Back to the Future

“Back to the Future,” New Era, Apr. 1992, 30

Back to the Future

Norwegians visit an Apostle’s birthplace and find it’s how you live, not where you live, that counts.

The ferry looks more like a cargo plane than a boat, its nose lifted like the beak of some enormous bird. But after the cars and pedestrians are loaded aboard and the engines rev to a monotonous drone, it’s clear this laboring whale was not made for flight. It churns its way slowly, deliberately, through the sea.

On the upper deck, the youth of the Trondheim First Branch, Norway Oslo Mission, gaze eagerly out at the horizon, where the gray water and the gray sky meet. They know that soon, along that line, an island will appear, a rocky, storm-lashed spot of land, the last piece of earth before Norway surrenders to the sea.

A Place of Meaning

The island, Frøya (say Freh-ya), is sparsely inhabited, home of fishing villages, salmon farms, and marine biology research stations. It is also the birthplace of an Apostle. Here, in 1872, John Andreas Widtsoe was born. Later, his widowed mother moved with her children to Trondheim and joined the Church. When John was 11, the family moved to Utah, where he became a great educator and served for 31 years as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve.

“The youth know a little bit about Elder Widtsoe,” says Branch President Arne Dahlø, who organized the trip. “Mostly they know he was somebody important, that he was born on Frøya and lived in Trondheim. But he’s part of our heritage as Norwegian Latter-day Saints. We live where he lived. We ought to know what he did.”

By the time the ferry docks, the light is fading. The youth and their leaders pile quickly into cars. They drive over rough, bumpy roads to the far end of the island, where President Dahlø, a university professor who often does research here, has arranged for two buildings in which the group can stay.

Around the Fire

On the rocky shore of an inlet, a young man yells, “Let’s get it started.” Soon a small flame grows bigger, the wood pops as it burns, and the sparks become dancers leaping through the night. The warmth of the flame takes the edge off the cool, salty air. It’s time for a “sausage roast,” the cooking of hotdogs over a campfire.

And like anybody around a campfire, the young people here sing, tell stories, and talk.

“We know a lot about Trondheim, the city where we live,” says Kjetil Bakkland, 13. “It used to be the capital of Norway. it has neat old buildings down by the river; it has a university and a cathedral. But Frøya, what’s it got? Mostly rocks, I think.”

The others laugh, but President Dahlø talks seriously for a minute. “We live in a wonderful city, it’s true,” he says. “But Frøya is a wonderful place, too.” And he talks about life in the villages, about flowers that grow among the rocks, about the incessant, pounding crash of the sea. “Elder Widtsoe knew about that,” he says. “He said you could hear the ocean in every room of his house, that it beat on his memory all through his life” (see In a Sunlit Land, Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1952, p. 1).

Storms and Life

Talk of the ocean and of storms invites comparisons with life and its storms. “I’ve been a member one year and one week today,” says Sonja Sivertsvik, 19. “I like it, but it’s hard to be a Mormon in Trondheim, because everyone says, ‘Oh, Mormons! You’re the ones with lots of wives!’ Or you get Christians who try to tell you you’re not Christian. There are lots of misconceptions about the Church, so to be a member here is not always popular.”

“But it’s not always what’s easy that’s best,” says Kristin Davik, the branch Young Women president. “You have to follow the deepest part of you, your conscience. You may meet hard times, but you have to be yourself.”

“All your friends won’t have the same standards you do,” says Lars-Petter M. Bedin, 15. “They’ll have other ideas about alcohol, smoking, chastity. But it’s really not a problem unless you make it a problem. I’m the only member in my family, but I’m happy to be in the Church. It’s one of the greatest things in my life.”

What they’re really talking about is growing, growing even when it’s difficult. The youth may not know it, but they’re talking about things Elder Widtsoe would understand. One of his educational specialties dealt with agriculture. He was an international authority on how to help things grow in a harsh climate.

A Journey in Time

The next morning dawns wet and gray, as it often does on Frøya. No matter. There’s much to do—first, a meeting with the mayor of one of the towns, then a visit to a monument erected in Elder Widtsoe’s honor, then a trip to the house where he was born and to a church built by his father.

It’s a morning of driving on unmarked roads, of hiking slippery hills, and of pleasant surprises—like finding the mayor already knows quite a bit about John A. Widtsoe, and that the local ship builder would love to have the youth visit his shop.

But mostly it’s a continuation of the journey of self-discovery. As President Dahlø tells some of the youth on top of the hill where the monument to Elder Widtsoe stands, this is like being in a time machine.

“You’re looking back,” he says, “and seeing the origins of a man who went on to do great things for the Church. He didn’t come from someplace famous. His father died when he was young. His mother learned about the Church when a member put some pamphlets inside shoes she was having repaired. But he loved God and he wanted to serve, and Heavenly Father provided a way.

“You can also look forward, and see the future of the Church in Norway,” President Dahlø continues. “And you all have a great part to play in that. It doesn’t matter where you come from or how hard you think things may be. What matters is whether or not you love the Lord, whether or not you want to serve. If you have the desire, God will provide the way.”

Good Things Grow Here

It is later in the afternoon now. The youth of the Trondheim First Branch are waiting, looking out to sea, hoping to catch a glimpse of the ferry. Soon it will appear on the line where the gray water and the gray sky meet. The ferry is coming to take them home. But even as they wait, even as they throw rocks in the water and look for sea urchins down by the pier, these young people seem a little bit different than they did before their journey to the island.

The lesson of this harsh land is that good things can grow here. That’s a lesson they’ll remember when they’re back in Trondheim, the next time the waves and winds of life try to beat them down. Here on Frøya, where they have come to look at the past, they have also glimpsed the future. It’s a future that, thanks to the gospel, can be bright indeed.

Photography by Richard M. Romney

He was born in an obscure fishing village on the last spot of land before Norway surrenders to the sea. But John A. Widtsoe became a great educator and Church leader, known throughout the world.

On a ferry ride to the past, youth saw a monument and visited the old Widtsoe home. But sharing testimonies pointed them toward the future. “Wherever you are, follow your conscience,” said Kristin Davik (above). “It will steer you right.”

Living in Trondheim (left) with his mother, John learned truths he would later share with others: “Follow David’s example. … Always be armed—with the sling of faith and the pebble of truth. … Error, like Goliath of old, falls headlong when struck by truth.”

No matter where you are, there’s something almost magic in a campfire. It makes you want to think, or sing, or just enjoy being together. “Friendships in the Church are the best thing,” one young man said. “The Church is one of the greatest things in my life.”

Always eager to teach the youth of the Church, Elder Widtsoe (shown with his daughter) counseled, “You may be few in number in a world filled with problems; … yet your voices must be heard. … If you speak for truth … victory will be yours.”