“Keeping the Gospel Simple,” Ensign, Jan. 1989, 69
Many years ago I served a mission in New Zealand. The day I arrived, I had the opportunity of meeting President Matthew Cowley for the first time. During the next two years we became close friends, and during the latter part of my mission I lived in the mission home and traveled with President Cowley throughout New Zealand.
He was an excellent teacher and a most interesting person. Some years later, while he was a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, I accompanied him on two or three occasions when he was the speaker at Brigham Young University devotionals. Everyone loved to hear his stories. Even though he passed away more than thirty-four years ago, people in many parts of the Church are still interested in the faith-promoting stories he told.
Over and above everything else, President Cowley tried to keep the things he taught simple. In fact, he said many times that he was unable to speak very often of subjects beyond the first principles of the gospel. I remember well that he spoke about prayer, faith, and repentance. For several years he had a talk about baptism prepared, which he wanted to give in general conference, but life ran out before he gave that talk. He lived simply. He really didn’t concern himself with his own personal needs; he only wanted to bless and inspire people to live the gospel in a simple way.
Because of his great faith, many wonderful things continued to happen to President Cowley—and also to me—after our missions. I was a very young bishop in those days, and many times he and I visited the homes of people who had asked for priesthood blessings. After we had blessed people, President Cowley would fast and pray for them and return again and again to those who needed him.
We saw great miracles happen in those days. My testimony to you is that miracles do happen! They are happening on the earth today, and they will continue to happen, particularly to those who believe and have great faith. Miracles occur frequently in the lives of humble, fine Latter-day Saints who have the faith to make them possible. My feeling is that the greatest of all miracles is the one that happens in the life of a person who really learns how to pray, who exercises faith to repent, and who lives the gospel in a simple and obedient way.
Many times President Cowley said, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is simply beautiful and beautifully simple.” President Cowley spent his whole life trying to explain that there isn’t anything very complicated about the Church. The Savior has always been direct and plain in giving commandments to us. In fact, most of the Church leaders I have known have taught the same thing. I am convinced that understanding increases when we talk or teach in a direct and simple way.
But many of us complicate simple things to the point of causing confusion. For instance, we are told to do missionary work by following the promptings of the Spirit. We could complicate this by writing books on how to follow the Spirit in doing missionary work, but that is really unnecessary because the Lord has a manner of communicating with us in a very simple way. Generally, all that a person has to do is to pray in faith and wait for the answer. Sometimes we need to do a little more than just wait, but the more simple we can keep our prayers, the more simple and more direct the answers will be.
Now, let me say a little more about Matthew Cowley. He was a very uncomplicated man. Some who couldn’t understand his simplicity became confused about what he did and found it difficult to understand him. I had the opportunity of being his close associate for fifteen years. After he died, some people asked me about him. One man said, “I just can’t understand how Brother Cowley did all the things he did.” The real answer is that Brother Cowley went directly to the Lord, told the Lord what he wanted, and received the answer. There wasn’t anything hard about that; Brother Cowley just did it.
Mission presidents today must be well organized in order to hold district and zone meetings and all the necessary appointments and interviews. They have made plans for almost every day weeks in advance. But Brother Cowley rarely planned anything; he just lived by following the promptings of the Spirit of the Lord.
As President Cowley’s traveling companion in the mission field, I received instructions from him to keep my briefcase packed with a couple of changes of clothing. He said, “When I say ‘We’re going,’ you grab your bag, beat me to the car, and don’t ask any questions.”
When that would happen, I would grab my bag and go to the car. Being a young, eager missionary, I often wondered where we were going—but I didn’t ask.
Once, after we had driven a few miles, he asked, “Would you like to know where we’re going?”
Then he said, “So would I! I’m not sure just where we’re going, but we’ll keep going; and when the Lord tells us to turn, we’ll turn, and we’ll end up where He wants us to be.”
When the Maori people in the New Zealand Mission needed help, they prayed for President Cowley to come to them. One day he drove up to a post office in a rather distant city in New Zealand. There were two sisters standing by the post office, waiting. When he got out of the car, one said to the other, “See, I told you he would be here soon.”
President Cowley said, “What’s going on here?”
One of the sisters said, “We needed you, and we’ve been praying. We knew you would come, and you always go directly to the post office, so we decided to wait here until you arrived.”
It was just that simple. People would tell the Lord what they wanted, and somehow or other President Cowley was led by the Spirit to go to where they were. He wasn’t disorganized, but I have never known anyone who planned less and accomplished more, simply by doing what he felt impressed to do.
