FROM BLIND TO REASONED FAITH
A SCHOLAR’S TESTIMONY
Vern G. Swanson, Ph.D
(5 October 2010)
When Professor Daniel Petersen of the BYU religion department asked me to share my testimony from a scholar’s perspective, I was very please because I’ve never shared it in this manner before. Like most people my conversion story and testimony came in bits and pieces, finally welding themselves into believing faith. Spiritual preparation led to spiritual growth, which in turn led to spiritual opportunities that led to the missionaries knocking on my door. As Louis Pasture cogently noted, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” While a Seventy and Branch Mission Leader in Auburn, Alabama, I saw that it took several preparatory events or crises were needed before anyone was really ‘ready’ for the renewing gospel in their lives. This was certainly true in my own life.
Unlike closet doubters, agnostics, unbelievers and atheists that I have known, my belief in Jesus Christ and his Gospel plan always come easy for me. How easy? Being passionate about the visual fine arts, when the missionaries showed me a Book of Mormon, all I had to do was to look at its illustrations by Arnold Friberg and I instantly knew the book was true! But my saving faith was much more difficult and hard-fought.
My conversion story started when I was a very young child of four or five years. I was crying one night after a funeral because I was afraid to die. My second oldest brother Bob told me that there was a God in a heaven and that everything was going to be alright. I believed him. While my mother was an agnostic she encouraged me to knell down beside her rocking chair each night and pray, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
Then in the first grade a lady from a local Evangelical church came weekly to our public school with a flannel board and told Bible stories. That was the first I’d ever heard of the scriptures, for we had none in our home, and I believed everything she said. This was before the ACLU and Supreme Court Justice Wm. J. Brennan in 1982 said that there must be a “wall of separation” between Church and State. Once during recess, when I was in my second try at the second grade, a Seventh Day Adventist boy came around a corner of a building and ran into me and I shoved him down. He got up off the ground and calmly said “Jesus Christ loves you and so do I.” So I pushed him down much even harder. As he stood up again with tears he looked into my eyes and said, “Jesus Christ loves you and so do I.” I was totally convicted in my soul and instantly gave up being a bully. I knew that indeed Jesus did love me and I must love Him too.
By the third grade I haltingly began going to the Community Bible Church with my sisters Barbara and Cherry and really enjoyed it. One summer I went to Bible Camp at the Church and loved their cookies and milk. I remember walking home from school and an elderly lady, who lived on along the way, would ask if I’d like to come into her home and pray with her. It may all seem sinister now, but in the mid 1950s it was a more innocent time and I would always say “yes.” A year later while selling the monthly newspaper, The Grit, door to door and another lady said that if I attended her church she would buy a newspaper from me. Thus I began to attend the little white clapboard Pilgrim Holiness Church on Pine Street in Central Point, Oregon.
It was there that I gained faith and formally gave my life, heart and soul, to Jesus Christ. I came to the altar, knelt and made Him the Lord of my life. I was “born again” when I was ten years old and was saved to the Kingdom of Heaven. I loved my minister very much, so when he asked me to be baptized I readily agreed but over the course of two years, for some reason it just didn’t happen. My mother was an agnostic, my father an atheist and my brother Bob had become a Buddhist and badly wanted me to convert to his religion. I would listen attentively to him but nothing struck me enough to believe. I firmly believed in Christianity and not Buddhism, and yet something always got in the way of my baptism.
One Saturday night in late June of 1959 I was secretly watching a late-late show on television of the 1940 black & white epic movie Brigham Young. It was about a group of religious people called Mormons; starring Vincent Price as Joseph Smith, and Dean Jagger as Brigham Young, with Linda Darnell and Tyrone Power as the love interests. I was fascinated by the movie but had never heard of the word Mormon before and thought it was just fiction. The movie was spiritual, historical and romantic and I stayed awake for the entire movie and then slid into my bed, one tired boy of fourteen.
