Home / Testimonies / Joseph Lynn Lyon

I, like Nephi, can say I was born of goodly parents who loved the Lord, and they also loved learning. They were the first generation to attend University and obtain a degree (a bachelor’s degree for my father and an associate in education for my mother). Dad began as a high school teacher in Rigby, Idaho. After a year he ended up as the seminary teacher through the intervention of a highly independent stake president who hired him without the permission of the Church. This began a journey that finally led to his obtaining a master’s degree at the University of Chicago, and then on the path to a Ph.D. in the midst of the Great Depression. In September 1933 the Lord intervened and President Grant called Dad to preside over the Netherlands mission, and the Ph.D. was deferred because of his devotion to the Church. (He finally obtained it in 1962.)

My twin and I, born in 1939, came along as Dad and Lowell Bennion were now the only two teachers at the newly created LDS Institute at the University of Utah. During all my growing up years the Institute and the students it attracted were the center of Dad’s professional and spiritual life. My earliest memories were of Dad doing service projects with students, and Mom feeding them her famous hamburgers. Of his constant service, staying late to close the building so that the Lambda Delta Sigma chapters could meet after school hours, chaperoning Lambda Delta Sigma socials on weekends, and on Sundays providing the priesthood support for the first student Church units (the Stadium Village Branch), and speaking at hundreds and hundreds of sacrament meetings.

My mother was called to the Primary General Board in 1944 at age 38, and because of her skills as a writer and editor was assigned to produce the lesson manuals for many of the Primary classes until Correlation assumed this assignment. This calling meant traveling throughout the U.S. training branch, ward, and stake primary leaders. She returned from these journeys to tell us of the great faith and devotion of Church members in places far from Salt Lake while Dad saw to our needs (we ate a lot of hot dogs when Mom was gone).

My father had the gift of framing the history of the Church in stories about the people who had preceded us. One of the blessings of being with my Dad was to hear him tell us of the history of the Church, often tied to a particular place where we happened to be. As the history of the Church came to life in his stories, I was astonished at the strength of those who preceded me, and who had founded the Church and struggled mightily to insure its survival. Dad’s stories covered many aspects of our history. I heard the story of the Mountain Meadow Massacre at age nine on my first trip to California, as we neared Cedar City. Dad strived for an honest history—highlighting the faith of those who lived it, but also recognizing problems that had occurred.

One story I remember was of my grandfather, who was President Grant’s bishop and often walked to work with him. President Grant had severe insomnia and he dealt with it by riding the “Bamberger” train to Ogden in the morning because he discovered he could always sleep on a train. It gave him a couple of hours of sleep, which was enough to get him through the work day. This story helped me understand the human side of President Grant, but also his devotion to his calling as the prophet.

Foundations of My Testimony

So I grew up warmed by the testimonies of my parents. I also saw the Church in action. Dad took my twin and me to pick peas early one summer morning in the welfare pea patch. The Second World War had just ended and I recall my mother’s meal time prayers, asking the Lord to help those starving in Europe, especially the good Dutch Saints she and Dad knew so well. As we worked in that pea patch Dad explained that we were doing exactly that, helping to feed the hungry. (In the mid-1990s, a Brother Manfred Schütze visited our ward and thanked us for saving his life through the welfare system, and I again thought of that pea patch, and its meaning in terms of Christian service.)

The Church decided to build a new ward in the vacant lot next door to our house, and I learned to help doing jobs a small boy could do, such as cleaning up bits of lumber, and cement sacks, as I watched the priesthood and Relief Society do the heavier work to create a chapel. As newly ordained deacons my twin and I went with the adult priesthood to haul bales of hay from a Church dry farm in South Jordan to the Church dairy. It was my first priesthood assignment besides passing the sacrament. Again I felt part of a great enterprise serving the needs of others, carried out by the ordinary people I attended Church with each Sunday.

During my teenage years I fell in love with a lovely young woman who was a staunch Episcopalian, and the intensity of our love kept the relationship alive for three years despite her moving to California. My parents were wise enough to let me make my own decision in the matter, though their concern with my course was evident. The intensity of her beliefs, and her refusal to consider “Mormonism” as anything but a cult, forced me to question my own beliefs, and I even toyed with the idea of becoming an agnostic in an attempt to bridge the gulf between us. It also prompted me to read the New Testament in its entirety, and I knew without a shadow of doubt that Jesus was the Christ, that he had been resurrected, and that through him I, too, would be resurrected. I simply could not abandon the Church. Though I did not have a witness of its truthfulness, I certainly knew of the goodness of the members, their devotion and great faith, and with great reluctance I terminated our relationship in the spring of 1957.

In June 1957, I served six months active duty in the U.S. Army, and I recall falling to my knees after “lights out” the first day after starting basic training at Fort Ord, California, and asking for the Lord’s help to get me through the most challenging circumstances I had yet faced. I felt great comfort, and found attending Church to be a blessing through the next six months. At Fort Chaffee, Arkansas, our group leader, a sergeant, only made it to church one Sunday, which meant that we eighteen- and nineteen-year-old priests had to organize and conduct our own sacrament meetings, and we did! During this time I made several attempts to read the Book of Mormon, found Ist Nephi a truthful testimony, but foundered on the Isaiah chapters in 2nd Nephi.

