(Part seventeen of a series compiled by Dennis B. Horne)
A few years ago, a returned missionary who served in one of the Mexican missions shared with me a classic experience that illustrates the “diligence” principle in the acquisition of faith and sacred knowledge. I had conducted the stake president’s interview before his mission and sent his papers to Church headquarters. I remember that interview with him. He was 6 foot 5 inches tall and 255 pounds. He was one of the first two young men recruited from my children’s high school to play football at Brigham Young University. He was a fine young man, clean-cut and worthy in every way. I remember being impressed with his potential. I could tell from the answers he gave to the questions I asked that he was honest, but there was one crack in his armor. I knew that his testimony was based on the faith of others rather than on his own witness. However, he related the following story to me during his release interview at the end of his mission.
As his mission began, Elder Stone worked energetically with his companion. Frequently he was called upon to give the first lesson. In the lesson it was necessary for him to tell the investigators about the appearance of the Father and the Son to the boy Joseph in the Sacred Grove and then bear witness of its truthfulness. After bearing testimony a number of times, his conscience began to bother him. Although he believed the story, he did not know that it actually happened. He had not been there, nor had he received his own witness. How could he tell others that the First Vision really happened? As doubts began to multiply and replace his belief and as the pains of conscience increased, he told his companion that he could no longer be a missionary. He was going home. He could not serve as a witness to something he did not know. His companion responded, “Elder Stone, why don’t you follow the counsel given the investigators? You need to study and pray more diligently. Put Moroni’s promise to the test. Exercise your faith, and you will receive an answer. Stay with me for a few more weeks.”
Elder Stone agreed to stay and put Moroni’s promise to the test. A few weeks passed, the missionary worked harder, prayed more often, was more attentive in his reading, but no witness came. Finally, during an interview with the mission president, Elder Stone expressed his frustrations and indicated his desire to return home. He could not continue. A wise mission president counseled, “Elder, do not give up! You have a desire to believe. If you continue faithful in your calling for a few more weeks, the Lord will answer your prayers. I promise you!”
Elder Stone agreed to return to his proselyting area for a few more weeks. Again, days and then weeks passed with no change in his feelings. It was difficult. One morning as they were knocking on doors, a woman answered and invited them to return when her husband and children would be home. As they left the small house, Elder Stone said to his companion, “I’m not giving the lesson!”
His companion responded, “Elder, I’ll give the first portion of the discussion, but I want you to tell the Joseph Smith story.”
Finally Elder Stone agreed, even though that was the part that bothered him. From the time they left the woman’s house until they returned a day or two later, the missionary used every spare minute to read and pray. He wanted a witness before entering the home. But when the appointed hour came, he still had not received a witness. He had read diligently, he had prayed almost continuously, but there were no special feelings. How could he bear witness when he did not know?
The father answered the door and ushered the missionaries inside. There on a dirt floor sat nine children, and the father and mother took their places behind them. Elder Stone reported that the size of the home was not much larger than his bedroom in Utah. The humble circumstances only added to his discomfort. The senior companion began the lesson, telling the family that there is a God, that we are his children, and that he loves us. He then explained the mission of the Savior, how God sent his Son to earth to atone for our sins and to make possible our return to our heavenly home. He explained the role of prophets and bore witness that God works through prophets today. He then turned the lesson over to Elder Stone.
My missionary friend began the story of the 14-year-old Joseph. He told the family about the religious confusion that existed in Palmyra in the 1820s, how Joseph listened to the various ministers proclaiming different versions of Christianity. He told them about Joseph’s experience in reading James 1:5, where James states unequivocally: “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.”
The missionary related the impact that the passage had on Joseph—that it struck him with more power than had any other scripture, and that this caused him to reflect on it again and again. Finally, Joseph decided to put James to the test. He selected a grove of trees near his father’s farm and went there on a beautiful spring day to pray. Being alone, he knelt down and offered up the feelings of his heart. The elder told the family how a dark power came over Joseph, almost choking the life out of the young boy. Exerting all of his powers, Joseph continued to pray, and then, suddenly, a pillar of light descended out of the heavens directly above him. The darkness was dispelled, and in the midst of the light were two personages. One called Joseph by name and, pointing to the other, said: “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (See JS—H 1:1–17.)
At this point in the story, Elder Stone said that a warm feeling began to stir his soul—one he had never felt before. The warmth was deep inside and soon enveloped him. Tears welled up in his eyes. His throat became full, and he could hardly speak. He was embarrassed and ducked his head until he could regain his composure. When he looked up, he noticed tears in the eyes of the parents and the children. They were experiencing the same feelings and warmth of Spirit that he was feeling. He finished the lesson with a conviction born of a spiritual witness that Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son. Elder Stone’s testimony had shifted from one of belief to a knowledge of the First Vision. As Elder Stone finished sharing his experience with me, he said: “President, I know that Joseph saw the Father and the Son. I did not have a problem in the mission field after that experience. I have my own witness.”
As I listened to the story’s conclusion, I thought how efficient God is: he got 12 birds with one Stone! The parents, the nine children, and a missionary were all touched by the Holy Ghost, and a desire to believe was transformed into knowledge. More than that, God is efficient in another way. If a person has a witness of the Father and Son’s visit to young Joseph, he or she has a foundation for believing and accepting other gospel principles.
