A Testimony of My Conversion

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“A Testimony of My Conversion,” New Era, Feb. 1971, 34

A Testimony of My Conversion

At sixty, I have now been a member of the Church four years. I have undoubtedly come late. Most of you were always in the Church or came to it early in life. What I am best qualified to tell you about is the quality of the wilderness outside, and the quality of the wilderness inside those who are outside. You may sometimes feel an urge to go outside. You may even sometimes feel that you need to go outside to satisfy your intellectual honesty. What I have to report, having come in from the cold, may be of value to you.

I propose to say a little about the main stages of my intellectual life, not so much because they were mine, but because their disappointments and their contributions to my acceptance of the Church may be symbolic or typical.

I was reared as a Quaker, in the Society of Friends. Some branches of my family had been in the Society from its very beginnings in the mid-seventeenth century. Some suffered years of imprisonment for their faith. (Incidentally, I had to join the Mormon Church and do genealogy to find that out.)

As a Quaker, my father had a testimony against war, and so during the first world war he became a farmhand and we lived for a while in a little village that felt resentment against us because their men of military age were at the war. The boys used to torment my younger sister and me, and because of this I could not go to the village school—my mother and father taught me at home.

We were taught to be against dancing, the cinema, alcohol, and betting and gambling (including speculating on the stock exchange). As a result I learned that we were not of the world, and that we had enjoyments other than the world’s enjoyments. I interpreted that, as a child might well do, as looking down on people (I must have been a prig).

But Quaker meetings also taught me something of the Holy Spirit. Quakers believe in the inner light, and in my early teens I learned how it felt to be compelled from within to get up and speak, no matter how much one struggled against it.

However, I became dissatisfied with Quakerism. My family was poor, and I felt the condescension of members who were prosperous tradespeople and professionals. There were few working-class members of the Society of Friends. I was especially sensitive because the Society supported my widowed mother. I felt that there were class distinctions among the Friends.

Quakers shared a spirit, but to me it seemed too vague a spirit. It led to humane action, but the action seemed to me not vigorous enough. Their God had no body, parts, and passions. They lacked dogma, something firm I could depend on to help answer my own and others’ questionings. When I went to Cambridge in 1928, I found a generation trying to make the experience of literature and the other arts a substitute for religion. The text was Arnold’s statement that “religion has attached itself to the fact, and now the fact is failing it; but for poetry the idea is everything.” The little book that most characteristically enshrines this view is I. A. Richards’s Science and Poetry. The view was, however, an essentially individualistic one; it lacked the force to make a group cohere. There was a group—around Leavis’s periodical Scrutiny—that had a good deal of influence and effectively enforced the relationship of art and morality; but we were at sea, and though we could learn about winds and tides, there was no anchor aboard, and we had no destination.

At this point, I should like to say a few words about three important writers and their attitudes toward religion: William Butler Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, and T. S. Eliot.

Yeats used myths and images as a box of magical toys, and we cannot take his use seriously. However, he did show us a way of seeing the whole world and the whole of history in terms of images; and though he was not serious about it, we can be for our own serious purposes.

Lawrence had a disturbed life. He was restless because he could never find what he wanted, and he would not face his illness until the last. But he taught something of the sanctity and tenderness of the right relationship between man and woman in marriage, idealized from his own not very satisfactory experience. And he had a profound instinct about the need for a patriarchal community (his own family was very matriarchal) and for the priesthood. There are strong but dark shadowings of this in Aaron’s Rod, Kangaroo, and The Plumed Serpent.

Eliot was a sensitive and truthful seeker. He taught the value of exactitude in religious experience: “The spirit killeth, but the letter giveth life,” meaning that dogma is better than vague, liberal goodwill. And he well understood the step to conversion: “The awful daring of a moment’s surrender … costing not less than everything.” But his Christianity, with its royalism and Anglo-Catholicism, was a kind of seventeenth-century pastiche. His social outlook was limited and led him into snobbery (see Notes Towards a Definition of Culture). And his conversion liberated him in some ways and desiccated him in others.

At one time I investigated the Anglican Church. I attended a village church for some years. While I appreciated the hymns and the ritual, I could not join; there was nothing to join—no community of the church, no true social group, no force. The upper class tended to go to morning service and the lower class to evening service.

Like Eliot, they were pretending in a mock world, with—like him—some seventeenth-century pastiche as well as some Victorian pastiche dear to their own hearts.

