I have been blessed with some extraordinary professional experiences. However, they do not define me. Far more defining have been experiences of a spiritual nature, some of which I share below.
I do so not because I believe everyone should necessarily follow my spiritual path—I am wary of the pitfall of embracing false universals—but rather to stand as a witness to truths I have discovered along the path upon which God has set me.
Despite my personal shortcomings—and in some instances because of them—I have been blessed with some tangible experiences through which I have discovered not only more about myself than I would otherwise have ever imagined, but also about all humankind, including that we are all children of God.
Knowing that makes all the difference.
I say “knowing,” not just believing. But, how can such things be known?
That question is best answered by sharing a few of my experiences and discoveries along life's journey.
At the time, I had no way of knowing what was about to happen, and what a profound change it would make in my life.
It was early 1972. I was a 20 year-old undergraduate student at the University of Illinois, and was attending my first meeting of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It was an unusual meeting in that, among other things, a member of the First Presidency of the Church, N. Eldon Tanner, was present to preside over the dedication of a new worship center for central Illinois. Well over a thousand people were in attendance.
I was not yet a member of the Church, and was seated in about the third row in a section reserved especially for non-member guests who, like me, were investigating the Church and its teachings, including its claim to be the restored Church of Jesus Christ in these latter (as opposed to earlier) days.
I was particularly interested in N. Eldon Tanner because I was told that he was a modern-day Apostle, one of two Counselors to the President of the Church, the three of whom constituted a First Presidency, and who, along with the members of a Quorum of Twelve Apostles, were sustained by members of the Church as prophets, seers, and revelators.
I was both highly interested in that claim and highly skeptical. The claim that God spoke to and guided the world today through living prophets just as in times past had natural appeal. Yet, partly because it was appealing, while I was a serious investigator I was also a serious skeptic.
I wanted to give the claims of the Church a fair hearing and to prayerfully consider the potential for them to be true. Yet, at the same time I was wary of mistaking my emotions for revelation and of being lured into embracing a monumental hoax. After all, some of the claims of the Church seemed fantastic.
Moreover, I was not a joiner. I felt no need to associate myself with any organized religion or religious group, and was (and remain today) unwilling to associate myself with any group of any kind that would reflect poorly on my name, or on my family.
For those reasons, among others, I was taken by surprise by what happened near the end of the meeting.
N. Eldon Tanner was the concluding speaker. I do not remember anything about his message, but I will never forget what he said as he concluded. He said, quietly and without drama, “I know, as surely as that I am standing here before you today, that we are the literal spirit offspring of God.”
As President Tanner said those words I felt a wave sweep out from him and over me and the congregation, like a wave from a big rock dropped in the middle of a pond. I did not see the wave with my physical eyes, but I was just as aware of it as if I had. (That sounds odd, I know, but it is true.) And, as the wave swept over me I knew that N. Elder Tanner knew what he said was true.
I did not know it because of the wave. I simply knew it.
The experience was so tangible that when one of the missionaries teaching me asked after the meeting what had been my favorite part, I answered, the wave.
He asked what wave, which was my first indication that perhaps not everyone shared the same experience. I said, the wave that swept out as President Tanner bore his concluding testimony. The missionary smiled knowingly, and told me that was the Holy Ghost bearing witness to me that what President Tanner had said was true.
I was already certain it was true, that what I had experienced was a spiritual manifestation of the truth of President Tanner’s testimony. The wave was so tangible, so completely unexpected and unmistakably real, that I have often wondered since about a possible fluid dynamics of such things of the spirit.
I know that sounds strange, probably even very strange. So, I generally keep that account to myself. I share it here with some reticence, both because of how it may be perceived (or misperceived) and because many spiritual manifestations are deeply personal, not just in the privacy sense but in the sacred sense, not intended to be shared except in very limited and very special circumstances, if at all.
But, from time to time I have felt prompted to share this experience with others, although until now those promptings and occasions have involved family members or small groups in private settings. I am not naturally inclined to expose myself to the potential for ridicule or being thought odd by sharing such personal experiences as openly as this.
Yet, I know what I experienced, and nothing anyone else believes about my account can change that. It was real. It was a pure manifestation of truth. I cannot escape that, even though those who read my account are certainly free to do so.
One would think such an experience would have swept away all my doubts, answer all my questions, and lead me to promptly join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But, it did not. In fact, in some ways the effect was the opposite.
For starters, I wanted to know as President Tanner knew before I made the decision to be baptized, or rather re-baptized, since I had already been baptized in the Protestant church of which I was then a member, and was in fact teaching my parents’ adult Sunday School class about the origins and history of that church.
When I shared that reservation with the missionaries who were teaching me, one of them pointed out that I had not yet even received the gift of the Holy Ghost, while President Tanner had both done so and was an Apostle. (The missionaries had previously taught me that the gift of the Holy Ghost is bestowed through the ordinance of confirmation by the laying on of hands by those holding proper priesthood authority following baptism, just as is recorded in Acts 8:14-17.) So, I would never know as President Tanner knew until after I had entered through the gate of baptism, received the gift of the Holy Ghost, and followed the path that leads to such spiritual knowledge.
