The missionaries found me when I was 17. That was back in 1964 in Antwerp, Belgium. I read Joseph Smith’s history and Moroni’s promise. I knew it was true. Immediately, fully. The Gospel unfolded like the rising sun.
I went to the local branch. A tiny branch in a regular rowhouse that the Church had purchased a few years before. I got to know the handful of members, my new family.
There were only two Melchizedek priesthood holders, one was the branch president and the other the district president. Both converts from the 1950s. They did not get along at all. The district president was a military man with the Handbook in his eyes. The branch president was a simple workman, forbearing and reassuring. He had a peculiar realistic faith. He told us quietly he had decided not go to the temple and be sealed to his wife because he did not want to spend eternity with her, but he was willing to put up with her for mortality, which he considered an already reasonable sacrifice. His wife would then punch him and grin: “Just wait and see!” In church he would chew some mint, to counter the tobacco smell. But he cared for his little flock in his own paternal way. We loved him dearly. And he effectively stopped the district president from holding church courts after sacrament meeting. Because taking the sacrament with the left hand, quarreling in public, or speaking evil of the district president were causes for on the spot church discipline. The branch president would tell him to get lost.
The refiner’s fire burned with a broken thermostat. The heat was up all the way. Our branch counted some twenty (semi)active members – mostly elderly sisters with colorful personalities. But so many converts had come and gone, so many came and went. Yearly the membership records had been expanding and continued to expand, to a couple of hundred names, but for years our average attendance remained around twenty. There were plenty of reasons to give up – family pressure, social pressure, burnout, and all manner of troubles with bizarre and volatile converts baptized by eager missionaries.
But, oh, the excitement for those who kept the faith. We feasted on Church history and pure plain doctrine. The First Vision, the visit of Moroni, the translation of the Book of Mormon, the return of John the Baptist, of Peter, James and John; the martyrdom of the prophet, the exodus from Nauvoo, the founding of that paradise in Deseret – each of those breathtaking episodes filled us with awe, again and again. Glad tidings of great joy! Religion was now so crystal-clear for those who had wandered in the darkness of the Great Apostasy: we knew the dispensations of time, the restoration, the plan of salvation, the ordinances, the work for the dead, the degrees of glory. Everything fell into place. Everything related to the Church was perfect for me. Arnold Friberg’s prints now decorated my bedroom, much to the dismay of my dad, a professional art historian, who now was sure he had lost his son for good, religiously and culturally.
Other electrifying doctrines were talked about, without restriction, as if no end would come to the unfolding of truth: “As man is, God once was…”, eternal progression, mother in heaven, the King Follet discourseâ€¦ We got the first edition of Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine. Wow, look at this entry: Catholic Church – See Church of the Devil. We knew that equation already, but it was heartwarming to see it in print, also considering the persecution from the Belgian Catholic establishment we were under (an establishment quite different from the Catholic Church in the U.S.). Little did we know that Mormon Doctrine’s first edition had been disapproved by the Brethern. We knew where we stood and who the enemy was. We were not just another denomination, Christian or not, we were the Only True Church. And the rest were abominations in the eyes of the Lord — though thanks to us all their members could be saved.
Our enthusiasm made us always sing very loudly. Perhaps also to encourage the little, crumbling harmonium with two squeaking pedals to pump the air and the left pedal faltering regularly. One Sunday we had high visitors from Utah: two sisters of the Primary General Presidency, passing through with the mission president. I overheard the one say to the other, with a disturbed look on her face: “They sing so noisily”. True, we were singing even more loudly than usual, to demonstrate to our visitors our unflagging commitment to the Church. Under the vigorous foot of sister Janssens even the left pedal of the harmonium squeaked better than ever.
A highlight of that period was a visit by a member of the Twelve – Elder Mark E. Petersen, who gave a stirring talk about the Great Apostasy, with a sparkling depiction of the atrocities by the popes in Rome. My mother, a committed Catholic whom I had finally convinced to come to a Mormon event, was so upset that for months I was forbidden to set foot again in that cult. I cried my heart out so much I missed my branch.
On Sundays, we’d be in church from at least 9 AM till at least 7 PM. Relief Society, Priesthood and Sunday School took from 9 till 12, Sacrament meeting was at 5 PM, but since distances to our homes were too great, quite a few would stay in the little rowhouse on Sunday afternoon, picnicking in the basement, singing hymns and telling faith promoting rumors. Ten hours in church — and never be bored. There was so much to be excited about, the unity of this handful of saints in the middle of Babylon, the talks, testimonies and tears — and the occasional clash between the branch and the district president.
And we would dream about growth: certainly, once the time would come that we would have a stake, and hundreds of priesthood holders, and mature leaders, and we would be a ward with a real church building. I remember how I gave moving talks picturing that future. To endure, we had to cling to that vision.
All that happened between 35 and 40 years ago. It was all indiscriminately natural and elating, normal and supernatural. But I don’t think I was a simpleton. During these very years I also obtained my B.A., studying philosophy, history and literature at the Antwerp Jesuit University, then obtained my M.A. at the University of Ghent with a thesis on the first medieval Bible translation in French, and then went on to study post-graduate theology at the Catholic University of Louvain, specializing in early medieval Patrology, which was like a map to understand the Great Apostasy. Those studies helped me grasp even better the stirring audacity of Mormonism, its no-nonsense cosmic vision, its dynamic ability to circumscribe everything into one logic whole, its unique capacity to be both exclusive as Only Truth and inclusive to all mankind, even the dead.
Now, looking back, I think I have been immensely privileged to experience what must have been the Primitive Church during the lifetime of either Paul or Joseph Smith, in a little branch on the outskirts of the Kingdom. A mixture of uncontaminated faith and crude leadership, of delight and turmoil, of persevering against all odds. We had this keen sense of coming out of the darkness to the perfect light, of continuous doctrinal unfolding, of uniqueness. The Primitive Church as found in Acts or D&C, with its fervor and its fights, its faithful and its defectors. The Primitive Church with its daring doctrinal deepening, punctuated by exclamations, like in Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews or in Joseph Smith’s discourses.
And over the years I have come to love and respect that district president who, even as little understood and little sustained as he was, kept the faith for half a century in that very same branch until his death a year ago. The branch president died twelve years ago, after some 40 years of faithful attendance and service. He never made it to the temple. His wife is still alive, now 94. I am confident his understanding of eternal marriage has matured up there and that he is now eagerly waiting for her to come. Members who for decades have simply remained active in such branches, without ever doing the heroic things that make Ensign-stories, are the real heroes of our faith. The Lord must have a special welcome for them.
Today I sit in my Provo ward. Three hundred people in Sacrament meeting. Rotating schedules with two other wards in the building. The bishopric on the stand, kindly smiling. Even with so many people, the singing is gentle. The routine of releases and callings. Plenty of willing and able hands to serve. In priesthood I’m surrounded by some seventy wise, loving high priests. Friendships abound. This is the Church of which I dreamt 40 years ago: large, mature, organized. I truly love my ward.
But should it surprise anyone that my memories of the Primitive Church make my heart glow and my eyes moist?