When I first learned that Joseph Smith had written more than one version of the First Vision, I understood completely. Like Jim, I have “any number of versions” of my conversion story. One version — which details my experience as a non-member at BYU — appears here. But another part of the story begins much earlier in my life.
When I was a very young boy, my mother regularly tucked me into bed. These are some of my earliest memories. Each night, she would kneel beside me and say a prayer. I cannot remember the prayer, or even whether it was the same prayer every night, but I remember her kneeling there. And I remember her kissing me goodnight when she finished.
We also prayed at dinner. We said “grace.” I cannot remember that prayer either. You see, I was the youngest of four children, and by the time I was conscious of these family customs, they were already fading out of existence. Indeed, the concept of “family dinner” was lost by the time I exited elementary school. With the exception of an occasional unanswered prayer on behalf of the Minnesota Vikings, my high school years were devoid of any appeal to God.
Although I ignored God in my teenage years, He did not ignore me. In seventh grade, he inspired a family of Mormons to move from Eau Claire, Wisconsin to Foster, Wisconsin. I am searching for a way to convey the enormity of this decision. At the time, Eau Claire had a population of approximately 60,000. It was home to an LDS Ward and to the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire. It had several high schools, a mall (this was the mid-1970s, and malls were still cool), and a couple of nice country clubs. By contrast, Foster was a rest stop on I-94. Even today, Foster does not appear on Google Maps. Foster had an elementary school, but the older kids from Foster were bussed to my home town, Osseo. That’s how I met Mike O’Neill.
He was the only Mormon in my grade, and his was only the second Mormon family in the entire school system. He played right tackle on the football team, and I played right end.
One Saturday, he called and asked if I would like to go to a movie in Eau Claire, which had the closest theater to Osseo, 20 miles away. The movie was “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Younger Brother,” but I wasn’t being picky. I had never gone to the movies with anyone other than my family, and I was eager for an adventure of my own.
Mike and I quickly became best friends. Aside from going to movies and playing next to each other on the football team, we were debate partners for three years and study companions throughout high school. When we weren’t listening to Queen or BTO at each other’s homes, we were talking on the phone. The main topics of conversation: girls, music, sports … and getting out of Osseo and Foster!
I don’t remember Mike being particularly devout, but he didn’t drink beer, and that was enough to set him apart from all of my other friends. In our junior and senior years, we attended all of the class parties with our own supply of drinks, usually Mountain Dew or Sunkist orange soda.
Mike taught me in ways that seem funny now. I remember riding next to him as he drove us to Eau Claire for another adventure, and he asked, “If [he named the most beautiful girl in our high school] asked you to have sex with her, would you do it?”
“I wouldn’t,” he said. So we talked about that.
When the time came to choose a college, Mike lobbied for BYU. I had never heard of BYU, and I had no desire to go to Utah. I was headed for California or Arizona, but as a gesture of friendship, I applied to BYU. For a variety of reasons, including the fact that Mike and I would be roommates, BYU slowly rose to the top of my list. My other conversion post describes some of the culture shock I felt when I arrived, so I will skip that here.
As I relect on my conversion, I acknowledge the hand of the Lord in preparing me for the Gospel from a very young age. Through my mother, He taught me to pray, and through Mike, He helped me to remain morally clean and to develop a world view that easily accommodated Mormonism. And, of course, He plucked me out of Osseo, Wisconsin and took me to BYU. I assume that all converts — indeed, all people who gain a testimony of God’s love — feel that God has made special efforts on their behalf. I certainly feel that way. For that, I am eternally thankful.