In one of the most classic confrontations in the Bible, the Lord asked Cain, “Where is Abel thy brother?” Cain answered, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9). I put to each of us that same query: Are we our brother’s keeper? King Benjamin taught, “Ye will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another” (Mosiah 4:15). One of the great transcending principles that we teach in the Church is that we’re trying to meet the needs of others. We talk frequently about service. Why?
The needs of the Saints aren’t any different from those of anyone else, because we’re just people, and our needs are, above all else, primarily spiritual. Elder Marion D. Hanks once said to a celebrated psychiatrist, “In a word, tell me what you do for people.” The psychiatrist said, “In a word, what I do for people is to try to convince them that God loves them.” Love is the first great need. How do we know that? Because the Lord said so. The first commandment is to love God and serve Him, and the second is like unto it: love our fellowmen and serve them (see Matt. 22:37–39). So we know that one of the first principles of the gospel has to be service.
King Benjamin asked, “Ought not ye to labor to serve one another?” (Mosiah 2:18). And we will have learned the wisest answer to that question when we learn that “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17).
Are we our brother’s keeper? In Galatians, Paul told the Saints that they should love and serve one another (see Gal. 5:13–14). In James, pure religion and undefiled before God is spelled out: “To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (James 1:27). And who can forget the great message that Peter gave outside the gates of the temple when the lame beggar pleaded for alms: “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee” (Acts 3:6).
The 81st section of the Doctrine and Covenants says, “Succor the weak,” and I like this language: “Lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5). The Doctrine and Covenants also reminds us of the judgment by which we are all judged: “Remember in all things the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted, for he that doeth not these things, the same is not my disciple” (D&C 52:40). Are we our brother’s keeper?
President Harold B. Lee, in the April 1973 general conference, told of a great revelation. He said: “It was just before the dedication of the Los Angeles Temple. We were all preparing for that great occasion. It was something new in my life, when along about three or four o’clock in the morning, I enjoyed an experience that I think was not a dream, but it must have been a vision. It seemed that I was witnessing a great spiritual gathering, where men and women were standing up, two or three at a time, and speaking in tongues. The spirit was so unusual. I seemed to have heard the voice of President David O. McKay say, ‘If you want to love God, you have to learn to love and serve the people. That is the way you show your love for God.’”1
Are we our brother’s keeper? Yes! Let’s look at an experience from our Church history that illustrates this great principle.
John Chislett, a subcaptain in the Willie Company, one of the pioneer handcart companies, wrote:
“We reached [Fort] Laramie about the 1st or 2nd of September, but the provisions, etc., which we expected, were not there for us. Captain Willie called a meeting to take into consideration our circumstances, conditions, and prospects, and to see what could be done. It was ascertained that at our present rate of travel and consumption of flour the latter would be exhausted when we were about three hundred and fifty miles from our destin[a]tion. It was resolved to reduce our allowance from one pound to three-quarters of a pound per day, and at the same time to make every effort in our power to travel faster. We continued this rate of rations from Laramie to Independence Rock.
“About this time Captain Willie received a letter from Apostle [Willard] Richards informing him that we might expect supplies to meet us from the valley by the time we reached South Pass. An examination of our stock of flour showed us that it would be gone before we reached that point. Our only alternative was to still further reduce our bill of fare. The issue of flour was then to average ten ounces per day. …
“We had not travelled far up the Sweetwater before the nights, which had gradually been getting colder since we left Laramie, became very severe. The mountains before us, as we approached nearer to them, revealed themselves to view mantled nearly to their base in snow, and tokens of a coming storm were discernable in the clouds which each day seemed to lower around us. …
“Our seventeen pounds of clothing and bedding was now altogether insufficient for our comfort. Nearly all suffered more or less at night from cold. Instead of getting up in the morning strong, refreshed, vigorous, and prepared for the hardships of another day of toil, the poor Saints were to be seen crawling out from their tents haggard, benumbed, and showing an utter lack of that vitality so necessary to our success.
“Cold weather, scarcity of food, lassitude and fatigue from over-exertion, soon produced their effects. Our old and infirm people began to droop, and they no sooner lost spirit and courage than death’s stamp could be traced upon their features. Life went out as smoothly as a lamp ceases to burn when the oil is gone. At first the deaths occurred slowly and irregularly, but in a few days at more frequent intervals, until we soon thought it unusual to leave a campground without burying one or more persons.