In January 1958, I was enrolled at the University of Utah, with only a vague idea of what I wanted to do professionally. One option was to follow in my father’s footsteps as a teacher of history. Another was journalism. I began working on the student newspaper, found I had some talent for writing, and was on track to become the editor of the paper.

In February 1958 I felt the need for a patriarchal blessing. Our stake patriarch was a retired railroad worker of modest means, but with a great spiritual presence. Before the blessing he asked what I hoped to obtain from the blessing, and I told him I needed direction concerning what career I should pursue. In his kindly way he told me that I was asking a great deal of him, and that it would require great faith on my part to fulfill such a request. He then proceeded to pronounce the blessing, and explicitly counseled me to seek knowledge of a scientific nature. Such a career course had never occurred to me, nor did I feel I had the intellectual abilities to succeed, mathematics having been problem for me. I left his house feeling much like Jonah when told to go to Nineveh. I finally resigned from the paper and began taking some basic level science classes, but with no clear career goal in mind, hoping the Lord would help me to fulfill the blessing the patriarch had pronounced.

In June 1959, I accepted a call to serve in the New Zealand mission. It was certainly the hardest two years of my life up to that time. I soon realized that though I had a testimony of Christ I did not have a testimony of the Restoration, only a strong belief in the truthfulness of the Church. As my companions and I bore witness our investigators of European ancestry would counter our testimonies with, “Of course you believe that because you were raised that way, but I was not raised as you were, and cannot accept what you say.” Their other response was often, “Well, Darwin explained it all!” The contrast with our Polynesian investigators was astonishing. Their reaction was one of complete faith and acceptance of our testimonies, though they often lacked the faith to change their lives sufficiently to be baptized. Their response brought home to me the meaning of the beatitude “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” I also saw the power of conversion to make astonishing changes in the lives of people we taught who did accept baptism.

I continued to pray for the witness of the Spirit that I had read about. It came on December 6, 1960, at a day-long testimony meeting with all of the missionaries in the Auckland area presided over by Elder Spencer Kimball. As I came forward to bear my testimony, I was filled with the most powerful yet peaceful feeling I had ever experienced. I felt as if my very soul was filled with a golden light, and I knew, not just believed, that Jesus was the Christ and that Joseph Smith was a prophet who had restored the Church to the earth. The memory of that event is still with me and remains the anchor of my faith to this day.

Upon returning from my mission I put the promises in my patriarchal blessing to the test and enrolled as a freshman pre-medical student. The first few weeks were a challenge, but then I was blessed to be able to pass the examinations, and with grades high enough to make medical school a possibility. I entered the University of Utah School of Medicine in the Fall of 1963 and graduated in June 1967. I worked two summers during the second and third years of medical school as a very junior surgeon/research assistant with Russell M. Nelson, then a cardio-thoracic surgeon, now an Apostle. He had said that the one trait that set me apart from his other students was an insatiable curiosity, and he was right.

Because of his powerful example, I set off to be a surgeon, but soon realized that my desires to be surgeon did not match with my curiosity and with what the Lord wanted me to do. So, after a year of internship, I entered the Harvard School of Public Health to pursue a Master’s Degree in Public Health. I was interested in a discipline I had only heard about, epidemiology. It was a branch of medicine which no one in my medical training to that point had ever talked about, but it is where I ended up; so I became an epidemiologist studying the causes of chronic diseases.

I have taught the subject at the University of Utah since 1974, have published over 140 scientific papers on the subject, and hopefully have made one or two contributions to the discipline. I was the first to document and quantify many of the benefits of living the Word of Wisdom among the LDS using the methods of epidemiology. This research has continued and been expanded by others, and has helped the Church in its missionary efforts. I was blessed in this effort by the strong encouragement and help of Dr. James O. Mason, then in charge of the Church’s health programs, now an emeritus general authority. I was also helped because the Church, unique among any churches I am aware of, maintains a central file of Church members. Without the efforts of nameless ward clerks throughout Utah who updated the ward records and recorded the births and deaths in their ward, it would have been impossible to do such research.

One highlight of my professional career was to be invited to present some of my findings on the health of the LDS to the Princess Takamatsu Cancer Conference. Princess Takamatsu, the sister in law of the Emperor of Japan, complimented me personally on my contribution to her conference. My findings had been the only scientific report that the Japanese newspapers chose to report, and she was pleased with the publicity. I felt I had had a small part in being able to bear testimony to the wisdom of the Lord in revealing the Word of Wisdom through Joseph Smith.

I also stumbled on the adverse effects on the health of children in Southern Utah caused by exposure to radiation from the testing of atomic bombs at the Nevada Test site. My research on that topic caused me to testify before the U.S. Congress five times, and finally resulted in financial compensation to those injured.

As I near retirement, my wife and I have experienced the blessings of working weekly in the Salt Lake Temple, and have come to a greater appreciation of the great work for the dead, and the power of commitments made in the temple and the eternal nature of the sealing ordinances performed there. I hope the demands of memorization in our temple assignment have also helped to keep my aging brain a little more agile.


Joseph Lynn Lyon is a professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine. He received his B.S. and M.D. degree from University of Utah, and a Master of Public Health degree from the Harvard School of Public Health.

He has published over 140 articles in the peered reviewed scientific literature. He has been the recipient of 29 grants and contracts, mostly from the U.S. National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He has served as a reviewer for a number of scientific journals, including the Journal of the American Medical Association and the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Posted December 2011