Little Children and the Gospel


Jay E. Jensen
The finest traits of little children are everything Jesus held them up to be: “For of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14).

Little Children and the Gospel

For centuries sculptors and artists have attempted to capture in their work the beauty, the purity, the innocence, and the loveliness of little children. Amateur and professional photographers labor to capture the essence of all that is in a child. Parents begin to photograph their children from birth and frame those precious pictures of their little ones and display them in their homes or carry them in wallets, purses, and day planners.

Photographs of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren are among the family’s most prized possessions. Grandparents, brothers, sisters, and even missionaries sweep us into explanations and conversations about the precious little ones captured in photographs. Scenes they describe stir in us laughter, joy, and tears. In some homes you will find depictions of children in carvings, bronze and porcelain statues, paintings, and drawings. All of us have admired and appreciated such works of art.

In some of the Church’s films and videos the scriptwriters, camera operators, producers, and directors have succeeded in capturing with motion, music, and sound the deepest of human emotions with portrayals of children. A recent Church video portraying Jesus and His love for children evoked in me and in “Behold, I say unto you, I cannot say the smallest part which I feel” (Alma 26:16).

Of the well-known Christmas film Mr. Kreuger’s Christmas, it was reported to me that in filming the scene with Jimmy Stewart talking to the newborn Jesus, all the equipment was to be operating perfectly because he said, “I have only one of these in me,” meaning that the deep and tender feelings associated with his expressions of love for Jesus could not be repeated. It was too tender and heartwrenching.

What do all these scenes have in common? They show how priceless our children are. Little children are so lovely, innocent, teachable, honest, cheerful, submissive, optimistic, and pure and have a host of other attributes. They are everything Jesus held them up to be: “For of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14).

Families are a special focus of the scriptures. The Old Testament begins with Adam, Eve, and their children; three of the four gospels in the New Testament begin with the birth of Jesus; much of the Book of Mormon is about parents, children, and families, from 1 Nephi 1:1 [1 Ne. 1:1], “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents,” to Mormon’s final words to Moroni, “My son, be faithful in Christ” (Moro. 9:25; emphasis added); and the dispensation of the fulness of times begins with a boy prophet, Joseph Smith Jr., and his loving family.

Surely these facts speak with singular clarity that families are central to the Father’s plan of happiness and that special care is to be given to children. Particularly distinctive in the four standard works are the doctrines concerning the qualities of little children, the Savior’s love for little ones, the eternal salvation of little children, and what parents should teach them.

Qualities of Little Children

When I was a young seminary teacher, one of my students approached me about her assignment to prepare a devotional for the class. She said she wanted to bring her married sister to class with a newborn daughter and have her sing a song about the child. I agreed. Her sister announced the number, and my student accompanied her on the piano. Standing in front of the class, the young mother held her daughter in her arms and, looking at her, began to sing these words:

Do you know who you are—little child of mine—
So precious and dear to me?
Do you know you’re a part of a great design
That is vast as eternity?
Can you think for a moment how much depends
On your holding the “Iron Rod”?
Your life is forever—worlds without end—
Do you know you’re a child of God?

(“To a Child,” words and music by Ora Pate Stewart [Fernwood, 1964])

All the students were touched by what they saw and heard. It was a heavenly scene. I cannot talk about it today without having tender feelings surfacing.

Children come into this world whole, innocent, and pure (see Moses 6:54). “They cannot sin, for power is not given unto Satan to tempt little children, until they begin to become accountable before me” (D&C 29:47).

We are commanded to become like them:

“And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,

“And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

“Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:2–4).

Thus, the high requirements of righteousness, purity, holiness, and sinlessness needed to enter the kingdom of God are taught throughout scripture (see 1 Cor. 6:9–10; 1 Ne. 10:21; Alma 7:21; Hel. 8:25; Moses 6:57).

