You are here

Mormon Scholars Testify: Janis Nuckolls

TitleMormon Scholars Testify: Janis Nuckolls
Publication TypeWeb Article
Year of Publication2010
AuthorsNuckolls, Janis
Access Date28 March 2018
Last Update DateOctober 2010
PublisherMormon Scholars Testify
KeywordsConversion; Missionary Work; Moroni's Promise; Prayer; Testimony

Show Full Text

Janis Nuckolls

Since I am a fairly new convert—only six years ago, in fact—I’d like to share my background, and the story of how I went from a spiritual but perfunctorily practicing Christian to a full-fledged member of this faith.

About ten years ago, while living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, I answered a telephone call from a Dr. John Hawkins of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, who wanted to invite my husband to come and give a talk about a book he had written. This was nothing unusual, as far as I was concerned, because my husband was frequently invited to give talks at different universities. Little did I realize at the time that this little conversation was just the beginning of an extended dialogue that would culminate in the baptism of my husband, then my son, and finally myself into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I realized something was different about my husband when he came back from giving his talk at BYU that first time. You could almost say that he had stars in his eyes. He already seemed a little different and he began to read all he could about the Church, including the Book of Mormon, and just about every book that had ever been written about the Book of Mormon. I remember thinking that it was nice that he had a new research interest and that he was going to write a book about Mormonism, but I was busy working on my own research, teaching, and being a mom.

Over the next five years, my husband and John Hawkins became close friends and colleagues, and had regular conversations about all kinds of things. My husband also had many important conversations with Steve Olsen and Marge Conder of the Church History Center, as well as her family. He also began to attend sacrament meetings and even attended the church’s Institute classes at the University of Alabama. Finally one day, encouraged by missionaries who had come by just to visit, he decided he wanted to be baptized. Once this happened, we all began to attend church together as a family and, also, to take the missionary discussions, but I was not completely open to the idea of joining this church. Wasn’t one Christian church just as good as another? And I have to confess that I was not very receptive to the missionaries. My thinking was that here were these nice young men who had never been married or had kids, and hadn’t even finished college, and they were asking me, a college professor, to give up coffee? I remember that, when they asked me to read Moroni’s promise and pray about the truth of the Book of Mormon, I wouldn’t do it, partly because I was just stubborn, I suppose, and partly because I just didn’t feel comfortable yet with the idea of having a direct line of communication with God. I’ve always considered myself to be a spiritual person, but I didn’t know how to pray in the way they were asking me to. Fortunately for me, the missionaries continued to be kind to me, and patient. And fortunately for me also, the Church doesn’t just rely on missionaries to do missionary work.

So I did want to know more about the people who were doing this kind of praying and I decided that, if this church really was better than the one we were attending, I would be able to tell just by interacting with the people. If I liked the people, then I would read the Book of Mormon. Well, it didn’t take much longer for me to realize that I needed to be reading the Book of Mormon. It wasn’t just that people were kind. They were, also, confidently kind, and they seemed very happy about being kind. They obviously “knew.” I like to use this verb without a complement when I meet people who seem to be very accomplished and successful at being human. The important thing was that now that my husband had been baptized, and my son who was then eleven was showing signs of wanting to be baptized, I had a desire to know more. That desire, it seems to me, is the first step to developing the kind of openness and receptiveness that you need to have in order to undergo a change in heart. There’s this great story in the Old Testament about a woman from Samaria who encounters Jesus for the first time, and through a long dialogue with Him (in fact, the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in the scriptures), undergoes a dramatic change of heart. It’s dramatic because when He first asks her for a drink of water she questions His right to even ask. When He finishes talking with her, though, she goes off proclaiming to people about His divinity.

I, on the other hand, only became more open and receptive at the beginning by interacting with people in church whose many acts of kindness and friendship had the effect of chipping away, bit by bit, at my pride.

