As they reread the Book of Mormon, moreover, young missionaries readily identify with the personal struggles, the attitudes and feelings of so many young prophets who embarked in great weakness upon comparable proselyting ventures (cf. 2 Nephi 4:16-35; Enos; Alma 36). With its account of their exploits and the conversions that followed those of these young proselyters, the Book of Mormon is, among other things, a great prognosticator of the workings of faith and the attendant feelings experienced by many a latter-day missionary. It is worth noting, however, that the Book of Mormon was translated and published before the later-day church was ever organized and its first missionaries called. How could Joseph Smith so intimately know what missionary experience was like before he had undertaken it himself? (It seems unlikely that his Grandfather Mack’s late tracting, as a traditional Christian among fellow Christians, was nearly so compelling as the accounts of Ammon, Alma, the sons of Mosiah, and others.) The book’s contrasting depiction of recalcitrants, the atavistic degeneration of the ungodly, and the mentality of apostates and anti-Christs (cf. Alma 30:12-18) is, in twentieth-century terms, also strikingly realistic. How deprived the world is without these additional role models and object lessons afforded by the Book of Mormon. (1)
I cannot remember a time when I did not know that the Book of Mormon was true. I had studied it before I went on my mission. There I read it many times. After my mission, I had the privilege of teaching early morning seminary for seven years. The subject each year was the Book of Mormon. Again I read it each year, followed the outline, assimilated the lessons, and testified of its truthfulness. But after all of this, one day in preparation to teach a lesson my testimony of the Book of Mormon was fortified and the Holy Spirit touched my heart in a way that causes me to remember the moment even now after many years.
I was reading again the twenty-sixth chapter of Alma and the story of Ammon's mission. I read out loud, as I sometimes do, trying to put myself in the position of the characters in the book, imagining that I was saying or hearing the words, that I was there. Once more I went over the report, and, with a clarity which cannot be described and which would be difficult to comprehend by one who has not experienced it, the Spirit spoke to my soul, saying, Did you notice? Everything that happened to Ammon happened to you.
It was a totally unexpected sentiment. It was startling in its scope; it was a thought that had never occurred to me before. I quickly reread the story. Yes, there were times when my heart had been depressed and I had thought about going home. I too had gone to a foreign land to teach the gospel to the Lamanites. I had gone forth among them, had suffered hardships, had slept on the floor, endured the cold, gone without eating. I too had traveled from house to house, knocking on doors for months at a time without being invited in, relying on the mercies of God.
There had been other times when we had entered houses and talked to people. We had taught them on their streets and on their hills. We had even preached in other churches. I remembered the time I had been spit upon. I remembered the time when I, as a young district leader assigned by the mission president to open up a new town, had entered, with three other elders, the main square of a city that had never had missionaries before. We went into the park, sang a hymn, and a crowd gathered.
Then the lot fell upon me, as district leader, to preach. I stood upon a stone bench and spoke to the people. I told the story of the restoration of the gospel, of the boy Joseph going into the grove and the appearance of the Father and the Son to him. I remembered well a group of teenage boys, in the evening shadows, throwing rocks at us. I remembered the concern about being hit or injured by those who did not want to hear the message.
I remembered spending time in jail while my legal right to be a missionary in a certain country was decided by the police authorities. I didn't spend enough time in prison to compare myself to Ammon, but I still remember the feeling I had when the door was closed and I was far away from home, alone, with only the mercies of the Lord to rely on for deliverance. I remembered enduring these things with the hope that "we might be the means of saving some soul" (Alma 26:30).
And then on that day as I read, the Spirit testified to me again, and the words remain with me even today: No one but a missionary could have written this story. Joseph Smith could never have known what it was like to be a missionary to the Lamanites, for no one he knew had ever done such a thing before. (2)