Clayton 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, 2015.
Aaron Shill, Deseret News
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.
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. (The Chevy Chase Ward is our ward house that our singles also meet in.)
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" — as extraordinary.
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.
Both Reid, 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.
A 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.
The Washington 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."
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 him.
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 endorsed Johnson 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 the Seventy.
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 congratulate him.
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, (is on the Barlow committee and we meet with him four times a year.)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, (These two Elders are the AP in our mission and we have worked with Elder Wilcox when we first arrived.) and Sisters Sydney Wathen from Lehi, Utah, and Eden Williams from Rexburg, Idaho.
A 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 it."
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 their children.
"Everywhere he went, he made a point of looking up the church," Hardy said. "There were all these little points of light that shone on him."
Bishop Michael Guzman of the Chevy Chase Ward met Pressler about a year and a 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 Dakota.
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 that."
(Wednesday evening a couple of weeks ago Pres. Cook our mission president brought Senator Pressler to the Barlow Center to interview him for baptism.)