(See “Youth and the Book of Mormon,” a companion piece, in the September 1977 New Era, p. 8.) What the Book of Mormon teaches us about families.
Being Parents, Being Children03087_000_004
Much of the contemporary world, especially the Western world, is in crisis with respect to the family. Leading experts are warning that without drastic changes to strengthen the family, our society itself faces the prospect of disaster.
As a family researcher, I know how serious these warnings really are, how vulnerable our families truly are. As a Latter-day Saint, however, I am deeply comforted by the message of a book for our time—the Book of Mormon. Even though it was written long ago about another society, and even though its main purpose is to testify of Christ, still it has a message—a vital message—about what fathers, mothers, and children should do.
Very early in the book is an extremely useful insight into husband-wife relationships. Lehi and his family have left Jerusalem, but the sons have returned to secure the plates of Laban. Both father and mother spent a great deal of time worrying (1 Ne. 5:1–7), but Sariah reaches the point where she complains to her husband about the unbearable conditions. It’s understandable: she has not seen her sons for some time; she worries about their well-being; and, in addition, she finds camping miserable—especially considering all the comforts she has left behind. She tells her husband that she has three things against him: (1) he is misguided and “a visionary man,” (2) they have lost the land of their “inheritance” and are going to “perish in the wilderness,” and (3) worst of all, “my sons are no more.”
This sounds like the beginning of a rousing argument. One person lodges a complaint against the other person: “This is what I have against you. …” Then the complaint identifies a basic personality problem the person has (you are a visionary man). It next pinpoints some unfortunate consequences of that person’s problem (because of your foolish ideas, we have lost our inheritance, we stand to lose our own lives, and furthermore, the children are already dead). A very natural response would be for the accused party to quickly defend: “Well, I may have my problems, but who are you to be telling me what’s wrong? You’re not so perfect yourself. Why only yesterday you …” The accused spouse then drags out all the skeletons of previous problems to show that the accuser really is worse than the accused.
Even though this pattern of accusation, defense, and counter-accusation may be what we’d expect, Lehi’s response doesn’t follow it. He does not counter with any accusation. Instead he responds to complaint with comfort. He acknowledges that he is “a visionary man.” He then reassures her that he has followed God’s commandment, that he knows the Lord has been directing him, that God has indeed promised them an inheritance in a land of promise greater than the one they left behind, that had they stayed in Jerusalem they would have perished, and that he has faith that God will protect their sons.
In other words, the Book of Mormon clearly advises us that what a spouse needs when the other spouse complains is comfort, not defense or counter-accusation. When people complain, they need comfort. And the best kind of comfort for Latter-day Saint husbands and wives is statements of knowledge of God’s direction and faith in his protection. If this simple rule were consistently followed in Latter-day Saint families, children would see a model of conflict resolution built upon a fundamental belief in God and concern for others, rather than upon a defense of one’s own behavior. And it works! Comfort given to a loved one comes back tenfold to the giver.
While the example of Lehi and Sariah demonstrates a husband’s concern for his wife, the example of King Lamoni’s conversion illustrates a loving wife’s faith in her husband and her concern for his well-being.
Ammon, the great missionary son of King Mosiah, went among the Lamanites at the peril of his own life to teach them of Jesus Christ. Through his faithfulness he succeeded in converting Lamoni, who, overcome by the Spirit, fell to the ground as if dead. For two days and two nights King Lamoni remained in this condition, confusing his people. Many believed him to be dead, even arguing that “he stinketh, and that he ought to be placed in the sepulchre.” The queen, however, pleaded with Ammon to go to the king, for she believed that he was still alive, testifying to Ammon, “as for myself, to me he doth not stink.” (Alma 19:5.)
Ammon assured the queen that her husband was not dead, but that “he sleepeth in God, and on the morrow he shall rise again; therefore bury him not.” (Alma 19:8.) Ammon then asked the queen if she believed him. She replied that she only had his word—“nevertheless I believe that it shall be according as thou hast said.” (Alma 19:9.) Ammon blessed her because of her “exceeding faith,” which was greater than could be found “among all the people of the Nephites.” (Alma 19:10.)
The queen then watched over her husband all night and into the next day until he arose at the appointed time, reaching out to her and linking her and God in his first sentence, a great exclamation of praise: “Blessed be the name of God, and blessed art thou.” (Alma 19:12.)
Like King Lamoni, far too many husbands among us remain as if we were spiritually dead day after day. Wives of such husbands can find a model in this Lamanite queen who believed in her own perceptions of her husband, sought counsel from a spiritually reliable source, trusted it, and, with great devotion, watched over him until the long dark nights were passed. Once awakened, Lamoni praised God and his wife.
The Duty to Teach
The Book of Mormon is especially rich in principles regarding parent-child relationships. The first page—even the first verse—hints at the central and repeatedly occurring theme of the book’s message to parents. “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father.” (1 Ne. 1:1; italics added.) The word “therefore” indicates that Nephi sees that one thing good parents do is to teach their children.
Enos gives additional information about the connection between good parents and teaching. “Behold, it came to pass that I, Enos, knowing my father that he was a just man—for he taught me in his language, and also in the nurture and admonition of the Lord—and blessed be the name of God for it.” (Enos 1:1.)