“Death was not long confined in its ravages to the old and infirm, but the young and naturally strong were among its victims. … Many a father pulled his cart, with his little children on it, until the day preceding his death. I have seen some pull their carts in the morning, give out during the day, and die before next morning. …
“We travelled on in misery and sorrow day after day. Sometimes we made a pretty good distance, but at other times we were only able to make a few miles progress. Finally we were overtaken by a snowstorm which the shrill wind blew furiously about us. …
“In the morning the snow was over a foot deep. Our cattle strayed widely during the storm, and some of them died. But what was worse to us than all this was the fact that five persons of both sexes lay in the cold embrace of death.
“The morning before the storm, or, rather, the morning of the day on which it came, we issued the last ration of flour. On this fatal morning, therefore, we had none to issue. We had, however, a barrel or two of hard bread which Captain Willie had procured at Fort Laramie in view of our destitution. This was equally and fairly divided among all the company. …
“Being surrounded by snow a foot deep, out of provisions, many of our people sick, and our cattle dying, it was decided that we should remain in our present camp until the supply train reached us. … The scanty allowance of hard bread and poor beef, distributed as described, was mostly eaten the first day by the hungry, ravenous, famished souls.
“We killed more cattle and issued the meat; but, eating it without bread, did not satisfy hunger, and to those who were suffering from dysent[e]ry it did more harm than good. This terrible disease increased rapidly amongst us during these three days, and several died from exhaustion. … The recollection of it unmans me even now—those three days! During that time I visited the sick, the widows whose husbands died in serving them, and the aged who could not help themselves, to know for myself where to dispense the few articles that had been placed in my charge for distribution. Such craving hunger I never saw before, and may God in his mercy spare me the sight again.”2
In that company was a Mrs. Jackson. She said:
“About nine o’clock I retired. Bedding had become very scarce so I did not disrobe. I slept until, as it appeared to me, about midnight. I was extremely cold. The weather was bitter. I listened to hear if my husband breathed, he lay so still. I could not hear him. I became alarmed. I put my hand on his body, when to my horror I discovered that my worst fears were confirmed. My husband was dead. I called for help to the other inmates of the tent. They could render me no aid; and there was no alternative but to remain alone by the side of the corpse till morning. Oh, how the dreary hours drew their tedious length along. When daylight came, some of the male part of the company prepared the body for burial. And oh, such a burial and funeral service. They did not remove his clothing—he had but little. They wrapped him in a blanket and placed him in a pile with thirteen others who had died, and then covered him up with snow. The ground was frozen so hard that they could not dig a grave. He was left there to sleep in peace until the trump of God shall sound, and the dead in Christ shall awake and come forth in the morning of the first resurrection. …
“A few days after the death of my husband … the male members of the company had become reduced in number by death and those who remained were so weak and emaciated by sickness, that on reaching the camping place at night, there were not sufficient men with strength enough to raise the poles and pitch the tents. The result was that we camped out with nothing but the vault of Heaven for a roof and the stars for companions. The snow lay several inches deep upon the ground. The night was bitterly cold. I sat down on a rock with one child in my lap and one on each side of me. In that condition I remained until morning.”3
At this point a dispatch was sent to President Brigham Young from Captain Grant, who was one of the forward scouts, and this is what it said:
“It is not much use for me to attempt to give a description of the situation of these people, for this you will learn from your son Joseph A. and [Brother] Garr, who are the bearers of this express; but you can imagine between five and six hundred men, women and children, worn down by drawing handcarts through snow and mud; fainting by the wayside; falling, chilled by the cold; children crying, their limbs stiffened by cold, their feet bleeding and some of them bare to snow and frost. The sight is almost too much for the stoutest of us.”4
In Salt Lake City, at general conference on 5 October 1856, this is what President Brigham Young said:
“Many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with handcarts, and probably many are now seven hundred miles [1,100 kilometers] from this place, and they must be brought here, we must send assistance to them. …
“I shall call upon the Bishops this day. I shall not wait until tomorrow, nor until the next day, for 60 good mule teams and 12 or 15 wagons. I do not want to send oxen. I want good horses and mules. They are in this Territory, and we must have them. Also 12 tons [11 tonnes] of flour and 40 good teamsters, besides those that drive the teams. … First, 40 good young men who know how to drive teams, to take charge of the teams that are now managed by men, women and children who know nothing about driving them. Second, 60 or 65 good spans of mules, or horses, with harness, whipple trees, neck-yokes, stretchers, lead chains, &c. And thirdly, 24 thousand pounds [11,000 kilograms] of flour, which we have on hand. …
“I will tell you all that your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the Celestial Kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the plains. And attend strictly to those things which we call temporal, or temporal duties. Otherwise, your faith will be in vain. The preaching you have heard will be in vain to you, and you will sink to Hell, unless you attend to the things we tell you.”5
