Small and Simple Things
Brothers and sisters, marvelous. Beautiful. And I don’t mean just that glorious singing that we have heard, but the testimonies that have been borne, the opportunity to be here in this very hallowed building, and remember those that have gone before and those that will go in the future. President Richards has spoken of some great and wonderful things. I’ve heard him say some of these things in the past. I bear testimony to you in all humility that this is one of our Father in Heaven’s choicest institutions. He helps lead and guide, and He does that through some of the most marvelous leadership that has been my opportunity to see.
And now as I begin, my thoughts drift back to my own years when I was in your seats, when I had the opportunity to be part of a varied student body just like this one. It also reminds me of the many pleasant hours that I spent as an instructor, had the title of teacher and had the opportunity of speaking with a number of different students. But sometimes there was an imposing dialogue, sometimes of disagreement with some of those students.
Now, a professor friend of mine—very sage in his wisdom—said to me, “You know, you will notice that in every class that you teach there will be one or two students that will be argumentative and will want to argue with everything that you say”—not like any of you—“and your first reaction will probably be to silence them and to get them away. But think twice before doing so. That student might be the only one listening to you.” I’ve found that to be true.
Now, you’re listening. Let’s speak of lofty things. Let’s speak of a Women’s Conference in 2011. Elder Bednar said the following: “Patterns help [us] to avoid waste and unwanted deviations and facilitate uniformity that is appropriate and beneficial.” Now, he further went on to say that “I believe many, if not all, of the most satisfying and memorable accomplishments in our homes, in the Church, in our jobs and professions, and in our communities will be the product of this important spiritual pattern—of simple and small things.” (“Small, Simple Things Essential to Growth,” Prophets and Apostles, lds.org.)
He assured those in attendance that those who “faithfully, diligently and consistently do simple things”—these simple things that are quite frankly “right before God”—“will bring forward extraordinary results.”
Now, I’d like to pose for your consideration and all of our introspection— for each and every one of us—that all too often we seem to forget that very basic principle. It’s profound in its offering. Sometimes we opt instead to look off in the distance to that shiny object that garners our attention for a moment. In short, a question for all of us—for you and for me—to digest: do we let the world, and sometimes our desires to be part of it, get in the way of what our Father in Heaven has planned and foreordained for us to do?
I believe it was Elder Neal A. Maxwell who once warned the Saints who all wanted to live in Zion but keep a summer home in Babylon. (see A Wonderful Flood of Light , 47). He further went on to state the following: “Eternal things are always done in the process of time. . . . Direction is initially more important than speed” (Of One Heart, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., , p. 35).
This constant direction that Elder Maxwell was referring to—and also that that Elder Bednar was referring to—helps us all form a clear pattern of living. This pattern of living includes those things that were alluded to by all of those prophets that have gone before—yes, even those small and simple things.
Now, I’ve selected several examples to talk about individual, incremental small and simple things. Things that formed a pattern in life for these specific individuals, all of which led to some very great things.
Now, the first one that I’d like to talk about is Thomas Edison. Thomas Edison was probably the greatest inventor that this country has ever produced. He was born February 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio, but when he was first attending school in Port Huron, Michigan, his teachers complained he was just flat-out too slow. He was disagreeable. Yes, he was even hard to handle. As a result, Edison’s mother took him out of school and homeschooled him.
Now, Thomas Edison disliked arithmetic immensely. He disliked even English immensely, but he had an intense desire to study chemistry. He was actually very, very good at science; he had his first chemical lab when he was just a lad of about ten years old. His inexhaustible energy he quite frankly defined as 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration, but he eventually has been given credit for over 1,300 individual inventions. I might add that many of these inventions have led us today in the facilitation of the spreading of the Lord’s gospel, which you and I know to be true. So many of his inventions were specifically meant to aid to bring forth the gospel plan in this dispensation, of which you and I are a part.
