In my Belgian environment, I’m an oddity. A university professor who is a Mormon. Colleagues and students whisper about it. They can’t place me in the normal spectrum of the centuries old allegiances to our society. They wonder: how can this scholar believe the rigmarole of that foreign cult?
Allow me to share on what my testimony is based. This blog provides me an opportunity to refer colleagues and students to it, should they be interested to understand why I am a Mormon. And it will, I hope, be of interest to Mormons as well, in our tradition to share our testimonies.
First, and foremost, there is the spiritual witness. I had a strange, preliminary testimony of the Restoration before I ever heard the words Mormon or Joseph Smith.
Antwerp, June 1964. I was seventeen, raised in a Catholic family. That month I was studying for my finals for the last year in high school, one of those demanding European schools. I had had seven years of Latin, five years of old Greek. A mass of philosophy and religion.
That Saturday afternoon, the door bell rang. I went down and saw two young men.
– Hi, little guy, are your parents home?
I knew I looked like a lad of fourteen.
– OK, we’ll be back later.
They cracked a few jokes and left.
I hardly paid attention to the occurrence and went back to study for my finals. The evening set in. A feeling came over me. The excitement of something unknown, somehow tied to distant memories, but beyond my grasp. I realized it had to do with the visitors. Nothing should have impressed me about them, probably salesmen or sollicitors. But my agitation grew into a compulsion to meet them again. I spent a restless night, trying to imagine who they were. The next day was Sunday. I spent hours looking for them, riding my bike along the streets. I knew I had to find them, by all means. Nothing. I felt desperate. The next morning I kept watch from the window of my room. And then I saw them coming, ringing door bells at the other side of the street, slowly moving in my direction. I crossed the street and waited with a pounding heart.
– According to you, who is God?
It was their first, blunt question only seconds after they told me they were missionaries.
It was the perfect question to ask a young student studying for a Catholic religion final.
– Well, definitions of God have evolved over the centuries, from Augustine to Thomas Aquino, to modern interpretations. Nowadays God is defined as the Totally different, the immaterial perfection that fills the universe.
One of the elders looked at me and said: “Yes, but who is He really?”
I grasped, vaguely still, the massive dimension of that question. All I had been learning all those years were the projections and philosophies of men. And here was a 19-year old boy from America, unaware of the theories of theology, who scattered them with one simple question: But who is He really?
I asked for some literature. One rummaged in his bag and turned up a Doctrine & Covenants. That night I read, deeply impressed:
HEARKEN, O ye people of my church, saith the voice of him who dwells on high, and whose eyes are upon all men; yea, verily I say: Hearken ye people from afar; and ye that are upon the islands of the sea, listen together.
Days later the brochure with Joseph Smith’s history followed. It overwhelmed me. Then, finally, the Book of Mormon. Moroni’s promise, inasmuch as still needed, was put to the test.
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
I prayed, I cried, I knew.
With that experience came Knowledge, the second pillar on which my testimony is based. Simple, concrete, and to me logical knowledge. Remember, this was 1964. The Catholic Church was in social and doctrinal turmoil. Vatican II. My parents were deeply involved in the aggiornamento. At home the New Theologians were the talk of the day. Kung, Teilhard de Chardin, Schillebeeckx, de Lubac. Modern Biblical hermeneutics. But basically they were reducing miracles to human proportions, enervating the remaining supernatural, abstracting God to a concept, trying to accommodate science and belief. And therefore undermining the very essence of religion, the simple faith in unseen realities.
In Mormonism I found the living, personal, physical God, literally communicating through revelation. Here the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, as described so unequivocally in the New Testament, became real again. The clarity of the Plan of salvation. The audacious description of a dynamic, personal existence after this life. The reunion with forefathers. The spirit of Elijah. This faith satisfied the demands of unseen realities. To believe logically is to believe daringly. Dare to accept the reality of the First Vision.
I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other — This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!
