Last night, the mission president of the England, London mission, President Folger, hosted a “Why I Believe” fireside featuring U.S. Senators Gordon Smith (R. Ore.) and Orin Hatch (R. Utah), as well as two recent converts and the President of the Europe West Area, Elder Kenneth Johnson of the First Quorum of the Seventy.

The Spirit was strong as the two Senators related their experiences and faith in the Gospel. The common thread running through both of their comments — although otherwise very different — was the power of the Book of Mormon in their own spiritual development and conviction that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was true (by which both of them meant that the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Priesthood of God are found exclusively in the Church).

The Fireside began with two recent converts expressing their testimonies about what the Gospel has meant in their lives. The first, a white English Latter-day Saint in his mid-twenties who was baptized within the last year spoke of the practical benefit the Gospel has brought into his life in helping him to overcome temptation and to follow Jesus Christ in his daily life. The second, a black African immigrant to England in his mid-forties who was baptized only last week with his family spoke of his lifelong search for the true Church and of his delight in meeting the missionaries and finding the Church. Both of them related the peace that belonging to the Church has brought into their lives.

These two recent converts were followed by Senator Smith who began his remarks by noting his own background with England and the Hyde Park chapel in particular. All four lines of his ancestry joined the Church in England between 1840 and 1856 and all emigrated during that period to Zion, making the hazardous trek across the great plains to reach the Salt Lake Valley. His father Milan D. Smith — who served as Undersecretary of Agriculture under Ezra Taft Benson — was mission president of the England, London mission in the early 1970s while Senator Smith was serving a mission in New Zealand.

Senator Smith related three key experiences that have led him to believe in Jesus Christ and that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the true Church:

(1) When he was eight years old he received a Book of Mormon as a baptismal present. That night he could not sleep and began reading the Book of Mormon and experienced a strong spiritual manifestation that the book was true.

(2) While a missionary in New Zealand at Christmastime, he felt alone and isolated and decided to read in Luke 2 to commerate his lonely Christmas. He received a witness of Jesus Christ at that time together with a conviction that serving his mission was what God desired him to do.

(3) As a bishop he counseled with a woman who confessed a very serious sin to him years after she had committed the sin. The woman had been carrying the burden of the sin with her for years but had been too scared to confess it to the bishop. Now that she had moved to a new ward she wanted a fresh start and had found the courage to confess her sin. She expressed to Bishop Smith that she no longer cared about the consequences and that she would face a Bishop’s Court if necessary. Seeing her broken heart and contrite spirit, Bishop Smith turned to D&C 58:42-43 and read it together with her:

42 Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.
43 By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins — behold, he will confess them and forsake them.

Upon reading these verses with her, Senator Smith related that the Spirit flooded the room almost pentacostally and they could feel the application of the Atonement as something experientially real. Bishop Smith assured her no Bishop’s Court would be necessary and that she had been forgiven.

Senator Smith spoke easily and authoritatively about all aspects of the Gospel in his edifying comments, but he particularly focused on the “marvelous work and wonder” of the Book of Mormon.

Senator Hatch opened with a comment about how Mitt Romney is running for President of the United States and all anyone can talk about is his Mormon religion. He speculated that the reason for this is that Governor Romney is so ultimately qualified for the job of Chief Executive of the country that his religion is one of the only things they can find to criticize about him. He mentioned Romney’s success in the adminstration of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, turning the $400 million deficit into a large profit from that event. He also mentioned Governor Romney’s success in eliminating the approx. $3 billion deficit in Massachussetts.

In speaking of Mitt Romney’s bid for President of the United States, Senator Hatch mentioned that he had discussed Romney with a key Evangelical Christian pastor who was initially hostile to Latter-day Saints. Senator Hatch convinced this person to read the Book of Mormon. Apparently, the Book of Mormon has softened this pastor’s views about the beliefs of the Latter-day Saints and this Evangelical leader no longer sees a reason to oppose Romney’s candidacy on religious grounds.

Senator Hatch then spoke at length about experiences he had as a missionary in the Great Lakes Mission. Senator Hatch’s remarks can only be described as extraordinary because the experiences he related were so literally miraculous. Senator Hatch recounted the following experiences with priesthood blessings:

