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Conversion StoriesMormon

From Confusion to the Order of Truth

Clyde Pearce March 26, 2012 8 Comments

My pathway home to the Catholic Church required an all-terrain vehicle to negotiate the steep, rocky, tortuous roads, including dead ends, cul-de-sacs, and detours. Unlike many of the Journey Home stories, I was not trained in theology or doctrine. I attended no seminary, Bible college, or religious institute. But a great deal of informal education in those areas plus years of lay ministry led me to the Catholic Church. And it all started early.

When I was seven years old, my father was killed in an auto accident. I was the eldest, with a brother and two sisters. My mom was six months pregnant with her fifth child. My brother suffered brain damage at birth. He was mentally handicapped and suffered from grand mal epilepsy. For most of my growing up years, we barely survived on Social Security and county welfare.

That’s when I began to talk to God. I asked Him to forgive me my sins and to please keep our family safe. Except for several summers of Bible camps (Baptist and Nazarene) I had little religious activity, but prayer was not completely foreign to me. So I grew up mostly without any specific religious discipline. We were, however, taught Christian morality and principles.

All the while, I remained desperately alone and afraid, without any assurances from God.

But a saving grace was about to emerge into my life: competitive sports, beginning with Little League baseball. My mom scrounged up the enrollment money, and when they gave me a real uniform, I was in embarrassed disbelief. I couldn’t afford baseball shoes, but my old tennis shoes were all right. I had a uniform. Baseball would play a big role in my life. I went on to play four years of varsity baseball in high school, as well as football and basketball. I also played football and baseball in college.

My coaches, God bless them, became surrogate fathers not only for me, but also for a number of other guys. Several of us never had our dads see us play. We tried not to let it show when the other guys walked off the field with their dads, while we walked off alone. My high school football coach, a good Christian man, is one of the finest men I’ve ever known. From him, I learned discipline, honor, sacrifice, teamwork, and to always get up again. His quiet modeling of honesty and generosity remain with me today.

When I began my junior year in high school, I hadn’t an inkling of what lay ahead for me. We had a new history teacher that year. He was bright, young, and even made history interesting for a bunch of teenagers. One day he called me into his classroom on a lunch hour. He had gone over my transcript and told me that my performance was way below my abilities. For the first time in my education, I began to study and experience what getting an A felt like. Up until then, I felt that academic mediocrity was my lot.

After a few months, he began to engage me in religious discussions. I soon learned that he was a Mormon, which piqued my curiosity. He spent a few hours setting out the basic principles of Mormonism, which I found unusual, to say the least, but interesting.

I need to state clearly that I know and love many devout Mormons, many of my own family. They are, as a people, generally upstanding, kind, and generous folk, devoted to family and church. What I write here is not intended to denigrate these wonderful people in any way. My problems with Mormon doctrine, however, cannot be lightly treated, for, I went from a faithful, one-hundred-percent immersed, true-believing member to a distraught, betrayed, and angry one.

Eventually, my teacher invited me to attend church with him on Sundays, and I went. The congregation (called a “ward”) was small, but in it were a couple of attractive girls my age and three guys who were also juniors. They were a warm welcoming committee. Being on the debate team — and just being argumentative by genes and environment — I challenged some of what I was hearing. The whole Joseph Smith story seemed like, well, a story. But my teacher friend and my new Mormon friends solemnly testified that it was all true. I read the Book of Mormon.

I’ll never forget the strange feeling I got when I opened the Book of Mormon for the first time. Dismissing that eerie feeling, I plowed through the book over the next few months. The language rang familiar since it was after the King James style. Then I was “challenged” to pray about its truthfulness and that, if I did so “with real intent” and an open heart, its truthfulness would be “manifest unto me.”

I prayed about it a lot. But no angel visited, no overwhelming divine confirmation warmed me. Since all these other people knew it was true, I assumed that I was the problem, not the Book of Mormon. I read several books written by church leaders all pounding the same theme: Jesus set up His Church on earth; soon after the death of the Apostles, a great apostasy set in, and all keys and authority were withdrawn until 1820, when fourteen-year-old Joseph Smith was visited by God, the Father, and Jesus Christ, His Son; they told him that none of the churches on earth was the true one, that they were all “an abomination” to God, and that Smith would be God’s instrument for restoring the full, pristine, and true Church; and that through divine guidance, Joseph was led to some “Golden Plates” written in “reformed Egyptian,” which Smith translated as the Book of Mormon. Eventually, in the spring of my senior year of high school, I agreed to be baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, LDS, or the Mormons. Of course, I lent no credence to my mother’s concerns and objections.

