I joined the church because I came to believe that God Himself had introduced His Son to the boy Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove. I believed this because I had read and prayed about the Book of Mormon and received what I thought was a witness from the Holy Ghost that the Book of Mormon was true. If the Book of Mormon was true, I reasoned, then Joseph Smith was a true prophet who restored the New Testament church to the earth. I could trust that his revelations came from God and I could trust that conforming my life to those revelations would yield blessings in this life and eternal life in the world to come. All information that might cast doubt on Joseph’s divine call or on the revelations he produced could be swept aside as untrustworthy as it contradicted my “sure” witness that the Book of Mormon was true.
As a convert, of course, I did not always believe these things. I was raised in various strands of Protestantism. I moved three times as a child. Each time we moved, my parents would shop for a church in which they felt comfortable. As a young boy I attended with my family a charismatic Christian church. Later, we were members of a large Presbyterian congregation. When I was 12 years old, I was baptized a member of a different Presbyterian church. As a teen, my family started attending a Lutheran church. My family was not overly religious but we attended church pretty regularly and my parents taught me from a young age to pray every night before bedtime. We prayed at mealtime, and I was always taught that the one essential doctrine of Christianity was that Jesus is the Son of God and belief in Him brings eternal life. Beyond that, everything was open to debate and discussion. I was taught that one could not “know” that the Bible and what it taught about Jesus was true--it required faith. Faith would come by hearing the word, reading the Bible, and trying to live the teachings of Jesus.
When I went to college, I stopped going to church, but my interest in religion intensified. I majored in history and minored in religious studies. I studied all the world’s major religions and focused on religious themes in my historical studies. I also explored the ideas of nonreligious philosophers. Ayn Rand’s writings had a particularly profound influence on me. So I was perhaps an unlikely candidate for conversion.
But convert I did. In the fall of my junior year, I was taking a class on the early American republic. I was given the assignment to write a short paper on one of the subjects covered in one of the books the class was reading. I chose to write on Mormonism. I went to the university library (it happens to be one of the largest in the country) the day before the paper was due (did I mention I have a tendency to procrastinate?). I surveyed the hundreds of books lining the shelves from floor to ceiling in the section on Mormonism and grabbed the thinnest one I could find. What of the Mormons? it was called, by some guy named Gordon Hinckley. Never heard of him. A quick survey of the book’s contents revealed that it would be sufficient for my needs--short enough for me to read that evening, but with enough content for me to crank out a 3-4-page paper if I pulled an all-nighter, which is just what I did.
I finished the paper with an hour to spare, but my inquiry into Mormonism had just begun. I returned to the library and started reading other books on Mormonism, some by folks whose names would later become familiar to me--Talmage, Grant, McKay, McConkie, Richards; others by folks with a decidedly different perspective on the faith--Brodie, Decker, Tanner, et al. I also picked up a copy of the Book of Mormon and Doctrine & Covenants and started reading.
Around the same time, I became smitten with a certain young co-ed. We became friends and then began dating. I learned that she was Mormon. This fact, shall we say, gave me added incentive to continue my research into the church. Many of the stories surrounding early Mormonism seemed rather incredible to me. But I was nonetheless impressed by the number of intelligent, educated, and apparently normal people who were numbered in Mormonism’s ranks. So I asked myself, are Joseph Smith’s claims any more incredible than the claims of the Bible? If I can believe the Bible, why not the Book of Mormon?
Although at first I found Mormonism’s claims ridiculous, upon further reflection I became open to at least the possibility that things had happened the way Joseph Smith said they did. After much reading and several discussions with my girlfriend (who would later become my wife), I found myself torn--the part of me that was skeptical of all organized religions resisted, the part of me with faith in God thought there was the possibility that it might be true. I related to Joseph Smith’s plight as described in the 1838 account of the First Vision, in which he comes to realize that an appeal to the Bible was not going to tell him which church he should join. Discussion and study were not going to resolve the issue, so I decided to do as Joseph did and as Moroni instructed--I decided to pray. And I received an answer to my prayer. I felt the burning in the bosom, indeed a burning from head to toe. I felt as if I had been brought into the divine presence—I had, as it were, an encounter with the “numinous,” to use the language of Rudolf Otto. I was filled with joy. I had my answer—the Book of Mormon was true; Joseph was a prophet; I would be baptized.
I was an enthusiastic convert and was soon put to work as a stake missionary. I continued to educate myself on church doctrine and history. I read most of the Journal of Discourses and the teachings of all the prophets. I devoured books from FARMS and over the years grew a substantial LDS library. I read almost everything by Hugh Nibley, and Jack Welch became something of a hero to me. My distrust of organized religion melted away and I shrugged off what I considered shrill attacks from critics. I saw the church as at once safe and liberating. Safe because of the certainty of the doctrines and pronouncements from the pulpit I believed were inspired. Liberating because the church’s scriptures exalted the notion of individual freedom, the power to choose.
I got married nine months after my baptism and my wife and I went to the temple to make it eternal three months later. We both served faithfully in various leadership and teaching callings over the years. For more than 16 years, I considered myself a true-believing Latter-day Saint.