In a society that equates “just” and “good” parents with “teaching” parents, it is no surprise to hear King Benjamin instructing his sons that Lehi preserved the record so he could teach “his children, that thereby they could teach them to their children, and so fulfilling the commandments of God.” (Mosiah 1:4.) Obviously, the principal characteristic of “just” and “good” parents is that they teach their children.
These are not the only incidents in the Book of Mormon that stress parents teaching children. Lehi teaches his children “with all the feeling of a tender parent.” (1 Ne. 8:37.) Nephi says, “For my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them, and writeth them for the learning and the profit of my children.” (2 Ne. 4:15; italics added.) Lehi’s last recorded act is to gather his children around him, to teach and bless them. (2 Ne. 1–4.) King Benjamin carefully teaches his sons about the sacred records, as well as “many more things … which are not written in this book.” (Mosiah 1:2–8.) Alma becomes exceedingly sorrowful because of the widespread wickedness in his society: wars, bloodsheds, contentions. What does he do in the face of these awful conditions? He calls his sons around him and teaches them one by one. (Alma 35:15–16; Alma 36–42.) Mormon, the great abridging historian, is so impressed with Alma’s words of instruction to his sons that he includes them verbatim in his record. Grieved because of his own generation’s bloodthirstiness, it pains Mormon to describe the rampant sin and degradation. But what does he do? Like Alma, he teaches his sons, and his moving epistle to Moroni forms the final act of father-to-son instruction. (Moro. 9.) Thus, from Nephi’s opening verse to Mormon’s last farewell chapter to his son, the book resounds with a theme of parents teaching children.
But what should parents teach children? The Book of Mormon isn’t a manual, of course, but we can learn by observing the pattern of those ancient parents. They taught languages and cultural patterns, but mostly incidentally. The book’s central and oft-repeated message is that parents must teach children about Christ and his atonement.
Alma’s instruction to his sons about the central role of Jesus Christ has particular value for us because of the way he does it. To Helaman he says, “And now, O my son Helaman, behold, thou art in thy youth, and therefore, I beseech of thee that thou wilt hear my words and learn of me.” (Alma 36:3; italics added.) Alma’s purpose is to teach of Jesus Christ and his atonement, but he does so by teaching his sons about himself—about his own conversion and redemption from sin. If we will put it into practice, we, as parents, will be awed and humbled by applying the simple power of Alma’s one lesson. Our children will more willingly follow us, and we, in turn, will feel anew the burning desire to know Christ as Alma knew him, as our personal Savior.
Mormon’s final recorded act of instructing his son is, in many ways, similar to Alma’s. Mormon sees terrible sin all around and in response teaches of Jesus Christ and his atonement. He begins that epistle to Moroni by describing husbands and fathers and mothers and children. One of the marks of their total degradation was the rejection and perversion of that which is good about family.
Mormon’s war-torn society not only destroys the family, but literally forces wives to eat the flesh of husbands, children to eat the flesh of their fathers. Rape, murder by torture, and cannibalism was another pattern. (Moro. 9.) Between the barbarities of both Nephites and Lamanites, they have defiled the most sacred part of the family the procreation and rearing of children. After describing this sickening scene, Mormon gives his final instructions: “My son, be faithful in Christ; and may not the things which I have written grieve thee, to weigh thee down unto death; but may Christ lift thee up, and may his sufferings … and the hope of his glory and of eternal life, rest in your mind forever.” (Moro. 9:25.)
Oh, that we who are parents in Zion in these last days would learn from Mormon’s record! When our society violently rejects that which is most sacred about the family, we must gather our children around us and teach them of Christ crucified.
The Children’s Challenge
If the central responsibility of parents is to teach, what then does the Book of Mormon say is the responsibility of children?
Lehi and his son Nephi provide us with the beginnings of an answer to this query. Lehi recounts, among other things, how the Messiah is to come to a world prepared by a prophet, how he is to be baptized by water, and how he would take away the sins of the world. When Nephi hears his father’s teachings, he says, “It came to pass after I, Nephi, having heard all the words of my father, concerning the things which he saw in a vision, and also the things which he spake by the power of the Holy Ghost, which power he received by faith on the Son of God—and the Son of God was the Messiah who should come—I, Nephi, was desirous also that I might see, and hear, and know of these things, by the power of the Holy Ghost, which is the gift of God unto all those who diligently seek him.” (1 Ne. 10:17; italics added.)
Nephi is impressed with his father’s teachings. He believes his words, but believing is not all that Nephi does. Nephi desires to know for himself what his father knows. He desires to see, hear, and know by the power of the Holy Ghost. He goes before the Lord in prayer, and in the Spirit of the Lord is caught away to the top of a high mountain. A heavenly messenger asks him, “Behold, what desirest thou?” Nephi answers, “I desire to behold the things which my father saw.” The messenger asks, “Believest thou that thy father saw the tree of which he hath spoken?” Nephi answers, “Yea, thou knowest that I believe all the words of my father.” Then the messenger blesses Nephi: “Because thou believest in the Son of the most high God; wherefore, thou shalt behold the things which thou hast desired.” (1 Ne. 11:1–6.)
