The Power of personal Testimony
It took me almost half my life to develop faith in God and a belief in Jesus Christ and his restored church and the prophet Joseph Smith. I was baptized in my eighteenth year, and I’m still learning. I have to confess here, that there was one point in my life when I had given up on the possibility of there being a God. I think almost everyone goes through some sort of a period when they have this problem. Hopefully many more get over it than succumb to it. I had seen too much evil in the world, too much hypocrisy, too much greed, hate, bigotry, inhumanity and cruelty to believe that God could exist. How could there be a God when so many good people were being trampled under foot and worked to death, while slothful lazy laggards just ate up all the profits and wore out all the workers until they were no good for anything but the scrap heap?
Then a remarkable thing happened. Someone bore their testimony to me with such power that I responded to their challenge and gained my own testimony. Please, let me tell you the story.
During my high school years, at the suggestion of my sister, who was married to an inactive Mormon, I began attending the Mormon Church purely as a social outlet. I wanted to play basketball, which I dearly loved, but could not participate in at school, because of my work. The organized basketball league in the Mormon Church is strictly a one or two nights a week activity and it fitted nicely around my work and school schedule. I also discovered Saturday night dancing. My sister’s husband was a highway patrolman and I was on probation. My sister was worried because after my short stay in juvenile hall I did a complete turn around and I focused my life on working and getting an education. I had zero social contacts and zero friends. After five or six months of church attendance, a requisite for the basketball court and dance floor (one and the same thing) the Bishop asked me if I would like to be baptized. Believing that there were far worse things that I could do than being baptized, I agreed. That is how I became a teenaged Mormon without a testimony.
I have since come to realize that I actually wasn’t much different than many other teenagers in the church. Mormon children, those born into the church, are baptized at age eight, but many of them are not converted (do not gain a personal testimony) until they are adults, a few of them are never converted, even after serving a full-time two year mission for the church preaching the gospel. They may go to church regularly, and do everything as if they were a fully converted member, but they do not really have a testimony. I suppose this is a common condition in all of the churches of the world. “They draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me." (Pearl of Great Price: Joseph Smith History 1:19)
I stayed active in the church for three or four years until about a year or two after I joined the Navy. My lack of understanding and testimony did not survive my attempted attendance at the unfamiliar and often very cold and unfriendly congregations that were close to Navy bases. By the time I was discharged from the Navy I had come to the conclusion that church was a waste of time, and that the existence of God was a very doubtful . I pursued my career in construction and my uncomplicated social life with no regard given to church or God. Eat, sleep, work, and have fun that was my mantra and life.
One payday evening after work, I was shopping in the local Co-Op Grocery Store. I had a case of beer, two cartons of cigarettes, and a box of Cuban Crook cigars, several bottles of wine, and an assortment of liquor bottles in my cart. As I walked down the liquor isle, puffing on one of the Crooks, I heard a female voice call out, “Bill Willson? ... Bill Willson, is that you?”
I looked up, and saw a familiar face approaching me. I recognized her as a former high school friend who was also a member of the church, and part of the crowd I had associated with. “Brenda? ... Uhh, ahh, what a surprise.” I said, as I tried to ditch my cigar in my back pocket, almost setting myself on fire.
“How are you Bill? I haven’t seen you in years. Where have you been hiding? I thought you were in the Navy.”
“I’m fine Brenda, I’ve been out of the Navy for awhile now; how about yourself?”
“Oh, I’m fine.... So ... how long have you been home now? And why haven’t I seen you out to church?” she persisted.
“Well... Brenda ...ahh, as you can see, from my shopping cart, I have changed my lifestyle some, since my church days.” As I spoke I flicked the glowing coal off the end of the stogie, stepped on it, and stuck the cigar in my shirt pocket. “I‘ve been home for almost two years now.”
“Oh ... well, you shouldn’t let a few bad habits picked up in the Navy, keep you from returning to your church and religion.” She smiled as she spoke and something about her demeanor exuded sincerity. She wasn’t just making idle conversation; she seemed really interested in me, as another human being.
“I sort of lost my religion somewhere in my wandering around the world, and I think I was just a member for the basketball and Saturday night dance part of the church. Brenda, I really don’t believe in God any more.” I confessed.
“How can you say that?” she said, “You have been baptized, and given the gift of the Holy Ghost and the priesthood of God.”
“That’s all well and good for someone who believes, but I have seen too much evil in the world, and have been embarrassed too many times by members of the church to put much stock in religion anymore. ...Sorry, but that’s honestly how I feel.”
“When was the last time you read The Book of Mormon, or the testimony of Joseph Smith?”