During the last several months while I have been speaking at stake conferences, I have had difficulty myself getting past the simple principles of personal and family prayer, faith, and repentance. I believe in these things; I think they are as plain and simple as anything in the whole world can possibly be. So I am going to tell you three simple stories about prayer, faith, and repentance.
Prayer is the way we talk to the Lord. We bow before Him, and in humble prayer we pour out the feelings of our heart, thank Him, and ask Him for special blessings. If we have simple faith, those answers will come.
To illustrate this, I will tell you about one day when President Cowley and I were traveling. We arrived at the home of Brother Stewart Meha, a great and wonderful Maori man. He presided over his large family as a true father and leader. President Cowley and Brother Meha spent all afternoon sitting on the porch and talking about the Church and other interesting things. I listened to them part of the time and visited with the children and others who lived in the area near Brother Meha’s home. Incidentally, there were two or three other homes in this little Maori village, but I discovered that most of the people living there belonged to Brother Meha’s family; they were his children or his grandchildren.
When it came time for the evening meal, Brother Meha stood on his front porch and, in the Maori language, shouted out to all of his large family, “Haere Mai Ki Te Kai.” Then he said, “Haere Mai Ki Te Karakia.” These phrases meant, “Come on home for supper, Come on home for prayer.”
Soon family members came from every direction. We all assembled in his home in the big front room. The room had very little furniture in it, and everybody gathered in a large circle. Brother Meha was at the head of the circle, President Cowley was on his left, and I was next to President Cowley. On Brother Meha’s right was a little child about eight years of age. All around the rest of the circle were the other children, with some adults in between.
Brother Meha said to the little boy on his right, “You start.” I bowed my head in anticipation of the little boy’s prayer. Instead of praying, he quoted a scripture, after first reciting the chapter and verse. Then the young person next to him recited a scripture with the reference. After about four scriptures had been given, I realized that we were going around the circle, with each person quoting a different passage of scripture. One youngster started to quote one that had already been used, and he was quickly corrected.
I immediately began to think of a scripture that I could quote when my turn came. I had been in the mission field just a little over a year, and I had mastered two wonderful passages of scripture. I mentally polished up my first scripture, and had no sooner silently rehearsed it than one of the young people gave that exact scripture. This, of course, slowed me down for a minute, but I thought it was all right because I still had one in reserve. I worked a little on it, only to hear someone directly across from me quote it. I then panicked as I realized that I could not think of another scripture that I could give.
My turn was coming closer and closer, and I felt tension building up within me. My mind went totally blank. In my moment of greatest concern, President Cowley nudged me with his elbow and, out of the side of his mouth, said, “Quick—tell me a scripture. I can’t think of a single one to say.” I then realized that the two of us were in the same desperate situation.
At that moment, it was my turn. I bravely said the first article of faith. President Cowley followed by quoting the second article of faith, and then Brother Meha prayed. I think that that night he prayed for the mission president and the missionaries a little harder than usual. When the prayer was finished, a little boy about eight years of age came over to us and said, “I guess you two guys don’t know that the Articles of Faith are not allowed in our scripture study.”
Brothers and sisters, that was an excellent example to me of family prayer and how children can be taught the scriptures! If we gather together and have prayer, it is probably the finest teaching experience that a mother and a father can provide for their children. Prayer is simple and should remain that way. Prayers do not need to be long or complicated; they need only to be simple and sincere. If we want to talk to the Lord, we do it through prayer. If we listen with faith, we will hear His answers. We can also search the scriptures, for in them we are given, in an uncomplicated way, the answers we need.
Now let me say something about faith. Faith is the first principle of the gospel. It is a gift from our Heavenly Father. No one seems to have enough faith; the faith of most of us seems to come and go. We all need a little bit more. Faith is simply knowing that the Lord is there and that He will keep His promises to those who humbly approach Him.
Let me tell you about an unusual experience that happened to me while I was presiding over the Florida Mission about twenty years ago. It all started when I received a letter written in Spanish. Upon reading a translated version of the letter, I learned that it was from a young member of the Church—a sister twenty or twenty-one years of age named Flavia Salazar Gomez. She was living in the city of Santiago in the Dominican Republic. At that time Santiago had close to twenty thousand inhabitants. It is located about ninety miles north of Santo Domingo, which is the main city in that country.
