No one, it is said, is more zealous than a convert. When I finally made the decision to join the Mormon Church, I jumped in with both feet. By this time I was living in my own apartment in Santa Ana and still working in electronics. Now I immersed myself in the life and activity of the Church.
Lee, of course, was a great source of encouragement. Angela was not as impressed. In fact, she wanted nothing to do with "weird religious stuff." Finally I abandoned trying to talk to her and eventually stopped calling her altogether.
Actually, my new commitment to Mormonism forced me to reevaluate all my friendships. One afternoon, for example, two old Navy friends stopped by for a drink since they were in town. One of them, Ken, had been my closest friend next to Lee and Fred Johnson; and I had stood up for the other one, Les, in his wedding. I was delighted to see both of them.
But when we drove down to a local bar and I ordered orange juice, they stopped me up short.
"Orange juice?" exclaimed Ken, sitting next to me in the booth. "Whats the matter, Jim? You sick?"
"Ah, well, no not exactly. The truth is, I quit drinking."
Ken laughed. Then he looked me in the eye. "Youre not kidding."
"No," I smiled. "Im not."
I laughed. "So whats new in your lives? I havent seen you, Les, for two years."
"Just a minute," said Ken. "I want to know why you arent having a drink with us."
"I hardly know how to tell you this. I well, Ive joined the Mormon Church."
"No," said Ken, still looking at me. "Hes not kidding."
"I guess Im not surprised," he said. "Underneath it all, you always have been a religious critter. Im a little sorry. But on the other hand, I respect your position. Sometime, not now, Id like to hear about it."
"Sometime Id like to talk to you about it."
The conversation turned to old times. Nothing more was said about my orange juice. But the conversation was abbreviated. After an hour Les looked at his watch, made an excuse and said they really needed to get going. I said I understood.
And I did understand. As we separated, I understood that nothing would ever be the same. And I doubted somehow that I would see either one of them again.
I threw myself into Mormonism with zeal. In Mormonism, activity is the mark of faithfulness. Is he active? Is the question most often asked to determine if a person is a "good" Mormon. Does he obey the dictates of the Church by adhering to the Word of Wisdom the prohibition of coffee and tea, as well as alcohol and tobacco?
As a faithful Mormon, I willingly gave ten percent of all my earnings to the Church. Every year the bishop had a "tithing settlement" with each family in the ward. If they gave a full ten percent they were known as "full tithers."
Tremendous emphasis was placed on attendance at meetings. Sunday mornings, for me, started with a priesthood meeting at 7 a.m., followed by Sunday school at nine. I was back at the ward by 4:30 for a sacrament meeting. On Sunday evenings I often attended a "Fireside" a special gathering for a lecture or slide presentation.
A group of single adults met together on Monday nights for Family Home Evening. We would sing songs, follow a lesson outline prepared by Church leadership in Salt Lake City and have refreshments. The same kind of gathering was held every Monday night in every good Latter-day Saint home.
On Wednesday nights the Mutual Improvement Association (M. I. A.) met for study groups and activities designed to make us better Mormons and better citizens. Tuesday and Thursday nights we often had leadership meetings for auxiliaries such as Sunday school or M. I. A.
Saturday mornings were priesthood leadership meetings. Also on Saturdays there would be special work projects at the stake farm or perhaps maintenance on the ward building. And Friday or Saturday nights you could count on some special program on a ward or stake level.
Of course, there was always temple work for those who held Temple Recommends a privilege awarded to the small percentage of Mormon membership considered worthy to go through the temple. And since no one could go to heaven who had not gone through the temple, we were encouraged to do genealogy research, in order that our forbears could go through the temple "by proxy" through a living Church member.
The Church considered "every member a missionary." We were expected to make contacts for the missionaries and plot how to get our neighbors to church. The important thing was to keep busy!
My own zeal did not go unnoticed. I was soon ordained through all the offices of the Lesser (Aaronic) Priesthood. And I was called to be a member of the Sunday school superintendency. After a year I was ordained into the Higher (Melchizedek) Priesthood as an elder.
Meanwhile I was making new friends. Ed Ingles became my spiritual mentor. I spent much time at the Ingles home, having dinner with them after church on Sundays and dropping by to chat in the evenings when nothing was going on at the ward. Ed and Martha took me in as a son. I loved them dearly.
Ed was the one I turned to whenever I had a question about the faith or when there was something I did not understand. Once I asked him why the Book of Mormon was written in Elizabethan English. Joseph Smith had translated it from "Reformed Egyptian" into English, yet it was not written in the English of Joseph Smiths day, but in an older, seventeenth-century style. Ed explained to me that it was written in King James English because it would be better received by the people if it sounded like the Bible.
One warm summer evening I went over to the Ingles with a big concern I wanted to talk to Ed about. I had been driving down a boulevard lined with orange trees in Tustin, California, when I spotted a church building off the road. I could barely make out the words Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on a sign, but something was wrong with the building. I had never seen a frame Mormon Church building; they were all brick. When I turned my car into the parking lot for a closer look, I saw an unfamiliar word in the title: Reorganized. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints!
"Whats this?" I wondered aloud. As I watched people enter the church building, the idea of dissension within the Church sent a chill of fear through me. After all, it was in part the disunity within Christendom that had drawn me into the true, restored Church. I decided to ask Ed about this unnerving development.