Now he clearly demonstrated, line upon line (see D&C 98:12), an abundance of small and simple pursuits and experiments that truly led to greatness. That’s example number one.
Let’s move to another example. This example is one of a mother who exemplified love, or charity. The story: in 1844 a young man died in Europe while he was on vacation there. His middle-aged parents, his mother and his father, were broken-hearted. They traveled to receive and retrieve that body. After the funeral, they wanted to do something very special in memory of their son—not an ornate tombstone or anything ornate that would celebrate the grave or the dying—but a living memorial, something that would give help to other people like their son.
Now, after considering many alternatives, this beautiful mother and father decided on one thing. That one thing would be in the field of education. Yes, they thought, education. That would be the most appropriate. It would be a living memorial that would go on year after year, decade after decade, to help others like their son. This would be the best kind of tribute to their son’s memory.
Now, they arranged an appointment with a gentleman by the name of Charles Eliot, who at the time was the president of Harvard University. President Eliot received this quite ordinary, unpretentious couple in his office, and he quickly asked them, “What can I do for you?”
They told him about the death of their son, and they apologized, quite frankly, for taking up some of his valuable time. They explained that they wanted to do something special and extraordinary for their son to establish memorial—a memory. Something that would help others, other young people like you and like their son. Something in the field of education.
Eliot looked at this unprepossessing couple with impatience and a certain amount, I am sure, of aristocratic disdain. “Well,” he said, “Perhaps you have in mind a scholarship.” He said it a little bit too crisply.
“No,” said the mother. “We had something a little more substantial in mind. We were thinking of something more like a building, and right there.”
President Eliot interrupted her and said, “Oh, I must explain to you,” said Eliot, I’m sure with much of a patronizing air, “A building is very expensive. It would cost millions of dollars.” Obviously, Eliot didn’t think by looking at this couple, judging by their appearance, that they were capable of giving anything of that magnitude.
Then a pause. Then the mother rose. She said, “Mr. Eliot, what does this entire university cost?” You can imagine the reaction of the president of Harvard University as he shrugged and he muttered, stated a figure that amounted to many, many millions of dollars. “Oh?” said the mother. “I believe we might can do better than that.” She had made up her mind about the entire thing.
She turned to her husband, and like wives do sometimes to their husbands, “Come, dear. I have an idea.” And they left. The story goes on.
That following year, president Eliot of Harvard University learned that this plain, unpretentious couple had contributed to what would be in today’s dollars over one hundred million dollars to the memorial of their son. The name of the memorial that was to be named after their son presently bears that name: the Leland Stanford Junior University.
Now, if President Eliot had developed that simple pattern of more Christlike behavior, common courtesy, kindness, honesty, recognition of the basic dignity of individuals, a totally different scenario could have ensued.
Let’s talk about someone that did recognize those things. How many of you have heard of the famous football lineman Eli Herring? Anyone hear of him? [Audience members raise their hands.] Two of you. Well, you’re going to all hear of him right now. You see, twenty years after making a decision that shocked the National Football League, others in the entire area of football young and old—and I might add, me personally—was quoted in a recent newspaper article that he wants everyone to know that he was, that he is, and that he will be happy and abundantly blessed. You see, Brother Herring was once considered the finest offensive lineman in the United States.
You can imagine what that could mean. Now, he decided that a lucrative career meant one thing, but he would not trade a lucrative career in the National Football League for his religious convictions. You see, Brother Herring was taught a small and simple truth in that pattern of righteous living Elder Bednar referred to, about keeping the Sabbath day holy. And he developed this pattern of living, this pattern of action, referred to by Elder Bednar.
Now, is there more to the story? Not wise, maybe some of you say? Brother Herring said, “The main thing is that I know something now that I was acting on faith 20 years ago. . . . That is, I believed that the Lord would bless me and keep [His] promises that I have learned about as I have studied in the scriptures and listened to the prophets. Now I know that. After 20 years, [the Lord has] kept his promises [to me] abundantly.” That was his quote. (Jeff Call, “20 years later, ‘blessed’ Herring believes he made right decision not to play in NFL,” Deseret News, Apr 29, 2015.)