The next morning was Sunday and my brother Mike and I walked the nine blocks to Church. After the sermon was Sunday school class. The Church was so small that the youth class was held in a small attic room which was approached by a stairway built on the outside of the building. As was usual, our minister Rev. Clarence Jackson would visit our class for a few minutes to give a little spiritual message. It was in July and by that time of day, blisteringly hot in Southern Oregon. During his message he said, “We don’t believe in jewelry, we don’t believe in dancing, we don’t believe in movies, we don’t be…” I interrupted saying, “Oh, I saw a move, but it was on television and it was a religious movie.” He responded, “It doesn’t matter, what was the movie about?” “Something about Brigham Young and the Mormons,” I naively replied. He instantly erupted and shouted, “Never say that blasphemous word!” and stomped out of class. I felt so badly that I had offended our beloved minister Rev. Jackson. On the way home Mike and I decided not to tell Mom because it was a family-rule that if we got into trouble anywhere off our property we would get into double-trouble at home.
I was preparing for the State championship track-meet and the next day after track and field practice, Mom said, “You boys get cleaned-up some Mormon missionaries are coming to see us.” “Ugh, we can’t see them,” I responded; “Why not?” “O’ I don’t know.” “Then get ready!” was her demand. Just hearing the word was surreal to me at the time. It just so happened that Mom had done some sewing for a Mormon family in town, the Schwabs, and they asked if the Missionaries could drop by. She had said to the Schwabs, “I’m not interested but maybe my two boys would.” It also turned out, I learned years later, that Mom hated Mormons because her first husband was a Jack-Mormon and bad guy in criminal ways.
So in a grand ‘coincidence’ they arrived. Elder Tobler of Idaho and Elder Hansen from Arizona came to our house. I remember how strong and cordial they were. My father called it all “foolishness” and left the room, but my Mother and Aunt Gertrude were there when the missionaries stepped through the door. Mom and Gertie immediately began to pelt them with the most vicious anti-Mormon questions. It reminded me of the persecution the Mormons suffered in the Brigham Young movie I had just seen two days before.
Elder Tobler calmly said that they had a discussion prepared that might answer our questions and asked if they might give it. So we sat around the dining room table, and Elder Hansen asked to gave the prayer. We bowed our heads and within seconds after he began I heard a distinct authoritative voice “Listen to these men they have the words of truth.” My head popped-up as did my Brother Mike’s head from across the table, for we had heard the same voice. Amazed, we stared at each other for a moment. We went to the Medford LDS Ward that Sunday and I was baptized a week later. Mike was baptized about a year later and a year after that my sister Cherry was baptized. It has been many decades since this fourteen year old boy was baptized on July 10th 1959 and I haven’t dried off yet.
These were in the days of the ‘kiddy-dip,’ in which parental permission was not always obtained before baptism. My Mother was shocked when she found out that I was baptized, being a staunch anti-Mormon and being told by our next door neighbor, Ray Kelly, that Mormonism was Satanic and all Mormons are going to Hell. Mr. Kelly said his minister could help save me, so she demanded that I go to the cult deprogrammer, Rev. Everett Cade of the local Church of Christ. So, every Saturday for the rest of the Summer I was obliged to spend two hours at his house discussing his ‘truths’ about Mormonism. I hadn’t even had all the discussions yet! Because I was so unknowledgeable about LDS history and doctrine, ignorance was to my advantage and hearing all this anti-Mormon stuff somewhat inoculated me as I began to lean more about the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
Rev. Cade systematically went through the evils of polygamy, blood-atonement, Danites and Mountains Meadow, celestial sex, multiple Gods, Lucifer being Jesus’ brother, Adam-God theory, blacks and the priesthood , and Joseph Smith as a magician and sex fiend, just for starters! I didn’t have a single answer to counter any of his arguments. The only thing I could say was that I had heard a voice from God saying that the missionaries had the words of truth and that I would be willing to leave the LDS Church if God commanded me to do so. However, Rev. Cade was unable to replicate anything close to the kind sweet voice speaking directly to Mike’s and my spirit. This witness of the Holy Ghost is as clear today as it was so many decades ago.
