December 12, 2007

Priorities and Rejoicing in All Circumstances

Orson Pratt February 10, 1856 During a brief stay in the valley before returning to the mission field in England Orson Pratt explained his apparent willingness to preach the gospel above practically everything else:

I esteem the privilege of proclaiming salvation above any privilege that may be named. The subject of salvation is one of far greater importance than any other subject which can or does interest the human family; although, apparently, we might suppose that the accumulation of the comforts of this life was the one that most interests mankind, judging from the actions of men.
By valuing life as a part of the process in eternity, our perspective can help us avoid the distraction of merely "accumulating comforts," as well as temper our feelings in times of trouble. With the famine of 1856, Pratt encouraged the Saints to remember they really weren't so bad of, and in the long run, these inconveniences shouldn't cause them to lose sight of the greater purpose of life:
If our hearts were supremely placed upon this subject we should converse most about those things that pertain to salvation, instead of being all the time fearful that we were going to perish so far as this mortal life is concerned. Instead of being afraid that we were going to suffer a little inconvenience, we ought to consider the life of the body in the light that our Saviour speaks of it in one of the new revelations, "Care not for the body, nor for the life of the body; but care for the soul and for the life of the soul," or in other words, care most for the future salvation and everlasting life that are in store for mankind. Suppose we should be brought to such extremities that we should all perish with starvation, what of that? If we have done our work may we not as well perish in that way as in any other? Is there any great difference in the kind of death that we die? Does it matter much whether we perish for want of food, or whether we are martyred, or whether the great change which we must all undergo comes in a more common way? In my opinion, it does not make much difference which way that change comes, but we ought to be in such frame of mind that we can rejoice in all circumstances. If we all knew that we must perish under our present scarcity of food, what of that? Ought we not to rejoice in the privilege of exchanging this present life for one which we hope to be more happy, for one where we shall receive greater blessings, greater privileges, where we shall have more solid enjoyment, and where our intellectual faculties will be far more expanded? Instead of exercising so great an anxiety as to where we shall get a little flour, a little corn meal, a few potatoes, or a little beef with which to nourish these bodies, our inquiries should be: are our hearts right before the Lord our God, are we keeping His commandments, are we living up to our privileges? Do we esteem all the words of the Lord as we ought, or are we a little careless and indifferent?[1]
Orson was worried the every-day circumstances were leading to spiritual apathy. He noticed while traveling to various conferences in Utah the Saints hadn't constructed proper meeting places, many didn't attend meetings, many were breaking the Sabbath.[2] While exercise, dancing, and other wholesome activities were strongly urged on the Saints, Orson emphasized moderation in all things. This shouldn't be viewed as a condemnation of good activities, but as an admonition not to give higher priorities to lesser pursuits:
I will mention another practice that in my opinion is often carried to excess, though of no harm in itself; it is a pleasant exercise, but may be so indulged in as to bring condemnation. I have reference to dancing and dancing schools; I do think that these things, and occasionally our parties, are carried to excess. I will include myself in these matters, and consider that my remarks also apply to myself. Some may ask why I deem these matters carried to excess; because often the minds of the young are not only thus unduly placed upon the follies and vanities of this life, but these things have a tendency to draw their minds away from the things of a hundred times more importance. What particular advantage would it be to this generation, if you should spend twenty years in learning all the technicalities of gracefulness? It might be of some use, but of very little in comparison to a well informed and instructed mind. I do think that our minds are too much taken up by these things, but I would not have you to understand by my remarks that we should entirely deprive ourselves of these pleasures.
In LDS theology, there are spiritual benefits to such innocuous things as dancing and playing games, to be sure. There were practical and spiritual reasons Brigham Young instructed the Saints by revelation to "praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving" (see D&C 136:28). However, these things require a balance, and Orson found part of that balance coming from, among other things, books:
Suppose that you and I were deprived of all books,[!] and that we had no faith to get revelation, and no disposition to understand that which has been sought out, understood, and recorded in books, what would be our condition? Suppose that we had not sufficient faith and application to acquire information concerning mathematics, astronomy, geography, mechanism and their kindred branches, or a knowledge of the elements and materials of our globe with their various combinations for useful purposes and their application to machinery, and also of the laws by which machinery acts, and the laws governing motions; then suppose that the present knowledge was all shut out, it would, under these conditions and independent of the aid of the Almighty, require an indefinite period in which to make any great progress in the knowledge that is even now extant. I am speaking upon the principle naturally, upon that which is revealed without the Holy Ghost to inspire us. Now suppose that we have books to enlighten us upon useful knowledge, how much more easy it is for us to get knowledge that has been systematized so that we can obtain in a few minutes, that which would otherwise take us years to acquire. This is the benefit to be derived from the use of books; hence when we say that books are useful we have reference to books that contain useful sciences and knowledge; those facts that are demonstrated by experiment, and not to books filled with the wild theories of speculative men, for those books are laden with humbug in lieu of knowledge. Who does not know that fifteen minutes' study would acquaint persons with discovered and recorded laws which might otherwise take a series of years to become familiar with? By reasoning and trying to generalize our ideas we may gain much useful information, but shall we therefore consider books of no use? Is there no wisdom in availing ourselves of the labors of those who have developed truths? It is still knowledge, notwithstanding it has been discovered by others. Truth is truth, and take it wherever you may find it, or from whatever source it comes, it was truth from all eternity, and it will be truth to all eternity. There is a great fund of useful information laid down in books.
