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Mormon Scholars Testify: Van C. Gessel

TitleMormon Scholars Testify: Van C. Gessel
Publication TypeWeb Article
Year of Publication2010
AuthorsGessel, Van C.
Access Date30 March 2018
Last Update DateMay 2010
PublisherMormon Scholars Testify
KeywordsConversion; Salvation; Testimony; Theology

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Van C. Gessel

I was raised in Salt Lake City in the Fifties and Sixties as a Protestant. Although members of my immediate family were not necessarily avid churchgoers, they believed in Christ as their personal Savior; neither were they vehemently anti-Mormon, but they did mention on a couple of occasions that the Mormons were good people but deluded in their “worship” of Joseph Smith. I grew up questioning neither assumption: that Jesus was my Savior, and that the Mormons were misguided in their beliefs.

In my early teen years, I became a casual, infrequent reader of the New Testament, primarily the Gospels. From my reading and the preaching I was hearing on Sundays, I came up with two simple demands of God: that He be universally fair to all of His children, and that He love and actually care about each of us and our lives.

Somewhere in the middle of my adolescent years, our preacher came and did a Q&A session in the teenage Sunday School class. A friend asked him what happened to all the people, such as those in Africa, who never had the opportunity in this life to hear about Jesus Christ. His answer seared into my mind: “I’m sorry to say they all go to hell.” That, of course, violated my two requirements for a loving God, and from that day I became what I suppose we could call a “less-active Protestant.”

At one point in my subsequent wanderings, an LDS friend loaned me a book by John A. Widtsoe, titled A Rational Theology. I dutifully placed the book on the nightstand beside my bed and never read it. But it sat there for several years, staring up at me, its message becoming a haunting refrain that I now see was preparing me for my encounter with the actual teachings of the Restored Gospel when I reached the age of eighteen. Because it was, ultimately, a rationality I was looking for in religion, an affirmation that God really did so love the world that He gave His only Begotten Son for each and every one of His children.

Thanks to the kind intercession of a loving friend, I was led the summer after high school graduation to the pages of the Book of Mormon. I found my initial reading of sufficient interest that, loath to take a break when midnight weariness overcame me, I ran downstairs and boiled up my first—and last—pot of coffee so that I could stay awake to continue my reading. The book was curious to me, but I can’t say that any of what I read in the first several days provided me the answers I was seeking.

And then came Third Nephi. In granting me a benevolent preparation for the greater knowledge He would provide me, the Lord in my younger years had riveted my attention on the Savior’s seemingly inexplicable statement to His disciples in Jerusalem that He had “other sheep” He must visit. When I read in 3 Nephi 15:21: “ye are they of whom I said: Other sheep I have which are not of this fold…,” it was one of those rare and delicious moments of pure, electrifying revelation in which so many scattered, detached fragments of truth are brought together in clear harmony. That one passage answered my every concern, my every yearning about God. It taught me that He did, in fact, know about and, more importantly, care about His children in every location and at every time of history. It taught me that He made the truth of His Gospel manifest to His offspring through prophets who were not confined to the perimeter of Galilee. It prepared me to hear even more about His ultimate, absolute fairness when missionaries explained the Plan of Salvation to me and let me know that He was the God of the living and the dead, and that not one soul would fall unnoticed through the fingers of His hands. It assured me that He was a God of reason, maintaining eternal standards but withholding final judgment until we each had a chance to learn what He expected of us.

I received that undeniable witness from the Spirit over forty years ago. And though I have had numerous other manifestations from the heavens to confirm that initial lightning bolt of enlightenment in subsequent years, I often go back to savor that first experience, especially in times when my faith is tried. I have learned that trials of my faith are designed to solidify, not to shake it, and if I will “cast [my] mind upon the night that [I] cried” unto Him in my mind and hold to what I know to be true—even when I don’t have answers to every tiny dilemma or issue—the Lord will “speak peace to [my] mind concerning the matter…” (D&C 6:22-23)