Now, where is Brother Herring today? He’s a math teacher and an assistant football coach at Mountain View High School in Orem, Utah. He’s in a stake presidency and is a former bishop, and he has affected dozens and dozens of lives. Now what led him to this, besides those simple practices that I’ve referred to? Well, it seems that Brother Herring went on a mission to Argentina, and while there, he read a story about a gentleman by the name of Erroll Bennett, who was a Tahitian soccer star. This Tahitian soccer star was converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ and joined our Church. Immediately after he announced to his soccer league, to his teammates, to his coaches, to his country that his newfound understanding of the law of the Sabbath, being what it was, he wasn’t going to play any longer. He was willing to give up the thing that he loved most. He was willing to give up the thing that he did best. He was the best at what he did in his entire country, but he decided to walk away from it.
Said Herring, “That decision was this thing that, for me, if for nobody else, [that was] a defining moment” (Jeff Call, “20 years later”). Listen to the Spirit. Listen to the prompting. Listen to that which our Father in Heaven would have us do in building our testimonies, those small and simple things, that daily pattern of spiritual awareness and testimony that Elder Bednar referred to.
Now, another beautiful quote by Elder Maxwell while somewhat reflecting on this experience with Brother Herring: “Never let the things that could have been get in the way of those that still can be.”
And now, another story—another story of courage, of determination, of truly developing, literally, step-by-step spirituality—one that focuses on the development of a pattern of living and of executing on a daily basis small and simple things that lead to great things that came to pass.
This goes back to a young lady, ten years old—her name Ellen Pucell. (The following story is paraphrased from Sharon Bigelow, “Ellen Pucell Unthank,” Liahona, Oct. 1986.) She refused to move another step. For endless days and endless kilometers, she had been dragging herself through snow, through frigid ground. Now, with the merciless cold biting at her clothing, the pain in her feet grew and grew more unbearable with every step. And Ellen, or Nellie as everyone called her, sat down shivering. She could not go on any further. Her older sister Maggie coaxed her to get up—“Please, get up.”
But while her weary friends trudged on ahead, struggling to pull handcarts through the snow, Nellie sat, unable to move. Her stiffened legs would not abide. Maggie, her sister, again pleaded, “Please get up and walk before the handcart company, our friends, leave us.”
Yes, maybe some of you have guessed, the Martin handcart company. As the hope of catching up faded for these two sisters, a horse-drawn carriage approached these two beautiful sisters, and the driver—one of the lucky leaders who was fortunate enough to have a horse and a carriage—stopped and asked what was going on. Maggie explained. Nellie was lifted into the wagon, and for a short distance they were able to drive on with their legs precariously hanging over the edge, becoming more cold and frigid by the hour.
Nellie’s family, you see, had sailed from England in 1856. They, like so many others, were too poor to afford wagons or animals to pull the wagons. The great majority of people chose to build smaller, two-wheeled vehicles—the ones we know of as handcarts. They had to pull them, as you recall, themselves. Only the most necessary items could go in those handcarts. Extra bedding, extra clothing, extra household supplies, and yes, even extra food had to be left behind. Nellie’s father died on October 22, 1856, of hunger and exposure to the cold while on his journey. Five days later, Nellie’s mother died. Graves could only be dug in the snow because due to the early weather, the ground was frozen solid. No ground graves for those parents, or the others.
Nellie and Maggie walked on wearily. They watched as one by one, more of their company perished and had the same fate. The weather’s fierceness did not abate. Back here in Salt Lake, President Brigham Young called for volunteers to meet that handcart company, which they did so near Laramie, Wyoming. When they arrived, they found this pitiful company buried in snow. As you can imagine, Nellie’s feet were badly frozen. The doctor, understandably, had to amputate Nellie’s feet. But no anesthetics. Both her legs were amputated below the knee with a butcher’s knife and a carpenter’s saw.
