The Strength of Sacrifice
April 1997

“The Strength of Sacrifice,” Ensign, Apr. 1997, 32

Faith in Every Footstep 1847–1997

The Strength of Sacrifice

The example of sacrifice in the lives of Latter-day Saint pioneers inspires us as we strive to give our best for the gospel’s sake.

“A religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation,”1 taught the Prophet Joseph Smith, whose own life is a study in sacrifice. From the moment he experienced the First Vision in the Sacred Grove, he gave up any chance of living a simple, uneventful farmer’s life. While greatly loved by many, the Prophet was also hated and continually persecuted; yet he never turned his back on his stewardship—to reintroduce the gospel of Jesus Christ to mankind. His ultimate sacrifice was his life.

The Prophet’s experience in Hiram, Ohio, late one Saturday night in March 1832, is only one example of his many sacrifices for the gospel. He and his wife, Emma, were caring for their adopted twins, who were suffering with measles. He wrote that suddenly a “mob burst open the door and surrounded the bed. … They then seized me by the throat and held on till I lost my breath. After I came to, … I saw Elder [Sidney] Rigdon stretched out on the ground, whither they had dragged him by his heels. … They had concluded not to kill me, but to beat and scratch me. … They ran back and fetched the bucket of tar, … and one man fell on me and scratched my body with his nails like a mad cat. … They then left me, and I attempted to rise, but fell again; I pulled the tar away from my lips, so that I could breathe more freely. … My friends spent the night in scraping and removing the tar, and washing and cleansing my body.”2

After a night of terror and physical agony and “with my flesh all scarified and defaced, I preached to the congregation as usual, and in the afternoon of the same day baptized three individuals.”3 What courage, what commitment the Prophet Joseph possessed! What a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the restored gospel!

The Lord acknowledged the Prophet’s sacrifice: “Verily I say unto you, my servant Joseph, that whatsoever you give on earth … it shall be visited with blessings. … For I am the Lord thy God, and will be with thee even unto the end of the world, and through all eternity; for verily I seal upon you your exaltation. … Behold, I have seen your sacrifices, and will forgive all your sins; I have seen your sacrifices in obedience to that which I have told you” (D&C 132:48–50).

Gold or the Gospel?

Our Latter-day Saint history is replete with stories of heroic and subtle sacrifice made also by the “not-so-well-known” people who were willing to give of “one’s self and one’s substance without thought of any reward or compensation.”4

Elizabeth Kirby was such a person. She, like many others, sacrificed her temporal possessions for spiritual blessings. Knowing of the importance of temple ordinances, she and others helped build the temple of the Lord on a hill in Nauvoo overlooking the Mississippi River. In a straightforward manner, Elizabeth Kirby recounted her family’s experience: “It was taught in our meetings that we would have to sacrifice our idols in order to be saved. I could not think of anything that would grieve me to part with in my possession, except [my husband’s] watch. So, I gave it up to help build the Nauvoo Temple and everything else that I could possibly spare and the last few dollars that I had in the world, which altogether amounted to nearly $50.00.”5

James S. Brown, a member of the Mormon Battalion, also sacrificed temporal possessions for his commitment to the gospel and to the Saints. Exemplifying two synonyms for the word sacrificeforgo and forbear—James was one of the Mormon Battalion members who was at Sutter’s Mill, California, when gold was discovered in 1848. Being on the spot provided him and the others with unimaginable possibilities for personal wealth.

He wrote of his experience: “The day before starting from the gold diggings was a kind of an off-day, in which [I] … wandered off from camp, with pick and shovel, up a dry gulch where [I] soon struck a very rich prospect of gold. … By sundown [I] had … washed out forty-nine dollars and fifty cents in gold; yet … strange as it may appear … I have never seen that rich spot of earth since; nor do I regret it, for there always has been a higher object before me than gold. We had covenanted to move together. … We were in honor bound to move the next day. We did move, leaving that rich prospect without ever sticking a stake in the gulch, but abandoning it to those who might follow. … People said, ‘Here is gold on the bedrock, gold on the hills, gold in the rills, gold everywhere, gold to spend, gold to lend, gold for all that will delve, and soon you can make an independent fortune.’ We could realize all that. Still duty called, our honor was at stake, we had covenanted with each other, there was a principle involved; for with us it was God and His kingdom first. We had friends and relatives in the wilderness, yea, in an untried, desert land, and who knew their condition? We did not. So it was duty before pleasure, before wealth, and with this prompting we rolled out and joined our comrades.”6

Faithful through Extreme Adversity

Many early Saints sacrificed nearly all they had for the gospel. Their lives stand as an offering to the Lord for the gospel’s sake (see D&C 97:8). Warren Marshall Johnson lived such a life. In 1875, 36-year-old Warren was called to a remote section of the Colorado River, where he and his family ran Lee’s Ferry for 21 years. His life was one of giving and obedience, but perhaps his most poignant sacrifice came between May and July 1891.

