Those who have accepted our Lord and his message know well that it is an all-encompassing endeavor, embracing all aspects of our lives. While it inevitably brings sacrifices, it also always gives more than it ever takes away from our lives. In many ways, despite my familiarity with Christian doctrine from my earliest days, I was the most unlikely of converts to Christianity and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This is the story of my conversion.
I come from a family of academics, my father having received his doctorate from Berkeley and my mother hers from Stanford. While both taught at prestigious universities, before long my father decided to yield to his innate adventurous nature and embarked on the life of an entrepreneur. Due to the erratic and demanding nature of his work, my father was almost constantly absent from the home. In marked contrast, my mother remained in academia for many years as a researcher at the nation’s foremost medical school, the University of California at San Francisco. Her job as a research scientist afforded her a certain flexibility, something that allowed her the opportunity to work from home often and, even when duty did call, she was never absent from the dinner table each night.
While the conversation at the dinner table was always entertaining, it was during the discussions that followed that my greatest instruction occurred. We would start by talking about our respective days, me talking about school, and once I’d finished, my mom would start telling me about her and others’ research projects at “the Hill” in San Francisco. While listening to your mother’s day at work may sound boring to most, I can assure you it was something that I looked forward to every day. Perhaps it was my mom’s formal education in educational psychology or her earlier years as a teacher, but she always presented her work in a way not only understandable to me, but also fascinating. A testament to the impact of her words is my ability to recall the specifics of those conversations to this very day, over thirty years later.
Due to her innate mathematical gifts and uncanny ability to write grants that inevitably received funding, she was invited to be a member of many cross-disciplinary groups at this university. This involvement in the varied projects presented in my mind the very ideal of a research institution as an endless source of wonder, something that I strive to reproduce in my own research labs today so many years later.
In those conversations I heard things about the physiological and psychological effects of common drugs such as alcohol, tobacco, and coffee as well as other less mainstream stimulants and depressants. It was from these conversations that I made a vow to myself that I would never take any drug or stimulant other than tea, something that I drank with my mother every morning. It is important to understand that I came to these conclusions despite the fact that both my mother and father drank alcohol socially and my father drank coffee and smoked cigars prodigiously.
We spoke about food during our talks also, something that we had a chance to put into practice every weekend when my mom and I worked together in the kitchen. Those were the early days of the “foodie” movement and no place were its effects felt stronger than in Northern California. The research that my mom told me about emphasized that we should get most of our calories from whole grains and fresh vegetables, and while meat is an excellent sources of protein, we should eat it in moderation in our diets. I also learned that modern technological processes used in the food industry were robbing our food of its proper structure and producing nutritionally deficient substances such as refined flour and sugar. My mom explained that these substances were causing physical responses that would be extremely negative to human health in the long run with resultant maladies such as diabetes and obesity.
Those discussions of the human body were regularly punctuated with topics of human reproduction and sexuality. My mother spoke to me as frankly as she could in clinical terms about subjects that despite my best efforts I was unable to fully grasp. Sometimes these discussions included topics like homosexuality and promiscuity. These subjects were of particular impact, with my mom focusing on the effects of the environment and genetics and even the psychological effects of promiscuous lifestyles. This conversation wouldn’t have been complete without a discussion of venereal diseases. While AIDS had not yet reared its ugly head, my mother spoke about the clinical symptoms of other “lesser” venereal diseases so that I understood clearly what a dangerous lottery it was having sexual relations outside the bonds of a dedicated monogamous relationship.
Nothing was off limits in these discussions, including religious topics. My mother had always been a spiritual woman and this had led her to a “study group” at the medical center that studied religion and its interaction with medicine, the human body and mind. In their group, they discussed matters as diverse as meditation, prayer, and spiritual healing. In the accounts of these discussions, I heard about the psychological effects of regular prayer and meditation and how one could reach altered states beneficial to the human body. In addition to this, she told me about the positive effects of regular rituals and how they produced a calming effect on the body and mind. Possibly strangest to me was the discussion we had about religious healing and the lack of understanding of the phenomenon. My mother described to me that while most try to attribute religious healing solely to psychosomatic effects, that there might indeed be something more to these “miraculous healings.”
