Thanksgiving seems a good time to think about my membership in the Church and my gratitude for the Gospel. In other words, it seems to be a particularly good time for me to reflect on my conversion.
I don’t think I’ve ever written an account of that conversion except in a devotional address that I did at BYU several years ago. Even then, I didn’t give a full account. Part of my reason is that the story is extremely personal. I don’t mind telling others about it if the occasion is right, but the public character of writing and the super-public character of the internet has made me worry about what would happen were this story written down. Of course, I’ve told any number of versions of the story because the occasions for telling it have demanded different emphases and because, over time, some things stand out as more important than they once did. That is another reason for worrying about putting my account in writing: I’m not sure that I want any one of its versions to become the “official” one. Nevertheless, I’ve decided to put mine in writing.
During the summer of 1961 I was a couple of months short of fourteen. With other junior grade U.S. Army officers, my father was enrolled in a hospital administration program run by Baylor University at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. During breaks between classes, the participants talked and relaxed in the coffee room, but one of the other participants who sat next to my father in many classes didn’t drink coffee. Instead, Bob Clark drank Postum. One day my father asked if he could try some. Of course he could, but after one sip he didn’t want any more. “It tasted like boiled floor sweepings,” Dad said. The question of why anyone would drink that stuff led, of course, to a discussion of the Word of Wisdom and, you will be surprised to learn, to two questions: “What do you know about the Mormons?” and “Would you like to know more?”
The answer to the first question was “No more than what we picked up when we stopped at Temple Square on a trip through the West a year or so ago.” That wasn’t much. I’m not sure what my parents’ reaction was, but I remember sitting in the back seat of our car reading the Articles of Faith on a missionary card. Little of it seemed very different to me than my own beliefs–I was a member of the Disciples of Christ Church, one of the ecclesial descendants of the Campbellites, and I was beginning to think about perhaps being a Disciples minister. The stuff about the Book of Mormon was curious, and the idea that the new Jerusalem would be built in the Americas was outright strange. Otherwise, it looked like standard doctrine; it certainly didn’t make us want to know more. But the Postum and the fact that my father liked Bob raised Dad’s curiosity, so the answer to the second question was “Yes.” He and my mother were invited for supper with “two friends” the coming Saturday.
Mom and Dad came back from supper having enjoyed the discussion with the missionaries and interested in hearing more about the Mormons. They continued to go to the Clark home once a week for several weeks. Then they invited the missionaries to come to our house. I wasn’t interested, so I skipped the first meeting or two. Nevertheless, by stratagem (a combination of trickery and a pretty girl my age) my mother got me to come out of my bedroom to join in one of the meetings.
In spite of my reluctant entry, I was hooked almost immediately. The first discussion I took part in was on the Plan of Salvation, and I found what the missionaries taught interesting. In addition, they could answer all of my questions, which impressed me very much. It took me more than one session to figure out that they had memorized their presentations as well as the answers to my questions, but it didn’t matter. They could answer them. That was what was important to me. Everything they said made sense. Like many looking into the Church’s teachings, it seemed as if they were teaching me things I had always believed, even though I knew I hadn’t. I felt at home as we talked, comfortable with what I heard.
The missionaries continued to teach us for months. I continued to find what they had to say thought provoking, and I learned to admire them in spite of the fact that I thought them strange: they were serious, studious, religious young men who couldn’t take off their black suit jackets when they visited us, even though almost no one in those days had air conditioning and it was 95 degrees outside with 95% humidity; they lived together, drove a Rambler, and couldn’t date; they couldn’t listen to the radio and consequently knew nothing about the Shirelles or Chubby Checker. But in fact of the fact that we continued to study with the missionaries, we weren’t getting any closer to baptism
During the last week or two of January, 1962, my mother and I were in the kitchen doing dishes and talking about the Mormons. I don’t know which of us said it first, but we decided we would like to be baptized. However, since my father was still not sure what to think, we agreed not to say anything to him. Though I found comfort in the fact that the missionaries could answer any question I put to them, he was bothered by that. He didn’t believe someone could have all the answers (and, of course, they didn’t–but we didn’t then know that). Mom and I waited for him to make up his mind. Shortly thereafter, perhaps even the same day, I don’t remember, my father came to us saying, “I don’t know about you, but I’ve decided to join the Mormon Church.” Looking back, I suspect he was telling my mother, not me, but it seemed then that he was telling both of us.
Within a day or two the missionaries came by once again. When we opened the door, one of them said, “We have something we have to tell you.” My mother answered, “First, let us tell you something: we have decided to be baptized.” Needless to say, they were surprised. From their perspective, they had been teaching us for eight months or more and, though we had become friends of the Church, we were not close to being baptized. We were wasting their time, and they had come to tell us that the mission president had advised them not to continue to work with us.
We wanted to be baptized right away, but since we were very involved in the First Christian Church of San Antonio, we had to make some arrangements. We had, at least, to tell the minister, Dr. Sandlin, what we were doing. Not to do so would have been rude as well as disruptive since my father was one of the church’s elders, and it was at Dr. Sandlin’s urging that I had begun to think about a career in the ministry. Besides, the missionaries said we needed to attend an LDS service at least once, something we had never done.
Dr. Sandlin took the news of our conversion poorly to say the least. He came to our house and spent some time with us trying to talk us out of making the change. It was the first time I heard anyone talk about the Mormons as cultists. Though that isn’t the word he used (no one did then), that was the message he brought. Dr. Sandlin was sincere and he was our friend, so all of us cried together as we talked about our leaving. But we didn’t change our mind.
Our goodbye’s said, within a few days we went to an LDS church service for the first time, ready to be baptized. The truth is, though, that I did not yet have much of a testimony. Regardless of what I told the missionaries when they asked, I hadn’t prayed about the truth of the Church’s teachings. I also hadn’t read anything from the Book of Mormon except the passages they had marked, though I said I was reading if they asked. I liked them. I thought what they taught made sense, and I didn’t want to let them down. Lying was an easy way to deal with their questions. But I didn’t have much of a testimony, partly because I had no idea what a testimony was. I felt good about my decision, but other than the feeling that the teachings made sense and feeling comfortable when we talked about Mormon doctrine, I had little spiritual confirmation of what I was learning.
In those days it was customary for missionaries to ask investigators not to take the Sacrament. The missionaries told my parents, but no one thought to tell me. For the Disciples, it is a point of doctrine that everyone takes Communion. So, after the bread was blessed and when it was passed to our row, I took a piece of bread and put it in my mouth.
Suddenly I was overcome from head to toe. The Spirit moved me and told me that the Church is true in a way that I could not and cannot deny. I knew it. That is the only honest way to describe the result of my experience: I had new knowledge, knowledge that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is Christ’s church. Though I was no Paul, neither in my previous opposition nor in the power of this experience, I knew something about what Paul’s experience was like. The decision to be baptized was no longer mine; it had become something I had to do. Nothing else mattered. On 3 February 1962 my parents, my younger brother, my maternal aunt, and I were baptized.
Since then I have had a few occasions when I’ve felt the Spirit in something like the way I did that Sunday, but never as powerfully as I did then. Since then I’ve sometimes run up against spiritual obstacles–personal foibles, intellectual difficulties, simple weakening of faith–but I’ve continued because that experience of almost forty-six years ago remains the foundation and touchstone of my faith. Recalling it has kept me going when it would have otherwise been easy to leave. The truth was given to me in that moment, and it continues to be the foundation for my life.