A steady rain fell, and the mountains were burning. In some spots the fire blazed crimson. In others it flared to an incandescent gold or copper.
It was a fire the rain could never put out, because it was the fire of autumn. All across the mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania the maples flamed. The beeches and oaks and chestnuts smoldered. The cherries and aspens and birches glowed like torches. The fire seemed to leap from tree to tree, grove to grove; and a rainy mist rose into the clouds like smoke.
Through the wildfire, a wide gray river came winding. Down out of the misty north it flowed, then made a great bow and turned back north again into the mist.
Near the bow, by a country road, were a well-tended swatch of grass, a statue, and a monument.
Below the grass and some railroad tracks, the ground fell away into a steep, wooded bank. On that bank three young men were working in the rain—cutting a path through the sumac and serviceberry down to the wide, gray, rain-dimpled Susquehanna.
As the three workers hacked away at the dripping brush under a bonfire of autumn leaves, their minds turned now and then to a bright spring day in May of 1829 when this spot was part of a Pennsylvania township called Harmony.
Somewhere near this place, John the Baptist appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery on that day and restored the Aaronic Priesthood. Somewhere in this river Joseph and Oliver baptized each other. Somewhere on the bank they received the gift of the Holy Ghost.
Rodney McGuire, 17, Randy McGladrie, 16, and Chris Kellum, 14, all live downstream from this spot. They also live far downstream in time from that great day in 1829, and they proudly bear the priesthood which John the Baptist restored. That’s why they came out in the rain on a cold fall day to cut brush.
These three young men are the only active Aaronic Priesthood holders in the Montrose Branch of the Church, the unit closest to the restoration site. They have been to the site many times, because it is used as a visual aid in seminary and Aaronic Priesthood lessons. They have witnessed baptisms in the river. They have stood where the Smith home and the Hale home stood. They have visited the grave of Joseph and Emma’s infant son. They have learned about some of what took place in Harmony and on the banks of the Susquehanna.
They know that much of the Book of Mormon was translated there. They know that 15 sections of the Doctrine and Covenants were received there. They know that parts of the Pearl of Great Price were revealed there. They know that somewhere on the Susquehanna between Harmony and Colesville, Broome County, the Melchizedek Priesthood was restored.
Although this area was honored with some of the greatest events of the Restoration, the Church is not numerically strong here. The Montrose Branch is small in membership and meets in a phase-one chapel, yet it encompasses all of Susquehanna County. Chris lives a half hour from the chapel—in good weather. Randy lives almost that far. From Chris’s house to Rodney’s is a 45-minute drive.
Each of the three young men attends a different high school.
Each of them goes home teaching with his own father, and the routes cover not blocks but miles. When they go on team-ups with the missionaries they may end up anywhere in the county.
Because they are so separated geographically, they get together as often as they can. Once each week they assemble at the branch for a seminary class. Twice a month they meet for a sports night.
An interstate freeway runs north and south through the middle of the county, but most of the travel is done on winding roads that slice through woods and farm fields, past rock walls and old barns. It is a beautiful place to live, a largely rural area where you can take a deep breath without worrying too much about what you’re breathing. If you feel the need for a city, there’s Scranton, Pennsylvania, nearby to the south and Binghamton, New York, to the north.
There is good fishing and hunting for those who want it. And there’s the Susquehanna.
Every summer the young men canoe down a different stretch of the river. It’s a time for getting to know both the river and one another.
Last fall when the leaves were turning, the nearby branch of Honesdale scheduled a baptism in the Susquehanna near the restoration site. It had been quite a while since the last baptism there, and underbrush had reclaimed part of the trail down to the river. Rodney, Randy, and Chris volunteered to reopen the path so that the baptismal party wouldn’t have to fight limbs and thorns.
Unfortunately, that Saturday morning dawned rainy and cold. Low clouds brushed the mountaintops. The trees and brush along the river dripped water. The steep path was slick and muddy.
The three young men went ahead with the job anyway. They worked in the rain, getting drenched. Occasionally one of them slipped and went sliding down the hill. But they had a lot of fun too, as young men working together usually do. They even found a little time for skipping rocks on the Susquehanna. The young women of the branch came along to prepare a feast for the workers. Well, one of the young women came—Rodney’s sister. And damp hot dogs can be a feast if you go at it with the right attitude. At any rate, they worked on until they had cut a wide path down to the river.
After the project the young men got together at Rodney’s house in Hallstead, Pennsylvania, to dry out, watch some television, play some computer games, shoot a few baskets (Chris and Randy are on their school teams), and talk a little bit about the gospel and themselves.
At first they spoke of the morning’s project. “There’s a special peacefulness at the site,” Randy said. “When I stand by the river I can’t help thinking about John the Baptist and the restoration of the priesthood. I can’t help picturing them out there in the water someplace and wondering exactly where it was.”
“You know you’re on holy ground,” Rodney said. “The feeling is overwhelming.”
“I always feel good when I’m here,” Chris said. “And it gave me a feeling of accomplishment helping to make someone’s baptism just a little more special.”
They also shared some serious thoughts about the priesthood.
“It’s a big responsibility,” Chris declared. “It makes me a little nervous that I’ll do something wrong or not measure up. I feel that I should be a good example for the young boys in the branch. I feel that preparing and passing the sacrament are very important jobs. I feel good inside when I pass the sacrament. I feel I’m helping people to get closer to Heavenly Father. I’m helping them think about Jesus and his sacrifice, and I’m helping myself do the same thing.”
“It’s an honor to hold the Aaronic Priesthood,” Randy said. “Not many people in the world have that privilege. It’s a tremendous challenge to be worthy. We have an obligation to work hard and prepare ourselves for the Melchizedek Priesthood.