For the rest of her life, she moved around on painful stubs of her legs. With a leather apron slid underneath those damaged legs, Nellie crawled about her small and humble house on her knees, but keeping it forever spotless. Nellie took in washing; she knitted socks to sell; she gave birth to and raised six wonderful children. Despite poverty and pain, Nellie never complained. She had come to know her Father in Heaven through her trials and suffering. She had learned those small truths step by step. She had developed that pattern of spiritual faith and activity. She knew what was true. She knew her Father in Heaven. She knew her Father in Heaven knew her by name. And through her obedience and faithfulness to those small and simple, step-by-step things, her pattern was now complete. You see, Nellie lost her legs, but she never, ever lost her faith.
Now, in the beautiful summer of 1991— it was August 3, 1991—a statue as you’re seeing before you now was dedicated on the campus of Southern Utah University by President Gordon B. Hinckley. His beautiful wife, Marjorie Pay Hinckley, accompanied him. I remember them well. It was my privilege and the privilege of my wife to be asked to serve as their chaperones that day. Behold Nellie Unthank. Small and simple things.
Another set pattern of spirituality comes to us in a representation a little bit differently, a person who was not a member of our Church—someone who lost the common senses that you and I are using today, of sight,of sound, of voice, of hearing. I give to you Helen Adams Keller—an American author, political activist, and lecturer who was the very first person in the United States who was deaf to ever receive a bachelor’s degree. She was born June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Her father had been a captain in the Confederate Army. Her paternal grandmother was second cousin to General Robert E. Lee. One of Helen’s ancestors was one of the first teachers of the deaf in Zurich.
Helen was born with the ability to see and hear; however, at the age of 19 months she contracted and was diagnosed by her doctors of having acute congestion of her stomach and brain. We know today that was meningitis. This left her both deaf and blind. She hadn’t as of yet learned to speak.
Annie Sullivan, some of you will remember, arrived at Keller’s house early in her life. It was in March of 1887, and she immediately began trying to teach Helen Keller. She did this by spelling words in the palm of her hand. The beginning word was doll. She brought this doll as a gift to Helen Keller. Helen was very frustrated with this because she didn’t understand that every object had a uniquely distinct word that would identify it. As a matter of fact, she was so frustrated when Annie gave her a mug and tried to spell that in her hand, that Helen picked up the mug and threw it across the room, smashing the mug against the wall.
Helen’s first breakthrough came just one month later when she realized that the motions that the teacher were making in the palm of one hand, while pouring in the other hand, was water—Helen related this in her later life about this defining moment in her life:
Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something long forgotten . . . and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! . . . Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life (The Story of My Life ). http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/keller/life/life.html
Now, Helen Keller went on to become a world-famous speaker, author, and inspiration to many others who had once been determined to be hopeless as she had been. She met and inspired, and I might add dumfounded, every United States president from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon Baines Johnson. Her daily pattern of line upon line and precept upon precept helped form a pattern that accomplished these small and simple things that went on to prove in her life, and in our lives, greatness.
Now, let’s go to another story. Elder Ballard once spoke about “The Greatest Generation of Missionaries.” This was in the October conference of 2002. Maybe some of you remember that one. In this talk, he talked about one of the most powerful and influential stories of the Book of Mormon, which demonstrates this principle of small and simple things. It’s the story that we all love: the people of Ammon, who had covenanted that they would never again take up arms and shed blood. An interesting thing happened, as you recall. When they saw that the Nephites were enduring these afflictions and persecutions by the Lamanites that bore down upon them, the Ammonites were moved with compassion, and they were desirous and were going to move to break their covenant with the Lord. They wanted to do that in defense of their country and of their brother Nephites. (See Alma 53:10–14.)
