“Soldiers Were My Missionaries,” Ensign, Feb. 1990, 47
Serving in the United States Army was a great opportunity for me, in view of the rich friendships I made, the goals I began to perceive for myself, and most important—exposure to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
In those months between April 1946, when I met Mormons for the first time, and October 1946, when I was discharged, I took advantage of the opportunity to learn about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Two enlisted men from Utah gave freely of their time and shared their testimonies of the gospel. They made available many books dealing with the restored church, including that year’s priesthood manual and The Gospel through the Ages, by Milton R. Hunter. These books introduced to me the first principles on a level that I could understand. The Book of Mormon; Principles of the Gospel, by Gordon B. Hinckley; the Articles of Faith, by James E. Talmage; and countless tracts and pamphlets also helped me understand basic Church teachings. Certainly I did not pore over these references, but I did read rather extensively, and with more than passing interest. If high school did anything for me, it blessed me with English teachers who imbued within me a strong love for reading. This was a distinct advantage in maintaining my investigative approach to the Church.
I did not attend many Latter-day Saint meetings that summer, although our military schedules did permit visits to a Special Interest group in the Sunset Ward in San Francisco. My LDS friends in the service also conducted some study meetings in the barracks, to which anyone interested in the gospel was invited. Several attended a few times, but only two of us maintained our interest, a young Jewish boy from the East Coast and myself.
One evening during an instruction period, one of the elders said to me, after discussing Joseph Smith’s vision and the Word of Wisdom, “Wouldn’t you like to know for yourself, as we know, that our message of the Restoration is true? Surely you don’t want to sit on the fence for the rest of your life, wondering whether it is true.”
I guess I replied in a rather noncommittal way. They then bore strong personal witness and made a specific challenge to me concerning the Word of Wisdom. One said, “I promise you, in the name of Jesus Christ, that if you will make the attempt to stop smoking and drinking alcoholic beverages, and if you will pray about our message, the sure knowledge will be given you by the Spirit.”
The witness and the promise were too much for me to ignore. I tried to dismiss the urgings, and tossed that night in my bunk. I had seen these young men kneel nightly at their bunks, even when all kinds of distractions surrounded them, to pray fervently. I had observed how they faithfully sent home to their bishops that small part of an enlisted man’s modest pay in tithing. I had measured their behavior against the rest of us, their clean living habits and their wholesome attitude about their assignments; and I felt the bonds of our friendship and love. But I was confused by all this idealism and tried to imagine what life outside the military and away from the influence of my new friends would be like. Nevertheless, the next day I decided to try to abstain from smoking.
As I served as battery clerk for our battalion, it seemed every visitor to our headquarters office that morning was giving instead of “bumming” cigarettes. I had to say no many times. During lulls in the work, I would find myself reaching for the shirt pocket where the cigarettes were always kept. I paced and swore. By noon I figured a few “drags” on one cigarette couldn’t hurt. I went to the recreation room to light up, only to find the elders there, having sought me out to lend encouragement to my attempts to stop smoking. I later learned they were fasting for my success.
Having made it through the day without smoking a single cigarette, the first time in perhaps four years, I felt like I needed a few beers before tackling the effort to give up drinking. But before I headed for the post exchange and a beer, they came with all their love and enthusiasm and prayerful encouragement. From that day to this, now nearly forty-three years later, I have never tasted an alcoholic beverage. That night we talked further about the gospel, mostly about Joseph Smith, Jr.
They said, “Won’t you pray—tonight—about Joseph’s mission? We promise that you may know for yourself.”
Later I walked the rather foggy coast and shoreline down to the fence beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Only muffled voices and lapping waves interrupted my solitude. Fear, doubt, confusion, rebellion, frustration—all were companions that night. I told myself I had many reasons not to make the attempt to pray. I was young, rather self-sufficient, healthy, accepted, had many friends, looked forward to a good future, would pursue a college education, had no religious strings to bind me, would have to offer no explanations or excuses to family or friends at home.
But prayer finally won out. I dropped to my knees and asked for help and enlightenment—to know whether Joseph Smith, Jr., was visited by the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. I waited; nothing happened. The fog was damp and chilling. The rocks hurt my knees. The thought passed through my mind, “It’s the same. My prayer isn’t going to have any different result than all the others through the years. I’m not going to get an answer.” I arose.
But at that moment I felt a surge of energy pass over me, through me, around me, until I dropped back upon my knees. The feeling intensified, subsided, repeated its motion, lifting me seemingly, gently receding, then pressing forward again. My entire being seemed filled with this sweetness. I let it happen. For a time I felt like I was a part of the ocean—the rhythm was the same. I seemed purged of all ugliness and doubt, and they were replaced with the witness of the Holy Ghost. It was not a momentary lapse into nothingness, but an extended period of enlightenment. I wanted the experience to stay with me, to sustain me, and for a long while I remained on my knees.
When finally I arose, new waves of spiritual strength enveloped me, and I began walking, first hesitantly, then briskly, and finally I ran back to the barracks, up the stairs, two or three at a time, and burst into the large room where we bunked. I sought out the elders and told them I knew for myself about Joseph’s first vision and mission. It was a hallowed time.
One of them said, “We’ve got to get you baptized.” He called the proper authority in the stake, went to the cook and obtained white uniforms, made the necessary arrangement to meet at the Sunset Ward chapel the following evening, and completed the necessary calls for our absence from the fort. The next thing I knew, we were in the office of the bishop for a baptismal interview.
