Three Parables—The Unwise Bee, the Owl Express, and Two Lamps


Published in the Improvement Era, Sept. 1914, 1008–9; Jan. 1914, 256–58; July 1914, 807–9; punctuation and spelling modernized.
Three stories from Elder James E. Talmage’s own experience teach us to trust in the Lord’s perspective.
Elder James E. Talmage

Elder Talmage served as an Apostle for 22 years and wrote two books for the Church that are in wide use to this day, Jesus the Christ and The Articles of Faith. Beginning in January 1914 Elder Talmage also published a series of parables, stories taken from his personal experience that teach gospel principles. Following are three of his choicest ones.

The Parable of the Unwise Bee

Sometimes I find myself under obligations of work requiring quiet and seclusion such as neither my comfortable office nor the cozy study at home insures. My favorite retreat is an upper room in the tower of a large building, well removed from the noise and confusion of the city streets. The room is somewhat difficult of access and relatively secure against human intrusion. Therein I have spent many peaceful and busy hours with books and pen.

I am not always without visitors, however, especially in summertime; for when I sit with windows open, flying insects occasionally find entrance and share the place with me. These self-invited guests are not unwelcome. Many a time I have laid down the pen and, forgetful of my theme, have watched with interest the activities of these winged visitants, with an afterthought that the time so spent had not been wasted, for is it not true that even a butterfly, a beetle, or a bee may be a bearer of lessons to the receptive student?

A wild bee from the neighboring hills once flew into the room, and at intervals during an hour or more I caught the pleasing hum of its flight. The little creature realized that it was a prisoner, yet all its efforts to find the exit through the partly opened casement failed. When ready to close up the room and leave, I threw the window wide and tried at first to guide and then to drive the bee to liberty and safety, knowing well that if left in the room it would die as other insects there entrapped had perished in the dry atmosphere of the enclosure. The more I tried to drive it out, the more determinedly did it oppose and resist my efforts. Its erstwhile peaceful hum developed into an angry roar; its darting flight became hostile and threatening.

Then it caught me off my guard and stung my hand—the hand that would have guided it to freedom. At last it alighted on a pendant attached to the ceiling, beyond my reach of help or injury. The sharp pain of its unkind sting aroused in me rather pity than anger. I knew the inevitable penalty of its mistaken opposition and defiance, and I had to leave the creature to its fate. Three days later I returned to the room and found the dried, lifeless body of the bee on the writing table. It had paid for its stubbornness with its life.

To the bee’s shortsightedness and selfish misunderstanding I was a foe, a persistent persecutor, a mortal enemy bent on its destruction; while in truth I was its friend, offering it ransom of the life it had put in forfeit through its own error, striving to redeem it, in spite of itself, from the prison house of death and restore it to the outer air of liberty.

Are we so much wiser than the bee that no analogy lies between its unwise course and our lives? We are prone to contend, sometimes with vehemence and anger, against the adversity which after all may be the manifestation of superior wisdom and loving care, directed against our temporary comfort for our permanent blessing. In the tribulations and sufferings of mortality there is a divine ministry which only the godless soul can wholly fail to discern. To many the loss of wealth has been a boon, a providential means of leading or driving them from the confines of selfish indulgence to the sunshine and the open, where boundless opportunity waits on effort. Disappointment, sorrow, and affliction may be the expression of an all-wise Father’s kindness.

Consider the lesson of the unwise bee!

“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (Prov. 3:5–6).

The Parable of the Owl Express

During my college days, I was one of a class of students appointed to fieldwork as a part of our prescribed courses in geology—the science that deals with the earth in all of its varied aspects and phases, but more particularly with its component rocks, the structural features they present, the changes they have undergone and are undergoing—the science of worlds.

A certain assignment had kept us in the field many days. We had traversed, examined, and charted miles of lowlands and uplands, valleys and hills, mountain heights and canyon defiles. As the time allotted to the investigation drew near its close, we were overtaken by a violent windstorm, followed by a heavy snow—unseasonable and unexpected, but which, nevertheless, increased in intensity so that we were in danger of being snowbound in the hills. The storm reached its height while we were descending a long and steep mountainside several miles from the little railway station at which we had hoped to take [a] train that night for home. With great effort we reached the station late at night while the storm was yet raging. We were suffering from the intense cold incident to biting wind and driving snow; and, to add to our discomfiture, we learned that the expected train had been stopped by snowdrifts a few miles from the little station at which we waited.

… The train for which we so expectantly and hopefully waited was the Owl Express—a fast night train connecting large cities. Its time schedule permitted stops at but few and these the most important stations; but, as we knew, it had to stop at this out-of-the-way post to replenish the water supply of the locomotive.

Long after midnight the train arrived in a terrific whirl of wind and snow. I lingered behind my companions as they hurriedly clambered aboard, for I was attracted by the engineer, who during the brief stop, while his assistant was attending to the water replenishment, bustled about the engine, oiling some parts, adjusting others, and generally overhauling the panting locomotive. I ventured to speak to him, busy though he was. I asked how he felt on such a night—wild, weird, and furious, when the powers of destruction seemed to be let loose, abroad and uncontrolled, when the storm was howling and when danger threatened from every side. I thought of the possibility—the probability even—of snowdrifts or slides on the track, of bridges and high trestles which may have been loosened by the storm, of rock masses dislodged from the mountainside—of these and other possible obstacles. I realized that in the event of accident through obstruction on or disruption of the track, the engineer and the fireman would be the ones most exposed to danger; a violent collision would most likely cost them their lives. All of these thoughts and others I expressed in hasty questioning of the bustling, impatient engineer.

