on chewing gum and conversion stories

By January 17, 2014

In reading a collection of German Mormon WWII stories¬† for a project,[1] I came across a story told by the Uchtdorfs. Both Dieter and Harriet Uchtdorf were not members by birth; rather, their families converted after the war. President Uchtdorf’s grandmother was actually the one to encounter Mormonism first, when she met “a wonderful white-haired lady with a kind expression on her face” while standing in line one day (queuing up for supplies, any supplies, was part of post-war life for many Europeans, Germans included).¬† Uchtdorf continues,

My grandmother was a religious person, and she was always interested in the faith of others. So this wonderful lady invited her to come to church, and she went. She came home and asked my parents to go with her. They all decided that the children should not go, because they didn’t want to bring four children in to disrupt the meeting. But when they got there, they were surprised to see that the church was full of children. So the next Sunday all of us went, and actually from there on out we didn’t miss a meeting. It took a while until we were allowed to be baptized, because we had to prove we were firm in the faith, but eventually everyone in the family was baptized–except me, because I was only six years old. (2)

I remembered this story not only because I have soft spot for President Uchtdorf, but because there’s a nice detail hidden in there: the sister that would lead the Uchtdorfs to Mormonism held the last name of Ewig, which means “eternal” in German. You can just imagine the Sunday School lessons here!

Harriet Reich Uchtdorf has a slightly different story. She spent the war in the relative safety and comfort of rural Germany, but moved to Frankfurt afterward, where “things were very difficult. Food was very hard to find” (3). One day, a “blond, smiling soldier” walked up and gave her a piece of chewing gum. She recounts,

I had never seen anything like it. I looked at my mother, and she said it was okay to take it. So I had this little piece of chewing gum, and it was wonderful! I just chewed it and chewed it. After a while I said, “You know what, Mom? It’s still there!” I had never had chewing gum in my whole life before, so I didn’t even know what it was. My mother explained it. I kept this piece of gum for weeks. After chewing it for a while, I always put it back in its nice silver paper and kept it like a treasure. Every so often I would take it out and chew on it a little, but I saved it for a long time. (3)

Harriet Uchtdorf talks about knowing that these soldiers meant well, even though they had technically been enemies only a short while before. Years later, two missionaries come to the door, “smiling like that soldier” (3). Harriet had “such a positive feeling when [she] saw them, as if [she] was connecting them with the chewing gum that the very kind and nice American soldier gave to [her]” (3-4). Her father had passed away almost a year before that, and although her mother hadn’t wanted to the missionaries to come in, reading the Book of Mormon brought joy and light back into her life, and the Reich family was baptized four weeks later.

As a convert myself (though not to Mormonism), I’m always interested in the conversion stories of other people, and the role that chance encounters play in so many of them. That candy was central to Harriet Uchtdorf’s story is an added bonus.

[1] Freeman, Robert C., and Jon R. Felt. German Saints at War. Springville, UT: CFI, 2008.

Article filed under International Mormonism


  1. Nice stories. It’s often the little details that bring some of these old stories to life and make them memorable. Although no big fan of chewing gum myself, seeing and tasting it for the first time, as seen through the eyes of Harriet, is fascinating.

    Comment by kevinf — January 17, 2014 @ 1:24 pm

  2. What a delightful story. Our Young Women will love this as they adore the Uchtdorf’s. This is a great example as to how sweet and easy it is to be a missionary. It just takes love and kindness.

    Comment by Georgia Richey — January 18, 2014 @ 10:09 am

  3. Sweet story. I too am a concert to the church. I would add you are not a convert to our faith….yet. : )

    Comment by Cheerio — January 18, 2014 @ 1:01 pm

  4. : )

    Comment by Cheerio — January 18, 2014 @ 1:02 pm

  5. It is interesting how lives can pivot on seemingly-small events; how a single experience can launch a new life direction and expand within that new domain. While unlikely, I’d love to see life unfold in alternate, concurrent pathways to see which ends best.

    Comment by Steve in Millcreek — January 18, 2014 @ 7:39 pm

  6. Pres. Uchtdorf shared that story in his first conference address as an apostle (Oct 2004). Deseret Book has since published a picture book by him called “Sister Eternal”.

    Comment by sar — January 20, 2014 @ 12:47 pm

  7. Thanks all. Sar, I’ll have to go check that book out.

    Comment by Saskia — January 20, 2014 @ 4:16 pm


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