How is it that I, trained in the academic profession at one of the finest graduate schools in the country, turned out to be a believer rather than a nonbeliever? Among some academicians there is the notion that scholars are supposed to be religious skeptics, even cynics. But there is an odd phenomenon in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The more educated a Latter-day Saint is, the more likely he or she is to be active and committed in the faith.
A few years ago, at an international literature seminar, the subject of religion came up in a late-night conversation I shared with several colleagues. We sat out on the deck of a large conference lodge, gabbing, gazing at the night sky, listening to crickets, and enjoying each other’s company. One of the women in the group turned to me and said, “You’re a Mormon, aren’t you?” And I answered, “Yep, I’m a believer.” She seemed surprised that I would say openly, without qualifications, “I’m a believer,” and she confessed that she was deeply touched by my statement. “Most people don’t say that and mean it in quite the way I sense that you do,” she said. “Especially not scholars.” Then I pointed out that in the Church, I was the norm. I’m educated; I believe.
Another person spoke up and asked why the Church kept growing and thriving when it had so many “rules.” I laughed and replied that maybe it thrived because it had a lot of rules, because it wasn’t especially easy to be an active Latter-day Saint. “Don’t most if us grow to love the things for which we sacrifice?” I asked. “Don’t we come to value something that requires more of us than a warm body in a pew once a week, or once in a while? And the more we give, the more we devote our energies and resources to an institution or a cause or a person, the more it, or that person, becomes a part of us and precious to us. Any parent should know that.”
The day after that conversation on the deck, the woman who had seemed touched by my comment approached me again, “I still can’t get over it,” she said, “that you would say you were a believer right out loud—at an academic conference, no less.” She paused, then added, “I’m glad you did. It’s given me a lot to think about.” What I didn’t explain, but what she probably understood, was what I meant by describing myself as a “believer.”
Perhaps I should have said that I believe in a Godhead composed of three distinct personages—the Father, His divine Son, and the Holy Ghost. I also believe that only through Jesus Christ can we mortals be redeemed from temporal death and from spiritual death. I believe, too, that Christ restored His full Gospel of salvation, and the attendant holy priesthood and ordinances, in modern times, through a devout young prophet named Joseph Smith. And I believe that He still reveals His will through living prophets today. Outside observers tend to focus more attention on what Church members are instructed not to do rather than on what they are. I would be naïve if I pretended that all believers toe the line in all departments all the time. But what I can say is that most of us try. And most of us thank the Lord every day for the principle of repentance.
I further believe that the Bible is not the only word of God. The Book of Mormon is the most powerful testament of Jesus Christ ever published, a worthy companion to the Bible. Of the many hundreds of books I have read, none has touched me more profoundly than the Book of Mormon. Without question, it is the greatest book I have ever encountered, and it wears better than any other book. I never tire of it, and it lifts and inspires me with every reading. The near-perfect blend of poetry and truth is, in my view, simply unequaled. Coming to know that book was one of the most important and valuable things I have ever done, and it changed me forever. I made a decision one day to read the Book of Mormon in earnest, almost non-stop, from cover to cover, investing the same concentrated energy that I would invest in a complex and masterful literary text.
When I did that, the Spirit made a decisive entrance into my study of the book, and into my life, And the unprecedented spiritual lift and understanding that came to me through that experience has stayed with me ever since. I love the book with all my heart and soul, and I continue to read and study it with wonder and thanksgiving. In a word, my heart was changed. I experienced a precious and priceless spiritual rebirth that to this day enriches my life in indescribable ways.
I testify with every ounce of my being that the Book of Mormon is true, every word of it. I testify that the Lord would not have preserved this record if it were not true, nor would He have given it to one who was not His chosen vessel, to bring it forth in a later day for the re-establishment of His Church on earth. The two are inseparable: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Book of Mormon.
Marilyn Arnold is an emeritus professor of English at Brigham Young University, where she also served as dean of Graduate Studies, assistant to former university president Dallin H. Oaks, and director of the Center for the Study of Christian Values in Literature. She was awarded a Ph.D. in American literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and went on to receive various research awards, teaching awards, and lectureships. An internationally recognized scholar on the writings of Willa Cather, and a widely published writer and speaker in academic circles, she has devoted herself since her retirement to, among other things, writing novels that grow out of her spiritual roots and her deep attachment to the desert country of southern Utah. An avid hiker, skier, and tennis player, Professor Arnold continued her association with BYU for many years through the Women’s Research Institute. In the St. George area she has served for several years on the Dixie State College Board of Trustees.
Her numerous publications include Willa Cather: A Reference Guide (1986); Willa Cather’s Short Fiction (1986); with John March, A Reader’s Companion to the Fiction of Willa Cather (1993); Desert Song (1998); Song of Hope (1999); Sky Full of Ribbons (2000); Fields of Clover (2002); with Bonnie Ballif-Spanvill and Kristen Tracy, A Chorus for Peace: A Global Anthology of Poetry by Women (2002); The Classmates (2003); and Minding Mama (2004); as well as Sweet Is the Word: Reflections on the Book of Mormon—Its Narrative, Teachings, and People (1996), Pure Love: Readings on Sixteen Enduring Virtues (1997), and, with Maurine Ozment and Lisa Farr, Sacred Hymns of the Book of Mormon (2009).
See, additionally, Professor Arnold’s chapter in Expressions of Faith: Testimonies of Latter-day Saint Scholars.
Posted February 2010