In the Ingles living room, Ed leaned back in his overstuffed study chair and listened patiently as I explained what I had seen and the effect it had on me. "What do you know about the Reorganized Church?" I asked at last.
Ed laughed disarmingly. "I understand how you must feel, son. It must be kind of a shock to realize there are those not of the Lords Church who call themselves Latter-day Saints. But dont worry about the Reorganites. Theyre just a group of malcontents who broke away from the Church long ago. Its a tiny group. Theyre in deception. Forget it, son. Its nothing."
"Just forget about it, Jim. Its one of those black marks in the history of the Church. They have nothing of value to say."
"But how can they even use the name of the Church?"
Eds smile faded. "Theyre apostates, son. Theyre losers!" His face became uncharacteristically hard. He added grimly, "Stay away from them!"
As I saw his determination, something melted within me. My fear faded. In its place came a new determination one based on trust, submitting itself confidently to the man of God who sat before me. I saw in Eds eyes the fire of the prophet.
Who were these Reorganites, anyway? I asked myself. How dare they stand against the Lords church? I felt pity and revulsion for them.
Ed came to my rescue another time one Sunday after church. I had been disturbed by an incident in the early morning priesthood meeting. The priesthood teacher had mentioned in passing a concept he called Eternal Progression. He said that God had once been a man and had progressed to godhood! I found that impossible to believe and protested, saying it was blasphemous to talk about God having once been a man.
Over dinner at Eds I brought up the subject, telling what the teacher had said and my response.
"He was telling you the truth," said Ed, not looking up from the roast beef he was carving.
"But Brother Ingles," I protested, "God is God and man is man. How can it be said that God was once a man?"
"Well, Jim, there are a lot of things you dont understand now that you will understand later. The prophet Joseph did teach that God is an exalted man. And President Lorenzo Snow taught us, As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may become. He told us that God is an exalted man, who was once as we are now."
I was irritated. "I dont understand how "
"Well, son," Ed interrupted, "if youll listen maybe you will!"
"Im sorry sir. Its just such a strange thought. I mean, Ive always thought that God was always God."
Ed smiled at me again. I felt relieved to know he wasnt angry.
"The fact is, Jim, God progressed to godhood. He was a man. He had a father. He became a god through obedience to the laws and ordinances of the universe. Now, I know thats hard to understand when you first hear it. But youll come in good time to understand that truth, as well as many other things you cannot receive now."
I knew he was referring to things I would learn in the temple if and when I was worthy to enter that sacred place.
"Ill tell you one more thing you might as well know. Its a wonderful truth that will thrill you when you finally come to understand and accept it. It is not only true that God became God, but it is also that His doing so was not unusual."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that He is not the only being to have so progressed."
"You mean there are other beings that other gods?"
"Thats exactly what I mean."
My heart sank. I did not like what I was hearing.
"Not only that, my dear boy, but there are others who have become gods, and still others who will become gods!"
"You mean other men."
I was shocked and confused. I had been a member of the Church only a few months. I knew there were lots of things I had to learn. I knew there were temple ordinances that were yet to be revealed to me. These, Ed had said, were not secret, but they were sacred, so they were not discussed outside the walls of the temple.
But I had not thought there would be anything so grand in scope as this to be learned. What I was hearing challenged the deepest recesses of my soul. Something in me rebelled at the words, resisting the thought that God had not always been God.
"Joseph Smith said that God was not God from all eternity," Ed was saying, "but that He learned to become a god. And that we, too, must learn to become gods."
"But I dont want to learn to become a god," I objected weakly.
Ed laughed. Smiling at Martha across the table, he got up and walked toward the kitchen. "How about a root beer, son?"
My stomach felt lined with lead. I was reeling from what I was hearing. But the Church was the final authority on matters of conduct and doctrine, and I believed that the Church was founded by God Himself. It was the restored Church. Christianity had gone completely wrong. The Church was headed by a living prophet, David O. McKay, who communed personally with God. Who was I to contest the prophets? To trust my own feeble understanding, or to question the Church?
And I knew that to question the Church would separate me from my people, my religion and everything important to me. I had heard stories of those who questioned too much. They could not receive the truth. They were rebellious. They would eventually separate themselves from Gods Church and become apostate!
I could not bear to think of losing the acceptance and approval of my friends, as well as the Church. I was not ready to pit my own understanding against that of the brotherhood. When in doubt, I was told, trust the leaders of the Church. God would never let the prophets fall. I had to keep my eyes on the Church. The alternative was to set myself up as one who had greater insights and understanding than Gods anointed leaders: the first step on the slippery path to apostasy.
I had a decision to make. I could either trust my own understanding or commit myself deeper to the Church, and to all the things that were good Family Home Evening, home teaching, Sunday school, priesthood meetings, sacrament meetings, not to mention all my friends. All these were such a far cry from the licentiousness and wickedness of my life before the Church that I was overwhelmed with gratitude.
Ed stood silhouetted in the doorway, arms akimbo. Because of the light streaming in from the kitchen behind him, I could not see his face, but I knew he was watching me intently. Would I continue to argue, or would I accept what he was saying?
I found my voice. "Ill have a root beer, Ed."
"Good boy!" Ed exclaimed. "Good boy. Youre going to be an asset to the Kingdom, son!"