History, Geography, & Political Science Department Chair
Shawn Johansen is currently the Chair of the History, Geography, and Political Science department at BYU-Idaho. He teaches U.S. history, historical research and writing, and the history of the U.S. Constitution and law.
He graduated with a B.A. in History from BYU, and a Ph.D. in U.S. History from UCLA. He has taught at Occidental College, Southwest Missouri State University, Frostburg State University, and now fifteen years at BYU-Idaho.
He is the author of Family Men: Middle-Class Fatherhood in Early Industrializing America, published by Routledge Press. He served a mission in Taiwan, is married to Michelle Harding Johansen, and has six children.
In preparation for Brother Shawn Johansen's devotional address, consider doing one of the following:
1. Review a spiritual experience that you have recorded in your journal.
2. If you have a significant spiritual experience in your life that you have not written down, take the time to record it and preserve the record.
In 2-3 sentences on the discussion board, explain why you think the Lord wants us to be historians of our own lives.
It seems appropriate on this Halloween to begin briefly with two nightmares of mine. The first is a recurring nightmare. In this dream, I come to class to start teaching but realize that I haven't adequately prepared. I stand dumb before my students, unable to teach. Today, I'm thankful for my friend the teleprompter. The second nightmare occurred many years ago. In this dream, I found myself in a large auditorium, giving a lecture. This time I was prepared with something important to say, but the audience was not listening. Midway through the lecture, the entire audience began doing the wave back and forth in the auditorium. Needless to say, the lecture did not go well. Today, could I ask you to refrain from doing the wave? I would greatly appreciate it. In return, I promise to use the teleprompter so that neither of these dreams comes true.
I teach in the history department. One occupational hazard of being a historian manifests itself the first time one's child starts learning history in school. Years ago, my oldest daughter, who was in middle school at the time, began taking American History. I was excited because it's my area of emphasis. After a couple weeks, I asked, "How is history going?" Now, as an aside, this was about the same time that she asked me if I remembered when Lincoln was shot. She obviously was in need of this class. So when I asked her about her class, she said, with all the sensitivity of a young teenager, "I hate it. It's boring."
I was thinking, "Well great, it's only what your father does for a living." But instead I asked her, "Why don't you like it?"
Her response: "All the teacher does is put up dates and names on the projector." She was surprised when I told her that I would find such a class boring as well. "But isn't that what history is?" she asked.
Ah, at last, what I'd been waiting for--my teaching moment. I was able to tell her that the facts of the past--dates, names, places--are important building blocks for the historian, but good history is about much more. It is analytical in nature. Yes, it is important to know the basic fact that World War I came before World War II, but not just because two comes after one. Think about it for a moment. Even if you don't know much about history, you might know that Germany, Britain, and France were key players in each war. Isn't it possible that the tensions of the first bled over into the second? Indeed, we know that the causes of the second are partly found in the first. The humble fact that the number one comes before two leads us to the more-significant and higher thought pattern of a causal relationship.
Good historians ask searching questions that encourage understanding of the complexities of the past. They want to know how and why events occur. They seek out answers to that all-important question that we should often ask: "So what?" So what does it mean? So what is important?
You might be thinking, "So what does this all have to do with the doctrines of salvation?" Actually, quite a bit.
Several of the commandments that the Lord has given us ask us to act like historians. We know, for example, that our church is a record-keeping church. We have invested a great deal in genealogy records that help us carry out the work of turning the hearts of the children to the fathers.
And where would we be if we did not keep a historical record of the words of the prophets? The Lord commanded Nephi to obtain the brass plates so that an entire nation would not "dwindle and perish in unbelief." Without such a record, the Mulekites did just that--they became a people who "denied the being of their Creator."
And what do we do when we study the scriptures? We ponder records from the past. Indeed, LDS students of the scriptures practice good historical skills, with the intent not to glean the historical details of ancient Israel or the Americas but to understand the deeper meanings in the texts. In the case of the scriptures, effective analysis is a task with eternal significance, for in them we find the doctrines of salvation.
All of these are important, but today I'd like to focus on one other way in which Latter-day Saints are encouraged to act like historians--and that is keeping a record of our own past, particularly our spiritual experiences. I did not hear a collective groan just now, but I suspect that many of you probably just became less interested in my subject. But let me try to persuade you of this fact: that the Lord wants us to act as historians of our own lives--in the recording and analyzing. I would also hope to convince you to see the blessings that can come to you if you will do this. I see four arguments for this:
1. Keeping a record of our spiritual experiences can inspire others.
2. Keeping a regular record helps us see God's hand in our lives, and it shows our Heavenly Father that we appreciate His guidance.
