I was born a Mormon boy and during my nearly eight decades of life have never seen any reason not to die a Mormon man. I was also a farm boy, raised on an irrigated sugar beet and alfalfa hay farm in the small Penrose valley in northwest Wyoming, midway between the towns of Lovell and Powell. I was a child of the Great Depression, born in 1932, and my life was forever tinged, touched, and shaped by the influences of that troubled decade as I became increasingly aware over my lifetime of the desperation and perseverance that characterized the lives of my parents in struggling to survive those dark years of privation. And then I was a child born of a pioneer heritage, as my mother’s forebears and, later, my wife’s forebears were numbered among those courageous persons and families who gave up everything they had, including their families, to make the treacherous journeys from their home countries to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake and then to the sagebrush covered deserts waiting to be converted into farmland in northwest Wyoming.
The foundations of my faith in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints originate in those early life experiences. A one-room church meetinghouse was built in our little valley from lumber which came from a logjam on the Shoshone River near our home. My grandfather grew up in Scipio, Utah, and learned to drive mule trains to the gold camps in Nevada, and then was road foreman on many of the early roads in Yellowstone Park. He was branch president, and then bishop, of the Penrose Branch and then Penrose Ward for thirteen years. He had a third grade education, but became self-educated over the course of his life. One summer, when I was in college, grandpa asked me what I was reading. I told him I had just finished a graduate course in the diplomatic history of the U.S. He asked if he could borrow the book. I gave it to him and the next time I saw him he said, “Well they got most of it right, but not everything.”
As a boy, I came under his strong influence as I was privileged to work with him many long days on the farm. He talked continuously about his faith, about hard work, about Teddy Roosevelt, and about The Little Engine that Could. He was a scripture scholar, and could debate ministers under the table. Thus, without really realizing what was happening because of my youth, my own character, beliefs, and future were being shaped while we were setting cottonwood fenceposts, hauling hay, stretching fence, cleaning ditches, and driving a team of horses. At the time, I always wondered why we had to haul the biggest cottonwood post we could find a half mile to the head of the canal; why not make a smaller one do? Doing less than the best was never his way, as he used his limited resources to shape his farmstead into one of the most efficient farmsteads possible, though constructed of poles, gumbo soil roofs, and cast off slabs and lumber.
My dad had only a ninth grade education, though he was always a reader. He was gone from home seeking work a good deal of the time during the first ten of the sixteen years I spent at home. From him I learned the lessons of perseverance and hard work, and the dream to be creative and follow in his footsteps as a consummate artist who could fashion intricate designs into inlaid pictures (marquetry). I never made the leap to master marquetry, but I try hard to capture nature in all its beauty through photography and to use words to write about life and the world we live in. I learned only late in life, as I studied the financial account books of those early years of my life, just how tenuous economic survival was for my parents, and came to appreciate even more my dad’s capacity for hard work and his willingness to sacrifice all of his energy and limited resources for the benefit of his family.
My mother was a relatively quiet but unmistakably strong and undeviating force in our lives. As a young woman, she was one of the few girls in that area ever to venture as far as the University of Wyoming, over four hundred miles to the south, where she completed two years of school, became an elementary school teacher, and then raised her family. After her children were raised, she persevered once more and completed her bachelor’s degree at the age of 57, and taught elementary school until she retired. Her influence as a teacher and moral compass in our lives was subtle, but never wavering.
I spend this time on my heritage because the combined themes of pioneering, enduring under the most difficult of circumstances, hard work, doing the best that you can, and education became the guiding lights that influenced my life. I grew up thinking that if you worked hard enough, and learned enough, and had some sense of direction in your life, you could do about anything that you tried to do.
It was with this sense of feeling that I was learning something about life and the world I lived in that I spent the summer of my fourteenth year on a quest for learning. First of all, I figured that if the Prophet Joseph Smith could accomplish so much as a young farm boy, the least I could do was to read the Book of Mormon. So I did, from cover to cover, in between loads of hay and rows of sugar beets. So then, the question was, what about this story the young boy told about personages who appeared to him in a grove of trees? And did Joseph really see the Father and His Son Jesus Christ? And how could this untutored young farm boy have learned enough to compile the Book of Mormon without some extraordinary intervention of divinity? I liked the fact that Joseph Smith was a farm boy, that at the same age I then was, he had experienced this incredible light and these personages from the heavens that ultimately would change and influence the lives of millions of people. I have read the Book of Mormon many times since, but never once could I begin to recapture my feelings of wonder and transformation that occurred on that first passage through the pages of this book.