Rev. Cade had written his Bible College thesis on forty people in Northeastern United States, during the 18th through early 20th centuries, who had gone into a quite place, had an epiphany and used that experience to start a new religious movement. Jemima Wilkinson, Mary Baker Eddy and Joseph Smith Jr. were but three who had done so. He viciously attacked Joseph Smith’s First Vision and his character. When he asked me, “What’s so special about Joe Smith of up-state New York that God would appear to him?” I thought for awhile and responded “Well,uhhh he was a nice guy?” It was a lame and weak answer even for a small town kid of fourteen and stuck in my craw for decades. Indeed, what was so special about the Prophet Joseph Smith Jr.? The quest for an answer led directly to my researching and publishing a ‘scholarly’ thorough-going book titled The Dynasty of the Holy Grail: Mormonism’s Sacred Bloodline in 2006 which was dedicated to answering the question.
I have believed very earnestly ever since my conversion, but living gospel principles of course was more difficult because it required faith not just belief. Faith unto repentance and salvation was the important thing. During my half-century in the Church membership that naive, innocent and blind faith has been transformed bit by bit into a more mature and reasoned faith. Not that it is now all ‘understood’ but only more so. For from blind to enlightened faith is the course we should all follow. Through sincere prayer, diligent study and obeying the commandments; one’s faith and knowledge are embraced more fully.
In 1974 I was with an LDS parasitolgist friend, Jim Jensen, whose atheist colleague at Auburn University had chided him for believing in God. His explanation of why it was reasonable to believe in God, as understood by the Latter-day Saints, made so much sense that I thought, ‘This is a God that even atheists can believe in.’ This immediately reminded me of the song, What’s it all about Alfie where the lyrics say “I believe in something that even unbelievers can believe in.” If one could only cast aside false sectarian notions of who God was, I thought, we could easily appreciate that God existed and why it mattered. My basic premise was and still is that the Mormon God and faith could be explained, though not proven, scientifically.
My hope is that this testimony might help other scholars believe in the goodness of Heavenly Father, the redemption of Jesus Christ and the authority of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But things usually don’t work out that way because there are some things that no man can give except through example to another—FAITH, for instance. Hopefully, though, one could give “a reason to believe“, because nobody can give belief itself. (See 1 Peter 3:15) I like the statement from an old Christian tract, “Even if we don’t believe in God, he still believes in us.” This was similar to the verse about God, “We love him, because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19 see verse 10) It is not difficult to belief in such a loving God if we humbly try to do so.
Ultimately, all our testimonies must be a “leap of faith” first and then proceed toward a “reasoned faith.” There is a Latin phrase which captures this truism, Quarens Fides Intellectum, which means: “To Believe In Order To Know.” Only those things we believe to have value can we ever hope to know and understand. This is as true for a society as it is for an individual, otherwise we lack faith in our institutions, our mores, our values and eventually in ourselves—in the end it will damn us. Joseph Smith said that nobody would be damned for believing too much, but for unbelief. Yet this is not an either/or dichotomy between the proposition, “Should we replace the Tyranny of Faith with the Tyranny of Reason?” It is an ongoing dance between faith and reason, tyranny has nothing to do with it
According to a Gnostic Qumran text, the missing ingredient that compelled certain angels to fall from heaven was their inability to ‘bridge the gap’ or to ‘look over the horizon’ where faith was concerned. They could only believe in what they could see or touch. The wicked among the unbelievers were always quick to say, “Show me a sign, then I will believe.” (Alma 32:16-17) Not willing to understand that “signs” follow not precede faith. They do not understand Paul’s injunction, “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7 NKJV) These fallen angels and many of us as well, are unable or unwilling to take even the slightest leap of faith; everything has to be proven first. This is their damnation, their own concrete ceiling. Doubting Thomas was rebuked by Jesus for his lack of faith, “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed; blessed [are] they that have not seen, and [yet] have believed.” (John 20:29)
It all comes down to Isaiah 1:3 NKJV which notes why careless or willful people don’t have sufficient faith in God. “The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, My people do not consider.” We all need to get much more serious. Joseph Smith said it best in 1839, “The things of God are of deep import; and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can find them out.” This is not unlike Proverbs 25:2 NKJV, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.”
