Margaretta and I took our seats in the auditorium. We had just finished attending the 100-member gospel doctrine class I taught. Now we were assembling for Fast and Testimony Meeting, which took place the first Sunday of every month immediately after Sunday school. On each side of the auditorium, a young man stood with microphone in hand to accommodate those ward members who wanted to "bear their testimonies."
The bishop opened the meeting by calling on one of his counselors to testify. Then one after another of the faithful stood to their feet and testified: "Jesus is the Christ, this is Gods true Church, Joseph Smith was a prophet and the Church is led by a living prophet today." Other testimonies would relate how the Church or the bishop or ones husband or wife had done something loving and wonderful that confirmed the fact that Mormonism was the only true Church and that we were indeed fortunate to be Mormons.
Fast and Testimony Meeting had always been a mixed blessing for me. On the one hand, the meetings tended to be boring. We usually had several older saints dominate the meetings by refusing to relinquish the microphone while they related a travelogue covering the last thirty years of their Church activity. On the other hand, Fast and Testimony Meeting had provided some of the most spiritual moments of my life. Sometimes someone would say something that would stir my soul in a marvelous way.
This particular Sunday in November 1973 was one of those special times. In fact, it would mark a turning point in my life, though I would not recognize it as such for some time.
To commence the testimonies, an elderly farmer in an ill fitting, wide-lapeled suit rose to his feet a few rows in front of us. He began to tell how much his affiliation with the Church meant. During the fall harvest, he said, while he had been working sixteen hours a day getting in his wheat, his faithful wife had driven out to the combine every night with a hot meal for him. He thanked God he belonged to a Church that taught its people the meaning of proper family relationships.
On my right a young mother stood up wearing a long print dress revealing that she was in the early months of pregnancy. She had a blonde child less than a year old in her arms and her husband wrestled two more at her side. She said how much she appreciated the primary program at church. How thrilled she was for the privilege of working with the little ones every Tuesday afternoon! How much they taught her about her heavenly Father!
I looked around the auditorium at nearly 300 people. Most were under 45 and most had several young children, though here and there I spotted a gray head. I knew that all these people were absolutely sincere in what they said and believed. They were genuinely happy to be part of an organization which, in a world of uncertainty and violence, promoted the virtues of decency, honesty and family togetherness.
The problem was, I could no longer take at face value the vague, emotive statements made by True Believers. So long as my fretting had been only internal so long as I only felt there was something wrong in Zion I was not free to challenge the picture of the Church systematically provided us from Salt Lake. But since I had made the agonizing decision to unwrap my mind and look at the Church objectively, I was discovering with sinking heart that there were serious, foundation-level problems in Mormonism.
I had intensified my investigation of Church history six months earlier, right after the Reorganite missionaries had visited our home. During this time I had patiently searched the Journal of Discourses, as well as The Documented History of the Church. In a way I wished I hadnt even begun my investigation, since I feared where it was leading me.
For one thing, it was forcing me to take a hard look at my whole spiritual foundation. I cannot describe the sense of weariness and loss that began to haunt me. The Mormon Church was my whole life. The thought of giving it up was unbearable.
And I was beginning to realize that if I continued my research, I might come to a point of theological incompatibility and be left with nothing at all.
In my investigation, I had chosen to look not only at the roots of Mormonism, but also at the fruits. And as I did, I could no longer swallow (in testimonies like the ones I was now hearing) the recounting of virtues.
Although we prided ourselves in our religious devotion to our families, for example, I had personally witnessed the alienation and emptiness in Mormon family life. I had seen the backward character of the students at Ricks College. For ten years I had tasted the banality and shallow provincialism of the Mormon Church-state. And now, as I opened my eyes and looked objectively at the facts, I was forced to admit that "Happy Valley in the Rockies" was not happy at all. As I listened to men and women sing the praises of Mormonism, I knew the reality behind it: The Church failed to produce lasting marriages and healthy homes.
