew into something he would remember all of his life, a memory that would warm him and give him strength. In the gray, sullen light he saw a bright tear roll down her face. She held him tight and warm knowing she would never see her son again, at least not in this life.
She stood suddenly and walked into the house. Christian picked up the bundle of food she had brought him and began walking toward the city of Drammen. The elders had told him there were other Mormons there. Light, powder flakes of snow were falling silently on the road.
After several weeks on the road, Christian had used all his money, and he was forced to beg for food. At night he slept against fallen trees in the woods, curled up, pulling his coat tight against the cold. He felt more alone and cold than he ever had in his life. The loneliness bit at his insides even more than his hunger did.
At last he reached Drammen, but he found no success, no work, and no one knew of any Mormons or they were unwilling to help him find them. For days he wandered, knocking on doors, asking for work and direction. A blackness of despair grew inside him.
While he was looking for shelter against a growing snow storm one evening, he saw a small cottage on the edge of the woods just outside of Drammen. He decided to knock on one more door. He told the woman who answered that he was looking for work. She smiled and told Christian that her husband was not home at the moment and that Christian should come back later and talk to him. She offered him slices of bread and cheese. He took them, thanked her, turned, and walked back into the woods. In the fading daylight he found a snow-covered brush pile with a hollow inside and crawled into it. His nose and fingers were numb with the cold, and inside he felt lost, without hope. A complete lassitude came over him.
The woman reminded him of his own mother, and he longed to be home. He remembered how, on cold nights like this one, his father would sit next to the fire, smoking a long-stemmed pipe, telling stories of the old days when Odin and Thor thundered in the heavens and brave men fought the demons of the mist. His thoughts became unclear and dreamy as a drowsiness came over him. He knew it was the cold and that if he went to sleep he would freeze. For a while he accepted the hopelessness and began drifting into a comfortable, warm sleep.
Then he remembered his grandfather’s words.
“There are steps in life that can change your entire future and the future of entire generations. Take those steps carefully, Christian, in the direction you believe to be right, no matter how difficult they appear to be, and God will be with you.”
Christian crawled from under the shelter. The snow was falling heavily.
“Surely,” Christian said aloud, “if God is my Father, he can help me. I know he will.”
Christian knelt in the fresh snow and began praying.
In the darkness a short distance away, a figure watched and listened. When Christian stood from his prayers, the figure approached him.
A tall man, Moen Hotvedtvien, stood looking at the slender boy.
He extended his hand. A tear fell on his rough, carved face and mixed with moisture from melting snowflakes.
“I am Brother Hotvedtvien, and I am also a Mormon,” he said. He led Christian back to the house where the woman had given Christian bread and cheese. The house was warm.
The Hotvedtviens had no children of their own, and they took Christian in as their son. Moen was a carpenter and cabinetmaker; he taught Christian his trade.
When Christian was 19, he decided to go to America, to Zion. He had saved enough money over the years working in the Hotvedtvien Cabinet Shop for the passage. In the spring of 1887, a tall, handsome Christian Monson said goodbye to his foster parents, the two people who several years before had saved him from a lonely death.
“How can I thank you?” he said, standing on the Oslo dock, holding a large canvas bag full of sturdy new clothes and gifts they had given him for the journey.
“Love is its own reward, Christian,” Sister Hotvedtvien said. A tear fell and hung on her smile, then fell again. Christian turned to hide his own tears and walked up the ramp to the ship.
“Write to us,” he heard her shout. He turned, looked one more time, and saw her standing tall, strong, and noble next to her husband. He felt as if he were leaving an important part of himself standing there. He loved them as much as he loved his own parents, but he knew the step he was taking was right and he took it.
At the far side of Oslo, Norway, a tall, fair-haired Otto Monson could see his destination, a stately mansion. The day was pleasantly warm, and it felt good to be out.
After half an hour Otto decided the walk to the mansion would take longer than he had expected. Not wanting to be late, he turned off the main road and cut through a maze of narrow back streets. The streets were tortuous, twisting through the poorer part of the city. The area was known for its high crime rate, and Otto, dressed in a clean, pressed suit and a white shirt, felt uneasy walking alone there. A short distance from the mansion he came to a lone row of rotting, chicken-coop houses.
It was a rule in the mission that missionaries were to speak Norwegian, and it had been over a year since Otto had heard a word of spoken English. He was passing close to one of the small chicken-coop houses when he heard a commanding voice in English:
“Go into that house,” it demanded.
Otto stopped, his face a little pale. He looked around; there was no one in sight. The streets were vacant. Why go in there? he thought. He seriously doubted if anyone could live in that rotting shack. The cow sheds back home were more fit to live in than that. Looking around he continued walking. As he walked, the voice, now small but strong, repeated the command.
“Go into that house.”
I have another appointment, he thought. Besides, what in that rotting pile of rags and filth could be important, more important than an appointment with the wealthiest man in Oslo, an educated man, a man of importance, a man of influence?
Two days before, the man had contacted President Christopherson, the president of the Norwegian Mission, and asked if someone could come and explain the principles of the LDS doctrine to him. Otto, a clerk in the mission offices, had felt a sense of pride when President Christopherson asked him to go. How could he stop now? He couldn’t be late.
“Go into that house,” the voice repeated.
Otto could see the gate of the mansion when he stopped and turned back. I must be crazy, he thought. I’ll bet no one even lives there.
He knocked on the door of the shack.
From inside the building he heard the sound of shuffling feet and the creak of boards. His skin shivered. The door swung inward on leather hinges, and the sallow face of an old, old woman appeared. She looked as old as time itself, he thought. She smelled of sickness and old age, and he knew from her appearance that she was near death, but she looked up and smiled at him, a little painfully. He could sense a terrible loneliness in her. A loneliness that pricked at his conscience so deeply and painfully that he wanted to turn and run, to get away from her sight, from the warm, brown eyes.
“Yes?” she said; her voice was weak but pleasant sounding.
Otto wondered what he should say or do.
“I’m from America,” he said. It was all he could think of.
“I once knew a boy who went to America,” she said.
“What was his name?” Otto asked politely, wondering what he was doing here when he was late for another appointment, an important appointment. He wanted to tell her he had made a mistake, that he had knocked on the wrong door.
“His name,” she said, with a warm, faraway look in her eyes, “was Christian, Christian Monson, but that was a long time ago, nearly 50 years.”
Otto felt a burning, humbling excitement flood unexpectedly over his body at the sound of the name. Breathless, he asked what her name was. It couldn’t be, he thought, not after all these years!
“I am Mrs. Hotvedtvien,” she answered.
Otto felt an indescribable pleasure deep inside, and he felt warm tears on his cheeks.
“I am Otto Monson; Christian Monson is my father, and I know you well, Ann Hotvedtvien, very well.”
The street was quiet. It seemed to Otto that time stood still. Then, suddenly, he felt the boney arms of the old woman embrace him, heard her crying softly, and felt the terrible loneliness leave her.
Later Otto learned from her that not long after Christian left for America, the Hotvedtviens moved from Drammen to Oslo. The letters Christian sent from America never found them. Five years after the move, Moen Hotvedtvien became ill and died. Since then his wife had been alone, and for the last few years she had been sick and unable to earn a living. There was no one to help. She said she had been afraid she would die alone and had prayed for help.
Otto visited the old woman often, saw that she was cared for, arranged for her to have a good house to live in, good food, and medicine. Several months later she died, but she didn’t die alone or without love.