I have been guided by the Latin phrase, Extrico subjectio quod verum ero evidens which means, “Untangle the subject and the truth will be evident.” Along this line, Joseph Smith earnestly prayed for light after he read James 1:5, “If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” In his boyish innocence he never gave a thought that he wouldn’t receive an answer. Only those who have at least a particle of desire to believe will study it out and ultimately believe. Alma taught that all one really had to do to be on the path to faith is to take a first step and exercise a tiny amount of desire:
But behold, if ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, yea, even if ye can no more than desire to believe, let this desire work in you, even until ye believe in a manner that ye can give place for a portion of my words. (Alma 32:27)
The trick to learning of God is to believe without a sign and to take the initial step for some compelling inner purpose. It is paramount for us to “bring to pass much righteousness” without being commanded first. Mosiah 26:3 says the same thing, “And now because of their unbelief they could not understand the word of God; and their hearts were hardened.” The voice that came to me, came after an exercise of faith. The spiritually hard of hearing find it difficult to listen to “the still small voice.” (1 Kings 19:12) But in the din of ideas and distracting concerns the sheep will eventually “hear his voice.” (Hebrews 3:15) Through earnest prayer the words of Jeremiah 33:3 still comes true, “Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and show thee great and mighty things which thou knowest not.”
In the Springville Museum of Art there is an oil painting by Wulf E. Barsch entitled Toward Thebes (1985). This semi-abstract and enigmatic canvas addresses the idea of piercing the veil of confusion and finding truth. Thebes, Egypt’s capitol city during politically stable times, symbolizes the concept of— bringing order out of chaos. A second level of meaning in the painting deals with how the ordering principle exists but is often not apparent or easily seen. The painting’s general theme deals with this telestial mortal estate, in which, as the Apostle Paul says, “We see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
Behind this chaotic earth-life, God has given divine order, which is not now obvious but will eventually become evident. The painting presents man’s view of existence. A hint of God’s design is seen in the Magic Square in the middle of Wulf Barsch’s picture. It was scribbled into the still wet paint by the artist’s brush handle.
4 9 2
3 5 7
8 1 6
These numbers add up to fifteen, no matter in which direction they are counted! They might represent God’s fifteen Prophets, Seers and Revelators (LDS First Presidency and Twelve Apostles) on the earth at any one time. Though being indistinct and looking meaningless at first they are logically organized, if only the viewer will but look a little deeper and consider more seriously.
All judgments on God’s methods and motives must wait until the eternal perspective which He enjoys is fully shared. It is a like a person going to the tapestry factory and approaching the tapestry from the back-side. All is a welter of knots and ends with very little design. But when we walk around to the front of the tapestry we see the true pattern and intent of the master weaver—they see God’s side. God is the gardener, the master weaver and the great architect of the world’s history. Faith in the Gospel is the lens by which we may view more clearly God’s merciful Plan of Salvation.
Thus it is with life, we can see God’s handiwork, ordering the universe if only we have “eyes to see.” Shakespeare said that we should perceive “tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” This is true if we have not been blinded by the ‘world’ and its ‘blind guides.’ As the English proverb reveals, “There are none as blind as those who will not see.” (See Matthew 13:13; Jeremiah 5:21; Isaiah 6:9-10)
This concept was echoed by Vincent de Beauvais who said, “Man can encompass his salvation by means of knowledge.“ To this we must add wisdom. In Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Locksley Hall we read, “Knowledge comes, but Wisdom lingers.” Galileo expressed just how important this concept was, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” We must use all our faculties or else risk losing them.
I love Brigham Young’s succinct insight on our Godly nature, “We are made expressly to dwell with those who continue to learn.“ Pure learning for its own sake never goes unrewarded. “Whatsoever principles of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection.” (D&C 130:18) Joseph also noted that “It is impossible for a man to be saved in ignorance.“ I think he meant, saved in the higher kingdoms, for even idiots will be saved in the Telestial Kingdom of Heaven.
Our very happiness rests on knowing and having faith in that kind Heavenly Father who cares so dearly for us. It is written, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16) I love His Son, Jesus Christ, who in Gethsemane suffered for us more than any man, more than all men combined, because of our sins against eternal justice. He has taken upon Himself our liabilities and now it is time to take upon ourselves His assets. I testify that it is only through ‘mature faith,’ seeing eye-to-eye and knowing Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, as They really are, that we will be able to regain the Father’s full presence and happily become heirs and join-heirs with Jesus. (John 17:3)