Home / Testimonies / Vern G. Swanson


When Professor Daniel Peterson of the BYU Department of Asian and Near Eastern Languages asked me to share my testimony from a scholar’s perspective, I was very pleased because I’ve never shared it in this manner before. Like most people, my conversion story and testimony came in bits and pieces, finally welding themselves into believing faith. Spiritual preparation led to spiritual growth, which in turn led to spiritual opportunities of which I could then take advantage. As Louis Pasteur cogently said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” While a Seventy and Branch Mission Leader in Auburn, Alabama, I saw that it took several preparatory events or crises before anyone was really ‘ready’ for the restored gospel in their lives. This was certainly true in my own life.

Unlike closet doubters, agnostics, unbelievers, and atheists that I have known, my faith in Jesus Christ and his Gospel plan always come easy for me. How easy? Being passionate about the visual fine arts, when the missionaries showed me a Book of Mormon, all I had to do was look at its illustrations by Arnold Friberg and I instantly knew the book was true! My conversion story started when I was a very young child of four or five years. I was crying one night after a funeral because I was afraid to die. My second oldest brother, Bob, told me that there was a God in a heaven and that everything was going to be alright. I believed him. While my mother was an agnostic she encouraged me to kneel down beside her rocking chair each night and pray, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Then, in the first grade, a lady from a local Evangelical church came weekly to our public school with a flannel board and told Bible stories. That was the first I’d ever heard of the scriptures, for we had none in our home, and I believed everything she said. This was before the ACLU and Supreme Court Justice Wm. J. Brennan, in 1982, said that there must be a “wall of separation” between Church and State. Once, during recess, when I was in second grade, a Seventh Day Adventist boy came around a corner of a building and ran into me and I shoved him down. He got up off the ground and calmly said “Jesus Christ loves you and so do I.” So I pushed him down much harder. As he stood up again with tears he looked into my eyes and said, “Jesus Christ loves you and so do I.” I was totally convicted in my soul and instantly gave up being a bully. I knew that indeed Jesus did love me and I must love Him too.

By the third grade, I haltingly began going to the Community Bible Church with my sisters Barbara and Cherry, and really enjoyed it. One summer I went to Bible Camp at the church and loved their cookies and milk. I remember walking home from school, and an older lady, who lived on along the way, would ask if I’d like to come into her home and pray with her. It may all seem sinister now, but it was a more innocent time and I would always say yes. A year later, while I was selling the newspaper The Grit, another lady said that if I attended her church she would buy a newspaper from me each month. So I began to attend the little white Pilgrim Holiness Church on Pine Street in Central Point, Oregon.

It was there that I formally gave my life, heart and soul, to Jesus Christ. I came to the altar, knelt and made Him the Lord of my life. I was “born again” when I was ten years old and was saved to Heaven in the Kingdom of God. I loved my minister very much, so when he asked me to be baptized I readily agreed, but, over the course of two years, it just didn’t happen. My mother was an agnostic, my father an atheist, and my brother Bob had become a Buddhist and badly wanted me to convert to his religion. I would listen attentively to him but nothing struck me to believe. I firmly believed in Christianity and not Buddhism, and yet something always got in the way of my baptism.

One Saturday night in late June of 1959 I was secretly watching a late-late old epic movie called Brigham Young on television. It was about a group of religious people called the Mormons and starred Vincent Price as Joseph Smith and Dean Jagger as Brigham Young, with Linda Darnell and Tyrone Power as the love interests. I was fascinated by the movie but had never heard of the Mormons before. It was spiritual, historical, and romantic and I stayed awake for the entire movie and then slid into my bed, one tired boy of fourteen.

The next morning, Mike and I walked the nine blocks to church. After the sermon was Sunday school class. The church was so small that the youth class was held in a small attic room that was approached by a stairway built on the outside of the building. As was usual, our minister, Rev. Clarence Jackson, would visit our class for a few minutes to give a little message. It was, by that time of day, swelteringly hot in Southern Oregon. During his message he said, “We don’t believe in jewelry, we don’t believe in dancing, we don’t believe in movies, we don’t . . . ” I interrupted, saying, “Oh, I saw a move, but it was on television and it was a religious movie.” He responded, “It doesn’t matter. What was the movie about?” “Something about Brigham Young and the Mormons,” I naively replied. He instantly erupted and shouted, “Never say that blasphemous word!” and stomped out of class. I felt so badly that I had offended our beloved minister. On the way home, Mike and I decided not to tell Mom because it was a family rule that if we got into trouble anywhere off our property we got into double trouble at home.