I got the point. But, as clear and dramatic as the experience with President Tanner’s testimony was, having that experience with one truth taught by the Church did not necessarily mean all it taught was true, or that I should join the Church. Far from it. But, it did galvanize my determination to continue my investigation of the Church and its teachings. And, it demonstrated that if the claims of the Church were true—still a big if in my mind—God would make that known to me in some way, although perhaps not as dramatically.
Actually, that was one thing I already knew for sure before attending the meeting at which President Tanner spoke.
As part of my investigation of the Church and its teachings, I was reading the Book of Mormon, which the Church taught is a scriptural record of revelations from God received anciently by prophets in the American Continent (just as the Bible is a scriptural record of revelations received by prophets who lived in what we now call the Middle East), restored now in these latter days by a modern-day prophet, Joseph Smith.
I wanted to know whether the Book of Mormon was a true record of scripture because it was (and is) the most tangible, readily examinable fruit of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith. In the Bible, in the Gospel According to Matthew, we read that Jesus Christ warned his disciples to beware of false prophets, and taught how to tell the difference between true and false prophets—by their fruits:
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.
Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.
So, the most revealing, or damning, test of whether Joseph Smith was a true or false prophet is whether the Book of Mormon, as a tangible fruit of his calling, is a true record of scripture or an extraordinary hoax. If true, surely God would make that known to any honest searcher for truth; and if false, surely God would also make that known.
In that regard, as part of my study of the Book of Mormon, I was particularly struck by two verses near the end that the missionaries pointed out to me were the key to knowing whether the book was a true record of scripture:
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.
And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
As I read those words, I knew they were true, not just as a matter of intellectual or even spiritual belief, but as a penetrating knowledge, as if it were something I already knew and had always known.
In reflecting back, I am reminded of the words of Hugh B. Brown, a former Apostle and member of the First Presidency of the Church:
Sometimes during solitude I hear truth spoken with clarity and freshness; uncolored and untranslated it speaks from within myself in a language original but inarticulate, heard only with the soul, and I realize I brought it with me, was never taught it, nor can I efficiently teach it to another.
So, I knew that at least two verses of the Book of Mormon were true. Also, it struck me that if the Book of Mormon was a fraud, especially if inspired by Satan, it seemed incongruous that it would conclude with the two verses that would inevitably cause that lie to be revealed beyond all doubt to any honest, prayerful reader.
Nevertheless, it was not enough for me to know that two verses of the Book of Mormon were true. I needed to know whether the rest of the book was true. But, I did not yet know that when I heard President Tanner speak. Or, so I thought.
I was about to learn that sometimes we know more than we realize or are willing to admit we know. At least, that proved to be true with me.
Soon after the meeting at which President Tanner spoke, the missionaries set up a Christ in Ancient America and Book of Mormon display on the University of Illinois campus in the tunnel to the Undergraduate Library, and talked to a number of students who stopped to ask questions. I stopped in myself, and chatted awhile with the missionaries who were teaching me.
The next morning, as I sat in a large lecture hall in the Main Library listening to a lecture in my History of East Asia class, I noticed that a student in the row in front of me had a library copy of the Book of Mormon on the seat next to him. I wondered if he had checked it out because he had become curious after seeing the Book of Mormon display. Something told me that, if so, I should let him know how important the book was.
But, I was very shy (perhaps difficult for people who know me today to believe), and I had no idea how to raise the subject naturally, without embarrassment. More importantly, what could I honestly tell him about the book?
I struggled with the feeling that I needed to say something to him throughout the lecture. It was tortuous. Every time I decided to mind my own business and keep quiet, something kept pushing me to tell him how important the Book of Mormon was. But, the idea of making a fool of myself by saying something when I did not even know for myself whether the Book of Mormon was true caused me to literally break out in a sweat. I was wrapped in knots inside. What could I possibly say that would not sound ridiculous or would be worth saying in the first place?
Then, the class was over and everyone was standing up.
As I stood up, still conflicted and unwilling to make the plunge, something seemed to literally push me forward, and I blurted out, “Excuse me, I couldn’t help but notice that you have a copy of the Book of Mormon. Are you interested in it?”
The guy and young woman sitting next to him turned and looked at me, and he said he had checked the book out of the library after seeing a display in the tunnel to the Undergraduate Library the previous evening.
Now I was stuck. I had to go on.
I came right out and said it. “That book is really important. It will change your life.”
He asked me why.
Now I was really stuck. Why was it important? Why did I tell him it would change his life? Something was almost dragging words out of my mouth, and I was resisting with all I had. I knew what needed to be said, but I didn’t feel I could say it in good conscience, since, I told myself, I had not yet received an answer to my prayers about whether the Book of Mormon was true.