Indeed, we almost have too much opportunity to learn these days that we may become lost in the deluge of information. Elder Dallin H. Oaks discussed the need to temper our efforts so as to not become lost in this vast age of information:
We have thousands of times more available information than Thomas Jefferson or Abraham Lincoln. Yet which of us would think ourselves a thousand times more educated or more serviceable to our fellowmen than they? The sublime quality of what these two men gave to us—including the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address—was not attributable to their great resources of information, for their libraries were comparatively small by our standards. Theirs was the wise and inspired use of a limited amount of information. Available information wisely used is far more valuable than multiplied information allowed to lie fallow... Overarching all of this [new information] is the importance of what the Spirit whispered to us last night or this morning about our own specific needs. Each of us should be careful that the current flood of information does not occupy our time so completely that we cannot focus on and hear and heed the still, small voice that is available to guide each of us with our own challenges today.
Elder Oaks goes on to advise how to selectively use information wisely (See "Focus and Priorities," General Conference, April 2001).
Latter-day Saints believe in seeking after everything that is virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy.[3] This indicates seeking something more than the average television fare, indeed.[4] Culture involves searching for virtue in art, music, science, among other things. When asked if he believes the arts are an important aspect of life, President Boyd K. Packer said
"Well, just erase them, and what do you have?...It would be intolerable, insufferable."[5]
Gerrit de Jong called culture the ability to see life "whole":
To be familiar with the best that has been thought and the best that has been done in the world- that is culture.[6]
Orson would agree; he believed that is what constitutes culture:
What constitutes civilization? The acquirement and correct application of useful knowledge (JD 3:291-298).
Being culturally aware requires effort, however. Typically more than we are willing to expend when instead we can plop down on the couch and watch some TV. Being well-rounded, however, is a principle of the gospel, it allows us to avoid becoming contracted, keeps us seeking, and will enhance our ability to "rejoice in all circumstances." Footnotes: [1] Contrast this view with the temporal practicalities as preached by Brigham Young and George A. Smith. Hence, another paradox of the gospel is apparent. [2] Orson specifically mentions Ogden, among other places: I have from my observations last fall and this winter, and from observations previously made, been firmly convinced that we have all been a little unfaithful as a people. This is my opinion according to the light and knowledge I have upon the subject, and it has been more fully impressed upon my mind since last Conference than during any other period of our sojourn here, for I have traveled in most of the settlements to hold Conferences; in connection with my brethren of the home missions, and from the little observation I have made, I am convinced that we have not all fully lived up to our privileges as Saints of the Most High God. For instance, at a place north of this city, and containing almost inhabitants enough to fill this house, a Conference was lately appointed. Several went from here, according to the missions given us, and when we got there, instead of finding a place suitable for the people to assemble in, we found a very small log building which, perhaps, by crowding, might contain a hundred persons; and it was also quite dilapidated, having scarcely a whole pane of glass in any of its windows. We stopped near this log building and waited until half an hour after the time, as we did not see many passing to the meeting, and then we went in and found about twenty persons sitting in the cold room, which had scarcely one window but what was more or less destitute of glass. After a while we opened our meeting, and those few individuals sat shivering while we addressed them. The remaining portion of the citizens were busily engaged with the care of their cattle, and in other occupations, and with them the Conference was only a secondary consideration. The few who attended our first meeting went and persuaded a few of their neighbors to come and after holding a few meetings we succeeded in getting this very small house pretty well filled; whereas, if the people had come out as they ought, the place would not have held a quarter of them. Ogden City is the place I have alluded to. We found that instead of the people's assembling at the proper time they came about an hour after, and instead of keeping sacred the Lord's day they worked at almost every kind of labor. I have also observed in other places that the Lord's day is scarcely regarded at all. Perhaps the people would attend meetings at times, but often after it is over, "hurrah for the horses, mules, and carriages," and directly six or eight young men and women are in each carriage riding out for pleasure. This does look as though they did not rightly value the Lord's day, it looks as though they did not care whether they went strolling over fields and prairies, or how they spent their time. I mention those things in order to show the recklessness and carelessness manifested by some of the young people who are growing up in these valleys of the mountains. [3] Articles of Faith 1:13 [4] The difference between what I call "lowest common denominator" entertainment and wholesome entertainment is discussed wonderfully in an article by Travis T. Anderson, in which he makes a strong case for seeking the virtuous. See "Seeking After The Good," BYU Studies, 46 no.2 (2007) pg. 231-246. [5] ibid. pg. 242. [6] ibid. page 244.


Chris said...

Orson was a smart cookie. Anybody who encouraged people to read books is fine by me.

LifeOnaPlate said...

I really like Pratt a lot. I read his bio by Breck England a few months ago and was blown away by all he did. We don't give him enough props in the Church today.

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