Jesus Himself was an example of an obedient child. As the literal Son of God, the Eternal Father, He lingered at the temple unbeknownst to Joseph and Mary. After three days they found Him teaching in the temple. When they asked Him why He had done this, He said, “Knew ye not that I must be about my Father’s business? And they understood not the saying which he spake unto them. And he went down with them, … and was subject unto them” (Inspired Version, Luke 2:49–51).

The Book of Mormon is unique in its family focus and parent-child relationships. We encounter examples of the qualities of little children as well as counsel to become like them. Beginning with Lehi’s son Nephi, we see the qualities children have that we should seek to emulate. Nephi, “being exceedingly young, nevertheless being large in stature, … I did cry unto the Lord; and behold he did visit me, and did soften my heart that I did believe all the words which had been spoken by my father” (1 Ne. 2:16; emphasis added). Few, if any, spiritual talents exceed that of a soft heart and the talent to believe, for they include the qualities of teachableness and submissiveness, two prominent characteristics of little children. Nephi, an example of righteousness, never lost those divine attributes, and there are many Nephis today.

Continuing in 1 Nephi, there is an account of Nephi being bound and treated harshly by his brothers. Nephi’s children showed their great love for their father when they pleaded and shed tears to obtain his release, but they had no impact on the hardened Laman and Lemuel. By this experience we catch a glimpse of the children’s love for their father and their innate sense of goodness, respect, fairness, and kindness.

Jacob, refined in his sensitivities toward children in part because of his afflictions as a child (see 2 Ne. 2:1), reminded us that wives’ and children’s “feelings are exceedingly tender and chaste and delicate before God” (Jacob 2:7).

Few verses in the Book of Mormon are more precise and forceful about the qualities of children than King Benjamin’s timeless instruction. We must “humble [our]selves and become as little children, … submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon [us], even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:18–19).

Some children in the Book of Mormon lost these divine qualities and may not have had the nurturing needed to develop them: “There were many of the rising generation that could not understand the words of king Benjamin, being little children at the time he spake unto his people” (Mosiah 26:1). They did not believe, they could not understand the doctrines, and they refused to submit to the ordinances of salvation (see Mosiah 26:2–4).

Following the signs given of the birth of the Savior, some of the converted Lamanites fell away, being part of “the wickedness of the rising generation” (3 Ne. 1:30). The cause is given as “children … did grow up and began to wax strong in years, that they became for themselves, and were led away” (3 Ne. 1:29). People who “become for themselves” lose submissiveness and teachableness, the essence of being childlike and Christlike.

Book of Mormon prophets wrote words upon plates hoping that our children and theirs would “receive them with thankful hearts, and look upon them that they may learn with joy” (Jacob 4:3), another important childlike attribute.

Savior’s Love for Little Children

The inspiring and tender account of Jesus blessing the children is found in three of the four gospels (see Matt. 19:13–15; Mark 10:13–16; Luke 18:15–17). The three accounts vary slightly. Matthew reports that Jesus “laid his hands on them” (Matt. 19:15). Luke does not record Him blessing them. Only in Mark’s account is found this tender experience: “And he took them up in his arms, put his hands upon them, and blessed them” (Mark 10:16). We do not know how many children were so blessed to have Him take them into His arms, put His hands on them, and bless them. Painters have captured tender expressions and scenes depicting Jesus holding little children, touching them, or blessing them. Yet happily for all of us, adults included, if we keep the commandments of God and prove faithful, He has promised, “I will encircle thee in the arms of my love” (D&C 6:20).

Among my fondest memories of my Primary years is singing the beautiful children’s songs. One of my favorites is “Jesus Once Was a Little Child.”

Jesus once was a little child,
A little child like me;
And he was pure and meek and mild,
As a little child should be.
So, little children,
Let’s you and I
Try to be like him,
Try, try, try.

