At the age of eight my father baptized me in the font at the chapel in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I wore a fancy white dress, and for the occasion my mother had undone my long braids so my hair haloed about me as I was lowered into the water. The place of my baptism, not far from Harvard University where my father was studying, symbolizes the tension in my life between learning by faith and learning through intellectual inquiry.
My faith in the Lord Jesus Christ took root in my childhood in a large Mormon family. As descendants of pioneers who crossed oceans and plains to gather to Zion in Utah, my parents made sure that religious observance and the teachings of Jesus were part of the fabric of everyday life. I grew up knowing I was under the watchful care of a benevolent heavenly father. By obedience I learned to live the Word of Wisdom (our health code), formed habits of daily prayer, observed healing by those who held the priesthood, and memorized the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. Yet we were trained by our parents to ask questions, to discuss the issues of the day, and to think for ourselves. When we moved to Lima, Peru, in the mid-1960s, my sisters and I were adolescents testing the limits of authority. Sensing that yet another lesson on the First Vision in Spanish would not sustain our faith, my father created his own Sunday class for us where we engaged in gospel study more appropriate to our intellectual abilities.
While in college I came to the realization that I needed to obtain a testimony of the truthfulness of the church on my own. I studied the scriptures daily, took classes in religion, and prayed for a conviction of the truths that I had lived throughout my life. At home one summer, I attended a Sunday evening meeting at the Stanford chapel. As the speaker bore testimony, I received a spiritual witness and a feeling in my whole body that attested to the truth.
I have not questioned the memory of that moment since, but while earning my doctorate at the University of Chicago, I very nearly left the church. After a time of walking only by faith, I regained my belief. It has been made more precious to me for nearly having lost it. Now I am content with knowing that God loves me, that he sent His son to redeem the world from sorrow and sin, and that His sacrifice means that I can forgive and be forgiven. This I know in my heart, and it is all I need to know.
Susan Sessions Rugh is a professor of history at Brigham Young University.
Posted May 2010