  • He and his companion were asked to give a priesthood blessing to a woman who needed a hysterectomy. She did not have money for the operation and so she asked them for a blessing to keep her alive for two more weeks so that she could get the money for the operation. As background to this story, Senator Hatch related that earlier he had been asked for a blessing by someone else who had suffered a fractured skull. During the blessing, Elder Hatch was “told” in no uncertain terms to bless the woman that she would have children. Because he knew that she had had a hysterectomy, he refused to say it and closed the blessing. That night he experienced severe chastisement from the Lord for ignoring the mandate of the Spirit.   Years later he learned that the woman adopted children.  Returning to the story of the woman asking for a blessing to live two more weeks to earn the money for her hysterectomy, Senator Hatch said that once again, while giving the blessing, he was prompted to tell her that she would have children.  Because of his earlier experience with ignoring the voice of the Spirit, he obeyed the prompting and included the statement in the blessing.  She did not need the operation in the end and went on to raise a famly.
  • He and his companion were asked to give a blessing to a woman who had been bound to her bed with multpile sclerosis.  In the blessing he was prompted to tell her she would be able to walk again.  After the blessing she threw her blanket off and walked to the door of the bedroom and back.
  • He and his companion were asked to give a blessing to a young man who had been diagnosed with a tumor.  He was Catholic and the Nuns had called the mother from the hospital to tell her frantically that her son was levitating a few inches above the bed and that he was thrashing about.  Although the mother and the son were not members of the Church, Elder Hatch and his companion were allowed to give the man a blessing.  Senator Hatch said that giving the man a blessing was very difficult because he was levitating so Elder Hatch had to hold him down with his elbows while laying his hands and his companion’s hands on the man’s head.  Immediately after the blessing of healing, Senator Hatch said that the man turned on his side and fell fast asleep.  Later that day new x-rays were taken and the tumor had disappeared.  The mother and her eight children, including the man who received the blessing, were baptized.
  • He and his companion were called to give a blessing to a woman who had been blind for 27 years.  When they entered her hovel they noticed there was a single incandecent bulb hanging there.  They turned it on to enter and give her the blessing.  Before giving her the blessing, she mentioned to them that she was in complete darkness and only wanted to be able to see light again.  They gave her a blessing in which Elder Hatch was prompted to promise her that she would again “see the light”.  Immediately upon finishing the blessing she opened her eyes and, staring at the single light-bulb in the house, exclaimed, ”I see the light.”

In addition to these miraculous experiences dealing with priesthood blessings, Senator Hatch related a story about angelic visitations.  Elder Hatch and his companion were assigned to go to a new town in Ohio to establish the Church where it had no presence previously.  Prior to arriving, a Lutheran woman, while attending mass at her Church, was visited by an angel who offered her a bronze coin in one hand or a silver coin in the other.  She chose the silver coin because it ”represented resurrection to her”.  Later that night, the same angel appeared to her again and offered her two keys.  She again chose the silver one at which time the Angel showed her a black book and admonished her to accept it when it came to her as well as the teachings about God that the bearers of the book would bring to her.  Soon after she had this experience, Elder Hatch and his companion contacted her and presented her with the Book of Mormon, which at the time was in a black cover, and with a discussion about the Godhead.  She accepted the Church and became pivotal in building the Church in that city, including bringing some 30 or so people into the Church from her own circles.

Senator Hatch said that because of the rapid growth of the branch in this city, he was called to be Branch President as a missionary due to lack of priesthood holders.  He also said that he was the first Relief Society president of that branch because there was no one that could fulfil that role yet (an issue of experience).  He joked that he had made a great Relief Society president.

The main point of all these experiences with priesthood blessings and with organizing a branch was to emphasize the importance of the restoration of the Priesthood and that the authorized Priesthood is found in this Church.

Senator Hatch also related a pivotal experience he had with the Book of Mormon in describing when he first gained a testimony that the Church was true.  At 17 he took the Book of Mormon into the unheated upper room of his Pittsburg home and read it through.  After reading it, he knelt to pray to ask if it were true.  He was overcome with the Spirit and as his heart felt it would jump out of him, he came to know that the Book of Mormon is true.  He stated with conviction that from that moment on he has known it to be true; he simply could not deny that he knew that it was true. 

President Kenneth Johnson, the member of the First Quorum of the Seventy currently serving as president of the Europe West Area located in Solihul, then gave the concluding talk.  In a short but sweet talk he expressed gratitude that we could hear the Senators’ experiences but quoted a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox to make the point that you don’t have to hold high position to make a lasting contribution.

To illustrate this point, Elder Johnson told of his recent experience participating in negotiations to get official recognition for the Church in Italy. He accompanied Elder Uchtdorf, Senator Smith, and a local Italian Area Authority Seventy to meetings in Rome in October 2006 to discuss the issue. Senator Smith made a case as a representative of the U.S. Government for extending official recognition to the Church. Apostle Uchtdorf appealed to the Italian officials on the basis of the Church’s long-standing presence in Italy and on the reputation of its members for being good citizens. But the Italian official whose signature was required to move the recognition process forward did not appear swayed by either of these two men’s words. Instead he revealed that in anticipation of this meeting he had recently travelled to Salt Lake City without alerting the Church to his plans. While there, he took the tour of Temple Square. Naturally, he was assigned two Italian sister missionaries for the guided tour. He was extremely impressed with these two average Italian citizens serving their missions in Salt Lake City and the way they represented the Church and the Gospel. They represented Italy well. He then asked, unprompted, “When are you going to build a temple in Rome?” Elder Uchtdorf responded by saying, “As soon as you sign these papers.” The official signed off on the documents. Of course, that light-hearted exchange is not enough to guarantee the Church official recognition in Italy. Prime Minister Prodi signed off on the papers in April 2007 and the issue must now move through the Italian Parliament.

The contribution made by two sisters on Temple Square who simply did their duty for someone who seemed to be a normal Italian tourist could have far-reaching implications. Elder Johnson admonished all of us to live in such a way that we influence our neighborhoods and countries for good.

In sum, the Fireside was very long but also very uplifting.