It is a tremendous challenge to speak to a gathering of this kind. I suppose that the congregation tonight may approach a half million boys and men, every one of whom has been ordained to the priesthood of God. Peter described this great body as “a royal priesthood” (see 1 Pet. 2:9), and so we are when we live up to the high and exacting standards expected of those who act for God our Eternal Father in that authority which has come through the Lord Jesus Christ.
I suppose none of us can really comprehend the magnitude of the power that lies within this tremendous body. Wilford Woodruff on one occasion described his experience in April 1834, four years after the Church was organized. It occurred in Kirtland, Ohio. The Prophet Joseph called a priesthood meeting. All of the brethren who then held the priesthood gathered in a small cabin. There were only a few high priests, no Apostles or seventies, and only a few elders. The small number who assembled in one small room of a log cabin has now grown to a point where we have nearly one million holders of the Aaronic Priesthood and 900,000 holders of the Melchizedek Priesthood.
Kirtland, then the major location of the Saints, was a small place. Now, 158 years later, we have become a mighty congregation spread over the earth. I recently had the experience of meeting with holders of the priesthood in Madrid, Spain; followed by Rome, Italy; followed by Geneva, Switzerland; followed by Odense, Denmark, to which central place the members in Copenhagen and other Danish cities gathered. In each area a different language is spoken. The brethren of those four places each salute a different flag and are citizens of a different nation. But they all have one great thing in common. They are bound together by the cord of the brotherhood of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Each is a man upon whose head hands have been laid, and each has received a bestowal of divine authority.
I am told that we now have members in 138 different political entities. Think of that. In every place where this work has been planted, it has been necessary to establish a priesthood base on which to build. In some places it has begun with the father of a family who gathered his wife and children about him to worship on the Sabbath day. From such small beginnings have grown strong congregations, eventually becoming wards and stakes of Zion.
The first time I visited Rome, there was not another Latter-day Saint in all of Italy of which we were aware. Now there are men of strength and capacity, men of faith and love for the Lord. Strong stakes are now found in that nation.
When we opened the work in the Philippines in 1961, our little meeting included one native Filipino member of the Church. Today, there are 263,000 members of record in that nation, organized into forty-four stakes of Zion, with many buildings and a beautiful temple. It is all a process of finding and teaching men who are amenable to the Holy Spirit. They accept baptism, a few of them. They remain faithful and grow in knowledge and understanding, and before many years have passed, we have bishops and stake presidents, mission presidents, patriarchs, temple presidents. It is the wondrous miracle of this work.
Of course, faithful women have been an essential part of all of this. They have done tremendous work. They have made remarkable contributions. But with all that, it has been necessary to find men, to teach men, to baptize men, to nurture them and train them and qualify them for positions of leadership.
In the revelation which we know as section 1 in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord declares that one of the reasons for the restoration of the gospel is that “every man might speak in the name of God the Lord, even the Savior of the world” (D&C 1:20).
He is here speaking of the priesthood, His priesthood. This is the objective of our work, that every man might speak in His name.
The sad and regrettable thing is that all of those who have been ordained to the priesthood have not kept faith with the authority bestowed upon them. They have continued to hold in name an office in the priesthood, but because of indifference or transgression, they have lost the power to act in that office. All of us, every one of us, ought to acknowledge that such a thing could happen to any of us unless we are constantly on the alert to keep our lives in harmony with the principles of the gospel.
I think of Oliver Cowdery. Here was a man who gave up his work as a teacher to go to assist the Prophet Joseph Smith in the translation of the Book of Mormon. While so serving, a question arose concerning baptism. The answer to their prayer was the bestowal of the Aaronic Priesthood under the hands of John the Baptist.
It was Oliver Cowdery also who, in company with the Prophet Joseph Smith, experienced the laying on of hands of Peter, James, and John, the Apostles who had received the priesthood from the Lord Himself while in mortality. It was Oliver Cowdery who became a witness of the plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated. He became the second elder in the Church. He was one of the three who were asked by the Prophet to seek out the first Twelve Apostles in this dispensation. He instructed them in words that ring with power down to this day.
And yet this same Oliver Cowdery let a few trivial things get in his way. He became disaffected and sullen and critical of Joseph Smith. The spirit of apostasy gnawed at him until he left the Church.
He later came back, asking only to be accepted as a member. Of him Wilford Woodruff declared:
“I have seen Oliver Cowdery when it seemed as though the earth trembled under his feet. I never heard a man bear a stronger testimony than he did when under the influence of the Spirit. But the moment he left the kingdom of God, that moment his power fell like lightning from Heaven. He was shorn of his strength like Samson in the lap of Delilah. He lost the power and the testimony which he had enjoyed, and he never recovered it again in its fulness while in the flesh, although he died in the Church” (Stanley R. Gunn, Oliver Cowdery—Second Elder and Scribe, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1962, page 73).
