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Cover image via LDS.org.
To get your own copy of “Seek This Jesus” by Neill Marriott, click here.
When Sister Neill F. Marriott , second counselor in the General Young Women’s presidency, was born in Louisiana, her maternal grandmother carefully sewed her a christening gown out of Sea Island cotton, a finely stitched and lovely dress, laced with expectations.
While her family surrounded her in a day that was “nothing short of ceremonial”, she was sprinkled with water by a Methodist minister, given the name of her grandmother and began a life steeped in tradition, family security, and the church that was well-loved by her family.
Not long after, her parents planted a magnolia tree in the back yard so that it could stretch high to some day shade Neill on her wedding day in that same church. That magnolia tree would never be used for the purpose—nor would the Methodist church.
Thus begins Sister Marriott’s book Seek that Jesus, her eloquent and moving story that follows her path from good Methodist girl who pledges her time, talents and gifts to that faith, to her poignant conversion as an adult that brought her to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
This is a warm telling where Sister Marriott lets the reader travel with her through her mind and heart as she seeks God. It is personal, a refreshing respite in these hard times, a book to curl up with for a moment of happy stillness as she shares her most private longings.
She loved her religious upbringing, the lessons in faith that were both spoken and unspoken. She could see how meticulously her mother polished the shoes of all the children and placed them in an open window so they would be ready for Sunday. She saw her Daddy’s discomfort when she thought it might be ok to crochet in church.
Then, as a youth, she had an experience that ignited something more in her.
She writes: I went off for two weeks to Camp Windywood, a Young Women’s Christian Association camp in the pine woods of central Louisiana. Assigned to one of the six large screened cabins that encircled a quaint chapel, I camped with about a hundred other young teenaged girls. Each night we gathered at the chapel for games and skits—except Sunday night. To honor the Sabbath, the skits were put aside for a night of singing hymns.
“Little did I know, one Sunday night as I walked through the darkening evening toward the little chapel, that I was about to learn, better than I ever had, that yes, God was real.
“This chapel, built of yellow pine logs, had large open windows with wide sills. The light poured out of the windows and beckoned the campers through the trees. I settled on a bench by my friend Tricia and we began to sing, urged on by the song leader, Francis. I knew Francis was a Catholic because I had watched as she collected all the Catholic campers that Sunday morning and took them to mass. The rest of us weren’t invited, and I remember thinking, a bit wistfully, that somehow they were more religious than the rest of us.
“Francis invited us to sing ‘Kum-Ba-Yah, Lord.’ I had been told that the words Kum-Ba-Yah, Lord meant Come by here, Lord.” As we sang, I tried to imagine the Lord actually coming by there. Would He come to this small chapel? Could He? How? Still thinking about the Lord and His whereabouts, I heard Francis announce that the next song was “Fairest Lord Jesus.” I had hardly begun to sing the lines “Jesus is fairer, Jesus is purer,” when a loving warmth simply bloomed in my heart, spreading outward to envelop me in the sweetest feeling I had ever experienced. Even the chapel itself appeared to grow brighter and brighter as I felt this love flow in every direction. I was loved! And this love was coming from a spiritual source I had never tapped. Its goodness and depth were almost more than I could contain. I turned tearfully to Tricia, holding her shoulder and stuttering, ‘Tricia, God loves me.’
“Her uncomprehending stare caused me to look for another who might understand. Martha, also a lifelong friend, was sitting in an open windowsill. I hurried over to her through the rows of singing campers, took her by the arm, and whispered urgently, ‘Martha, God loves me!’ ‘What?’ she whispered back, looking down at me, confused. At that I turned and ran from the chapel. This rich moment of unearthly love had happened—and I knew it. My friends perhaps hadn’t felt that love or noticed the brightness, but I had. I cried all the way back to the cabin stumbling along in the dark, holding on to this most precious of realizations. God loved me. He knew twelve-year-old me. He was real. That certain knowledge bound my heart and soul to Him.
“The chapel experience marked my life so deeply that I longed for another outpouring of God’s love.”
That sense of divine connection was more fleeting than Sister Marriott wanted and though she tried different methods in her youth to regain that moment, it never came again with the same power, and she felt a loss.