As diverse and interesting as these discussions were, it was only the prelude to what was most important to me, our nightly reading of stories, the material for which was inevitably culled from the world’s past and present religions. I loved biblical stories, particularly the ones about my namesake, Joshua, but it soon became apparent to both me and my mom that I enjoyed the more “colorful” myths more, particularly those of Hercules, Jason, and Odysseus. Before long, Bullfinch’s Mythology had become my “bible,” something I demanded every night. As I grew older and my mom stopped reading to me, I never stopped reading myths and religious stories. In my own readings, I began to delve ever deeper into the religion section of our rather large personal library, devouring the books. As I became more serious I started with reading the reference series “Man, Myth and Magic” and then worked my way through the primary texts of the world’s great religions. By the time I was twelve, the Koran, the Ramayana, and even Kabalistic works were as familiar to me as the Christian New Testament. Perhaps even more important than the familiarity of the texts, was my belief that they were all equally true and false, simple manifestations of man’s way of dealing with the uncertainty of this life.
While I had always understood the practical benefits of possessing a religion, I had never chosen to join one. My parents, of different religious backgrounds, had determined that their children would decide what path, if any, they would follow and as a result I had made a choice to study all, but follow none. This is not saying that I did not attend religious services, something that I frequently did. Indeed, by the time I was fourteen I had attended countless Roman Catholic and Episcopalian masses, an occasional Russian Orthodox funeral and service, Lutheran and Methodist services and Sunday school classes, and even an occasional Southern Baptist meeting. I did all this without ever having a desire to partake in their sacraments or join in their communities. In addition to all of these Christian activities, I had attended numerous Shabbats at Jewish friends’ homes and celebrated numerous Bar Mitzvahs.
It was in these latter cases that I had the closest feeling of desire for my own religion, not due to the numerous gifts my friends received, but more due to the “Hebrew study” they all had to attend before their big day. Simply stated, I desired the training and knowledge that came with Judaism and the inevitable rite of manhood. These desires were tempered by the knowledge that, while according to Rabbinic law my father was considered a Jew, I clearly was not as I was the son of a Gentile woman. It is important to realize that while I attended frequent religious services, I was never looking for something. In fact, in stark contrast I was always critical, often brutally so, of any Christian service I attended in my commentaries afterwards. By the time I was fourteen I believed myself familiar enough with Christian practice that I was already planning on broadening my experience once I could drive. My goal was to start attending Reform Jewish synagogues, Sunni Islamic mosques, and Sikh temples, with Islam and Sikhism in particular having strong and romantic appeals to me.
It was in this time when I felt myself well enough versed in Christianity that it had lost all wonder to me that I found myself attending a Sunday morning service with my mother at a local Episcopalian Church. While only fourteen, I had attended countless such services in my life due to it being my mother’s religion. As we left the service and my mother and I spoke about the sermon, I was my typical self in being extremely aggressive in my condemnation of the priest and his topic, one that had centered on political issues. I said I clearly did not believe that such a thing was appropriate in the United States where we prized our separation of Church and state. So many had lost their lives to secure this right, I considered his sermon a blasphemy to their memory. As I continued on in my tirade, my brother interrupted our conversation with the non sequitur of “I want to see what the Mormons do.” Bewildered at his comment, our conversation ceased, and upon further questioning it was revealed that my brother’s sudden curiosity arose from a Mormon girl he had met in high school in whom it was obvious he had more than a casual interest. Humoring him, my mom made a call when we arrived home and soon we were on the way to my first Mormon sacrament meeting.
We entered the building and were greeted by two friendly middle-aged women who eventually became lifelong family friends. Sitting down, I remember very little except that I was taken aback by the simple and sincere sacrament ordinance, the austere yet pleasing chapel, and the overall tone of the service, something I’d never experienced before. Not as solemn as the Catholic, Episcopalian, or Russian Orthodox, but somehow more appropriately reverential than the Methodist or Southern Baptist. When the service ended we left the building and, as we traveled home in my mom’s car, she turned to me and asked my opinion, obviously expecting my typical trenchant criticism. As I sat quietly thinking, all I could muster was “The closing prayer was too long.” While my brother spoke positively, I sat quietly and my mom and my brother talked about returning the next week.
