Teachings of Presidents
Chapter 20: Agency: Choosing Life or Death

“Chapter 20: Agency: Choosing Life or Death,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Wilford Woodruff (2011), 205–15

“Chapter 20,” Teachings: Wilford Woodruff, 205–15

Chapter 20

Agency: Choosing Life or Death

Now is the time for us to choose between good and evil, for our actions bring consequences in this life and in the eternities.

From the Life of Wilford Woodruff

President Wilford Woodruff testified that salvation comes “by and through the blood of Jesus Christ,” and he also emphasized that the fulness of salvation comes “through obedience to the Gospel.”1 With this understanding, he taught that “we all have our agency to choose the good and refuse the evil, or to choose the evil and refuse the good”2 and that God “will hold [us] accountable for the use of this agency.”3 He urged the Saints to make righteous decisions, reminding them of the difference between “a few short years of earthly pleasure” and “a long eternity of light, truth, blessings, and knowledge which the Lord will bestow upon every man who keeps his law.”4

Like all of us, President Woodruff had countless opportunities to exercise the gift of agency. One such opportunity came in Herefordshire, England, at the home of John Benbow (see page 91 in this book). “John Benbow was a noble man,” recalled President Woodruff. “He was like an English lord; as rich a man, I suppose, as ever came into the Church. He had not been baptized a month, I do not think, when he came into a little sitting room with his wife, and he probably spent three quarters of an hour in telling me that he had been reading in the New Testament how in the days of the Apostles they sold all their possessions and laid them at the Apostles’ feet [see Acts 4:31–37], and he said he felt it was his duty to fulfil that law and he wanted to do it. I listened to him patiently and when he got through it took me perhaps half an hour to tell him the difference between our position to-day and the position of the Apostles in that day. I gave him to understand that God had not sent me to England to take care of his gold, his horses, his cows and his property; He had sent me there to preach the Gospel. I told him, however, that the Lord would accept of his sacrifice, and that whenever he could do good, he should do it; he should assist the poor, help publish the Book of Mormon, etc.”

John Benbow's farmhouse

Photograph of the farmhouse once owned by John Benbow.

Recounting this experience, President Woodruff commented on the far-reaching influence of his decision to politely refuse Brother Benbow’s offer:

John Benbow

John Benbow

“Now, what would have been the result if I had taken the other course, and said, ‘Yes give me your property and I will take care of it’? Why, he would probably have apostatized. Not only that, but there would have been one foolish Apostle, who would have been a suitable candidate for apostasy also. But was that any temptation to me? No, it was not. It would not have been to any Elder who had enough of the Spirit of God to know the difference between a hundred thousand pounds of money and a part in the first resurrection, with power to pass by the angels and the gods to exaltation and glory, and stand in the presence of God and the Lamb forever and forever.”5

Teachings of Wilford Woodruff

Because God has given us agency, we are responsible for our actions.

God has given unto all of his children of this dispensation, as he gave unto all of his children of previous dispensations, individual agency. This agency has always been the heritage of man under the rule and government of God. [We] possessed it in the heaven of heavens before the world was, and the Lord maintained and defended it there against the aggression of Lucifer and those that took sides with him, to the overthrow of Lucifer and one-third part of the heavenly hosts [see Revelation 12:1–9; D&C 29:36–37; Moses 4:1–4]. By virtue of this agency you and I and all mankind are made responsible beings, responsible for the course we pursue, the lives we live, the deeds we do in the body.6

It is part of the divine economy not to force any man to heaven, not to coerce the mind but to leave it free to act for itself. [God] lays before His creature man the everlasting gospel, the principles of life and salvation, and then leaves him to choose for himself or to reject for himself, with the definite understanding that he becomes responsible to Him for the results of his acts.7

Our decisions to do good or evil bring consequences in this life and in the eternities.

All will get what they labor for. Whatsoever we sow, whether good or evil, of that we will reap the fruit [see Galatians 6:7; D&C 6:33].8

The Lord has commanded us, and we have got to obey his commandments if we [are to] receive the blessings of obedience.9

The nearer we adhere to the commandments of God, the more confident we shall become that God is our friend and that He is watching over us and that His Son Jesus is our advocate with the Father, that He is in the midst of this people, and that He will contend for the rights of His Saints, and will ward off every weapon that is formed against Zion.10

We should impress upon the minds of our children the evil consequences of committing sin or breaking any of the laws of God; they should be made to understand that by doing wrong they will inherit sorrow and tribulation which they can easily escape by doing right, and they should learn this principle by precept without learning sorrow and affliction by experience from doing wrong.11

I have never committed a sin in this Church and kingdom but what it has cost me a thousand times more than it was worth. We cannot sin with impunity; we cannot neglect any counsel with impunity, but what it will bring sorrow.12

Brethren and sisters, seek after God; call upon him in your secret places, and do not turn away from righteousness and truth; there is nothing to be gained by doing that, but everything to lose.13