There came no end to the unfolding of this simple and joyful logic.The dispensations of time. The House of Israel. The history of the priesthood. Christ establishing his Church. The fundament of apostles and prophets. The great apostasy. The need for restoration. Again, the daring, astounding reality: May 1829, John the Baptist laying his hands on Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery. Then Peter, James and John —
… declaring themselves as possessing the keys of the kingdom, and of the dispensation of the fulness of times! … And the voice of Michael, the archangel; the voice of Gabriel, and of Raphael, and of divers angels, from Michael or Adam down to the present time, all declaring their dispensation, their rights, their keys, their honors, their majesty and glory, and the power of their priesthood; giving line upon line, precept upon precept; here a little, and there a little; giving us consolation by holding forth that which is to come, confirming our hope!
Years later, the temple broadened the perspective to celestial heights.
At the same time, all other knowledge was included. The Church encourages research, academic studies, proefssional development, all forms of arts. This is not a cult closing its eyes to the world, but welcoming anything that could help us progress and grow.
The third pillar of my testimony is the Book of Mormon. To me, there is nothing as poignant, as miraculous as this Book, from its very first verse to the last.
I, NEPHI, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father; and having seen many afflictions in the course of my days, nevertheless, having been highly favored of the Lord in all my days; yea, having had a great knowledge of the goodness and the mysteries of God, therefore I make a record of my proceedings in my days.
There was a time when I was keenly interested in Meso-American archeology, in Hugh Nibley’s studies. I still find them enlightening for many aspects of the text. But over the years I have learned to look more at the Book as such. Powerful voices repeating over and over again the same supplication and the same testimony: misery follows iniquity, joy and redemption come through repentance, Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. The discourses, letters, commentaries of those numerous men deal with the nature of the Godhead, redemption and atonement, plan of salvation, commandments and ordinances, hope and love, prayer and spiritual gifts, revelation and the Church in action, insight in the great course of human history, and a continuous call to repentance and justice.
This is my reasoning: how could anyone have written the Book of Mormon as a present-day forgery and at the same time be so completely engaged in the preaching of absolute truth? Internal historical criticism tells me it seems impossible for someone to write hundreds of pages instilled with intense spiritual power and dynamic moralism, knowing that the basis of it is deceit. And then close with Moroni’s promise.
Now, after 41 years, I stand in even greater wonderment when reading the Book. I have learned what it means to write a book, having published quite a few myself these past decades. It means filling hundreds of virgin pages, often painstakingly, next correcting and rewriting, version after version, keeping track of internal coherence, names, numbers, references. And now we have computers and word processing! I cannot imagine a book like the Book of Mormon to have originated creatively from the brain and by the hand of Joseph Smith or any other of his contemporaries without numerous indications and rumors of a long genesis in the 1820s. But nothing of the kind: the book is suddenly there. Those close to Joseph, even those who fell away, never gave a hint that the origin could have been different than the one I firmly believe in. Witnesses testified they saw and handled the plates.
There is a fourth pillar. The opposition. 1964. I was seventeen, still a minor, in a period when 21 was the legal age. I wanted to be baptized, earnestly. My parents said no. The clash was profound. I was too young, too inexperienced to understand the depth of the breach my parents felt. My conversion was a betrayal of their holiest heritage. My father hauled books from the library, filled with tales of polygamous atrocities, of Danites murdering opponents, of tortured women thrown from the towers of the Salt Lake temple into the Great Salt Lake. I got to read the Catholic and Protestant theories elucidating the ‘real’ origin of the Book of Mormon, lists of ‘errors and changes’ in the Book, the psychology of Joseph Smith’s hallucinations, and all the inconsistencies in Mormon theology. And I was served some inflammatory exposures by ex-Mormons.
I would not change my mind. I could not. And somehow I was grateful for all the anti-Mormon literature poured over me. It gave me a feeling of confidence: no matter what enemies of the Church would be able to concoct to disprove Mormonism in the future, I felt assured I would be able to stand it. Of course there were disturbing data here and there. I never swept them aside as inexistant, but either their fallacy soon became apparent or the larger picture made them insignificant. The ex-Mormons filled me with sadness. Why such a desire to tarnish, to undermine, to justify, to rationalize? Could it ever happen to me since those people once had a testimony too? I vowed solemnly that I would never allow myself to forget the basis of my conviction.
Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?