After the meeting the next week, the two women we had met the first week introduced us to two young men who they said were “missionaries.” I smiled to myself as I looked at the fresh-faced youths barely capable of attending college who were “missionaries.” My father had come with us this time and it was somewhat amusing for me as the young men fumbled over their invitation to come to visit us in our home so we could learn more about their Church. My dad was a man who was not only imposing, but also intimidating when he so desired, and he was obviously making no efforts to ease the young men’s discomfort. A few days later, the couple showed up at our door for our appointed meeting. I had many things to do that day, and as I sat and listened to their message more out of politeness than sincere interest, my mind drifted to what else I needed to be doing right then, including preparing my science fair experiment.
My experiment had generated significant interest as I had swept the county of every prize from the twelfth grade down. I had already received one job offer to be a lab assistant from it and I knew if I could just pull off the same feat at state, my future in research was almost assured. A friend had accepted early college admittance due largely to his computer science project and I hoped to follow in his footsteps. Lost in thought, I was snapped out of my daydream by one of the missionaries telling a familiar, yet somehow fantastic, story.
He spoke of a young boy my own age, Joseph Smith, who wanted to know which of all the religions was true and retreated to a forest, and knelt and prayed. As I listened to the story, it sounded familiar to me, having a flavor of Sikhism and Islam, yet it somehow became more real to me than anything else I had ever heard before. Rapt in attention, I was not prepared for what came next. I was told that two glorious beings appeared to the young man who, the missionaries explained, were God and Jesus Christ. I remember thinking “What? Aren’t they the same person in Christianity?” While I had studied the Athanasian Creed in Catholic school, I had never understood it. This was something my teacher, Sister Lucia, told me was common, in that the creed was true but incomprehensible to man. What these missionaries said was different, somehow almost too easy to understand. It was not an angelic visit like that of Muhammad or a spiritual one like that to Guru Nanak, but something tangible and direct.
As I sat puzzling over what was in my mind a clear contradiction of principles I had been taught to associate with core Christian and even traditional monotheistic principles, I realized that this conception was something not repugnant to me, but just unexpected. As I contemplated this new idea, I was shocked by what came next. Finishing his explanation, the elder said “and I know this is true.” This was simply too much! He was crazy or lying—how could anyone know such a thing?
As I sat thinking of the patent absurdity of the statement, I must have betrayed an element of my disbelief because, after a pause of a couple of seconds, the missionary looked me right in the eyes and said, “What do you think about this?” He could have asked anyone, but he asked me and politeness dictated that I not tell him that I thought he was crazy or lying, so I simply said, “I don’t know.” Pouncing on my response, he said, “Would you like to know?” To me this was a rhetorical question of sorts, so I played along and said “sure.”
What followed was a short description of the proper form for prayer and the gift of a blue-covered copy of the Book of Mormon after a description of the book. I had heard vaguely of this book in the past and was more than willing to read the Mormons’ fantastic account of their implausible myths. I can’t recall if the missionaries explained what I was specifically supposed to read, but when I eventually began the next day, I simply started from the beginning. I sat in my room engrossed, not stopping until I had read over ninety pages. I had been pleasantly surprised by the clear narrative in the beginning, but soon became mired in pages that faithfully reproduced large portions of the Bible’s book of Isaiah, something that, while I was familiar with it, had remained as obscure to me in the Book of Mormon as it was when I read it in the Bible.
It was then, alone in my room and mired in the Isaiah chapters in 2 Nephi, that I made a decision that to this day I cannot fully explain—I accepted the challenge to pray about the Book of Mormon, specifically asking if it was a book from God and if Joseph Smith were a prophet. I wasn’t even sure that I believed in God, but then and there I knelt down and prayed to a being that I hoped existed and asked if this book was from him and if this man Joseph Smith were his prophet. No sooner had the words come out of my mouth than a feeling of calmness overcame me unlike any I had ever felt in my life. It was as if I were embraced by a warm and loving hold that I wanted to never end. I knew that the Book of Mormon was a true book of scripture and that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, a being that I now knew existed as well as His divine son Jesus Christ. That was over twenty-five years ago, and I remember it as if it were yesterday. While I have learned much more and grown in many ways, that moment remains to this day the bedrock upon which my testimony is founded and the seminal moment in my life.