I had all-star seasons in football and baseball that year, and got several good scholarship offers. At the last minute, however, some of the people in the ward got together and decided that I should go to Brigham Young University (whose athletic scholarships were gone by then) and advanced money for my freshman year. So, off I went to Provo, Utah, leaving behind an unhappy and upset mother.

Coming from a high school of fewer than five hundred students, I found walking onto the BYU campus of more than sixteen thousand students somewhat overwhelming. I had never seen so many Mormons. That it was not a completely homogenous campus quickly became obvious to me. We California kids were different from those Utah and Idaho students. They looked down on us as being liberal and not very faithful; we, in turn, looked at them as parochial bumpkins. We wore shorts and flip-flops to class. They reported us to the honor committee for dress code violations. This was the distant, early warning signal to me that compliance was going to be required in more than just belief in Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and the succeeding prophets of the church.

Overall, I was happy. My girlfriend from home was also at BYU; I walked on and won the starting quarterback position on the freshman football team (this was before all the great QBs to follow), was the third baseman on the baseball team, and was awarded a full baseball scholarship. Culturally, I was completely seduced.

A year and a half later, my local bishop called me to go on a two-year mission for the church. I willingly accepted and was soon in the North British Mission that included northern England, Scotland, and Ireland. My first assignment was to Dublin, Ireland. My companion (Mormon missionaries always come in pairs) and I were the only two elders (as the missionaries are called) in all of free Ireland.

The Irish loved Americans. They loathed Mormons. Knocking on doors for twelve hours a day taught me a lot. The people considered themselves “Irish Catholics” not Roman Catholics, a distinction not lost on me. We almost never got invited into a home. When we did, the first time the conversation turned to religion and to questions about Catholicism, we were shown the door.

Two particular experiences deeply impressed me. One day we knocked on the door of a Jesuit priest. He, unfortunately, did invite us in. Arrogant in my competitive debating skills, I was ready to teach this priest a thing or two. But nobody had warned me about Jesuits. Although I started on the attack — Mary-worship, the Trinity, apostasy, infant Baptism, etc. — I soon was backing and filling, in hasty retreat and defense. He was polite but pointed. He skillfully took apart Mormonism, and rebuilt it as Catholicism. To my great relief, my companion — who had not entered into the discussion at any point to help me — excused us for another “appointment.” Furious, I yelled at my companion for not stepping in to help me. “We’re not here to argue,” he said, “but to bear our testimonies and teach our lessons.” I would later learn the real meaning of his answer: the last resort of a true believing Mormon is his or her “testimony.” For many who are born in the church, it is both the first and last defense, even — especially — when faced with lucid, powerful facts contradictory to their basic beliefs. Faith trumps facts. Yet, the author of Hebrews tells us in the New King James version that faith has substance and evidence at its roots (cf. (11:1).

The second experience, more memorable than the first, happened on a sunny morning. It was my turn to knock. A lovely young woman holding a newly born infant in her arms answered. She gave us a warm smile, and she appeared to be glowing. After I went through my spiel and she nicely declined, I whipped out my testimony that what I brought her I knew to be the truth. With her countenance becoming more radiant, she said that she knew her Catholic Church was true, that Jesus was the center of her life, that He loved her, and came to give Himself to her in the Mass. I was stupefied. We were told that other people couldn’t bear testimony because they didn’t have the truth. But this beautiful young mother and baby gave a warm and divine witness.

During my time in Ireland, we received a book from our mission president (A New Witness for Christ in America) that we were directed to place in a public library. I thought I’d better read it first, so I could deal with someone who may have also read it. The first half of the book dealt with arguments and claims against the validity of the Book of Mormon. I found these critical positions to be quite convincing, but hoped that the second half of the book would easily and clearly refute them. Even reading the latter half of the book from the bias of accepting its apologetics, I found them weak, requiring more “testimony” than analysis and deduction. But the busyness of missionary work let me put my doubts away.

While in Ireland, I concluded that the Catholic Church and the Mormons were much alike in many ways, especially as to authority, but exact opposites in many others. It was easy for me to see why the Book of Mormon, and many writings and sermons by Mormon leaders — even within the past fifteen years or so — refer to the Catholic Church as “the church of the devil,” that “great and abominable church,” the “whore of the earth” who leads men to hell. At the same time, Protestants were given short shrift. After all, they all splintered off from Catholicism, and you can’t take good fruit from a bad tree. And the fact that Protestants worshipped in over thirty thousand denominations proved to me that just reading the Bible did not lead to unity.

Over time, I had a temple marriage (“for time and all eternity”), was ordained a high priest at age twenty-two, served in many positions, including five years as a bishop. Being “active” in the Mormon Church means having a “temple recommend” (which admits one to any Mormon temple), tithing, and fulfilling callings in the church, leaving little time for study and thought. As a bishop, I served between fifteen to forty hours a week while still working full-time and attempting to be a husband and father.