After I had left Cambridge, there came to that university, as to others, the wave of Marxist thought characteristic of the thirties. Marxists deny God, but devout Communists—among whom were some of my friends—taught me something of faith: that faith must issue in energy, force, determination, organization. Faith is not content to leave things as they are, but wishes to change them for the better, both inside and outside oneself.

The quality of my friends’ faith may have been very good, but its object was deception. The Stalin trials, the Russo-German Pact of 1939, and the suppression of Hungary in 1956 were fatal blows to faith. Nothing was left but disillusion—or else self-deception—for idealistic Marxists. They found themselves in a wasteland; they knew the kind of bitter disappointment that Wordsworth experienced in the French Revolution. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”; but it was just being alive and young, the excitement of animal spirits, no more. History has only savage answers to those who do not believe it to be a process of incarnation.

In the fifties, I lived for seven years in Islamic countries in Persia and Pakistan. Islam resembles Mormonism and Judaism in legislating for the organization of the whole community. The original social function of polygamy in Islam—that of providing status for spinsters and widows—helps an outsider to understand, sympathize with, and ultimately, as a member, accept the historical and eternal function of polygamy in the Latter-day Saint Church.

But Allah is remote, arbitrary, and all spirit to the Muslims. His ways are not to be understood by man, but are accepted with resignation. That he could have a body is blasphemy. History is not a process of incarnation to the Mohammedan, good historians though some of them once were. And the drive has irretrievably gone out of Islam.

I have had some experience with other religions: Hinduism, with its admirable regard for the family but its vague superstitions and continued social prejudice; and Buddhism, which in its proper form is a matter of intense spiritual discipline, has no place for a personal God, and advocates the absorption of human personality into the infinite, not its intensification through eternity. Each world religion has fatal flaws; each has in it something that points us toward and prepares us for acceptance of our Church.

So I was ready for the truth when, in 1966, my second cousin—now my wife—stopped at my door in the course of a genealogical hunt, introduced herself, and within a day or so had borne her testimony. She and the ever-ready missionaries told me what I was prepared to hear, though I had heard none of it before.

I had my difficulties as I began to relate the gospel to the world around us. But the more I learned of the gospel, the more I realized that it was wholly true, whereas much learned explanation was partial and uncertain. Facts we must accept, and know that our faith is never ultimately incompatible with them; interpretations remain a matter of continued discussion—a good scientist will always agree, too, that science does not promulgate immutable laws, but presents temporary explanations. The immutable laws remain those revealed for governing conduct, not the transient explanations of physical fact.

But all difficulties of this kind are resolved by the determination to enter the Church and accept it as a whole—all of it. It belongs together, and conversion is a matter not of choosing what you like and ignoring the rest, but of wholehearted, whole-minded acceptance.

Once we have been converted and have laid down at Christ’s feet whatever talents and tools we may possess, we find ourselves able to take them up again and use them for the Church in his name and in the light of his countenance.

I know that God lives. I have always known it. But I now know that he has a body, parts, and passions, for we are made in his image, and we may become like him. He lives in and through history. His Son was incarnate man and has now the flesh and bone that we too shall inherit after the resurrection. This is profoundly satisfying dogma.

I know that the Church is true. Its social organization and utter indifference to class distinctions vouch for this at the superficial level. But this organization could not be maintained were it not for the urge behind, the religious drive. I do not believe with Jonathan Swift that religion is just a good means of keeping society in order.

I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. He speaks to me, a stylistician, in his own prose as a transparently sincere and matter-of-fact writer.

I know, therefore, that the Book of Mormon is an inspired translation and that the Doctrine and Covenants is revelation. They are quite different from Joseph Smith’s prose and significantly different from the Bible and from each other. They are unique. They could not have been invented by a man of Joseph Smith’s knowledge and training.

I know that there is a prophet upon the earth today, for there has to be succession and continuity. If Joseph Smith was a true prophet, then he had to be succeeded to maintain the revelation. As our prophet is sustained by our Father, so is he sustained by ourselves. Our Father blesses him, and through him the whole of the Church; and therefore we continue to accept and sustain him.

I believe in the work for the dead. The hearts of the fathers and the children may and must be turned to one another. The family goes back through history. It is not simply our nearest and dearest that are our concern, but our furthest and dearest. We want to learn as much as we can about them. I therefore believe in temple work. And only through regular temple work can a marriage be sanctified and become an eternal partnership on this earth.

I have come from the outside wilderness home. I carry with me throughout the day the sense of prayer. The whole world is sanctified unto the Most High, and “everything that lives is holy.”