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My Conversion

JackHarrellI grew up with my mom in a little pink house in Parkersburg, Illinois—a farm town of 250 people in the southeastern part of the state. My mom wasn’t a regular churchgoer, but she was a good Christian who tried to teach me to be grateful and patient and honest. Because of her, I grew up believing in God. I always knew someone was watching over us. I knew that no matter what went wrong in this world, someone would set things right in the end. Growing up in Parkersburg, I didn’t know about living prophets or modern-day scriptures. I didn’t know that God could reveal himself, through his Spirit, to ordinary people. But in my early twenties, I was taught truths that most people in this life never receive. I learned that everyone on earth is a child of God—even me. I learned to repent, through the atonement of Jesus Christ. I learned the things every member of the Church is supposed to know, but I learned them in my own way. Everyone’s conversion story is unique, because each person is unique. My conversion started when I was eleven years old and watching my favorite TV show.

Kung Fu, a TV series that ran from 1972-1975, was about Kwai Chang Caine, a Buddhist monk, who wandered the nineteenth-century American West and talked about “oneness” and “truth.” He served people and helped them see the vanity of the world—that is, when he wasn’t defending himself against bad guys with his awesome Kung Fu fighting skills. Because I liked that show so much, I went to the library and checked out books about Chinese wisdom, Buddhism, and Taoism. My favorite book was called Wisdom from the East. It was full of proverbs from the Bible and from Eastern philosophers like Buddha and Confucius. One of the proverbs that I still remember said, “An honest man never fears a knock on his door at midnight.”

Not a lot of people in Parkersburg, Illinois read Confucius, but a lot of people in P’burg did drink beer. One night when I was fifteen, I went camping with two of my friends—Mike and Jeff—a couple of miles down the railroad tracks from town. Earlier that day we had pooled our lawn-mowing money and asked J.D. Lane to buy us two cases of beer. (J.D. was the twenty-one-year-old friend of Jeff’s older brother, Dave.) We met J.D. and Red Schwartz at the Sugar Creek Bridge at 10:00 p.m. that night. With flashlights in hand, we carried the beer through the woods for a quarter of a mile to our campsite. For the next few hours we sat around the campfire and listened to FM rock on Jeff’s portable radio while we drank, laughed, and smoked cigarettes until we threw up or passed out or both.

A month or so later, Jeff and I bought some marijuana from his brother Dave. Pretty soon we were getting together a couple of nights a week to smoke a bowl in the shed at the back of Jeff’s property. I knew marijuana was illegal. I knew it was against the law for minors to drink, but I never felt that what I was doing was immoral or wicked. For me, it just seemed like an initiation thing that every guy had to go through.

Something else happened when I was fifteen: I discovered rock and roll music. I bought an album by the rock group Kiss, a live album recorded at Detroit’s Cobo Hall. Every night I’d shut the door of my room, put on my headphones, throw Kiss Alive! on the turntable, and crank up the volume. In my mind’s eye, I imagined the four guys from Kiss standing up there on the stage—playing music, breathing fire, wearing ghoulish make-up and black leather, stomping around in shoes with six-inch heels, and all the while, surrounded by 20,000 devoted fans! It wasn’t long before I talked my mom into buying me an electric guitar. In six months I was in a rock band with some guys I’d met at a keg party. At age seventeen, I was the singer and rhythm guitarist in Split Level—the best rock band in my high school. I wanted to be a rock star. “By the time I’m thirty,” I told my friends, “I’ll either be famous, or dead from a drug overdose.” I went to school stoned and never did any homework, but I did work very hard at what I believed in. I read for hours in books and magazines about rock musicians. I memorized song lyrics and wrote my own songs. I learned about guitars, electronics, sound systems, and stage lighting. I was a very dedicated student of my craft. Music was the way I understood life.

Then, in 1981, after graduating from high school, I moved to Vernal, Utah. I’m not even sure why I did it. The guys in the band couldn’t understand it. Maybe my mom and my sister had something to do with me moving. I’d been arrested twice in Illinois for possession, and my mom wanted to get me away from my friends. So I moved to Utah right after my older sister Sharon did. She and her husband had had financial problems in Illinois, and they came to Vernal to start over. My oldest brother Jerry had been living there for years, working in the oil field business.