Thomas B. Marsh was the senior member of the first Quorum of the Twelve. The Lord spoke to him in revelation. He was a man of great power and capacity. Then he became involved in a quarrel between his wife and a Sister Harris over a few pints of cream. Before long, he was out of harmony with his Brethren of the Twelve and was eventually out of the Church. For nineteen long years he walked in bitterness, loneliness, and poverty, this once-powerful man who held the holy apostleship and presided over the Council of the Twelve.
I have seen in my own time men who were strong and powerful advocates of this great cause, men who bore the priesthood with dignity and power. But in some cases they became careless, in other cases they fell into transgression, and in yet other instances became proud and headstrong.
Tremendous are the promises of the Lord to those who magnify their callings in these priesthoods. I can picture in my mind the occasion when as a boy I was in this tabernacle and heard President Heber J. Grant read these great words from section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants:
“How long can rolling waters remain impure? What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints” (D&C 121:33).
Then he went on to quote further concerning this principle which pertains to those who have been ordained to the priesthood of God:
“Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?
“Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—
“That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness” (D&C 121:34–36).
Every one of us who holds this divine power must recognize this transcendent truth—that those powers of heaven which are associated with the priesthood “cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.”
“That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
“Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God” (D&C 121:37–38).
I wish to emphasize, brethren, that although we may continue to hold the office, we may lose the power. Many men seem to think that because they have been ordained, the priesthood is theirs in perpetuity to exercise as they choose. They feel they can break a covenant and a commandment here and there, and sin in this way or that, and yet still have within themselves the power of the priesthood and that God will ratify that which they speak in His holy name and in the name of the Redeemer. This becomes mockery, and I believe that in such an exercise, they take the name of God in vain. They profane the name of His Beloved Son. They desecrate the sacred gift which came through ordination, and the authority which they have lost because of transgression.
It is the Lord who said that it will be “Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man” who indulges in sin, who walks with pride, whose demeanor is one of vain ambition, or who seeks to exercise control in any degree of unrighteousness.
There are enemies to this work today as there have been in the past. Among them are those who, by every conceivable scheme and artifice, belittle leaders of the Church, past and present, and seek to tear down the kingdom. Who are they? Among the most clever are men who once were ordained to the priesthood. But because of their behavior they have lost all of the priesthood authority they might have kept. It is verily true that having been left unto themselves, they kick against the pricks, they persecute the Saints, and they fight against God.
Brethren, I do not wish to be negative. But I lift a warning voice to all, boys and men, to shun sin. Transgression is incompatible with divine authority. Avoid pornography as you would avoid the plague. Avoid sexual sin of any degree. Shun dishonesty and deceit. I plead with you to rein in any element of pride or vain ambition. I ask you to look into yourselves to see that there is no attitude of dominion or compulsion over your wives or your children, remembering always that “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
“By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile” (D&C 121:41–42).
We are reminded of “the oath and covenant of the priesthood” as set forth in section 84 [D&C 84]. I am satisfied that our Father in Heaven is not pleased with any man or boy who accepts ordination and then indulges in evil. In the very process of accepting ordination he enters into an oath and covenant between himself and his God.
How magnificent a figure, how royal a character is a man who has been ordained to that priesthood which is called Melchizedek after the great high priest of Salem, who walks with dignity and yet with humility before his God, who lives with respect and appreciation for his associates, who turns his back upon the temptations of the adversary, who becomes a true patriarch in his home, a man of kindness and love, who recognizes his wife as his companion and a daughter of God and his children as those for whom he has a God-given responsibility to nurture and lead in righteousness and truth. Such a man need never hang his head in shame. He lives without regret. Men may speak of him as they will, but he knows that God knows his heart and that it is pure and unsullied.
I would hope that every man and boy who is in this vast congregation tonight will leave this meeting, wherever you may be, with a firm resolve to live more worthy of membership in this great royal society, different from every other society on the face of the earth. Be your wealth great or small, that is of no consequence in the sight of God. Be your position in the world lofty or of seemingly small consequence, it matters not. For we are reminded that the Lord looketh not upon the outward appearance but on the heart. (See 1 Sam. 16:7.)
In closing, I lay upon each of us the charge given by David to his son Solomon:
“Be thou strong therefore, and shew thyself a man;
“And keep the charge of the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, and his commandments, and his judgments, and his testimonies, … that thou mayest prosper in all that thou doest, and whithersoever thou turnest thyself” (1 Kgs. 2:2–3).
Brethren, this is the work of the Lord. It will never fail. It will become ever stronger so long as there are men who receive the priesthood of God, and who walk in His ways, keep His statutes, His commandments, His judgments, and His testimonies.
God bless you, my beloved brethren. I leave with you my witness of the reality and power of the divinely given authority which we hold. It is an endowment unique in all the world. It is a royal priesthood. It comes as a gift from God, who will exact from each of us an accounting of the manner in which we use it. I leave my love and blessing with you in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.