My parents sent me to a Catholic monastery to be reconverted. It was their last hope to rinse my brain from Mormonism. It was the famous abbey of Tongerlo, founded in 1130, one of those stern monuments from ages past. The abbey’s father took it to heart to bring me back to the fold. We talked and talked. We talked about God. I asked him the missionary question: “But who is God really?” He said: “No man can know. God is invisible and beyond comprehension.” I opened the Bible and referred him to all these plain Scriptures that show us that God is a tangible, visible, glorified Being. He said it was all symbolic. I asked him if his presence as the abbey’s father was real or symbolic to the monastery. He called my parents: “Take him back. It’s a hopeless case.”
Two years later, my parents finally gave in and allowed me to be baptized. They refused to attend. It would take another ten years before they started to admit that my Church membership was a source of strength, opportunities, and blessings. But they never joined the Church.
I am grateful, immensely grateful that I could experience the conversion I had. I think my testimony, in its essence, has never changed over the years. The glow is sometimes radiant, sometimes quiet, but always there. Maturation, yes, and I hope, in the process, some wisdom.
Also, my testimony has never hindered me to look critically at some Church programs, to have mixed feelings over certain developments, to hope and plead for others, in the realization that building the Kingdom is a dynamic and complex challenge. And that we’re all humans in this endeavor.
I have tried to explain why I have a testimony. Each convert to Mormonism has to gain and keep his own, one way or another. Some testimonies are received easily, some are struggling over much time and anguish. Some remain intertwined with doubts. Some are submissive, others contesting. We help each other by accepting those varieties and growing together.
Wilfried: Thank you. Such is what I’d like to enjoy and hear during testimony meetings. I’d never thought of the ‘nacle as a Testimony meeting; but yours and others have proved very moving. Thanks.
Thank you. This post is the best I have read on this board.
I always wonder if I wasn’t born into the church if I would have let the missionaries in. But even still, I too have converted to the church. I believed in the church at 8, but not converted until much later. Thank you Wilfried for your post, testimony, and the great example in continuing in the faith. May your pillars stand firm for others to see and witness.
Wilfried – Thanks for your wonderful essay explaining the basis of your testimony. As a fifth generation member of the church I had a much different experience in gaining a testimony. Growing up in a small Mormon community much of my early testimony was a “belief on the words” of others. While this approach served me well and maintained my active status in the church despite the inactivity of my family, it eventually became apparent that I must develop my own personal testimony if I was to sustain my faith. It has been many years in the works but I have come to a specific understanding of the existing of God and his love for us, of the mission of the Savior and our debt to him and of the restoration of the gospel through the Prophet Joseph Smith. Most of all I have come to know that the God we worship keeps his promises – promises of blessing now and yet to come.
I’m sure that I can’t be as articulate as you in describing the basis of my testimony. I am also sure that despite the maturing of my understanding, to a certain extent I still believe, and I am strengthened, by the words of others. For that reason I am profoundly grateful for your words today.
Thank you for this great post. It’s very nice to see how your testimony operates and how it was built.
I’m particularly intrigued by your ability to draw strength from the opposition. I think that’s not unusual. One former mission president spoke with me about opening a mission. He said that every time other pastors railed against the church, it would bring new members. Finally, one friendly minister asked him, in all seriousness, if the church plans out and co-ordinates its own opposition, since that is so effective in gaining members.
I’ve found that to be the case as well. We get links sometimes from sites that are hostile to the church. When I look to see what they say about us, the mean-spiritedness and hostility is overwhelming. And I escape back to Times and Seasons, gratefully thinking “my church may not be perfect, but it’s worlds better than that well of bitterness and hate.”
It’s funny how opposition can strengthen a testimony.
Great post. I’ve always had a mild case of “conversion envy.” Being a fifth-generation Mormon, I wonder whether I would have accepted the Gospel had I not been born and raised in it. Frankly, I sincerely doubt it. Which may explain why I was born in it and others were not. That Wilfried made the choice on his own in the face of tremendous obstacles gives him a confidence in his testimony that I lack. Yes, I’ve had a witness, and so I have a testimony, but I don’t have that kind of experience underlying it.
Your refiner’s fire experience is a real blessing, Wilfried. Thanks for sharing it with the rest of us.
