I grew up as a Latter-day Saint in rural England, living on the margins of society both geographically and theologically. For me, this was a period of pleasant liminality. I have never known anything other than weekly worship with a Latter-day Saint congregation, combined with religious observance at home. It never seemed strange to me that we drove forty miles on a Sunday to attend our services, even though we lived next door to an Anglican church. It was clear, however, that this journey was more than just through space—I was also making a weekly pilgrimage into my Latter-day Saint world, a world I settled into very comfortably during those long drives. But this was a world hidden from my peers at school, at least until I had a conversion experience around my sixteenth birthday.
My older brother had gone off to serve a mission in Haiti a few months before, and we had just received a letter from him containing photographs from a recent baptism. I was in my mother’s room looking at the photos when a feeling of tender bliss came over me and I wept. With this feeling came a sure belief that the work my brother was doing was good and true. More importantly, however, this experience seemed to weld together my school world and my religious worlds. Shortly afterwards I joined the Christian Union, and began talking openly about my faith with my friends.
I had complete confidence in the intellectual coherence of my religion, and knew the scriptures and doctrine well enough to respond with confidence to both questions and accusations. A good friend also attended the Christian Union, despite being a confirmed socialist and an atheist. He took delight in stumping my Christian friends with some of the stock conundrums of his philosophy. When he tried his questions out on me he was surprised to find that I had answers to every one of them. We became closer friends and he often visited me at home. My mum asked him one day if he wanted to be taught by the missionaries, and to my surprise he said yes. He converted, and I baptized him shortly before I left home to serve for two years in the England Bristol Mission.
During my mission I became a passionate reader of religious books. I discovered FARMS and the works of Hugh Nibley, and developed an abiding interest in the ancient world. However, I spent most of my time reading the lives and sermons of the early LDS apostles and prophets such as Heber C. Kimball, Parley P. Pratt, Wilford Woodruff, John Taylor and Brigham Young. I found the idea of Zion and the gathering of Israel to be beautiful and compelling doctrines, and these ideas provided the conceptual framework for my missionary work, and prompted deep yearnings to gather with the saints.
My approach to other Christians also changed during my mission. I gradually came to realize that God was actively working with the hearts of all of his children, and that there was value in focusing on the common ground of the experience of religion, rather than the battle ground of LDS history and doctrine (where, even if you beat your opponent into submission, you were unlikely to make a friend, or be closer to having them feel the spirit of our faith and love). Towards the end of my mission I had many beautiful experiences listening to and talking about the experience of God in my life and the lives of other Christians. These sympathetic interactions set the approach to my future studies, just as the writings of Hugh Nibley suggested the direction.
After my mission I wanted to gather with the saints, and so applied to BYU to study Classics. However, before starting classes I felt prompted to return to England. There I studied in London for four years, tackling Hebrew, Sumerian, Jewish history, a little Egyptology, and some Greek before finally finding a home in Syriac studies. I also became a husband and a father. I then went the University of Oxford to take an MSt in Syriac Studies (aided by a Nibley Fellowship). My fourth child was born at the beginning of a two year stint in the ‘real world’ working as a paralegal for the New York law firm Davis, Polk and Wardwell (a wonderful experience). I was in the first year of my PhD course at the University of Birmingham when I was offered a job in the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts at Brigham Young University. Remarkably, BYU had found itself in need of someone with training in Syriac, bringing meaning and purpose to my studies. So, eight years after giving up my place at BYU I returned with my wife and four children to work there.
Most LDS study of ancient religious texts is an extension of Hugh Nibley’s search for the scattered fragments of a once pure revealed religion—one now restored in its fullness at the hands of Joseph Smith. The purpose of this brand of scholarship is largely apologetic and affirmative. Although I appreciate the value of this kind of work, I am temperamentally disposed to take a different approach to the lives, literature and thought of early Christians. Rather than mining the patristic literature for hints and tips that confirm my own faith, I am interested in what these Christians have to say, and how they understood and lived the Christian message. Nevertheless, I do feel an obligation as a Latter-day Saint scholar to participate in the grand project of gathering all truth to Zion, believing that all truth belongs to the grand restoration project of Joseph Smith.
I feel so comfortable with the coherence of my faith and my academic discipline that I think I am more surprised by people who question my motives than they are by the apparent oddness of an English Mormon from BYU studying Christianity as it flourished in the Middle East. To them, and to anyone else interested, I affirm my devotion to my own faith, as well as my genuine interest in and respect for the faith, thought and literature of Syriac Christians, both past and present.
Kristian Heal received a bachelor’s degree in Jewish history and Hebrew from University College, London, and a Master of Studies in Syriac studies from Oxford University. He took his Ph.D. in Theology from the University of Birmingham with a thesis on the figure of the Old Testament Patriarch Joseph in early Syriac literature. Kristian joined the staff of the Maxwell Institute as a research scholar in 2000. Since 2004 he has served the Director of the Center for the Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts. He also serves as a co-editor of the Library of the Christian East, published by BYU Press. Kristian researches and publishes in the field of Syriac studies. He was born and raised in Suffolk, England. He is married to Vicki-Bronwen, and they live in Provo with their five children. For more information go to: http://byu.academia.edu/KristianHeal.
Posted May 2010