What a challenging time it is to be alive and young! I sometimes wish I were of your generation. But then I would have to face again all of the decisions that youth face, for the decisions of this generation are essentially the same as were those of mine, and I have been through many of them. They are often complex and difficult. They are fraught with tremendous consequences.
They concern such things as marriage, careers, social contacts, even the things we eat and drink and wear. Most of these decisions seem small at the time we make them, but their eventual outcome can be almost overwhelming.
I approached a large farm gate one day. I lifted the latch and opened the gate. The movement at the hinges was so slight as to be scarcely discernible. But the other end of the gate cut a great arc sixteen feet in radius. Looking at the movement of the hinges alone, one would never dream of the magnified action that came as a result of that tiny movement.
So it is with the decisions in our lives. Some small thought, some small word, some small action can lead to tremendous consequences.
Many years ago, I worked in the head office of one of our railroads. One day I received a telephone call from my counterpart of another railroad in Newark, New Jersey, who said that a passenger train which had passed over our line had arrived without its baggage car. The patrons were angry.
We discovered that the train had been properly made up in Oakland, California, and properly delivered to St. Louis, Missouri, where it was to be transferred to another railroad to be carried to its destination on the east coast. But we discovered that in the St. Louis yards, a thoughtless switchman had moved a piece of steel just three or four inches. That piece of steel was a switch point, and we found that the car that should have been in Newark, New Jersey, was in New Orleans, Louisiana—thirteen hundred miles away. It had gone south instead of east.
So it is with some of the seemingly small decisions of our lives. For instance, the decision that you will go out just once with that young man of questionable character could result in a miserable marriage. The cigarette you smoke on a dare with a group of noisy friends could lead to a habit almost impossible to break. On the other hand, the decision to try at least one quarter or semester of college could eventually lead to a degree and a happy and productive career.
So it goes. Each of us knows this, and that is why we are so deeply concerned with the decisions we face. I wish I could say in a word what to do about all of them, but life is not that simple.
However, I can describe a principle or two, which, if observed, will greatly increase the probability that our decisions will be correct, and consequently that our progress and happiness in life will be immeasurably increased. This great principle is keep the faith.
I was once a university student, and along with other things, I studied some philosophy, some anthropology, some history. I had been reared in a good Latter-day Saint home, imbued with the faith of my good father and mother. But questions stirred in my mind. It was a gloomy period in the history of the world, a time of dark cynicism, not only over economic matters but over values in general. We were in the midst of the worst economic depression in modern history. The rate of unemployment in Utah was more than 30 percent at the time I was graduated. The prospects for employment were bleak indeed. And the prospects for marriage were seriously clouded by the lack of opportunity to earn a living. It was easy to become sour, to look upon the world with a sense of gloom, to doubt one’s faith in the Church and in religious matters generally.
I was called as a missionary to the British Isles. That represented a very serious financial sacrifice on the part of my father, but he made the sacrifice with willingness and love. That mission became a marvelous experience, one for which I shall be eternally grateful, and one which set some anchors and guideposts in my life. Among other things that I gained during that mission was a solid and enduring testimony of the divine origin of the Book of Mormon and of the divine calling of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
I returned home and was married in the Salt Lake Temple forty-eight years ago. My income was meager, but we were immensely and wonderfully happy. We were poor by today’s standards, but we were as happy as if we owned the whole world.
I have now climbed the mountain high enough to be able to look down not only at my own life, but at the lives of hundreds of friends reaching back into childhood. Every one of us has had to make thousands of decisions along the way. I have noted that those who have kept the faith and who have made their decisions by the standards of the gospel have almost without exception lived happy and productive lives. Most of us have not become wealthy. But there have been other compensations sweet and wonderful. On the other hand, I have observed those who have not kept the faith and have seen in their lives things I am confident even they wish they had avoided.
We live at a time when old beliefs and old standards are being challenged. The Church of which we are members is being attacked on many sides. A few dissidents, apostates, and excommunicants have marshaled their resources in an effort to belittle and demean this work—its history, its doctrine, its practices. Some have stooped to falsehood, misrepresentation, and mockery. A few weak ones have been taken in by their sophistry.
There is another group presently receiving wide publicity across the nation. They are poking into all the crevices of our history, ferreting out little things of small import and magnifying them into great issues of public discussion, working the media in an effort to give credibility to their efforts.
