An Act of Mercy

Ensign Ward Chapel that Stood at 9th and D Street in Salt Lake
City from 1915–1996. Photo © Utah State Historical Society.

I recently found some reminisces of T. Edgar Lyon (1903–1978), a noted Church historian and educator. He was the father of my first home teaching companion, the composer A. Laurence Lyon (1934–2006). T. Edgar—or Ted as he was called—told of attending a testimony meeting as a boy with his father, David R. Lyon, where present were a number of “Old Nauvooers,” people who lived in Nauvoo while the Prophet Joseph Smith was still alive. This meeting could very well have occurred in the old Ensign Ward chapel on 9th and D Street in Salt Lake City where David Lyon was bishop from 1913–1926. Here is the story.

A man with a long, white beard testified to a great lesson the Prophet had taught him. As a teenager, he and another boy had gotten into some sort of devilment, unthinking of the seriousness of what they were doing. [And who, as a teenager, is very thoughtful about the future impact of the deeds of the day?] He failed to state exactly what they did, but they had destroyed some property. They might have done what was common sport in those days, setting fire to a rail fence, or tearing out a few panels of such a fence so that cattle, sheep, horses, and hogs could get out of the enclosure and wander for miles; perhaps some of the cows bloated and died from eating too much of the wrong kind of forage.

The owner of the farm where they had committed their destructive act was furious. He found out who they were, swore out a warrant for their arrest, and the sheriff took them to Carthage before the county judge. They were found guilty and sentenced to six months in the Hancock County jail, and fined $50.00. (This may not seem a heavy fine to an affluent society, but when one considers that skilled craftsmen and mechanics at that time earned a dollar a day, it was a heavy fine for youths in the 1840s.)

The father of the boys complained to Joseph Smith about the severity of the sentence, the need of the parents for the help of the young men with the harvest and fall planting, and the fear of boys spending six months in an unheated stone jail. Wouldn’t the Prophet intercede with the judge for a reduction of the sentence?

Joseph Smith went to Carthage and talked to the judge, whose answer was, “They did wrong and I’m going to teach them a lesson never to do such a thing again.”

Joseph Smith’s reply was, “I’m afraid you won’t teach them that lesson by an imprisonment. After six months they’ll come out of that jail hating you and the sheriff and the man whose property they destroyed, and perhaps antagonistic against the ordered society we stand for. With nothing worthwhile to do they’ll spend their time planning how they could do the same thing again and not get caught. They might even be persuaded to join one of the gangs of outlaws who infest this country and become professional criminals.”

The judge asked Joseph Smith what he could propose as a better punishment to which he replied, “Release them to my custody for six months. Our Nauvoo streets are difficult to travel because of mud holes. We’ll employ them to haul stone chips from the temple quarry and gravel from the river banks to improve our streets. We’ll pay them fifty cents a day to reimburse the man whose property was destroyed. This will save the county money as they won’t have to be fed for six months at county expense. Let them pay the costs of the court procedures and all will be better off than a jail sentence would achieve.”

Contemporary Nauvoo notes show that from time to time Joseph Smith, the mayor, or Brother Sherwood, the city surveyor and supervisor of streets, checked on the boys. Once they found them loafing, another time not on the job, and docked them a day’s pay for their indolence.

Then the narrator said something to this effect: “That was the greatest training I ever had not to wantonly or willfully destroy property of another. It was the best training to work consistently and earn an honest day’s pay I ever had. Here I am advanced in years and I’ve never done anything since that episode that brought me into a court for misconduct.” To this man Joseph Smith was a man of warm feeling, great compassion, and wonderful insight into the minds of youths in training them to avoid delinquency.

One act of generosity, one thoughtful intercession, can impact a life, even a generation.

P.S. By the way, the Ensign First Ward, created in 1913, is celebrating its one hundredth birthday today.

Repenting and Remembering

Yesterday I heard a story in Sunday School. It came from a man whose wife’s father was a bishop years ago in a small town in Idaho. His ward had a lot of Word of Wisdom problems (alcohol and tobacco use). He had a hard time finding people who would accept callings. Then he was inspired to do something a bit unusual.

He called a woman to be Relief Society president, but the only problem was that she ran a bar in town.

Well, they got through that part. The woman accepted the calling and it changed her life. She went on to be a wonderful Relief Society president.

Sometime after that, this bishop was visiting with another woman, discussing this former bar manager turned servant of God. The discussion went something like this.

“I just can’t get used to this woman being Relief Society president!” said the woman.

“How is she doing?” asked the bishop.

“She is doing great, but in my mind I keep seeing her with a cigarette in one hand an a high ball in the other.”

“Do you know what your problem is?”

“No.”

“You have too long of a memory. Even the Lord doesn’t remember that far back.”

Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.D&C 58:43

To what degree does the Lord remember our sins after we have repented of them? He says that he doesn’t remember them anymore. I don’t understand how this works, but I trust that it does, that it is true.

If the Lord promises to forget our sins after we have repented of them, can’t we just accept that? When God makes a promise, He keeps it. Why should we remember what God has forgotten?

We hold on because we doubt. We say to ourselves, “He doesn’t really forget.” Doubt is a chain that binds us to everything that is negative, past or future. Doubt is often intellectual laziness. Or it’s a form of blame. It is a false belief that we cannot find answers for ourselves, that someone else is responsible for getting those answers, not us.

When we fetter ourselves with the mistaken belief that we and others can’t go on with our lives and leave our sins behind us, we don’t move forward. We are stuck. Maybe forgiveness, of ourselves and others, is the spiritual WD40 we need to get unstuck.  

But the verse doesn’t say that we should forget our sins. Remembering them is a protection. It’s a moat around our castle, and while our castle is under construction, we need to remember. At least a little.

I’ve notice that when we deal with our mistakes honestly, openly, and sincerely, trusting in a power higher than ourselves, confessing to whom we should confess, the memory of those mistakes no longer crushes us. Those memories are neutralized. We are free. We still may remember them, but we are free to move forward. We are unstuck.

I don’t want to hold back anyone from moving forward. I choose not to remember their sins. (And many of them, for the life of me, I can’t remember.) If you are making and keeping your covenants, what does the past matter when your future is so bright?

I’ll remember my foolishness only long enough to keep me from getting into trouble again. But I’ll keep the drawbridge up. I’m staying in the castle.