“I love to go home teaching. I love visiting with our families. It’s fun. I like all the people I home teach. In fact, I like all the people in our branch. People are really close to each other here.”
Rodney recalled, “When President Chudleigh interviewed me to receive the Aaronic Priesthood he said, ‘I want to put this in perspective. You could combine all the might of the United States and Russia and all the other worldly powers on this earth. The power you will have in your grasp as a deacon in the Aaronic Priesthood is greater than all of them combined.’”
They all spoke of many ways in which the priesthood had enriched their lives. “There aren’t many of us, here,” Rodney said. “Each of us is the only active priesthood holder in his school. So we have to learn how to handle ourselves, and the priesthood is a great help. It helps us to set goals. It helps us decide what’s right and wrong. We have to learn to be self-reliant, but we also know that if we get in over our heads, we have that special advantage. The priesthood is a protection to us as long as we live the commandments. That’s one big motivation for me to do what’s right.
“I really think the priesthood amplifies the Holy Ghost in our lives somehow. I wasn’t always a member, so I know how it feels to be without the gift of the Holy Ghost.”
Randy offered this insight: “One thing I’ve learned through holding the priesthood is that even if I think I don’t like someone, I’ve still got to try to learn to like him or her. I’ve been trying to improve on that, and it makes a difference in how happy I feel.”
Living as far apart as they do, all three young men expressed gratitude for one another.
“The friendship of other young Latter-day Saints is vital,” Rodney emphasized. “There are only a handful of young people all together, and we go to four different high schools. So whenever we get to see each other, it really helps us out. I know it does me anyway. It helps me get through the week.”
Randy added, “They help keep me in line. I always know that they’re backing me up.”
They all agreed that the support of their adult leaders is also crucial. “President Chudleigh, our branch president, is one of the nicest people I’ve ever encountered in my life,” Rodney stated, “He’d do absolutely anything for us. We know we can trust him completely. In fact, I think we have the support of the whole branch. They’re all pulling for us.” (President Chudleigh has since been called as stake president, and Walter Kuntz has become branch president.)
Of course, the priesthood is not an easy power to comprehend even for those who possess it. Needless to say, it is much harder for those who do not. This can include friends at school, as Rodney reported. “When I explained to a friend that I have the authority to act in God’s name, he said, ‘Yeah, sure you do! Let’s see you use it! Change some water into wine!’ I told him that if God had commanded me to I probably could, but that he hadn’t.”
The talk moved on to girls and football rankings and impossible dreams of Italian sports cars, and the afternoon wore away.
The next morning the branch met for testimony meeting. Folding chairs had been set up on the all-purpose carpet of the half-sized cultural hall. Rodney and Randy and Chris exercised their priesthood—preparing, blessing, and passing the sacrament, each according to his office. Then the members rose to bear testimony, and it was clear that the Spirit of the Lord dwells as gladly in a phase-one building with folding chairs as in the biggest multi-ward stake center on earth.
In the combined youth Sunday School class, Sister Ruth McGladrie, Randy’s mother, taught a lesson on service.
In the opening exercises of priesthood meeting, Rodney gave a presentation on home teaching. He’s been doing it every week for over a year now by special assignment. The elders and high priests listened as carefully as if a General Authority were addressing them.
Then in the combined Aaronic Priesthood quorum meeting the young men discussed sacrifice and consecration.
Their instructor, President Chudleigh, presented case studies, and each young man decided what he would do in that situation. Each spoke frankly as the topic led them into missionary work, Church standards, friendship, and even marriage. The branch president was clearly not some remote or frightening authority figure to them. He was a trusted and loved and respected friend as well as a counselor and leader.
In a quiet moment after the meetings were over, President Chudleigh had a few words to say about his Aaronic Priesthood youth.
“I’ve seen the growth of these young men over a period of years as they’ve gone through the priesthood program. From time to time I’ve seen a big leap forward in each of them. Each one has had periods of awakening where the priesthood and the gospel start to mean something more to them, and they’re not just going to church because they’ve always gone or because Mom and Dad say they have to go.
“They’re good young men, and they’re trying to please their Father in Heaven. They’re willing to do their assignments. In fact, they’re the catalysts for some of the older people. They’re the ones who get things rolling.”
Later, Rodney and Randy and Chris returned to the restoration site to witness the baptism they had helped prepare for. Matt McDevitt of the Honesdale Branch was being baptized. A small group of Saints from his branch accompanied him to share the happy moment. They walked carefully down the newly widened path and gathered at the riverside.
The day had begun with rain, and the clouds sullenly refused to break. They didn’t exactly roll back now. They did seem to grow a little lighter, though, and a thin wash of sunshine turned the water from dull lead to a pale silver. There was a hymn, a prayer, two brief talks, and then Matt was lead into the Susquehanna by his brother Mark. They stood in silence a moment under the leaves of overhanging trees as Mark raised his right arm to the square. The calm water near the shore reflected them in splashes of white as he said the simple, powerful words. Then he laid his brother gently beneath the cleansing ripples. For a moment the Susquehanna flowed over him—157 years downstream from the day when a being of light acknowledged two searching young men as his fellow servants.
Afterward, they climbed up to the restoration monument, where one having authority conferred the gift of the Holy Ghost on Matt, offering also a few heartfelt words of blessing and counsel in the name of the Savior.
The three young men from the Montrose Branch stood quietly on the fringes of the group. Most of the baptismal party didn’t even know of the work they had done. They were just three Saints sharing in the joy of living downstream from a day of glory.