Finally, after an awkward pause, I blurted out, “I almost know the Book of Mormon is true.”
I will never forget the pain inside at that word “almost.” I thought I had to add that qualifying word to be honest, but it felt like a lie.
I went on to walk out of the library with the couple, and gave them a few missionary brochures before we parted on the steps. I can only wonder what kind of odd bird they must have thought I was.
I couldn’t believe what had just happened. It was completely counter to my nature to have spoken up as I did, and I only did it because something had almost literally pushed me into it, and the words seemed to have been drug out of my mouth.
What in the world was happening to me? What had caused me to behave so weirdly? Why did it feel like a lie to say I “almost” knew the Book of Mormon was true? After all, my prayers about it had not yet been answered, had they?
Maybe not. Then again, maybe they had been, but I was resisting the answer. I do not know. But, one thing was inescapably apparent. Something beyond me, something with the power to overcome my natural resistance in order to use me as a means of sharing a message about the importance and truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, had pushed me into saying what I had. And, everything I had said resonated with truth, except the word “almost.”
It felt like a lie because it was a lie. If I had not known before, I knew the truth then. The Book of Mormon is a true record of scripture, revealed by God through a prophet in these latter days. God had revealed to me in an unmistakable and quite unexpected (and discomforting) way that I knew it to be true.
Yet, despite all of that and more, I was still undecided about whether God wanted me to be baptized as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
I decided to focus my prayers on the only question that really mattered in making that decision. Instead of my usual questions of whether Joseph Smith was a prophet and whether the Book of Mormon was true, I decided to focus on simply asking, “Should I be baptized?”
I decided to fast, so to speak, with my time until I received an answer. I would skip all my classes and not go to work at my place of employment until my prayers were answered.
The morning after making that decision, I went to the lounge area of the YMCA building on Wright Street on campus, where I often studied and rested between classes, and sat down in an armchair. I closed my eyes and prayed.
In that prayer, I told Heavenly Father that I wanted to do whatever He wanted me to do, and expressed my frustration that, as I then saw it, I had not yet received a complete answer to my prayers about whether the gospel as taught by the LDS Church was true. Nevertheless, I prayed, now it all came down to one question: Should I be baptized?
As I sat there, listening, it seemed as if, in my mind, something turned me around to look back at the path I had traveled over the last few months. I saw where I had been before I had begun studying the message of the Restoration, and where I had come to now along that path. And, the question came into my mind, “Is there any other way?”
I thought about that. Could I really turn back? Was there any way to return to where I had been and take any other path?
As I contemplated that, the realization gradually came to me that there really was no other way. I was free to turn back if I chose, that was true. But, I understood too much now to do it. It just wasn’t possible. The answer to my question had become clear. Or, was it?
Was this just my thinking, or was it an answer to prayer? It seemed like an answer, but I had to be sure. The question was too important and the consequences of my choice too far-reaching for there to be any doubt.
So, I shrugged off that experience, got up, and walked north to the Illini Union building. I found a chair in the north lounge area and sat down. Again, I closed my eyes and prayed, asking the same question. Again, I had the same experience. Was there any other way?
Again, I shrugged off the answer and took another walk. I left the Illini Union by the southeast entrance, and walked southwest along a diagonal sidewalk across the large open lawn of what was called the Quadrangle. The sidewalk was full of students walking, and many students were sitting on the lawn. Part way across the Quadrangle, I stopped and stepped off the sidewalk onto the lawn.
Standing, I bowed my head and prayed. I can still remember the words in my mind: “Heavenly Father, I don’t mean to bug you, because I feel like you have already answered my prayer twice now. But, I need to know for sure. Should I be baptized?”
Then, the thought came to my mind, as clearly and as verbal as if the words were spoken, “If you want to be David Risley, then be baptized.”
I had my answer, and I knew I had my answer.
I was baptized the next morning.
The clarity, verbal nature, and unexpected character of that answer has always intrigued me: “If you want to be David Risley, then be baptized.”
I cannot believe I conjured up that message in my own mind. Later, under sacred circumstances, I gained some insight into its wording. But, at the time all I needed to know was that if I wanted to be who I truly am, and all that I truly am, then I must be baptized.
That is why I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is my spiritual home, as it is for millions of others. And, through the way of life it teaches I am in a continual process of discovering who I truly am, who and what God is, and becoming all I can and will yet be as I draw closer to Him.
I am not a perfect man (although I hope to be considered a good man). But, in Jesus Christ, God has given me the perfect example, the perfect teacher, and made it possible for me to return to Him with my family, whole, complete, as a son of God.
There is more, of course, much more, that I could share about later similarly unmistakable manifestations of the reality of God’s existence and of the truth of the restoration of the Church of Jesus Christ to the earth, with living prophets and apostles to guide us today. (See Ephesians 2:19-20 and 4:11-14, especially verse 13.)
The book of God’s revelation is never closed.
We are all children of God.
Progression is eternal.
Families can be together forever.
Thanks be to God!