The very next day, after track and field practice, Mom said, “You boys get cleaned up. Some Mormon missionaries are coming to see us.” “We can’t see them,” I responded, “Why not?” “Oh, I don’t know.” “Then get ready!” was her demand. It just so happened that Mom had done some sewing for a Mormon family in town, the Schwabs, and they asked if the missionaries could drop by. She had said to the Schwabs, “I’m not interested but maybe my two boys would be.” It also turned out that Mom hated Mormons because her first husband was a Jack Mormon and a bad guy in criminal ways.

So, in a grand “coincidence,” they arrived. Elder Tobler of Idaho and Elder Hansen from Arizona came to our house. I remember how strong and cordial they were. My father called it all “foolishness” and left, but my Mother and Aunt Gertrude were there when the missionaries stepped into the house. They immediately began to pelt them with the most vicious anti-Mormon questions. It reminded me of the persecution the Mormons suffered in the Brigham Young movie I had just seen two days before.

Elder Tobler calmly said that they had a discussion prepared that might answer our questions and asked if they might give it. So we sat around the dining room table, and Elder Hansen asked to give the prayer. We bowed our heads and, within seconds after he began, I heard a distinct authoritative voice: “Listen to these men; they have the words of truth.” My head popped up, as did my Brother Mike’s head from across the table, for he had heard the same powerful voice! Amazed, we stared at each other for a moment. We went to the Medford LDS Ward that Sunday and I was baptized a week later. Mike was baptized about a year later and a year after that my sister Cherry was baptized. It has been many decades since this fourteen-year-old boy was baptized on July 10, 1959, and I haven’t dried off yet.

These were in the days of the “kiddy-dip,” in which parental permission was not always obtained before baptism. My mother was shocked when she found out that I was baptized, being a staunch anti-Mormon and being told by our next-door neighbor, Ray Kelly, that all Mormons are going to Hell. Mr. Kelly said his minister could help, so she demanded that I go to a cult deprogrammer, Rev. Everett Cade of the local Church of Christ. So, every Saturday for the rest of the summer, I was obliged to spend two hours at his house discussing his “truths” about Mormonism. I hadn’t even had all the discussions yet! Because I was so unknowledgeable about LDS history and doctrine, ignorance was to my advantage and hearing all this anti-Mormon stuff somewhat inoculated me as I began to learn more.

Rev. Cade systematically went through the evils of polygamy, blood atonement, Danites and Mountain Meadows, celestial sex, multiple Gods, Lucifer being Jesus’ brother, the Adam-God theory, blacks and the priesthood . . . just for starters! I didn’t have a single answer to counter any of his arguments. The only thing I could say was that I had heard a voice from God saying that the missionaries had the words of truth and that I would be willing to leave the LDS Church if God commanded me to do so. However, Rev. Cade was unable to replicate anything close to the kind sweet voice speaking directly to Mike’s and my spirit. This witness of the Holy Ghost is as clear today as it was so many decades ago.

Rev. Cade had written his Bible college thesis on forty people in the northeastern United States, during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, who had gone into a quiet place, had an epiphany, and used that to start a religious movement. Jemima Wilkinson, Mary Baker Eddy, and Joseph Smith Jr. were but three who had done so. He viciously attacked Joseph Smith’s First Vision. When he asked me, “What’s so special about Joe Smith of up-state New York that God would appear to him?” I thought for a while and responded “Well, uhhh, he was a nice guy?” It was a lame and weak answer even for a small town kid and it stuck in my craw for decades. Indeed, what was so special about the Prophet Joseph Smith Jr.? The quest for an answer led directly to my researching and publishing a ‘scholarly’ book on The Dynasty of the Holy Grail: Mormonism’s Sacred Bloodline in 2006, which was dedicated to answering the question.

I have believed very earnestly ever since my conversion, but living gospel principles, of course, was more difficult because it required faith, not just belief. During my half-century of Church membership that naive, innocent, and blind faith has been transformed bit by bit into a more mature and reasoned faith. Not that it is now all “understood”—only more so. For from blind to enlightened faith is the course we should follow. Through sincere prayer, diligent study, and obeying the commandments, one’s faith and knowledge can embraced more fully.

In 1974, I was with an LDS parasitologist friend, Jim Jensen, whose atheist colleague at Auburn University had chided him for believing in God. His explanation of why it was reasonable to believe in God, as understood by the Latter-day Saints, made so much sense that I thought, “This is a God that even atheists can believe in.” This immediately reminded me of the song “What’s it all about, Alfie?” where the lyrics say “I believe in something that even unbelievers can believe in.” If one could only cast aside false sectarian notions of who God was, I thought, we could easily appreciate that God existed and why it mattered. My basic premise was and still is that the Mormon God and faith could be explained, though not proven, scientifically.

