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An Anchor In Rochester

Shortly after my baptism, we moved from Louisiana to New York.  When I was 12 years old, the Church was having an area conference in Rochester, NY.   My mother says that on the way to the conference the engine died for no apparent reason.  Dad didn’t know what was wrong and thought we would have to end the trip.  She prayed for a miracle to get it back on the road.  It started and we continued.  I have no memory of this.  

Mother says says the church was being scrutinited at this time for its position on a social topic and picketers were along the sidewalk harassing us as we went to the conference.  While quite uncomfortable for her, I have no memory of it.  Did I care so little about criticism that I was oblivious?  More likely, I was shielded from worry with the confidence and assertiveness of my parents.  One might suppose it was so long ago that I can’t remember anything.  I do have a vague memory of a small collection of bungalows where we slept.  I also have a vague memory of sitting on the hard metal floor in the back of the old brown station wagon on the way home.  

But one thing I remember so clearly it can never be forgotten.  Saturday night, Dad and I went to the conference center for a Priesthood meeting.  I’m sure many good things were said, but I don’t remember any of it.  While I have remembered they were church leaders from Salt Lake City, I don’t remember specifically who they were.  It was difficult to determine, but I wanted to know because this night was so significant.  Only recently have I been able to learn through an internet search that The Ensign recorded President Spencer W. Kimball and Elder Gordon B. Hinckley would be in Fayette, NY the weekend prior for the Sesquicentennial of the organization of the Church.[1]

The Ensign also announced in January:  “An area conference in Rochester, New York, has been planned for 12–13 April 1980. The conference will come one week after an observance of the Church’s 150th anniversary with ceremonies at nearby Fayette, New York, where the Church was organized 6 April 1830.”  But this still didn’t confirm who was at the conference.  Only from a recent book did I learn that President Kimball had been in Rochester, NY on April 12-13, one week after the Sesquicentennial.[2]  It is likely Elder Hinckley was also there, though uncertain since he had other business farther east earlier in the week.  While for three and a half decades, I have not known exactly who was there, I have known they were called of God.  

As I sat in the meeting, a powerful feeling entered my chest.  It was so powerful and real, I assumed what was happening to me must be noticeable to those around me.  I assumed I must be glowing.  With a reserved glance at my father,  I could tell from the expression on his face that he was unaware anything out of the ordinary was happening to me.  From his expression, I guessed nothing out of the ordinary was happening to him.  I still remember his expression.  I don’t remember who was speaking, what they were speaking about, going into the building, or coming out.  I have no detailed memory of any other interaction with my parents that weekend.  But I remember vividly the powerful feeling centered in my breast.

Since this time I have learned many others have had similar experiences and reported them, such as on the road to Emmaus as Cleopas and other disciples listened to the risen Lord and later said, “Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?”[3]   And in Zarahemla as the multitudes gathered at the steps of the temple and the Lord descended, after which they testified that the voice of the Father “did pierce them that did hear to the center … it did pierce them to the very soul, and did cause their hearts to burn.”[4]   My heart burned.  

Since I don’t remember what was being said and haven’t remembered who was there, what purpose would a higher power have of witnessing to me?  First of all, I learned with certainty a higher power exists - an Intelligence knowing exactly where and who I am individually.  I learned this Intelligence has the ability to single me out of a large crowd and speak to me individually.  There is no other conclusion than that this higher power intended to witness to me that these Church leaders were His servants and I should follow them.  

I don’t need to convince myself that this Intelligence - this Higher Power - is God.  But I have thought over the years what a critic might say of this experience.  Some may doubt the source of these spiritual feelings.  The devil has also been described as one who can transform himself into “an angel of light.”[5]  Discerning the difference is deeply personal from a spiritual perspective.  While I do not wish to dwell on it now, I have experienced other spiritual feelings also - ugly, uncomfortable, and even frightening ones.  The contrast is stark and clear.  But what is ugly and frightening to one, may not be to another.  “The light shineth in darkness, but the darkness comprehendeth it not.”[6]  While I might describe my assessment of this spiritual experience to be from God, it would be hard for this assessment to be objective to anyone else.  