In her letter, Flavia stated that she had joined the Church when she was about twelve years of age and that she had been very active in the Church during the years she was growing up in Mexico. Her sisters and mother had also joined the Church. Later on Flavia had fallen in love with a Dominican young man, married him, and moved with him to the Dominican Republic. Flavia thought that she was the only Latter-day Saint in the whole country of five million people! She mentioned that she had a year-old baby boy who had not been named or blessed by the priesthood. She wrote that she was seriously ill with cancer and had been told by doctors that she did not have very long to live. She asked if it would be possible for someone who held the priesthood to come to Santiago to bless her baby and to give her a blessing.
I wrote to her and told her that we would get there as soon as possible. It wasn’t long before I was to attend a district conference in Puerto Rico. There was one Latter-day Saint family living in Santo Domingo—Dale Valentine and his wife and children. Brother Valentine was an elder, and the Valentines were a fine, active, Latter-day Saint family. I wrote Brother Valentine and asked him if he would take me to Santiago so that we could find Flavia to bless her baby and give her a blessing.
Elder Gert Forestor and I flew to the Dominican Republic. Brother Valentine met us at the airport in Santo Domingo. Early the next morning, he, one of his children, Elder Forestor, and I drove to the city of Santiago. It was a rather long ride because the highway was crooked and the traffic was quite heavy.
When we arrived at the outskirts of Santiago, Brother Valentine asked me where Flavia lived. At that moment we realized that none of us knew exactly where she lived. We didn’t have a street address; all I knew was her name and that she was hoping that we would come.
We stopped for a few minutes on a high point overlooking the city. I told Brother Valentine to drive down into the city and turn to the left. He obediently drove on. I then told him to make a right turn and proceed toward the center of the large, congested city. As we drove down the busy street, we began looking for a parking place; but there was none to be found.
After traveling several more blocks, Brother Valentine said, “What can we possibly do to find her?”
I said, “Go to the next corner; make a right turn; and after you turn, you will find an empty parking place.”
He drove to the corner and made the right turn. There in front of us, in the second or third slot, was an open parking space. He parked the car, and we got out of it and stood on the sidewalk. He said, “Now what do we do?”
I said, “Let’s just start asking people.”
There was a man on the sidewalk who was leaning up against the front of a residence. Brother Valentine went over to him and asked him, in Spanish, if he knew Flavia Salazar Gomez.
Surprised, the man said, “Yes, she’s my wife. She’s just inside that door.” We had parked in front of their home.
Flavia’s husband went inside, and she came out onto the sidewalk with her little baby boy. We were invited into their humble little home. I asked Brother Valentine to interview her and find out how close to the Church she had remained. It had been more than two years since she had left Mexico, and during that time she had been out of contact with the Church. We were delighted to find out that she was living the Word of Wisdom and that she prayed every day. Of course, she couldn’t attend church and was unable to make any contributions to the Church, but she felt that she was a good, faithful member. She asked whether President David O. McKay was still alive and well and asked a few other questions about the Church.
We named and blessed the little boy, and then I asked Brother Valentine to give her a blessing in Spanish. I felt impressed to tell him to bless her that she would recover from her cancerous condition and become well. After the blessing and a brief visit, we drove back to the city of Santo Domingo.
A month or two later, I heard from Brother Valentine that Flavia and her husband had moved to Santo Domingo. Six months later, as I was on my way to Puerto Rico again, I stopped in Santo Domingo and Brother Valentine drove me to where Flavia and her husband were living. We found her in good health, looking well and happy. She told us that she had been completely cured; the doctors had told her that she no longer had cancer; it seemed that she was going to be all right from then on. She and her husband were delighted to see us again. It was a great thrill to meet this lovely Latter-day Saint sister and to see the blessings of the Lord that had come to her.
When this lovely young Mexican mother had needed a priesthood blessing, she knew that there was no way for her to receive one except to ask the Lord to help her. So she had very simply written a letter to the mission president, whom she didn’t know. The mission president had read her letter and had immediately done what the Lord told him to do: he had arranged to go and answer her need. It was just that simple.
There may be those who question such promptings, but they happen all the time. Almost any priesthood leader, if he thinks for a moment, can tell you how faith has led him to do things he hadn’t planned to do.
Repentance is just about as simple as prayer and faith. All that we really have to do to repent is to quit doing what is wrong and then make amends as much as we can to rectify the problems we have created. Then we must tell the Lord about it, and sometimes we need to tell the bishop or the branch president; but it can all be handled in a simple, practical way.