3. Keeping a record of our spiritual experiences helps us remember them.
4. Keeping a record helps us be self-evaluative.
Someday most of you will have teenagers--and that's about as scary a Halloween thought as I can give to you today. Anyone who has tried to raise teenagers knows that any help is welcomed. I was very grateful to my mother, who, before she passed away, would occasionally send a note of encouragement to my children. Her purpose was to help them to see their eternal worth. She knew that reminding them of their eternal connections to family could help mitigate the worst that the teenage years threw at them. I testify that the records we keep of our lives can perform this same function--to inspire others, including our children and children's children.
President Spencer W. Kimball was an advocate for this kind of record keeping: "Some families possess ... spiritual treasures because ancestors have recorded the events surrounding their conversion to the gospel and other . . . miraculous blessings and spiritual experiences."
But what if you feel inadequate in the "spiritual treasures" department? President Kimball gave us a promise: "People often use the excuse that their lives are uneventful and nobody would be interested in what they have done. But I promise you that if you will keep your journals and records, they will indeed be a source of great inspiration to your families, to your children, your grandchildren, and others, on through the generations."
My family has a few of these recorded "spiritual treasures." I'd like to share one with you today. Over the years, it has been an important source of inspiration for me and my family. It's the story of Geertje and Pieter Janse.
It begins on December 23, 1911, in the town of Middleburg in the Netherlands. My grandmother Adriana Janse, only 11 years old at the time, was skipping down the path to her home, excited about the arrival of the holidays. Not paying attention to where she was going, she bumped into a nice-looking young man who had gold fillings in his teeth and was chewing gum--sure signs that he was an American.
When Adriana told her mother about the American who was knocking on the doors of the neighborhood, her mother, who was cleaning the stove at the time, told Adriana she wasn't interested in buying anything. The missionary must have had a good door approach, however, because eventually my great-grandmother Geertje found herself talking to the elder while keeping her sooty hands behind her back.
During the course of the discussion, Geertje professed that, as a good member of the Dutch Reformed Church, she was among the saved and had the mark on her forehead, probably referring to Revelation 14:1, where the believers have the name of God on their foreheads. Then, forgetting about the soot on her hands, she "placed her forefinger on her forehead," leaving "a very black, sooty mark," much to her embarrassment.
Despite this awkward introduction, Geertje was intrigued by the missionary's message. My great-grandmother Geertje was a deeply religious woman who was a seeker of truth. She invited the missionary back.
With each visit of the missionaries, the Spirit worked on her, and eventually she desired to be baptized. Unfortunately, her husband, Pieter, my great-grandfather, did not approve. He had become convinced that it was an evil thing his wife was trying to do. He became spiteful and often angry, going so far as to tell Geertje that if she joined the Mormons, he would drown himself in the neighborhood canal.
However, it's clear from the accounts left to us that Geertje was a formidable woman who knew her own mind. May 6, 1912, was set for the day of the baptism. It was rainy and cold. Pieter was still angry, but Geertje, after praying, received a witness that she should go forward. As she left to go to the baptism, she met Pieter coming home from work. He quietly said, "So you are going to do this; so I wish you luck." She thought perhaps her husband was reconciled to her choice.
As the first to commit to baptism in the town, Geertje had the honor of being the first baptized. Family records indicate that as she stepped into the cold water of the canal, she gave a loud shout.
Meanwhile, back at home things were not going well. Pieter was clearly distraught. When my grandmother Adriana served dinner, he swept it off the table onto the floor and ordered the children to bed. My grandmother remembers lying in bed in fear--she'd never seen her father "so ugly and hateful."
Three times that night, Pieter left the home, walked to the canal, and removed his hat and coat in preparation for jumping in to drown himself. Each time, the thought of his children stopped him. On the third time, a woman's shout startled him. Again, thinking about his children, he went home to check on them. It was then that he knew that he could not do such a terrible thing.
The historian in me is skeptical that Pieter heard Geertje's shout from what was likely some distance away. The great-grandson part of me, on the other hand, loves this part of the story. Perhaps as a blessing for Geertje's faithfulness, the Lord intervened in this way, bringing Pieter to his senses.
Three weeks after my great-grandmother's baptism, my grandmother Adriana was baptized. And finally, four months after Geertje, Pieter entered the waters of baptism. Don't you just love happy endings? If this were Hollywood, snappy music would start playing, and the credits would roll at this point.