(Children’s Songbook, 55)

Everything in that song caused me to know and feel that Jesus loved me and all children. Although the words themselves do not say so, the spirit of His love for me was real. Also, it evoked in me as a child in Primary, and still does today, the greatest love and respect for the Savior and a desire to be like Him.

When I read the four gospels in the New Testament, especially of the miracles and healings and blessing of children, I feel that same feeling of love—His love for me and my love for Him. Unique to the Book of Mormon is the appearance of Jesus as a resurrected being to those who survived the destruction in the promised land. He asked that their little children be brought and be set upon the ground around Him. Jesus then prayed for the children and their parents. “No one can conceive of the joy which filled our souls,” they said after they heard Him pray for them (3 Ne. 17:17).

Following this special experience, “He wept, and the multitude bare record of it, and he took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them” (3 Ne. 17:21; emphasis added). The phrase one by one also appears in 3 Nephi 11 [3 Ne. 11] when Jesus first appeared to the people: “And it came to pass that the multitude went forth, and thrust their hands into his side, and did feel the prints of the nails in his hands and in his feet; and this they did do, going forth one by one until they had all gone forth, and did see with their eyes and did feel with their hands, and did know of a surety and did bear record, that it was he, of whom it was written by the prophets, that should come” (3 Ne. 11:15; emphasis added). Were children among those who had this glorious experience? Did the children have two opportunities to touch the Savior and be touched by Him?

At the end of 3 Nephi 17 [3 Ne. 17] we learn that there were 2,500 souls, consisting of “men, women, and children” (3 Ne. 17:25). Of that total the number of little children may have numbered several hundred. How long must it have taken for Jesus to take each child one by one and personally bless them? Perhaps hours? What a great manifestation of His loving-kindness and interest in little children.

Later in the Savior’s visit to these people, “he did teach and minister unto the children of the multitude … , and he did loose their tongues, and they did speak unto their fathers great and marvelous things … ; yea, even babes did open their mouths and utter marvelous things” (3 Ne. 26:14, 16). This experience, one of the last of His ministry among the inhabitants in the Americas, confirms our identity as spirit children of God, such that even little children can be guided to say things “which confound the wise and the learned” (Alma 32:23).

Little Children and Salvation

When serving as a mission president, I met a couple who were grief-stricken over the death of their infant son. The young couple had gone to other denominations for help and answers but found that their doctrines brought little comfort. Also, their limited family funds could not cover the costs for a funeral service in their church; therefore, we assisted them with the funeral and burial of their son.

The missionaries began the discussions and watched in the parents’ countenances the transformation occurring in their hearts. Divine doctrines from the Book of Mormon began to dispel the sorrow and sadness from the loss of their little one.

The words of Abinadi comforted them: “Little children … have eternal life” (Mosiah 15:25). They learned that eternal life is God’s kind of life, to live forever as families in God’s presence. It is the greatest gift He has given to man (see D&C 14:7). Furthermore, they were taught that little children cannot sin, for they are blameless (see Mosiah 3:16, 21; D&C 29:46–47). Because they are without sin, little children do not make a covenant as do their parents (see Mosiah 6:2).

The infant the couple lost has the promise of eternal life. To enjoy the same kind of life their child will enjoy, the parents need to repent, become like their little one, and make covenants with God, beginning with baptism by immersion by one who holds priesthood authority, followed by confirmation as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and bestowal of the Holy Ghost.

One question this couple asked the missionaries was concerning the baptism of their deceased child. On this topic, the epistle from Mormon to his son, Moroni, in the Book of Mormon is without equal in doctrinal clarity.

Mormon had learned that there had been doctrinal disputations concerning infant baptism and wrote to Moroni to correct the error. Mormon inquired of the Lord, who revealed to him by the power of the Holy Ghost that “little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin” (Moro. 8:8). They are “alive in Christ” (Moro. 8:12). They are born into this world whole, innocent, and pure, and “the curse of Adam [and Eve] is taken from them” in the Atonement of Jesus Christ (Moro. 8:8).