The foundational witness I received in my late teen years, the affirmation that God is fair and loving, caring and solicitous to all His children, has sustained me through all the varieties of experience that have come my way, whether personal or professional. When we learned in the delivery room that my wife’s first pregnancy was producing unexpected, premature twins on the eve of my entrance into graduate school, the life we had planned for ourselves seemed to crumble before our eyes. Both boys were critically ill and on breathing devices, and our focus shifted entirely to pleading with the Lord to spare their lives, even if it meant I would have to forego further education. For nine days and nights we petitioned God on behalf of our twins, begging Him to keep them both alive. Only when we changed the prayer on the tenth night to “Thy will be done” did He wrap us in the palpable warmth of His embrace and let us know that we could keep one, while the other would return to Him. The knowledge that we would be reunited with a boy in the express image of our surviving son filled us with indescribable comfort.

After receiving my Ph.D. in Japanese literature, we embarked on a journey of wanderings through the academic wilderness, beginning with a year of teaching at my alma mater, Columbia University, followed by two years at Notre Dame, eight at UC Berkeley, and now just over twenty years at Brigham Young University. With no spiritual GPS to guide us in our meandering, we put our trust in a personal God who knew our needs better than we did ourselves. Who could have foreseen that losing the position at Columbia would redound to our good; that the experience at a religious institution would better prepare me for work at BYU; and that my two experiences with tenure review (one a failure, the other a success) at Berkeley would be part of the Lord’s tutorial to prepare me to review the files of other scholars when I became dean of Humanities on the Provo campus?

As if that great MapQuest of Hindsight was not sufficient to bolster my testimony, the Lord in His tender mercies was additionally preparing me for callings with keys—bishop, stake president, mission president—that would provide me with virtually uninterrupted access to the guidance of the Spirit so that I could communicate His love and His will to those of His children I was called to minister among. So often over the course of those callings I would be so astonished at the way He used me as an instrument in His hands that I would be on the verge of detaching myself from a one-on-one conversation so that I could stand figuratively to the side and observe as the God of Heaven took over my mind and my mouth and spoke as clearly and as forcefully to a member of my (His!) flock as He had to Moses atop Sinai. If that sounds a bit too mystical, too much like channeling, I can only excuse myself for being unable to come up with a metaphorical description that does justice to the reality of the way He conveys His love through His servants. Not only have I been blessed to feel His universal love, I have had the unspeakable privilege of communicating it to others.

After these many witnesses to me, how could I presume to question whether He is there, and whether He cares? I could not know it better had I seen Him with the eye of flesh, for the eye of my spirit has communed with Him. For me, the precise meaning of the “fulness” of His Gospel is that it fully embraces every one of His children, here and there and everywhere, now and then and always, worlds without end. He knows me; He is fair to me; He cares about me enough to have sent His Son and restored His Gospel. He is my God and my King.


Van C. Gessel was born in Compton, California, and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah. He joined the Church there in October 1968. He served a mission to Japan from 1970-71. He received a Ph.D. in Japanese literature from Columbia University in 1979, and he has taught as a faculty member at Columbia, Notre Dame, UC Berkeley, and Brigham Young University. He was chair of Asian and Near Eastern Languages at BYU and dean of the College of Humanities.

Dr. Gessel has published six translations of literary works by the Japanese Christian novelist Endō Shūsaku, including The Samurai and Deep River. Another Endō novel, The Life of Kiku, will appear soon in his translation. He co-edited, with Reid Neilson, a volume of essays titled Taking the Gospel to the Japanese: 1901 to 2001, which received the Geraldine McBride Woodward Award from the Mormon History Association for the best international Mormon history publication. He co-edited The Shōwa Anthology and served as co-editor, with J. Thomas Rimer, of The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature (Volume 1 published in 2005, Volume 2 in 2007).

In the Church, he has served as bishop of a singles ward and president of a singles stake at BYU. From 2005-2008, he presided over the Oregon Portland Mission of the Church.

He and his wife, Elizabeth Darley Gessel, are the parents of three children, and they have five grandchildren.

Posted May 2010