On my second day in Utah, I got a job at a grocery store, working in the meat department with a Mormon girl named Wendy. She was eighteen, and I was nineteen. That day we went to lunch together at the Taco Time next door. I thought she was cute, so I bragged about keg parties and drug use and told her things about my rock star heroes. A few days later I went to her house and sat on her bed while we listened to Mormon pop music and talked. I had never been in a teenage girl’s room before. It was all stuffed animals and posters and clothes on the floor. While we talked, Wendy showed me some gospel picture books that looked like children’s books to me. She told me about the pre-existence and the three degrees of glory. I could tell she really believed in it, and it all seemed very nice and sweet in a simple kind of way. Then when she told me that all the wicked people would go to the lowest degree of glory, the Telestial kingdom, I remember saying, “Cool, I could go there and spend eternity with the guys in Led Zeppelin!”

Soon after I moved to Vernal, I found a Book of Mormon in my sister Sharon’s house. I don’t know how it got there, but the thing that interested me about this particular Book of Mormon was the testimony that was written in the front cover. The person who donated the book had said, “I don’t know that this book is true. But I do know that every time I read it I feel closer to the Spirit.” I was impressed because he said he didn’t know. Wendy and the other Mormons I’d met were always saying they knew the Church was true. I just thought they said that because they had been raised to believe it. If they had been raised Catholic or Baptist, I figured they would say they knew that was true. But this guy—the one who had written his testimony in The Book of Mormon I found—he didn’t know. I could trust him.

I remember lying on the bed in my room at Sharon’s house, reading The Book of Mormon and smoking a cigarette. I think I read more than a hundred pages in a few days. I probably got to the Isaiah chapters in Second Nephi and gave up. At the time I thought the Book of Mormon was reliable enough, but I didn’t see the connection between it and the LDS church.

My contact with the church didn’t go any farther than that for a while. Pretty soon I got into the partying scene in Vernal and started a rock band with Wendy’s inactive brothers. Eric played lead guitar, Norm played the drums, and I went to the pawnshop and bought a bass. In a few weeks we were playing bars and keg parties and jamming and using drugs on Sundays. By the end of my first year in Vernal I was the evening manager at the IGA grocery store. I had a key to the store and could take home all the beer I wanted. But I worked six days a week, and on the weekends I partied and played with the band. Sometimes life got a little hectic.

In the spring of 1982, my brother Jerry hired me to work for him. He sold oil field equipment—drill bits especially—and he needed a “bit hand.” Working for Jerry, I traveled all over Utah, New Mexico, California, Texas, Oklahoma, and once we drove as far as Michigan. Jerry paid good money, and I had weekends off for serious partying and playing with the band.

By that time, I’d also moved into a little cottage-apartment owned by Doug and Maureen Mangrum, a couple with three young children. My “humble abode,” as I called it, was situated just a few feet away from Doug and Maureen’s home. It had once been a one-car garage, but someone had converted it into a little cottage with a tiny kitchen, a living room, a bedroom and a bathroom. The Mangrums were good landlords. When Maureen made special meals, she would bring me a plate. She would bring me homemade cookies, and she even made me a gingerbread house at Christmastime. I knew the Mangrums were LDS, so when I had a party with eight or ten of my friends in my little house and Doug would call and ask me to turn down my music, I would do it right away because they were so nice about it.

I had money, substances, and my own apartment. I even had a couple of romances to keep life interesting. The only problem was, I wasn’t happy. Maybe this is the point where some people go on to harder things, but I was just getting “burnt out.” Sometimes I would draw the curtains in my little house, sit down by myself in the living room, put a good record on the turntable, smoke a big fat joint, get the munchies, eat a lot of junk food, and then go to sleep. Later I would think to myself, “This is no life,” and I knew I had to make some changes.

Tired of partying and going nowhere, I spent one particular day off reading the Bible. I had a Bible my Aunt Wilma had given me when I graduated from high school, the kind with the words of Jesus in red print. That day I read the Gospels, and I loved the teachings of Jesus. He was so wise and so true. If Kwai Chang and Confucius were great teachers, Jesus was the greatest teacher of all. Later I went for a walk and prayed that God would tell me if He was real. I wanted to know what to believe. But I didn’t feel anything when I prayed. I wanted immediate answers, but they didn’t come.

In the summer of that year my oldest niece’s husband, Moses, asked me to visit his church, the Church of Christ in Vernal. Moses was crippled from polio and had to use crutches to get around, but those who knew him didn’t feel too sorry for him because he would sometimes borrow money from kindhearted people, or cash in his disability checks, and spend the money on drugs and alcohol. Then he’d leave town without paying his bills. Moses liked to go to new churches and meet people who would offer him charity. Moses took me to his church, and I liked the fact that they taught from the Bible. I don’t remember much about going there, except that I brought Wendy with me one Sunday morning and we got in a big argument afterwards because she said they taught false doctrine.

