This post is a little different from most of my posts. The following is a talk I gave in my local congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on October 22, 2017. It is the prepared remarks. What I actually said in church may be a little different as extemporaneous statements were made or slightly different wording chosen. You can read other talks I’ve given in the past here, here, here, and here. You can also click on the quoted texts to read more from the sources.
Remembering the Promises of Our Fathers
Due to my previous calling as the clerk, I was aware of my impending call as elders quorum president for more than a month before it actually happened, all the time hoping that a change of mind may come relieving me of this potential call. Alas, that wasn’t to be.
I had lots of time to ponder and prepare for this daunting responsibility. One duty that stood out to me as I read and reread the handbook section dealing with Melchizedek Priesthood was that in the absence of a high priest group in a branch like ours, the elders quorum president has the responsibility to “coordinate the ward council’s efforts to encourage temple and family history work in the ward.” This struck me. I love the temple, and I love the stories of those who came before.
With that, as an elders quorum presidency, we are focusing our remarks on this topic today.
In just a little over a week, many places in the world will be celebrating a holiday relating to the dead. Traditionally, the holiday spans three days beginning on October 31, All Hallows Eve, then followed by All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day on the first and second of November. This celebration, also known as Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos, is a centuries-old Christian tradition. Where I come from, we focus mostly on the macabre and irreverent fun of Halloween. However, in most other places where the festival is observed, they focus on their dead loved ones, their ancestors.
In Hungary, graveyards are filled with candles, people attend special mass, and they reminisce of times gone by. In Mexico, they make special altars to their deceased family members, decorate graves, and have colorful, noisy celebrations.
Although China doesn’t celebrate the Allhallowtide festival, it has its own days to celebrate those who have gone before with Tomb Sweeping Day and Ghost Festival.
While many of these traditions follow the philosophies of men, the idea of honoring, remembering, and linking to past generations is an eternal principle. The idea of connecting with our ancestors is so important that Malachi’s promise has been repeated over the millennia by prophets, angels, and even the Lord himself when he visited the Nephites. Moroni’s recitation of this passage to the prophet Joseph gives a little more clarity of what is prophesied.
“And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.” (Joseph Smith History 1:39)
Moroni doesn’t just say hearts will be turned to each other. He said the promises made to our fathers by God will be planted in the hearts of the children, which in turn turns the children to their fathers. I still don’t fully understand what is meant or the full implications of this prophesy, but when I think about the promises made to the fathers, I understand it better in context with the scriptures.
In the Old Testament, the Children of Israel were constantly reminded about their ancestors and those who went before to help them remember by what power they were freed from bondage, taken care of in the wilderness, and received their land of inheritance.
In The Book of Mormon, 500 years after Lehi, Alma said:
“Do ye not remember that our father, Lehi, was brought out of Jerusalem by the hand of God? Do ye not remember that they were all led by him through the wilderness?” (Alma 9:9)
Suffice it to say, throughout the scriptures, we are constantly reminded and charged to remember the promises of the Lord for his children. And, what are the promises that we must remember? Elder Bednar shared some of them in the last General Conference:
“God promises us, according to our faithfulness, the constant companionship of the third member of the Godhead, even the Holy Ghost, that through the Atonement of Jesus Christ we can receive and always retain a remission of our sins, that we can receive peace in this world, that the Savior has broken the bands of death and was victorious over the grave, and that families can be together for all eternity.” (“Exceeding Great and Precious Blessings,” October 2017)
Those are some marvelous promises! Elder Bednar went on to say:
“Understandably, all of the exceeding great and precious promises Heavenly Father offers to His children cannot be counted or described comprehensively. However, even the partial list of promised blessings I just presented should cause each of us to “stand all amazed” and “fall down and worship the Father” in the name of Jesus Christ.” (“Exceeding Great and Precious Blessings,” October 2017)
Remembering the promises the of the Father to his children and how he fulfilled them helps us to remain ever “meek, humble, patient, full of love,” and “willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon [us].” By doing this, we are promised glory and salvation in His kingdom with our families.
Now, God can remind us of his promises by telling us directly through his prophets, and He does. But, a more effective way for us to truly see and understand, to gain faith in Him, is to see how those promises have been made and fulfilled. To see that among our own kin brings that message even closer. This is one reason we must study the lives and stories of our ancestors.
In 2001, Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush came to a powerful conclusion of their research into how to combat the dissipation or falling apart of families. As reported by Bruce Feiler in the New York Times:
“The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.”
Answers to the psychologists’ questions “turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”
What were those questions? Some include: “Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?”
That’s remarkable that knowing about the lives of our ancestors can help us succeed in life. Why? Knowing the answers to these and other questions, we know we belong to something bigger than ourselves. We know that we are not alone in our struggles and triumphs, and we know that someone we are connected to has experienced something similar to us.