After my husband was baptized we both were invited to come to BYU for a year. Even though, at that time, I was feeling much more receptive to the Church, I wanted to see what Utah was like and what it would be like to live in a place where the Church had such an important presence. So we set out for Utah and stopped in southwestern Colorado where we have a cabin, and my son, Will, decided that he was ready to be baptized in Montrose, Colorado. I remember being very moved by that experience, and very happy because I thought that he would now be much safer spiritually. He was eleven years old at the time, and I’ve always believed in the wisdom of children, so by the time we arrived in Orem, Utah, and settled into a rented house in the River Ridge 3rd Ward, I was pretty receptive. I had been reading the Book of Mormon, and found it incredibly inspiring and true. A Sunday school teacher once asked us if there were a section or passage from the Book of Mormon that we would sorely miss if it were ever taken out, and I knew immediately that for me it was the passage in 3 Nephi 17:17 that says, “And no tongue can speak, neither can there be written by any man, neither can the hearts of men conceive so great and marvelous things as we saw and heard Jesus speak unto the Father.” This passage has always moved me very much because, as a linguist, I am acutely aware of the fact that language is one of our greatest miracles and gifts, and no linguist has ever figured it out completely. I am so fortunate that I get to practice a profession that allows me to enhance my appreciation of this “marvelous work and wonder.”

After six weeks of being in the River Ridge 3rd Ward in Orem, I had the realization that I needed to baptized. And that realization came during my first visiting teaching experience. I could just feel that my visiting teacher really cared, and my heart was so moved by that, that I began to wonder why I too wasn’t a member of this wonderful community of believers. So on Halloween day in 2004 I was baptized too. And while I was very excited to be baptized, I didn’t feel all that different until the following day when I was confirmed. During my confirmation I felt so soft and so utterly malleable in my heart, but in a good way. When I learned later that it was because I was receiving the Holy Ghost at that moment, I understood why.

And this point takes me back to that New Testament story about the woman of Samaria, and the part where Jesus tells this woman, “But the hour cometh and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him.”

And then he repeats this spirit-and-truth phrase again, saying, “God is a spirit and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.”

To me, this is saying that God is not fixed in any earthly place, unless we ourselves have the right spirit. We have to have the spirit of God in our hearts and it has to be a true spirit. When we embark on our journey of eternal progression and perfection, we have to take the special uniqueness of our spirits and figure out how God wants us to live with what he has given us. We have to be true to his teachings and the spirit of his truth, and also to the spirit of our own very being and uniqueness. We have to figure out a way to be in harmony with God, to such an extent that we want to both obey and, also, to live in the truest way we can, because to do otherwise would tear at our hearts.

I can’t possibly explain all of the things that affected me when I started thinking about the Church. Peoples’ kindness and friendship were very important, but I had to create my own testimony a brushstroke at a time. And I never felt pressured to do this by anyone. Reading the Book of Mormon, and developing an appreciation for the Old and New Testaments, which I had never been asked to read as a child (even though, as a child, I went to a Catholic school, which required daily Mass attendance as well as daily catechism classes), certainly helped. I was very impressed by one of the main messages of the Book of Mormon, about the dangers of pride. I feel that this is the disease of our age, but I have a personal interpretation of this danger, which goes beyond the sin of peoples’ pride with respect to each other. I feel that there are good reasons for seeing pride as a danger that also affects people in their relations to their physical environment. When Lehi has his dream with the two central images consisting of the Tree of Life, on the one hand, and “the great and spacious building,” on the other hand, we are being given a message, loud and clear, about becoming too wrapped up in the materialistic world we have created. We are stewards of this beautiful world, and since I work with people who live “close to the earth,” in Amazonian Ecuador, I can’t help but think that they appreciate this stewardship better than many of us do. I’ve always been a dormant environmentalist, but I find myself becoming more comfortable and open with others about the importance of this stewardship.

What I have learned is that this church offers everyone the tools that are necessary to be a better person. Daily prayer is now a vital part of my life.

Being a convert to the church means that I have a perspective based on experiences with other churches and I don’t have to wonder about what other churches might have to offer.

