The Choice

Susan Easton Black


Brigham Young University–Idaho Devotional

November 2, 2004


On 30 August 1992 a survey was conducted in which 250 returned missionaries were asked to respond to questions about Section 4 of the Doctrine and Covenants.


Survey: Doctrine and Covenants, 4

1. Are you familiar with the contents of Section 4 of the Doctrine and Covenants?

2. Can you recite any passage(s) from Section 4?

3. Section 4 was given by the Lord through the Prophet Joseph Smith to .

4. What was his occupation?

Of the 219 respondents, 210 claimed a content recognition, 192 claimed a memorized familiarity with the section, 69 knew that the revelation was given through the Prophet Joseph to his father, and 80 correctly identified the main occupation of Joseph Smith Sr. The compiled survey results suggest the impressive familiarity of the respondents with the contents of Section 4 and their lack of awareness of the person mentioned in the Lord’s revelation. (If findings of the survey as conclusive, rationale in support of the respondents is found in Section 4: “Therefore, O ye that embark . . .” The pronoun “ye” in the King James Bible is plural, meaning “You all.”) If the Lord had set aside or had forgotten the individual as had most of the respondents, would there have been a revelation? I believe that without the individual, in this case Joseph Smith Sr., the revelation would not have been given.

The response of the returned missionaries is perhaps typical of other Latter-day Saints. All of us can benefit by knowing that Joseph Smith Sr. followed the trade of wheat farming. He had labored for decades with his hands using a sickle (a crude farm instrument used for cutting grain and grass. See Alma 26:5; Doctrine and Covenants 6:3; Doctrine and Covenants 31:5) to lay up in store a harvest that had physically sustained his family. He was now being asked to work in a different field, to lay up in store with all his heart, might, mind, and strength the truths of the gospel. Because his eye was single to the glory of God, he was qualified for the urgency of the work that lay before him. For the next eleven years he would labor as a husband, father, missionary, and patriarch.

Why had the surveyed missionaries paid little attention to him in their study or memorization of the revelation? One reason may be reflected in the titles of the Doctrine and Covenants sections. The numeric titles differ from named segments in other standard works.(Orson Pratt, a recognized mathematician, put these sections in their numerical order in 1876.) Names like Moroni, Ruth, and Matthew help readers recall the names and deeds of individuals, whereas the numeric system does not. (The Doctrine and Covenants is the only scripture that has contemporary headings that identify the individuals and circumstances involved. Some may conclude that individuals are better identified in the Doctrine and Covenants than other scriptural texts.) Another reason is heralded in 1 Nephi 19:23, “I did liken all scriptures unto us, that it might be for our profit and learning.” This rationale, albeit important, should not limit the greater truths, analogies, and “likenings” that can be gained from learning about the lives of individuals mentioned in scripture.

I believe the Lord included the names of individuals for a purpose. Would he want us to know why one man was called on a mission to the south and another to the north? Why one would be assigned to be a recorder and another designated a printer? Why some men were worthy to receive the Melchizedek priesthood while others needed to wait? A total of 101 sections in the Doctrine and Covenants name at least one individual other than Joseph Smith in the text, the heading, and/or the italicized captions. In the 101 sections, 130 contemporaries of Joseph Smith are named by name (128 males and two females, the women named being Emma Smith and Vienna Jacques). The average age of those named is 38 years--the same age as Joseph Smith at this death. The oldest man so named was Daniel Miles age 69 and the youngest was Heman Basset, age 17.

The most common reason a name appeared in the Doctrine and Covenants was the Lord’s invitation to that individual to serve a mission, with the phraseology being to “take a journey.” The second reason was to call an individual to preside over a priesthood quorum, the third, to have a man be ordained to a priesthood office, and the fourth, and least mentioned, a reprimand for failure to magnify a calling.

Of the 130 contemporaries of Joseph Smith mentioned by name in the Doctrine and Covenants, only 72 died as faithful members of the Church–that means only 55 percent remained true to their covenants (See end of text*). Of that percentage, not all remained faithful throughout their lives–some fell away into forbidden paths but found their way back to faithfulness before their deaths. That leaves 45 percent who died outside of Church fellowship. Of those, 7 percent sought to destroy the teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith and to take his life (The eight apostates were John C. Bennett, Ezra Booth, John Corrill, John A. Hicks, William Law, William McLellin, Robert D. Foster, and Symonds Ryder).

