There appears to be a time in the life of every faithful Latter-day Saint when they come to know the truth of the Gospel. My personal testimony is deeply rooted in the stories of my childhood in postwar Finland, in a home filled with faith, beauty, and a love of learning. My parents, Aune Irene Makinen (1914-2009) and Valto Antero Tolvanen (1909-1991), were both strong individuals who were destined to hear the call of the Gospel. As I have circled back to my childhood and pondered the stories that I was told, I have come to see that it was the faith of my parents that readied me to become a member of the Church.
When Finland entered the bitter Winter War in 1939, Father answered the call to serve as a staff sergeant along the Russian front and left my mother, his fiancée, in Helsinki. Father fought as a lieutenant in the famed white camouflage ski patrol. Mother prayed for my father’s safe return and for five years patched through wartime calls in the Helsinki telephone central exchange office. Bombs fell on the Russian front as well as in Helsinki. It was a time of great uncertainty. One night my mother woke from a deep sleep hearing my father’s voice calling her name. She knelt down and prayed for his safety. When a letter arrived a week later, it confirmed her experience: at the precise moment she had woken up, he had cried out her name as a bomb exploded by him. Those around him had died from the impact of the bomb. For my parents, this was one of a series of miracles and an answer to their prayers. It was from this heritage of faith and Finnish “sisu” that my testimony and desire for spiritual things would grow.
When the war finally ended with the defeat of German troops in Lapland in April 1945, Father returned (he had married my mother in 1943 on a short leave). Father had studied botany before the war, but now began a career with the national postal service in Helsinki. In 1946 my sister Marja-Leena was born and the family moved to Finnish Lapland, to Ivalo, only a few kilometers from the North Pole, where my father worked as a postmaster. My mother found this to be an exciting adventure for her, a city girl! Seven years later, Father meandered across the street to watch the Olympic venues while waiting for my mother to give birth to me in Helsinki on a warm August day in 1952. A month later, we returned to what my parents always spoke of as their idyllic life in Lapland.
I have realized how the hand of the Lord reaches out to us at critical times in our lives. At age three, I began a history of moves when a promotion brought our family south to Rovaniemi, a larger city located on the Arctic Circle. Everything seemed to be going so well for our family when suddenly Father felt stifled by the growing demands of government bureaucracy. He had a strong impression that we should leave Finland, just months after drawing up plans for a dream home my parents had planned to build in Rovaniemi. After studying the possibilities of exotic places such as Fiji and Walnut Creek, California (where some of Mother’s relatives lived), at age 46 Father decided to leave his career as a postal expediter to immigrate to Vancouver, in the western province of British Columbia, Canada, and begin a new life. We joined him a year later. His felt that the impetus for coming to Canada was the promise of improved circumstances for our family as well as the opportunity of a college education for his daughters.
As is common with immigrants, my parent’s dreams met with adversity as they sacrificed so much for this opportunity in a new country. My mother, the comfortably off daughter of an engineer, had left a tight-knit circle of family and friends to learn a new language and make do with very little. Yet, trials allow spiritual traits to grow. For instance, my mother often stated that she learned humility as a housekeeper for the year when Father was incapacitated with a near-fatal lung disease after working at a chemical manufacturing plant. I did not realize until many years later that my parents had spent so much money in their move to Canada that even through their initial unhappiness, they could not have returned home to Finland. Instead, true to form, they wrote glowing letters home about their new-found Eden. It was also a fact that Father worked until retirement far below his educational and intellectual capacities.
Although we knew our parents fretted about finances and security, my father’s love of learning was the warm bedrock of our childhood. In our home the learning of the world was examined and discussed. I grew up immersed in deliberations about science, geography, anthropology, comparative religion, history, languages, and much more; my reading forays by age ten included the complete voyages of Thor Heyerdahl, the philosophical thoughts of Plato and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, anything Father could find to read on Egypt and the Middle East, and, of course, literature ranging from Shakespeare through Rachel Carson, the twentieth-century environmental writer. Frugality ruled, but a monthly indulgence was always the newest issue of the National Geographic. A fine leather-bound set of Finnish encyclopedias and a world globe held a prominent place on the well-stocked bookshelves in our living room. My major undertaking as a child was acting as Father’s eager but sadly lacking conversation partner.
Out of this background, our delight in learning emerged, nurtured by a father who taught us to not be afraid of truth, but to always seek for it, wherever it was to be found. But how did we come to find the Restored Gospel? It took some years for me to realize that I was providentially given a gift of faith that allowed me to seek for the expanded view offered through the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. In this journey, my sister and I, paradoxically, were the ones to lead our parents to the truth.
