We continue to publish the interviews of Spas TV program, “My Path To God”, where Priest George Maximov interviews people who converted to Orthodoxy from various non-Orthodox denominations.
Searching for God, Oleg Kozhin attended the meetings of Jehovah’s Witnesses and neo-Pentecostals. Later, he got acquainted with Mormons and spent nine years among them. He wasn’t just a regular member, but the head of their community. What do Mormons use to attract new followers? How do they explain the obvious contradictions of their prophets’ “revelations”? Who are the Mormon “gods? How can you tell the blessing of the Holy Spirit from a false confidence in your personal sainthood? The guest of today’s program will tell us about this and about changes in the life of a person who came to Orthodoxy after lengthy spiritual quests.
Priest George Maximov: Hello! You are watching My Path To God. I think many of our viewers occasionally see young people in suits with badges “Elder Jim” or “Elder Sergei”. These people are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons. The guest of today’s program knows this organization very well as he devoted a part of his life to it. Oleg Alexandrovich, could you tell us how your spiritual quest started and how did you join this organization?
Oleg Kozhin: Starting from the very beginning… I was raised by my grand-grandmother Maria, an Orthodox woman who I am very grateful to. She was illiterate, but knew all the prayers by heart, observed all Lents and took me to church. She taught me about our faith and explained everything in a very simple way. She would tell me, “Oleg, there is God in heavens who loves us and if you listen to your dad and mom, He will love you and everything will be great in your life. But if you don’t listen to your dad and mom, very scary demons will come and take you to a dreadful place and you will feel very bad there.” I was very afraid of that and wanted to be a good boy.
Father George: This is something you’d remember forever. (laughs)
Oleg Kozhin: Yes, I did remember it forever. Even though it sounded like a fairy tale, I still remember her words. I am very grateful to her for telling me it. When I was 4 years old, she got my parents’ permission and baptized me in an Orthodox church. I remember the priest who baptized me; his name was Anatoly Shumov. He baptized practically everybody in our town, as there was no other priest. At 7, when I went to school, my grandmother was very old and started losing her sight, so we stopped going to church. At school, I got a different kind of education: I joined the Little Octobrists, then Pioneers (children/youth organizations in the Soviet Union). I had to forget about going to church. However, in 1993 I came across a remarkable book: the Bible.
Father George: It wasn’t easy to get this book at that time.
Oleg Kozhin: Yes, it was very difficult to get. I even remember the day when I heard about it for the first time. It was my birthday. My aunt came and said, “I ordered the Bible from St. Petersburg!” I said, “Really? Can I come and have a look?” “Of course, you can.” Later my aunt asked me to babysit her small daughter. So when I came over, I thought, “What should I do to pass the time?” and remembered about that remarkable book. I got the Bible, opened the Gospel of Matthew and started reading the first chapter. When I reached Chapter 7 and finished reading the Sermon on the Mount, I was amazed. These were simple but very profound words. From that moment, my life started changing. It became more meaningful. I started thinking about the things I did. I was 23 years old then and already committed sins as I led a fairly idle and dissipated life. Reading the Sermon on the Mount made me think about many things. One day I felt a sudden urge to read the Bible from the very beginning, starting with the Old Testament. I visited my aunt asked if I could borrow this book. I still have it. It is all frayed and tattered, with my favorite verses marked. I still cherish it as something that I would remember all my life.
When I read about Levites and priests in the Bible, I got a strong desire to become a priest myself. This became my dream. I really wanted to share the impressions I got from reading this book, but unfortunately, this was so far from my friends’ interests. We had serious disagreements and discussions. In the end, we had to go our separate ways. I decided to get in touch with believers. I took the Bible and went to an Orthodox church. Now I understand that it was a very difficult time for Orthodoxy, but at that time I didn’t know it. I came there with many questions and wanted to get answers. But there were just old ladies and a few old men, so I had nobody to talk to. I didn’t even understand what was happening there.
Father George: Why didn’t you talk to the priest?
Oleg Kozhin: I tried. Frankly speaking, I got offended. He just didn’t have time to talk to me. Now I understand that it was difficult for him to be there all alone. The church needed restoration, and there I was asking some questions. He was very busy indeed, but at that time I didn’t understand it. I left and decided that I would never come back. Soon I met new teachers, Jehovah’s Witnesses. My doorbell rang and when I opened, I saw a man and woman who said that they wanted to talk to me about God. I said, “This is great! I want to talk about God too.” I asked them to come in and they started coming over frequently with their lessons. Thankfully, I did not stay with them. I felt a strong pressure; they tried to pressure me really hard.
Father George: How did they pressure you?
