First Presidency Message

A City Set upon a Hill


Gordon B. Hinckley

A City Set upon a Hill

I shall always remember the great experiences I had at the dedication of the Washington Temple. For the better part of a week, with others, I stood in the entrance to the temple as a host to special guests. Those guests included the wife of the president of the United States, justices of the Supreme Court, senators and congressmen, ambassadors from various nations, clergymen, educators, and business leaders. After that week of special invitations, more than three hundred thousand other visitors walked reverently through this sacred edifice.

A vast amount of newspaper and magazine space was given the temple, and radio and television carried its story far and wide. It is doubtful that any building constructed in the eastern United States in those years attracted so much attention.

Almost without exception, those who came were appreciative and respectful. Many were deeply touched in their hearts. Upon leaving the temple, the wife of the president of the United States commented: “This is a truly great experience for me. … It’s an inspiration to all.”

As I, with others, stood in that sacred edifice day after day shaking hands with many of the honored and respected of the world, two trains of thought repeatedly crossed my mind. The first concerned the past. The second concerned the present and the future.

My mind drifted back 135 years. Our people were then in Commerce, Illinois, homeless and destitute, facing the bitter winter that soon followed. They had been driven from Missouri and had fled across the Mississippi seeking asylum in Illinois. Where the river makes a wide bend, they had purchased a tract of land, beautiful in its location, but so swampy that a team could not cross it without becoming mired in mud. This site, with tremendous effort and great sacrifice, was to become Nauvoo, the Beautiful. But in 1839 it was Commerce, a rendezvous for thousands driven from their homes and now homeless. They had left behind the labors of years—houses and barns, churches and public buildings, and hundreds of productive farms. Moreover, they had left loved ones buried beneath the Missouri sod who had been killed by vicious mobocrats. Destitute now, and dispossessed, unable to get redress from Missouri, they determined to petition the president and Congress of the United States. Joseph Smith and Elias Higbee traveled to Washington.

They left Commerce on 20 October 1839, riding in a light horse-drawn buggy. They arrived in Washington five weeks later. Much of their first day was spent trying to find accommodations they could afford. They noted in a letter to Hyrum Smith: “We found as cheap boarding as can be had in this city” (History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 4:40).

Calling upon the president of the United States, Martin Van Buren, they stated their case. Responded he: “Gentlemen, your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you. … If I take up for you I shall lose the vote of Missouri” (History of the Church, 4:80).

They then appealed to Congress. In the frustrating weeks that followed, Joseph returned to Commerce, much of the way by horseback. Judge Higbee remained to plead their cause, only finally to be told that Congress would do nothing.

How far the Church had come in the respect and confidence of public officials between 1839, when Joseph Smith was repudiated in Washington, and 1974, when the Church and its temple were welcomed and honored! Such, in essence, were the first and last chapters of my thoughts during those beautiful days at the Washington Temple.

Between those two first and final chapters ran the thread of a score of other chapters that spoke of the death of Joseph and Hyrum that sultry day of 27 June 1844; of the sacking of Nauvoo; of long trains of wagons crossing the river into Iowa Territory; of the camps in the snows and mud that fateful spring of 1846; of Winter Quarters on the Missouri, and the black canker, the fevers, and the plague that decimated their ranks; of the call for men to join the army, issued by the same government that earlier had been deaf to their pleas; of the grave-marked trail up the Elkhorn, the Platte, and the Sweetwater, over South Pass, and thence to Salt Lake Valley; of the tens of thousands who left the East and England to thread their way over that long trail, some pulling handcarts and dying in the Wyoming winter; of the endless grubbing of sagebrush in the Utah mountain valleys; of the digging of miles of ditches to lead water to the thirsty soil; of decades of hue and cry against us, born of bigotry; of the deprivation of rights of citizenship under laws enacted in the same Washington and enforced by marshals sent out from the seat of the federal government. Those are among the chapters of our epic history.

Thanks be to God that those harsh days are past. Thanks be to those who remained true while walking through those testing fires. What a price—what a terrible price they paid, of which we are the beneficiaries. We must never forget it, my brothers and sisters. Thanks be for those who through the virtue of their lives have since earned for this people a new measure of respect. Thanks be for a better day, with greater understanding and with wide and generous appreciation extended to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Those were my thoughts as I shook hands with many of the thousands who came to the Washington Temple with curiosity and left with appreciation, some with tears in their eyes.

But those thoughts were largely of the past. There were other thoughts of the present and the future. One day while riding along the beltway in the traffic, I looked with wonder, as must all who travel that highway, at the gleaming spires of the Lord’s house rising heavenward from a hill in the woods. Words of scripture came into my mind, words spoken by the Lord as he stood upon the mount and taught the people. Said he:

“A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.

“Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:14–16; italics added).

This entire people have become as a city upon a hill which cannot be hid. Sometimes we take offense when one who is a member of the Church is involved in a crime and the public press in quick to say that he is a Mormon. We comment among ourselves that if he had been a member of any other church, no mention would have been made of it.

Yet, is not this very practice an indirect compliment to our people? The world expects something better of us, and when one of our number falters, the press is quick to note it. We have, indeed, become as a city upon a hill for the world to see. If we are to be that which the Lord would have us be, we must indeed become “a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that [we] should shew forth the praises of him who hath called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).

Unless the world alters the course of its present trends (and that is not likely); and if, on the other hand, we continue to follow the teaching of the prophets, we shall increasingly become a peculiar and distinctive people of whom the world will take note. For instance, as the integrity of the family crumbles under worldly pressures, our position on the sanctity of the family will become more obvious and even more peculiar in contrast, if we have the faith to maintain that position.

As the growing permissive attitude toward sex continues to spread, the doctrine of the Church, as consistently taught for more than a century and a half, will become increasingly singular and even strange to many.

As the consumption of alcohol and the abuse of drugs increase each year within the mores of our society, our position, set forth by the Lord more than a century and a half ago, will become more unusual before the world.

As government increasingly assumes the burden of caring for all human needs, the independence of our social services and the doctrine which lies behind that position will become more and more important.

As the Sabbath increasingly becomes a day of merchandising and entertainment, those who obey the precept of the law, written by the finger of the Lord on Sinai and reinforced by modern revelation, will appear more unusual.

It is not always easy to live in the world and not be a part of it. We cannot live entirely with our own or unto ourselves, nor would we wish to. We must mingle with others. In so doing, we can be gracious. We can be inoffensive. We can avoid any spirit or attitude of self-righteousness. But we can maintain our standards. The natural tendency will be otherwise, and many have succumbed to it.

In 1856, when the Latter-day Saints were largely alone in the Western valleys, some people thought we were safe from the ways of the world. To such talk, President Heber C. Kimball of the First Presidency responded: “I want to say to you, my brethren, the time is coming when we will be mixed up in these now peaceful valleys to that extent that it will be difficult to tell the face of a Saint from the face of an enemy to the people of God. Then, brethren,” he went on, “look out for the great sieve, for there will be a great sifting time, and many will fall; for I say unto you there is a test, a Test, a TEST coming, and who will be able to stand?” (Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball Bookcraft, 1945, page 446).

I do not know precisely the nature of that test. But I am inclined to think that time is here and that the test lies in our capacity to live the gospel rather than to adopt the ways of the world.

I do not advocate a retreat from society. On the contrary, we have a responsibility and a challenge to take our places in the world of business, science, government, medicine, education, and every other worthwhile and constructive vocation. We have an obligation to train our hands and minds to excel in the work of the world for the blessing of all mankind. In so doing we must work with others. But this does not require a surrender of standards.

We can maintain the integrity of our families if we will follow the counsel of our leaders. As we do so, those about us will observe with respect and be led to inquire how it is done.

We can oppose the tide of pornography and lasciviousness, which is destroying the very fiber of nations. We can avoid partaking of alcoholic beverages and drugs and stand solidly for measures designed to lessen their use. As we do so, we shall find others who feel as we do and will join hands in the battle.

We can more fully care for our own who may be in need rather than pass the burden to government and thereby preserve the independence and dignity of those who must have and are entitled to help.

We can refrain from buying on the Sabbath day. With six other days in the week, none of us needs to buy furniture on Sunday. None of us needs to buy clothing on Sunday. With a little careful planning we can easily avoid the purchase of groceries on Sunday.

As we observe these and other standards taught by the Church, many in the world will respect us and find strength to follow that which they too know is right.

And, in the words of Isaiah, “Many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths” (Isa. 2:3).

We need not compromise. We must not compromise. The candle that the Lord has lighted in this dispensation can become as a light unto the whole world, and others seeing our good works can be led to glorify our Father in Heaven and emulate in their own lives the examples they have observed in ours.

Beginning with you and me, there can be an entire people who, by the virtue of our lives in our homes, in our vocations, even in our amusements, can become as a city upon a hill to which men may look and learn, and an ensign to the nations from which the people of the earth may gather strength.

Discussion Helps for Home Teachers

  1. 1.

    Unless the world alters its course, says President Hinckley, “we shall increasingly be seen as a peculiar and distinctive people.”

  2. 2.

    It is not always easy to live in the world and not be part of it. “But we can maintain our standards.”

  3. 3.

    What can we do to let our “light so shine” before men?

[illustrations] Illustrated by Max Dixon Weaver