My parents were members of the national Lutheran church and considered themselves religious even though they, along with most Finns, seldom attended church. Before we moved to Canada, I would listen to their comforting expressions of faith as well as gain insights from the Bible stories that Mother read to us each Sunday. Because of their faith I also became aware of God when very young. God was manifest in all things, especially in the beauty of the natural world. We spent much time outdoors where Daddy would bear testimony of the majesty and marvels of creation. I recall lingering summer days spent outside picking mushrooms and wild berries in the stunted birch forests as well as long skiing trips across the tundra of Lapland, followed by steaming saunas. One incident is etched in my memory: standing on my tiptoes to see out of the kitchen window in our home in Kaamanen, Finland. I was looking at the lively “talitiainen” birds on the feeder. It was bitter winter out as I watched them flutter down to eat seed on the snow-covered feeder. I was only about two and a half years old at that time and still vividly remember standing there, thinking about God. If He loved even those little birds, how could His love not extend to me?
Although I have been told that I was always a happy child, at about age three the death of our family puppy changed something in my spiritual awareness. For me, the Lutheran idea of death and especially of hell was frightening. After the puppy’s burial, I often pondered where we go after death, and oddly recall my astonishment when I became aware that there seemed to be a unique person hidden within me who was looking at the world through my eyes. That experience led me to wonder what “I” was and where I came from? I often chased away sleep with these thoughts while lying in bed; I wanted to know how far the universe extended, and where in all of this wonder of star-filled Northern winter nights God was to be found. With all my heart I wanted answers. In Matthew we are told to simply ask, and it will be given to us. I desired, but was only acquainted with two simple rote prayers. So I finally gathered courage to ask my father, who seemed to know everything. Curiously, for the first time in my life he did not have a ready answer to these questions.
Yet, the hand of providence was silently arranging our lives and, upon arriving in Canada in 1957, the “Mormon” missionaries sought out our family. We unfortunately lost contact with them. Another five years would go by before we would be “found” again. My early recollection of Canada was a series of rentals and a feeling of rootlessness as my father’s employment prospects changed. By second grade I had attended a half dozen elementary schools. But by the time I turned seven, I was quite fluent in my new language and we had settled down and bought our first home.
I returned to my earlier questions, now overtly, asking my new Canadian friends about their beliefs and attending their churches. For several years I studied their teachings—the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Protestants, the Catholics—but couldn’t seem to find what I was seeking. I recall talking to a playmate about the nature of God and what she thought happened after death. Quite a conversation as we lazily swung back and forth on a swing set in a leafy neighborhood park. Her childlike response puzzled me—if we don’t go to hell we will be angels forever, sitting on clouds and playing harps for God, who is Himself like a cloud and in all things and is the Father and Jesus and the Holy Spirit all “manifest” into one—I felt confused and troubled by this answer. I was too active of a child to want to sit on a cloud with a harp, but how did I avoid a consignment to hell?
So I decided to work on this problem further and spent the following summer reviewing the Old and New Testament stories at the nearby United Church of England Bible Camp. No answers came to me so I returned that Christmas to the local Lutheran church, but still didn’t find whatever I was looking for. I was looking for something specific that I couldn’t yet articulate. It was something, however, which had to be there for me to want to continue to attend a church: the comforting spirit of the Lord was what I sought, a warmth and assurance that, like the little Finnish winter birds, I too would be provided for in this immense and foreign world.
There are small miracles in our lives which often pass unnoticed, but which can change the course of our lives in moments. One day another playmate invited me to attend a children’s afterschool activity called Primary. I cannot recall the details of the day, except that we sang and then a grandmotherly teacher told us a familiar Bible story, perhaps David fighting the giant Goliath. Somehow I walked there by myself again the next week and, although the unadorned building built by the branch members left something to the imagination, the teachings felt so comfortable that I continued to return week after week. The heavens opened for me there as an eight-year-old as I attended Primary for the remainder of that year and learned to pray. Imagine my thrill to discover that after death I wasn’t consigned to hell or a cloud, but was instead a child of God with eternal possibilities for learning and progression!
This knowledge began to answer some of the other questions that had long engaged me. I eagerly learned about the eternal nature of the soul, about the concept of a preexistence, about the boy prophet who translated the Book of Mormon, and so much more. I had come home. I had a feeling of intense happiness being among the “Saints.” I believe now that I recognized the voice of the Good Shepherd, and desired to be one of His sheep. Anyway, as often happens in the way God works in the minute details of our lives, my sister Leena was at that same period of time quietly attending an evening young people’s gathering called the Mutual Improvement Association. Imagine our surprise months later to discover we had both found the same church!
The missionaries naturally sought our family out at this point as proverbial golden contacts and missionary “cottage meetings” were set up. As lifelong Lutherans, my parents were initially skeptical regarding the teachings of this “American” faith, but these two young ambassadors of the Church entered our home with the mantle and spirit of their calling. Within the astonishingly short space of three weeks we went from investigators to a Latter-day Saint family. The four of us, Father, Mother, my sister and I, were baptized members of the Church on December 19, 1962, four months after my tenth birthday.