What other objective methods can be used to discern?  “By their fruits, ye shall know them.”[7]  While a mistake is made from time to time, by the vast majority, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been a vehicle to lift men and women from darkness and ignorance, to the light of Jesus Christ.  The Book of Mormon is a powerful confirmation of the truths taught in the Old and New Testaments.  It leads us to Christ.  It makes better people out of those embracing its principles, thus making the world a better place.  Exerting much energy opposing it wouldn’t make sense even if one did not believe Joseph Smith translated it with the power of God.  It is unquestionably true millions upon millions have been lifted far from the Old Testament, and lifted further from the New Testament, without any assistance from the Book of Mormon.  Anyone embracing the principles taught by Jesus Christ will be lifted.  The Book of Mormon also teaches those principles in a powerful way.  My purpose in this discussion is further to evaluate my experience objectively by “fruits.”  The fruits are good.  The experience was also good.

Another objective method is to evaluate secretiveness.  The devil’s works are works of darkness.  Those embracing them attempt to hide them from public view.  This is true of both individuals and organizations.  The work of individuals proceeds in darkness to hide embarrassment and guilt.  The work of organizations must proceed in darkness because they generally seek to get gain at the expense of others, or get power and influence over others without public approval.  In contrast, “No man when he hath lighted a candle, putteth it in a secret place.”[8]  “I spake openly to the world; I ever taught in the synagogue, and in the temple … and in secret have I said nothing.”[9]  Doctrines are not secret.  The only work we are to do secretly are our alms.  

Some would say the temple ordinance is secret, but this is incorrect.  All are invited.  Anyone can attend.  The qualifications are openly taught.  Others might say the Church has suppressed various aspects of church history.  But even if true, these incidents are not doctrines, but acts of leaders, subject to scrutiny, but arguably unnecessary to broadcast.  Individuals do not consistently and intentionally wear their mistakes on their forehead.  It is not any more sensible for an organization to advertise the mistakes of individuals within it.  If we do become aware of them, “give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been.”[10]  This way, our faith can be invigorated with new knowledge rather than challenged.[11]

Regarding doctrine, “A few question their faith when they find a statement made by a Church leader decades ago that seems incongruent with our doctrine. There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find.”[12]   I’m still feeling comfortable, but one more test of objectivity is useful.  
 
Lets assume we have concluded with certainty it was from God.  Why do some struggle for years to obtain such a witness, while others obtain it seemingly much too easily?  Because it came so powerfully and unexpectedly, in a manner that had never occurred prior, and only occurred later in similar circumstances, it cannot be rationalized away.  It cannot be ascribed to pure emotion.  An external influence had the power to pierce my soul.

This knowledge has been powerful in later years - a spiritual anchor.  While I have had many similar experiences since then, it is difficult to measure them in comparison.  My mind often falls back to the night in Rochester, New York, while in the presence of apostles and prophets, where a 12 year old boy was given a witness in a most powerful and unforgettable way.

One having had the witness of the Holy Spirit in any other context knows just as well it cannot be ascribed to pure emotion.  It is something else.  Some who have not had these powerful experiences have ascribed them as an emotional consequence of anxiously seeking them.  Those having had these experiences know this is incorrect, but it is hard to describe.  It must be experienced to be fully understood.  

To those having experienced it after seeking, the knowledge it is of God is no less certain to them than my experience was to me.  So it is not clear there is an advantage to having such an experience without seeking one.  It may have been important for me, but to no advantage to others.  However, my experience may have some advantage to those who do not know, for they cannot ascribe it as an emotional consequence of anxiously seeking.  I was not seeking, but it came.  Perhaps my experience may help others to desire a witness of their own or help them to recognize and understand experiences they will or have already had.

References:
[1] Ensign, May 1980.
[2] President Kimball in Rochester, NY April 12-13 ("Church History Study Guide, PT. 3: Latter-Day Prophets Since 1844 (Making Precious Things Plain, Vol. 6)", Randal S. Chase, May 31, 2012, pg 369).
[3] Luke 24:32.
[4] 3 Nephi 11:3.
[5] 2 Nephi 9:9.
[6] John 1:5, Doctrine and Covenants 88:49.
[7] Matt. 7:20.
[8] Luke 11:33.
[9] John 18:20.
[10] Mormon 9:31.
[11] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Come, Join With Us”, Conference Report, Ensign, Nov. 2013.  (https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2013/10/come-join-with-us?lang=eng)
[12] Neal A. Anderson,  “Trial of Your Faith”, Conference Report, Ensign, Nov. 2012.  (https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2012/10/trial-of-your-faith?lang=eng)

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