Forever after, I marveled at how these humble but profound beginnings would lead people from the far corners of the earth to forsake families after being forsaken by them, to give up all worldly resources and risk death and privation and persecution to answer and to give credibility to the testimonies of their heart and soul. I thought so many times why would church leaders like my grandfather and church members like my family feel that their testimonies were so powerful that they were willing to sacrifice everything to be faithful members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? What motivated my grandfather, ill with malaria and ordered by his mission president in Florida to go home during the Spanish-American War, to tell his mission president that “if I go home, I will go home in a box”?
After reading the Book of Mormon that summer, I then read The Articles of Faith, by James E. Talmage, in order to try to make sure that I could understand enough to ensure that I had a firm belief in the truth of what I had been studying. My summer readings concluded with A Voice of Warning, by Parley P. Pratt, a small book that I borrowed permanently from the Penrose Ward church library. I carried the book around in my jeans pocket as I drove tractor, drove team, hauled hay, and did chores during my fourteenth summer, until it became bent in the middle and sweat stained. I have that book still today.
For me, after that summer, being a Mormon came down simply to believing the story of the boy in the grove of trees and then believing the story of the young man with the book and everything that went with these two stories. That was it: a boy in a grove of trees who saw a pillar of light with the Father and the Son and was given some instructions, and a young man with a book. Either Joseph Smith saw the vision he said he saw in the forest, and translated the Book of Mormon in the way that he said he did, or he didn’t. My experience that summer convinced me that everything happened just the way Joseph said it happened.
I have since likened my testimony to the rings in a cross section of a tree trunk. I didn’t think that my testimony was ever a fixed entity, but that it began in unformed pieces and then grew, became refined, became fine-tuned over my life. But the core of the tree, the foundation of everything else, was the boy and the grove and the young man and the book.
Church for me as a youth meant attending at the Powell WY Oddfellows Hall, a small white stucco building that is still standing. Our bishopric was a weathered trio of hard-scrabble sugar beet farmers with limited educations. We boys liked to march around the room and salute the picture of General McArthur hanging on the wall during WWII. But I remember the bishop telling me, “Now Dewite,” as he called me, “I want you to remember about your tithing.” It was there that I advanced from deacon to teacher to priest. It was there that I memorized and recited the testimonies of the three witnesses and again of the eight witnesses. It was there that I first passed the sacrament and gave numerous two and one half minute talks. No frills that are evident in a modern LDS meetinghouse were necessary to augment my faith. I grew up without seminary and without MIA, which certainly would have been welcome. My mission age came during that window of time when the Korean War prevented LDS boys from being sent on missions. But my faith was nurtured by some hard working farmers who cleaned up on Saturday nights and their families and by a few town people who met to worship in a building in which we had to sweep up cigarette butts before church. I was one of three LDS students in my high school graduating class in 1949.
Before I left home just after my seventeenth birthday, I received my patriarchal blessing. The main sentence in that blessing that has stuck with me all my life was the admonition to always “let my sermons of precept match the testimony of my lips.” Since then, I have always thought that the eloquence of verbal and written testimonies can be influential but, perhaps, our testimonies of deeds, of actions, must match those testimonies or they are meaningless. And sometimes I watched as wordless deeds and actions exemplifying works of faith and testimony spoke eloquent messages about the true meaning of testimony.
The next step in my testimony building (the next ring in my tree) came from four years of attending the LDS Institute of Religion at the University of Wyoming. There I found fellowship with many young people like myself who received not a farthing from home and were working nights and days and attending class in between to get through college. Out of that hard-scrabble group of Mormon kids came Ph.D.s, physicians, dentists, teachers, ranchers, professors, and numerous other professional careers. Thus the question: From whence did this passionate search for knowledge and advancement come, when so many came from homes with little education and sometimes even little encouragement to attend college? There were, of course, guardian angels along the way. Teachers who saw our potential and told us what we could and should become. Parents who never gave up on us even though they couldn’t help us financially. An LDS Institute director and a ward bishop who took us under their wings. Oh, yes, and then there was a little blonde Mormon girl with strong beliefs and a clear definition of what her life was to become. And, as a result, my life was never the same thereafter.
So we have a foundation to our testimonies, but then the testimony grows in numerous and, sometimes, unpredictable ways: a branch here, a sprout there, an insight and flash of light somewhere else. But these changes were always additions to, not detractions from, the original core of beliefs at the center of our religious universe.
