On January 2, 1891, a 19-year-old Norwegian immigrant sat down in his home, in Logan City, Cache County, Utah Territory, and wrote the following lines on some lined paper:
“As I have come to fully realize; that, I am as weak as all other mortals—perhaps weaker than many; and realizing that happiness in life is only obtained by having a pure heart, a clear conscience; and fearing the Lord and keeping his commandments; also as I realize that happiness in old age consists of reviewing a life devoid from great sins; the gratification of noble desires manfully carried out; and finding that my life up to this time has not been as I should like it to have been: I lay down the following regulations by which I shall try to conduct my life hereafter; to which end may the Lord Almighty, my Creator, help me.”
He then wrote down 17 resolutions. Nearly eight months later, on Tuesday, August 25, 1891, he copied them in a hardcover journal. Here he was to record his years of struggle as a stranger-student from Utah Territory at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He began by entering the 17 resolves that were to guide his life.
“1st. That religion, the science of sciences, be made my chief concernment throughout life.
“2nd. That I will daily pray to God in secret.
“3rd. That I will daily reflect upon God and his attributes and try to become like him.
“4th. That I will receive Light, Wisdom or Knowledge, wherever or however it may be offered.
“5th. That I will never be ashamed to acknowledge my principles, beliefs and religion when I once become fully convinced of their correctness …
“6th. That I will never lose one moment of time but use it wisely.
“7th. That I maintain strict temperance in eating and drinking.
“8th. That I will never do anything that I would not do were it the last hour of my life.
“9th. That I daily read the word of God, that I may learn his will and that I may be comforted, strengthened and encouraged by so doing.
“10th. That in any narrations I speak nothing but the pure and simple truth.
“11th. That I always do that which I think is my duty and for the best good for my fellow beings.
“12th. That I live with all my might while I do live, that I may not die a living death.
“13th. That I never by word or manner try to force my opinions on others but that I simply state them and offer my arguments against others.
“14th. That I seek to overcome the habit of quickly becoming angry, loud speaking, impatient motions, and whatever might offend my fellowmen and hurt me.
“15th. That I never for a moment forget my duty towards my mother, she who has made me who I am and who will make what I will become, she who has spent the better portion of her life in my behalf and to whom I owe all the honor, respect, and affection that I can give; also that I always remember my duties toward my brother and all my friends and relations.
“16th. That I complete every task which I begin: also that I carefully consider my purpose and its results before taking upon me any duty.
“17th. That I always remember that the men and women I meet are my brothers and sisters and that I look to the beam in my own eye before attempting to remove the mote in my fellow’s eye.” (See Matt. 7:5). It would be well if every young man and woman today would similarly evaluate his or her position in life.
The young man who wrote these lines was a student at the Brigham Young College in Logan when he first recorded them. The new year of 1891 was just beginning. A little over three months before, President Wilford Woodruff had issued, by revelation, the “Manifesto.” New opportunities awaited the driven, persecuted, misunderstood Latter-day Saints.
The young man’s name was John Andreas Widtsoe. He lived with his widowed mother and little brother in a small, poor cottage. They had come from Norway in 1884. On June 27, 1894, in Sanders Theater, in Harvard Yard, Cambridge, Massachusetts, President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard University conferred upon the young immigrant the degree, Bachelor of Science, summa cum laude (with highest honors). He completed the four-year curriculum in three years. He had undergone many hardships. His widowed mother and little brother had sent him small sums of money from their meager earnings. The rest of his education had been financed by unusual personal sacrifice and by loans from kind friends in Logan, with notes signed at 12 percent interest.
He returned home to Logan from Harvard to serve as chemist of the Agriculture Experiment Station, Logan, Utah. On June 1, 1898, he was married to a beautiful young woman, Miss Leah Dunford, eldest daughter of Susa Young Gates. The young couple went to Germany where he earned the PhD degree in biochemistry at the University of Gottingen. This was followed by postdoctoral studies at the Zurich Polytechnium in Switzerland and the University of London, in England.
While in Europe he was offered the presidency of the Brigham Young College by cablegram from the chairman of its board of trustees. A cablegram from President Joseph F. Smith of the First Presidency followed the next day, advising him not to accept the Brigham Young College presidency but to return to what is now Utah State University where he built up agricultural research, establishing scientific dry farming and irrigation practices to bless the arid lands of the world.
He became the father of scientific irrigation practices and dry farming. His books and articles were published in French, Italian, and Arabic and were widely used in arid regions throughout the world as well as in the United States and Canada. He was then called by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to revise the reclamation laws and policies of the United States. He became the president of Utah State University in Logan, Utah (1907–1916) and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah (1916–1921). In March 1921 he was called to be an apostle by President Heber J. Grant and continued in that position throughout a long and eventful life. At his funeral in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in 1952, a telegram of appreciation for his great services to Canada was read; it was from the prime minister.
The life of John A. Widtsoe can serve as an example to every young man and young woman of the Church and of the world in these times, especially to those about to enter college, the world of work, and family life.
Recall his words:
“Realizing that happiness in life is only obtained by having a pure heart, a clear conscience; and fearing the Lord and keeping his commandments … I lay down the following regulations by which I shall try to conduct my life.”
Again, it would be well if all young men and women wrote down the regulations by which they desire to conduct their lives. Elder Widtsoe often counseled young people to “make promises. Then keep those promises.”
His commitment to the search for truth, for knowledge, was a notable landmark in the history of young Latter-day Saints. President of two state universities, he was also a member of the executive committee of Brigham Young University for many years and one of its guiding lights. He also served twice as Church Commissioner of Education. Fundamental as his commitment was to research and extending the fields of knowledge, his commitment to the Author of Truth, our Heavenly Father, and his faith in him was even greater. He recognized faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as not only the first principle of the gospel but also referred to such faith as “the greater knowledge.”
One of his poems, written as a Harvard student, now appears in LDS Hymns with a musical setting by Alexander Schreiner (“Lead Me Into Life Eternal”). Here one finds the lines, “Give me faith, the greater knowledge; Father hear me as I pray.” (No. 141.)
Can we overcome handicaps in these times? Can a person without money, family ties, or influence with people in high positions make his way in today’s world? Can we reconcile faith and knowledge?
We certainly can.
By utilizing the same principles that Elder Widtsoe established for his life at a very early age. His example can be commended to all young men and young women today.
In his book “In Search of Truth,” Elder Widtsoe offered a formula we can follow. It served him well. It will serve anyone well. It is: “Work, work, work. Study, study, study. Pray, pray, pray.”