“The Power of One—The Example of Rigmor Heistø,” Liahona, June 1998, 8
Sometimes we view problems in the world around us with a sense of fatalism. “That’s just how things are,” we reason. “How could I possibly change them?” Yet through even the humblest of us acting in our own small sphere, the Lord can accomplish great things. Consider the life of a 78-year-old woman in Norway. Her name is Rigmor Heistø, and her experiences are proof of the power one person can have—one person who has given her life to the Lord.
Rigmor Heistø was already 43 years old when this story begins. It was 1963, and in many ways Rigmor was leading a comfortable life. She was married to a prominent physician and had three much-loved children. Like most Norwegians, she belonged to the Lutheran Church, the state church of Norway. She also took part in two Bible study groups.
Yet all was not well. Members of her family were struggling with health problems, and her marriage was troubled.
When Elder John Storheim and Elder John Marshall came to her door, Rigmor was immediately touched. She found their message fascinating; then she began to feel it was true. Her conversations with them answered some questions she had always had—and raised some new ones. She took her questions to her Bible study groups. Disturbed by Rigmor’s new questions, the leaders of one of the groups asked her to stop coming to the group’s meetings. Other friends begged her to stop seeing the missionaries. Her husband opposed her conversion. So intense was the pressure, in fact, that Rigmor told the missionaries not to come back, privately determining to remember the truths she had learned from them.
For several months, Rigmor prayed that she would forget the Church if—as her friends had told her—it really were the devil’s church. But the more she prayed, the more she was reminded of the Church. Finally, she went to a meeting at her church where two hymns that she had heard on a Tabernacle Choir album were played. When the pastor rose and exhorted the congregation to “remember them … who have spoken unto you the word of God” (Heb. 13:7), Rigmor knew in her heart that it was the missionaries who had spoken the word of God to her. She decided to follow her new faith, whatever the cost.
Rigmor’s husband had been influenced by an inaccurate, negative description of the Church in a book by a respected Norwegian theologian, Einar Molland. So he first withheld and then grudgingly gave his permission for Rigmor to be baptized. Rigmor was baptized in 1964; three years later, she and her husband were divorced.
Now Rigmor faced an overwhelming set of circumstances. She left her comfortable home and moved to a small apartment. Needing to support herself financially, she had to seek employment for the first time since the birth of her oldest child. But, as the Prophet Joseph Smith wrote, a very small helm working determinedly can keep a very large ship safe “in the time of a storm.” And if we will “cheerfully do all things that lie in our power,” we can trust “with the utmost assurance” that his mighty, saving power will ultimately be manifest in our lives (see D&C 123:16–17).
With intelligence, energy, and determination, Rigmor did what lay in her power to do. She worked briefly as a clerk and then got a job as a substitute teacher in a youth school. The Nazi occupation of Norway in 1940 had ended her university studies. Now Rigmor enrolled in college to get the training to be a full-time teacher. And it was here that a remarkable lifelong mission as a goodwill ambassador for the Church began.
One day in an ethics class in 1967, a young professor of theology, Inge Lønning, who later became rector of Oslo University and editor of Church and Culture, stated that people in Norway enjoyed total freedom of choice regarding religion. Rigmor quickly spoke up. “That applies only to members of the state church,” she told him. “Just try and believe some other religion.”
Later, during a class break, she explained to Professor Lønning that her former husband had been misled by misinformation about the Church in a book written by Einar Molland. When Professor Lønning mentioned that he often had lunch with Einar Molland, Rigmor asked him to arrange an interview for her.
And so it was that Rigmor Heistø, a convert of just a few years, found herself in the office of Norway’s leading theologian. “Good morning, Mrs. Heistø,” he greeted her. “I can understand people converting to Catholicism, to Methodism, or to Baptistism. But how can anyone convert to Mormonism?”
With her typical disarming and good-humored candor, Rigmor replied, “If I hadn’t known any more about the Church than you do, it would be the last thing I would have done.” She then asked, “Where did you get this nonsense in your book?” When Professor Molland explained he had found it in books in the university library, she told him that he could have easily received correct information from the mission president, whose office was just a hundred meters down the road. Then she explained the damage that misinformation had done in her home.
Professor Molland was saddened and promised to correct the section about the Church in the next edition. In 1977, true to his word, Professor Molland allowed mission president John Langeland, Sister Heistø, and others to check the section on The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a revised edition, which was published in 1978. “I have never felt the Spirit move me so much,”remembers Sister Heistø of that important meeting. “When I left Professor Molland’s office, we were the best of friends.”
