I am a sixth-generation Latter-day Saint; Mormonism is practically part of my DNA. Many of my ancestors were personally acquainted with Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, and wholeheartedly embraced his teachings, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. As I was growing up, Mormonism required no sacrifice of me. Instead, it provided a warm and safe cocoon; its doctrine of eternal families endowed my relationship with my siblings, parents, and grandparents with cosmic significance. I was mentored and nurtured by my parents and by a rich array of congregants who taught my Sunday School and weekday religion classes and served as my scoutmasters and priesthood advisors. Most shared at least an hour of their time each week with me, teaching me scriptures and hymns, sharing faith-promoting stories, taking me on youth outings and campouts, and helping me earn Boy Scout merit badges. They contributed over one-tenth of their income in tithes and offerings to the Church and devoted Sundays and even some weeknights to church work. Many had devoted two years of their lives to missionary service at their own expense. They assured me that they knew Joseph Smith was a prophet of God who had restored Christ’s true church to the earth. Because they sacrificed so much for the Church, I knew that their beliefs were sincere and deeply rooted and found it easy to believe them.
When I was a teenager, my parents and church teachers encouraged me to pray, fast, study, and obtain my own spiritual witness of Jesus Christ and His teachings, Joseph Smith’s prophetic calling, the Book of Mormon, and the role of living prophets. Most people did not believe in Mormonism, they reminded me, and I would need my own experiences to sustain my faith in times of opposition and adversity. Through many small sacred experiences involving feelings and thoughts as I prayed and studied I came to feel that the church was “true” and that I should share that knowledge as a missionary with others. My knowledge developed largely as a result of quiet impressions, although on one occasion I enjoyed a brief but undeniable epiphany as I sat atop the rim of Bryce Canyon in southern Utah and watched the sun rise.
Between the ages of nineteen and twenty-one, I served as a Mormon missionary in French Polynesia and frequently witnessed to others that Mormonism was “true.” My knowledge that the church was “true” entailed in part a conviction that God spoke through Joseph Smith and through living, modern prophets and that the Book of Mormon as scripture contained the word of God. My witness also drew strength from the happiness and emotional healing that came into the lives of those I taught who embraced Mormonism. As a teenager and undergraduate student, I tended to think of God’s communication with prophets as direct and unambiguous, as if the prophet could pick up a telephone and get God on the line. I perceived the Book of Mormon as God’s language as well as His doctrine.
Roughly three decades have elapsed since my stint as a missionary. Following my mission, I returned home, received my bachelor’s degree, married, and devoted eight years to graduate studies in American history. My worldview changed in the process, allowing me to perceive and evaluate my Mormonism and spiritual experiences in broader contexts. Although I remained proud of my religious heritage, my certitude about being a member of God’s true church receded. But as I toyed with disbelief, the warm memory of undeniable spiritual experiences in my past pulled me back, and I rediscovered God’s tender mercies.
As I approach my fiftieth birthday, I know the church is “true” with at least as much conviction as I had as a young missionary, but in a more nuanced and complex way. Mortals—even prophets—see through a glass darkly, as the apostle Paul taught. We struggle to know God’s mind and will; distinguishing it from our own desires, emotions, and thoughts is exceptionally difficult. God directs His church through prophets and revelation, but revelation is relayed through imperfect human beings, and it is conveyed in the parlance of the recipient. Thus I am not surprised to find a mixture of sublime, ordinary, and awkward language in Joseph Smith’s revelations, other prophets’ teachings, the Book of Mormon, or other sacred texts. Nor am I surprised to find that prophets and apostles have disagreed with each other at times, even on such foundational doctrinal matters as the nature of God, or that their prognostications have not always materialized exactly as they expected they would. I am disappointed but not disillusioned by the failure of Mormons historically and today, myself included, to always live up to Christianity’s high ideals.
Despite its inescapably human elements and cultural baggage, Mormonism remains my connection to God. I have sensed supernatural power in its rites, have been physically and emotionally lifted and healed by the profound power of its priesthood ordinances, have keenly sensed God’s love and guidance while worshipping in its temples, have been edified by reading its expanded canon of scriptures, and have thrilled at the majestic prospect of an eternal destiny that its doctrine encompasses. I am a better person because of Mormonism and my life is more fulfilling because of my association with the Latter-day Saints. These are some of the pivotal experiences that undergird my witness that I belong to the “true” church of Jesus Christ.
Brian Q. Cannon (Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Madison) is professor of history at Brigham Young University and director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies. He serves on the editorial board of BYU Studies and as president of the Agricultural History Society. He is the author of two books and over two dozen scholarly articles. He has received awards for his research and writing from the Mormon History Association, the Western History Association, the Agricultural History Society and the Society for History in the Federal Government. He and his wife Anna Lea are the parents of five children.
Posted September 2011