The two men smiled pleasantly at me through the screen door. "Hi! Mr. Spencer? Were from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
My first thought was, These arent missionaries, theyre kids! Nevertheless, for Lees sake, I ushered them into the living room. They introduced themselves as Elder Morgan from Alabama and Elder Jackson from Utah. Their dark suits, white shirts and "sidewall" haircuts did not impress me. Plus, I thought, they smiled too much. Snake oil salesmen, I said to myself.
Seating them in kitchen chairs, I sat down on the couch. I put my feet up on the coffee table and lit up a cigarette, hoping it would unnerve them. If it did, they didnt show it, but just continued to smile and make small talk.
It was my mothers apartment. Lee had dropped me off there a week earlier, the day after our conversation overlooking the ocean at Palos Verdes. The company I worked for in Alaska had offered me a job in Saudi Arabia, but I wanted to settle down for a while maybe take some night classes at Santa Ana Junior College, since I had completed my high school requirements by correspondence and find my own apartment.
"Well, men," I said, "my friend Lee probably has talked to you. Im impressed with what I see in him, but want you to know that I am not super-interested in Mormonism. However, I did tell Lee I would listen and remain objective. Lee said you have some discussions?"
Elder Jackson seemed to be in charge. He was tall, blonde and self-assured. Opening a long plastic envelope that looked like a carrying case for a pool cue, he extracted a folding tripod and a display board covered with flannel. "I hope you wont mind if we use some pictures to illustrate our discussion?"
"As long as theyre clean pictures!" I joked.
Elder Jackson grinned at me, but I thought I detected a tint of red in Elder Morgans face.
Elder Jackson placed a strip reading The Church of Jesus Christ on the top of his flannel board. "Well, Mr. Spencer, there certainly are a lot of churches in the world today. Which church are you most familiar with?"
"I was raised Episcopalian, but Ive also studied Catholicism."
"Why do you suppose there are so many churches?"
"I guess because there are so many different ideas about God."
"Thats a really good answer. Take a simple thing like baptism. Some people believe it is necessary and some dont. Some believe it has to be done by immersion and others by sprinkling."
He placed a picture of Jesus on the flannel board. "Back when there were living prophets on the earth, how do you think the Lord gave them the answers to questions like this?"
It was a leading question, presupposing some things I wasnt ready to stipulate. But I didnt want to appear too hardheaded, so I replied, "I suppose He spoke to the people through the prophets."
I had to credit Elder Jackson with enthusiasm. You would have thought I had answered the $64,000 question, he acted so pleased.
"Im sure you have wondered what it was like to live in ancient times. Tell me, suppose you had lived back then and had a question about religion. Why would you have gone to a prophet for an answer?"
"Well, if there were a prophet, I suppose I would have asked him because hed be able to tell me what God thought about the question."
Elder Jackson beamed. "Why were the statements of the prophets so valuable?"
"Because a true prophet would have spoken for God."
"Do you think it was valuable to the people to have living prophets?"
What could I say? "Of course," I replied.
Drawing up his chair an inch, Elder Jackson looked into my eyes and asked, "Would a living prophet be valuable to the churches today? Would a living prophet be able to speak to us about the question of baptism, for instance?"
I felt uncomfortable, but for the life of me I couldnt seem to do anything but follow his lead. He was so confident, so polite. Besides, the things he said were not really wrong. I knew he was leading me, yet I didnt think he was out of line.
"Of course," I admitted, "a living prophet would be able to clear up questions about baptism."
Elder Jackson paused, got my full attention with his eyes and then began to speak. I was astounded at how much he reminded me of the way Lee looked and sounded when he had given his testimony a week earlier. The look in this mans eye, the manner of speech seemed canned. Though I was sure he was sincere, it still disturbed me.
"Mr. Spencer, the reason Elder Morgan and I are here today is to tell you about a prophet who was called by the Lord for our own time. His name was Joseph Smith."
"In 1820," he continued, "Joseph Smith was a young man living in the state of New York. He wanted to join a church, but as he visited those in his neighborhood he found confusion similar to the things weve been talking about today.
"So he decided to pray and ask God which church was right. He went to a grove of trees near his fathers farm and knelt in prayer. As he was praying he saw a pillar of light exactly over his head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon him.
"When the light rested on him he saw, standing above him in the air, two personages in the form of men whose brightness and glory defied all description. One of them called Joseph Smith by name and said, This is My beloved Son.
"Mr. Spencer, who do you think the two personages were?"
"Hold it, Elder Jackson! I know you want me to tell you they were Jesus Christ and God. But first, how do I know Joseph Smith saw anything? Or that there even was a Joseph Smith?"
Elder Jackson seemed unruffled by my objection. He moved smoothly along. "Mr. Spencer, I bear you my testimony, by the Holy Ghost, that Joseph Smith did see God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, in the grove. And he saw them just as clearly as you can see Elder Morgan and me. And he could see that his own body truly was created in the image and likeness of God.
"Now at that time, the churches were teaching that God was only spirit, that He had no body. But what do we learn about God from the experience of Joseph Smith?"
