When I was a young boy growing up in a little port town in Normandy, France, I remember reading a book about “Le Far West” that told of the settling of the United States. It described the faith and courage of the Mormon pioneers who had pulled all their belongings across the plains in handcarts. I had seen men on the docks pulling handcarts full of fish, and sometimes it took four or five of them to move the wooden cart. I felt an admiration for the Mormon settlers from that time on.
Little did I know that one day two young Mormons would actually knock on my family’s door. It happened after we had moved to southern France, while I was in high school. These Mormons didn’t look like pioneers at all. They had short hair. They shaved. They even wore suits and ties! They invited me to the English class at their meetinghouse. My parents gave me permission to attend.
I soon found out that these, too, were men to be admired, not necessarily for physical stamina, but for spiritual strength. They would occasionally visit our home, and though my parents made it clear from the start that they were interested only in “social” visits, I quizzed the elders more and more about their church, and I devoured every word of their answers.
My mother was Catholic, my father Jewish. They had always encouraged me to live a good life, to call upon God, and to believe in him. But these young men seemed to know him. I gleaned many ideas from their conversations with my parents, understanding more and more as time went on. If any of my friends laughed at the missionaries or criticized the Church, I sprang to its defense. I don’t think I fully realized it at the time, but I knew in my heart that the missionaries were telling the truth.
Many sets of missionaries visited our home during my high school years, but my parents, though always polite, were not interested in the Church. And I felt too young to take the discussions on my own. I drifted through periods of varying faith. We moved from Nice to Cannes, and I finally lost track of the elders.
Some time later, during a period of intense personal struggle, I found myself once again calling on the Lord. This time I understood that I had to rely on him totally. I felt a warm glow, a real confirmation that there was an Eternal Father watching over me who knew me personally and loved me. Not long after this experience, I was taking a letter to the post office when I saw two missionaries and rushed up to them. “You’re the elders, aren’t you?” I exclaimed, and then I told them about this marvelous feeling I had about my Father in Heaven. They understood completely. “It’s the Holy Ghost bearing testimony to you of the truth,” one of them said.
Then it hit me. I could talk to others about what had happened, I could tell them about my intellectual ideas and spiritual testimonies, and they wouldn’t understand. But the missionaries knew exactly what I was describing, experience by experience. We talked for a long time.
I was soon to leave for my military service. Nevertheless, my desire to be around the missionaries and members grew powerfully. As soon as I learned a new principle of the gospel, I put it into practice. Just before I left, one of the elders said, “You know, you live like a Mormon, but you’re trying to become perfect before you will join the Church. That’s the wrong way. It’s the Church that will help you achieve perfection.” They told me I had a testimony, but I still wasn’t sure.
In the military I had time to let my feelings grow and develop. There was lots of time to think, and I reflected deeply on my impressions of the Church. I was stationed with the mountain troops in Briançon, with no LDS branch nearby. But I guarded the things I had learned in my heart and let the seed of faith grow.
When I was released from the service, I faced a critical decision. My best friend from Normandy and I had planned for a long time to visit the United States, and I had saved my money so I could go. But his plans fell through. I had to decide whether or not to go by myself. I returned to Normandy, to walk the beaches and to think.
Anyone who could have eavesdropped on my mental conversation at that time would have known I already had a testimony. “I am well off here—I have my family and friends, I feel sure of myself, and this is the most beautiful spot on earth,” I told myself. “But what if I don’t go? I could miss an opportunity to learn even more about the gospel, to really gain a testimony of it. I could give up the trip, the dream of my young years. But to give up a chance to know more about the Lord’s church?”
In the U.S. I had the opportunity to develop many close relationships with Church members. I finally began to believe I did have a testimony—I can’t forget the wonderful feelings when, each time I’d ask myself a question, I would feel the Holy Ghost enlightening my soul, clearing away the doubt. I had had difficulty understanding why polygamy had been practiced. On a bus somewhere between Colorado and Utah, I glimpsed the vision, not a visual sight, but a spiritual insight, of the men who practiced it. And I saw how it was possible for such a thing to be pure, that it had come from God. That sort of clarification continued throughout my trip in the States.
I eventually ended up visiting some islands near Seattle, Washington. There, in a small apartment, I studied the Book of Mormon for ten days. My testimony continued to grow. The time had come to return to France, and in my heart I knew I would be baptized.
Several days after I returned home, the missionaries asked me to help them teach a lesson. The investigator was a science student, and he was struggling with some of the same questions I had confronted when I was studying the same subjects. I explained to him how I had found answers to the questions, and when we left he seemed satisfied and happy.
A few days later, the missionaries called to tell me he was joining the Church. “How about that,” I told myself. “Here I am, able to help someone else accept baptism, and not myself. This has lasted long enough!” I felt I had a testimony, but I fasted and prayed. I stayed up the whole night pleading with the Lord to seal this testimony in me. Finally, early in the morning, a sweet, peaceful calm filled my soul. I knew I had to tell the elders I was ready to be baptized.
As I rounded the last corner on my way to see the missionaries, I felt a strong force trying to keep me from going. It was like walking against a 70-mile-per-hour wind, which I had done before, only it was stronger. But this was spiritual. I was just about to give up and turn around. I knew this force wanted me to doubt everything, but I finally said, “No, no. I know there’s a God.” I felt that truth deep in the roots of my soul. I knew He would battle this force for me.
I reached the chapel door, just a normal chapel door, but I had to pull with all my might to force it open. When I entered I saw some members and felt their spirit, and the opposing force was gone, broken. I felt the sweet peace in my heart again, and felt it even more strongly several days later as I was baptized and confirmed. I still feel it to this day.