BaptistConversion Stories

From Agnostic to Baptist to Catholic: The ABCs of Conversion

Dr. Ian Murphy
September 23, 2020 No Comments

Odd that someone with a quintessential Irish Catholic name like “Ian Murphy” is a convert into the Church; yet I am. Initially, I doubted whether God existed; eventually, I became a Baptist preacher; now I’m Catholic.

In one sense, I suppose I have what people call “one of those dramatic conversion stories.” A physical encounter with spiritual warfare brought me out of my atheistic doubts, and my sense of justice in my Protestant years inspired a federal law from the U.S. Congress. I can certainly understand somebody deeming this journey a dramatic conversion.

At the same time, all Catholics are ongoing converts, and I believe that each individual’s encounter with Jesus Christ is dramatic — precisely because it’s an encounter with Jesus Christ. The unusual aspects of my own conversion are probably attributable to my stubbornness. Had I been more humble and cooperative with God’s grace, the Lord wouldn’t have allowed my journey to become so intense.

As the second of five children, I grew up in a Christian home. My dad and mom were both Christians of strong faith and sincere friendship with the Lord. Odd as it may seem, we didn’t join a church and attend services on a regular basis. My parents were hippies.

They weren’t flag-burning revolutionaries, but they did participate in peace communes, and they traveled the country camping. Family life eventually grounded my parents, as child-rearing became their priority. What remained deeply instilled from the hippie culture was a suspicion of institutions, including religious institutions.

My parents taught us that institutionalized religion couldn’t be trusted. While distancing themselves from church membership, they did teach us about Jesus and always stressed the importance of the Bible.

I remain grateful for the perspective my parents gave me, and for the desire for authenticity that it cultivated within me from a very young age. At the same time, by not growing up with regular church attendance, there was a lot I didn’t know or realize until I was older.

When Mom explained to me what the Bible was, I was moved in the core of my tiny being to read that book.

At four years of age, my reading was very limited. I began with the ten-volume set of Arthur Maxwell’s The Bible Story. Since it had pictures, I would find words I knew and match them to the scene. As my reading improved, I kept going and had nearly completed the entire set by the time I was eight years old. Problem was, I couldn’t believe it.

The Gospels sounded too good to be true. I wanted to believe them, but at that point, I wondered if I had spent the last four years reading an epic fable. In the second grade, I asked myself the scariest questions ever: “What if there is no God? What if I’m just an accident?” These doubts and questions would increasingly haunt me for the next six years.

I realized that if I have a Creator who designed me for a loving relationship with Him, then building that friendship is crucial to life’s purpose. If there is right and wrong, if there is an afterlife, if I am accountable for the way I live, then all of that impacts how I live right now. If God truly showed up in His own creation, evidenced by Christ’s rising from the dead, then I am responsible for how I respond to that. But what if, when I die, I simply blink out of existence with no awareness that I was ever here?

All of this existential turmoil was indeed a lot for a little second- grader. But this burden wasn’t constant, at least not throughout my elementary-school years. My doubts and fears surrounding God, purpose, and the afterlife filled me with a dreadful anxiety, but only periodically, in an otherwise happy childhood.

When I was five years old, my family moved into the house that I would call home for the next thirteen years, until I left for college. It was a beautiful Tudor-style A-frame with extensions, located atop one of the foothills of the Appalachians in western Pennsylvania — fairly close to Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous Fallingwater. Beautiful surroundings and an abundance of love made for a joyous boyhood.

This childhood happiness was interrupted when, at fourteen years old, my previously periodic anguish over questions regarding God’s existence became constant. Oh, how I wanted the Gospels to be real! As J.R.R. Tolkien once said, “There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true.” However, I realized that desire by itself was insufficient for me to have faith. Like the Apostle Thomas, I needed proof. Lacking the tangible evidence I sought, I realized that I was officially an agnostic, a non-believer. Throwing God into doubt, in turn, threw my whole self-image and purpose for living into doubt. I didn’t know what the meaning of my life was or why I existed. Reaching an unprecedented place of turmoil, I finally cried out the following prayer: “God, if you exist, then I need to touch the spiritual realm for myself, in order to have faith.” As people sometimes say, “Be careful what you pray for, because you might just get it.”

One night, I was awakened by an invisible, sinister presence. Wide awake, I was fully aware that I was no longer alone, and that something else was there with me in my bedroom. I couldn’t see it visibly, but I could tell where it was. It’s as though it was cloaked, but its cloaked presence left a haziness just enough to be detectable. Its malevolence was palpable. It felt evil.

Hovering above me, in front of the door, it spoke. The speech was not audible; it was clearer than that. This preternatural entity was able to plant messages directly into my mind. Its telepathic form of communication left no room for misunderstanding. These were intrusive messages, transmitted with perfect clarity, from someone else.

