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Conversion Story and Testimony

In the 1990s, I lived and worked in Russia. Elder Charles A. Didier of the Seventy presided over a district conference in Moscow during that time. In the Sunday morning session, he asked how many members were converted by the Spirit as compared with the number who were converted by intellect. By far the majority of hands were raised when he asked how many were converted by the Spirit. I raised my hand when Elder Didier asked how many were converted by intellect.

I did so because my initial testimony came through the intellect as I read a pamphlet entitled Which Church Is Right? by Elder Mark E. Petersen of the Quorum of the Twelve. On a cold February day in 1964, when I was 14 years old, two LDS missionaries knocked on the door of our home in western Pennsylvania, a few miles north of Pittsburgh. Because of the bitter cold, my mother felt sorry for them and invited them into the house. The elders left some church literature, including a copy of the Book of Mormon and Elder Petersen’s pamphlet. When I came home from school I began looking through the material. As I read Elder Petersen’s pamphlet, I was struck by its logic: the Saviour lived on the earth; He called twelve apostles to lead his church; He gave them authority; they organized and led his church; eventually they died1 and the authority was thus lost; only a restoration of the power they held could permit the re-establishment of the Lord’s church; that restoration took place when Peter, James, and John appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and conferred on them the Melchizedek Priesthood and ordained them apostles. I was convinced on that reading. To me, that explanation made perfect sense.

My mother was a faithful member of a small Disciples of Christ congregation. She taught five-year-old children in the church’s Primary organization and served as a deaconess. The church’s motto was “where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” My mother took me to church with her. The church had excellent Sunday School teachers who taught me the stories of both the Old and New Testaments.

When I was about eleven or twelve years of age, the church had a membership drive. A friend in my Sunday School class had been baptized. I asked him what the requirements were for baptism. He said he simply had to acknowledge Jesus Christ as his Saviour. I thought to myself “I know Jesus Christ is my Saviour. I can be baptized.” Accordingly, one Sunday morning, as the hymn of invitation was sung at the close of the service, I went forward and sat in the first pew, signalling my intention to be baptized. I was then baptized by immersion in the font behind the pulpit at the front of the church.

Thus, when presented with Elder Petersen’s pamphlet, I had a testimony of the Saviour. I knew the stories of His ministry. I knew who the early apostles were and what they did. I knew of Peter’s visit to Cornelius and of the missionary journeys of Paul. I knew that Paul had organized congregations of the church in Galatia, Corinth, Thessalonica, and Ephesus. And it was obvious to me, once Elder Petersen explained it, that when the apostles died, the authority to lead the church died with them.

My mother was not pleased with my acceptance of Mormonism. My mother’s church was very important to her and, except for a few family members and friends, was the center of her social life. I was her only child and my father had died several years before. My mother’s hope was that I would become a minister. Leaving her church was not what she had planned for me.

However, by September of that year, when I turned 15, my mother had reluctantly decided to join the LDS church with me to keep us together. An October baptism was planned. A few weeks before the baptism my mother and I went to a home of a family in the Christian Church to tell them of our plans to join the LDS church. The husband and father in the family was an elder in the church, a choir member, and a member of the church’s governing board. After my mother announced our intention to leave the Christian Church to become Mormons, emphasizing that it was my idea, not hers, the father took me into the dining room. I recall being in the dining room with him for four hours, from 8 PM until midnight. During that time he discussed every scripture he knew that might dissuade me from my decision. He was an excellent scriptorian, and we discussed concepts and verses, with neither of us convincing the other. Finally, close to midnight, he showed me Revelation 22:18. In his interpretation, the Book of Mormon could not be true because it improperly added to God’s word. I had to admit I had no answer to that. My mother and I then went home. During the evening, she changed her mind and decided she would not join the church and that I would not do so either.

At lunchtime the next day, instead of eating, I went home from school and called the missionaries. Elder Gordon L. Bown answered the phone. I told him what had happened the previous evening. I asked him how to deal with the issue raised by Revelation 22:18. Elder Bown told me to get my Bible and open it to Deuteronomy 4:2 and read it. I did so. Then Elder Bown asked me “Can God add to God’s word?” Of course I knew the answer to that question. That ended any doubt or hesitation on my part regarding the truthfulness of the Gospel.

Following this, my mother forbade me to have any contact with the church, and to wait until I was 21 to be baptized. I could not endure six years with no contact with church members, so I surreptitiously contacted the missionaries and a few church members for another year before the missionaries told me I had to tell my mother what I was doing. I did so, and it hurt her deeply. Fortunately, her pastor had been a convert himself, and he counselled her to allow me to attend the church of my choice, saying it was better for me to attend a different church than reject religion altogether. On that basis, my mother permitted me to attend church on Sundays only. She did not, however, permit me to be baptized. I attended church without being baptized until July, 1968. By that time I had completed my freshman year at a nearby Presbyterian college and, through the intervention of Norman R. Bowen, then president of the Eastern Atlantic States Mission, was permitted by my mother to transfer to Brigham Young University. Knowing that I would leave for Utah in September, my mother permitted me to be baptized. After more than four years since my initial reading of Elder Petersen’s pamphlet and my realization The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was true, I was baptized and confirmed a member of the Church.

Even at age 14, when I read Elder Petersen’s short pamphlet, I was convinced by its logic. That is why I raised my hand as I did when Elder Didier asked his questions. Even to this day, logic plays a strong part in my testimony. Having been reared a Protestant, surrounded by Catholics, now living among Muslims and having an understanding of Judaism from reading the Scriptures and current events, I am convinced that either the Gospel of Jesus Christ as taught by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is true, or there is no God at all. The Gospel as taught by the Church is the only logically consistent religion on earth. It is this, or nothing.

