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A Mormon Academic Testifies

My faith in God and in His role as our Heavenly Father and as creator of the universe and of our spirit beings; in His Son’s role as Jesus the Christ, our Savior and Redeemer; and in the Holy Ghost’s role as Inspirer and Comforter—this faith stems from my testimony of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ, of the Prophet Joseph Smith, and of the Book of Mormon.

My enduring faith and spiritual testimony are based on my experiences in my Blackhurst childhood and teenage family; on the benefits of years of worship and participation in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; on a lifetime of studying and teaching the Restored Gospel as found in the LDS scriptures and in General Authorities’ teachings; on the adventures of living with Norma, our children; and their families; and the spiritual growth from ministering to other Latter-day Saints through the Priesthood and the Temple. These family and Church associations have been intermingled with schooling and higher education, military service, and years of college teaching.

It is common knowledge that, in general, believers in God who are also active church participants are fewer among the more educated men and women than among those with little or much less education. Latter-day Saints with higher education are exceptions. My wife’s and my families, and now our own extended family, are among these exceptions.

For more than thirty years I was on the faculty of Brigham Young University. My BA degree was in history and political science at the University of Utah and BYU, and my MA and PhD from Harvard were in political science, with Russian studies emphases. I was trained as a scholar, writing an 800+ page PhD dissertation on Soviet nomenklatura politics, which I researched in Moscow. I’ve not turned out to be a publishing scholar, but rather an academic well trained in studying and teaching. Most of my BYU faculty colleagues have been able to balance their time spent in unpaid part-time LDS Church callings and academic publishing, but I have not. While not thinking of myself as an intellectual, I have sought for political truths by honing historical and social science analyses. This analytical approach was my focus in studying and teaching about the realities of Communist political systems.

I was raised in part by Grandmother Blackhurst, following the divorce of my parents due to father’s breaking his Temple marriage covenant. I grew up hardly knowing him. My mother was both nurturer and bread-winner, working for many years six days a week, selling women’s fashion clothing. All through my grade school years, I absorbed the faith of my grandmother, my mother, and my Blackhurst uncles and aunts, resulting in a well-honed conscience. The emphasis in our home then and through my teen years was upon (usually unspoken) loving and on self-reliant, hard working, honest, and righteous living, and upon weekly participation in the Church. Like my older sister and brother, I was baptized at age eight and confirmed a member of the Church and given the gift of the Holy Ghost.

After my mostly playful elementary school years, I began working afternoons and Saturdays. My social life and most comfortable relationships during high school and beginning college study were mostly and usually found by participating in our LDS ward on Sundays. I’d had limited scouting experience. I was given the Aaronic Priesthood and duties with the Sacrament and baptizing. I taught children and led hymns in Sunday School. During summers I read, and came to accept as teachings from God, the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and other LDS scriptures, plus Talmage’s Jesus the Christ and his Articles of Faith, and the popular Way to Perfection.

After two years of college study, while working full-time in a newspaper advertising job, I was drawn to the mission field. A full-time missionary experience was another key step in being involved in the Church, taking on responsibilities and serving others while increasing in spiritual knowledge about Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. My young life trying to live the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ encouraged me to want to share such good living with others. I was given the Melchizedek Priesthood and entered the Temple for covenant-making and training.

Three other young men and I were called to a mission in Communist Czechoslovakia. Arriving in Prague, I had an entry visa that (unknown to me) was already five days expired. The Czech officials failed to notice (what a blessing!), and gave me two six-month residence permits, but soon all of us were expelled. My prayers and my family’s prayers, that I could learn the language well, were answered. The Czech Latter-day Saints were very faithful members, having survived the German occupation and the hardships of post-war recovery. Many young people were joining the Church that year (1948-49), including a young woman who worked in the regional Communist office. She was quietly baptized. My faith continued growing in England, where I labored another eighteen months and had more baptisms.

Released from my mission, I was drafted, but I opted to enlist in order to gain intensive Russian study at the Army Language School. Again, I was drawn to worship and activity in a servicemen’s group and at the local LDS ward-like branch. I taught young adults and soon began my first experience in Priesthood leadership as a counselor in the branch presidency. Happily I was posted to a military intelligence unit in Germany. I worked almost entirely in English, gradually being promoted to sergeant. I had good rapport with our officers and enlisted men, but spent my free time with LDS barrack friends and a large nearby LDS servicemen’s group. Again I taught and was called as a counselor in the presidency. Participation in our Restored Gospel worship and other Church activities increased my faith and spiritual knowledge. A young Czech-Austrian refugee, whom I briefly met and introduced to the Gospel, was baptized.

