It was one of those rare Sunday mornings when, for a very special reason, I happened to be at home in my own ward. We sat on the last row, and our only son, a tall, fine young man, walked, at the invitation of the bishop, up the aisle and stood by the pulpit. The bishop spoke about my son and presented him to the congregation for their sustaining vote to his advancement in the Aaronic Priesthood. We all voted, and later I had the great privilege, at the invitation of the bishop, to ordain my son. Later, at lunch, he was telling his sisters about the events of that morning. He said it was kind of scary walking up that aisle and standing up before the congregation all alone with the bishop. But he said, “When they voted, I looked down and saw Dad’s hand higher than all the rest, and I felt all right.” And he was right. I had hoisted my hand just as high as I could get it. He is my son, you see—and that is how I feel about him. The relationship between fathers and sons is a very special one.
Of course, while I refer to the teachings of fathers, I do not, as the Lord does not, and as life indeed does not, confine that responsibility and blessing to fathers alone. No one could sensibly exclude the contributions and responsibilities of or demean the importance of women and mothers. I say this out of no token nod to current trends but out of a deep personal appreciation for a home in which a widowed mother, who was a true saint and who carried the burden alone, gave me a special consciousness for that part of the story. I need no reminder of the importance of women and mothers. But for this special purpose I would particularly like to address myself to the responsibility fathers have to teach. I would like to shine the Book of Mormon light on the Lord’s commission to fathers to teach their sons. I love the Book of Mormon, and I don’t remember when it first occurred to me, but much of what I love best in the book is the instruction, teaching, and testimony of fathers to their own sons. The Lord has given a special charge to fathers. He has told us what he wants taught and that of which he wants us to testify.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge once heard a farmer renowned for his productive acres, his sculptured gardens, and his bright children say that he hoped his children would grow up to be God-fearing, prayerful, religious people, but that he would never prejudice them in favor of religion by imposing religious principles on them or taking them to church. They would, he said, grow up and decide for themselves.
Coleridge answered the man, “Bravo! This is a very progressive idea. Why do you not apply it also to your fields and orchards and gardens in the future? Do not prejudice the soil to seed or weeding or cultivation, the trees to pruning or thinning, the gardens to bulbs or planting. Why not see if they will grow up and just decide to be what you hope they will become?”
God has laid the responsibility on parents to teach their children. He has given a special charge to fathers. He has given us a particular example in the Book of Mormon, which is to a great extent a record of fathers who taught their children. Consider such men as Lehi, Alma, and Mormon.
What did they teach, being under that obligation as fathers? (1) They taught revealed truth, principles of eternal significance, theology that was basic and beautiful and to which the heart could resound. (2) They gave sound counsel of unassailable practicality and observable effectiveness out of their experience. (3) They taught values upon which a life, a culture, a civilization could be built. (4) Uniformly, they bore powerful, personal witness of Jesus Christ, and of his Father, and of the eternal plan of salvation.
First, consider Lehi, who through his example and instruction left powerful gifts to his children. We are all quite aware of the beautiful tribute from a son to his parents with which the Book of Mormon begins: “I, Nephi, having been born of goodly parents, therefore I was taught somewhat in all the learning of my father.”
Lehi shared his great visions and the warnings and promises of the Almighty with his son. These were basic in Nephi’s earliest declarations and gave him the foundation for the testimony with which he begins his record: “And I know that the record which I make is true. … Yea, thou knowest that I believe all the words of my father.” (1 Ne. 1:3; 1 Ne. 11:5.)
What specifically did Lehi want Nephi to know? For one thing, he shared with his son a vision that involved a tree in a field, fruit on the tree, a path leading to it, an iron rod, a depth of filthy water, and a spacious building.
The symbols were simple. The tree was the tree of life and represented the love of God. The path was the path which leads to the fulfillment of righteousness. The depths of water were the depths of hell. The fruit on the trees was precious and desirable above all other fruits. The building represented the pride and the vain imagination of this world.
In that very well-known vision, Lehi learned, and he taught his son, these realities: There are certain people who are cynically arrayed against the truth. There are also those who get their feet on the path that leads to the tree of the sweetest fruit but who find the path obscured by the mists of darkness, which are the temptations of the devil. They wander off and get lost. There are other people who hold to the rod, walk the path, partake of the fruit, and know of its sweetness, but who then look around, and seeing those who mock and point a finger of scorn, fall into forbidden paths and are lost. And finally, there are those who have held the rod, walked the path, tasted the fruit, and immediately cast their eyes about to see whether they could discover their own family or others with whom they might share the sweetness and the eternal joy God wanted them to have.
Thus, Lehi in this vision taught his children that there is opposition in all things, that through the agency of man choices are made that determine the course of life both mortally and eternally, that there is a devil and those who succumb to him, and that the sweetest of all blessings come through feeding upon the pleasing word of God and sharing it.
All these great lessons Lehi subsequently explained in detail to his children, teaching them under the revelation of God and the power of the Spirit.