Mormon taught that we are to teach “repentance and baptism unto those who are accountable and capable of committing sin, … [but] little children need no repentance, neither baptism” (Moro. 8:10–11).

The truths about why little children need no baptism are important, and rarely does one find a rebuke so powerful as this:

“It is solemn mockery before God, that ye should baptize little children. …

“… He that supposeth that little children need baptism is in the gall of bitterness and in the bonds of iniquity; for he hath neither faith, hope, nor charity; wherefore, should he be cut off while in the thought, he must go down to hell.

“… It is awful wickedness to deny the pure mercies of God unto [little children]. …

“And he that saith that little children need baptism denieth the mercies of Christ, and setteth at naught the atonement. …

“Wo unto such, for they are in danger of death, hell, and an endless torment. I speak it boldly; God hath commanded me” (Moro. 8:9, 14, 19–21).

The Book of Mormon contains the clearest, purest doctrine that little children have eternal life through Jesus Christ and that there is no need to baptize them.

Parents’ Role in Teaching Little Children

In our day, with the incessant attack on the family, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have issued “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” One of the central themes is the importance of children. Of particular interest is that only one scriptural reference is cited in the proclamation: “Children are an heritage of the Lord” (Ps. 127:3). In the Bible in that same Psalm are these words: “Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them” (Ps. 127:5). This precious heritage, that little children are from the Lord, must be taught and nurtured.

Beginning with Adam and Eve a pattern was set that parents are to teach their children: “And Adam and Eve blessed the name of God, and they made all things known unto their sons and their daughters” (Moses 5:12). The Lord commanded Moses to “teach [the Lord’s words] diligently unto thy children, and … talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deut. 6:7). The Lord was displeased with Eli when he failed to teach and restrain his children (see 1 Sam. 3:13). The writer of Proverbs taught, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6).

The Apostle Paul taught fathers to “provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Furthermore, children are to “obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right” (Eph. 6:1).

I remember with fondness when Father and Mother gathered us, their little children, about them in a small home in Mapleton, Utah, in the 1940s and 1950s in what were then known as family nights. They read stories to us from A Voice from the Dust—a narration of the Book of Mormon. We enjoyed games, activities, and delicious treats. These memories of home and goodly parents motivated and sustained my wife and me as we faced the challenges of teaching and nurturing our children.

As I listened to my father read the Book of Mormon stories, I developed a love for great prophets, missionaries, and servants of God. These men became my heroes, and as a little child I wanted to become like them. They were “goodly parents” (see 1 Ne. 1:1) teaching and blessing their children. Goodly parents not only teach but do much, much more. Note the extra dimensions represented in the following texts:

Lehi “did exhort them then with all the feeling of a tender parent … ; yea, my father did preach unto them. And after he had preached unto them, and also prophesied unto them of many things, he bade them to keep the commandments of the Lord” (1 Ne. 8:37–38). Goodly parents guide with tenderness and firmness.

Prior to his death, Lehi gathered all his posterity together and pleaded with them to awake and arise and to put on the armor of righteousness (see 2 Ne. 1:13–23). Then he gave them his final blessing (see 2 Ne. 4:2–12). Goodly parents bless their children.

Jacob’s impact upon his son Enos is measured by this comment: “I, Enos, knowing my father that he was a just man—for he taught me” (Enos 1:1). These teachings led Enos to pray and seek the blessings of the Atonement for himself. Goodly parents teach their children about the Atonement and a remission of sins.

Mosiah’s love for his sons is reflected in teaching them in the language of his fathers so “that thereby they might become men of understanding; and that they might know concerning the prophecies” (Mosiah 1:2). What was his text for teaching them? The writings of the prophets on the plates, with a plea “to search them diligently, that ye may profit thereby” (Mosiah 1:7). Goodly parents teach their children from the scriptures and encourage them to search them.