Oleg Kozhin: They made me come to their meetings—“Come there, do this, read that.” And they weren’t gentle, but very insistent. So, I said, “Sorry, but I’m not ready for what you’re offering now. Let’s wait for some time. I need to think about it. Then I will find you myself.” Thank God, our paths never crossed again. I also went to the meeting of Pentecostals, just as an observer. I listened to their singing… They gave me literature and I read it, but I didn’t participate in their life. That was when I met Mormons for the first time.
Father George: How did it happen?
Oleg Kozhin: Once in 1999 I was going home and thinking about my plans for the next day. I saw two guys in snow-white shirts and ties. I looked at them when I was passing by. They caught my eye too and when I reached them, they asked me, “Do you believe in God?” I said, “Yes, I do.” “Do you read the Bible?” “Yes.” At that time, I was finishing the Revelation of John the Evangelist and considered myself a more or less knowledgeable person. They asked me if I heard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I said that I hadn’t. “Well, have you heard of the Church of Mormons?” “No, I never heard of it either,” I replied. “Would you like to read the Book of Mormon?” “What is this book?” “Oh, it is a new Revelation. We have a prophet who translated this book. It is the history of American people with revelations about Jesus Christ.” I said, “This is very interesting!” “Can we come and visit you?” they asked, and I replied, “Yes, sure, come over. I would be glad to see you.”
So, they came and visited me. Talking to them was interesting. Compared to Jehovah’s Witnesses, they are very mild people. They charm you with their kindness and courtesy. You can ask them any question and they will smile and be happy to answer it.
A few days later, I met an old friend. We haven’t seen each other for a long time. He asked me, “Have you ever read the Bible?” I said, “Of course, I have. I’m reading it right now.” He said, “I go to the Word of Life Church. Have you heard about it?” I said that I had not. This was all new and interesting for me. “Would you like to go to the meeting with me?” – “Yes.” So, I started going to both Mormons’ meetings and the meetings of the Word of Life, which was a Charismatic church, Neo-Pentecostals. There was a small social circle, as I understood their leaders only gathered their. There was the pastor of that church, a few guys with musical instruments, something like a rock band. They played interesting music. I was into rock music at that time, so I liked them. They were glorifying God through rock music. Then they stood in a circle and said, “Let us pray,” and started praying in some unknown language. What’s interesting—they kept talking at the same time. It was something I couldn’t understand.
Father George: So-called glossolalia.
Oleg Kozhin: Yes, glossolalia. The pastor said, “Who wants to repent? I know there are new people among us.” I came out, saying, “I want to repent.” Indeed, I wanted to repent of my sins. “Do you want to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit and become whole?”
“Of course, I do!”
Father George: Who would say no to that?! (laughs)
Oleg Kozhin: Of course. It was my dream. I really wanted to be purged of sin. The pastor came up to me, placed his hands on my chest and recited some incantatory prayers. Pressed on my chest and “bestowed the spirit upon me”. I was all tense, waiting for Him to descend upon me, remembering how it happened on Pentecost as I read in the Acts. I expected something like that, that my chest would be in flames and I would feel the revelation and start speaking all those interesting languages, just like them… I waited for a long time and nothing happened. Then I stepped back. The Pastor said, “Now we have a new brother. He has the same gift as we have. He can also speak in tongues.” And they resumed praying in these “tongues”. I tried very hard to do the same. I couldn’t and felt ashamed because of that. So I started just saying some gibberish, some utter nonsense, just to keep up with them. And the pastor exclaimed, “Here, the gift has been granted!” It seemed very funny to me, though. I could speak such a language since I was a child! (laughs). It was just meaningless mumbling. After that, I stopped going there and kept in touch with Mormons only.
They have a cycle of six interviews during which they lead you up to their baptism. Finally, they asked me, “Are you ready to be baptized in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?” I said, “I need to think about it.” I thought for some time. I couldn’t make up my mind for several months. I waited, hoping for something, but didn’t get any sign or revelation. Still, I agreed. I was baptized by them on December 6, 1999. In the pool, they “bestowed the Holy Spirit upon me.” After some time they appointed me to be the priest. That was how my ascension to the top of the Mormon organization began. After a while, I became the leader of the youth movement, then First Advisor of the Parish President, then the Parish President. This was a big responsibility—to preach and learn the depth of the Book of Mormon.
Father George: I just wanted to ask you about it because the Book of Mormon is what makes the Mormons particularly different from others. It was written by their “prophet” Smith. When you read it, did you feel that there is something wrong with it compared to the Bible?
Oleg Kozhin: Discrepancies with the Bible are quite frequent there. Of course, I asked the American missionaries why some verses were different from what is written in the Bible. They told me, “This is a new revelation, it is very profound. The Bible is not perfect. It was translated many times and many truths were lost in translation. The Book of Mormon has the complete Gospel. If you don’t understand something now, it will be revealed to you in time. Pray and you will learn more. Most importantly, you must believe that this book is true.” So I tried to believe that it was true. With time, I had even more serious questions as I kept finding more contradictions. Not even asking the missionaries about them, I tried to convince myself, “Oleg, you probably do not understand this right. You need to wait and it will be revealed to you. You need to read, believe, pray – and everything will be all right. I will understand. I will understand it sometime.”