Now, Helaman and his brothers persuaded the Ammonites not to break that covenant. But the sons of the Ammonites made their own covenant: they entered into a covenant that they would defend, “unto the laying down of their lives” (Alma 53:17), their brother Nephites. Yes, we learn that they were “exceedingly valiant for courage, and also for strength and activity; but behold, this was not all—they were men who were true at all times in whatsoever thing they were entrusted” (Alma 53:20).
Now, they fought with the strength of God, you remember. You don’t think that they had been practicing in their lives those spiritual patterns that Elder Bednar referred to? You don’t think that they were practicing those things that their mothers had testified to them, that God would look after them if they endured and were obedient? Now, an interesting thing, as you all recall—this otherwise group of inexperienced young men were so physically and spiritually prepared, this quoted by Elder Ballard, that “they frightened their foes into surrendering!” They frightened their foes into surrendering. Although over 2,000 of them—2,000 plus—received serious wounds to their bodies, not one—not one—was killed in battle. (“The Greatest Generation of Missionaries, Oct. 2002 General Conference.)
Brothers and sisters, by small and simple things are great things come to pass (see Alma 37:6–7). After listening to these stories of faith and of adherence to the Lord’s teachings (forming the patterns that we talked about—these daily actions of these small and simple things that we are all faced with), will we be receptive to the Spirit? Will we accept our true course of action and direction? Will we never lose sight of our eternal goal? Will we receive that testifying witness in our hearts of those small and simple things are those things that our Father in Heaven would have us do—and yes, has foreordained you and me and all of us to do—to return to His presence in the celestial glory?
Brothers and sisters, miracles both large and small can and will ensue. Listen to that still, small voice that testifies what those things are in our daily lives, as we continue to build our testimonies.
Now, we turn to one of our forefathers: Daniel Webster, an American statesman and forefather of our own standard of liberty in this country. Listen to what Daniel Webster had to say:
If we work upon marble, it will perish; if we work upon brass, time will efface it; if we rear temples, they will crumble into dust; but if we work upon immortal minds, if we imbue them with principles, with the just fear of God and love of our fellow-men, we engraving on those tablets something which will brighten and brighten to all eternity (C.N. Douglas, comp. Forty Thousand Quotations: Prose and Poetical, 1917). http://www.bartleby.com/348/461.html
Brothers and sisters, these patterns of righteousness and performing on a daily basis those small and simple things for you and for me will bring great things, even our own eternal glory that will come to pass. Now, may we forever remember these things of which you and I dream for and yearn for every day. But here’s the down side: in all probability, achieving our dream will be elusive. It will elude our grasp unless we establish that simple truth that Alma was attempting to teach and did teach to his son Helaman. And he reiterated it so beautifully when he said, “You might not think this is so important, but it is by small and simple things that great things are brought to pass.” (See Alma 37:6–7.)
Now, brothers and sisters, I bear you my testimony that we must all have testimonies of these things. Our testimonies are not easy to come by, and they are fragile, and they can be lost. It was President Harold B. Lee that said that “testimony is as elusive as a moonbeam; it’s as fragile as an orchid; you have to recapture it every morning of your life” (“Chapter 5: Walking in the Light of Testimony,” Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Harold B. Lee , p. 37–46). How? By practicing that pattern that Elder Bednar referred to, the small and simple spiritual things that we conduct our lives by will lead to the testimony, will lead to the edifying spirit, and will bring us home where you and I desire to go.
I bear you my testimony, brothers and sisters, Jesus is the Christ. This is His Church. These are eternal truths. These things will bring us to His presence. I bear you the testimony that I have deep in my heart that Joseph Smith was everything he said he was; he is everything that the Spirit tells you that he is. And he will be forever more—along with our Savior Jesus Christ—in our corner to plead for us, and to help us to return to the presence of our Savior through the teachings of our Master. I know these things. I know that the Book of Mormon is true. And I bear you this testimony with all of the beautiful truths that come with the knowledge of our Savior and of His church and of His kingdom, in His holy name, even Jesus Christ, amen.