Rigmor finished teachers’ college and taught full-time at a youth school. Then she completed a three-year course in special education, specializing in teaching people with dyslexia. In 1980, she was assigned to create a social science course for eighth and ninth graders. She traveled to Brigham Young University to research and write a workbook on developmental psychology. Then, in 1988, at age 68, she received a degree in Christianity from Norway’s state seminary school, where most Lutheran priests receive their education.
Education about the LDS Church is especially needed in Norway, where, for many years, only the official state church was legally recognized. In 1845, a so-called dissenter law allowed some other Christian churches to be recognized as “dissenting” faiths. But, because of some key doctrines, the Church was judged not to qualify for recognition until the 1960s. Then it was not until 1988 that the Church was officially registered. “The Church is now recognized as existing,” says Sister Heistø, “but many people still do not consider Latter-day Saints to be Christians.”
So when one of her teachers at the seminary, philosophy professor Guttorm Fløistad, asked his students to suggest topics for study, Rigmor saw another opportunity to educate people about the Church. She suggested that the class study the philosophical basis of Mormonism. The professor agreed, and Latter-day Saint scholar Truman Madsen, then director of the Brigham Young University Jerusalem Center, was invited to visit and give lectures at Oslo University. After Dr. Madsen’s visit to Norway in 1986, a regular exchange program with Norwegian and BYU professors was established. Guttorm Fløistad was the first Norwegian professor to visit Utah on the exchange program. And Inge Lønning (now rector of Oslo University), who had arranged for Rigmor to meet Professor Molland, was the second. The third professor from Oslo University to visit BYU was Francis Sejersted, chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize committee. The fourth was Gudmund Hernes, cabinet minister of Education, Research, and Church Affairs in Norway.
And so began a circle of friendship that continually expands. When she learned that a Norwegian Bible Association brochure was recommending that all schoolchildren view a film defamatory to the Church, Rigmor called the association’s general secretary. She asked him to review the film and to read a book by Church members refuting the film’s claims. The man had met Truman Madsen and was so impressed with his dedication that he was happy to comply with Rigmor’s request. Several months later, he removed the film from the association’s catalog and helped get it removed entirely from Norwegian schools.
Throughout her career, Rigmor has introduced many young people to the Church through comparative religion courses. When students were assigned to present reports on the Church, she invited them to her home and taught them over waffles and jam. For eight years, she set up a display about the Church at a curriculum conference attended by thousands of teachers.
Perhaps one of Rigmor’s most far-reaching contributions has been compiling and editing a book on comparative religions called This We Believe, published in 1994. Rigmor heads a group made up of representatives from 37 faiths; she assigned a representative of each of the religious groups to write a chapter about their religion for the book. “They appreciated very much the opportunity to write about what they believed in,” says Sister Heistø. “Like me, they were saddened by all the misinformation in print regarding their respective churches.”
Rigmor also represented minority faiths at a seminar in 1994 on teaching religion in Norwegian schools. There she addressed the importance of using only accurate information about different religions in the classroom. This topic currently holds great interest because of a 1997 law requiring Norwegian schoolchildren to learn about other religions.
Sister Heistø’s strong confidence is born of conviction. “The gospel is the best message on earth,” she says. “No one is with me more than five minutes before they know who I am.”
But Rigmor does not see her willingness to speak up as especially courageous. “I don’t really need courage,” says Sister Heistø. “I just think, ‘Oh, here is something I can do.’” One day, for example, she picked up the newspaper and read an interesting article in which Georg Fredrik Rieber-Mohn, the attorney general of Norway, lamented the state of family life and cultural values in Norway. He warned that the pursuit of materialism could destroy the country and called for the state church to teach values with authority.
Sister Heistø thought the attorney general needed to know that a church is already doing the very things he advocated and that its name is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. So she wrote a letter to him.
A week later, the attorney general himself called, asking Sister Heistø to meet with him. As a result, she spent several hours explaining the Church to Mr. Rieber-Mohn. “I think the Lord knows two things about me,” says Sister Heistø. “He knows I am not afraid of other people. Why should I be? … And,” she adds, smiling, “he knows I can talk.”
Now Rigmor becomes reflective: “My children are married and have children of their own. [One daughter and some grandchildren eventually joined the Church.] I can choose what I use my time for. So it is the Church. It is nothing to boast about. Think of all the fantastic experiences I have all the time. It is difficult to be alone—so the more lonely I feel, the more challenges I take on.”
Then she refers to a picture hanging in her sitting room, a picture of Christ wearing a crown of thorns. “Self-pity is a feeling I do not allow to come into my home,” she says. “When I feel it start, I just look at my picture of Christ. ‘Excuse me,’ I say. ‘You have hurt much more for me than I do for you.’”
And so, at age 78, Rigmor Heistø continues on, steadfastly doing what lies in her power to do, cheerfully helping the Lord bring about his purposes in Norway.