One evening I went with Moses to this little white church on the west side of Vernal to talk with the pastor. Moses had bought an old Cadillac from the pastor on a handshake deal. We talked for about an hour about cars and scriptures and churches, and then the pastor led the discussion to the subject of baptism. He took us to the front of the church, up on the stand, to a trap door in the floor between the podium and the choir seats. He lifted the door, and there was the baptismal font. Before I really knew what was going on, the pastor had us preparing for baptism. He filled the font while Moses and I changed into white clothes. He baptized both of us, and afterwards, we went out on the front steps of the church to have a cigarette. I thought that was kind of strange even then.

I only went to church there for a few weeks, though. The people were old, the sermons were boring, and the pastor and teachers said a lot of negative things about the Mormons. I thought the Mormons were bad because they said the other churches were false, but this church was just as bad. So Moses left town without paying the pastor what he owed on the Cadillac, and I stopped attending the Church of Christ. Still, I was searching. I was thinking about religious things, trying to find out what was right, and the Lord was leading me along.

In the fall of 1982, Vicky, my niece, got married. Her husband Bart had been raised and baptized a Mormon, but Bart hadn’t been to church since he was in primary. The missionaries knocked on their door one day, and Vicky invited them back to give a lesson. At that time Vicky and Bart lived in a house trailer behind Wendy’s brother Norman, the drummer of the band I was in.

Vicky invited me to sit in on the discussions. After about the third lesson, the missionaries left one night with all our cigarettes and coffee. (I’m sure at least a thirty-dollar value.) It seemed like such a good idea when they took them, but once they left—and took their spirit with them—we felt sort of empty and alone. It wasn’t long before Bart and I headed out for 7-Eleven to restock.

I liked the missionaries though. One was from Arizona; his name was Elder Pursley; and the senior, Elder Walters, was from Philadelphia. I liked Elder Walters because he liked a lot of the same rock music I was interested in. He had joined the Church in Philadelphia about a year before his mission, and I trusted him that he knew it was true. I thought, “Here’s a guy who hasn’t lived under a bubble in Utah all his life.” I soon lost contact with the missionaries, though, because they had only met me at Vicky’s and they didn’t have my home address.

After meeting the missionaries, I started reading the Book of Mormon again. My brother Jerry’s business wasn’t doing very well, and he was spending most of his time on the road. My job was to sit at the shop, answer the phone, and be there in case someone wanted to buy something. I ended up getting paid to read the scriptures for five or six hours a day.

I’d been told that the coming of Christ to the Nephites was the climax of the Book of Mormon, so I read each page carefully, wanting to understand how the story was built up to this important event. When I got to the chapters about Christ’s teachings to the Nephites, I wasn’t disappointed. In the Book of Mormon I found the same Jesus I had loved in the New Testament. During this same time, I happened to be browsing in the Vernal public library one day when I came across a copy of The Pearl of Great Price. I read about how Satan appeared to Moses, commanding Moses to worship him; then Satan threw a temper tantrum when Moses didn’t worship him. I was so impressed that I wanted to buy the book for myself. I went to Vernal’s LDS bookstore and asked the girl at the counter if they sold a book called The Pearl of Great Price. She sold me the Doctrine and Covenants/Pearl of Great Price combination in a paperback. I then began reading all of the LDS scriptures in my workday reading sessions.

I was especially impressed by the revelations given to Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants. I thought it was good that every date and event related to the revelations were explained in the section headings. As I read, I felt I was reading things that were true. I never once felt that the things I read in the LDS scriptures were false or designed to deceive me. I trusted them, but I shared these feelings with almost no one. In fact, my whole conversion seemed to go on with hardly anyone noticing.

At this same time Wendy and I started dating more often. We had dated once in a while before, but her mom didn’t like me because I smoked cigarettes and my hair was down to my shoulders. I told Wendy one night that I thought the Church was something really good, but I didn’t know if I could have the strength to live the commandments, especially the Word of Wisdom. She told me she would help. She had confidence in me even though I didn’t have confidence in myself. Wendy was able to look past my long hair and bad habits and see someone who could accept the gospel and love it.