Warren tells of the experience in a July 1891 letter to President Wilford Woodruff: “A family residing in Tuba City [Arizona], came here from Richfield, Utah where they spent the winter visiting friends. At Panguitch, they buried a child, and without disinfecting the wagon or themselves, not even stopping to wash the dead child’s clothes, they came to our house, and remained overnight, mingling with my little children, and the consequence was [diphtheria], in four days my oldest boy … was taken violently ill with fever and sore throat.

“We knew nothing of the nature of the disease, but had faith in God, as we are here on a very hard mission, and had tried as hard as we knew how to obey the [commandments]. … But alas in 4 1/2 days he choked to death in my arms. Two more were taken down with the disease. … We fasted sometimes 24 hours and once I fasted 40 hours, but … both my little girls died also. About a week after their death my fifteen year old daughter Melinda was stricken down and we did all we could for her, but she followed the others … and the end is not yet. My oldest girl 19 years old is now prostrate with the disease and we are fasting and praying in her behalf today.”7

Warren’s oldest daughter survived, but the loss of four of his children devastated him. He wrote to a friend in August 1891:

“There are unseen influences around us that are trying to cause me to lose faith in God and to make me feel that there is no use to continue to pray. … You can imagine how I feel, as you know how I have tried to live, and the implicit faith I had in the gospel and the promises of God.

“However … there are other spirits or influences around us that say to me, that God is the Father of the spirits of my children, and that He loves them as well as I do, and that he knows definitely better than I do what is best for them and us. God has said that ‘He would have a tried people in the last days,’ and those who desire to do right will have to pass through greater trials than those who are not trying to reach the highest glory. … I feel well when I look at it in the above light and especially when I think of the influences we have felt when my children died. It did not seem like death, and even when they were breathing their last, we could not feel bad, there was such a heavenly influence in the room. And also the looks of the children after death, almost a smile on their lips. … I know they are happy now, and I hope I shall not give way to the spirits of evil, but that I might live so that bye and bye I can go and dwell with [my children]. I can assure you, however, that it is the hardest trial of my life, but I set out for salvation and am determined that it is through the help of my Heavenly Father that I hold fast to the iron rod, no matter what troubles come upon me I have not yet slackened in the performance of any of my duties.”8

The blessings to Warren Johnson and others who are willing to offer their all are clear: “I would that ye should come unto Christ … and offer your whole souls as an offering unto him, and continue in fasting and prayer, and endure to the end; and as the Lord liveth ye will be saved” (Omni 1:26).

She Thanked the Lord

Even amid sacrifice, we have reason to be grateful for our blessings. One of the tenets of the gospel is “men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25). Twenty-two-year-old English convert Mary Richards stands as an example for us on this point. Having left her home in Nauvoo, Illinois, Mary arrived in Winter Quarters, Nebraska, in the summer of 1846 and lived there until 1848. She wrote of her sacrifice and her joy and her gratitude: “Friday 30th [April 1847] A pleasant day. I helped to pack up the things for moving [to a house]. Helped to take down the tent. … Saturday May first … I put on a clean dress and sat down. … Our little house seemed to me almost like a palace. I rejoiced to think that after passing through such a dreary winter living in a tent, and wandering from house to house to keep from perishing with the cold, suffering almost every inconvenience and often very unpleasant feelings, I had once more a place I could call my home. … I knelt down and thanked the Lord for the many blessings wherewith he had blessed me … [and] told him my desire was to do good, to walk uprightly, to live long upon the earth, and be useful in my day and generation. I prayed for strength and patience to endure to the end.”9

How did Mary Richards feel about her sacrifice? She leaves no doubt: “Better to sacrifice and suffer with the Saints, for then we possessed a hope that e’er long we should enjoy the blessings with them, but those who lived in luxury could not expect to enjoy the blessing that they enjoyed until like [the Saints] they had suffered.”10

Latter-day Sacrifice

What lessons do we derive from the examples set forth by our pioneers? During the October 1996 general conference, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles suggested that perhaps one reason the pioneers “sacrificed and endured was to leave a legacy of faith for all of us to help us feel our urgent responsibility to move forward in building up the Church throughout the world.”11

In our modern efforts to live the gospel and build up the worldwide Church, our lives also may be filled with examples of sacrifice. Members are asked to serve in ward and stake positions, pay tithing, donate their time on welfare projects, and pay fast offerings to aid the poor. Parents give up “wants” for the needs of their children, couples place their marriages ahead of their individuality, and adult children tend to the needs of aged parents. Missionaries give of their time and resources to preach the gospel.