God has gifted me, however, with an unrelenting intellectual curiosity. I kept digging into Mormon history and came upon facts that to my mind are indisputable.

My serious inquiry began when I entered law school, where I met other questioning LDS students. They challenged my apologetics. And, like many who have shared their stories on The Journey Home program who set out to prove the Catholic Church false, only to discover its truth, I began to search and read, looking for evidence to buttress the Mormon claims. What I found, instead, was clear and convincing evidence that Joseph Smith was a pretender, steeped in magic, who used a seer stone to look for buried treasure, concocted the Book of Mormon (which he translated by placing his seer stone in a hat and then putting his face into the hat and translating the words that appeared on the stone), a book that has had thousands of changes made to it. He proclaimed polytheism: that God, the Father, and Jesus Christ, the Son, were separate and distinct, with bodies of flesh and bones, and that the Holy Spirit is a separate and distinct body of spirit.

The heinous practice of polygamy as introduced by Smith repelled me, when I found that he had an affair with a seventeen-year-old (Fannie Alger) some three years before he had a “revelation” that he was to take plural wives, and that he did not “commit adultery” because he was merely obeying the revelation. Moreover, he and Brigham Young and succeeding prophets taught that polygamy (really polygyny) is the obligatory order of the highest heaven.

Brigham Young taught that Adam was our God, who had come to earth to get his body and then progressed to where he is today. Most blasphemous, Young also taught that we can do the same thing. In Mormon’s Celestial Kingdom, men will have all these wives with whom they will procreate innumerable spirit children. They will then create worlds where they will send these spirit children, replicating our mortal experience. “As man is God once was; as God is man may become,” expresses in couplet form the Mormon belief.

Young also taught in quite clear language the doctrine of “Blood Atonement.” If a man’s sins are of a serious nature, that man should shed his own blood in atonement for those sins. Until 2004, the lingering evidence of Young’s doctrine was found in Utah’s permitting criminals about to be executed to choose as their form of death a firing squad, whereby their blood would be spilt.

Recently, studies of DNA of Indian tribes have shown that about 98% of them (as traced through their mitochondrial DNA) are of Asian descent. The rest are from Europe, mainly Spain. There are no traces of Jewish ancestry, which confutes the Book of Mormon claims that the people written of therein came from Israel. No archeological evidence validates the history as suggested in the Book of Mormon.

The behavior of more recent Mormon leaders failed me. “When the prophet speaks, the thinking is over” has become a motto. When the leaders speak, you follow, for “obedience to the Lord’s anointed” requires such response. The problem with that fiat — besides the theocratic approach to stifle free thought and speech — is that the leaders have dissembled.

Time and space restrict me from going more deeply into such examples, but they are plentiful, beginning with Smith and continuing.

I learned firsthand that leaving the Mormon Church exposes one to agony deeper than could have been imagined. Such extrication is like having one’s heart removed without the benefit of anesthesia. In my case, it resulted in four years of separation, ending in divorce; alienation from friends and family members; and shunning by most of my children. My wife had come from generations of Mormons. My children were born in the church and received its teachings from age two onward; three of them went on missions; they have married Mormons in the temple (where I was not allowed) and now have their own children.

My anger and bitterness targeted not only Mormonism, but also God. How could He have let this happen to me? Why? I spiraled into agnosticism and depression. I didn’t know any longer if there was a God, and what’s more, I didn’t care.

Only an opportunity at a new job gave me any enthusiasm. The job was only for a year, but it was so intensive, with a lot of traveling, that it helped crust over my woundedness, giving me little time to think about it.

During this time, I renewed my acquaintance with a friend I had known some fifteen years earlier through work. She had just ended her marriage and was in the process of annulment by the Catholic Church. Our friendship grew into courtship, and we were married four years later.

Mary Patricia (Trish) is a cradle Catholic, fully educated in Catholic schools from Sacred Heart kindergarten through Dominican University. During our courtship, I had fully vented my Mormon experience and told her unequivocally that I would never be part of organized religion again.

My wife is as bright as she is lovely. She didn’t push me. But before too long, I was going to Mass with her and my three stepchildren. I often sat defiantly, with my arms folded, refusing to stand or kneel at any time. During the Mass, I parsed every word of the homily, the mispronunciations of the lectors, and the perfunctory prayers. I limited the sign of peace to my family. If Trish asked me about the homily or the Scriptures, I answered with caustic assessments.