Alma, the son of Alma, “caused that his sons should be gathered together, that he might give unto them every one his charge” (Alma 35:16). First he spoke to Helaman, then to Shiblon, and finally to Corianton. He taught Helaman to “learn wisdom in thy youth; yea, learn in thy youth to keep the commandments of God” and to “look to God and live … and declare the word” (Alma 37:35, 47). Alma complimented Shiblon for his diligence and faithfulness and steadiness (see Alma 38:2–3). He concluded by counseling him to bridle his passions and to “go, my son, and teach the word unto this people” (see Alma 38:12, 15). Goodly parents recognize differences in their children and teach them accordingly.

Alma corrected his son Corianton and taught him significant doctrinal messages—repentance, example, justice, mercy, restitution, and the Atonement. As with his other two sons, he said, “Ye are called of God to preach the word” (Alma 42:31). Goodly parents correct their children and teach and prepare them to teach the word of God to others.

When they were little children, the 2,000 stripling warriors learned at the feet of their mothers that “if they did not doubt, God would deliver them” (Alma 56:47). Furthermore, these warriors developed faith in God, for “they are young, and their minds are firm, and they do put their trust in God continually” (Alma 57:27). Goodly parents teach their children to trust God.

Helaman taught his sons, Nephi and Lehi, to remember—remember their names, remember the words of prophets concerning the Atonement, and remember to build upon the rock of Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the world. “And they did remember his words” (Hel. 5:6–14). Goodly parents teach their children to build their lives upon the rock of their Redeemer.

The Book of Mormon concludes with the wonderful parent-son relationship between Mormon and Moroni. “My beloved son, Moroni, I rejoice exceedingly that your Lord Jesus Christ hath been mindful of you. … I am mindful of you always in my prayers, continually praying unto God the Father in the name of his Holy Child, Jesus, that he, through his infinite goodness and grace, will keep you through the endurance of faith on his name to the end” (Moro. 8:2–3). Goodly parents pray for their children.

Mormon’s final written words to Moroni capture the desires of all goodly parents for their children: “My son, be faithful in Christ; … may Christ lift thee up, … and may the grace of God … be, and abide with you forever” (Moro. 9:25–26). Goodly parents teach their children the hope of eternal life that comes through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

When we ask ourselves how we can best do all that we should do concerning our children, we remember to pray “in [our] families unto the Father, always in my name, that [our] wives and [our] children may be blessed” (3 Ne. 18:21). Also, when we read and study scriptures with our children, we show them how we learn how to find the Lord’s way.

King Benjamin taught important truths in Mosiah 4:11–16 about what parents can do to properly raise children. These truths are oftentimes cited as commands, yet when viewed in their context these truths are clearly the natural benefits, the normal results or consequences that follow from righteous actions. First, King Benjamin taught us to “always retain in remembrance, the greatness of God, and your own nothingness, and his goodness and long-suffering towards you, unworthy creatures, and humble yourselves even in the depths of humility, calling on the name of the Lord daily, and standing steadfastly in the faith of that which is to come” (Mosiah 4:11).

The next five verses discuss the results or benefits of following the counsel in verse 11. Carefully note the number of “ye shall” and “ye will” references, as well as the number of “ye will not” references in verses 12 to 16.

As we ponder these words, we soon discern that these instructions become a list of some of the blessed consequences resulting from our righteous labors with our children. We more clearly recognize the value and worth of little children, their divine attributes and qualities, and how they are viewed by our Father in Heaven. And we seek the fulfillment of these words: “And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children” (Isa. 54:13; see also 3 Ne. 22:13).

[illustration] Christ with Children, by Del Parson

[illustration] Suffer Little Children to Come unto Me, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, Det Nationalhistoriske Museum På Frederiksborg, Hillerød

[illustration] Christ and the Book of Mormon Children, by Del Parson

[illustration] The Resurrected Christ Blesses the Nephite Children, by Robert T. Barrett

[illustration] Storytime in Galilee, by Del Parson