“I only vaguely remember reading passages out of The Book of Mormon, in Sunday school, and I don’t really know who Joseph Smith is or what he has to do with anything.” I was starting to feel uncomfortable, but could see no handy way of escaping the grasp of this comely young woman standing in the liquor isle.
Brenda’s face fairly glowed as she stood there before me, and in a very calm voice she declared, “Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, and he sealed his testimony, with his own blood.” as she spoke her smile seemed to grow more radiant, and tears began welling up in her eyes, and spilling over, “He saw God, and His Son Jesus Christ, and testified of the truthfulness of The Book of Mormon, the restoration of the gospel, the church, and the holy priesthood of God, once more to the earth in this last dispensation of the fullness of times. He affirmed the second coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ at the end of this last dispensation. He gave up his life rather than deny his testimony.
"Before you cast aside your baptism and the priesthood of God, I challenge you to read The Book of Mormon, and study the life and testimony of Joseph Smith. When you have done that, if you pray earnestly to God asking him in faith, to let you know if what you have read is true, He will answer you and you will feel it and know it by the power of the Holy Ghost.” She finished her testimony, “In the name of Jesus Christ amen.”
As she was delivering her testimony, I was moved almost to tears myself, as I looked into her glistening eyes and tear stained cheeks. “Well ... I don’t know quite what to say Brenda. That was moving. I’m certain you believe what you have said. I guess it wouldn’t hurt me to give it a try.”
Brenda said, “Bill Don’t let your worldly ways and intemperate habits keep you from the truth. I hope to see you in church one day soon. It was nice seeing you again.” She smiled, brushing the tears from her eyes, as she turned and walked away.
I called after her, “Thanks Brenda,.” and she smiled back at me once more before leaving the store.
As I drove home I thought about what Brenda had said. After I put my purchases away, I took a shower, fixed a quick dinner, changing my mind about going out for the evening, and after dinner I dug around in my duffel bag, and found the copy of The Book of Mormon that the church gave me when I came to my first church services in Boot Camp. I opened a bottle of beer, lit a cigar, and settled down in the easy chair to read. I read almost non stop all through the weekend, and I prayed about the book several times. I called in sick on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday finally finishing the Book in the early hours of Thursday morning. I showed up bleary eyed for work that day and I looked so bad my boss told me to go home and see a doctor, and not to come back to work until I got better. I rested most of the day Thursday and I prayed some more about what I had just read. Then I read the testimony of Joseph Smith in The Pearl of Great Price, where he said, “...who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it ... " (Joseph Smith-History 1:25)
While I was reading that, I began to feel something I had never felt before. I felt all warm and comfortable inside, I felt like everything in the world was eventually going to get fixed and that there was nothing to fear. I felt that God knew what was wrong with the world and I knew that somehow it would all turn out right. I remembered the words that I had heard Brenda say, and I knew she believed that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, and that he had brought forth The Book of Mormon in exactly the way he had said he did. I began to know that the book was from God. How on earth could it be otherwise? Here was a book containing a thousand years of secular and non-secular ancient history, of a vanished people, coming to us from the hand of an uneducated farm hand. There is no other explanation than what the boy prophet has given us.
Now, what was I going to do about this religious epiphany? I decided I would give it a try, and go to church on Sunday. Before I could do that there was something I had to do first. I prayed one more time, this time for strength. I knew I would need all the strength I could get if I was going to be able to do what I needed to do. I know now that at the time I was either on the verge of becoming an alcoholic or I was one, and I was seriously addicted to tobacco. I had tried unsuccessfully to mend my ways and either quit or get control of my drinking habit. I knew also that the tobacco was no good and would eventually kill me. When I got off of my knees, I completely emptied my liquor cabinet, and my dresser drawers where I kept my cigarettes and tobacco. I threw out all my coffee, and tea. I even threw out my Cuban Crook cigars and my pipe tobacco. I stopped short of throwing away my collection of pipes I had gathered from around the world. As I filled the garbage can with contraband, I said another silent prayer to help me maintain my resolve, and not slip back. I knew I could not face church if I were not living the standards, which were taught there.
And so after more than eight years from the date of my baptism I finally gained the start of a testimony. I went back to church and from that time to this, my testimony has been growing. In later years, after my marriage, every time I saw Brenda, whether with my wife or not, I would give her a hug and thank her for her testimony. Brenda knew I loved her and why, and so did my wife, there was no need for any explanation, feelings of guilt, or jealousy. The love I have in my heart and soul for this brave saint, who bore her testimony to a wayward sinner, is the same love that Christ has in his heart for all His children. She saved me from myself and the church and my wife helped me to turn my life around, and embrace the gospel. I will always be thankful for that testimony and Christ-like love.