A strong enough foundation existed so that I proceeded to embark on what seemingly would have been an impossible journey when viewed through a forward look at what might happen in my life. A master’s degree from Montana State, teaching large sections of college students at the age of twenty-one (soon to be twenty-two), admission to the doctoral program in economics at the University of Michigan at the age of twenty-four. I’ll never forget my experience of first setting foot on the Michigan campus, walking past the iconic carillon tower, and asking myself what a poor Mormon boy like me was doing in this great institution, with a wife and two children, one of whom was a two-week old baby, a tiny little assistantship and, as of that day, no place to live. Who said I could do this? Well, not directly, but indirectly, my grandfather, my dad, my mom, my wife, my boyhood bishop who wanted to be sure I paid my tithing, and my own inward sense that overpowered everything, that told me that what I was doing was right, and that I could do it.
From there, I was one of only half of our starting Ph.D. class to pass prelims and then complete my degree, passing German by 1/6 of a point—surely a gift from somewhere. My forty-five-year career in teaching and research led me to Penn State, back home to the University of Wyoming, to Colorado State University and, finally, to Brigham Young University. I had a brief three-year stint as director of research for the Wyoming Legislature, and a less-than-one-year appointment as fiscal economist in the Office of Tax Analysis at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. My career began as a hybrid economist/agricultural economist during the first part of my career, so the bulk of my early research was focused on natural resources, travel market analysis, transportation policy, inland waterways, outdoor recreation, and similar areas. My career then centered more on being a teacher rather than becoming a heavily-published scholar. My life was books, classes, and students, perhaps over 20,000 of them during my decades of teaching. I tried to teach by example more than words.
Out of all of these years, all of these decades of writing and giving lectures, teaching, reading, interacting with students and colleagues, I never found a reason to doubt the core of my beliefs. During my years out in the “mission field,” as we used to say in days of yore, the usual questions and occasional attempts to disparage occurred. But, for the most part, my minority status as a Mormon was never an issue. I have my doubts that I really could be classed as a scholar in the conventional sense of one who has written and published numerous books and monographs and has become a legend in his or her field. I’m not sure why my life centered largely on becoming a teacher, and focusing on heavy teaching schedules, often taking on extra class sections just because I liked to do it and thought the class needed to be taught. But I think I gravitated to what I did best, and my aim was to make a difference in students’ lives.
The rings in my tree stump cross section grew outward as I taught Gospel Doctrine classes for over twenty years and high priests classes for at least fifteen years. I served on a high council and a district council, and in a bishopric. I survived a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis in my forties, and remember that, the first Sunday that I went back to church after my diagnosis, we were singing the words “When dark clouds of trouble hang o’er us, and threaten our peace to destroy, there is hope shining brightly before us, and we know that deliverance is nigh.” Those words became my beacon, my light, as I was miraculously spared further attacks of that debilitating disease.
Which brings me to my current status in life. At seventy-eight, I find reassurance and confirmation in my boyhood beliefs all around me. I find this reassurance among old people who support and help each other through their ultimate and sometimes final trials. I find confirmation in the service of people like my sister who, a Relief Society president, works with more than twenty women over eighty years old who all need transportation and assistance, when she herself is far from being young and in ideal health. I see the blessings of my wife’s child-rearing skills as I see my children become bishops and Relief Society president and hold many other positions of church leadership. I think back to that first day at Michigan, wondering what a sugar beet farmer from Penrose, Wyoming, was doing at this famous institution and how I ever thought I had what it would take to complete a Ph.D. there. I watch people around me share the light of their lives as they give to others in remarkable and unselfish service both through the church and through the community. I thought of testimony and compassionate service the day my wife sent me up to the church with a casserole for a funeral dinner for someone not even in our congregation and whom no one knew, and watched as an army of women came from cars bearing food. I think of my three sons, who served in three of the most difficult missions in the world and may never have seen a baptism but whose exemplary lives to this day are testimonies of the worth of what they were called to do. I think of my grandchildren, who postpone college careers to go to the far corners of the country and of the world because they have an inward sense of direction that they are going where they are being led. Where did all of these manifestations and accomplishments and this ability to withstand trials come from? I think we all know the answers, though some of us are less articulate in expressing them than others. It all started with a boy who saw a light and two personages in a grove, and then, through divine intervention, gave us a book that would forever give us a testimony and a foundation of belief in God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost—a testimony that would never leave us.
Dwight M. Blood (Ph.D., University of Michigan) is retired from teaching economics and management at Brigham Young University.
Posted November 2010