I returned home at the age of twenty-five, still single. (I’d had a special friendship with a high school age-mate, and was briefly engaged to a former English missionary.) My Czech Mission president sponsored my dating his youngest sister. Nothing resulted for a time, but at a surely inspired meeting on a downtown street, we connected, dated twice and decided to marry before I returned to college studies. Because of my parents’ experience, I above all desired to marry and to remain married, not only for time, but also, as the Latter-day Saints believe, for all eternity. She and her family brought me—adding to my firm beliefs in loving, truthfulness, and righteousness—their emphases on humble compassion and non-judgmental acceptance of others, on empathy and on kindness. She continues to be a very positive influence in my life along with our family of six daughters.

One of these daughters has a very special spiritual role in our lives: Christine died at age seven, having been briefly ill with leukemia, from a massive brain hemorrhage. Our doctor was shocked at his first such death. A Latter-day Saint MD and I gave her a Priesthood blessing that she could be relieved of her fitful coma, releasing her from a ruined life. Our Church friends were praying for her at the time she died. Knowing the LDS doctrine that children who die before the age of accountability, age eight, are saved immediately in the Celestial Kingdom, knowing this, I had great peace of mind. So saddened that she had died, such a happy bright daughter. But it seemed to me that of all times in mortal life, her age surely was a least objectionable time to die. All in our family feel she is our own special angel, along with four other siblings and grandchildren who died, watching over us and helping us live better mortal lives.

Back to university studies. I was a B’ish high school student, had a B average at the University of Utah, and was mostly an A student at Brigham Young University. I taught a first-year Russian course. Graduate school? I applied to universities with Russian studies programs, including the University of Washington, Columbia, Yale, and Harvard. I’d also been recruited by the CIA, and chose to take the State Department exam, along with the Graduate Records Exam. I passed all three tests, and was accepted at all the schools. Also, I applied to and was awarded two national (potentially four-year) fellowships, the Ford and Danforth. Both also came through for us. I prayerfully decided to attend Harvard, before seeking, possibly, a career in teaching or the government.

The general social and academic atmosphere at Harvard was colder than I had experienced before, so unlike the friendliness of Utah and California. I soon found that the way to have friendly open conversations with the Harvard graduate crowd was to attend cocktail parties. With my soft drink, I began having delightful chats with those enjoying their cocktails. Although graduate study was not easy, I finished with a B+/A- average. My Russian studies two-year degree had turned into a PhD in the Government Department. Eventually I somehow passed my four political science oral exam topics in one two-hour session. At one point I spoke with a Harvard doctor, who said I had an exceptionally clean body; a counselor told me that I had an exceptionally large conscience. We went to annual Danforth conferences where there was the expectation of a teaching career.

We were immediately at home in the large LDS branch on Longfellow Park, in Cambridge. During these years, callings came to teach, to serve in the District Sunday School and Mutual, and to participate in branch pageants and service projects. Students, mostly from the West, and local LDS, many who came East to school and remained, provided faithful LDS examples. We, especially the married students, found in our Cambridge branch “family” what we were missing in each of our extended families at home.

In 1959, a possible two semesters of study and research at the University of Moscow was in the works. I was selected to go on the second year of the US-Russian graduate exchange program. During those first years of the exchange, wives could accompany US students, but not children. We prayed about the wisdom of being separated for nine months. My Russian language was sufficient for me to have a very fruitful academic experience at Moscow State University, interviewing Soviet officials and researching in libraries. I somehow came across documents marked “for official eyes only” that revealed the actual relationships between Communist Party functionaries and all other government and public institutions. I spent much time with Soviet students of varied backgrounds.

But I was a lone Mormon in Moscow. I visited several Orthodox churches and the Baptist services. I read my scriptures regularly, and prayed daily for my family, for our American student group, and for my daily contacts, academically, socially, and culturally, with Russians. Culturally, it was a positive year: I sang in a university chorus, and we went to many concerts, to the Bolshoi opera and ballet. Our study year ended unfortunately, complicated by the downing of the U-2 flight. The total of my experiences in the Soviet Union strengthened me spiritually and personality-wise, making me more patient, with a greater empathy for others, and so much more aware of the meaning of freedom of conscience, of honesty in political, economic, and social life. I was so thankful for my life in the West, with political, social, and economic pluralism, and freedom of religion.

Given the extensive non-LDS associations on my missions, in the Army, at Harvard, and in Russia, I was pleased to return to BYU (there were other possible college teaching possibilities). Happy at “being in the world,” mostly outside BYU, and because of my Restored Gospel worldview, “not being of the world,” I and our family have had a good life together. The very positive attitude and behavior and the dedicated study of most of BYU’s student body, and the goodwill of the faculty and administration, combined to offer me a welcome career.

We were away from campus in Europe with semester-abroad students and BYU entertaining groups. I was again separated from the family during a four-month sabbatical leave, which I spent traveling to England, France, Germany, and Russia, and to other Communist countries in Eastern Europe. I was gathering first-hand the materials and interviews needed for my analytical teaching about comparative governments. Again, prayer and Gospel living allowed me to be happy though alone for so many weeks while away from my family.

