During his administration from 1901 to 1918, President Joseph F. Smith became increasingly concerned about the encroachment of worldly influences into the lives of the Latter-day Saints. He was not blind to the worldly ways around him. He observed the immodesty, he heard the profanity, and he sorrowed at many of the social practices that were prevalent. He urged the Saints to exercise self-mastery in facing these influences and to live lives of morality, virtue, and purity.
The importance of restraint in the Saints’ amusements and social pastimes and the evils of profanity, gambling, backbiting, and immodesty were all subjects about which he spoke. In September 1916 the First Presidency sent a letter to the auxiliary organizations of the Church stating that “there exists a pressing need of improvement and reform among our young people, specifically in the matter of dress and in their social customs and practices” and charging these organizations to take action to create a reformation in these matters.1
While giving instructions to these organizations, he also recognized that “home influences … above all others, should direct in moral, social and dress reforms. The home should lead in the work being done by the organizations which are only auxiliary to the home.”2
He cautioned: “Our first enemy we will find within ourselves. It is a good thing to overcome that enemy first and bring ourselves into subjection to the will of the Father, and into strict obedience to the principles of life and salvation which he has given to the world for the salvation of men.”3
It seems to me that the example which was set to us by our Savior is the example we should seek to follow. Did He [misuse] His intelligence for the gratification of the lusts of the flesh? Or did He go about doing good—healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, giving speech to the dumb, hearing to the deaf, cleansing the lepers, forgiving sin, relieving the distressed? Was not that the example He set before the world? Was not that the course He commanded His disciples to pursue? I think it was. There is something in such a course that is praiseworthy and noble. It will bring true and lasting pleasure; while the pleasures of the world are only temporary and fleeting.4
No man is safe unless he is master of himself; and there is no tyrant more merciless or more to be dreaded than an uncontrollable appetite or passion. We will find that if we give way to the groveling appetites of the flesh and follow them up, that the end will be invariably bitter, injurious and sorrowful, both to the individual and society. It is hurtful in example as well as in its individual effects; dangerous and hurtful to the unwary; while the denial of these appetites … and an aspiration for something noble; whenever possible, doing good to our fellow creatures, hoping for the future, laying up treasures in heaven, where moth and rust cannot corrupt, and where thieves cannot break through and steal [see Matthew 6:19–20]—all these things will bring everlasting happiness; happiness for this world and the world to come.5
For my part I do not fear the influence of our enemies from without, as I fear that of those from within. An open and avowed enemy, whom we may see and meet in an open field, is far less to be feared than a lurking, deceitful, treacherous enemy hidden within us, such as are many of the weaknesses of our fallen human nature, which are too often allowed to go unchecked, beclouding our minds, leading away our affections from God and his truth, until they sap the very foundations of our faith and debase us beyond the possibility or hope of redemption, either in this world or that to come. These are the enemies that we all have to battle with, they are the greatest that we have to contend with in the world, and the most difficult to conquer. They are the fruits of ignorance, generally arising out of unrebuked sin and evil in our own hearts. The labor that is upon us is to subdue our passions, conquer our inward foes, and see that our hearts are right in the sight of the Lord, that there is nothing calculated to grieve his Spirit and lead us away from the path of duty.6
Many are lovers of pleasure and lust more than lovers of God. They delight in the lusts of the flesh, the gratification of their appetites, having virulent desires, living in corruption, debauchery, revelry and all manner of wickedness. Many people do not know how to be happy, not knowing how to use the blessings that God has given unto them. If they had all the world, they would use it for the gratification of their own base passions and desires, to their own destruction. But if they possessed the right spirit, they would seek to promote the peace and happiness of mankind and extend the influence of the Gospel of light and truth to all the world. They would love purity, virtue, honesty, sobriety and righteousness.7
Tell me what amusements you like best and whether your amusements have become a ruling passion in your life, and I will tell you what you are.8
Our amusements should be characterized by their wholesome social environments. We should have proper regard to the character of those with whom we associate in places of amusement; and we should be governed by a high sense of responsibility to our parents, to our friends and to the Church. We should know that the pleasures which we enjoy are such as have upon them the stamp of divine approval. … Amusements which, in themselves, and in commendable social surroundings, may be proper and wholesome, should be avoided unless associates are unquestionable and the places are reputable and are conducted under proper restraints.