My hope is that this testimony might help other scholars believe in the goodness of Heavenly Father, the redemption of Jesus Christ, and the authority of the LDS Church on the Earth. But things usually don’t work out that way because there are some things that no man can give to another—FAITH, for instance. Hopefully, though, one can give “a reason to believe,” because nobody can give belief itself. (See 1 Peter 3:15.) I like the statement from an old Christian tract that, “Even if we don’t believe in God, he still believes in us.” This was similar to the verse about God, “We love him, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19; see also verse 10.) It is not difficult to believe in such a loving God if we humbly try to do so.

Ultimately, all our testimonies must be a “leap of faith” first, and then proceed toward a “reasoned faith.” There is a Latin phrase that captures this truism, Fides quaerens intellectum, which means “Faith seeking understanding.” And another, Credo ut intelligam, means “I believe in order to understand.” Only those things we believe to have value can we ever hope to know and understand. This is as true for a society as it is for an individual; otherwise, we lack faith in our institutions, our mores, our values, and ourselves—and, in the end, it will damn us. Joseph Smith said that nobody would be damned for believing too much, but for unbelief. Yet this is not an either/or dichotomy in the spirit of the pseudo-question, “Should we replace the Tyranny of Faith with the Tyranny of Reason?” It is an ongoing balance between faith and reason; tyranny has nothing to do with it.

According to a Gnostic Qumran text, the missing ingredient that compelled certain angels to fall from heaven was their inability to “bridge the gap” or to “look over the horizon” where faith was concerned. They could only believe what they could see or touch. The wicked among the unbelievers were always quick to say, “Show me a sign, then I will believe” (Alma 32:16-17). Not willing to understand that “signs” follow, but do not precede, faith, they do not understand Paul’s injunction “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7 NKJV). These fallen angels, and many of us as well, are unable or unwilling to take even the slightest leap of faith; everything has to be proven first. This is their damnation, their own concrete ceiling. Doubting Thomas was rebuked by Jesus for his lack of faith, “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed; blessed [are] they that have not seen, and [yet] have believed” (John 20:29).

It all comes down to Isaiah 1:3 NKJV, which notes why careless or willful people don’t have sufficient faith in God. “The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not consider.” We all need to get much more serious. Joseph Smith said it best in 1839: “The things of God are of deep import; and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can find them out.”1 This is not unlike Proverbs 25:2 NKJV: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.”

I have been guided by the Latin phrase Extrico subjectio quod verum ero evidens, which means, “Untangle the subject and the truth will be evident.” Along this line, Joseph Smith earnestly prayed for light when he read James 1:5, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” In boyish innocence he never thought that he wouldn’t receive an answer. An Old Testament version of this same scripture also applies, “Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things which thou knowest not” (Jeremiah 33:3).

Only those who have at least a particle of desire to believe will study it out and ultimately believe. Alma taught that all one really has to do to be on the path to faith is to take a first step and exercise a tiny amount of desire:

But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words. (Alma 32:27)

The trick to learning of God is to believe without a sign and to take the initial step for some compelling inner purpose. It is paramount for us to “bring to pass much righteousness” without being commanded first. Mosiah 26:3 says the same thing, “And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened.” The spiritually hard of hearing find it difficult to listen to “the still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12). But in the din of ideas and distracting concerns the sheep will eventually “hear his voice” (Hebrews 3:15). Through earnest prayer, the words of Jeremiah 33:3 still come true: “Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things which thou knowest not.”

In the Springville Museum of Art there is an oil painting by Wulf E. Barsch entitled Toward Thebes (1985). This semi-abstract and enigmatic canvas addresses the idea of piercing the veil of confusion and finding truth. Thebes, Egypt’s capital city during politically stable times, symbolizes the concept of bringing order out of chaos. A second level of meaning in the painting deals with how the ordering principle exists but is often not apparent or easily seen. The painting’s general theme deals with this telestial mortal estate, in which, as the Apostle Paul says, “We see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Behind this chaotic earth-life, God has given divine order, which is not now obvious but will eventually become evident. The painting presents man’s view of existence. A hint of God’s design is seen in the Magic Square in the middle of Wulf Barsch’s picture. It was scribbled into the still wet paint by the artist’s brush handle.

