An Elder's Story
No one who saw me deplane at Los Angeles International Airport would have guessed I was a candidate for religion. I did not look like part of any establishment, civil or religious. I stepped into the smog and noise of Los Angeles with a six-month growth of beard, wearing faded blue jeans, a sweater, and sports jacket. A half-pint of scotch stuck out of my jacket pocket.
In the fall of 1964 hippies were still beatniks; the flower children had not yet invaded Haight-Ashbury; John Kennedy was gone (but not Robert or Martin Luther King); the riots in Watts were a couple months away; and the Vietnam War was little known.
Recently discharged from the Navy I was living life to the fullest-grabbing for all the gusto I could get. I traveled where I wanted, when I wanted. Outside, in front of the terminal, I lit a cigarette and waited for my luggage. I was back in LA all right, the automobile traffic and jet noise were deafening. From a pay phone I made a date for late that night with a girl I had met few weeks before I left for Alaska.
At 4:30 A.M. the next morning, I stood on the balcony of Angela's sixth-floor apartment, overlooking the darkened city of Glendale. I was home. At least, I wanted to think so. But I remembered that I had left LA in the spring, heading for Alaska hoping to find something--what, I was not sure.
At first I had been overwhelmed by the quiet beauty of the green-black shores that unfolded as the S.S. Puffin plied the dark waters of the Gulf of Alaska. But I was looking for something beyond beauty and solitude, something more than a few months away from the city. I was looking for something deep inside myself-a hungry longing for something I couldn't even name.
As I continued to stare into the night from my perch above Glendale, I reached into the pocket of my jeans and extracted a wrinkled letter. It was from my old friend Lee. We had gone to high school together. He now lived in Palos Verdes, a peninsula sticking out into the Pacific near Los Angeles.
It was a strange letter. One line in it haunted me. "Jim," it read, "I have found the truth!" Lee said he had had a religious experience that changed his life. He wanted to talk to me about it. Lee had always been important to me. He was the brightest, toughest guy I knew. If I would listen to anything anyone had to say, it would be Lee.
TAKING THE PLUNGE
Standing on the Palos Verdes cliffs at night with the moon on the Pacific I felt close to Lee. We were like brothers. I really knew him. And something did seem different about him. He was, well, more peaceful, maybe. "O.K., MAN," I said, "tell me about it.
Lee looked out toward the distant horizon. "Last spring, Jim, I took a trip home to Wyoming. I had a couple weeks off. Wanted to be home for Dad's birthday."
Lee looked straight ahead and his voice grew soft. "I stopped in St. George, Utah, for a sandwich. I got into this conversation with the waitress and asked her out for a drink when she got off work. She told me she didn't drink, but would be glad to have a Coke with me when she got off.
"We talked until two in the morning. Jim, I know you're going to think this is crazy, but when she told me the story-the real story of the Mormons-I knew she was telling me the truth."
I winced at the emphasis he laid on the word truth. "What do you mean, you knew?" I asked.
"It's hard to explain. But as she talked to me I had this feeling. She was telling me about the early history of the Church. And as she spoke, all I knew was that she was saying something I needed to hear. Anyway, that was the start of my investigation. I promised her that when I got back to California I'd get in touch with the Mormon missionaries and have them teach me about the Mormon Church. You know, hear them out. Well, I went through six of what the Church calls 'discussions' with the missionaries."
We talked into the wee hours of the morning. Lee told me of his discussions with the missionaries. How he had searched his heart. And how one night, when things were weighing heavily on him, he had climbed the fence of a football stadium and, sitting alone in the bleachers, made the decision to join the Mormon Church.
As he finished what he called his "testimony," Lee turned to me. The moonlight revealed a tear edging slowly down his cheek. "I've found the truth, Jim. I tell you I know, by the power of the Holy Ghost, that Jesus is the Christ; that Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church, was a prophet of God; and that the Mormon Church is God's only True Church today."