In the meantime, the Willie Company had received word that a train of supplies was on the way, and Captain Willie and one other man were sent out in search of the supply train and to hasten its rescue mission to the stranded Saints. John Chislett wrote:
“On the evening of the third day (October 21) after Captain Willie’s departure, just as the sun was sinking beautifully behind the distant hills, on an eminence immediately west of our camp several covered wagons, each drawn by four horses were seen coming towards us. The news ran through the camp like wildfire, and all who were able to leave their beds turned out en masse to see them. A few minutes brought them sufficiently near to reveal our faithful captain slightly in advance of the train. Shouts of joy rent the air; strong men wept till tears ran freely down their furrowed and sun-burnt cheeks, and little children partook of the joy which some of them hardly understood, and fairly danced around with gladness. Restraint was set aside in the general rejoicing, and as the brethren entered our camp the sisters fell upon them and deluged them with kisses.”6
Now, as the sufferers got closer to the Salt Lake Valley, President Brigham Young again convened the Saints in the Tabernacle and said:
“When those persons arrive I do not want to see them put into houses by themselves; I want to have them distributed in the city among the families that have good and comfortable houses; and I wish all the sisters now before me, and all who know how and can, to nurse and wait upon the new comers and prudently administer medicine and food to them. To speak upon these things is a part of my religion, for it pertains to taking care of the Saints. …
“The afternoon meeting will be omitted, for I wish the sisters to go home and prepare to give those who have just arrived a mouthful of something to eat, and to wash them and nurse them up. You know that I would give more for a dish of pudding and milk, or a baked potato and salt, were I in the situation of those persons who have just come in, than I would for all your prayers, though you were to stay here all the afternoon and pray. Prayer is good, but when baked potatoes and pudding and milk are needed, prayer will not supply their place on this occasion; give every duty its proper time and place. …
“Some you will find with their feet frozen to their ankles; some are frozen to their knees and some have their hands frosted. … We want you to receive them as your own children, and to have the same feeling for them. We are their temporal saviors, for we have saved them from death.”7
Now, I think our prophet today is telling all of us, in this day and time, to go and bring in those people who are out on the plains. Each worthy young man should go on a mission. And each one of us, though we may not be called to active missionary service, can be on a mission and be involved in a cause that is greater than we are, the greatest cause of all in the world: the salvation of each of our Father’s children.
I am impressed with what President Gordon B. Hinckley said about this event in the October 1996 general conference: “Wonderful sermons have been preached from this pulpit, my brethren and sisters. But none has been more eloquent than that spoken by President Young in those circumstances.
“Stories of the beleaguered Saints and of their suffering and death will be repeated again and again next year. Stories of their rescue need to be repeated again and again. They speak of the very essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“I am grateful that those days of pioneering are behind us. I am thankful that we do not have brethren and sisters stranded in the snow, freezing and dying, while trying to get to this, their Zion in the mountains. But there are people, not a few, whose circumstances are desperate and who cry out for help and relief.
“There are so many who are hungry and destitute across this world who need help. I am grateful to be able to say that we are assisting many who are not of our faith but whose needs are serious and whom we have the resources to help. But we need not go so far afield. We have some of our own who cry out in pain and suffering and loneliness and fear. Ours is a great and solemn duty to reach out and help them, to lift them, to feed them if they are hungry, to nurture their spirits if they thirst for truth and righteousness.
“There are so many young people who wander aimlessly and walk the tragic trail of drugs, gangs, immorality, and the whole brood of ills that accompany these things. There are widows who long for friendly voices and that spirit of anxious concern which speaks of love. There are those who were once warm in the faith, but whose faith has grown cold. Many of them wish to come back but do not know quite how to do it. They need friendly hands reaching out to them. With a little effort, many of them can be brought back to feast again at the table of the Lord.
“My brethren and sisters, I would hope, I would pray, that each of us … would resolve to seek those who need help, who are in desperate and difficult circumstances, and lift them in the spirit of love into the embrace of the Church, where strong hands and loving hearts will warm them, comfort them, sustain them, and put them on the way of happy and productive lives.”8
May each of us resolve to serve our fellowman. And may our Heavenly Father make us equal to the great followership that is required of us, and help us to go and bring in those who are now “on the plains.”
One of the transcending principles we teach in the Church is that of trying to meet the needs of others.
There are numerous examples in scripture and in Church history that illustrate the great principle of service.
Today, President Hinckley is encouraging us to seek out:
Young people who wander aimlessly and walk the tragic trail of drugs, gangs, and immorality.
Widows, widowers, and single adults who long for friendly voices.
Those who are hungry and destitute materially and spiritually.
All who are in difficult circumstances and need to be lifted in the spirit of love.