We learn two things from this incident. First, children have the responsibility to believe in the words of their fathers. Second, believing in the words of their fathers is not enough; they should desire to know for themselves, by the promptings of the Holy Ghost, whether the teachings of their fathers are true. The messenger lets Nephi know that his desire to see and to hear and to know the very things his father has seen and heard and known is a righteous desire. But even more righteous is the fact that Nephi believes in Jesus Christ, the Son of the most high God. This is why the messenger can promise Nephi that he will behold the things which he desires. And Nephi does.
Consider the following examples of children who find Christ by remembering their parents’ teachings years after they had been taught.
Alma the Younger teaches his sons about Christ by teaching them about his own redemption from sin. To Helaman, he describes three days of terrible torment, caused by remembering his sins. He wished that he could have “become extinct both body and soul.” (Alma 36:15.) At that very moment, in the depths of despair, he remembers “to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world.” (Alma 36:17; italics added.) Once having remembered the teachings of his father about Christ’s atonement, Alma did what every person must do if he is ever to know Christ as his personal Savior. “I cried within my heart: O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death.” (Alma 36:18.) Alma’s sorrow in sin then turns to relief through redemption.
Like Alma, Enos, another of the Book of Mormon prophets, is deeply motivated by the words of his father. He says, “Behold, I went to hunt beasts in the forests; and the words which I had often heard my father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart.
“And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul.” (Enos 1:3–4.) After praying all day and into the night, he heard a voice saying, “Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed … because … thy faith in Christ … hath made thee whole.” (Enos 1:5, 8.)
How significant that in the moment of Alma’s and Enos’s conversions the people who brought them to a recollection of Jesus Christ were their very own fathers, fathers who had taught them about the central importance of the atonement.
While the Book of Mormon charges children to discover for themselves whether their fathers’ teachings are true, it does not advocate that children blindly follow their fathers’ dictums. Neither all the people nor King Mosiah could convince any of his sons to become the new king. (See Mosiah 29:3.) King Mosiah and his sons obviously spent a great deal of time discussing what they should do, Mosiah concerned for his kingdom, the sons desiring to teach the Lamanites about Christ. “And it came to pass that they did plead with their father many days that they might go up to the land of Nephi.” (Mosiah 28:5.) King Mosiah then inquired of the Lord. Only at that point did King Mosiah grant “that they might go and do according to their request.” (Mosiah 28:8.)
An incident between Lehi and Nephi is a good example of a young man not following his parents in unrighteousness. That is the well-known story of the broken bow. Short of food, all, including Lehi, murmur against the Lord. Nephi, instead of murmuring too, “did speak much,” and they “humbled themselves because of my word; for I did say many things unto them in the energy of my soul.” (1 Ne. 16:22, 24.)
The implication for children is clear: if a parent sets a questionable example or if he gives guidance that may not be best for you, seek the prompting of the Holy Ghost in deciding whether to follow him. Sometimes, in the Lord’s scheme of things, children may be led to pursuits in life different from those of their parents. At other times, children may be prompted by the Spirit in ways that help parents better understand the Lord’s will. What is central is the children’s willingness to seek and follow the promptings of the Spirit in their own lives.
In short, the challenge for children is to know for themselves whether the testimony of their parents is true. The promise to children is that the righteous teachings of their fathers will be a resource to them during tribulation; and that these teachings thus recalled can lead them to Jesus Christ. In the light of this repeated pattern—fathers teaching sons, and sons following Christ—the Savior’s words take on added significance: “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do.” (John 5:19.)
Especially for Fathers
Lastly, the book has a sobering message for fathers, particularly the fathers of our generation. Like Mormon, we see our society violently rejecting family values through child abuse, divorce, wife beating, and flagrant sexual sin.
What should we do? Like Alma, we must gather our children around us and tell them how we came to know freedom from sin through the atonement. Like Alma and Mormon, we must pray unceasingly for our children’s spiritual welfare. Like Lehi and Mosiah, when our children plead with us to know what they should do with their lives, we must go to the Lord in mighty prayer, desiring to know his will concerning our children’s decisions. Like King Benjamin, we must obey the commandment of teaching our children. Like Lehi we must teach with all the feelings of a tender parent. Like Jacob, we must speak to them often of the joys of eternal life. Like Nephi, we must ponder the scriptures and write of our own spiritual awakenings for the benefit of our children.
Whether a society kills the family literally or symbolically, the remedy is the same—fathers teaching children. From Nephi’s opening words to Mormon’s farewell epistle, fathers teach their children. It is no accident. With the teaching in many contemporary Latter-day Saint homes being done by mothers, fathers must soberly reflect upon this central message. No message could be more timely. The Book of Mormon, brought forth by God for us in our day, speaks with a plainness to fathers that cannot be misunderstood.
Darwin Thomas, director of the Family Research Institute and a professor of child development and family relations at Brigham Young University, is bishop of the Spanish Fork Fourteenth Ward, Spanish Fork Utah Stake.