Kathleen Flake is a religious historian and author of The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle.
[Can you talk about your experience going on a mission.]
... Missions are formative moments in Mormonism. I don't think my experience was unique. I was in Japan. When you sit across from someone and you have to not simply explain but demonstrate the value of this religious system, it really causes you to question what value you do find in it. And at that moment when I was trying to communicate across rather strong cultural boundaries, it strips away a lot of the things that you certainly turn to, to rationalize. …
I always enjoyed the more difficult, the more abstract elements of my religion -- Mormon doctrine, Mormon thought. I just thought missions would be kind of dumb. I just didn't want to go out and talk so simply about these things whereas I delighted in the complexity. And I learned on my mission to delight in that simplicity. I learned those fundamental principles of Christian faith -- repentance, baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost. And I saw this happen over and over again, and it required me to change a lot.
I guess the one word that covers it -- it's a particularly humbling experience out there, not only because it's a lot of rejection, but you are stripped down to just you and the message, and the message is, if you read this book and pray about it, God will tell you it's true.
And then you stand with that person until they try it, and if it does work well -- and if it doesn't work, then it's still OK; you just move on. But that experience, in terms of a coming-of-age experience, it changes you, but also in understanding the dynamics of faith and its nonrational power.
Daniel Peterson is a Brigham Young University professor and the author of many articles and books on LDS doctrine.
When I received my mission call I was delighted, because, of all things, I had decided that I wanted to go to Switzerland. … we drove up to Salt Lake City, and I was to go into what was then the old mission home here in Salt Lake. Everything was going fine. I was really excited to go to Switzerland, to be a missionary, all these wonderful things I had thought about for years. And then my father -- I remember standing in our little camper that we'd driven up from California -- my father said, "Well, let's have a prayer." And he offered it. He'd only been a member of the church at that point for less than a week, whatever it was, and he began to pray, and then he broke down and sobbed.
I remember for the first time asking myself: "What on earth am I doing? I'm abandoning my parents for two years." I'd thought, well, I'll be a little homesick, but they won't mind. But he was obviously just broken up about it. I had never seen my father cry in my life. He was a really strong, quiet guy, ... and to see him sobbing and having to gain control of himself for just a little moment, I thought, I must be nuts. What kind of a church would ask this kind of thing of somebody, to split up a family like this?
Now, it turned out, of course, to be a fabulous experience, and my parents were delighted; they were so proud, and we had this great experience. I wrote to them regularly. They had this vicarious experience through me. They came over and picked me up at the end of the mission, so it was a great experience, and ultimately I don't regret any of it even slightly -- and for them, too. But there is that pain. The church does ask for sacrifices. We don't have to cross the Plains anymore with a handcart; we don't have to do those sorts of things, but it does ask things of us that sometimes are tough. ...
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and a former president of Brigham Young University.
I'd only been out [on my mission in England] a few months, maybe three months, and I had a new companion fresh from the farmlands of Alberta, [Canada]. We were walking and knocking on doors and getting wet, and walking and knocking on doors and getting wet, and we finally got in once. Someone invited us in, and it turned out to be a very bright, very intelligent, Oxford-trained, as I recall, British gentleman.
... I bore my testimony. At some point in our exchange, I told him that I knew this was true, and he pushed me on that. ... He said, "Now tell me about knowing." Well, that was one of the defining moments. I did something that I hope I've never done since. … When he said, "How do you know?," or "What does it mean to know?," or "What's the nature of knowledge?," well, I remembered having taken Philosophy 101, ... and I knew how to handle this question. I remember saying some stupid thing, some wholly unacceptable thing about knowledge or things that were axiomatic or things that were a priori knowledge. ...
Before I knew it I was in big trouble. ... And it was clear that not then and not now -- and I've taken a few more classes since then -- but not then and not now is it possible to talk about much of this, the deepest meanings of our belief, … either from Descartes or Spinoza, let alone Kant; that, in a way, [our belief] had nothing to do with that. What I should have known that night, and what I learned painfully, was that I was out of context. I didn't have the slightest idea where I was going or what I was saying, and I don't think I've ever done that since. ... It was a valuable and painful lesson. ...