This is not to say that the LDS Church has the answer to every question. It does not, nor does it make that claim. We still have not found “the generation where Gods began to be.” (Hymns, number 284.) But every system of philosophy eventually reaches a set of unanswered questions. Each person must decide the set of unanswered questions with which he or she is willing to live. Yes, Mormonism has unanswered questions. But I would rather live with Mormonism’s unanswered questions than any other set of unanswered questions.2

The Spirit, however, is also very important to me. One summer, during the time our family lived in Kentucky, the Lexington Kentucky Stake participated in a large LDS scout camp in Ohio. Leaders from the General Young Men Presidency attended the camp and told us of a study conducted by the Church. The study found that, among young people in the Church, the greatest predictor of future Church activity was the individual spiritual experiences of the young people. In spite of the role of intellect in my testimony, I believe the survey’s finding regarding spiritual experiences is valid. As important as the intellectual side of my testimony is, it is experiences with the Spirit that sustain me.

There are times I feel, as Lehi did, that I am a “visionary man” (1 Nephi 5). I felt the Spirit strongly as I gave the opening prayer in the first discussion with the missionaries. I received my patriarchal blessing while I attended BYU. When I explained to the patriarch that I wished to work overseas, he told me, even before he laid his hands on my head, I was “inspired of the Lord to choose that calling.” The first time I saw Margery, the young woman who became my wife, I knew I would marry her. I saw her across the room in the Pittsburgh 2nd Ward Chapel and I knew, almost instantly, she was to be my wife. Many years later, when Margery was considering graduate school, she asked for a blessing. At the time we lived in Frankfort, Kentucky. When I laid my hands on her head, I saw in my mind a building. I knew the building was in Lexington. I did not remember seeing that building previously. Yet I blessed her that she would go to the University of Kentucky to complete her doctorate, and I knew it would be in that building. The next time I went to Lexington, I saw the building. It was the Chandler Medical Center on the UK campus, and Margery earned her Ph.D. there.

I have had similar experiences when I have blessed my children or laid my hands on the heads of others to give blessings of comfort and counsel or to administer in times of sickness. Thoughts and feelings have come to me that I knew I did not and could not have formulated myself. They had to come from a higher source.

One of the most moving experiences with the Spirit came in December 2007, when I attended Fast Meeting in the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Ward of the Sunderland, England Stake. I felt impressed to bear my testimony. Many of the members who had spoken had said they were converts. I stood and had the overwhelming impression in the pre-mortal existence I had chosen to be a convert, to be a member of Elder Pieper’s “first generation.”3 When I sat down I cried. I could not help it. The Spirit was too strong.

There are many times I have asked myself “Do I know it is true?” “Do I really know there was a Man called Jesus Christ who was conceived by God the Father and who wrought an infinite atonement for the sins of the world?” And then I remember the words of Elder Neal A. Maxwell, who told us that scientists do not begin each experiment by proving anew the formula for water. They know that; it is a given. It does not need to be proven each time.

So it is with my testimony. Doctrine and Covenants 46: 12 states: “To some it is given by the Holy Ghost to know that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that he was crucified for the sins of the world.” When I was just a boy, before I knew anything of Mormonism, I knew Jesus was the Christ and my Saviour. I walked to the front of the First Christian Church in Beaver, Pennsylvania, and made my confession of faith and was baptized. I knew it then, and I knew it later when the fullness of the Gospel was presented to me. I do not have to prove, over and over again, that these things are true. My mother may have died without joining The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, but she took me to a church in which I could learn the fundamental truth of the reality of the Saviour and His atonement, and when the fullness was presented to me, the Spirit, as well as my intellect, confirmed to me that it was true.

Life in some ways has become progressively more difficult. The challenges have sometimes been discouraging. Sometimes it is difficult to “feel” (1 Nephi 17:45) what I know to be true. It has been especially difficult to sustain a strong, unwavering testimony during weeks and months away from organized units of the Church as I have worked in remote parts of the world. It has been difficult to go for extended periods without a calling in the Church and the resultant spiritual strength one receives from rendering service to others. I have sustained my testimony by a detailed study of the Book of Mormon and by frequent listening to the hymns of the restoration. Doing that brings the Spirit back, and eases the doubts and disappointments.

A counsellor in the Pittsburgh Pennsylvania Stake Presidency, Dale Weight, used to conclude his talks by saying “I know, through experiences too sacred to relate, the Gospel is true.” So it is with me. I know, through sacred experiences from my youth forward, that the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ is true. God our Father lives, Jesus is the Christ, Joseph Smith was the first prophet of the last dispensation and the Book of Mormon is the word of God. This is my testimony, and I bear it in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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Notes:

1 Except John, who was translated.
2 Reid R. Reading, a long-time member of the Pittsburgh First Ward and my comparative politics professor at Pitt, once said “We all need to learn to live with a little dissonance.” I can accept Mormonism’s “dissonance.”
3 Elder Paul B. Pieper, October General Conference, 2006.

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R. Jerome Anderson is a development assistance consultant, specializing in real estate law reform, property tax reform, fiscal decentralization, land policy, land registration, and land information systems. He is also a visiting fellow in the Global Urban Research Unit of the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University (UK). Prior to his development career, he practiced real estate, mineral, and municipal law for ten years and for five years was a geographic information systems consultant and project manager.

Brother Anderson earned undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Pittsburgh, his law degree at Duquesne University, and his Ph.D. at Newcastle University (UK). He has published in the fields of urban economic development, land law reform, property taxation, and land registration. He has worked in Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Russia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania, Bénin, and Sudan.

Posted January 2010