Spiritual journey leads 3-term U.S. senator to LDS Church, By Aaron
Deseret News, Published: Monday, April 20 2015 9:50 a.m. MDT
Christensen, left, a former area Seventy for the LDS Church,
performed the baptism of Sen. Larry Pressler, who served three terms
in the U.S. Senate from 1979-1996 for the state of South Dakota. The
baptism took place in Chevy Chase, Maryland, on Sunday, April 19,
CHEVY CHASE, Md. — The announcement was ordinary and without
fanfare. Larry Pressler would be confirmed a member of The Church of
Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the weekly services of the
Chevy Chase congregation.
But those who know the man from his three terms in the U.S. Senate
and who have shared in his spiritual journey count Pressler —
whether referring to him as "senator," "brother" or just "Larry" —
On Sunday, April 19, Pressler was confirmed as a
church member by Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, a Mormon who introduced him
to the faith's signature book of scripture. He was baptized earlier
in the day by Clayton Christensen, whose conviction of the Book of
Mormon detailed in The
New Yorker magazine compelled
the former senator to seriously study the book.
D-Nevada, and Christensen,
a Harvard Business School professor, spoke at the baptismal service,
which took place on a breezy morning with cherry blossoms in full
bloom outside a stately brick meetinghouse in Maryland.
deeply prayerful man who has been observing the LDS Church and its
members for years, Pressler is noted by history for his political
integrity and admired by friends for his humility. Reid, while
speaking at the baptismal service, called his former Senate
colleague "extraordinary in so many ways" and referenced the
scriptural teaching that the meek shall inherit the earth.
"If that in fact is the case, Larry has a direct path," Reid said.
Last year, Pressler was making national news as a disruptor in a
closely watched campaign. He was running as an independent for a
vacant Senate seat in South Dakota during the midterm elections.
Post called him "the
one-man band shaking up the battle for the Senate majority."
Pressler was endorsed by South Dakota’s four largest newspapers but
ultimately lost to former Gov. Mike Rounds.
Pressler was seeking a seat that had once been his. From 1979 to
1996, he served three terms in the Senate, representing his home
state of South Dakota as a Republican. In his 1996 bid for a fourth
term, Pressler lost a close race to Democrat Tim Johnson.
Pressler acknowledges that he's "best known for" the
aftermath of the Abscam sting, where undercover FBI agents offered
bribes to certain members of Congress. Pressler was,according
to the Washington Post in February 1980,
"the one approached member of Congress who flatly refused to
consider financial favors in exchange for legislative favors."
"I turned down an illegal contribution," Pressler
reported by Walter Cronkite.
"Whatever have we come to if that's considered 'heroic’?”
During his talk at the baptismal service, Reid called his old friend
a patriot (Pressler served two combat tours in Vietnam) and a "man
of action in the Senate" (Pressler authored the Telecommunications
Act of 1996). But the "one example that says it all," according to
Reid, was how Pressler provided a lift for the man who once defeated
After several years in office, Johnson suffered
a brain hemorrhage.
He couldn't walk and lost his confidence, according to Reid, who
told Pressler about Johnson's condition and asked if he would "just
be a friend." Reid said Pressler did just that, spending time with
the man who had dealt him an election loss that Pressler's wife
Harriet described as "crushing." In 2008, Pressler
in his bid for re-election.
Pressler, now 73, said his political career is "finished," but he
hopes to have left a legacy of idealism in politics. He's currently
writing a book on the subject. His most recent campaign was pursued
on the "basis of trying to end the poisonous relationships" between
political parties. He believes he raised the bar.
"I feel that I've got 10 good years of work in me," said Pressler,
who plans to teach and continue working as an attorney. "I don't
want to retire." ---
Pressler uses two words consistently to describe his conversion to
the LDS faith: "journey" and "coincidence."
"I kept having little coincidental encounters with Mormonism that I
can't really explain," he said.
It began early in his political career when he employed a Mormon,
Richard Wirthlin, as a pollster for his first campaign. Wirthlin
would go on to serve as a leader in his church's Second Quorum of
Over the years, Pressler has discussed the Mormon faith with Sen.
Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who is a member of the LDS Church. Hatch was
unable to attend Pressler's baptism but did call the day before to
Pressler's introduction to the Book of Mormon came from Reid, who
gave him a copy of the book. Then in 2012, Pressler came across an
article in The New Yorker that profiled Christensen and devoted
ample space to his account of seeking a conviction of the Book of
Mormon while a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. Christensen's
answer came after several weeks of reading and praying.
“I knew then, from a source of understanding more powerful than
anything I had ever felt in my life, that the book I was holding in
my hands was true," Christensen wrote.
Pressler was captivated by the article and asked Reid to facilitate
an introduction. A Rhodes Scholar himself, Pressler felt a kinship
with Christensen. The two became friends and spent four days
together at a gathering of Rhodes Scholars in Oxford. Pressler
counts the shared academic experience among the many coincidences
that brought him to the church.
Although they lived in different cities, the two frequently
discussed the faith and its teachings. Ralph W. Hardy, who served
with Christensen as a regional church leader and lives near Pressler
in the D.C. area, befriended the former senator and became involved
in the discussions. Hardy introduced Pressler to the Chevy Chase
congregation, known as a "ward."
About four months ago, Pressler began receiving lessons from
full-time Mormon missionaries: Elders Josh Von Trapp from Qatar and
Courtlan Wilcox from Bend, Oregon, and Sisters Sydney Wathen from
Lehi, Utah, and Eden Williams from Rexburg, Idaho.
conviction of the Book of Mormon was pivotal in Pressler's decision
to be baptized. Like Christensen, he sought an answer from God.
"That's the same prayer I said," Pressler said. "It was very
important, reading and rereading (the Book of Mormon). I believe
Those who have witnessed Pressler's conversion talk less about
coincidences and more about his humble, seeking heart.
Pressler is a graduate of the Harvard Law School in addition to
being a Rhodes Scholar and has an "extraordinary intellectual
background," Christensen said.
"But he is the most humble man I think I've ever met," he said.
"Whenever he sees someone who needs help, he just does it."
Pressler has met Mormons wherever he has traveled. While teaching at
the University of Paris, he befriended President Franck Poznanski,
leader of the France Paris Mission, and also met Elder Neil L.
Andersen, a member of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In
Sioux Falls, South Dakota, he met a Latter-day Saint woman who helps
Native American single mothers learn to prepare nutritious meals for
"Everywhere he went, he made a point of looking up the church,"
Hardy said. "There were all these little points of light that shone
Bishop Michael Guzman of the Chevy Chase Ward met Pressler about a
year and half ago. It was clear to the bishop that Pressler was
"seeking out the gospel."
"He was so influenced by not what people said about the church but
the way they lived their lives," Bishop Guzman said. "He's met a
number of members who are just faithful, generous, upstanding
people, and I think that really makes a difference."
Pressler has always been a man of faith. He credits God with helping
him overcome being a "helpless stutterer" at a time when there were
no speech therapy resources in his hometown of Humboldt, South
Prayer has been a daily routine in his marriage with Harriet
Pressler, who is devout in her own faith.
"She is a Catholic and will remain so, but she is very supportive of
me in this journey," he said.
Harriet Pressler said the associations her husband has established
within the Mormon faith have been "providential."
"He has been on a journey for several years, and he has made … many
close friendships," she said. "So I'm proud of him, and I support