Marlin K. Jensen is the executive director of the LDS Family and Church History Department and a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy.
What was your experience with the mission and did it reveal a side of you that you didn't know existed?
If I were to count on the fingers of one hand the defining experiences of my life, definitely my mission and my marriage and the rearing of the family would be the top three. I would place it in that category of importance. ...
I wanted, if I were going to go on a mission, to really know with some certitude that the things I was going to teach were true. I wanted to be honest about my preaching and about my mission.
So I tried before my mission to do what is always suggested -- to read the Scriptures, to say my prayers, to be obedient to the commandments of the church as we understand them -- and hoped in that process I would gain the spiritual conviction that is promised. And I didn't -- at least not to the degree of certainty that I had hoped for. So when I went on my mission I was still somewhat tentative, and in those early weeks really I was fairly careful the way I said things to people. I wanted to be honest. I didn't want to say I felt a certain way or knew something I didn't really know.
I went to Germany. … I remember about six weeks into my mission, my companion and I had stirred up enough difficulty in this Lutheran neighborhood where we were working that the Lutheran minister called a special meeting to warn his parishioners about us. He posted signs about this, and so we saw them, and my companion, who was the senior member, said, "We're going to go." At the time, I think I had memorized a blessing on the food and a prayer to open a cottage meeting, as they're called, a meeting with people learning about the church, and a prayer to close such a meeting. Then I had a few snatches of other phrases.
So what I'm telling you now I know because he later informed me of what the whole subject was about, but in that meeting, the Lutheran pastor I thought made a very logical argument. He said to his parishioners: "Look, these young Mormons are working here; be nice to them, but you don't really need them. You have Luther. You have the Bible. They have the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith, both of which are obviously fraudulent. So just be kind to them, and they'll go away."
Then he made a strategic error, or a tactical error, I guess. He said, "Is there anyone else here tonight that would like to say anything about these Mormons?" And of course my 6-foot-7-inch companion raised his hand and said, "We would," and up to the front we went, at which point he -- and again, I only know this from his retelling of it -- talked about the role that Luther had played in the Reformation and our belief in the Bible, but tried to explain there was more. There was a fullness that they didn't enjoy, and then told about Joseph Smith and about the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and the restoration of priested authority and so on.
And then, as we are accustomed to do, he bore his testimony, as we called it, or made a declaration of his personal belief in this, and then turned to me and said, "And now my companion would like to say how he feels." And I remember thinking, "Well, dandy, I can bless the food," because that's the only intelligent thing I might have done in German.
But it was interesting -- and this is a tender moment for me -- because the conviction I'd been searching for came, and it came in this way: I remember sort of composing myself and trying to figure out what I might say in German, which is a very logical language if you know the rules. I remember in that moment about every German word or phrase I had ever read or heard sort of coming together in a way that I was able to express myself.
And I did tell those people that I knew that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that I knew that the Book of Mormon was the word of God and that I knew that the church had been restored through Joseph Smith. And it's interesting, because in that moment I came to know -- and one of our church leaders has since taught -- that beautiful principle that the acquiring of a testimony, the acquiring of a conviction, is in the bearing of it, in the stating of it, not that it's self-conversion in that process, but that if the Spirit, which is what we believe, the Holy Ghost really convinces us -- and it's there because the Bible teaches us to help us come into all truth and to know truth; that's the role that the Holy Spirit or the Holy Ghost is to play -- then somehow by walking down that tunnel, maybe just from the light into darkness a little bit brings the light and the conviction.
That, for me -- I'm not a born-again Christian, because we don't have that terminology, and we don't have that experience as is had maybe in some churches -- but that was the moment, really, when my hope and my tender belief turned into something really solid, which has been the foundation for the rest of my life. It's what motivates me. It's what gets me up in the morning. It's what carries me in the duties that I do. It's what gives me joy and satisfaction from knowing that my way in life is the way I should be going. And it came about in that moment. So when people say, "How was your mission?," I say it was everything, because I've never been the same since that little moment.