None of this is new, of course. From the day that Joseph Smith walked out of the grove in the year 1820, critics and enemies—generation after generation of them—have worked and reworked the same old materials. They have minutely explored the environment in which Joseph Smith lived in an effort to rationalize—some on the basis of folk magic and the occult—the remarkable things which he did. Early in this fishing expedition, one of them gathered affidavits from neighbors and associates in an effort to undermine the character of Joseph Smith. This old bale of straw has been dished up again and again as if it were something new. They have raked over every available word that he spoke or wrote, and they then in turn have written long tomes and delivered long lectures trying to explain the mystery of his character and his work.
There have been cycles of this during the past 165 years. They have ebbed and flowed. Now we are in another peak era, which also will pass.
As most of you know, recently there have been great stirrings over two old letters. One was purportedly written in 1825 by Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell. If it is genuine, it is the oldest known product of Joseph Smith’s handwriting. It concerns the employment of Joseph by Mr. Stowell, who was engaged in a mining operation looking for old coins and precious metals. The other carries the date of October 23, 1830, and was purportedly written by Martin Harris to W. W. Phelps.
I acquired for the Church both of these letters, the first by purchase. The second was given to the Church by its generous owner. I am, of course, familiar with both letters, having held them in my hands and having read them in their original form. It was I, also, who made the decision to make them public. Copies were issued to the media, and both have received wide publicity.
I knew there would be a great fuss. Scholars have pored over them, discussed them, written about them, differed in their opinions, and even argued about them.
I am glad we have them. They are interesting documents of whose authenticity we are not certain and may never be. However, assuming that they are authentic, they are valuable writings of the period out of which they have come. But they have no real relevancy to the question of the authenticity of the Church or of the divine origin of the Book of Mormon.
Much has been said about the Martin Harris/ W. W. Phelps letter. I ask: Shall two men, their character, their faith, their lives, the testimonies to which they gave voice to the end of their days, be judged by a few words on a sheet of paper that may or may not have been written by the one and received by the other?
If you have been troubled in any way by press reports concerning this letter, I ask only that you look closer at the man who presumably wrote it and at the man who presumably received it Martin Harris and W. W. Phelps.
The letter is dated subsequent to the declaration of the Testimony of the Three Witnesses, one of whom was Martin Harris. In language unequivocal and certain he and his associates had declared to the world: “Be it known unto all nations, kindreds, tongues, and people, unto whom this work shall come: That we, through the grace of God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, have seen the plates which contain this record, … And we also know that they have been translated by the gift and power of God, for his voice hath declared it unto us; wherefore we know of a surety that the work is true. … And we declare with words of soberness, that an angel of God came down from heaven, and he brought and laid before our eyes, that we beheld and saw the plates, and the engravings thereon.”
Would Martin Harris have mortgaged his farm, eventually losing it, to pay for the printing of the Book of Mormon if he had thought of that book as a fraud? He endured ridicule, persecution, and poverty. He lived to the age of ninety-two and died in full faith, voicing his testimony of the truth of the Book of Mormon to the end of his life.
What about W. W. Phelps? Five years subsequent to the date of the letter, he wrote: “Now, notwithstanding my body was not baptized into this Church till Thursday, the 10th of June 1831, yet my heart was there from the time I became acquainted with the Book of Mormon; and my hope, steadfast like an anchor, and my faith increased like the grass after a refreshing shower, when I for the first time, held a conversation with our beloved Brother Joseph whom I was willing to acknowledge as the prophet of the Lord, and to whom, and to whose godly account of himself and the work he was engaged in, I owe my first determination to quit the folly of my way, and the fancy and fame of this world, and seek the Lord and His righteousness.” (Latter-day Saints Messenger and Advocate, vol. 1, no. 7, letter no. 6, Feb. 26, 1835.)
This is the same man who wrote that majestic and marvelous hymn of tribute to the Prophet Joseph—“Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah! Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer. Blessed to open the last dispensation, Kings shall extol him, and nations revere.” (Hymns, no. 147.)
He had no doubt concerning the divine origin of the Book of Mormon or the divine calling of him who was the instrument in the hands of the Almighty in bringing it forth. William W. Phelps died as a high priest in Salt Lake City in full faith.
Marvelous and enduring love and loyalty of the kind shown by these two men do not come from an experience with a “salamander” as we generally interpret that word.
Would these two men have so endured, so declared their testimonies, and so lived out their lives in faith had there been any doubt about the way in which the Book of Mormon plates were received from the hands of Moroni and translated by the gift and power of God?