It said, “I just woke you up. I am here. I intend you harm.” I could sense its wickedness, its desire to hurt me, and its hatred for all people.

I asked, “Why can’t I see you?”

It answered me, “I have the ability to travel invisible to your human eye, but I am here. I am about to show you. I want you to die.”

The cloaked entity began moving toward me. By watching the hazy trace of its presence, I was able to follow its movement through the air. It moved away from the door, directly above me, descended down on top of me, and then it gripped me physically. With this sudden exertion of tremendous force, it pushed me downward, with me lying on my back against the bed. Then it started crushing me to the point of suffocation. It was utterly terrifying.

At the same time, it was undeniably fascinating. I watched the physical compression that was being exerted by an invisible entity with intelligence and will, one that could communicate mentally, and I was amazed. This experience constituted a tangible contact with the spiritual realm. Like the Apostle Thomas, I was able to touch it. I was now physically accessing an invisible reality with my natural senses. Now I knew that there was more to reality than meets the eye. Now I knew there was something on the other side of the veil. There is a bigger picture!

I knew what to pray. “God, I know you’re there, and I know you can hear me. I need your help.” To the thing that was crushing me, “I command you: Go away, in the name of Jesus.”

At that name, the thing was gone! It released me instantly, fleeing in panic out of the house. I was no longer scared of it, but I was in awe of the One it feared. I sucked in a gulp of exquisite air, threw off the covers, and leaped out of bed. I raced down the hallway into my parents’ room, woke them up, and told them everything that had transpired. Praying together with my parents, I asked Jesus into my heart. No words can describe the love, hope, joy, and peace that washed over me in that sacred moment.

The sinister presence — the one who had communicated its hatred while attempting to crush me to death — had fled in ter- ror at the name of the Lord. Whatever that thing was, it answered to Jesus Christ. This made Jesus and His Resurrection real to me. Jesus is called the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, God with us, and the firstborn from among the dead. And no one can explain Him away. Cutting through all religious agendas that attempt to tame Him, and through all the futile efforts across history to discredit Him, there He is. Not doctrines about Him, but He Himself, with love, power, and life for whoever wants it.

The risen Lord had saved my soul, and had literally saved my life. Under the newfound assurance of spiritual reality, my heart broke for other skeptics, as I used to be. I pored over apologetics — defenses of the Christian Faith — and was astonished how much tangible evidence is already available throughout history to substantiate Christ’s Incarnation, Resurrection, Ascension, and His sending of the Holy Spirit. With copious amounts of apologetics and a powerful testimony in hand, I launched an unofficial ministry to other doubting Thomases.

This ministry reached a climactic moment back in 1993, during my senior year of high school, when I was named valedic- torian of my class. When asked what I wanted to give my commencement speech about, there was no hesitation. I wanted to tell my classmates about Jesus. However, after reading my speech proposal, the graduation advisor told me that I was not allowed to say Jesus’ name at commencement. I explained respectfully that we live in a free country, where the Bill of Rights protects my freedoms of religion and speech. I explained to her that I am free to say what I believe, as the audience is free to disagree with me; and that these costly liberties make this nation great. The speech advisor said in reply that I was forbidden to give my speech, and that she would pull the plug on the sound system herself if I said the name of Jesus at graduation.

Following intense prayer, I decided to ask the local newspaper if they would be willing to print my valedictorian speech so that my community would have it available.

With my parents’ approval and prayer support, I picked up the phone and called the newspaper. They quickly escalated my call, transferring me to the larger tri-state area newspaper. After only a few seconds on hold, a robust individual came on the line:

“All right kid, what’s your story?”

“My high school won’t let me give my valedictorian speech at commencement because I talk about Jesus,” I said.

“They WHAT?!”

At that point, he tried to muffle the phone, and yelled, “Weeeee’ve gotta a hot one! — Where do you live?”

The news van arrived in fifteen minutes, and to this day, I’m puzzled by how he found us so fast. The man interviewed me for over an hour, taping everything on his recording equipment.

When I arrived at school the following morning, a group of people was marching around the school parking lot with signs.

“That’s weird,” I thought.

I went to my locker, and several of my classmates complimented me for how good I sounded on various radio stations that morning.

That’s when my girlfriend walked up to me holding the tri- state Tribune Review newspaper. On the front page was a gigan- tic color picture of me beneath the headline “Commencement Speech about Religion Rejected.” At that point, it started to occur to me what was happening.

Through the Associated Press, my interview from the day before not only made the front page in a paper whose reach extended into three states, but it was picked up by popular radio stations that played it over the airwaves all through the morning.

Within hours, my life was thrust into a bona fide three-ring media circus. If you have ever seen footage of the paparazzi thronging some Hollywood actor, it was just like that. A frenzy of flashing bulbs, reporters, television cameras, and microphones in my face became a common phenomenon at school, at my house, and even on the streets. As I would soon find out, not even the men’s locker room in the high school gymnasium was a safe hideout.

