My Conversion Story

 
 
   I've always thought that the journey which ended in my joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on March 1, 1967 began in the summer of 1962, the summer I was to turn fifteen.  It wasn't until Sunday, October 2, 2005 at the conclusion of the 175th Semi-Annual General Conference of the Church that I realized it had actually begun much earlier.  True, there was a five-year period of learning and preparation, during which I was led to examine at close range many different tenets, so that I would recognize the truth when I found it, but there was actually a much longer period of time during which much groundwork was laid for my conversion.

   I was raised primarily as a Methodist.  While we lived in Richmond, my mother took us to Centenary Methodist Church.  For the year we lived in Clintwood, we attended Clintwood Baptist Church.  After we moved to Newport News, VA in January of 1954, for a brief period I attended Second Presbyterian Church, as it was within walking distance of our home in Stuart Gardens.

   Soon though, first my sister, and then my mother and I began going downtown to attend Trinity Methodist Church My father, having been raised as a staunch Southern Baptist (his parents were charter members of Northside Baptist Church in Richmond; he was the first baby born to the congregation), decided that he had had his fill of organized religion, and had attended more church services than most people could manage in two lifetimes, which would surely last him.  He did not attend with us.  While we went to church, he stayed home and listened to classical music.  He did come to my baptismal service when I became a full member of that church on April 3, 1958, shortly before my eleventh birthday.

   Twice a year, he asked that I stay home from church with him.  He said that CBS was broadcasting something he wanted me to watch with him.  It was the Semi-Annual Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Repeatedly he would remind me that although men would be speaking about their religion, I needn't pay attention to their words.  It was the choir he wanted me to hear. 

   "The Mormon Tabernacle Choir is the best choir in the world.  The pipe organ is the finest in America.  I want you to hear and enjoy this magnificent music with me."

   It wasn't until years later, when I watched the broadcast with others not of the church, that I realized something very singular.  Not once in all those years did he ridicule, disagree, or comment on the words spoken by those General Authorities.  Neither did he leave the room.  His attention was as riveted to the speakers as it was to the music.  His silence alone should have told me something, but it did not.

   For my part, I watched all the people involved as though they had landed from another planet, as if they were superior beings who somehow existed among mere mortals.  I fixated upon one principle which they held - the Word of Wisdom.  They not only refrained from the use of alcohol and tobacco, they didn't even drink coffee or tea.  I knew of not a single individual who did that.  As I listened to their powerful yet angelic voices, I could only marvel at such a thing.  I studied their faces, asking myself what manner of people they might be, knowing they were radically different from anyone I'd ever met.

   Twice a year we would do this.  We last watched conference together in April of 1960.  Three weeks later my father died.

   The year of 1962 seemed to bring with it all the good and bad things which could ever happen to me compressed into a twelve month period.  I'll not relate them all in detail at this time, but a number of them, perhaps all of them, played a major role in my learning and preparation and spiritual growth. 

   I think when things started turning weird was when my beautiful little bunny became ill and died in my arms on the eve of my algebra exam in May 1962. I cried all evening, I cried all night, I studied not at all, and was in no shape to take the exam the next day.  I took it and failed.

   I was going to summer school in Hampton that summer to make up for everything.  I had a wonderful teacher, I caught the vision, I understood everything for the first time, and had a 98 average.  I was dating a mighty fine looking fellow at the time.  Life was good.

   Then my cousin, Clarke Booth, and his roommate, Russ Aylor, came to spend the weekend. They were going to medical school at MCV, and supplementing their income by working in the lab. Russ said hello, and headed straight for the sofa, collapsing in a deep sleep.  While Russ slept, Clarke started calling around, trying to find dates for the show.  Unfortunately, he could only find one for himself.  I was two months shy of my 15th birthday, and these guys were eight years older.  Clarke said if he couldn't find a date for Russ, I'd have to go along to the show.  I thought he was joking.  He wasn't, and I went.  Talk about feeling weird and out of place!  There was nothing inappropriate - Russ was engaged and I was just a kid.  But I kept thinking all evening that somebody was going to have us all arrested or something.

   By the end of the weekend, Clarke was beginning to get sick, and Russ was positively dead meat. As they left, Clarke gave Mama and me each one of his patented "mushy-gushy-slobbery-Clarke-Booth-kisses". Eleanor turned her cheek.  If you haven't already guessed, they had both contracted infectious mononucleosis as a result of working in the lab.  I became quite ill, and had to be hospitalized for a week.   Mama went to extraordinary lengths obtaining permission from both school boards so that I could just turn in my work at the end of the week. We were thrilled. Unfortunately, I was just too sick to be able to pull it off. Three or four weeks later, Mama was finally diagnosed with mono as well, and also spent a week in the hospital.