What other church in this world not only tries to meet the spiritual needs of all people in the world living today but, also, all people who have ever lived in the world? When I first read Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, while in graduate school, I remember that Weber’s view of bureaucratic structures was not very positive. Yet, if Weber could have seen our Church in action, he would have had to admit that a bureaucracy dedicated to helping all people in the world is a profoundly different type of institution than what he had envisioned.

I don’t know of any other church that emphasizes both knowing as much as possible as well as feeling the truth of things. This church’s doctrines are incredibly intellectually engaging. And the unique way that we teach about the atonement gives us all a basis for hope and optimism that I never heard in the church that I grew up in. The passage in 2 Nephi 25, “Adam fell that men might be; and men are that they might have joy,” has always touched me profoundly.

I’m so grateful that Joseph Smith was willing to be a prophet and restore the Church of Jesus Christ to the Earth, and grateful for all of the prophets that have followed him. Being a member of a Church that has its foundation the principle of continuing revelation from prophets can make for some interesting social interactions. When we had dinner with an old high school friend of my husband’s in Oklahoma City a few Christmases ago, he did not know that we had joined the Church, and when he asked what it was like to live in Utah, he was dumbfounded to realize that we were members. He had heard the story of Joseph Smith and how the Book of Mormon was translated, and was incredulous that we, as apparently rational and educated people, could be believers. I remember telling him that a religion without mysteries wouldn’t be much of a religion, and that we learn so many important truths from the Book of Mormon that we take it on faith that Joseph Smith translated it by the power of God. Since I rarely am able to come up with the right thing to say at the right time, I found myself wishing that I could have impressed him with an argument from a source that he might have some respect for. I then started thinking about artists and intellectuals who, although not members, have, from time to time, said things that have really resonated for me. I remember that, when I was growing up, there was this science fiction series on television called The Twilight Zone, which made a definite impact on my worldview, and I remember a particular episode about a boxer who refused to believe in miracles, and the closing narration by Rod Serling was:

“Mr. Bolie Jackson, who shares the most common ailment of all men—the strange and perverse disinclination to believe in a miracle, the kind of miracle to come from the mind of a little boy . . . ”

So, nowadays, when I find myself in skeptical company, I remember that phrase, “strange and perverse disinclination to believe in a miracle,” which reminds me that I’m not the one who is strange. . . . Anyway, our friend did say, at the end of our dinner with him, that he envied us, and I think he meant it.

One really wonderful thing about being a convert is that you get to be sealed with your family in the Temple. When we were all sealed in the Birmingham Temple it was just too beautiful for words.

I continue to marvel at the way in which we as a family were able to discover the Gospel at this stage in our lives, and particularly at the way in which we were all able to discover it in the best way for each of us: my husband from a professional colleague and my son from the missionaries, while for me it was a combination of my own family as well as the so-called ‘ordinary’ people of this Church. And I say this in the name of The Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ.


Janis Nuckolls earned her B.A. from the University of Wisconsin and her A.M. and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Before joining the Department of Linguistics and English Language at Brigham Young University, she held a tenure-track position at Indiana University and tenured positions at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.

Dr. Nuckolls is an anthropological linguist with field experience primarily in Amazonian Ecuador, in the province of Pastaza. Her research interests center upon the cultural poetics of Quichua verbal practise and the role of ideophones and of grammatical categories such as evidentiality in the expression of attitudinal alignments with nonhuman nature. She has published, among other places, in the Journal of Linguistic AnthropologyLanguage in SocietySemiotica, the Annual Review of AnthropologyLatin American Indian Literatures, the Journal of Latin American LoreAnthropological LinguisticsAmerican AnthropologistPhilosophical Psychology, and several edited books, and is the author of Sounds Like Life: Sound-Symbolic Grammar, Performance, and Cognition in Pastaza Quechua (Oxford University Press) and Lessons from a Quechua Strongwoman: Ideophony, Dialogue and Perspective (University of Arizona Press).

Posted October 2010


Scripture Reference

3 Nephi 17:17