Keeping the Gospel Simple


Almost every principle and every doctrine of the Church can be made simple if we make the effort. It is absolutely possible to live righteously and properly in a simple way.

Many years ago I served a mission in New Zealand. The day I arrived, I had the opportunity of meeting President Matthew Cowley for the first time. During the next two years we became close friends, and during the latter part of my mission I lived in the mission home and traveled with President Cowley throughout New Zealand.

He was an excellent teacher and a most interesting person. Everyone loved to hear his stories. Even though he died more than thirty-six years ago, people in many parts of the Church are still interested in the faith-promoting stories he told.

President Cowley tried to keep the things he taught simple. In fact, he said many times that he was unable to speak very often of subjects beyond the first principles of the gospel. He spent his whole life trying to explain that there isn’t anything very complicated about the Church. “The gospel of Jesus Christ is simply beautiful and beautifully simple,” he said. Most of the Church leaders I have known have taught the same thing. I am convinced that understanding increases when we talk or teach in a direct and simple way.

President Cowley was a very uncomplicated man. Some who couldn’t understand his simplicity became confused about what he did and found it difficult to understand him. I had the opportunity of being his close associate for fifteen years. After he died, some people asked me about him. One man said, “I just can’t understand how Brother Cowley did all the things he did.” The real answer is that Brother Cowley went directly to the Lord, told the Lord what he wanted, and received the answer. There wasn’t anything hard about that; Brother Cowley just did it.

As President Cowley’s traveling companion in the mission field, I received instructions from him to keep my briefcase packed with a couple of changes of clothing. He said, “When I say ‘We’re going,’ you grab your bag, start the car, and don’t ask any questions.”

When that would happen, I would grab my bag and go to the car. Being a young, eager missionary, I often wondered where we were going; but I didn’t ask.

Once, after we had driven a few kilometers, he asked, “Would you like to know where we’re going?”

I said, “Yes.”

Then he said, “So would I! I’m not sure just where we’re going, but we’ll keep going; and when the Lord tells us to turn, we’ll turn, and we’ll end up where He wants us to be.”

When the Maori people in the New Zealand Mission needed help, they prayed for President Cowley to come to them. One day he drove up to a post office in a rather distant city in New Zealand. There were two sisters standing by the post office, waiting. When he got out of the car, one said to the other, “See, I told you he would be here soon.”

President Cowley said, “What’s going on here?”

One of the sisters said, “We needed you, and we’ve been praying. We knew you would come, and you always go directly to the post office, so we decided to wait here until you arrived.”

It was just that simple. People would tell the Lord what they wanted, and somehow or other President Cowley was led by the Spirit to go to where they were. He wasn’t disorganized, but I have never known anyone who planned less and accomplished more, simply by doing what he felt impressed to do.

One day when President Cowley and I were traveling, we arrived at the home of Brother Stewart Meha, a great and wonderful Maori man. He presided over his large family as a true father and leader. President Cowley and Brother Meha spent all afternoon sitting on the porch and talking about the Church and other interesting things.

When it came time for the evening meal, Brother Meha stood on his front porch and, in the Maori language, shouted out to all of his large family, “Haere Mai Ki te Kai.” Then he said, “Haere Mai Ki Te Karakia.” These phrases meant, “Come on home for supper, Come on home for prayer.”

Soon family members came from every direction. We all assembled in his home in the big front room. The room had very little furniture in it, and everybody gathered in a large circle. Brother Meha was at the head of the circle, President Cowley was on his left, and I was next to President Cowley. On Brother Meha’s right was a little child about eight years of age. All around the rest of the circle were the other children, with some adults in between.

Brother Meha said to the little boy on his right, “You start.” I bowed my head in anticipation of the little boy’s prayer. Instead of praying, he quoted a scripture, after first reciting the chapter and verse. Then the young person next to him recited a scripture with the reference. After about four scriptures had been given, I realized that we were going around the circle, with each person quoting a different passage of scripture. One youngster started to quote one that had already been used, and he was quickly corrected.

Eventually it was my turn and then President Cowley’s. Then Brother Meha prayed.

That was an excellent example to me of family prayer and how children can be taught the scriptures! If we gather together and have prayer, it is probably the finest teaching experience that a mother and a father can provide for their children. Prayer is simple and should remain that way. Prayers do not need to be long or complicated; they need only to be simple and sincere. If we want to talk to the Lord, we do it through prayer. If we listen with faith, we will hear His answers. We can also search the scriptures, for in them we are given, in an uncomplicated way, the answers we need.

Now let me say something about faith. Faith is the first principle of the gospel. It is a gift from our Heavenly Father. No one seems to have enough faith; the faith of most of us seems to come and go. We all need a little bit more. Faith is simply knowing that the Lord is there and that He will keep His promises to those who humbly approach Him.

For example, when I was presiding over the Florida Mission some twenty years ago, I received a letter from Sister Flavia Salazar Gomez in Santiago, the Dominican Republic. Originally from Mexico, where she had joined the Church when she was twelve, Flavia had married and moved with her husband to his native country. She believed she was the only Latter-day Saint within Dominican’s population of some five million people. She wrote that she had a year-old baby who had not been named or blessed by the priesthood. She added that she had cancer and doctors did not expect her to live very long. Demonstrating simple faith, she asked if a priesthood holder could travel to Santiago to bless both her and the baby.

