When I think about all the factors that caused me to return to the religion of my youth after twenty years away, one stands out—a reexamination of the person, Joseph Smith, and his role in restoring original Christianity. From a very young age, I have been a seeker of truth. I was born in Berkeley into a family that valued thinking. My mother was an inquisitive person who read a lot and liked to discuss ideas. My father graduated from UC Berkeley with a graduate degree. Most of my father’s brothers and sisters have degrees and seeking knowledge was always a priority. My grandfather Eyring had the motto that “You don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true.”
I also had many thinking (and doing) relatives that certainly seemed to believe in Joseph Smith’s mission. On my mother’s side, my great great grandfather, Gudmundur Gudmundsen, was the first Mormon missionary to Iceland. My paternal great grandfather, Miles Park Romney, was born in Nauvoo, Illinois, crossed the plains to Salt Lake City, and later helped establish the Mormon colonies in Mexico. His great grandson, Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, is an active Mormon. My paternal great-grandfather, Henry Karl Eyring, immigrated from Germany, met the missionaries in St. Louis, and eventually joined the church (he did not believe their message at first). His grandson, Dr. Henry Eyring, world-renowned chemist, wrote a book entitled Faith of a Scientist, never seeing a contradiction between his scientific profession and his faith. His son, President Henry Eyring (Ph.D. Harvard) is the first counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His aunt and my aunt, Camilla Eyring, was married to Spencer W. Kimball, who later became President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
These strong spiritual and administrative family connections might suggest that I had a sure knowledge of Mormon claims to restored Christianity by the time I got to college. Unfortunately, I did not. There was no genetic transfer. I graduated from BYU and then served a mission to Toronto, Canada, hoping to gain the “testimony” so highly valued in Mormon circles, but returned empty-handed, certain that Joseph Smith was a fraud. Anti-Mormon literature and conversations with very intelligent detractors and ex-Mormons that called Joseph Smith’s character and mental health into question persuaded me out of the church. Honest person that I was, I followed my grandfather’s counsel, “You don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true” and I left the church for twenty years.
So, what brought me back? Being on the other side of the fence, investigating other faiths, comparing them with my childhood teachings, thinking deeply about principles, meeting lots of people from all walks of life, feeling something amiss, wanting more balance, I decided to reexamine my church roots. Biblical scripture study, often using the New International Version Study Bible with its extensive and informative footnoting, meditation, and prayer were key to the revising of my view of Joseph Smith. At this later time in my life, his “delusions and hallucinations” seemed better explained as real experiences, much like those of earlier prophets and apostles who had claimed to see angels and God. (Few believed them either.) Reading Richard Bushman’s 2007 book Rough Stone Rolling: A Cultural Biography of Mormonism’s Founder (Vintage Books) was pivotal in permanently changing my view of this man—from charlatan to humble seeker. Joseph Smith’s own statement, “If I had not experienced what I have, I would not have believed it myself” (History of the Church, Vol. 6, p. 317.) and other writings confirmed that he was an honest man. The hardships he suffered and the life he gave sealed the truthfulness of his claims for me.
Acknowledging Joseph Smith as a modern-day prophet was only a starting point—but an important starting point for understanding other Christian doctrines. Since then, I have been able to thoughtfully explore other questions about angels, temples, health, preparedness, etc. within a faithful context through Sunday School discussions, books, organizations (Sunstone, Mormon History Association), journals (Sunstone, Dialogue, BYU Studies), on-line journals (FARMS and FAIR), and gatherings like Sunstone conferences and the Miller-Eccles Group in Southern California. A seeker is always a seeker and scriptures and principles such as the following provide a lot of food for thought: “The Glory of God is intelligence, or . . . light and truth” (D&C 93:36), “Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection” (D&C 130:18), and the Thirteenth Article of Faith, “We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men; indeed, we may say that we follow the admonition of Paul—We believe all things, we hope all things, we have endured many things, and hope to be able to endure all things. If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.”
I have been back in the “restored” church” for ten years. I feel joyful, refreshed, and loved unconditionally as never before. Fellow believers meet together regularly and consciously learn about and apply the teachings of Christ in their own lives and communities. Children are trained (not brainwashed as I had earlier thought) and family life is considered essential for a loving, caring upbringing. I feel closeness to other members as we help each other through the sad times, and these relationships are deepened with greater involvement and service inside and outside the church. Since returning to the church, I also met my wonderful husband, who shares my beliefs. We have cherished our experiences meeting people in the church from all races, countries, socioeconomic backgrounds, and dispositions; for this is a church for all and depends on the faith, talents, and work of each member.
As a scholar, who values the marketplace of ideas and demands quality in discourse, I had to think twice about what the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offers. Nineteen-year-old missionaries knocking on doors could be dismissed as “irritating and naïve,” but they take on new significance as one realizes they are doing this on their own dime. But more than this, they reach the elderly and mentally ill who feel lost and forgotten, drunks and drug addicts seemingly beyond repair, youth spoiled by poor choices, people suffering from illness or injury, single parents stretched beyond their limits, and the humble who are willing to listen. I know this because I interacted with such people on my mission and many of them found solace and relief in the gospel message.
And what about the talks and classes given week to week on Sundays by a lay clergy? They may not compare to the polished sermons of a theologian or the polished lecture of a distinguished scholar, but they speak deeply to the human soul in need of repair. A church that calls itself a “true” church should do no less.
At a Mormon sacrament meeting, I not only take the sacrament, recognizing and remembering Christ’s loving example, but also hear individuals doing or reporting something about those beliefs–giving prayers for the sick, singing a hymn, delivering a talk on a gospel topic, hearing a missionary report from a foreign country, seeing a new baby blessed, enjoying a choir, listening to a piece of advice from a local member of the priesthood, or providing a vote of approval for someone who has been “called” to serve. And if it is a fast and testimony meeting (the first Sunday of every month), I can hear stories just like mine of new realizations, rebirths, and returns. You ask, “Why did I leave the Mormon church for twenty years and come back?” That is my answer.
Janet L. Eyring (BA Spanish, Brigham Young University; MA TESOL and Ph.D. Applied Linguistics, UCLA) chaired the Department of Modern Languages at California State University, Fullerton, from 2003-2010. She is currently a professor of Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). Her research and teaching interests include: Methods of Teaching Reading and Writing, Pedagogical Grammar, Second Language Curriculum, Second Language Assessment, Experiential Learning, Technology and Language Learning, and Service-Learning. She served on the ICAS ELL Task Force to study ESL students in California public higher education and is a current member of the English Language Advisory Panel for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, investigating teacher preparation for English Language Learners (ELLs) in California. She is married to Brian Thompson and has two step-children, Melanie Thompson Spencer and Melissa Thompson.
Posted April 2011