   The hot guy I was dating understandably dropped me like a hot potato to preserve his football career.  A fella from the recently graduated Class of '62 began writing me from Marine boot camp at Parris Island while I was yet in the hospital. We had spent time together at the summer dances at Magruder for several years.

   This was the summer I spent on a chair in the back yard. It was the summer Mama inherited all the genealogy which started our research in earnest, including a pre-publication copy of The Brownlee Family, by O. Y. Brownlee, written in 1945.  I devoured it.  I came to love these ancestors and relatives of mine in Georgia and South Carolina and Scotland.  I immediately loved them. It was also the summer I read the Old Testament in her Uncle Horace's antique Bible through start to finish.

   On August 5, my favorite actress, Marilyn Monroe, was discovered dead from a drug overdose under very suspicious circumstances.

   For my 15th birthday on August 30th, my aunt Virginia took the little diamond ring that my daddy had won writing an essay while he himself was in high school, and had it reset for me.
  
   My sophomore year at school began, and with it Mrs. Baker's chemistry class - one of my greatest nightmares for years to come.

   In late September, my Marine came home from boot camp.

   On October 1, the Johnny Carson Show premiered, the Cuban Missile Crisis began shortly thereafter, and Eleanor Roosevelt died on November 7.

   Somewhere around then I dated a really gorgeous creature from the Class of '61 briefly, until he met a gal down at Chowan College and fell in love.

   Immediately thereafter, I started dating my Marine exclusively, and in the process fell hopelessly in love with him.  I had, of course, always had a thing for Marines, and now I had one of my very own - and wonder of wonder, he loved me!  Just after Christmas, he took me to G.E.X. to show me the diamond ring he had picked out for me.  It was a 1.1 carat diamond solitaire in a platinum setting.  He asked me to marry him.  I was astonished!  It never occurred to me that anyone would ask me to marry - not then, not ever.  I came within a hair's breath of doing it.  I planned the wedding in great detail - the attendants, their dresses, the flowers, the music - everything.  Then it dawned on my 15-year-old brain that while I might have the maturity to be a wife, by no stretch of the imagination was I ready to be a mother.  I told him, "No - not yet."

   Just after that, he turned 19, and on Valentine's Day Eleanor's second daughter, Renee, was born.  He was then ordered to report to Okinawa for a year. I rode with his family to Norfolk to send him off, sobbing bitterly both ways.

   Shortly thereafter, something just snapped. I wouldn't write him, I wouldn't do my homework, I wouldn't go to school, I wouldn't go to church, I wouldn't do anything. I simply withdrew into myself, and became very sullen.  By the first week in May, I did go to Winchester and Gettysburg with the band, and started slowly to emerge from that hell.

   In looking back, all I can think is that I must have thought that everyone I ever loved either died or left me. It took weeks for me to recover, but I was never really the same. Certainly my grades were never the same.  Nothing seemed to last.  People left and disappeared and didn't return, and I developed some serious emotional problems with all the turmoil.  Reading the genealogy was the only thing which seemed to bring me peace.  I stayed in my room as much as possible, and drew elaborate pedigree charts by hand.

   We asked Mama's friend, Virginia Rollins, the only Latter-day Saint we knew, if she could find us some forms for recording the genealogical date we had received.  She sent them via two young Mormon missionaries.  We eagerly took the forms, and not so eagerly agreed to meet with them.  We did not click with them personally, and the story they told seemed too fantastic to believe.  We told them they need not return.

  We all have to travel down certain roads to arrive at where we are today, and this is the path I took, so I suppose ultimately, it all worked out well.  From this point I began to be able to observe a plan for my life coming into focus, a plan not necessarily of my own choosing.

   I was not a half-hearted, lukewarm Methodist.  I was a consistently involved member.  I did not feel dissatisfied with my faith.  I had sung in the various choirs of the church since I was ten years old, and attended more than my required share of meetings and seminars - even weekly prayer meeting with my mama and several other women.  I simply had a thirst for knowledge.

   I immersed myself in the study of religions.  Having in the past had our pastor, The Rev. Esdras S. Gruver, one of the most Christ-like men I have ever known, explain Methodism to us in depth, I wanted to know more.  I felt that God was leading me to know and fully understand things for myself.  As President of my Methodist Youth Fellowship at Trinity during my senior year, I arranged to have our group study first-hand from representatives of several denominations.  Sometimes one group would warrant more attention from me than the others.  I would study and pray, study and pray.  I paid special heed to Judaism and Catholicism.  I studied point after point of doctrine.  Each time as I studied, I would ask, "Is this it?  Is this where I belong?"