Those persons who will not walk according to the light they have, must sooner or later inherit sore afflictions to themselves; they do not have joy and happiness and salvation like that person who obeys the commandments of God and constantly does that which is right. The wicked are always in fear. There is no inducement for a man or a woman to commit sin, it is not a paying business. It is better for us to serve the Lord, for those who serve the Lord morning, noon and night are happy whether they be rich or poor.14

Ask any people, nations, kingdoms, or generations of men the question, and they will tell you they are seeking for happiness, but how are they seeking for it? Take the greatest portion of mankind as an example, and how are they seeking for happiness? By serving the devil as fast as they can, and almost the last being or thing that the children of men worship, and the last being whose laws they want to keep are the laws of the God of heaven. They will not worship God nor honor his name, nor keep his laws, but blaspheme his name, from day to day, and nearly all the world [is] seeking for happiness by committing sins, breaking the law of God, and blaspheming his name and rejecting the only source whence happiness flows.

If we really understood that we could not obtain happiness by walking in the paths of sin and breaking the laws of God, we should then see the folly of it, every man and every woman would see that to obtain happiness we should go to work and perform the works of righteousness, and do the will of our Father in Heaven, for we shall receive at his hand all the happiness, blessing, glory, salvation, exaltation, and eternal lives, that we ever do receive either in time or eternity.15

Let us be faithful and adorn ourselves with the graces of the gospel. There is nothing gained by doing wrong. Lying, stealing, blaspheming, drunkenness, backbiting, and denying the Lord Jesus Christ bring sorrow and remorse; they debase man who is organized in the image of God; but to do right, to obey the commandments of God, to be charitable and kind, brings joy and peace and the Holy Ghost, and an eventual exaltation in our Father’s kingdom.16

We will be eternally rewarded according to the law we choose to keep during our short time on the earth.

Bless your souls, our lives here are only a few days in duration, but on the other side of the veil we shall live eternally, we shall live and exist just as long as our Creator will exist, and our eternal destiny depends upon the manner in which we spend our short lives here in the flesh.17

When we can really understand that our future destiny—future happiness, exaltation and glory, or our future misery, debasement and sorrow, all depend upon the little time we spend in this world, I can say that it is not to the advantage of any man under the heavens to spend his time in doing wrong. … If a man ever obtains any blessings from any quarter, he has got to obtain them from the Lord, for the devil has no disposition to bless, and will not bless the children of men; but he labors to lead them astray from the paths of righteousness and truth.18

The God of heaven, who created this earth and placed his children upon it, gave unto them a law whereby they might be exalted and saved in a kingdom of glory. For there is a law given unto all kingdoms, and all things are governed by law throughout the whole universe. Whatever law anyone keeps, he is preserved by that law, and he receives whatever reward that law guarantees unto him [see D&C 130:20–21]. It is the will of God that all his children should obey the highest law, that they may receive the highest glory that is ordained for all immortal beings. But God has given all his children an agency, to choose what law they will keep.19

No man will receive a celestial glory unless he abides a celestial law; no man will receive a terrestrial glory unless he abides a terrestrial law, and no man will receive a telestial glory unless he abides a telestial law [see D&C 88:19–33]. There is a great difference between the light of the sun at noonday and the glimmer of the stars at night, but that difference is no greater than the difference of the glory in the several portions of the kingdom of God.20

The Lord has revealed unto us the celestial law, that is, he has given unto us the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and has given us a knowledge of the principles of eternal life. …

If we were to go into the celestial world we would then be actuated by the spirit that predominates there, and have continually with us those principles by which we should be governed. We have got to possess the same spirit and principles in this world, and we have got to abide a celestial law here, and be united upon the principle that unites the people of God who dwell in his presence, in order to get the same glory that they enjoy.

These are the principles that are taught us from day to day, and we must learn to carry them out, and we must lay aside our selfishness and all false principles.21

It will pay men to do right, and men will sorrow and bitterly regret taking any course in this or any other generation against God or his work. … If a man does right, is valiant in the testimony of Jesus Christ, obeys the gospel, and keeps his covenants, when he passes to the other side of the veil he has an entrance into the presence of God and the Lamb; having kept celestial law he enters into celestial glory, he is preserved by that law, and he participates in that glory through the endless ages of eternity. It pays any man under heaven to obey and be faithful to the law of God the few days he spends in the flesh.22

We may just as well search our own hearts, and at once resolve that we will do the works of righteousness, honor our Father in Heaven, do our duty to God and man, take hold and build up the kingdom of God, and we will then understand that in order to obtain happiness and satisfy the immortal soul in a fulness of glory that man must abide a celestial law and be quickened by a portion of the celestial Spirit of God; and we will also understand that to commit sin, break the law of God and blaspheme his name, will bring sorrow and misery and it will bring death both temporally and spiritually. If we walk in the paths of unrighteousness, we grieve the Holy Spirit and grieve our brethren and injure ourselves.23

The way of life is pointed out and if we neglect to walk therein, there is nothing but death [that] stares us in the face. Let us stop and reflect a moment—let us see whether it is best for us to receive life or death. … You have heard plain truths, and they have been dictated by the power of the Holy Ghost and by the testimony of Jesus Christ, and now is the time for you to decide whom ye will serve.24

Your future blessings, your future exaltation and glory, worlds without end, will depend upon the course you pursue here. The way is clear before you that leads to life eternal. … It now remains for you to walk therein.25

God places salvation within our reach, providing simple principles of conduct and giving us strength to fulfill them.