While my Lutheran upbringing had left me confused as to the role and mission of Jesus Christ, once I joined the Church I quickly accepted the knowledge that although they were one in purpose (as my little playmate had tried to tell me on the swing set), the Gospel offered clarity in teaching me that Christ was a separate being from the Father and was my elder brother. I loved that concept. I learned that I could base my life on his example and hold on to something that was called an iron rod that would help me return to God. I slowly learned not to fear God, but rather to love and admire his love and concern for others, his gentleness, his magnificent teachings, his humility and unassuming nature, his intelligence, his willingness to endure, and his faithfulness to the end. I felt amazed that as a family we had been blessed to find this knowledge.
As I matured in the next year in the Gospel and gained a rudimentary knowledge of the Savior’s great atoning sacrifice I was relieved of that awful consignment to the hell of my childhood. I learned that his grace makes up the difference for our mortal imperfections. As intelligent as a person might be, now it seems that it took me a long time to awaken to the magnitude of the atonement. I believed in the Savior but didn’t really understand the mercy and personal application of the atonement on my behalf. I slowly began to understand through the lessons and the increasingly beloved hymns such as “Choose the Right” that being chosen by God is not a mysterious or exclusionary process, but, rather, one which takes righteous use of agency on our part. What a revelation it was to learn that God does not capriciously play favorites but loves all of His children and rewards us for our righteous desires and obedience, and grace by grace increases our capacity to become like him.
As my testimony grew, there were many things that I believed and one thing that I came to know with certainty. There was no miraculous visitation, but I knew without any doubt that Joseph Smith is the prophet and seer that was spoken of in ancient records to restore the Church in this, the Dispensation of the Fullness of Time. With all my ten-year-old heart I loved the young prophet and related to his search for truth. Like him, I had studied, prayed, and was given this firm knowledge before I joined the Church. This knowledge became the foundation on which all the other teachings of the Gospel have been built in my life. I recognized then that if Joseph was the prophet, everything else in the Gospel was possible. I so loved the prophet Joseph—his courage, his integrity, his bravery, and most of all how in his constant search for and love of truth he reminded me of my parents.
I also gained an unshakable testimony of the Book of Mormon at that young age. With each year I stood more in awe of this amazing book of scripture. It contained so much that was hidden from view until I learned to approach its pages with an open heart. There was confirmation that I felt each time I read, a powerful spirit that testified so distinctly of the truthfulness of Christ and of the plan of salvation. If I felt alone or confused, I could find answers to my questions in its pages. One memorable evening, as a young college student, I was in tears in my rented room as I read my scriptures. I suddenly felt so inadequate in my ability to pay for my education or to make the important decisions that would determine my life path. After praying for what seemed a long time I opened to Ether 12:27 and the words appeared to glow as I read about coming to the Lord in humility to find my weaknesses and how these would, through a lifetime, become my strengths. It was a very personal and pivotal moment for me as I learned for the first time how we must yield up our hearts to God—to give up our will—so that the Lord can guide our life.
Just as the young Prophet Joseph had inquired with the simple faith of youth, the spiritual truths that I sought for were given to me as a young child. I marvel at the good family I was born into. And I stand back in wonder that at an age when I should have been playing childhood games, I was drawn to search for spiritual truth. I know that I must have been guided to the Gospel by unseen hands throughout these early years as I had yet to learn that further answers and blessings are dependent upon our subsequent faithfulness in living the truths we are taught. As I have matured in the Gospel I have concluded that the principle of agency is the greatest gift that we have been given in a life experience tailor-made for the improvement and expansion of our individual spirits. We truly have only to desire and ask.
Sirpa T. Grierson (Ph.D., University of Southern Mississippi), an associate professor of English at Brigham Young University, specializes in English education and critical reading. She is also a transfer professor for the College of Religious Education, teaching the Doctrine and Covenants. Her major research interests include “the margins”—the field of interplay between reading, the reader, and the text; multigenre research; and classroom-based field studies in literacy.
Prior to joining the BYU faculty in 1997, Dr. Grierson taught education courses at Utah Valley University and worked with the Utah Office of Education as a reading consultant. She has served on the Legislative Action Team and as a member of the Government Relations and By-Laws committees for the International Reading Association. She is the past president of the Utah Council of the International Reading Association and currently serves as their State Coordinator.
At the age of four Dr. Grierson immigrated to Vancouver, Canada, from Helsinki, Finland. She and her husband, Lorne, now reside in Orem. Besides time with family and friends her favorite pastimes include yoga, music, hiking and traveling, and of course, reading.
Posted December 2010