From Joseph in Egypt to Joseph in Nauvoo, Ill., religious souls have sought to leave a record. Something in our spiritual nature prompts us to want to jot down our experiences for others.
"Witnessing," Protestants call it. Mormons talk of "bearing testimony."And last week, a man walked in off the street and handed me one of the best examples of witnessing I've found.
His name was Floyd Johnson. He'd been a Navy pilot during the war, a medical researcher, an LDS missionary, a grandpa. I knew him as the father-in-law of a former landlord.
Floyd had paid out $6,000 to have his personal history printed. He wanted to make sure he left behind a full set of class notes from his "schooling" here on earth.
"I read a book about how to write personal histories," he told me. "But I didn't understand a thing. So I just did it this way."
It didn't take long to see his memoir - "From Then `Til Now" - was more than a look at one man's life. It was a textbook - a little "how to" volume - that others might emulate.
In the Brigham Young University library, you can find shelves stuffed with boxes that are stuffed with journals, personal histories and the religious memoirs of Latter-day Saints. The school is tickled to have the memoirs, of course, though it will likely take an infinite number of graduate students with an infinite number of computers just to process them.
And over the years, a good many of those journal keepers have asked me and other LDS writers for help with their personal histories.
I taught a class on the topic just last Sunday, in fact.
I'd imagined a lively conversation, with class members exchanging ideas and anecdotes. But in typical fashion I soon turned the session into a blackboard lecture, complete with advice on "finding your personal voice" and tips on proper ways to file research materials.
I'm sure the book Floyd Johnson read on compiling personal histories must have been less confusing than my lesson.
What I should have done was hand each class member a copy of Floyd's book and said, "Go thou and do likewise."
This is what they would have learned:
- Our mortal lives are built around three things: Who we love, where we live and what role we play in society. Floyd never loses track of the big things. He never gets lost on back streets but lets an inner "light" lead him along.
- Floyd doesn't attempt to define the world or speculate on the cosmos. He offers a thoughtful, simple testimony of what he has felt, seen, heard and done.
- Floyd assumes someone will actually read what he has written, and he treats those readers well. He keeps his vocabulary simple, he records names, dates and places accurately. He tosses in some humor. He tells the truth.
On the last page, he sums up his little book with this:
"My friend John Tomlinson said, `When an old person dies, a library is closed forever.' Perhaps by writing this account, I will be remembered for having lived, rather than for my eventual death. . . . I hope that this account will help my readers to treasure their own experiences and overcome any feelings of inadequacy."
In this era of telephone calls, e-mail and word processors, anyone who leaves a permanent record of any kind does us all a favor. And those who leave thoughtful records - like Floyd Johnson - do us a major favor.
Not that the events of his life are all monumental. Many are of the "garden variety" sort. But he lived those events earnestly and shares them earnestly. He's left a reliable and informative accounting of his mortal stewardship.
And that should be more than enough to keep an infinite number of BYU graduate students reading with interest. (If you want to know more, call Floyd at 255-9459.)