Repentance is understood by some people to be a long, drawn-out process. That is not absolutely necessary. We should quit doing what is wrong, make up for it in the best possible way, and let the Lord do His part. He has promised that when we repent, we are forgiven. If we do not commit the wrong again, the Lord will not even remember it. Let me read from section 58 of the Doctrine and Covenants, verses 42 and 43 [D&C 58:42–43]:
“Behold, he who has repented of his sins, the same is forgiven, and I, the Lord, remember them no more.
“By this ye may know if a man repenteth of his sins—behold, he will confess them and forsake them.”
Nothing is more direct or simple than that scripture.
Now I will tell you an interesting story about repentance. There was a man by the name of Syd who lived in a little Maori village on the east coast of New Zealand. At that time there was a large branch of the Church there with about four hundred members. One Saturday afternoon, after a long, eight-hour drive, President Matthew Cowley arrived at this village and went directly to see his old friend, Syd.
As a young man, Syd had been an outstanding athlete. He had attended high school and college in the United States. He had become a well-known basketball player, and, as an all-star athlete, he had received a lot of publicity. His picture had been in the newspapers many times, and everybody had known about this fine athlete from New Zealand.
Syd had been ordained a seventy while he had lived in the United States, and when he arrived back in New Zealand, he had found that he was the only seventy in the whole area, and he didn’t have a quorum to belong to. He had become somewhat inactive, and he hadn’t been keeping the Word of Wisdom, but deep within his heart he still knew the gospel to be true.
As a mission president and a friend, President Cowley called on Syd. (Let me explain that among the Maori members and the missionaries, President Cowley was known as Tumuaki, a word of utmost respect, meaning “President” in the Maori language.) “Tumuaki” found Syd sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch, smoking a big cigar. Syd didn’t stop chewing on his cigar as President Cowley sat down beside him to visit.
After they had talked and laughed for a while, President Cowley became serious and said, “Syd, I want you to come to church tomorrow.”
They both looked toward the old chapel, and Syd said, “I think it’ll fall in if I do. I haven’t been there for a long time. I don’t think I’d better risk it.”
President Cowley said, “Syd, I want you to be there. I’m going to do something important tomorrow.”
Syd inquired, “What are you going to do?”
President Cowley answered, “I’m going to release the branch president and put in a new one.”
Syd said, “Why don’t you just tell me who the new branch president will be, and then I won’t have to get myself cleaned up for church in the morning.”
President Cowley said, “Well, I’ll tell you who it is. It’s going to be you.”
Syd pulled that old cigar out of his mouth, looked at it, and said, “Tumuaki, you mean me and my cigar?”
President Cowley said, “No, Syd—just you. We don’t need your cigar.”
Then Syd threw the cigar out on the ground in front of the porch. He thought for a minute, turned to President Cowley, and very humbly said, “Tumuaki, I don’t break the Word of Wisdom any more. I’m a full-tithe payer. I’ll be the branch president, and I’ll be worthy. Tomorrow morning I’ll be there, and I promise you that I’ll be the best branch president in the whole country. You won’t have to worry about me and whether or not I’m living the gospel.”
For the next several years, Syd served as one of the strongest and finest leaders in the mission. His son became the first bishop in the ward when the stake was created. Just recently, his grandson was released from serving as a bishop. Syd’s whole family is strong and active in the Church today and is one of the great families in New Zealand. Why? Because old Syd knew how to repent. He repented on the spot. When he was called to repentance, he quit his worldly ways. He became and remained a faithful Saint until the day he died.
In most cases, that’s all there is to repentance. Do you see how really simple that was? President Cowley never did ask Syd to repent. He gave him an opportunity to be of service to the Church in a priesthood calling. Syd knew that if he accepted that calling, he could no longer sin, so he immediately quit. It was over—just like that! The Lord accepted his repentance, and Syd became a great leader.
Baptism and confirmation are just as simple as prayer and faith and repentance. Baptism is simply doing what the Savior has told us to do—to go before the priesthood, be baptized by immersion, and receive the Holy Ghost through the laying on of hands. These ordinances do not need to be complicated, either.
My whole purpose in telling these stories is to bear testimony that simplicity is possible. Almost every principle and every doctrine of the Church can be made simple if we make the effort. It is absolutely possible to live righteously and properly in a simple way.
Our Heavenly Father hears our prayers, so pray!
He will give us faith, so ask Him for it!
He will help us to repent, so repent as needed!
In the most simple way I know, I bear to you my humble witness that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and the head of this church. Today a great man—President Ezra Taft Benson—stands before us as our President. He is a living prophet of the Lord. May we all sustain him, support him, and be the kind of followers of Christ that we ought to be.