After serving as the general counsel to a large U.S. government agency, and then accepting a partnership in a national law firm, I moved my family from Washington, D.C., back to California, where I practiced in our Century City office.

Blending families challenges the best of marriages. Blending faiths — or, in our case, one faith with no faith — exacerbates the struggle.

Through the next several years, a number of difficult things happened. God crashed through my arrogance and my hubris, trying to get my attention. Like Jacob wrestling with an angel, the outcome was not in doubt, except for me.

One day, when the cruel, whirling riptide sucked me under for what felt like the final time, I found myself inside Sacred Heart Catholic Church. But for one other Person, I was alone. I sunk to my knees and buried my face in my hands. The only words I could whisper were, “Please, love me.” Soft, warm, assuring, loving arms engulfed me. I wept. The boy who had always been afraid and alone heard: “Be not afraid; I am with you always.”

While I could no longer deny God, I wasn’t ready for any church, let alone the Catholic Church. Church hurt; it betrayed; it lied. God did not get my attention, however, for purposes of leaving me there.

Within a couple of months, the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) began. Trish suggested that since I once said I might be interested in learning more about the Catholic Church, this might be a good time. I cautiously agreed.

When I arrived for my first meeting — the group had already met three or four times — I wore my shield of aloofness. The director of the group made a couple of announcements and then said, “We have a new face among us. Would you please tell us your name and tell us why you are here?”

With a smug reply about my face certainly not being new, although they might be seeing it for the first time, I said, “And I don’t know why I’m here.” An awkward silence followed before the director collected herself and moved on. I folded my arms across my chest.

Just about ten minutes later, the parish priest stepped in to greet the RCIA group. I will never forget what he said. After a few words of greeting he declared: “Some of you may not even know why you’re here. But that’s okay, because God does.”

I sat up, unfolded my arms, and listened. I listened for seven months, and I read. The evidence stood firmly on a rock foundation. The chain links of authority from Peter to John Paul II for two thousand years put to rest all remnants of the notion of a “great apostasy.” I discovered the truth about Jesus Christ, His incarnation, His life, death, and resurrection, for my sins and the sins of the whole world. I fell in love with Mary, His mother, the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven, my Mother. The sacraments compelled me. The Holy Trinity made sense. Beginning to understand the Eucharist, I longed to partake. The early Church Fathers (Sts. Ignatius, Irenaeus, Polycarp) clinched the evidence. The essential role of Tradition made sense. (I had often wondered about the closing verse in the Gospel of St. John 21:25: “But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Amen.) The Scriptures themselves came from oral history and Tradition, not all of which was canonized. Thank God for the Magisterium of the Church. I began to embrace the Church of smells and bells, of icons, stained glass, and holy water.

I was won over by the unique recognition and respect the Church gives to the individual conscience. An informed, prayerful, and studiously prepared one it must be, for, in the end, I decided to follow it. Can you understand how vivifying that is for one who was taught to be “immediately obedient” when the leaders speak, no thinking required or allowed?

But most of all, I experienced the living Jesus Christ. (See Pope John Paul II’s Ecclesia in America.) I have read dozens of conversion stories published by the Coming Home Network International, many about the treks of Protestant ministers steeped in their beliefs. For them, a long intellectual undertaking seems to be the sine qua non for their conversion. But even for each of them — as for me — the final step across the threshold is experiential. That part was primary for me.

As I prepared for the Easter Vigil that Saturday in 1994, I spent the day praying, meditating, listening. I had decided to fast from Friday night to the Vigil, so that I would break my fast with the Body and Blood of Jesus. The cleansing Baptism, the gifting of Confirmation made my soul exultant. And then when I looked at my priest’s eyes, and he said to me, “The Body of Christ, for you, Clyde,” tears flowed of their own will and continued as I received the Blood of Christ. My fast was broken; I had now the Bread of Life to feed me and the Cup of Salvation to slake my thirst. I was home.

And just when I thought I was finally out of tears, we sang:

Do not be afraid, I am with you.

I have called you each by name.

Come, and follow me, and I will bring you home.

I love you, and you are mine.

The little boy and the man were now no longer afraid and alone.


Clyde Pearce

Clyde Pearce, a former Mormon missionary and bishop, is a member of Sacred Heart parish in Salinas, California. Active in lay ministries, he was a founding member and director of the parish’s stewardship committee; founding member and convener of the Small Faith Sharing Groups Committee; director of the RCIA; founding member of the Evangelization Task Force, and has worked on the finance committee. His wife, Mary Patricia, has joined him in all these activities. He is a California attorney and has practiced in Arizona, Utah, Washington, D.C., and Virginia. In a notable career achievement, he filed and won the very first North American Free Trade Agreement case against the United Mexican States.

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