Over three decades, I was drawn to continue responding to Church callings: teaching Gospel lessons, leading choirs, heading the stake Young Men’s activities, serving on the stake high council, serving three shorter callings as a bishop, and serving for several years as a counselor in a stake presidency. The bishopric and presidency responsibilities were another of the key elements in my faith and desire to live righteously. Presiding over a ward of some five hundred members, dozens of whom also have unpaid callings, was demanding, humbling, and faith building.

In the LDS Priesthood culture, one is expected to be active in the Church, and to be a devoted and inspiring husband and parent, while growing spiritually. We desire to serve, but are amiss if we strive for desired callings or campaign for them. Eventually, when we are released from callings, particularly in leadership, we are relieved not to continue with heavy responsibility for others, just happy to return to ordinary membership.

Thus my two mission presidency callings were completely unexpected. In the 1980s I was called to lead the first East European Mission (over LDS members in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Greece), later combined with the Austrian Mission. In the 1990s, after retirement, I was called to preside over the post-Communist mission in the Czech and Slovak republics. We served full-time, received a needs-only stipend, enough to help support three daughters serving missions over those months. Serving with several hundred young elder and sister missionaries and with some older couples and among faithful European Saints was adventuresome but religiously uplifting. We had special spiritual experiences, like twenty copies of a newly printed small Book of Mormon, in the 1980s still illegal, not being discovered the only time our bags were inspected.

I’ve mentioned these many callings I have had in the Church, not to tell that I have been particularly important, but to point out the opportunities to serve that have enabled me in such varying places and with such varying congregations to experience the fruits of the Restored Gospel. In every Church group I’ve always found goodwill predominating, loving fellowshipping, and strong testimonies of the truthfulness of the Restored Gospel. I have witnessed these fruits and heard these testimonies among significantly different congregations: in the many already mentioned places and at the Missionary Training Center and in the Provo Temple.

My association with the general LDS Church leadership has likewise been positive. I was supervised in European missions by Seventies and several Apostles. We have hosted VIP visitors to the Church leaders. I have known and served under President Gordon B. Hinckley and President Thomas S. Monson. These I have fully sustained as our modern-day prophets. Taken as a whole, the First Presidency, the Twelve Apostles, and the Seventies and the general sister officers are the best people I have ever known. I’ve observed and been taught by many outstanding American men and women in other public organizations but, in my experience, no entire grouping of men and women live better, more Christ-like lives than do LDS Church leaders. And this is also true of the local leaders and Church members I’ve met in America and in Europe.

I have always considered, for me at least, Gospel-centered living to be mostly uncomplicated and very practical, even though at times illogical. I’ve not tried to be a Gospel scholar. I am curious, but willing to wait for understanding so much that is unknown concerning life before and after mortality. I have not been drawn to philosophy, political or otherwise, nor to political ideologies. I do believe that men and women “are that they might have joy.” In family and in LDS congregations I have found wonderful, well-meaning, loving, and happy associations. In so many aspects of life, God’s logic as revealed in the Restored Gospel seems illogical to our human educated minds. Examples: 1) young men and women leaving family, friends and courting, jobs, schooling, athletics, etc, for two years to serve as missionaries; 2) the extensive service in unpaid callings, locally in wards and Church-wide in the Tabernacle Choir; and 3) the many, many hours Latter-day Saints spend in family history research (which is not unique to us) and in doing proxy ordinances for deceased ancestors.

My enduring faith and my spiritually-gained knowledge are that Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost are the Godhead of this universe. Through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the full Gospel of Jesus Christ and His Priesthood were restored to mortal men and women. The Church Joseph established is the true Church of God. The Book of Mormon is indeed another witness for Jesus Christ and is true scripture, as are the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. The leaders and other workers in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are called of God. There is life after death, families especially can be eternal, and the many LDS Temples dotting the earth are where the ordinances are had for eternal blessings for the deceased as well as for the living.

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Edwin B. Morrell (PhD, Harvard University), Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Brigham Young University, was born in Worland, Wyoming, in 1929. He grew up in Salt Lake City, where, ultimately, he was employed for five years at the Salt Lake Tribune and attended the University of Utah (1946-1948). He served in the Czechoslovak Mission of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1948-1949) and in the British Mission (1949-1951), following which he served in the U. S. Army (1951-1954).

In 1954, he married Norma Toronto, and they are the parents of six daughters.

He continued his studies at Brigham Young University (1954-1956) and at Harvard University (1956-1961), interrupted by a research stint at Moscow University (1959-1960).

He was a member of the BYU faculty from 1961 to 1995, taking a leave to preside over the East European Mission from 1981 to 1984 and the Austria Vienna Mission from 1982-1984. Following his retirement from Brigham Young University, he presided over the Czech Prague Mission from 1996-1998. Apart from that interruption, he as served in the Provo Temple since 1988.

Posted August 2011