"Youre still pushing, Elder. If Joseph Smith saw what you say he saw, then we would learn that God had a body."
"Right! Also, the churches taught that Jesus and the Father were the same being. But what does Joseph Smiths experience tell us about that?"
"Smiths version, if true, would tell us that God the Father and Jesus Christ are two different beings."
"O.K., Mr. Spencer. Now I want to turn your attention to another matter." He pointed to the strip of paper on the flannel board. "From the Bible we learn that when Jesus Christ was on the earth, he established His Church, the Church of Jesus Christ. His followers were members of that Church. Here, let me read it from the Bible." He picked up his black leather Bible and thumbed through it.
"Here it is. Ephesians 2:19-20: Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone."
Elder Jackson placed another strip of paper on the board that represented the foundation of a building. Written on it were the words apostles and prophets. "When Jesus Christ organized His own Church, it was called the Church of Jesus Christ. What were some of the officers He established in His organization?"
I sighed. I didnt appreciate being treated like a dunderhead, but I gave them the benefit of the doubt. Since they obviously followed a memorized program of dialogue, and probably talked to people of different levels of understanding, they had to tailor their presentation to meet the needs of most people.
"Apostles and prophets?" I said.
Another smile of approval. Elder Jackson was either a great actor or very simple.
"Mr. Spencer, as long as Jesus was on the earth, how many churches of Jesus Christ were there?"
"And even after Jesus died, with the foundation of the apostles and prophets, how many do you think there were?"
"Thats right. There were not hundreds as there are today. The members of the Church of Jesus Christ all believed the same doctrine. And when the Church had a question or needed to know something, the people asked the apostles and prophets, who spoke for God. It makes sense, doesnt it?"
"Yes, I guess it does." I had to admit to myself that it did make sense.
"Mr. Spencer, youve used the word if a lot today. Let me ask you another if question. If Jesus established His Church, and if He left it in the hands of men He appointed to keep it in order, then why are there hundreds of different churches today, with hundreds of different doctrinal ideas, each claiming to be a genuine Church of Christ?"
I was stumped. I could not give him an answer. Everything I thought of made no sense in the context of the present conversation. I was not a Bible student, and had only little knowledge of Christian doctrine. But I had to admit the things these young men were saying made sense. They knew where they were going. They knew what they believed. They were so sure of themselves.
"The reason for the confusion in the churches today," continued Elder Jackson, "is that after the death of Jesus the apostles were scattered. Eventually they were killed. The Church, because of unbelief and wickedness, dwindled away. Which, I might add, is just what the Bible predicted would happen that there would be a great falling away of the Church. We call it the Apostasy. The true Church did fall away and mankind plunged into the Dark Ages. It wasnt until 1820 that God found someone worthy enough to restore the Church through the prophet Joseph Smith."
"Well, thats quite a story," I said.
"One last if question. If what we have told you is true, what do you think the structure of the Church today should be like?"
"I guess it should be like the early Church."
"With apostles and prophets?"
"I suppose so."
"Do you know of any churches today that claim to be run by twelve apostles and a living prophet?"
"The Mormon Church?"
Jackson smiled. "If what we have told you is true, youd want to be a member of the Mormon Church, wouldnt you?"
"Well, if its true, Id be a fool not to at least consider that."
Elder Jackson looked at Elder Morgan. He was ready. "Mr. Spencer," said the young man from Alabama in his slow, easy drawl, "I want to tell ya that I know what Eldah Jackson has said is true. I bear yall my own testimony that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, that this Church is Gods True Church an that we have a livin prophet at the head of our Church today!"
Elder Jackson smiled at me as he began putting away his tripod and display board. "Its been really great for us to be with you today Mr. Spencer."
"Yeah, well, its been interesting. I can tell you really believe what you preach."
"Wed like to come back a week from today and talk to you again. Would morning or afternoon be better?" Glancing up at me, he smiled. "That is, if you want us to come back?"
I thought about my commitment to Lee. "Why not? Same time would be fine."
"One more thing, Mr. Spencer. Wed like to ask you to go to church with us next Sunday morning. It starts at ten."
"Oh I dont know about that."
"Well if you are going to take an honest look at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you really need to worship with us."
"Im not sure thats necessary. Say, by the way, how did you come up with the name of your church?"
Elder Jackson looked glad I had asked. "Remember what Jesus Christ called His Church?"
"The Church of Jesus Christ?"
"Right. When He restored the Church, He called it the same thing. But to distinguish the ancient Church from the Church today, we call ourselves the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The word saints refers to anyone who is a member of Jesus Church. So we are, as you can see, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
"Where does the name Mormon come from?"
"Were called Mormons because Joseph Smith translated gold plates he found buried in the ground that were written by a man named Mormon. And the book is called the Book of Mormon. Well talk more about that next time."
"Sounds fair enough."
"Could we pick you up about 9:30 Sunday?"
"Oh I suppose it wouldnt hurt to go once."
As the two young men left, I pondered our conversation of the last hour. I liked them. They were everything I had never been clean-cut, innocent, caught up in something they believed in wholeheartedly. They left me some literature to read and promised to answer any questions I had at our next meeting.