Media organizations from across the country picked up the story. People mailed me copies of newspapers from a number of different states, including Texas, New Hampshire, Colorado, Maine, California, and New York, all reporting the event. I was a guest on television and radio news programs. When my family drove from Pennsylvania out to Michigan for my uncle’s wedding, Channel Four News dispatched a helicopter news crew to follow us, in hopes of securing the first live interview. From veterans’ organizations to churches, I was praised for being the “free speech kid.”

The media genie I had unleashed was a powerful ally, to be sure; however, it had a mind of its own. Not all the attention I received was positive. Across those two unforgettable months, I also received multiple threats and acts of physical violence. I became the enemy of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which was actively campaigning against my speech, arguing in a public debate with me on live radio that the Bill of Rights applies to everybody except Christians. In turn, the American Center for Law and Justice, which had battled the ACLU before, came to my aid.

In the end, the school administration reversed their decision and allowed me to give my speech at graduation, now televised before a throng of TV cameras. According to God’s paradoxical handiwork, multitudes got to hear the Gospel because people had attempted to silence the name of Jesus. One of my classmates even gave her heart to Christ after hearing my commencement address.

The news coverage solicited the attention of Senator Arlen Specter. Inspired by my stand for freedom of speech, he drafted a bill to the U.S. Congress. Later ratified, the law officially protects graduating seniors from such unconstitutional attempts at censorship. I suppose I gave new meaning to the term, “Murphy’s Law.”

This launch into the public eye simultaneously launched my unofficial ministry to agnostics. I was never hurting for invitations to speak, because the recent media blitz afforded me with multiple opportunities to tell people about the Lord. During graduate school, while seeking an MA in Theology at a university in Texas, this ministry became official. I found myself the licensed and ordained head pastor of a local Baptist church. The problem is that, at this point in my career, I was convinced of the truth of the Catholic Church. How does one work as a Baptist preacher while persuaded that Catholicism is true? — by living a double life.

The spiritual journey that led me from the Baptist tradition of Christianity into the fullness of sacramental Catholicism is complex. It’s a journey that certainly includes important doctrinal questions and their resolution; at the same time, it’s a journey that transcends doctrine, dealing with the grace, mysterious set- ups, and interior workings of the Holy Spirit.

Originally, I had despised the Catholic Church. Better stated, I despised what I thought the Catholic Church was. My father loved Jesus, but he despised the Church. Based on some insidious tracts, which he would make us read and distribute, Dad called Catholicism the “Whore of Babylon.” I literally grew up hearing the Church called a whore.

Across my Christian growth, I started to see that everything I’d been taught about the Church was wrong. Catholics don’t worship Mary. The worship of Mary — the heresy of Collyridianism — was stamped out by the Catholic Church in the fourth century. In fact, it was so thoroughly rejected by the faithful that the matter never required resolution at the level of the papacy. Catholics don’t claim that the pope is the head of the Church; they affirm that Jesus Christ is its head. Catholics don’t claim that a man, rather than God, is the one who forgives your sins. They don’t worship statues; actually, they teach that statue worship would constitute sinful idolatry. They don’t believe that one enters heaven according to his own merits rather than God’s grace. And they don’t claim that we humans don’t need to be saved. They say the opposite. Whenever I asked hard questions about the Catholic Church, she always had the answer. Everything I’d been taught was false.

When I turned the tables and started asking hard questions about my own Protestant tradition, its inconsistencies and incompleteness became obvious, especially with regard to the matters of unity and authority. In a word, it all came down to authority. If Christ left an authority in this world to help guide His one Church, then no splintered-off fragment made sense. I longed for the freedom of authority, in which I would be free to grow in my personal relationship with Jesus as opposed to wondering which fragment had got it right — out of thousands of contradicting beliefs, all claiming the same Holy Spirit’s inspiration.

I remain thankful to my Baptist friends. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ, always. They introduced someone who didn’t grow up in church to the substantial truths of God’s covenants — His Fatherhood and His loving relationships with people across history. I am forever grateful for that.

My becoming Catholic was a process of addition, not subtraction. All the beautiful and life-transforming truths of the Baptist tradition were also in Catholicism, along with all the other truths that I’d been missing. It’s not that the Baptist tradition was wrong, so much as it was incomplete. Breaking off from the authority of Christ’s Church as it was originally established, resulting in disunity with the rest of the body, were my concerns.

The various Protestant denominations seemed to have serious disagreements about every Christian doctrine. How and when to baptize, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the nature of Communion, the question of eternal security, the relationship between grace, faith, and works, the place of justification, sanctification, and righteousness in the Christian life, and countless other doctrines were matters of serious and sometimes heated debates between the different denominations.