What can we learn from those named in the Doctrine and Covenants? The “likenings” are incredible and reveal as much about the strengths and weakness of those named as perhaps ourselves. Consistently, the first thing learned was that those who stayed faithful throughout their lives enjoyed the continuing blessing of having the spirit of God at all times. One example, taken from the life of Heber C. Kimball, illustrates this point. After being baptized and confirmed, he penned, “I received the Holy Ghost, as the disciples did in ancient days, which was like a consuming fire”(Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, an Apostle, the Father and Founder of the British Mission (Salt Lake City: Juvenile Instructor Office, 1888), 22). As I studied his life, I found that he never lost that feeling even in times of great stress and trial. On 4 June 1837 the Prophet Joseph Smith said, “Brother Heber, the Spirit of the Lord has whispered to me: `Let my servant Heber go to England and proclaim my Gospel, and open the door of salvation to that nation.’” In obedience to the prophetic prompting, Heber “felt a determination to go at all hazards” (104) “I put my trust in God, believing that He would assist me in publishing the truth, give me utterance, and be a present help in time of need (119). His confidence was not misplaced. After preaching to a gathering in Chatburn, England, he felt someone pulling at his coat exclaiming,


“Maister maister.” I turned around and asked what was wanted. . . . “Please sir, will you baptize me?” “And me?” “And me?” exclaimed more than a dozen voices. Accordingly I went down into the water and baptized twenty-five (171).

Of his glorious success on that mission, Heber exclaimed, “Blessed be the name of the Lord, who has crowned our labors with such success!”

In contrast to Heber C. Kimball are those who were faithful for a time. But for various reasons, they chose to spend part of their lives outside of Church fellowship. Fortunately, along their life path, they found their way back to full fellowship. One such man was Martin Harris, a witness to the Book of Mormon. He claimed for years that “I never did leave the Church; the Church left me” (Madge Harris Tuckett and Belle Harris Wilson, The Martin Harris Story with Biographies of Emer Harris and Dennison Lott Harris (Provo, Utah: Vintage Book, 1983), 75). The Church did move on. It would take Martin decades to return. It was not until he was in his late eighties that he found his way back. In surprise, after gazing at the Salt Lake Temple and Tabernacle and the beautiful Salt Lake City, he exclaimed, “who would have thought that the Book of Mormon would have done all this?” (Journal History, June 1, 1877.)

Then there was Oliver Cowdery who spent ten years outside of the fellowship of the Saints. At a conference held on 24 October 1848 he addressed the assembled congregation,


Friends and Brethren: My name is Cowdery–Oliver Cowdery. In the history of the Church I stood identified with him [Joseph Smith], and was in her councils not because I was better than other men . . . I wrote with my own pen the entire Book of Mormon (save a few pages) as it fell from the lips of the Prophet Joseph Smith . . . That book is true . . . Brethren, for a number of years, I have been separated from you. I now desire to come back. . . . I seek no station. I only wish to be identified with you (As cited in Jenson, LDS Biographical Encyclopedia, 1:249).

Oliver Cowdery was baptized on 12 November 1848 in the Missouri River by Orson Hyde.

Thomas B. Marsh, once President of the Quorum of the Twelve, is next. In August 1838 the oft-quoted “cream strippings” incident occurred. The wife of Thomas and the wife of George W. Harris desired to make cheese:


. . . neither of them possessed the requisite number of cows, but agreed to exchange milk. . . . Mrs. Marsh wishing to make some extra good cheese, saved a pint of strippings from each cow and sent Mrs. Harris the milk without the strippings (George A. Smith, in Journal of Discourses, 3:283).

From small beginnings, the issue over the strippings escalated. Perhaps John Taylor said it best: “[Thomas] seemed to have lost all the spirit and power and manhood that he once enjoyed” (Homer Durham, The Gospel Kingdom (Independence, Missouri: Zion’s Printing and Publishing Company, 1943), 185-86). After this, “In meeting with some of the apostates he said to them, ‘You don’t know what you are about; if you want to see the fruits of apostasy look at me.’” (Journal History, August 9, 1857). He lamented, “Oh, if I could see Joseph, and talk with him and acknowledge my faults to him, and get his forgiveness from him as I have to Brother Harris, then I would die happy.” (Journal of Wandle Mace, LDS Church Archives). Before a congregation in the bowery in Salt Lake City, he said, “I want your fellowship; I want your God to be my God . . . I have learned to understand what David said when he exclaimed, ‘I would rather be a doorkeeper in the House of God than to dwell in the tents of wickedness.’” (Thomas B. Marsh, in Journal of Discourses, 5:206-08).

What did Thomas, Martin, and Oliver have in common? They had the truth, the spirit of God and each failed to care for, tend, and nourish this great treasure. They paused in their work and in so doing lost for a moment, and some for years, the joy of fellowship with the Saints and the blessings that come from righteous living.

Of those who died outside the faith, none was more famous than John Farnham Boynton. Once a faithful apostle, John choose a different road. In 1837 he lashed out against Joseph Smith, calling him a fallen prophet. By 1838, he had turned his energy to the study of science, and had become known as a pioneer in the field of popular science. He invented a fluid and light apparatus for the rapid generation of carbonic acid gas that could be carried by one man to extinguish small fires. He also invented a soda fountain, a method for extracting gold from ore by a vacuum process, various electrical appliances, the process for converting cast iron into malleable steel, and a method for coloring buttons and glassware. Over thirty patents are credited to John Boynton and at least three partnerships, the manufacturing of coarse salt, tar roofing and wall plaster. As he neared the end of his life John’s interest turned to collecting and compiling historic records of the Boynton family. He was President of the Boynton Association with over 600 members organized for the purpose of gathering, collecting and preserving family history.

