CHAPTER FOUR
TAKING THE PLUNGE

Sunday morning dawned bright and clear. It was late August. It would be hot. As they promised, the missionaries arrived at 9:30. We rode to the church building on the east side of Santa Ana that they called "the ward." It was a brick structure – rambling, suggesting Spanish architecture – and quite plain.

Inside were wooden pews. The front of the church was elevated, where several people sat on pews. Three men sat in the center of the first row of pews behind the pulpit. The missionaries told me they were the bishop and his two counselors.

After we sang a couple hymns and heard several announcements, two boys, about twelve or fourteen years of age, prepared and blessed broken pieces of bread and small plastic cups of water. This, I was told, was the "sacrament." It was for members only.

After the sacrament, we went to a Sunday school class especially for those who, like myself, were investigating Mormonism. It was led by a fun-loving man who, I learned, was a chiropractor. All of the people were friendly and went out of their way to greet me.

After Sunday school, during the fifteen-minute break before the next meeting, Elder Jackson discouraged me from slipping out to the parking lot and having a smoke. I agreed.

The next meeting started off just like the first one: opening hymns, announcements, and another round of sacrament. Then a man went to the podium to deliver the sermon. I was surprised that the bishop didn’t address us, but Elder Morgan explained that the bishop seldom brought the message. Usually there was a special speaker chosen from the congregation, or sometimes from another ward. Once a month someone from the "stake" would come to speak. A stake was made up of about ten wards. All the leaders in the lower levels of the Church were laymen. That impressed me. Religion of the people, by the people and for the people, I thought.

The plainness of the building and the large number of noisy children disturbed me at first. Elder Jackson told me that Mormonism was a "family" religion. Everything centered around the family. Even the meetings were set up so that families could worship together. If that meant they were a little noisier than otherwise, it was worth it.

After the meetings, many people came up to shake my hand and welcome me. I felt important. More significantly, I felt loved – a sensation I did not often feel these days in my isolation at the gaming tables, or even in my ambitious womanizing.

One elderly gentleman introduced himself. "I’m Ed Ingles. I’m glad you were here today, son."

"I was glad to be here. I liked it."

"That’s wonderful! There’s nothing like the gospel, and being around God’s people. Here, let me introduce my wife. Martha!" He called as he looked around behind him.

Martha was the ward mother. She gave me a big hug. Ed and Martha acted as proud of me as if I had been their own son. I appreciated the affection they showed me, and wondered if there wasn’t buried deep inside me, going back to my parents’ divorce or even farther, a boy’s heart yearning for stability and a parent’s love.

The next week the missionary-elders came back and we had our second meeting. We made an interesting threesome: the two young innocents with "sidewall" haircuts instructing the bearded skeptic.

The story they told in their missionary lessons was incredible. They talked about the fourteen-year-old boy, Joseph, who was directed by an angel to hidden gold plates that contained an account of the Lamanites, ancient inhabitants of North America, the forerunners of the American Indians. These Lamanites were supposedly visited by Jesus Himself during His life on earth. Joseph Smith translated the gold plates "by the gift and power of God" into the book of Mormon.

I tried to give the missionaries the benefit of the doubt, though the story they told me strained credibility. On the other hand, I was sick of bars and one-night stands and I needed something to believe in. My friendship with and respect for Lee was a powerful influence. He was so sure of himself, so sure he had found the answer.

Still, I hesitated to join the Church. I did not want to make any mistakes. Changing my entire lifestyle would be a big step and submitting myself to anyone, even these gentlefolk, went against my grain. I struggled to be intellectually honest. But on a deeper level, I longed to be part of something decent.

As I hesitated, I continued to dialogue with Lee, who was growing impatient. "Jim," he said one night after we had talked for several hours, "you can go your own way, or you can go the right way, but you need to choose – now!"

Pressure was mounting for me to a make a decision. Baptismal dates were suggested. The missionaries pointed out a passage in the Book of Mormon promising that if I prayed sincerely, I would receive a witness from the Holy Spirit that the Church was true.

Every night I prayed, trying to come up with a feeling or sensation that would match what they told me to expect. I was torn. I wanted to be part of these people, but I wasn’t sure about the Church.

It was clear, however, that they would not always be patient with me. I was expected to make a decision, and I felt it would be dishonest to join the Church if I did not really believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that the Book of Mormon was God’s Word. I needed a sign – a sign that came during the fourth missionary lesson.

After seating ourselves in the living room, Elder Jackson began the discussion. They had already told me we would be talking about the "Word of Wisdom," which, they explained, was a prophecy brought by Joseph Smith forbidding the use of alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea.

Elder Jackson opened his Bible. "Brother Spencer, John 8:31-32 tells us that as we come to know the truth, it will make us free. How do you think knowing the truth makes us free?"