But the nice thing about real historical stories is the way they have of complicating storybook endings. Pieter lost his job at the lumberyard because of his new religion. Then war broke out in Europe. The family decided to gather to Zion. But it was a hard time for them, a strange place and new language. They weren't always treated kindly, even in Zion. Still, Geertje and Pieter remained true to the faith that they had embraced in Holland. They passed on to my mother a commitment to faith that she in turn passed on to me, and which I seek to pass on to my children.
Here is a picture of the family in Utah.
The account left by my grandmother has been one of those building blocks of my faith. I confess that there have been times in my life, when facing adversity, that I've been tempted to wimp out. Living by faith isn't always easy. But the memory of the sacrifices made by Geertje and Pieter give me pause. I picture in my mind the strong face of Geertje Janse and think that perhaps I can do it after all.
My second point about becoming our own historians has to do with gratitude. Gratitude is a wonderful virtue--grateful people are just nicer to be around, aren't they?--but showing gratitude for our blessings is also a commandment. In the Doctrine and Covenants 59, the Lord states, "Thou shalt thank the Lord thy God in all things."
President Spencer W. Kimball notes, "Those who keep a book of remembrance are more likely to keep the Lord in remembrance.... Journals are a way of counting our blessings and of leaving an inventory of these blessings for our posterity."
President Henry B. Eyring has been an advocate for this kind of record keeping. Many of you will remember this talk.
When our children were very small, I started to write down a few things about what happened every day. Let me tell you how that got started. I came home late from a Church assignment. It was after dark. My father-in-law, who lived near us, surprised me as I walked toward the front door of my house. He was carrying a load of pipes over his shoulder, walking very fast and dressed in his work clothes. I knew that he had been building a system to pump water from a stream below us up to our property.
He smiled, spoke softly, and then rushed past me into the darkness to go on with his work. I took a few steps toward the house, thinking of what he was doing for us, and just as I got to the door, I heard in my mind--not in my own voice--these words: "I'm not giving you these experiences for yourself. Write them down."
I went inside. I didn't go to bed. Although I was tired, I took out some paper and began to write. And as I did, I understood the message I had heard in my mind. I was supposed to record for my children to read, someday in the future, how I had seen the hand of God blessing our family. Grandpa didn't have to do what he was doing for us. He could have had someone else do it or not have done it at all. But he was serving us, his family, in the way covenant disciples of Jesus Christ always do. I knew that was true. And so I wrote it down, so that my children could have the memory someday when they would need it.
I wrote down a few lines every day for years. I never missed a day no matter how tired I was or how early I would have to start the next day. Before I would write, I would ponder this question: "Have I seen the hand of God reaching out to touch us or our children or our family today?" As I kept at it, something began to happen. As I would cast my mind over the day, I would see evidence of what God had done for one of us that I had not recognized in the busy moments of the day. As that happened, and it happened often, I realized that trying to remember had allowed God to show me what He had done.
More than gratitude began to grow in my heart. Testimony grew. I became ever more certain that our Heavenly Father hears and answers prayers. I felt more gratitude for the softening and refining that come because of the Atonement of the Savior Jesus Christ. And I grew more confident that the Holy Ghost can bring all things to our remembrance--even things we did not notice or pay attention to when they happened.
Video on Screen: Henry B. Eyring, "O Remember, Remember" Ensign, November 2017, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2007/10/o-remember-remember?lang=eng
If we take time in our busy lives to find a quiet place to ponder the day's events and write them down, we develop gratitude, which in turn makes us more receptive to the ministration of the Holy Ghost.
My third point today is that keeping a record of our spiritual experiences helps us remember these valuable gifts. Some years ago, Elder Richard G. Scott visited BYU-Idaho. In a meeting with the faculty, he counseled us that making a record of promptings of the Spirit or personal revelation is important--it shows our Father in Heaven that we value this gift to us. He shared this same idea in a conference talk.
Elder Scott said, "Inspiration carefully recorded shows God that His communications are sacred to us. Recording will also enhance our ability to recall revelation."
I decided to follow this counsel. Since that time, I have kept a journal of things that I have been impressed to record. I have found it to be a great blessing--in both the writing and the reviewing. I use a small, low-tech spiral-bound notebook that is with me at church, when I watch conference, and close at hand during scripture study. When I record something, I'm not always sure if it's me or the Holy Ghost that feels it's significant, but I write down thoughts or ideas that come to me or something that I read or what others have said. I suspect that if anyone else were to read it, they would not find what's written there very profound or impressive, but that's okay. This record is mostly for my benefit. But I am certain that if I did not do this, I would not remember many of the moments when the Lord blessed me through the ministration of the Holy Ghost. I bear testimony that this direction from Elder Scott, to record the promptings we receive from the Spirit, can help us remember them and also show the Lord that we value them and can be trusted with them.