   Each time the answer was the same: "No, not yet.  Wait.  Study and wait."

   Having completed my freshman year at Old Dominion College in Norfolk, VA in May of 1966, the school and I both agreed it would be a good idea if I took the next year off.  I gave new meaning to that that phrase.  I didn't work, I didn't study, I took the year off.  I healed and mended my soul.

   Just as the Christmas holidays ended and 1967 broke upon us, I became ill as only I seem to be able to do.  I appeared to have the flu, yet it lingered for a couple of weeks, leaving me weak and exhausted and confined largely to bed, lacking even the power to speak much except in grunts and groans.

   It was during this time that my sister, Eleanor, began meeting with missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.   Elders Garrett Lee Dunton of Draper, Utah and Duane LaDell Robinson of Enterprise, Utah had "tracted her out".  Hers was the last home in the Denbigh subdivision.  No one else had let them in to speak, and they debated whether or not to knock on her door.  She debated whether or not to let them in, but because she wanted to bring them to an understanding of their error, she agreed to speak with them.  They taught, she listened, and she began to ask questions.  She prepared sheets of questions on a legal pad, and soon set a record for asking more questions than anyone in the history of the mission.

   As they returned with answers to her every question, she began to call Mama and tell her what she had learned.  One day I heard Mama say, "Eleanor, it sounds as if you're starting to believe this stuff." 

   She said, "I think I am."

   In my weakened condition, I agreed to talk with her on the phone - or rather to listen to her, as I was too weak to talk.  This itself was a major step for me.  The only argument we had ever had in our lives had been about religion, and it was of such a serious nature, we agreed that it would be best if we never spoke of religion to one another again to avoid causing permanent damage to our relationship.

   But now she talked, and I listened - for hours at a time and days on end.  After she taught and explained to me all she had learned, she said, "It all comes down to this.  Did the 14-year old boy, Joseph Smith, have a vision?  Did he actually see Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ face to face?  If he didn't, then it's all a hoax, and the Book of Mormon is a hoax, and there is no good in them.  But if he did, then it's all true, every bit of it, and we'd better learn what it is."

   Just after this conversation, she drove down to Stuart Gardens to pick up Mama to take her to the laundry mat.  She brought with her a large stack of pamphlets, a copy of Meet the Mormons, and a marked copy of the Book of Mormon.  She left them with me, and said, "Read this and this and this and this.'

   When they returned home several hours later, she asked with obvious skepticism in her voice, "Well?  Did you read anything?"

   I said, "Yes, I read all the pamphlets, and all of Meet the Mormons and all the marked passages in the Book of Mormon, and the first two chapters of I Nephi."

   Eleanor was totally astounded.  "You DID?!?  Well, what do you think?!?"

   I softly replied, "Well, it's obviously all true."

   "Oh, no!" she exclaimed.  "You're just saying that because I did!"

   But that wasn't the case.  My soul had been touched and my prayers had been answered.  My five-year wait had ended.

   The first answer came as a brightness, a call to pay attention.  As I met with the missionaries, the answer was refined: "This is it.  This is what you have been seeking.  Your wait is over.  You need not look elsewhere; they will teach you the truth.  They will lead you by the hand and teach you, as a child is taught.  And it is all true, every bit."

   As I was taking the year off, I had time to devote to total study - usually twelve hour days of constant study and prayer.  And as I knew in advance that every doctrine they would teach me would be true, I had no struggle or difficulty in accepting any of it.  Sometimes I was surprised, as I was by the lack of robes worn during worship services, or in the use of water rather than grape juice during the taking of the sacrament.  Often I was ratified, as by the doctrine of the pre-existence, which I had always known in my heart, but had never been taught.

   I was struck by the words found near the end of the Book of Mormon, in Moroni 10: 3-5:
      

 
    3 - Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts.

4 - And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

5 - And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
 
  
   And I learned that it doesn't take a Supernatural Being to live without alcohol, tobacco, coffee, or tea.  It only takes knowledge and understanding and a willing heart. 

   I was baptized on March 1, 1967, three days after Eleanor, and a week after my first meeting with the elders.  Our mother was baptized on March 24, 1967.

   People are not often given a second chance in life.  I had that great blessing given to me.  There has never been a moment when I regretted my decision.  I'm grateful for a patient, loving Heavenly Father who hears and answers prayers.

            - Carol Buckley Harty of NC - 10/17/05
 


(This page was created on 10/17/05.)


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