His answer was a lesson not yet forgotten. In effect he said, though in jerky and disjointed sentences: “Look at the engine headlight. Doesn’t that light up the track for a hundred yards [90 m] or more? Well, all I try to do is to cover that hundred yards of lighted track. That I can see, and for that distance I know the roadbed is open and safe. And,” he added, with what, through the swirl and the dim lamplighted darkness of the roaring night, I saw was a humorous smile on his lips and a merry twinkle of his eye, “believe me, I have never been able to drive this old engine of mine—God bless her!—so fast as to outstrip that hundred yards of lighted track. The light of the engine is always ahead of me!”

As he climbed to his place in the cab, I hastened to board the first passenger coach; and as I sank into the cushioned seat, in blissful enjoyment of the warmth and general comfort, offering strong contrast to the wildness of the night without, I thought deeply of the words of the grimy, oil-stained engineer. They were full of faith—the faith that accomplishes great things, the faith that gives courage and determination, the faith that leads to works. What if the engineer had failed, had yielded to fright and fear, had refused to go on because of the threatening dangers? Who knows what work may have been hindered, what great plans may have been nullified, what God-appointed commissions of mercy and relief may have been thwarted had the engineer weakened and quailed?

For a little distance the storm-swept track was lighted up; for that short space the engineer drove on!

We may not know what lies ahead of us in the future years, nor even in the days or hours immediately beyond. But for a few yards, or possibly only a few feet, the track is clear, our duty is plain, our course is illumined. For that short distance, for the next step, lighted by the inspiration of God, go on!

The Parable of Two Lamps

Among the material things of the past—things that I treasure for sweet memory’s sake and because of pleasant association in bygone days—is a lamp. …

The lamp of which I speak, the student lamp of my school and college days, was one of the best of its kind. I had bought it with hard-earned savings; it was counted among my most cherished possessions. …

One summer evening I sat musing studiously and withal restfully in the open air outside the door of the room in which I lodged and studied. A stranger approached. I noticed that he carried a satchel. He was affable and entertaining. I brought another chair from within, and we chatted together till the twilight had deepened into dusk, the dusk into darkness.

Then he said: “You are a student and doubtless have much work to do of nights. What kind of lamp do you use?” And without waiting for a reply, he continued, “I have a superior kind of lamp I should like to show you, a lamp designed and constructed according to the latest achievements of applied science, far surpassing anything heretofore produced as a means of artificial lighting.”

I replied with confidence, and I confess, not without some exultation: “My friend, I have a lamp, one that has been tested and proved. It has been to me a companion through many a long night. It is an Argand lamp, and one of the best. I have trimmed and cleaned it today; it is ready for the lighting. Step inside; I will show you my lamp; then you may tell me whether yours can possibly be better.”

We entered my study room, and with a feeling which I assume is akin to that of the athlete about to enter a contest with one whom he regards as a pitiably inferior opponent, I put the match to my well-trimmed Argand.

My visitor was voluble in his praise. It was the best lamp of its kind, he said. He averred that he had never seen a lamp in better trim. He turned the wick up and down and pronounced the adjustment perfect. He declared that never before had he realized how satisfactory a student lamp could be.

I liked the man; he seemed to me wise, and he assuredly was ingratiating. “Love me, love my lamp,” I thought, mentally paraphrasing a common expression of the period.

“Now,” said he, “with your permission I’ll light my lamp.” He took from his satchel a lamp then known as the “Rochester.” It had a chimney which, compared with mine, was as a factory smokestack alongside a house flue. Its hollow wick was wide enough to admit my four fingers. Its light made bright the remotest corner of my room. In its brilliant blaze my own little Argand wick burned a weak, pale yellow. Until that moment of convincing demonstration, I had never known the dim obscurity in which I had lived and labored, studied and struggled.

“I’ll buy your lamp,” said I; “you need neither explain nor argue further.” I took my new acquisition to the laboratory that same night and determined its capacity. It turned at over 48 candlepower—fully four times the intensity of my student lamp.

Two days after purchasing, I met the lamp peddler on the street about noontime. To my inquiry he replied that business was good; the demand for his lamps was greater than the factory supply. “But,” said I, “you are not working today?” His rejoinder was a lesson. “Do you think that I would be so foolish as to go around trying to sell lamps in the daytime? Would you have bought one if I had lighted it for you when the sun was shining? I chose the time to show the superiority of my lamp over yours, and you were eager to own the better one I offered, were you not?”

Such is the story. Now consider the application of a part, a very small part, thereof.

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” [Matt. 5:16].

The man who would sell me a lamp did not disparage mine. He placed his greater light alongside my feebler flame, and I hasted to obtain the better.

The missionary servants of the Church of Jesus Christ today are sent forth, not to assail or ridicule the beliefs of men, but to set before the world a superior light, by which the smoky dimness of the flickering flames of man-made creeds shall be apparent. The work of the Church is constructive, not destructive.

As to the further meaning of the parable, let him that hath eyes and a heart see and understand.

[illustrations] Illustrations by Dilleen Marsh