Now we come to my last point. An important "so what" reason to keep personal records is that writing is usually accompanied by thinking. If we keep a journal of any type, it will, if done correctly, be self-evaluative. It will help us examine our actions and thoughts in order to assist us in our own intellectual and spiritual progression.
President Kimball called the personal journal "the literature of superiority," meaning, among other things, that it is a tool for personal improvement. To be effective, though, it needs to be an honest account. "Your journal should contain your true self," wrote President Kimball, "rather than a picture of you when you are 'made up' for a public performance."
This kind of self-evaluation is helpful in many ways. True repentance, for example, requires reflection about our actions, asking forgiveness of the Lord, and proving ourselves through obedience. Writing about each of these steps can help us do this more effectively.
It can also assist us with our relationships. Good relationships require a great deal of effort. A journal can help us evaluate how we interact with others, in order to keep our relationships healthy.
In journals, we can also consider how we spend our time. Most of us are tied to technology that is endlessly diverting, keeping us from self-evaluation. I suspect that this is one of the greatest challenges for your generation. To combat this tendency, we need tools that encourage us to think. We need things like journals, which aid our interactions with the Spirit.
I'd like to ask you to do something for me now. By that old-fashioned polling method--a show of hands--how many of you have at one time started or kept a journal?
My purpose today hasn't been to make you feel guilty--well, maybe a little. But my hope is that we will remember why we keep these records. And that is what is important. If you are feeling overwhelmed at the moment, keeping a journal of some type might actually be a help by providing perspective at a critical time. But then again, maybe keeping personal records isn't the task for you right now. President Henry B. Eyring clarifies that, as with any tool, we should remember the reasons why we use it: "My point is to urge you to find ways to recognize and remember God's kindness.... You may not share whatever record you keep with those you love and serve. But you and they will be blessed as you remember what the Lord has done."
Perhaps, instead of journaling, you would rather turn to long talks with loved ones or improving your prayers to our Father in Heaven. It might be better for you to spend more time pondering or reading the scriptures deeply. Maybe it's being more effective in your classes so that you can better learn about who you are and your place in the cosmos. When we talk about standing in holy places, aren't some of these holy places? Certainly holier than the media that we inhabit all too much.
Keeping a record of your thoughts and experiences is a systematic means of carrying out the four purposes that I have identified today. In the pre-devotional prepare assignment on I-Learn, I encouraged you to review or record a spiritual experience. For those who did make this effort, I hope you better see the importance of being your own historian. And for the rest of us, I return to that admonition now. Even if you don't feel that a daily journal is for you at this time, consider recording one or two specific spiritual experiences. I testify that it will bring blessings. And isn't it strange that we often resist doing the very things that will bring us blessings?
In the book of John, the author has left an important record for you and me: a prayer of the Savior. "And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent." In today's world, if we are to come to know God, we need tools like journals that help us stand, work, and live in holy places. In the words of my neighbor, recorded in my little spiral-bound journal, "We are saved not [just] by avoiding evil but embracing good." We must actively embrace the good that will help us truly know and become like our Father in Heaven and His Son. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
 1 Nephi 4:13; see also 1 Nephi 3:19-20.  Omni 1:17.  Spencer W. Kimball, "President Kimball Speaks Out on Personal Journals," Ensign, Dec. 1980, https://www.lds.org/ensign/1980/12/president-kimball-speaks-out-on-personal-journals?lang=eng.  Kimball, "Journals."  Adriana Janse Aldous, typescript family history, in possession of the author, 72.  Aldous, history, 74.  Aldous, history, 75.  Doctrine and Covenants 59:7.  Spencer W. Kimball, "Listen to the Prophets," Liahona, May 1978, https://www.lds.org/ensign/1978/05/listen-to-the-prophets?lang=eng.  Video on Screen: Henry B. Eyring, "O Remember, Remember" Ensign, November 2017, https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2007/10/o-remember-remember?lang=eng  Richard G. Scott, "How to Obtain Revelation and Inspiration for Your Personal Life," Ensign, May 2012, https://www.lds.org/liahona/2012/05/how-to-obtain-revelation-and-inspiration-for-your-personal-life.p1?lang=eng.  Spencer W. Kimball, "The Angels May Quote from It," New Era, Feb. 1975, https://www.lds.org/new-era/2003/02/the-angels-may-quote-from-it?lang=eng#.  Kimball, "Angels."  Henry B. Eyring, "O Remember, Remember," Ensign, Nov. 2007, https://www.lds.org/ensign/2007/11/o-remember-remember?lang=eng.  John 17:3.