It was as a fourth grader I first
read about Joseph Smith and The Book of Mormon the boy prophet
Awestruck, I rushed with the story
to the uncle I lived with at the time. Shockingly, he dismissed the
story and asked me to put it out of my mind as it was the imagination
of “some crazy Americans who think they can see God.”
Although he loved me as a son, yet
he was stern, so I dared not argue with him though I was bursting
with curiosity to know more about Joseph, his vision, and his book.
Perhaps if he hadn’t reacted offhandedly, I wouldn’t have
been so fired up about what I had read.
It wasn’t quite like him not
to show interest in my reading, for he actively encouraged the habit
by subscribing to magazines like Readers Digest and planting these
for my attention. He even registered me as a patron of the local
library and introduced me to its children's section. We lived in a
tenement yard with so many other families, but he would rather I
spent time at the library than mix with “rambunctious children
in the yard.”
Though I missed frolicking with my
mates, yet I couldn’t risk his disapproval. To prevent me from
pranks behind his back, he supervised my reading and had me share the
information with him. Sometimes after work, he stretched out on a
recliner and had me read and explain a book to him. He corrected my
pronunciations, helped me deal with difficult words and their
meanings, or roared with laughter when I thought he was sleeping and
jumped whole paragraphs or words I couldn’t handle. Then he
would suddenly stir and have me go over what I had skipped. No matter
how tired he was, he always found time to review my reading.
So I was naturally stumped when he
was so short fused over a story I assumed would thrill him, too. Not
knowing why he was so unusually irritated but unwilling to risk his
anger, I approached my teacher the next day with the story. To my
consternation, my amiable teacher, who like my uncle inspired me to
love reading, in turn failed to share my enthusiasm. Rather she was
mad the moment Joseph Smith dropped from my lips and warned me to
stick to the Bible or risk going to hell. Painting a fiery picture of
hell she asked how I would love going there. Of course, I vigorously
rejected the suggestion of such a punishing place.
Soon, I lost my excitement or so I
thought. At the time my country was rocked by crisis and chaos, so
the year with my uncle suddenly came to an end as I had to reunite
with my parents when my uncle moved to another city. With spirally
instability, the country soon descended into a three year civil war
that tore families and the nation apart. Even when the war ended, its
disruptive gale of unrest continued blighting our hopes for healing
and finding new meanings to restore our fractured lives.
Despite the incredible hardship of
the post war period, I weathered the storm and continued in school.
It was in the course of my research later as a graduate student that
The Book of Mormon fell into my hands. As a teacher of African
American and Caribbean literature, I was curious about the ancient
inhabitants of America before Columbus. One day a colleague who had
just returned from the US shared his experience of that country and
emphasized it was so different from ours it even had its own bible
which dealt with matters concerning my interest.
At the mention of the book, memories
long forgotten burped with such force from my mind I clearly recalled
what I had read over three decades earlier. I immediately borrowed
his copy and devoured it voraciously, but because the sectarian rifts
and deceptions in my society and the bloody events of my childhood
had jaded my religious sensibility, its sacred nature failed to
impress me with the same poignancy it did in the past.
I read it as a literature text and
loved its poetry. I was intrigued by the dysfunction in the house of
Lehi and was stunned by the home of such “goodly parents”
as the narrator describes his parents should be so unruly. The
honesty and sincerity of Nephi impressed me for I too came from a
close-knit family, and we did have nasty fights even though our
parents, like Nephi’s, were good. The consistency of the
narrative jumped at me especially the way Nephi made and kept his
promise to show the reader “the tender mercies of the Lord.”
This he demonstrated in his life as in the vicissitudes of his fellow
migrants as they kept or foundered on their covenants.
The narrative got even more
interesting as the secret combinations of the Gadianton robbers
uncannily mirrored the chaos in my country. Their bloodletting and
deceptions just as the failings in my society repulsed me. The
symmetry of its composition apart, (the book begins and ends with a
promise) I found the contrasts and dramatic tensions of the narrative
Nephi, King Benjamin, Moroni, and
other unfailing leaders in the story memorably stuck in my mind for
their quality of leadership so uncommon in my society. The
convictions of Alma (and his catchy aphorism “Wickedness never
was happiness”) as well as the stripling warriors of Heleman
and their mothers’ force of character equally captivated me.
The tenacity of Joseph Smith’s faith as Abinadi before him
commanded my respect. I was outraged by the brutality of King Noah
more so because his type was as common in my world as was Korihor.
However, the misgivings planted in
my childhood and intellectual background blocked me from readily
going beyond its literary merits to acting on Moroni’s
It was missionaries, who years
later, pushed the ball behind the goal line. With their guidance, I
re-read and I realized The Book of Mormon is an extraordinary
gift from the past to the present. Though I grappled with pride
initially as I listened to missionaries who were not as educationally
exposed as I was, I went through the discussions bearing in mind
Aristotle who taught that, “It is the mark of an educated mind
to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”
Thankfully that openness helped guide me to the truth I had been
seeking all along.
The restored gospel answered
questions that had been prevailing in my entire life. Though I had
learned before now everyone was a child of God, there was no clarity
about pre-mortality, the purpose of mortality and what to expect
Looking back, it seems my childhood
encounter was prescient.
It felt good
knowing God’s plan of salvation is comprehensive and I could
help redeem ancestors who had no opportunity to receive the gospel
before death. Before now the belief was they all stood condemned but
the restored gospel dispelled that falsehood and replaced it with the
hope of an inclusive plan of happiness. Also, unlike previous
teachings which divorced me from my culture, it enriched my
appreciation for the beauty of my cultural traditions and added more
light to the fund of my knowledge.
Imo Ben Eshiet was born in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Raised in his village, Uruk Enung, and at
several cities in his country including Nsukka, Enugu, Umuahia, Eket and Calabar, Eshiet is a
detribalized Nigerian. Although he was extensively exposed to Western education right from
childhood in his country where he obtained a PhD in English and Literary Studies from the
University of Calabar, he is well nurtured in African history, politics, culture and traditions.
Imo is currently a teacher in the high priests group in the Summit Ward of the Greensboro North