Sunday, July 15, 2012

Small and Simple vs. One Great Thing

A well known statement attributed to Brigham Young presents a theological problem for Latter-day Saints. Speaking of the heroic young men who helped to rescue struggling pioneers across a freezing river, President Young is reported to have said, "that act alone will ensure C. Allen Huntington, George W. Grant and David P. Kimball an everlasting salvation in the Celestial Kingdom of God, worlds without end."

One act can be enough to get you salvation? That doesn't square with everything else we know about the doctrine of "enduring to the end."

Chad Orton provides some additional background on this episode in an article for BYU Studies, "The Martin Handcart Company at the Sweetwater: Another Look" from volume 45 number 3 (2006). He also does a superb job in helping us to understand this theological issue. He also looks at some of the other sources and tries to give us a more complete picture of the Sweetwater Rescue than we traditionally hear. The story is still inspiring, even with the additional sources, a claim that doesn't hold true for every faith promoting tale. The upshot of the analysis is that Brigham Young certainly didn't mean to imply that we could do a single act and then goof off for the rest of mortality.

In a recent BYU Devotional address, I heard this quote from David O. McKay which also addresses the subject of being saved by a single, mighty act.

There is no one great thing which we can do to obtain eternal life, and it seems to me that the great lesson to be learned in the world today is to apply in the little acts and duties of life the glorious principles of the gospel. Let us not think that because some . . . things . . . seem small and trivial that they are unimportant. Life, after all, is made up of little things.

In the rest of that devotional address, J. Michael Hunter also talk about some of the simple things that made a great difference in his life. I was most touched by his story of his association with his cousin who helped him find friendship and kinship while far from home. The cousin who helped him, Larry St. Clair, was also my freshman biology teacher. 

Here is my favorite passage from the devotional.

When we are willing to accept assignments from the Lord, they may only take a moment, but they might also take a month or a year or a lifetime. The important thing is that we are in tune enough to see the one within our reach who needs our help and that we have enough faith to accept the assignment. It won’t be convenient. I hope nothing I have said here today has given the impression that I believe “small and simple” means easy, because it doesn’t. But I believe these small and simple things will become our most valued university experiences.


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