I didn't like what Lee said. It was eerie. I wondered how deep a hold the Mormon Church had come to have on Lee. "Lee, I don't know where you're coming from. I can see that something important has happened to you, but frankly, I can't imagine you have found the truth in the Mormon Church."
"I know what you mean, Jim. I had the same doubts. Listen, I'm not able to explain myself very well. I want you to talk to the missionaries."
A couple of weeks later, EIder Jackson opened his Bible in my apartment in Santa Ana. It was our second or third "discussion." "Brother Spencer, John 8:31-32 tells us that as we come to know the truth, it will make us free. How do you think knowing the truth makes us free?"
"For one thing, it frees us from ignorance."
"Very good. Another way it frees us is from the punishment that comes from breaking God's natural laws. Gravity, for example, is a natural law. If we jump off a building, we break the law of gravity. And we pay a price, right?"
"Right!" l was learning that the best way to get along with EIder Jackson was to be as enthusiastic as he was. I went along with him. I wanted to hear him out. And I was fascinated with his friendly confident manner. He seemed to know where he was going. He liked to ask questions and he liked rather brief answers.
"How do we know what God's laws are ?"
"Through Scripture; through revelation."
"That's right. Through the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and other latter-day revelation. Now, one of the revelations God has given us is the Word of Wisdom. In this revelation, the Lord told Joseph Smith that there are certain things men take into their bodies that harm them. And that if they continue to break this law of God they will pay a price, a physical price, in their bodies. Do you believe that is true?"
Truth to tell, I was a little nervous about this line of questioning. I had been a chain-smoker for ten years and had tried many times to quit, but found it impossible. I was hooked. Now l was getting the strong impression that EIder Jackson was about to ask me to do the impossible.
"Brother Spencer, I want you to try to quit smoking."
"Wait a minute, "l protested. "In the first place, I couldn't quit if I wanted to. And in the second place, I don't know that I want to!"
EIder Jackson was patient. "Look, brother, it's important that you quit. Important to your physical health and important to your spiritual health. If you decide to join the Church, it will be necessary for you to quit. All I'm asking you to do is give it a try."
I was trapped. He was not going give up. And, down deep, I really wanted to be free of cigarettes. In exasperation, I took the package Viceroys from my pocket and flung it across the room. "O.K.," I exclaimed. "I don't think I can quit and I'm not really sure I want to quit, but I'11 try? They smiled at me and went on with the lesson.
After they left, I drove down to the Deseret Bookstore in Orange and browsed through the Mormon books. Afterward, I stopped at a cafe for a soft drink. As I sat reading the Book of Mormon, the most amazing truth dawned on me. I had not had a cigarette-or wanted one-for two hours!
By that night I was sure something miraculous was in motion. I still didn't want a cigarette.
Lee came over that night to see how I was doing. "It's a miracle! he exclaimed. "It's a sign from God. What more do you need, man?"
It was very convincing. Anything powerful enough to get me off cigarettes had my attention. I was seeing the manifestation of some sort of spiritual power here-of what sort I was not sure-but I was now certain that I now wanted to join the Mormon Church.
The missionaries were as elated as Lee. They quickly finished the last of the lessons and interviewed me about my personal life in preparation for baptism. I committed myself to be morally clean-extramarital sex was out of the question-and to abstain from alcohol, coffee and tea as well as tobacco. A baptismal date was selected, September 27, 1964.
Lee was there. I had never before seen him dressed in a suit. I myself entered the water dressed in a special white baptismal uniform.
Afterward, while I was seated in a chair, several elders gathered around me, laid their hands on my head and confirmed me into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Later everybody stood around crying and hugging me. This time I knew I was really home.
When I was asked if I would like to say anything, I felt the desire to share what was going on within me. I planned to say that I believed the Church to be true, and that I believed Joseph Smith had been a prophet, and that the Book of Mormon was the Word of God.
But when I stood to speak, I heard myself saying, "I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet. I know the book of Mormon is the Word of God. I know this is God's True Church and that it is headed by a living prophet today!" And I did know it. I had come to know it.
MORE..."A TRUE BELIEVER..."