Friday, February 25, 2011

Self-Evident Truth

The freighter Victoria plowed her way across the Atlantic enroute from Charleston, South Carolina, to Holy Loch, Scotland.  In addition to the merchant crew, a naval contingent of one officer and a half dozen enlisted men made the voyage.  Their mission entailed the safeguarding of a certain military cargo.  This gave them at most an hour of actual work per day.  The rest of their time was quite leisurely.  The officer in charge was a young lieutenant—quiet, intelligent, and college educated.  In his many hours of free time, he sat quietly in the lounge and read the Book of Mormon.  With the ship taking ten days to cross the Atlantic, the lieutenant had ample time to become thoroughly engrossed in his reading.

Eventually, others became curious about this young officer who had almost no work to do and who was always reading.  One of the engineers finally asked him about it.  When the lieutenant showed him the book, the astonished engineer blurted out, “What are you reading that religious garbage for?”  The lieutenant calmly responded by asking the engineer, “How do you know it’s garbage?  Have you read it?”  The engineer replied that he had not.  Then the second mate came along and joined the discussion.  Neither the mate nor the engineer was religious, but the sight of this almost always off duty lieutenant reading a religious book for hours and even days on end aroused their curiosity.  In a not unkind way, just with the customary shipboard gruffness, they were asking about this extremely unusual situation.

The lieutenant explained that in the apartment complex where he lived, certain young men dressed in white shirts and neckties and with short hair and name tags periodically came along and visited the residents.  They were consistently polite and friendly, and they wanted to talk to people about religion.  The lieutenant had met them several times, but was never seriously interested in discussing religion with them.  Finally, with the prospect of ten days at sea with very little to do in front of him, he agreed to take a copy of their book.  He said that he really didn’t know anything about these young men’s religion, and he thought that if he read their book, then he would know what they were talking about.  This explanation made sense to the mate and the engineer, and their inquiry came to a close.  They went about their business, and the lieutenant resumed his reading.

I witnessed this discussion, but did not participate in it.  I had heard of the Book of Mormon, but knew almost nothing about it, although now I had at least seen it for the first time.  I found the engineer’s question about the book unreasonable, as I had long been taught not to judge a book by its cover.  I also found the lieutenant’s explanation quite sensible.  But unlike the lieutenant, I had work to do and other interests to pursue, and so I promptly forgot about the conversation.

Until much later.  While home on vacation I happened upon a coupon in a newspaper that offered me a free copy of the Book of Mormon.  The price was right, so I sent it in only half expecting to actually get anything in the mail.  Well, nothing came in the mail, but two young men dressed in white shirts and neckties and with short hair and name tags knocked on the door and personally delivered my free copy of the book.  Now I had seen the book for the second time.  I read the introduction, perused the book briefly, and put it on a shelf, intending to read it later.  It remained on the shelf untouched for thirteen years.

In due time, two more young men dressed in white shirts and neckties and with short hair and name tags walked into our neighborhood.  They were polite and friendly, and they wanted to talk to us about religion.  I had no interest in discussing religion with them, and not having read their book, I really didn’t know what they were talking about.  The rest of the family felt differently, however.  With four children’s futures at stake, I realized that I needed to know what these young men were talking about.  I remembered the lieutenant aboard the Victoria, and my rationale for reading the Book of Mormon was similar to his.  In addition, though, I wanted to know what kind of influence this book and its religion would have on my children.

I read the Book of Mormon from cover to cover.  In fact, I was the first one in the family to do so.  The young men in the white shirts—by this time I had learned they were missionaries—asked me what I thought of the book.  I told them I thought it was interesting.  Then they asked if I had prayed and asked the Lord if the book was true.  I replied that praying about it had never occurred to me.  They then invited me to pray about the book so that I would know for myself that it was true.  This seemed like a very strange thing to do, not just because the idea of praying about an inanimate object was new to me, but more importantly, it seemed pointless.

I asked the missionaries why I should pray about the truthfulness—or lack of it—of a book when I was already satisfied that it was true.  There were several reasons to believe that it was true.  I had thought of this as I had read it.  I had reasoned that if one were a Christian already and believed in the truthfulness of the prophesies in the Old Testament and the historical records in the New Testament, then one had also to believe in the same prophesies and historical records contained in the Book of Mormon.  The additional material contained in the Book of Mormon but not in the Bible impressed me as credible because of Biblical allusions to it and because of its general consistency with traditional Judeo-Christian thought.  Additionally, it was reasonable in the first place just to consider the possibility that the Book of Mormon was the word of God because of the fact that the Bible alone is not a complete record of the Judeo-Christian heritage.  Many other ancient writings on this vast subject abound, but were not included in the Biblical compilation. 

Several sections of the Book of Mormon were so obviously consistent with the Biblical accounts that one could not disbelieve them except under pain of self-contradiction.  My favorites included the visions of Nephi concerning the virgin birth of Christ and his teaching of the Gospel in the ancient world, the discussion of the problem of evil in 2 Nephi, the subsequent prophecies of Isaiah in 2 Nephi, and the spoken words and recorded actions of the resurrected Christ in 3 Nephi.  Only the locations were different, and even this issue was alluded to by the Lord in the New Testament.

For these reasons, I believed in the Book of Mormon immediately.  I had no special feeling come over me.  Nothing sensational happened as I was reading.  Instead, I analyzed the Book of Mormon intellectually and found it clear, logical, and credible.  I believed in the Book of Mormon because its truth was self-evident.

Sometimes I wonder about the lieutenant on the Victoria.  He disembarked in Scotland, and I never saw him again.  I presume he finished reading the book—he certainly had enough free time to do so—but I wonder what he thought of it.  What did he tell those young men dressed in the white shirts and neckties when he got back home?  What impression did the Book of Mormon make on him?  Did he like it?  Did he believe in it?  Did he join the Church?  I’ll probably never know, but if nothing else, he did serve unwittingly to introduce me to the Book of Mormon, and for that I am very grateful.

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