I was partying less, reading scriptures, praying. I was finding a new life. When I read the Book of Mormon, I knew it was true because it felt right in my heart. I didn’t pray when I finished the book, according to Moroni’s promise, because I had been praying all along, and my prayers had been answered. One day I was on the Maeser Highway going toward LaPoint, just driving around in my 1971 International Travelall and thinking about life. I was looking out at the brown, deserted landscape of northeastern Utah when I gained a witness from the Spirit. Seeing the red rock and the sandstone and the mountains, I thought about the battles of the Nephites and Lamanites I had been reading about in the Book of Mormon, and I knew that the Nephites and Lamanites were real. They weren’t just characters in a story. I felt a sure knowledge deep within my heart. It wasn’t a whisper or a burning. It was a feeling of surety, a firm knowledge. I knew that the Nephites and Lamanites had really lived on this continent, and that the stories and teachings in the Book of Mormon were true.

What I still didn’t know was how the Church fit in with the Book of Mormon. I had to learn that by actually being a member. Once I had a testimony of the LDS scriptures, I knew I had to be baptized. That’s when the missionaries found me at my apartment. I don’t even think they taught me all the official discussions. I was taught what I absolutely needed to know in my baptismal interview, which was an experience I’ll never forget. In those days there were ward Seventies who did what ward missionaries do now. There I sat on a metal folding chair, one-on-one, in a little cinder-block-walled room at the ward meetinghouse with this forty-something man who was asking me some very personal questions. When he asked me if I had a testimony of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, I said “yes.” That part was easy. Then the questions got harder: “Will you keep the Word of Wisdom?” “Will you pay tithing?” “Will you keep the law of chastity?” That’s when I knew this was serious business. I really didn’t know if I could do it. I had never promised anyone that I would avoid drugs or alcohol or extramarital sex. Now, here I was, face-to-face with a representative of God’s true church, and he was asking me if I would promise to keep all the commandments.

The weight of his questions was sobering, but I had to say “yes” because I knew it was the right thing to do. I walked out of that meeting a little shaky. I had made some serious commitments. I didn’t feel strong, and I didn’t feel confident. Looking back, though, I believe that taking that step of faith, that step into the darkness, had to count for something in God’s eyes, even if I wasn’t yet a model of worthiness or self-control.

On the day of my baptism, Wendy was there, the Mangrums were there, Elder Caldwell and Eric, the guitar player in my band, was there. The only people from my family who came were my niece Rhonda and my nephew Rick. That same evening the missionaries were baptizing an eight-year-old boy from a part-member family, so most of the people there had come for him. I was sort of disappointed when nothing miraculous happened at my baptism. I thought I would feel something in my soul when I was baptized or confirmed, but I really didn’t feel anything. Wendy had said that after she got baptized she felt clean and new all over. But I felt just the same as I always did. A few days later I read a verse in the Book of Mormon (Ether 12:6) that says “you receive no witness until after the trial of your faith,” and I knew that this scripture applied to me. My witness came more slowly—in the Lord’s time.

The growth of my testimony was partially dependent on my commitment to the commandments. I didn’t immediately forsake all my sins on the day I joined the Church. For one thing, it was hard for me to give up cigarettes. Sometimes I would buy a pack, smoke three or four, and throw away the rest of the pack, only to repeat the whole process a few days later. When I felt unworthy, I’d skip church, telling myself that I had to get control of my life before I was worthy of the Lord’s blessings. I didn’t yet understand that what I was doing could be likened to a sick person avoiding the hospital until he gets well.

After a few weeks, I talked to my bishop, and he didn’t condemn me. He wasn’t out to punish me. He just wanted to help. After reading The Miracle of Forgiveness by Spencer W. Kimball, I realized that I had to change my friends and my activities if I wanted to be free from the things that held me back. I couldn’t visit some of my relatives or friends without being tempted to bum a cigarette or smoke a joint. I couldn’t date some of the girls I had known before. I couldn’t even stay in the band; there were too many temptations in the bars and parties we played. So I began to change my life and my whole attitude. My weaknesses led me to some serious backsliding during my first year as a member of the Church, but despite my struggles, I knew the Church was true, and I learned that I could only be happy when I lived its teachings.

During those first few months, I read every church book I could—Jesus the Christ, The Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Discourses of Brigham Young, anything that would feed my hunger to learn the gospel. I learned to serve, too. I went home teaching, I worked on the Church farms, and I participated in Young Adults. And I especially grew to love the feelings I felt when I read the scriptures. Even the Bible made more sense to me when I read it as a new convert. As I sat in Sunday school and listened to the teacher talk about the teachings of Christ, I knew more than ever that the Bible was true and that the Savior was real.

Two months after I joined the Church, Wendy got married to a returned missionary. Some people thought I would fall away from the Church after that, but I didn’t. A year later I went on a mission to North Carolina, which gave me even more opportunities to read the scriptures and learn about the Gospel by living it and teaching it to others.

