Former US senator reflects on Mormon conversion

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Former senator Larry Pressler looks out at Y Mountain. Pressler joined the LDS church one year ago and shared his experience with several classes at BYU. (Isaac Wright)
Former senator Larry Pressler looks out at Y Mountain. Pressler joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 15, 2015, and shared his experience with several classes at BYU. (Isaac Wright)

It’s been a year since former Republican senator Larry Pressler was baptized as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Sen. Pressler became best friends with Democrat majority leader Harry Reid, who first gave him a Book of Mormon.

Looking back at the one-year anniversary of his baptism in the LDS Church, Pressler’s entire life has been that of a Mormon in the making.

“Throughout my life, there’s been these little voices, but I didn’t listen,” Pressler said.

A Book of Mormon in a Marriott hotel during Pressler’s time as a foreign service officer was one of his first encounters with the church.

He recalled about 14 senators, many of them by name, whom he knew were Latter-day Saints and who impressed him with their morals and friendship. However, it was not until Harry Reid urged him to read the Book of Mormon that he finally investigated the church seriously.

Raised in a Catholic family on a small farm in Humboldt, South Dakota, he often found himself drawn to Episcopal or Presbyterian congregations. After serving in the Vietnam War, he worked as a foreign service officer before entering politics. He was elected to the House of Representatives and later to the Senate, where he became famous for being the only senator out of a group of nine congressmen to reject a bribe in an FBI sting operation. While news media lauded him as a hero, Pressler felt the fame was undeserved.

“I turned down an illegal contribution,” Pressler said in an interview at the time. “Whatever have we come to if that’s considered ‘heroic?’”

After serving three terms in the Senate, Pressler was closely defeated in 1996 by Democrat Tim Johnson. Despite the stinging loss, Johnson and Pressler befriended one another after Johnson suffered a brain hemorrhage. Pressler kept him company throughout his recovery and later endorsed Johnson when he again ran for office in 2008.

Pressler has remained active in politics, working with action committees to help independents win office to defuse bipartisan gridlock in Washington.

He also speaks to students about current issues, including BYU students. He recently spoke to several classes of students at BYU about getting involved politically and studying the problems facing the nation.

“(The) problem is just the moral fiber, the determination, the interest of the people,” Pressler said when asked about his concerns for the country’s future. “We somehow need to have a reawakening.”

Larry Pressler thanks a lifetime of "little coincidences" for his decision to join the LDS church. (Isaac Wright)
Larry Pressler thanks a lifetime of “little coincidences” and the dedication of steadfast friends Harry Reid and Clayton Christensen for his decision to join the LDS Church. (Isaac Wright)

An awakening of sorts was what led Pressler to finally investigate the LDS Church. According to him, Senator Harry Reid and his wife Landra were a “key part” of his conversion since they “didn’t push the issue that hard” and recognized his “desire” to investigate the church.

Pressler credits former Area Seventy Clayton Christensen as another person who was central to his conversion. Over a Rhodes Scholar gathering at Oxford, he seriously discussed the gospel with Clayton Christensen.

“I had a lot of confidence in him,” he said. “I got to thinking to myself, ‘If a guy this smart is humble enough to be a member of the (LDS Church), maybe I should be too.'”

He would occasionally come to Sunday meetings over the years, heeding the “coincidences” and the “little voices” that urged him to more seriously learn about what his Mormon friends believed.

While teaching abroad at the University of Paris, he became friends with mission President Franck Poznanski and met Elder Neil L. Anderson of the Quorum of the Twelve. Later, when Harry Reid gave him a Book of Mormon and challenged him to read it, Pressler realized he needed to gain an answer through the Holy Ghost.

Former senator Larry Pressler speaks with a BYU student before a lecture. He described the feeling of being on a campus with so many Mormons as a “rush of energy.” (Isaac Wright)

“The Book of Mormon sheds a lot of light,” Pressler said. “It enriches (you) the more you read it.”

It was after earnestly reading and praying that Pressler felt like the “little voices” had finally brought him to the truth. After meeting with full-time missionaries, he was baptized by Christensen on April 15, 2015. Reid talked at his baptismal service.

Now, a year later, he serves as a Sunday School teacher in the Washington D.C. Chevy Chase Ward.

“I’m teaching a lesson next Sunday on the Holy Ghost and I haven’t started it yet,” Pressler said with a laugh.

With the life adjustments, he still considers his decision to join the LDS Church incredible.

“It’s been the best decision I’ve made in my life,” Pressler said.

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