Father George: Could you give us some examples of these contradictions?
Oleg Kozhin: For example, when I met missionaries, they never mentioned that Mormons used to practice polygamy. I heard about it from others. When I asked about polygamy, they answered, “Yes, it happened. Our church was persecuted then, it was necessary to expand it. How could this be done? Many children had to be born, so God gave us revelation: Take more wives and live with them righteously so that there are as many children as possible. After a while this practice was cancelled and now we don’t even think about it”.
Reading the Book of Mormon I found these interesting verses: “This people begin to wax in iniquity; they understand not the scriptures, for they seek to excuse themselves in committing whoredoms, because of the things which were written concerning David, and Solomon his son. Behold, David and Solomon truly had many wives and concubines, which thing was abominable before me, saith the Lord”. Further it said, “Behold, the Lamanites your brethren, whom ye hate because of their filthiness and the cursing which hath come upon their skins, are more righteous than you; for they have not forgotten the commandment of the Lord, which was given unto our father—that they should have save it were one wife.” This is from the Book of Mormon, the book that they believe to be a holy scripture and that condemns polygamy.
Now let’s open the book The Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants which is considered to be even more important than the Book of Mormon. It contains revelations of Joseph Smith. Here’s what is says: “Verily, thus saith the Lord unto you my servant Joseph, that inasmuch as you have inquired of my hand to know and understand wherein I, the Lord, justified my servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as also Moses, David and Solomon, my servants, as touching the principle and doctrine of their having many wives and concubines— Behold, and lo, I am the Lord thy God, and will answer thee as touching this matter. Therefore, prepare thy heart to receive and obey the instructions which I am about to give unto you; for all those who have this law revealed unto them must obey the same. For behold, I reveal unto you a new and an everlasting covenant; and if ye abide not that covenant, then are ye damned; for no one can reject this covenant and be permitted to enter into my glory.” This is about polygamy. The preface to this section says, “Revelation given through Joseph Smith the Prophet, at Nauvoo, Illinois, recorded July 12, 1843, relating to the new and everlasting covenant, including the eternity of the marriage covenant and the principle of plural marriage.”
It sounds strange. First, polygamy is not encouraged, even condemned by God. Then they say that polygamy is an everlasting covenant and whoever doesn’t’ observe it will be banished. Then another revelation is given saying that whoever is practicing polygamy will be excommunicated. I do not understand it. For “God is not a man, that he should lie; neither the son of man, that he should repent.” (Num. 23:19). His words are not subject to change, but in this organization they are changed as needed.
Father George: It should be noted that although in the Old Testament some patriarchs and kings had several wives, this never was done on the basis of instructions from God and God never prescribed polygamy. Monogamous marriage is unambiguously established by Jesus Christ our Lord as the only natural and lawful form of family, when He said “from the beginning of the creation God made them male and female” (Mark. 10:6). The practice of polygamy was in a way ancient people’s deviation from the rule caused by their infirmity. Even in the Old Testament there are verses that clearly indicate the inappropriateness of polygamy: “Neither shall he multiply wives to himself, that his heart turn not away…” (Deut. 17:17). Smith’s “revelation” however speaks of it as an everlasting covenant. He had about 30 wives, and the Mormon Church officially allowed polygamy from 1852 to 1890. As far as I know, there are still renegade Mormons in the USA that split from the main organization and still practice polygamy even though it is prohibited by law. This, of course, is a vivid example. However, in general, did these “revelations” (that on one hand imitate biblical revelations, but on the other are imbued with the spirit of purely American concepts) ever cause any dissonance in your soul when you compared them to the Bible?
Oleg Kozhin: They did. For example, here’s what all Mormons wish to achieve. Their goal is to become a god. Not to be like God, but to become one. According to their teachings, everyone who was a righteous Mormon, observed all commandments and paid tithes will become god after resurrection. He will own a planet that he will manage as god, have many wives who will bear his spiritual children, and he will send them to his planet and watch over them just like God manages and watches over us. This is the purpose of their life on Earth.
According to their teachings, the Heavenly Father was also a man at some point in time. He had a certain life experience, then got promoted, and received a harem of women. So we were borne by one of his celestial wives and were sent to Earth to be tested and receive the same reward. I was asking myself, “If He was a man, it means that He also had a god? And that god had a god of his own? This could go on and on. So how many gods do we have?” It is an absurdity. God is one. He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.
Father George: Yes, it is absurd, to put it mildly… How many years did you spend with Mormons?