There lies within your reach salvation, eternal life and a part in the first resurrection; in fact, all the blessings God has promised to any people that has ever been in the flesh, are held out to you and are within your reach inasmuch as you do your duty.26

The Latter-day Saints have every encouragement; their pathway is plain and inviting before them.27

There is but one right road, and it is a straightforward one; and the principles and rules that govern you in that path are simple and easy to be understood. This is the path for us to walk in, and I consider that we are greatly blessed in having learned the true way.28

Now whatever the Lord requires at our hands, he does not require anything of us that we can not perform. We can obey his commandments according to the position that we occupy and the means that we have in our possession. There is no man or woman so poor but what he or she can obey the gospel; they can go forth and be baptized for the remission of their sins, and if they keep the commandments of the Lord he will put into their hands power and means to fulfill that which is required of them.29

I pray that we may pursue that course that when we get on the other side of the veil we shall be satisfied with our record. We will find our history and our record there in the great library of the celestial kingdom of our God, and we will know what we have been doing in this life. If we do anything that is wrong we will be sorry for it. We should repent of wrong and try to do better. I pray that the Spirit of God may be with us to guide and direct us in our labors until we get through here, then when we pass away we may be received in the kingdom of God. We shall rejoice if we do right; for our eyes have not seen, our ears have not heard, and it has never entered into the hearts of the children of men the glory that lies before the sons and daughters of Adam. It is hidden from our eyes to-day, and will never be open to us until we enter into the presence of God and the Lamb.30

There is no man or woman who has ever lived on the earth and kept the commandments of God who will be ashamed of, or sorry for it, when they go into the presence of God.31

Suggestions for Study and Teaching

Consider these ideas as you study the chapter or as you prepare to teach. For additional help, see pages v–ix.

  • Review the story on pages 205–7. What principles guided Elder Woodruff’s decision in his response to Brother Benbow?

  • Read the second full paragraph on page 207. Why is it against God’s nature to “force any man to heaven” or “coerce the mind”? What does our Heavenly Father do to encourage us to choose the path leading to eternal life?

  • President Woodruff said, “All will get what they labor for” (page 207). What does this mean to you? How might this statement influence the decisions we make?

  • According to President Woodruff, what are some blessings that come in this life when we keep the commandments? What are some consequences that come in this life when we choose not to keep the commandments? (See pages 208–9.)

  • Review the fourth and fifth paragraphs on page 208. What are the costs of sin?

  • How do our daily decisions affect our eternal destiny? (See pages 209–10, 212.) Why is it important to remember that this life is short compared to the eternities?

  • What would you say to a family member or friend who seeks happiness without keeping the commandments? What experiences could you share to help that person?

  • Why do you think people sometimes feel that salvation is beyond their reach? As you study President Woodruff’s teachings on pages 213–14, which statements do you think would be especially reassuring for people who feel this way?

  • What can parents do to respect their children’s agency but still help their children make righteous decisions?

Related Scriptures: Joshua 24:15; Isaiah 64:4; Colossians 3:24–25; 1 Nephi 3:7; 2 Nephi 2:25–30; Alma 7:14–25; 41:10; Helaman 14:30–31; D&C 130:20–21


  1. Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, June 13, 1882, 1.

  2. “Sayings and Writings of Prest. Woodruff,” Contributor, July 1894, 538.

  3. Deseret Weekly, October 26, 1889, 561.

  4. The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, sel. G. Homer Durham (1946), 278–79.

  5. Millennial Star, November 28, 1895, 754–55.

  6. The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 8–9.

  7. Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, May 9, 1882, 1.

  8. Millennial Star, September 2, 1889, 548.

  9. Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, May 2, 1876, 4.

  10. Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, July 26, 1881, 1.

  11. The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 105.

  12. Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, December 14, 1880, 1.

  13. The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 262.

  14. Deseret News, February 22, 1865, 162.

  15. The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 259–60.

  16. The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 23.

  17. The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 244.

  18. Deseret News, February 22, 1865, 162.

  19. The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 10.

  20. Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, January 12, 1875, 1.

  21. Deseret News, January 6, 1858, 350.

  22. Deseret News, December 23, 1874, 741.

  23. Deseret News, February 4, 1857, 879.

  24. In Journal of Discourses, 9:222.

  25. “Y. M. M. I. A. Annual Conference,” Contributor, August 1895, 638.

  26. Contributor, August 1895, 638.

  27. Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, July 26, 1881, 1.

  28. The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 307.

  29. Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, May 2, 1876, 4.

  30. Millennial Star, May 14, 1896, 311.

  31. Deseret News: Semi-Weekly, May 20, 1873, 1.