I have the same suspicions about my own likely resistance to accepting the gospel as Kevin. Which makes the testimony of converts all the more important to me. Thanks, Wilfried.
I like the term “joyful logic.”
Thanks for posting.
Thank you all for the comments. Yes, the matter of ‘conversion’ for Mormons born in the Church is an interesting one. Looking back at my privileged past in finding and joining the Church, I sometimes wonder how young people, born and raised in the Church, can be led to appreciate even more the historical and doctrinal unicity of the Restored Gospel. Testimony meetings in established wards, filled with generation-Mormons, tend to become “social” testimonies — about the community and the individual. I understand and respect that tendency. But there is a risk that the essentials are not sufficiently on the foreground. Elder Ballard gave a remarkable talk on that topic in the 2004 October conference: “Our testimony meetings need to be more centered on the Savior, the doctrines of the gospel, the blessings of the Restoration, and the teachings of the scriptures. We need to replace stories, travelogues, and lectures with pure testimonies.”
Thank you so much for sharing this. Beautiful.
Thank you, thank you.
Wilfried, thank you for this uplifting post. It is nice to feel the Spirit after a long day of work.
I love to hear how others found the gospel. Every story is different and special.
As a convert myself I can answer the question others have posited on whether they would have accepted the gospel if they hadn’t been born into it. But I have sometimes wondered if my being American gave me an easier time in making my decision. I have often pondered if Belgian (or Japanese, or German, ect) missionaries had shown up at my door, speaking broken English and telling me that a man had found golden plates in their home country if I would have given them the time of day. All converts are to be commended, but foreign converts boost my testimony of the truthfulness of the church even more. (I always think these kind of thoughts during General Conference when I wonder how I would feel if all the men talking to me were Asian),
Kierkeegaard once said something to the effect that he felt more Christian during the process of becoming a believer than in actually being one. Short of going inactive and coming back, I think the feeling of freshness and excitement he is alluding to can best be experienced by hearing testimonies like yours of conversion.
Thank you, Wilfried. Thank you so much.
Thank you for sharing that story. None of my grandparents ever joined either.
Hearing you speak that way about Mormonism inspires me to feel that I can belong.
Wonderful, thoughtful, beautifuly simple and straight-forward conversion story! I just discovered this website days ago, and your post is another one that makes me want to return again and again. Thank you!
Thank you for a beautiful post. It’s been a privilege to read this.
Wow Wilfried. Thank you. I only read the first section of this because I’m in a bit of a rush to do some things, but your spiritual experience with the missionaries was an amazing read. Thank you thank you thank you.
Wilfried, thank you. That was wonderful.
“But who is God really?”
Mormonism is one of the most humdrum, ordinary faiths imaginable, and because of it also one of the most poetic, and it all comes from that question.
When I was a teenager I was pretty embarassed by our doctrines on marriage, deification, and, most of all, God being a man. ‘What does God do when he needs to take a [bowel movement]?” the kids would ask me. ‘Does God sweat?’ ‘Are his arms really hairy or only just a little?’ Having an abstract God seemed so much more respectful and devotional.
Then one day, in Provo, in the fall, as I was walking, it came to me that when I turned the corner there was no reason at all that I wouldn’t find Christ standing there, waiting for me. I’ve been intoxicated since.
Now that I’ve written this, it occurs to me that this was what Damon Linker, our Catholic friend, was getting at in his own way here:
And to some degree here:
Nice connection, Adam. Yes, that’s something Damon and I have talked a lot about, and one of the things he finds amazing (in both a good and bad way) about Mormonism: the literness with which it answers the question about the identity of God. I don’t think we ourselves are even close to having worked out what a belief that God could be right there, around the street corner, leaning against a wall, waiting for us, really means; perhaps we never will.
Adam, that is indeed an interesting link to what a Catholic friend said. For an outsider who looks at Mormonism, the definition an “uncommonly potent effort at re-enchantment” is indeed remarkable.
I have often wondered why so many Christians nowadays are unable to accept this reality — I mean so real it could happen today in meeting Jesus:
Dare to belief…
Katie, I concur. The strength of others’ conversion stories is vicarious, renewed conversion for me. What I like best about Wilfried post is the way it cuts through doubt. It doesn’t scoff at doubt or pretend that it is somehow ungodly. Rather, the post reminds us that the extent to which we allow our doubt to trump our belief is within our control. Doubt can never delete divine confirmation of the truthfulness of the gospel.