In 1872 he visited with Brigham Young in Utah. As he mingled with his former friends he was warmly greeted and referred to as “Brother John.” Elder Erastus Snow, whom he had ordained a teacher, told him he had taught the same gospel ever since his ordination. John said, “Stick to it, for it is good” (Forace Green, Testimonies of Our Leaders (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958), 120). John, however, did not stick to it. He died at his home on 20 October 1890 at age 79 outside the faith. He once had the “pearl of great price” but not at the end. He failed to endure.

The last category are those who turned their heel against the Prophet Joseph Smith. Almon Whiting Babbitt, an attorney-at-law and a graduate from the State University at Cincinnati who obtained licenses to practice law in six states, is our last example. On 19 January 1841, the Lord revealed to the Prophet that “there are many things with which I am not pleased,” in speaking of Babbitt. “Behold, he aspireth to establish his counsel instead of the counsel which I have ordained, even that of the Presidency of my Church; and he setteth up a golden calf for the worship of my people” (D&C 124:84). Nowhere is the concept of a “golden calf” better seen in his life than in June 1844. The day before the martyrdom, Uncle John Smith visited the Prophet in Carthage Jail and received instructions to “. . . tell Almon W. Babbitt I want him to come and assist me as an attorney at my expected trial” (Smith, History of the Church, 6:598). Patriarch Smith met with him three hours later in Macedonia, Illinois, and delivered the message. Almon replied, “You are too late, I am already engaged on the other side” (Smith, History of the Church, 6:600).

There is a choice--which will you make. Will your life be like Heber C. Kimball, that of Thomas B. Marsh, John F. Boynton, or Almon W. Babbitt? History does tend to repeat itself– perhaps even in your life choices. As you make these choices, know this that faith equates to having the spirit of God. Taking time out from righteous pursuits equates to loosing the spirit and the confidence to accept opportunities in life. Leaving the Church, like Boynton, is never done in isolation–it effects us all. And blatantly fighting against the Lord’s Anointed will do you know good.

For me, searching for information on the individuals mentioned in the Doctrine and Covenants has been like seeking pieces of a lost puzzle whose importance is clear but whose detailed parts are fast fading. The frustration of reaching an impasse on the life of one man has been compensated by the joy of discovering new insights on another. The realization of the faithfulness of one and the disappointment in the faltering steps of another has brought to my awareness the centrality of endurance and the concern of the Lord for each individual.

The Doctrine and Covenants teaches us that the Lord knows his children and his enemies by name. He knows their talents and gifts as well as their weaknesses and imperfections. He extended an invitation to greater service to many but not all chose to listen and accept his directives. Some served with great joy and others discarded counsel and lost direction. The analogies and “likenings” to be gleaned from knowing more about the individuals in the Doctrine and Covenants are almost boundless. It is my hope that you will take note of the names and begin to wonder about who they were, where they came from, and if they fulfilled their divine commissions. But more importantly, to wonder about yourself. Will you choose to be faithful. As for me and my house, we say with Joshua of old, “We will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

*The seventy-two who died in full fellowship with the Saints: Jesse Baker, Ezra Taft Benson, Samuel Bent, Titus Billings, Seymour Brunson, Reynolds Cahoon, Gideon Carter, John Sims Carter, Simeon Doget Carter, William Carter, Zebedee Coltrin, Oliver Cowdery, David Dort, James Foster, David Fullmer, Algernon Sidney Gilbert, John Gould, Oliver Granger, Thomas Grover, Levi Hancock, Solomon Hancock, Emer Harris, Martin Harris, Henry Herriman, Elias Higbee, Solomon Humphrey, William Huntington, Orson Hyde, Vienna Jacques, Aaron Johnson, Luke Johnson, Heber C. Kimball, Joseph Knight, Newel Knight, Vinson Knight, Thomas B. Marsh, Daniel Miles, Isaac Morley, John Murdock, Noah Packard, Edward Partridge, David Patten, William W. Phelps, Orson Pratt, Parley P. Pratt, Zera Pulsipher, Charles C. Rich, Willard Richards, Samuel J. Rolfe, Shadrach Roundy, Lyman Sherman, Henry Sherwood, Don Carlos Smith, Eden Smith, George A. Smith, Hyrum Smith, John Smith, Joseph Smith, Jr., Joseph Smith, Sr., Samuel H. Smith, John Snider, Erastus Snow, Daniel Stanton, John Taylor, Robert Thompson, Peter Whitmer, Jr., Newel K. Whitney, Frederick G. Williams, Samuel Williams, Wilford Woodruff, Brigham Young, and Joseph Young.