I started keeping a journal on the day I got baptized. I looked back in that journal recently and realized that just a few weeks after I joined the Church I started talking about going to college, something I had never before considered. My conversion to education has been a part of my conversion to the gospel ever since. After my mission, I married Cindy Hunsaker, a first grade teacher I met in Young Adults. A few months later, at age 24, I started college. I attended Utah Technical College (now Utah Valley University) and Salt Lake Community College as a part-time student before enrolling at BYU as an English major. Then I earned a Master’s degree in English from Illinois State University. I taught for one year at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, before I was hired in 1995 to teach English at Ricks College, now BYU-Idaho. In 2006, I completed a PhD in education at the University of Idaho-Idaho Falls. Being a student and a full-time teacher at BYU-I made life very busy at times, but my teaching and learning served each other very well.

During my early college years, when our children were small and I was working and going to school full time, I learned more about living the gospel than I ever learned as a convert or a new missionary. While we were in Utah, I worked for seven years on the graveyard shift—11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.—at Smith’s Food and Drug. I held church callings, went to college, and tried to learn how to be a good husband and father. Learning to healthily carry all of those loads at once was harder than anything I’d ever done before. My wife and I had three children during those years, we were always busy in the church, and we moved seven times. Those challenges gave me a whole new vision of what it meant to be converted. It’s one thing to measure your life by what you don’t do: “I don’t drink, smoke, cuss, sleep around, or dress like a bum.” But there’s more to the gospel than that. Living the gospel is having your heart changed through the atonement of Jesus Christ, and out of that new, purified heart, doing good to all those you meet.

As I look at my life today, I sometimes struggle to reconcile who I used to be with who I am now. As one of my friends said, “Man, you’ve gone from LSD to LDS!” My life has changed dramatically since I joined the Church, and I often wonder, “Why me?” I joined the Church and stayed active when no one else in my family did. Was it my perfectly righteous lifestyle that led me to know the truth when it came? Obviously not! Oddly enough, it seems to be my weaknesses as well as my strengths that have helped me to understand that I am a child of God and I need a Savior. The amazing thing about Christ’s atonement is that he can take anything in our past and make it a soil for new, good growth, if we turn to him and let our struggles be an agent for real repentance. When I joined the Church, I didn’t lose the understanding that I gained through Eastern religions or my years of devotion to rock music. Every true principle that I learned before I joined the Church stayed with me after I joined. Christ’s atonement can transform our past as well as our future, as long as we are faithful.

Because of the atonement, the good and the bad things I’ve gone through have all played a part in my conversion, building my testimony that The Book of Mormon is true, that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true, that Jesus Christ leads us through living prophets. They say a testimony is given to a person as a gift from the Spirit. I believe that, because I’ve learned that last year’s gift of testimony won’t sustain me this year. Yesterday’s testimony must constantly be renewed. It’s the Spirit that gives us the strength we need to serve and endure our trials, and it’s the Spirit that makes the good things in life even better by putting them in an eternal context. I don’t know where my life would be today if I had not joined the Church, but I know that Jesus Christ is the source of mercy and forgiveness and renewal. He is the one who has the power, through the atonement, to transform souls. If we live his teachings, keep his commandments, and follow his true messengers, we’ll find our lives growing richer and more rewarding each day. We’ll learn that even when living the gospel is tough, it’s all worth it. Then we’ll begin to know what true joy really is.

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Jack Harrell is the Composition Director in the English Department at Brigham Young University-Idaho, where he has taught since 1995 and where he previously chaired the Creative Writing Committee.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in English at Brigham Young University-Provo, and went on to receive an M.A. in English from Illinois State University. Finally, he earned a Ph.D. in Education at the University of Idaho.

Among his numerous publications are short stories and personal essays in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Irreantum, The Storyteller, and Manna; “The Poetics of Destruction: Death Metal Rock,” Popular Music and Society (Spring 1995); “Telling the Truth: Teaching Creative Writing to LDS Students,” Annual of the Association for Mormon Letters 2004; “What Violence in Literature Must Teach Us,” in Ethics, Literature, and Theory, ed. Stephen K. George, (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005); “Human Conflict and the Mormon Writer,” Irreantum (December 2009); a monograph entitled The Adult Creative Writer: A Phenomenological Study (Saarbrücken, Germany: VDM Verlag Dr. Muller, 2008); and the novel Vernal Promises (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2003).

Posted December 2009