Then, after graduation from Southern Methodist University, she moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and a graduate student there, David Marriott, brought the Mormon elders to her apartment. He had met one of her roommates who had asked, “What’s a Mormon?” and he said he would bring some elders around to answer that question. The roommates agreed to listen to their message, but also insisted that their meeting could continue with one stipulation—the elders couldn’t ask these young women to be baptized.
Sister Marriott describes what happened next. “The elders asked us to read certain chapters of the Book of Mormon and be ready to discuss them at the following visit. My assignment was Mosiah, chapter 2. Rather pridefully, I began this chapter relishing the idea that I would explain it well and impress them, given my degree in English literature.
“I was halfway through the chapter when the Lord mercifully cut through that prideful beginning by allowing a startling question to enter my mind. What if King Benjamin were a real man? I dropped the book into my lap and stared at the ceiling. A real man! Was that possible? That question led to other possibilities: if he were real, then others in this book could be real. The recorded events could have happened. It was too much to take in, and I avoided the thought—but didn’t forget it. The mere thought that the Book of Mormon could be a true account softened my attitude about the elder’s message.
“After four months of pleasant but unproductive gospel meetings with us, the missionaries arranged for us to meet the president of the mission. We understood that he was a minister, so we dressed accordingly in our church clothes and drove to the mission home, a beautiful, historic New England home once owned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
“We sat in the parlor waiting for the president and his wife; they entered and stopped short. Looking at his wife, the president asked, ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ His wife nodded. (Surely, I thought, Mormons can’t read each other’s minds!). The president then turned to the four of us and said, ‘We are thinking you look like members of our church.’ Instantly I had a happy feeling rise in my mind. How nice, I thought.
“When we got back in the car later, one of my roommates said, ‘I didn’t like being told I look like a member of his church.’ The others seemed to agree. Silently I wondered, What is happening to me? I am changing. I used to feel like they do, but something is different about my attitude toward Mormons now. The softening of my heart, though imperceptible to others—especially the discouraged elders—continued. Being very much connected to the Protestant way of worship, I didn’t plan on changing churches, so I kept this new feeling to myself.
“A few months later the elders finally taught us Heavenly Father’s plan of salvation. I was undone. Hardly had they begun to teach that before we came to earth we lived with Heavenly Father, and we were his daughters, when I began to cry. I could not resist the pure truth of their words. I recognized this doctrine, but where had I learned it? I felt like a beloved, long-lost friend had walked back into my life.”
Still making the decision to break away from the religious tradition of her upbringing gave her pause.
“Two weeks later was the last meeting my roommates and I were to have with the two elders, since most of us had plans to travel and the elders were finishing up their missions. At the meeting, David, who had quietly accompanied the elders on their visits, spoke up. He asked each of my roommates how they felt about the Book of Mormon. When it was my turn to answer, I was planning to say politely that I had enjoyed reading it and whoever wrote it did a good job, and leave it at that. However, my hidden feelings emerged. ‘I think it is true,’ I heard myself say. The words seemed to take on a life of their own and hang in the air between me and the others.
“’So,’ David asked slowly, ‘what are you going to do about that?’ Now, surprised that I had blown my cover, I answered with a new degree of humility, ‘I will pray honestly about it tonight.’ And so it was that I knelt, as was my wont, and returned to the earnest seeking that I had abandoned. I simply said something akin to, ‘Heavenly Father, if this really is the only true church of Jesus Christ on the earth, I’ll join it. I just need to know it is the true church.’
“Immediately I received an answer to my heart and my mind. The words came directly. ‘It is true.’ And the feelings of warmth, love, and happiness poured over me and through me again, just as they had at Camp Windywood and at the piano. ‘It’s true!’ I exclaimed aloud and stood, throwing my hands up as if to embrace the whole-souled joy I felt.”
As in these excerpts, in the book Sister Marriott shares the grace that has marked her experience as she has sought to “Seek this Jesus of whom the prophets and apostles have written, that the grace of God…may be and abide in you forever” (Ether 12:41) We see what it meant to her to go the temple to be sealed, giving up the magnolia tree that had been planted in her backyard as a backdrop for a wedding celebration. We see a life filled with seeking Jesus.
This short book is a radiant testimony, a glimpse into the heart of one who loves God. I found reading it to be a joyful respite in this troubled world.
To get your own copy of “Seek This Jesus” by Neill Marriott, click here.