Writing about Neal Chandler’s “The Last Nephite” reminded me that I have a Three Nephites/John the Beloved story to tell. It’s a story that was told to me on my mission in Romania. I have changed the name of the person involved for reasons that will soon become obvious. The story goes like this:
During my second companionship, Elder Nichols [name not changed] and I began regularly visiting a family that consisted of Doina [this is the changed name], a mother in her mid-40s, and her three children, ages 10-18. They were a poor family, but always fed us very good food. We taught them some of the discussions and had several other visits where we presented gospel-related messages. The oldest son wasn’t interested — in fact, he became involved with the local Jehovah’s Witnesses and once told me that he saw a white dove fly out of my chest (i.e. a sign that I didn’t have the Holy Ghost with me). But Doina was as were her daughter and youngest son. They often came to church, although sometimes Doina wasn’t with the two children.
Doina was am interesting, passionate, flaky person. She liked to tell stories. My Romanian wasn’t great at the time (but adequate) and from what I could gather, her basic story was this:
She had been raised outside of Bucharest and had always been involved with non-Orthodox religious groups. She moved to Bucharest as a young woman and soon met and fell in love with a young man [according to here she was a great beauty at the time with hair so long and thick that on one occasion she went to a church function clothed only in the garment God gave her — her hair]. The rest is a little hazy, but despite their minority religious status, both she and her husband obtained jobs with Ceaucescu government and traveled abroad — especially her husband. In fact, Doina claimed to have worked in some secret biological lab (weapons or genetic engineering or something like that) run by Ceaucescu’s wife.
Her husband often worked abroad for long stretches of time. Sometimes sending back money — sometimes not. Doina become more involved with minority religious congregations (some of them legal, some of them not), although because of her personality she often came into conflict with members of the congregation and alienated herself from the community. At one point, she became a sort of underground Christian activist and was picked up by the Securitate (secret police) and interrogated and tortured. Because of that experience, she (I found out much later — after her daughter had been baptized and we had sister missionaries who could take over the Doina visits) became addicted to injections of painkillers (or some sort of injected drug). This addiction kept her from being baptized.
But despite all that had happened to her, Doina had a strong, one might say even fierce faith in God.
She shared the following story with Elder Nichols and me during a visit:
Doina reached a point where she had no money for food. She had lost her government job and with it her income. Her husband had been incognito for awhile. She had become estranged from her (latest) congregation. She didn’t know any of her neighbors very well, and besides that they were all barely scraping by themselves. And she had three young children to feed. The only option she had left was to boil the straw from her broom and see if she could draw some nourishment from the small undeveloped kernels of wheat attached to the straw. She was in deep despair and didn’t know what to do. She cried out to God. A few minutes (or perhaps hours) later there was a knock on the door. She opened it. A nicely-dressed (I think he may have even been wearing a white suit — at the very least he was in ‘church clothes’) older gentleman was there with several bags of groceries in his arms. He asked if he could come in. Doina, of course, said yes. He gave her the groceries and some money. Doina wanted him to stay and told him that she would prepare a meal for him. He declined, but (I believe) did ask for a glass of water. Then he left.
Elder Nichols and I stared at each other in amazement after hearing this story. After the visit, we excitedly discussed it. If I recall correctly, the dedicatory prayer that opened up Romania for mission work had said something about the Lord preparing the land to receive his gospel. To us this seemed like a very real example of that. And the story had a certain amount of credibility in our eyes because her was someone who didn’t grow up with Three Nephites stories telling us about an experience that echoed those stories.
Now, even then, we had some doubts about the account because we knew that Doina was prone to exaggeration. She is not the most credible witness. I also realize that this type of folk narrative featuring a heavenly visitor is not unique to Mormonism. For all I know, there could be a long tradition of such narratives among Romanian evangelical and protestant Christians [I think that with Orthodox folk narratives the details of such a visit would be quite different].
And while I can say that the story touched me deeply — and was deeply felt by Doina, the tears streaming off her face as she told it — because I am aware of the folk-quality of many of these narratives, I can’t say that I believe it is a factual account. However: knowing Doina and her family as I do. Knowing her faith and how she relates to God and how he seems to relate to her — he puts her through the wringer, but always somehow to provide the right things for her at the right moment. And believing as I do, the Book of Mormon account of the Three Nephites (and by extension what that tells us about John the Beloved), there’s a part of me that believes the account is true.
It’s a strange situation to be in. I believe that it is doctrinally possible. But I also am aware of the problem of relying on folk narratives and think that it’s best to take a skeptical approach to sensational Mormon narratives.
True or not, it is an interesting addition to the corpus of Three Nephites/John the Beloved folk narratives.