Soon after receiving the letter, I had the opportunity to fly to that area. I met with an active Latter-day Saint family we knew of in the Dominican capital of Santo Domingo, Dale Valentine and his wife and children. Brother Valentine and I drove to Santiago, and then realized that we did not have Flavia’s street address with us. I told Brother Valentine to drive into the busy city and turn to the left. Then I told him to make a right turn and proceed toward the center of the city. After traveling several blocks, I said to Brother Valentine, “Go to the next corner; make a right turn; and after you turn, you will find an empty parking space.” He drove as I had directed, and we did find an empty parking space, which was most unusual in all the traffic. “Now what do we do?” he asked.

I said, “Let’s just start asking people.”

Brother Valentine went over to a man standing outside a residence and asked if he knew of a Flavia Salazar Gomez.

Surprised, the man said, “Yes, she’s my wife.”

We went into the home, and met with and interviewed Flavia. In the two years since she had left Mexico and her contact with the Church, she had faithfully kept the Word of Wisdom, and prayed every day.

We blessed the baby. Then I felt impressed that Flavia should be blessed that she should recover from her cancerous condition and become well.

Some six months later, I had the opportunity to meet again with Flavia and her husband. She was in good health; doctors had told her she was completely cured.

When this lovely young mother had needed a priesthood blessing she had exercised her faith, and had written to a mission president whom she did not know. The mission president had done what the Lord told him to do to answer her need. It was just that simple.

There may be those who question such promptings, but they happen all the time. Almost any priesthood leader, if he thinks for a moment, can tell you how faith has led him to do things he hadn’t planned to do.

Repentance is just about as simple as prayer and faith. All that we really have to do to repent is to quit what we are doing wrong and then make amends as much as we can to rectify the problems we have created. Then we must tell the Lord about it, and sometimes we need to tell the bishop or the branch president; but it can all be handled in a simple, practical way.

President Cowley had an interesting story to tell about repentance.

There was a man by the name of Syd who lived in a little Maori village on the east coast of New Zealand. At that time there was a large branch of the Church there with about four hundred members. One Saturday afternoon, after a long, eight-hour drive, President Cowley arrived at this village and went directly to see his old friend, Syd.

As a young man, Syd had been an outstanding athlete. He had attended high school and college in the United States. He had become a well-known basketball player, and, as an all-star athlete, he had received a lot of publicity.

Syd had been ordained a seventy while he had lived in the United States, and when he arrived back in New Zealand, he had found that he was the only seventy in the whole area, and he didn’t have a quorum to belong to. He had become somewhat inactive, and he hadn’t been keeping the Word of Wisdom, but deep within his heart he still knew the gospel to be true.

As a mission president and a friend, President Cowley called on Syd, and found him sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch, smoking a big cigar. Syd didn’t stop chewing on his cigar as President Cowley sat down beside him to visit.

After they had talked and laughed for a while, President Cowley became serious and said, “Syd, I want you to come to church tomorrow. I’m going to release the branch president and put in a new one.”

Syd said, “I haven’t been there for a long time. Why don’t you just tell me who the new branch president will be, and then I won’t have to get myself cleaned up for church in the morning.”

President Cowley said, “Well, I’ll tell you who it is. It’s going to be you.”

Syd pulled that old cigar out of his mouth, looked at it, and said, “President, you mean me and my cigar?”

President Cowley said, “No, Syd—just you. We don’t need your cigar.”

Then Syd threw the cigar out on the ground in front of the porch. He thought for a minute, turned to President Cowley, and very humbly said, “President, I won’t break the Word of Wisdom any more. I’m a full-tithe payer. I’ll be the branch president, and I’ll be worthy. Tomorrow morning I’ll be there, and I promise you that I’ll be the best branch president in the whole country. You won’t have to worry about me and whether or not I’m living the gospel.”

For the next several years, Syd served as one of the strongest and finest leaders in the mission. His son became the first bishop in the ward when the stake was created. Just recently, his grandson was released from serving as a bishop. Syd’s whole family is strong and active in the Church today and is one of the great families in New Zealand. Why? Because old Syd knew how to repent. He repented on the spot. When he was called to repentance, he quit his worldly ways. He became and remained a faithful Saint until the day he died.

In most cases, that’s all there is to repentance. Do you see how really simple that was? President Cowley never did ask Syd to repent. He gave him an opportunity to be of service to the Church in a priesthood calling. Syd knew that if he accepted that calling, he could no longer sin, so he immediately quit. It was over—just like that! The Lord accepted his repentance, and Syd became a great leader.

Baptism and confirmation are just as simple as prayer and faith and repentance. Baptism is simply doing what the Savior has told us to do—to go before the priesthood, be baptized by immersion, and receive the Holy Ghost through the laying on of hands. These ordinances do not need to be complicated, either.

Almost every principle and every doctrine of the Church can be made simple if we make the effort. It is absolutely possible to live righteously and properly in a simple way.

Our Heavenly Father hears our prayers, so pray!

He will give us faith, so ask Him for it!

He will help us to repent, so repent as needed!

In the most simple way I know, I bear to you my humble witness that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and the head of this church. Today a great man—President Ezra Taft Benson—stands before us as our President. He is a living prophet of the Lord. May we all sustain him, support him, and be the kind of followers of Christ that we ought to be.

[photos] Photography by Phil Shurtleff