There are limits in our recreations beyond which we cannot safely go. They should be guarded in character and curtailed in frequency to avoid excess. They should not occupy all, nor even the greater part of our time; indeed, they should be made incidental to the duties and obligations of life, and never be made a controlling motive or factor in our hopes and ambitions.9
All excess is detrimental. Temperance should govern in everything. Amusement is not the purpose of life, it should be indulged in only by way of variety. When people accustom themselves to constant or oft-repeated rounds of pleasure, the true objects of human existence are forgotten and duty becomes irksome and detestable.10
We should stamp out profanity, and vulgarity, and everything of that character that exists among us; for all such things are incompatible with the gospel and inconsistent with the people of God.11
Language, like thought, makes its impression and is recalled by the memory in a way that may be unpleasant if not harmful to those who have been compelled to listen to unseemly words. Thoughts that in themselves are not proper may be exalted or debased by the language used to express them. If inelegant expressions should be eschewed, what shall be said of profanity?12
The habit … which some young people fall into, of using vulgarity and profanity … is not only offensive to all well-bred persons, but it is a gross sin in the sight of God, and should not exist among the children of the Latter-day Saints.13
I say to the fathers and mothers of Israel, and to the boys who have been born in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: I say it to men and boys throughout the world, as far as my words may go—I plead with you, I implore you not to offend the Lord, nor to offend honorable men and women, by the use of profanity.14
Among the vices of the present age gambling is very generally condemned. … Nevertheless, in numerous guises the demon of chance is welcomed in the home, in fashionable clubs, and at entertainments for worthy charities, even within the precincts of sacred edifices. …
The desire to get something of value for little or nothing is pernicious; and any proceeding that strengthens that desire is an effective aid to the gambling spirit, which has proved a veritable demon of destruction to thousands. Risking a dime in the hope of winning a dollar in any game of chance is a species of gambling.15
In a letter recently received by me, the following request and question were submitted for my opinion: “I would like you to define backbiting. There seems to be a difference of opinion respecting the meaning of the term. Some claim that so long as you speak the truth about a person, it is not backbiting, no matter what you say or how you say it. Would it not be better, if we knew a person had faults, to go to him privately and labor with him, than to go to others and speak of his faults?”
Nothing could be farther from the spirit and genius of the gospel than to suppose that we are always justified in speaking the truth about a person, however harmful the truth to him may be. The gospel teaches us the fundamental principles of repentance, and we have no right to discredit a man in the estimation of his fellowmen when he has truly repented and God has forgiven him. …
As a rule, it is not necessary to be constantly offering advice to those who in our judgment are possessed of some fault. In the first place, our judgments may be in error, and in the second place, we may be dealing with a man who is strongly imbued with the spirit of repentance, and who, conscious of his weakness, is constantly struggling to overcome it. The utmost care, therefore, should be observed in all our language that implies a reproach of others. As a general rule, backbiting is better determined by the spirit and purpose that actuate us in speaking of things we consider faults in others than in the words themselves.
A man or woman who possesses the Spirit of God will soon detect in his or her own feelings the spirit of backbiting, as that spirit is present in the remarks that are made concerning others. The question of backbiting, therefore, is probably best determined by the ancient rule that, “the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.” [2 Corinthians 3:6.]16
Immodesty in dress should be frowned down by parents and all decent people. The shameless exhibitions of the human form purposely presented in modern styles of dress, or rather undress, are indications of that sensuous and debasing tendency toward moral laxity and social corruption which have hurried nations into irretrievable ruin. Let not the brilliant prospects of a glorious millennium be clouded with such shadows as are threatened by customs and costumes and diversions of these licentious days.17
In my sight the present-day fashions are abominable, suggestive of evil, calculated to arouse base passion and lust, and to engender lasciviousness, in the hearts of those who follow the fashions, and of those who tolerate them. … It is infamous, and I hope the daughters of Zion will not descend to these pernicious ways, customs and fashions, for they are demoralizing and damnable in their effect.18
We hear it reported, from time to time, that some … mutilate their garments, rather than to keep them holy and undefiled. … We see some of our good sisters coming here to the temple occasionally decorated in the latest and most ridiculous fashions that ever disgraced the human form divine. They do not seem to realize that they are coming to the house of God.19
We think it timely to draw attention to the subject of dancing parties, a diversion permitted to Latter-day Saints, but under certain rules that ought to be strictly observed. … Intoxicants should be barred entirely from dancing halls and their vicinity. Those dances that require or permit the close embrace and suggestive movements … ought to be utterly prohibited.20
Books constitute a sort of companionship to everyone who reads, and they create within the heart feelings either for good or for bad. It sometimes happens that parents are very careful about the company which their children keep and are very indifferent about the books they read. In the end the reading of a bad book will bring about evil associates.