"For one thing, it frees us from ignorance."

"Very good. Another way it frees us is from the punishment that comes from breaking God’s natural laws. Gravity, for example, is a natural law. If we jump off a building, we break the law of gravity. And we pay a price, right?"

"Right!" I was learning that the best way to get along with Elder Jackson – which for some reason had become important to me – was to be as enthusiastic as he was. I still challenged him, but not on non-essentials.

"How do we know what God’s laws are?"

"Through Scripture; through revelation."

"That’s right. Through the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and other latter-day revelation. By the way, have you gotten an answer to your prayers yet about the Book of Mormon?"

"No, I haven’t. But I’m still reading it every day and praying that God will show me if it is true."

"I’m sure that will happen if you continue to read and pray. Now, one of the revelations God has given us is the Word of Wisdom. In this revelation, the Lord told Joseph Smith that there are certain things men take into their bodies that harm them. And that if they continue to break these laws of God they will pay a price, a physical price, in their bodies. Do you believe that is true?"

"Yes, I know I shouldn’t smoke."

"What about drinking?"

"I haven’t had a drink since I first started talking to you. Drinking is not a serious problem for me. I can take it or leave it. I’d rather take it, but I’m not hooked on it."

"Brother Spencer, what do you think about the commandment against the use of tobacco?"

"Well I’m not sure smoking is wrong. I’m not sure that God is too uptight about it, but I know it would be better if I didn’t smoke."

Truth to tell, I was a little nervous about this line of questioning. I had been a chain-smoker for ten years and had tried many times to quit, but found it impossible. I was hooked. Now I was getting the strong impression that Elder Jackson was about to ask me to do the impossible.

"Brother Spencer, I want you to try to quit smoking."

"Wait a minute," I protested. "In the first place, I couldn’t quit if I wanted to. And in the second place, I don’t know that I want to."

Elder Jackson was patient. "Look, brother, it’s important that you quit. Important to your physical health and important to your spiritual health. If you decide to join the Church, it will be necessary for you to quit. All I’m asking you to do is give it a try."

I was trapped. He was not going to give up. And, down deep, I wanted to be free of cigarettes. In exasperation, I took the package of Viceroys from my pocket and flung it across the room. "O.K.," I exclaimed. "I don’t think I can quit and I’m not really sure I want to quit, but I’ll try!" They smiled at me and went on with the lesson.

After they left, I drove down to the Deseret Bookstore in Orange and browsed through the Mormon books. Afterward, I stopped at a café for a soft drink. As I sat reading the Book of Mormon, the most amazing truth dawned on me. I had not had a cigarette – or wanted one – for two hours!

By that night I was sure something miraculous was in motion. I still didn’t want a cigarette.

Lee came over that night to see how I was doing. "It’s a miracle!" He exclaimed. "It’s a sign from God. What more do you need, man?"
I was convinced. Anything powerful enough to get me off cigarettes had my attention. I was seeing the manifestation of some sort of spiritual power here – of what sort I was not sure, but I was sure that I now wanted to join the Mormon Church.

The missionaries were as elated as Lee. They quickly finished off the last two lessons and interviewed me about my personal life in preparation for baptism. I had already shaved my beard, which symbolized for me a new cleanness of life. Now I committed myself to be morally clean – extramarital sex was out of the question – and to abstain from alcohol, coffee and tea as well as tobacco.

I still could not bring myself to say, as Mormons are taught to say, that I knew Joseph Smith was a prophet, that the Book of Mormon was the Word of God, and that this was the True Church. But I was willing to say I believed it. And that was good enough. A baptismal date was selected.

The evening was warm and fresh. An afternoon rain had washed the city of Santa Ana for my baptism on September 27, 1964. Lee was there. I had never before seen him dressed in a suit. I myself entered the water dressed in a special white baptismal uniform.

Afterward, while I was seated in a chair, several elders – including Ed Ingles and the bishop – gathered around me, laid their hands on my head and confirmed me into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Later, everybody stood around crying and hugging me. This time I knew I was really home. These people accepted me. I had become part of something wonderful!

When I was asked if I would like to say anything, I felt the desire to testify before everyone and share what was going on within me. I planned to say that I believed the Church to be true, Joseph Smith to be a prophet, and the Book of Mormon to be the Word of God.

But when I stood to speak, I heard myself saying, "I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet. I know the book of Mormon is the Word of God. I know this is God’s True Church and that it is headed by a living prophet today."

And I did know it! I had come to know it. I had, by some amazing power, become a True Believer like the others. Now nothing stood in my way for full fellowship and acceptance into the Kingdom of God and into His True Church.

chapter three||chapter five