As I have already mentioned, from the beginning of this work there has been opposition. There have been apostates. There have been scholars, some with balance and others with an axe to grind, who have raked over every bit of evidence available concerning Joseph Smith, the prophet of this dispensation. I plead with you, do not let yourselves be numbered among the critics, among the dissidents, among the apostates. That does not mean that you cannot read widely. As a Church, we encourage gospel scholarship and the search to understand all truth. Fundamental to our theology is belief in individual freedom of inquiry, thought, and expression. Constructive discussion is a privilege of every Latter-day Saint.
But it is the greater obligation of every Latter-day Saint to move forward the work of the Lord, to strengthen His kingdom on the earth, to teach faith and build testimony in that which God has brought to pass in this, the dispensation of the fulness of times. Of course, there are items in our history which, when pulled out of context and highlighted, separated from the time and the circumstances in which the events took place, may raise some questions. Remember, however, that no Church leader of whom I am aware, past or present, has ever claimed perfection. They have been and are human, including those who have served as Presidents of the Church. The Lord has always used those he has found most suitable for His purposes. Notwithstanding some human weaknesses, they have accomplished great and remarkable things, and this even while enemies have been snapping at their heels. The work has moved steadily and consistently forward, and the only losers have been those who, in a spirit of criticism, which usually has begun in a very mild and innocuous way, have in some instances literally read, talked, and written themselves out of the Church because they looked only for the negative, read only the negative, and discussed only the negative.
To all Latter-day Saints, I say, keep the faith. When you study, do so with balance. Read the Book of Mormon itself. Read it again and again. Ponder its beauty. Reflect upon its many magnificent passages. Think of the complexity of the detail of its historical accounts. Pray about it, and the Holy Ghost will bear record to you, as he has to me and to millions of others, that it is the word of God, a voice crying from the dust to this generation in declaration of the divinity and the reality of the Lord Jesus Christ as the living Son of the living God.
The Lord Himself has spoken concerning our study of this great latter-day work. He has said: “Search these commandments, for they are true and faithful, and the prophecies and promises which are in them shall all be fulfilled.
“What I the Lord have spoken, I have spoken, and I excuse not myself; and though the heavens and the earth pass away, my word shall not pass away, but shall all be fulfilled, whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” (D&C 1:37–38.)
Those who mock Joseph Smith fulfill the prophecy of the Lord Himself. In the misery of Liberty Jail in March of 1839, Joseph cried out, “O God, where art thou?” Among the words that came in answer are these: “The ends of the earth shall inquire after thy name, and fools shall have thee in derision, and hell shall rage against thee;
“While the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous, shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under thy hand.
“And thy people shall never be turned against thee by the testimony of traitors.” (D&C 122:1–3.)
I cannot tell you in detail how to decide everything. But I can promise that if you will make your decisions according to the standards of the gospel and the teachings of the Church, and if you will keep the faith, your lives will bear fruit of great good and you will know much of happiness and accomplishment.
This Church is true. It will weather every storm that beats against it. It will outlast every critic who rises to mock it. It was established by God our Eternal Father for the blessing of His sons and daughters of all generations. It carries the name of Him who stands as its head, even the Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. It is governed and moves by the power of the priesthood. It sends forth to the world another witness of the divinity of the Lord. Be faithful, my friends. Be true. Be loyal to the great things of God which have been revealed in this dispensation.
What a choice generation you are—the best, I think, in the history of the world. What a marvelous source of strength and power and capacity! God bless you each one that your lives may be happy and productive, that you may realize the desires of your hearts, that you may walk in faith and faithfulness.
Some Points of Emphasis. You may wish to make these points in your home teaching discussion:
1. Small decisions, even seemingly small actions, can lead to tremendous consequences, good or bad.
2. Keeping faith in the gospel is a principle that greatly increases the probability that our decisions will be correct and that our progress and happiness in life will increase.
3. Since 1820, the name and mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith have been used for both good and evil. Humble seekers of truth have found in the Prophet a source of thanksgiving; the enemies of the Church have made him a target of criticism.
4. Lives of service and testimony are among the greatest witnesses that early members of the Church have left us.
5. It is the obligation of every Latter-day Saint to move forward the work of the Lord, to strengthen His kingdom on the earth, to teach faith and build testimony in God and his work.
1. Relate your personal feelings or experiences about the principle of keeping faith in the gospel.
2. Are there some scriptures or quotations in this article that the family might read aloud and discuss?
3. Would this discussion be better after a pre-visit chat with the head of the house? Is there a message from the quorum leader or bishop?