As I rose from the floor, I walked immediately to the kitchen where my mom was drying dishes. As she turned to me I said, “Mom, I want to become a Mormon.” As her eyes widened, she almost dropped the dish in her hands and simply said “O.K.” Shocked into submission by her skeptical son’s request, she not only acquiesced but also did so when my older brother decided to join me in the waters of baptism. Initially trying to disprove the Church and save her sons from error, my mother eventually also decided to join the Church, an event that I leave for her to tell.
During the rest of the course of the discussions the missionaries were in particular concerned with answering my questions, feeling that I was the key to the family’s conversion. Interestingly, my first question after setting a baptism date could not be answered to my satisfaction and the missionaries soon learned that my desire to be baptized had nothing to do with them being able to answer any questions that I posed. As I said then, “Then I guess I’ll have to find out the answer myself.” Since then I have long discovered the answers to those first questions, but in the process I have also uncovered countless other questions, many of which I could not even anticipate when I first joined the Church. In those years it has become abundantly obvious to me that a testimony is not about having the answer to all questions, but only about one. Once that answer is received, it is simply part of the process of our individual growth in this life to find the answers about the other questions ourselves with help that God inevitably gives us.
Possibly the most interesting part of the missionary discussions to me was the part about the Word of Wisdom and the law of chastity. When the missionaries explained these principles, they again turned to me and said, “What do you think?” My response was simply that I thought it was great and was excited about it. A bit baffled, the missionaries asked me why I thought this. My reply was quick and to the point, “Because now you are giving me a religious reason to do what I was going to do for the rest of my life anyway.” They then followed up their question asking about inevitable peer pressure to compromise my values, to which I said, “No one will challenge my religion. If they do, I will challenge them as Americans. Nothing is more to the heart of being an American than freedom of religion and respecting other’s choices.” Smiling, we went on. I was baptized only a few weeks later.
Looking back on that decision made in my bedroom so many years ago, it has changed my life in too many ways to count. It has given me strength to persist when rationality would have dictated otherwise and it has likewise brought richness and blessings into my life I never could have imagined. In later years I served a mission to Rome, Italy, and saw many wonderful people make the same decision I did, and I consider it to this day one of the greatest honors of my life that I could assist them in some small way.
When I met my wife years later at a great research institution, she was like I was as a young boy, a critical thinker without a religion. I immediately recognized her goodness and was drawn to her. As we dated, I told her of my religion, to which she responded, “Don’t hold your breath about me joining your Church!” I told her I loved her all the same, would marry her regardless of her decision, but if she were planning on marrying me, she simply had to know what I knew to be true and never disparage or disrespect my beliefs, my religion, or my God. She agreed and we proceeded with our courtship.
Within a few months of that conversation my future wife called the missionaries on her own and started the missionary discussions without me present. She likewise turned to God in prayer and also made a decision alone in her bedroom to become a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but that is her story and one in which I am only tangentially a part. We have since married in the Holy Temple for time and all eternity and have had three beautiful daughters born to us. I simply cannot imagine my life, my marriage, or my family without the richness that the Gospel of Jesus Christ brings to it.
The Book of Mormon is not only a divine book given to man from God, but it is also the single most powerful book on the face of the earth. It has the power to change lives because it is the gate through which we enter into knowledge of the sweetness of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I did not believe in Jesus Christ and was agnostic about God before I had read the Book of Mormon and accepted its challenge, but by reading it I came to a knowledge that cannot be denied the rest of my life. Ultimately my testimony is built upon the foundation of Jesus Christ and his work for all of mankind and our Heavenly Father’s love for all his children. This knowledge and sweetness, the greatest gift I have received in my life, came to me through the pages of the Book of Mormon and a simple prayer.
James Joshua Claus is the Managing Partner of Rand Labs, an applied research company specializing in fields of software development, applied mechanical technology, and biochemical research. Prior to Rand Labs, Dr. Claus was a Managing and Founding Partner of two hedge funds located in London and San Francisco, before which time he worked for the investment arms of Duetsche Bank and Barclays Bank. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business and has taught at the University of California at Berkeley.
Posted May 2010