The beginning of this dispensation was initiated by one of the greatest events in the course of human history—the appearance of the Father and Son to the boy Joseph Smith. To illustrate the majesty of the event in the Sacred Grove, can you think of another time when both the Father and the Son appeared on this earth? The scriptures tell of occasions when the Father’s voice was heard from the heavens declaring His Only Begotten Son: e.g., at the Savior’s baptism (Matthew 3:17), on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:5), and to the Nephites in the land Bountiful (3 Nephi 11:3–7). But the Garden of Eden may be the only other place where both openly manifested Themselves on this earth.
Presiding Bishopric Second Counselor Thorpe B. Isaacson relates experience with missionaries:
The next day following that great [Cumorah] pageant those same missionaries held their missionary conference on a beautiful Sabbath morning in the Sacred Grove. They had held two sessions there Friday and Saturday. Since their pageant was produced at night, they had their days for their conferences.
Saturday afternoon was devoted entirely to testimony bearing. Sunday morning's meeting was programmed; speakers were called upon to speak; but in the afternoon it was not programmed, and the meeting started at one o'clock in the afternoon, with the idea that it would perhaps close by four o'clock, and we would thus get an extra hour of testimony bearing.
I wish everyone could have been in that Sacred Grove that beautiful afternoon as those elders, without wasting a minute's time or a second's time, came forward and stood by the microphone. There was no pulpit to stand by, so they stood there by the loud-speaker and gave their testimonies, one by one. Those three hours passed all too quickly. Four o'clock came, and as the missionaries had expressed the desire to bear their testimony in the Sacred Grove, they were not all through, and it was decided to continue the meeting until five o'clock, but at five o'clock they were not through and it continued till six o'clock. At six o'clock they were not through, and we continued the meeting until seven o'clock—until every missionary there had had an opportunity to bear his or her testimony. I think eighty-nine of them that afternoon bore their testimonies.
You could not have doubted that testimony if you had heard those young men and women. Some of them had been in the mission field only a month, and, oh, how they thanked the Lord for the privilege of that mission. . . .
At seven o'clock at night the sun went down—the shadows fell, and it seemed as if God in heaven had looked down and pronounced a silent benediction on the heads of all who were assembled in the Sacred Grove that day. Yes, it was as if those servants of the Lord had been able to lift up the corner of the veil and had a little glimpse into the eternities to come.
May God bless the missionaries all over the earth. May our homes and all of us partake of the spirit that they are privileged to enjoy, and I know and you know why they are privileged to enjoy that spirit. It is because they live so close to the Lord.
I know that the Spirit of the Lord was there in the grove that day. I know that sacred spot was the place to which the Prophet Joseph went as a boy and knelt down and prayed to the Lord, and there the Father and Son appeared to him.
Elder Glen L. Rudd bears testimony as a young elder on his first mission:
In 1939, after I had been in New Zealand about five months, I received a new companion who had just arrived from northern Utah. One day we traveled with the mission president [Matthew Cowley] to a city about 200 miles away. Afterwards we began hitch-hiking back. After a rough day, we found ourselves in a strange, small resort town with no place to sleep and nothing to eat. By 8 p.m. we finally gave up and decided to sleep in a shelter in a park.
As we crossed the street, the same man who had given us our last ride saw us and stopped. He took us to his home and fed us. Then he invited some neighbors over so that we could have a meeting. He also said we could sleep in a new house he was helping to build.
This man began the meeting by telling us that he had been a minister for twenty-five years in the Church of the Brethren. He claimed to be well versed in the teachings of the Bible and also familiar with many other churches. He had a full wall of books; and while looking at them, I noticed a Book of Mormon. He commented that he had read it a couple of times.
Our host outlined the meeting: I was to talk first and explain Mormonism; then he would take equal time to reply. I was then to have ten minutes to summarize, and he would take the final ten minutes. No one was to interrupt us while we spoke, and we were to be kind and courteous. We agreed that we would not argue or debate—just explain and teach. (My new companion was scared and begged not to be called on.)
We followed the plan. I began with the Articles of Faith and briefly explained each one. He then attacked what I had said in a masterful and methodical way. He was well versed and really knew the Bible. In my next ten minutes I tried to correct his misunderstanding, but he ruined my “fine presentation” in his final ten minutes.
The meeting concluded with everyone sure that this man had proven Mormonism to be anything but the true religion of Jesus Christ. At that moment, it seemed that I had suffered a crushing defeat. My five months in the mission field, pitted against his twenty-five years as a minister, did not give me the confidence I needed on that occasion.
Before anyone left, I got up and asked for just five minutes more. My minister friend did not want to let me have it, but his wife said that she thought it would be all right. The minister consented to let me have my final say, feeling certain that nothing I could say would overshadow his splendid work in disproving Mormonism. A wonderful thought had come into my mind. I realized that I really had twenty years experience as a Latter-day Saints, though only five months of it as a missionary.
With a sincere prayer I arose and told the story of the first vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I related it simply and carefully. I talked of the visit of Moroni and the coming forth of the plates and the Book of Mormon, a copy of which he had, and had claimed to have read. I told of the martyrdom of the Prophet and Hyrum Smith. And then from the very depths of my heart bore my testimony of the divinity of all these things.
When I finished, the whole spirit of the meeting had changed. It was a wonderful feeling, and the Spirit of the Lord was present to sustain the testimony I had almost forgotten to bear.
The good minister arose and, in a sweet way, closed the meeting. His concluding comment was: “You didn’t do very well explaining the articles of your faith; but I would give all I own if I could stand and testify, as you have done, that I know that what I teach is the truth.” He admitted to all present that he really did not know the truth, and expressed his hope that he would someday bear such a testimony. There is no valid defense against a sincere testimony. (Glen Rudd personal history 37-39)