Oleg Kozhin: I spent nine years in this sect. Seven of them I was the parish president. Frankly, I am very ashamed that I could believe in those fables, read all that nonsense, tell somebody about it or persuade someone to believe in it. I would like to apologize to the people that I misled and lured into this sect and who are still with them. I apologize for my words and my actions. I wish with all my heart that they would leave that organization soon and find the True Church, the Church of our fathers, the Apostolic Orthodox Church.
Father George: How did you part ways with the Mormon organization? After nine years of being there, all your friends and acquaintances were probably Mormon. You had to have serious reasons to break ties with them.
Oleg Kozhin: The need to get answers to my questions simply became more pressing. I started arguing and became an unwanted person for them. They maintain a strict discipline—unnecessary questions and dissent are nipped in the bud. I understood that the order came from the top management: I had to be removed from the organization. I felt it. There was pressure from both missionaries and management. Not too obvious, but strong enough for me to feel it. However, I did not surrender and kept on arguing and sticking to my guns.
Father George: What did you argue about? About issues of creed or some other issues?
Father George: So, you stopped being a Mormon. What made you consider Orthodoxy?
Oleg Kozhin: Here I would like to thank my friend Eduard. He supported me when I needed it and loaned me a good book by Father John of Kronstadt entitled, How to Become a Saint. This book was my first step toward Orthodoxy. My eyes were opened. I could tell the Truth from a lie. I started reading more Orthodox literature, going to church and asking about the Sacraments. All the pieces started to fall into place. Then came my first confession. I repented that I was a Mormon and renounced that belief. Father Ambrose, the dean of our district, recited the prayer of absolution over me. I started attending a Sunday School and joined the Club of Orthodox Youth. They welcomed me cordially there. Now the organizers of that club are my close friends.
Father George: If you compare the things you saw in Orthodox church and during your involvement with Mormons, what would you say is the biggest difference?
Oleg Kozhin: After becoming Orthodox I felt the grace of God. I understood what the touch of the Holy Spirit is. The real touch of the Holy Spirit, not some kind of mystical feeling or some self-deception. Using Orthodox terminology, my earlier life was a life of deception. What did they teach me? “You are the parish president of your city. This means that you are the prophet of your city.” See what they were leading me to? When you are always told that you are the prophet of your city, you begin to feel that you indeed can receive revelations for this city. This is a serious deception. Now I live the life of Church. This is really profound. I read good books by the Holy Fathers and true interpretations of the Holy Scripture. You can’t read the Bible on your own. It should be read with the comments of the Holy Fathers, the people who really received revelations from God and understood them correctly. When we accept our own ideas about the Scripture, they could lead us astray.
Father George: Actually, many sects that appeared in this world, including the ones you encountered, were created on the basis of such Scripture study clubs where everybody interpreted the Scripture in their own way. In the Holy Scripture itself, as we know, Apostle Peter said that, “Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:20-21); that is, it can be interpreted only by people blessed by the Holy Spirit. This, of course, wouldn’t happen if you were to go to some little-known people and one of them touches you and says, “Now you have the Holy Spirit!” No, first it is necessary to make your heart pure, live according to God’s will and enter the true Church of God inhabited by the Holy Spirit. The acquisition of the Holy Spirit happens, and people we now know as saints appear only when one stops just saying, “I am a saint,” but indeed becomes one. God Himself explains His words. I am personally convinced that it is so. When you read the interpretations of the Holy Fathers, you see such depth of understanding of the Holy Scripture, that you realize, “I would never have thought about it myself.” It was so easy for them because God Himself revealed it to them. When somebody interprets the Scripture in his or her own way, another statement of Apostle Peter comes true, “As also in all his epistles… in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.” (2 Pet. 3:16).
Oleg Kozhin: Yes, that is so.
Father George: Did you have any prejudices against Orthodoxy that developed during the time you were with Mormons?
Oleg Kozhin: Yes, I did. I repent. I really had a very negative attitude toward Orthodoxy, especially toward icon veneration and veneration of the Holy Relics. I thought that it was a primitive religion for simple-minded old ladies.
Father George: How did you overcome them? Did you have any psychological difficulties when, for example, you venerated icons?
Father George: Oleg Alexandrovich, thank you very much for your story. I hope to God that other people in that organization would ask the same questions as you did. We need to remember that the most important thing in this life is to find the Truth and follow it. This is what we were born for. Sometimes people even begin to feel that something is wrong in their organization, but their internal censorship kicks in and people start telling themselves, “I won’t think about it, this can be bad for my faith.” It is difficult for some people to make that step because it will result in breaking of ties with their friends and loss of established way of life. Still, it is necessary to follow the Truth for it is indeed the pearl that you have to sell all that you have to buy (cf. Matthew, 13:45-46).