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.

One thought on “An Act of Mercy

  1. Jeff February 20, 2013 / 7:55 pm


    I appreciate your sharing this story. Of late, I have felt that my approach in reprimanding my children has been ineffective. I often wonder at whether the consequences I create for their bad behavior are actually doing any good for them. This was something I needed to read today. Thank you.


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