Thank you Wilfried for your beautiful, simple, logical points about the Book of Mormon. Over 200 nonbiblical Hebrew and Egyptian names, 300 references to chronology, 700 to geography, all buried like gold in a 500-page narrative of exceptional spiritual & storytelling power & dictated unrevised by a farmboy just out of his teens in a couple of months is nothing to shake a stick at, obviously, but until now I have too little considered the fact that so Christ-centered a work could hardly have come from a capital L Liar. Thanks again, the Church should turn your testimony into a pamphlet …
“until now I have too little considered the fact that so Christ-centered a work could hardly have come from a capital L Liar”
That’s awesome. It’s amazing how the plainest of thoughts usually bring the most solace to the mind.
Thank you, recent commenters, for drawing the attention to points that are part of this moving (in various senses) concept of testimony. Moving in dynamics, in facets, in emotions. Thank you for casting an extra light on the internal power of the Book of Mormon. And therefore, for believers, another proof of its truthfulness.
Thank you for your testimony. I particularly appreciated the question “But who is He really?”
I am a student right now at a pretty high-caliber liberal arts college, and I’m even considering majoring in religion. I often remind myself of the importance of keeping things simple and clear as I sometimes find myself feeling like your younger self, getting distracted by all the philosophies of man in attempting to describe what God is. In fact, I think about this issue more and more as I prepare for my mission, for which I will be departing in August. There have been moments where I’ve felt concerned, thinking, if someone brings up St. Augustine or Thomas Aquino in the field, I won’t have read enough about those two to be able to engage in an intelligent conversation. But then I remind myself that people are not converted by persuasion but through the Spirit–a spirit present in times of simplicity. (Besides, I don’t think I could ever do enough reading if I did have to be familiar with all the intricacies of the evolution of theology. As one of my favorite verses goes, “…of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh” ((Ecc. 12:12).)
Speaking of my mission, though, what actually initially drew my attention to your post was your mention of being Belgian. Just a week ago I got my call to serve: the Belgium Brussels/Netherlands Mission. Perhaps I’ll be seeing you in a few months!
Félicitations. C’est la meilleure mission.
…c’est à dire, la portion francophone. ;)
Actually, I don’t think “portion” is french. Nothing like a little franglais to speed you on you’re way.
Actually I’ll be learning Dutch. But, hey, it wouldn’t hurt to get some French under my belt as well, right?
Chase, French wouldn’t hurt, but it wouldn’t help very much either. You’re not likely to meet anyone in Flanders or the Netherlands who speaks French but not Dutch. However, don’t let J. Stapley fool you. Though I am also a francophile, I hope to learn Dutch because there is so much important work in philosophy and, especially, theology written in Dutch. So if you eventually major in religion, you’re likely to find Dutch very handy.
Congratulations, Chase, for your call to Belgium/Netherlands. The mission headquarters there is now Dutch and French speaking. Indeed, the mission became ‘bilingual’ when the former French speaking Belgian mission (including Northern France) and the former Netherlands mission (including Dutch speaking Belgium) were consolidated into one, with Brussels as base. So some missionaries now learn Dutch, others learn French and they are assigned to the North or to the South. You may need both languages when tracting in the “lingual border” areas. In those areas they sometimes combine a Dutch-speaking missionary with a French-speaking one. And Jim is right: Dutch will come in handy for philosophy and religion.
Thanks also for your thoughts on the wonderful simplicity of the Gospel. Strength comes from simplicity. Believe me, there are people out there who are waiting to hear that message. And as my story and so many other conversion stories show, it will surprise how and when those people are suddenly found.
That was wonderfull.
Thank you for this testimony. I just read this recently.
I served my mission in Marseille France 15 years ago, and I still have a great love for many of the saints who I met there. They are some of the most remarkable members of the Church in the Lord’s kingdom (in my biased opinion)…
Thanks for your testimony. 3 years later it is still doing good things. It was a great blessing to me today!