We can all turn to the stories of our ancestors, to the stories of our parents and grandparents and those who came before to help us through the struggles of everyday life. We can see that others suffered illnesses, loneliness, heartbreak, poverty, and more. Several years ago, while reading some family history, I learned of a great, great aunt who went to Hawaii as an English teacher and ended up staying there many years doing this work. I instantly connected with her. I didn’t feel alone in my direction in life. I had someone who had gone and done it before.
Elder Ballard stated in the most recent General Conference:
“I have a deep conviction that if we lose our ties to those who have gone before us, including our pioneer forefathers and mothers, we will lose a very precious treasure.” (“The Trek Continues!” October 2017)
When I read the story of my great, great, great grandfather John Watkins I am reminded of what it means to follow the prophet and submit my will to the Lord’s. He lived in England when he heard about the restored gospel and joined the church through baptism. He was a builder with a successful business. He said:
“I became convinced of every principle except the gathering which, I could not see, had anything to do with religion… I was getting good wages, and my native land being very dear to me, it was a hard thing for me to ever think of leaving … I thought that I could serve God in one country as well as another … after being baptized and while being confirmed, the elder prophesied on my head in the name of Jesus Christ, that I should want to gather with the Saints as bad as anybody ever did. I … determined in my own mind not to go… but lo and behold, the spirit of gathering as foretold by Isaiah hundreds of years ago, rested upon me so strong that I prayed to the lord fervently to open up the way for me to go under any conditions for I was willing to pay through anything to gather with the church.”
John ended up making the journey across the sea leaving his friends, comfort, security, employment, and home. When he reached Iowa, his family joined the fateful Martin Handcart Company. As they waited to depart from Iowa John had a vision of the events to come seeing that about half of the 600 people in the company would die on the journey. After reading the account of his trying expedition, you would wonder if it was worth it. Why would anyone keep going with all that happened and the potential for so much loss? He later said:
“I have never for one single moment regretted what I have passed through of or the cause for which I came.”
John could have stayed in England where he had a thriving business, friends and a home, but he decided to follow the prophet and gather. He could have waited in Iowa for the next season or decided he had made it far enough, especially after his vision of so much death, but he was determined to fulfill the will of the Lord.
I have been blessed with a family history that includes faithful members of the church for generations like John Watkins. I can read their stories, their own words, of how faith in the Lord Jesus Christ helped them overcome doubts and hardships. I am fortunate in this regard.
However, many of you are first or second generation Latter-day Saints. You don’t have that direct pioneer ancestry because you or your parents are the pioneers. You will be the ones that your descendants will read about who struggled in a new faith to keep the commandments and stay true to your covenants. But who can you look to for affirming examples of faith in Christ and in the church?
When you were baptized you were adopted into the family of westward-trekking pioneers. You can look to them as bearers of the same covenants and similar testimonies. They can be your church ancestors to give you a strong sense of “intergenerational self” as Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush call it.
You can turn to the stories of those early American pioneers who helped establish the church and helped settled the mountain west. Or, you can turn to other pioneers throughout the church’s history.
One of my favorite stories is that of Dr. Kim HoJik from Korea, the first member of the church in that land being baptized while studying at Cornell. He stayed true to his faith and the church while helping his nation recover from war and famine. He was a respected politician and scientist but always found time for the gospel and church. He helped missionaries start working in Korea. He is an excellent example to turn to as an ancestor of faith.
Another is someone some of you may have heard of from an old church video, Vincenzo Di Francesca. He was a Catholic priest from Italy who found a book without a title page in an ash can in New York City. He came across names like Moroni, Nephi, and Abinadi and felt the Spirit testify of the truths taught in the book. He taught from the book and was censured by church authorities a few times. After many decades he found out what the book was, The Book of Mormon. He wrote the church and was eventually baptized in Sicily. He is another pioneer of faith that we can turn to as an example of the Lord’s promises.
In the 1980s, James and Patricia Wilde were tracing Hungary’s lines of nobility for the church’s genealogy department. During this same period, President Benson asked members to pray for the restored gospel of Jesus Christ to be able to spread through the countries blocked off by the Iron Curtain – for the way to be opened for the work to go forth.
The Wildes heeded this counsel from the prophet and also began preparing themselves for the work when the time came. They decided to start learning Hungarian, so when the time came they might be able to help in whatever way they could. In 1991 when the Hungary Budapest Mission was organized, James Wilde was called as president of the mission. I saw the effects first hand of the Wilde’s pioneer spirit when I served a mission there 13 year later. I met the people who have gained a testimony of the restored gospel and church and sacrificed much as pioneers in that great land.
Brothers and Sisters, we have countless stories of people who have gone before who were blessed by the Lord. We can turn to those when we need to be buoyed up and sustained through trials. We can see that we aren’t alone in those difficulties or doubts. I encourage all of us to do a little better in connecting the generations. Learn about your families. Learn their stories. Write down your own stories. Gather the stories of your living ancestors before it’s too late. Let’s turn our hearts to our fathers and learn of how the Lord has kept his promises.
I know that God is our Father. He sent his son, Jesus Christ for the salvation of his children. The gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored. God makes and keeps his promises to his children, to us.
In the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.