Statistics told me that Utah, the great Mormon state of Deseret, had a consistently higher divorce rate than the nation as a whole. (1) It consistently led the national average in the rate of teenage suicide. (2) And, within the citadel of Mormonism, child abuse was rampant. (3)
I was later to learn of Utahs inflated rate of larceny, (4) corporate crime, (5) and sharply rising rate of suicide among women. (6) Also in Utah, twenty percent of homicide victims were children under the age of fifteen a rate five times the national average. (7)
My study, only six months old at the time of the Fast and Testimony Meeting, was bringing me to the brink of despair. As blackness began to enfold my world, I longed for a glimmer of hope.
Now, as yet another stood to testify that Sunday morning in November, hope was about to dawn. The man who rose to speak was a friend not close, but someone I talked to from time to time. He was a schoolteacher, outwardly patient and loving with his students as well as with his own children. I knew that he had serious problems at home. He had confided, much to my surprise, that he and his wife nearly divorced at the beginning of the school year.
His testimony was not unusual. In fact, what he said did not differ much from what any of the others had said. He began with the customary "My friends, I know that Jesus is the Christ ."
And when he said that, the same thing happened to me that happened regularly in testimony meetings. Whenever anyone said, "I know that Jesus is the Christ," the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Sometimes I even began to weep. I could not cry when I heard about a great tragedy, or even when someone died. But I often cried at certain statements about Jesus Christ.
This was a little embarrassing. I had a reputation for being softhearted in testimony meetings, though I never cried at the stories about the Churchs family programs, or the Scouting program, or when someone mentioned Joseph Smith. My crying was reserved for expressions of devotion for Jesus. I had come to believe that these displays of emotion were a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
But this time something else happened, too. As I began to weep at my friends statement, something clicked in my mind. Perhaps there was something salvageable in my religious life, I thought. Perhaps there was a bottom-line. Something that was real in my experience. Perhaps, in fact, that Something might be a Someone.
As all the points of faith in the Church had begun to crumble away during the past few months, a form was emerging out of the wreckage with increasing clarity. That form was the Person of Jesus.
I had nowhere else to turn. I knew all too well the costs involved in a search such as mine. Were I to leave the Church, I would be a social outcast in a community in which nearly everyone was a Church member. My scorn would be doubled because I was not only a member of the Mormon community, but also a respected leader.
My wifes parents would never understand if I were compelled to leave. Neither would my friends. Even my job on the newspaper, in a community 90 percent Mormon, could be threatened.
Worst of all, I knew what Margarettas reaction would be. There was no doubt in my mind that she was not prepared for this kind of social upheaval. She would never leave the Church and would deeply resent me for doing so. I knew in the depths of my heart that if I left the Church, Margaretta would leave me.
In this dark moment, all my religious moorings were torn loose. It was a time to return to basics. I had to ask myself what, if anything, I could believe. When I reduced everything to essential, believable minimums, was anything salvageable for me in Mormonism? Was anything left as an unchallenged point of faith? And what about this Man who, when acknowledged as the Christ, brought tears to my eyes?
That morning in Fast and Testimony meeting marked the beginning of a recurring experience I began to call my "tapestry" experience. As I continued my search, whether reading or in a meeting or simply meditating on my spiritual condition, it seemed that I was continually drawn back to think about my relationship with Jesus Christ. He seemed to represent the focus of everything that bore any real importance. He faded in and out of my awareness, ever present yet somehow elusive.
As a Mormon, of course, I recognized Him as the Savior. The name Jesus Christ was part of the name of my Church, written on the exterior of every Mormon building. We closed each prayer "in the name of Thy beloved Son, Amen." But I was beginning to get the impression that, though I talked to Jesus, He was theoretical. I got the impression that He was supposed to be more real. Maybe, more correctly, I began to hope that He could be more real to me.
One thing was certain. I realized that if I were to make any sense out of my religious life, I would have to make contact with Jesus Christ.