4 9 2
3 5 7
8 1 6

These numbers add up to fifteen, no matter in which direction they are counted! They might represent God’s fifteen prophets, seers, and revelators (the LDS First Presidency and Twelve Apostles) on the earth at any one time. Though being indistinct and looking meaningless at first, they are logically organized, if only the viewer will look a little deeper and consider more seriously.

All judgments on God’s methods and motives must wait until the eternal perspective that He enjoys is fully viewed. It is a like a person going to the tapestry factory and approaching the tapestry from the back side. All is a welter of knots and ends, with very little design. But when we walk around to the front of the tapestry we see the true pattern and intent of the master weaver—we see God’s side. God is the gardener, the master weaver, and the great architect of the world’s history. Faith in the Gospel is the lens by which we may view more clearly God’s merciful Plan of Salvation.

Thus it is with life. We can see God’s handiwork ordering the universe if only we have “eyes to see.” Shakespeare said that we should perceive “tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” This is true if we have not been blinded by the “world” and its “blind guides.” As the English proverb reveals, “There are none as blind as those who will not see.” (See Matthew 13:13; Jeremiah 5:21; Isaiah 6:9-10.)

This concept was echoed by Vincent de Beauvais, who said, “Man can encompass his salvation by means of knowledge.”2 To this, we must add wisdom. In Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Locksley Hall we read, “Knowledge comes, but Wisdom lingers.” Galileo expressed just how important this concept was: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”3 We must use all our faculties, or else risk losing them.

I love Brigham Young’s succinct insight on our Godly nature: “We are made expressly to dwell with those who continue to learn.”4 Pure learning for its own sake never goes unrewarded. “Whatsoever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:18). Joseph also noted that “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance.”5 I think he meant “saved in the higher kingdoms,” for even idiots will be saved in the Telestial Kingdom of Heaven.

Our very happiness rests on knowing and having faith in that kind Heavenly Father who cares so dearly for us. It is written, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). I love His Son, Jesus Christ, who in Gethsemane suffered for us more than any man, more than all men combined, because of our sins against eternal justice. He has taken upon Himself our liabilities and now it is time to take upon ourselves His assets. I testify that it is only through “mature faith,” seeing eye-to-eye and knowing Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ as They really are, that we will be able to regain the Father’s full presence and happily become heirs and join-heirs with Jesus (John 17:3).



1 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith p.137, also see History of the Church 3:295.
2 Louis Charpentier, The Mysteries of Chartres Cathedral
3 Quoted in Discover magazine, January 2005, p.12.
4 Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 17:141.
5 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith p.301.

Vern Grosvenor Swanson is the director of the Springville Museum of Art, in Springville, Utah. He is a native of Oregon who attended Brigham Young University in art and football. After graduation, he received his master’s degree in art history at the University of Utah under Robert Olpin, and ultimately earned his Ph.D. from the Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London. Prior to coming to the Springville Museum in 1980, he had worked at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, several sales galleries, Wasatch Bronzeworks, and, as an assistant professor of art history, at Auburn University in Alabama (1972-1975). An authority on the art of Utah and of nineteenth-century Europe, as well as on Soviet impressionism, he is the author of, among other things, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema: The Painter of the Victorian Vision of the Ancient World (1977); The Other Lost Tribes (1981); with Lawrence Alma-Tadema, The Biography and Catalogue Raisonne of the Paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1990); Utah Art: The Springville Museum Collection (1991); with William C. Seifrit and Robert S. Olpin, Artists of Utah (1991); Hidden Treasures: Russian and Soviet Impressionism 1930-1970s (1994); with William C. Seifrit, Robert S. Olpin, and William Gerdts, Utah Painting and Sculpture (1997); John William Godward: The Eclipse of Classicism (1998); with Robert S. Olpin, Donna L Poulton, and Janie L. Rogers, Utah Art, Utah Artists: 150 Years Survey (2001); Soviet Impressionism (2001); with VaLoy Eaton (and with an introduction by Orrin G. Hatch), In Natural Light: Paintings by VaLoy Eaton (2003); Dynasty of the Holy Grail (2006); and, with Donna L. Poulton, Painters of Utah’s Canyons and Deserts (2009). He is currently working on a book dealing with the Mormon theology of the atonement. Dr. Swanson is married to the late Elaine Milne, and they had one son together, the late John Brett Swanson; he is now married to Judy Nielson, with daughters Amber C. Swanson and Angela R. Swanson Jones. He is serving in the high priests group leadership for the Hobble Creek Fifth Ward, in Springville, Utah.

Posted November 2010