Viewpoint: “Out of Small Things”
Writing from the squalid confines of the jail at Liberty, Missouri, in March 1839, the Prophet Joseph Smith penned the following lines as part of an epistle to the Latter-day Saints, who had been driven from Missouri by mob oppression:
“You know, brethren, that a very large ship is benefited very much by a very small helm in the time of a storm, by being kept workways with the wind and the waves.
“Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us cheerfully do all things that lie in our power; and then may we stand still, with the utmost assurance, to see the salvation of God, and for his arm to be revealed” (D&C 123:16–17).
The statement is remarkable for its serene optimism, resilience, and buoyancy, especially considering the turbulent circumstances under which it was uttered. The Latter-day Saints in Missouri had been subjected to atrocities, including violence, arson, dispossession of homes and property, and even mass murder. The Prophet and his associates in Church leadership, betrayed into the hands of a hostile militia, were being held on trumped up charges and, but for the heroism of a friend, almost had been summarily executed on the public square at the Mormon town of Far West.
Using nautical imagery, the Prophet was urging the Saints to maintain their fortitude and wisdom and not to succumb to despair in the face of oppression and trial, understandable though it might be if they did. He reminded them that a large ship is controlled by a small “helm,” which can be defined as the steering apparatus consisting of the rudder, tiller, and wheel.
The same thought could be expressed in scriptural terms. In a revelation given in Kirtland, Ohio, in 1831, the Prophet had been instructed: “Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great” (D&C 64:33; italics added).
That verse is reminiscent of Book of Mormon scripture. Describing the Liahona, the marvelous instrument by which Lehi and his family were guided in their journey, Nephi said that it functioned according to the “faith and diligence and heed” exercised by the traveling party (see 1 Nephi 16:28). He then remarked, “And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things” (1 Nephi 16:29).
Nephi’s phrase “by small means” was not in reference to the Liahona itself—for that was a great and miraculous instrument—but to the “faith and diligence” by which it functioned.
Hence, the prophet Alma, speaking to his son Helaman, commented regarding this incident:
“And it did work for them according to their faith in God; therefore, if they had faith to believe that God could cause that those spindles should point the way they should go, behold, it was done; therefore they had this miracle, and also many other miracles wrought by the power of God, day by day. …
“And now, my son, I would that ye should understand that these things are not without a shadow; …
“For behold, it is as easy to give heed to the word of Christ, which will point to you a straight course to eternal bliss, as it was for our fathers to give heed to this compass, which would point unto them a straight course to the promised land.
“And now I say, is there not a type in this thing? For just as surely … shall the words of Christ, if we follow their course, carry us beyond this vale of sorrow into a far better land of promise” (Alma 37:40, 43–45).
On the threshold of this new year, this “type” and “shadow” identified by Alma has import for us who live in the latter days. Through seemingly small means—such as prayer, fasting, keeping the commandments of God, and otherwise heeding the words of Christ as given to us in the scriptures and in the words of modern prophets—we too can accomplish great things.
Most of us can be grateful that we do not find ourselves in the severe straits that confronted Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints in the winter of 1838–39. But it may be that the trials and challenges of day-to-day living put us on the verge of despair. These might be related to finances, health, family relationships, occupation, or any of a wide assortment of circumstances. Perhaps doubts have set in, making it more difficult to remember those occasions when spiritual experiences have brought peace to the soul (see D&C 6:22–23).
At such times, applying the words of Joseph Smith, we can keep our “helm … workways with the wind and the waves,” turning opposition to our advantage by using it as an instrument for our growth, always trusting in the succor and strength that come through the Atonement of Christ.
As we seek to bring about the purposes of God and apply His will in our lives, it might benefit us to remember who we are.
For many decades now, psychologists have discussed the power of the self-image, the mental picture a person has of his or her own capabilities, potential, and worth. Theoretically, one’s self-image has a powerful effect on that person’s behavior, growth, and achievement.
This is perhaps illustrated by the account in Moses 1 of the Pearl of Great Price. Moses had spoken with God face to face and had been shown His glory and the immensity of His infinite works. More than that, Moses had been given to understand his own worth in the sight of God.
Later, when Satan came tempting Moses and demanding his worship, Moses was able to say, “I am a son of God, in the similitude of his Only Begotten; and where is thy glory, that I should worship thee?” (verse 13).
The lesson for us is to retain the memory of our own divine worth and potential, which is no less than to become joint-heirs with Christ of all that the Father has, including His divine attributes (see Romans 8:16–17).
May that be our end goal as we pursue those “small things” that bring about greatness.