It is not only the boy who reads this strange, weird and unnatural exciting literature who is affected by its influence, but in time he influences others. This literature becomes the mother of all sorts of evil suggestions that ripen into evil practices and bring about an unnatural and debased feeling which is ever crowding out the good in the human heart and giving place to the bad. … When our children are reading books that are creating strange and unusual and undesirable thoughts in their minds we need not be surprised to learn that they have committed some unusual, some strange, or unnatural act. It is in the thoughts and feelings that we have to combat the evils and temptations of the world, and the purification of our thoughts and feelings should be made the special effort of every father and mother. …
A story is told of an English officer in India, who one day went to the book shelf to take down a book. As he reached his hand up over the volume his finger was bitten by an adder. After a few hours the finger began to swell. Later on the swelling went into his arm, and finally the whole body was affected, and in a few days the officer was dead. There are adders concealed in many a cheap and trashy book. … Their effects upon our souls are poisonous, and in time they are sure to produce a moral and spiritual death. … Let the Saints beware of the books that enter their homes, for their influences may be as poisonous and deadly as the adder which brought death to the English officer in India.21
It is only by obedience to the laws of God that men can rise above the petty weaknesses of mortality and exercise that breadth of affection, that charity and love, that should actuate the hearts and the motives of the children of men. The gospel as it has been restored is intended to make [people] free indeed, free to choose the good and forsake the evil, free to exercise that boldness in their choice of that which is good, by which they are convinced of right, notwithstanding the great majority of the people of the world may point at them the finger of scorn and ridicule. It requires no especial bravery on the part of men to swim with the currents of the world.22
The Lord bless you my brethren and sisters. We endorse any movement looking to temperance, looking to virtue tending to purity of life and to faith in God and obedience to His laws. …
… What manner of people ought we to be; what manner of individuals should we be? Should we not set an example worthy of our profession? Should we not live pure lives? Should we not be upright, virtuous, honest, God-fearing and God-loving in our souls every day of our lives and in every position in which we may be called to act; ought we not to set an example for good? Ought we not to be Christ-like, manly, true to every principle of the Gospel, and honorable out in the world and at home … ? That is indeed the kind of people we ought to be. God help us to be such is my prayer.23
In what ways did the Savior set an example of self-mastery? What is the “enemy we will find within ourselves”? (See also Mosiah 3:19.) How can we follow the Savior’s example in conquering this enemy?
When we are not masters of ourselves, how can we hurt ourselves and others? When we are masters of ourselves, how can we bless others?
How might amusements become a “ruling passion” in our lives? How might they reveal what we are? What role should amusements play in our lives?
Why is “using vulgarity and profanity … a gross sin in the sight of God”? If those around you are using profanity, how might you let them know that it is offensive to you?
Why is backbiting contrary to the spirit of the gospel? What course of action should we take rather than speaking about the faults of others?
How does dressing modestly encourage righteous living? How can some of today’s fashions be “suggestive of evil” and “demoralizing” in their effect?
How does President Smith’s counsel about books apply to today’s entertainment, such as video presentations, music, television, movies, magazines, and the Internet? (See also D&C 88:118.) In what ways is bravery required if we are to swim against “the currents of the world”?
How would you answer the question, “What manner of people ought we to be”? (See also 3 Nephi 27:27.)