Feeling troubled, I once picked up a handbook of Protestant churches and was stunned to discover over two hundred distinct denominations. Moreover, these various denominations were expressed across thirty thousand different individual churches with unique nuances and a host of doctrinal disagreements between them.

The Bible says that there is “one body and one Spirit … one hope … one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:4-6). Through what I had become convinced was truly inspired and inerrant Scripture, the Lord calls His Church to strive to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). We are not supposed to divide. Rather, the Bible calls us to remain gentle and patient, “forbearing one another in love” (Eph 4:2).

It also calls us to speak the truth in love, but this is not an excuse for starting a quarrel, for “we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love” (Eph 4:15-16).

The Bible repeatedly calls believers to loving unity. It speaks of one body, one faith, and one Baptism. It didn’t talk about thirty thousand different bodies, faiths, and baptisms. God is not the author of confusion. I thought to myself, “How could I remain part of a system of denominational fragmentation, when the Bible clearly calls for unity among Christ’s followers?”

Yes, in this fallen world, disagreements arise. The Lord is no stranger to this fact. But when Jesus encountered problems among the people of God, He didn’t abandon ship. Rather than protesting against Judaism because of real problems within it, He fulfilled it, always offering His criticisms from within as a faithful member of the people of God. Through both teaching and example, Christ showed me the importance of bearing with one another in love, avoiding division, and staying united.

The particular Catholic doctrine I had the most trouble with was the Communion of Saints. Asking for prayers from the dead — from saints among the Church Triumphant — was a struggle. I had no doctrinal issue with the practice; after all, I ask for prayers from the living all the time. Furthermore, the Book of Hebrews affirms that those who have passed on surround me like a great “cloud of witnesses” cheering me on to finish the race (see Heb 12:1). Soliciting their prayers makes perfect sense. But my father had instilled in me from a very young age that the practice was evil, and this nurtured sense was difficult for me to shake off. God went to work on this issue with style when a couple of miracles proved to me how real the Communion of the Saints truly is and healed my former aversion. Previously disinclined to requesting their prayers, now it’s getting me to shut up that’s the problem.

Living a double life, as anybody who’s tried it knows, cannot last. I finally decided that I needed to find somebody to talk me out of Catholicism and tell me that thing I must have overlooked in my research, that thing which would justify my remaining Baptist. My income, livelihood, professional network, reputation, and parsonage were all on the line. Although I desired the fullness of Catholicism — hungry for sacrament, unity, and authority — the practical consequences of leaving behind my en- tire world as a Baptist preacher were overwhelming.

The first person I approached to talk me out of Catholicism was the president of a Baptist seminary. “Ian,” he said, “I’m con- vinced the Catholic Church is true! That’s why the Holy Spirit brought you to me. I should enter RCIA myself.”

“Well, that didn’t work,” I said to myself.

The second person I asked was the president of my undergraduate Christian group from college. If anybody could talk me out of Catholicism, it was he. I called him up after losing touch for years, and asked him my question: “What have I overlooked here? Why is the Catholic Church wrong?”

He answered, “Ian, I’m Catholic! I converted last Easter Vigil. This is great, that’s why the Holy Spirit led you to call me. The fullness is awesome.”

“Well, that didn’t work,” I said again.

The third person was a professional theologian who knew Greek, the head of New Testament Studies at a Baptist University. With the dice loaded in favor of the outcome I was seeking, I asked him my question.

He replied, “Ian, I’m Catholic! I converted a few years ago. That’s why the Holy Spirit…”

I finally got the point.

When I entered RCIA and went public, all hell broke loose. I lost my house, my job, friends, income … it got bad. But I don’t like to focus on that. Because as all hell was breaking loose around me, all heaven was breaking forth within me! I had the sacraments. I had the unity and the freedom of authority I had been longing for. I was home.

I feared that in becoming Catholic, I was giving up preaching. Yet in dying to self, I found life. In fact, I have been able to do more preaching as a Catholic than I ever did as a Protestant. God also opened doors for me to complete a Ph.D. in Theology at Duquesne University, to serve as a religious studies professor at multiple universities, and to host several seasons of a radio program.

As a Catholic, I’m learning to appreciate the redemptive meaningfulness of life’s sufferings and the peace of knowing that God has everything covered — not peace as an absence of trouble, but peace as a presence in the midst of trouble, the Lord’s presence.

*****

This text was adapted from: Murphy, Ian (2020). Dying to Live: From Agnostic to Baptist to Catholic. Ignatius Press: San Francisco, CA.


Dr. Ian Murphy

DR. IAN MURPHY is a popular Catholic speaker and writer. He received his Ph.D. in Theology from Duquesne University in 2013 and resides near Charleston, South Carolina with his wife, Rachel. His website is drianmurphy.com.