In an age when many teach the false doctrine of “looking out for yourself,” and “greed is good,” Latter-day Saints know the blessings in realizing that it is always “a day of sacrifice” (D&C 64:23). Sacrifice allows us to grow closer to the Savior as we learn to serve others and to look beyond our earthly problems. As we begin to focus on the spiritual aspects of our lives and rearrange our priorities, we strip away the dross from our lives, the trivial or inferior demands on our time. We begin to do that which is essential for our eternal salvation.

Whether we make sacrifices like those of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who after being tarred and feathered arose to bear his testimony and baptize three people; Elizabeth Kirby, who sacrificed her husband’s watch to help build the great temple in Nauvoo and then received her eternal temple ordinances; or James S. Brown, who gave up gold to live his life surrounded by his family and the community of Saints—we all are blessed.

Everywhere, examples of sacrifice teach us that blessings follow those who give. Indeed, as we give to others we follow the spirit of sacrifice voiced in a hymn: “I shall divide my gifts from thee with ev’ry brother that I see who has the need of help from me.”12 In so doing, we learn humility, patience, and charity, thereby realizing the secret to a truly joyful, satisfying, and Christlike life.

Let’s Talk about It

This article may furnish material for a home evening discussion or for personal consideration:

  1. How can we incorporate the gospel principle of sacrifice into our own lifestyle?

  2. What temporal or spiritual sacrifices for the gospel’s sake have you, your parents, grandparents, or other ancestors made?

  3. What is meant by the sacrifice of a “broken heart and contrite spirit” mentioned in Doctrine and Covenants 59:8 [D&C 59:8]?


  1. Joseph Smith, comp., Lectures on Faith (1985), 68–69.

  2. History of the Church, 1:261–65.

  3. History of the Church, 1:261–65.

  4. Gordon B. Hinckley, “Without Sacrifice There is No True Worship,” Speeches of the Year (1962), 3.

  5. As quoted in Carol Cornwall Madsen, In Their Own Words: Women and the Story of Nauvoo (1994), 180.

  6. James S. Brown, Giant of the Lord (1960), 119–20.

  7. Warren M. Johnson to Wilford Woodruff, 19 July 1891, in “Warren Marshall Johnson: Father, Saint, Pioneer,” Agnes Ford Johnson Collection, 1876–1966, Historical Department, Archives Division, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.

  8. Warren M. Johnson to Warren Foote, 16 Aug. 1891, in “Warren Marshall Johnson.”

  9. Mary Haskin Parker Richards, Winter Quarters: The 1846–1848 Life Writings of Mary Haskin Parker Richards, ed. Maurine Carr Ward (1996), 121. Spelling and punctuation corrected.

  10. Winter Quarters, 111. Spelling and punctuation corrected.

  11. Ensign, Nov. 1996, 23.

  12. “Because I Have Been Given Much,” Hymns, no. 219.

  • William W. Slaughter, a church photo archivist in the Church Historical Department Archives, teaches Sunday School in the Ensign Fourth Ward, Salt Lake Ensign Stake.

Tarring and Feathering the Prophet, by C. C. A. Christensen © courtesy Museum of Art, Brigham Young University. All rights reserved.

Illustrated by Mike Malm

Several members of the Mormon Battalion, including James S. Brown, were among the first to discover gold at Sutter’s Mill in California in 1848 yet left because “with us it was God and His kingdom first.” (Photo courtesy of LDS Church Archives.)

Sutter’s Mill, by VaLoy Eaton

Early Latter-day Saints sacrificed many of their physical possessions to build the Nauvoo Temple. When they later trekked west, many of the nearly 6,000 newly endowed members drew upon their temple experiences for spiritual strength. (Nauvoo Temple photo courtesy of Missouri Historical Society, Easterly Collection.)

Illustrated by Mike Malm

The journals of Mary Richards provide an account of her experiences at Winter Quarters, Nebraska, where the harsh conditions of the 1846–47 winter and the poor shelter and provisions resulted in suffering and death for many members. (Photo by Fox and Symons, courtesy of Dorothy Streeper Collection.)

Detail from Winter Quarters 1846–1847, by C. C. A. Christensen, owned by Jeanette Holmes

Photo by Craig Dimond