To his young son Jacob, born in the days of tribulation in the wilderness, Lehi said: “Nevertheless, Jacob, my firstborn in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.” (2 Ne. 2:2.) He did not teach his son that obedience would lead to the absence of trouble or problems or afflictions or tribulations. He taught him that in the midst of affliction God is good and will consecrate those afflictions to our gain—if in faith and courage we endure them. Like all else the fathers of the Book of Mormon taught, this lesson is as timely today and as personal to each of us.
Lehi also gave his son a witness about opposition. He explained the true role of Father Adam in God’s plan, testifying that “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” (2 Ne. 2:25.)
And he taught two other lessons. One, that through the redemption of the Messiah men have become free forever. And two, that knowing good from evil, men should act for themselves and not be acted upon: “Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great mediation of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.” (2 Ne. 2:27.)
As he blessed his grandchildren before his death, Lehi taught the coming of a latter-day prophet. He pleaded with his sons to choose the way of eternal life. He said:
“And I desire that ye should remember to observe the statutes and the judgments of the Lord; behold, this hath been the anxiety of my soul from the beginning.
“O my sons, … that ye might be a choice and a favored people of the Lord …
“Awake, my sons; put on the armor of righteousness. Shake off the chains with which ye are bound, and come forth out of obscurity, and arise from the dust.” (2 Ne. 1:16, 19, 23.)
Remember that he had earlier said to Laman and Lemuel:
“O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!
“… O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!” (1 Ne. 2:9–10.)
But the most important of all of his teachings was contained in his witness of the Lord and the importance he placed on sharing that witness:
“Wherefore, redemption cometh in and through the Holy Messiah; for he is full of grace and truth.
“Behold, he offereth himself a sacrifice for sin, to answer the ends of the law, unto all those who have a broken heart and a contrite spirit; and unto none else can the ends of the law be answered.
“Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.” (2 Ne. 2:6–8.) So Lehi taught.
We feel a special kinship with the prophet Alma, because he announces his own imperfections and need for repentance. Alma’s sins were broadly annotated. He had, with the sons of Mosiah, gone out to destroy the church. He had deliberately chosen another way and found delight in misleading others. In the course of this behavior, he had been turned completely around by the angel who delivered the message. It was, in effect, “Seek no more to destroy the church of God. If you insist on destroying yourself, then at least do not take others with you.” (See Mosiah 27:11–16.)
The story that comes many years later is one of an honest father’s outpouring of his grief. What he said is, I think, the most significant instruction on repentance and forgiveness and the mercy of God that can be read anywhere or heard from anyone. This great message is found in chapters 39 through 42 in Alma. [Alma 39–42] Corianton had been called on a mission and forsook his ministry to consort with the harlot Isabel. A lot of others went along with him, and he defended what he had done by saying, in effect, “Look, Dad, times are changing. Don’t get excited. This is just what goes on in the world these days.”
From what you are experiencing in the world around you, you are aware that Corianton’s situation is as real as the most personally affected of you. His sin was real, his jeopardy real, and his problem in accepting it so real that his salvation depended upon it.
How did Alma answer his son’s equivocation? One would think he would be compassionate, considering his own history. But he had to make Corianton understand that there was no hope for him if he didn’t realize the seriousness of his position. Alma said (to paraphrase), “What you have done is second only to murder in the eyes of God. You have just jeopardized everything sweet and beautiful in this world and beyond. Now if you think God will give you a few stripes and then forgive you when you do nothing to face up to the predicament you are in, you’re wrong.”
It must have been quite a scene—the father with all his own bad experience, and his anguish that his son was treading a similar path and might not get turned around as he had been. But somehow Corianton came alive. He stopped equivocating and said, in effect, “All right, Father, I’ve faced it. I acknowledge my guilt and my sorrow.” What else happened is not written. But we can read it in our hearts.
Alma exultantly teaches his son about the atonement of Jesus Christ, its purpose and its meaning. He gives him good counsel about taking advice and following the examples of his brothers who are sound and steady. And he concludes, “Now, my son, I desire that you should let these things trouble you no more, and only let your sins trouble you, with that trouble which shall bring you down to repentance.” (Alma 42:29.) Corianton had to learn to accept the forgiveness of God and to forgive himself.
The last father I will mention is Mormon. His teachings to his son are recorded fundamentally in two letters that comprise the seventh, eighth, and part of the ninth chapters of Moroni. [Moro. 7–9] One brief example may motivate you to read this remarkable story for yourself.
Tragic things have occurred as Mormon concludes his last letter to his missionary son. He speaks of the depravity and perversion of the people. He says, “They are without principle and past feeling, and I cannot recommend them to God.”
But he can recommend his faithful son, and he prays that he may meet him again. I close this brief visit on the teachings of the fathers with Mormon’s point of emphasis, his hope, and the fulfillment of his witness:
“My son, be faithful in Christ; and may not the things which I have written grieve thee, … but may Christ lift thee up, and may his sufferings and death, and the showing his body unto our fathers, and his mercy and long-suffering, and the hope of his glory and of eternal life, rest in your mind forever.” (Moro. 9:25.) His last witness was one of instruction, affection, petition, and faith. For his boy he was holding his hand higher than all the rest.