The bishop asked us to be seated, and we talked for a while in a friendly way. Then the bishop said words to this effect: “These elders tell me you have been investigating the gospel, reading church literature, and occasionally attending Church meetings. Is this true?”
“And do you believe in George Albert Smith’s position as a prophet in these latter days?”
A pause. “Sir, I have never so much as heard of George Albert Smith.”
He explained President Smith’s role as a prophet, succeeding, among others, Joseph Smith, Jr. He asked numerous other questions about the priesthood, the appearance of the angel Moroni, tithing and offerings, the Word of Wisdom, and so on. I felt myself sinking. I knew almost none of the answers. I felt slightly embarrassed and ill prepared. I thought how presumptuous I was to suppose I was ready for baptism. I felt instant relief and disappointment—all these feelings in a matter of seconds. I saw my friends fidget and move to the edge of their seats. Then the interviewer asked if I felt all right about the Latter-day Saints I had met, and he said with a stroke of inspiration, “Suppose you tell me in your own words why you think you would like to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
I felt the return of the Spirit which had manifest itself to me the night before. The words poured out. I spoke unhesitantly of my study; of my prayer and the answer; of the appearance of heavenly messengers to the boy Joseph; of the appearance of Peter, James, and John to him; of Moroni and his several appearances; of the Book of Mormon and the restoration of the priesthood; of Joseph and Oliver’s baptism by each other. I could scarcely control the wave of knowledge that manifested itself. All of us were stunned by the rapidity with which I expressed so many things that I did not realize were a part of my testimony, borne only for the second time vocally and in a complexity that to this time seems almost incomprehensible to me except for the workings of the Holy Spirit.
The bishop raised his hand and said, “It is enough. The Spirit has borne witness to me that he has borne witness to you. And you shall be baptized.”
I was baptized and confirmed by my friends. When we left the chapel and returned to the fort at that late hour by bus, we said very little. During the walk from the bus stop to the barracks, we felt the Spirit so strongly that we wept, shook hands, embraced each other, walked further, and embraced again. Even as I write of this experience, I am filled with a recollection of those most precious of all moments in my spiritual development.
Nothing I have ever done, nothing I have ever learned in college and years of applied working skills can compare to the simple truth that I learned that night in prayer; and no decision I have ever made in life—in family, in church, in business—compares to that decision to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have never made so wise and so fulfilling a choice.
Within two weeks, I was honorably discharged from the army. I boarded the bus in San Francisco for the long journey across more than half our country to Muncie, Indiana, home and parents.
The elders gave me a Doctrine and Covenants, and I began reading it on the bus. Hours later, the elderly male passenger seated next to me asked what I was reading and what it was about. I answered, “As near as I can tell, it is a compilation of divine revelations between God, Jesus Christ, and Joseph Smith, Jr., the American prophet.” He smiled, bore his testimony, and said he was a member of the Church.
The evening I arrived in Muncie was cold. I stepped up on the enclosed front porch, filled with thoughts of the past few weeks and the past few days of travel. I prayed inwardly before the door opened. Excitement followed. Mom and Dad, my sister Mickey, and others welcomed me home with hugs and kisses. As things quieted down, I observed that visiting us was Mrs. Baer, the mother of the minister of the Protestant church a couple of blocks away which Mom and Mickey attended. She was a lovely person, and we called her Sister Baer.
She poised herself and commented on my baptism into the Mormon church by saying, “Kenneth, you could have searched all your life and never made a greater mistake than you have made. I understand they even baptize the dead, and I think it is a deplorable practice. How can you explain and justify it?”
My head was whirling. She handed me her Bible and asked me to find scriptural support for this teaching. I knew nothing about this practice, and I made no pretense of being a scriptorian. I fumbled with the Bible as my mind fumbled with this challenge.
I opened the Book of Genesis, felt the heat of nervousness, fumbled for words, and relaxed. The peace of the Spirit came to me, at first in small hints of its presence, then in the form of confidence as I swept through the books of the Old Testament and into the New Testament. Now the burning power of the Holy Ghost was in command. I turned to Corinthians, and my eyes fell on the passage:
“Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?” (1 Cor. 15:29.)
I quickly perceived the meaning of the scripture by the power of the Spirit. Unhesitatingly I explained the scripture in context, the practice of the ordinance, and the beauty of the opportunity it offered those millions who never received a testimony of Christ, never heard the gospel, and would otherwise be denied the blessing of membership in the Lord’s kingdom.
I was only warming up. I explained that this truth would never have resurfaced but for the faithful prayer of a young fourteen-year-old boy by the name of Joseph Smith, Jr., whose vision of God and Jesus Christ had opened the world to a new dispensation of the gospel. I bore my testimony.
Everyone in the room was silent, stunned, as I was, by the relentless outpouring of eternal truth that came from a member of the Church of only two weeks, but who had been converted by the power of the Holy Ghost. Sister Baer said something like, “Why, Kenneth, I have never heard so strong a witness for Christ, and while I cannot comprehend it, I will never fault you for your conviction and testimony.”
Later that night, I climbed the stairs to my humble room, cleared away the accumulation of my months’ leave of absence, unpacked my duffel bag, and prepared to retire for the night. As I knelt by my bedside on the cold linoleum floor, I thought of the cold rocks by the Pacific Ocean and thanked my Heavenly Father for finding me and opening my mind and heart to the influence of his Spirit.