“Seek Ye Out of the Best Books,” New Era, Aug. 1974, 18–19
You’ll be interested to know that as a Latter-day Saint you have some special reasons to get serious about your studies. The Lord and his servants have consistently counseled the Saints to seek wisdom and enlarge their knowledge. The Church has behind it a great tradition of educational efforts. As early as 1831 William W. Phelps and Oliver Cowdery, himself at one time a schoolteacher, were appointed by revelation to select, write, and print material for the schools of the Church in order that the youth might receive a proper education. (See D&C 55:4.) The same educational interest that characterized the first years of the Church continued to be demonstrated as the Church moved westward and settled the Rocky Mountain area. From Winter Quarters in December of 1847, the Council of the Twelve issued an epistle to the Church that read in part:
“It is very desirable that all the Saints should improve every opportunity of securing at least a copy of every valuable treatise on education—every book, map, chart, or diagram that may contain interesting, useful, and attractive matter, to gain the attention of children, and cause them to love to learn to read; and, also every historical, mathematical, philosophical, geographical, geological, astronomical, scientific, practical, and all other variety of useful and interesting writings, maps, &c., to present to the General Church Recorder, when they shall arrive at their destination, from which important and interesting matter may be gleaned to compile the most valuable works, on every science and subject, for the benefit of the rising generation.
“We have a printing press, and any who can take good printing or writing paper to the valley will be blessing themselves and the Church. We also want all kinds of mathematical and philosophical instruments, together with all rare specimens of natural curiosities and works of art that can be gathered and brought to the valley, where, and from which, the rising generation can receive instruction; and if the Saints will be diligent in these matters, we will soon have the best, the most useful and attractive museum on the earth.”1
Elementary schools were opened a few months after the Saints reached the Salt Lake Valley, and the 1850 territorial legislature established the University of Deseret, the first university west of the Missouri River.
Sidney Rigdon, in a speech given at the laying of the cornerstone of a temple in Far West, Missouri, talked about the need to combine a love of God with a love of learning. He said: “Next to the worship of our God, we esteem the education of our children and of the rising generation.”2
This idea was also emphasized by John A. Widtsoe when he said that the obtaining of knowledge is equivalent to a religious requirement. “Man must forever seek out knowledge, put it to proper use, and train his will to intelligent living.”3 Then he added for those who think gaining an education ends with the school year or graduation: “Among Latter-day Saints, education becomes a life-long process. Young and old alike must be engaged in the development of their natural endowments. In fact, it is expected of the members of the Church that they continue their education throughout life.”4
Probably the most important habit you need to acquire if you are going to take the counsel of the Brethren seriously is the habit of reading, not sporadically but consistently. Again Elder Widtsoe said something on the subject:
“The reading habit is most valuable in life. I mean by that the practice of using a little time, say half an hour a day, in the systematic reading of worthwhile literature. The mind is opened to precious fields of thought; the achievements of the ages become ours; even the future takes form. As the mind and spirit are fed by well chosen reading, comfort, peace and understanding come to the soul. Those who have not tried it, have missed a keen and easily accessible joy.
“Moreover a person who engages in such a regular daily reading, if only a few minutes a day, in the course of a few years becomes a learned man. But it must be a regular daily habit. … Some of the best educated men that I have ever met have never been to college but have acquired the habit of daily reading of good books for a few minutes a day.”5
Of course, not all knowledge is of equal value. “… There is a great fund of knowledge in the possessionof men,” counseled Joseph Fielding Smith, “that will not save them in the kingdom of God. What they have got to learn are the fundamental things of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”6
As you know by now there is no scarcity of good books to read, study, and ponder. But there is a possibility that you can be so busy pursuing an education and striving to be well-rounded in thought that you neglect the pursuit of those things that matter most in an eternal perspective of life. If you are not careful, you can be so busy reading and studying from good books that you have little time, if any, to pursue a knowledge of the saving principles of the gospel.
During the past 16 years it has been my privilege to associate with wonderful high school and college students on several campuses in three states. However, not often do they speak of their student days as Elder Widtsoe spoke of his when he said, “Theology became our best-loved subject. It formed our outlook upon life; and made us more sensitive to right and wrong.”7 Nor are there many who echo the words of Nephi when he said, “… my soul delighteth in the scriptures, and my heart pondereth them … my soul delighteth in the things of the Lord.” (2 Ne. 4:15–16.)
May I offer two suggestions to you who are seeking to grow in wisdom and to add knowledge to knowledge? First, read the scriptures and the general conference addresses. There is an oft-quoted scripture in section 88 of the Doctrine and Covenants that reads, “… seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom. …” (D&C 88:118.) The first part of the verse reads, “And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom. …” It is not simply a matter of reading the best books of the world, but you must recognize what the specific problem is. The Lord said, “as all have not faith,” so the problem is that of strengthening your faith. The solution is to seek and teach words of wisdom from the best books.
What kind of wisdom could best strengthen faith? If we are specifically talking about faith in Jesus Christ, the wisdom we must seek is the word of the prophets. The best books containing the words of the prophets are the standard works and the conference addresses. Faith comes by hearing or reading the word of God as it is spoken or written.
The daily reading habit mentioned earlier can easily be applied to the scriptures and conference addresses. Here are some practical approaches to reading the scriptures: By reading seven pages a day you can finish all the standard works in less than a year. By reading nine pages a day from the Book of Mormon, you will read that great volume six times a year. By reading two sermons a day from the conference addresses, you can study and read the entire conference in less than a month and could reread it eight times in six months. The importance of these conference reports has been established by Elder Harold B. Lee:
“As the Latter-day Saints go home from this conference, it would be well if they consider seriously the importance of taking with them the report of this conference and let it be the guide to their walk and talk during the next six months.”8
The second suggestion is that along with reading the scriptures and conference addresses there must be a serious effort made to study and ponder the things that are read. The gospel needs to be studied as seriously as one would study any other subject. Commenting on this, Brigham Young said:
“There are a great many branches of education: some go to college to learn languages, some to study law, some to study physic [sic], and some to study astronomy, and various other branches of science. … But our favourite study is that branch which particularly belongs to the Elders of Israel—namely, theology. Every Elder should become a profound theologian—should understand this branch better than all the world.”9
It takes effort, time, and inspiration to master the things of God. A student of these things does more than occupy a desk in a religion class—he hungers and thirsts after a knowledge of the gospel centered in the atonement of Christ. But how does one develop this hunger and thirst for spiritual knowledge, you ask? By much reading and studying of the scriptures and by striving to be in harmony with the Holy Spirit by obedience to gospel principles and by much prayer. If this hunger and thirst is absent, you need simply ask yourself and the Lord what you are doing or failing to do that is blocking the desire to learn more of the gospel. But you must first be willing to put forth study and effort. B. H. Roberts said:
“It requires striving—intellectual and spiritual—to comprehend the things of God—even the revealed things of God. In no department of human endeavor is the aphorism ‘no excellence without labor’—more in force than in acquiring knowledge of the things of God. The Lord has placed no premium upon idleness or indifference here. …
“Mental laziness is the vice of men, especially with reference to divine things. Men seem to think that because inspiration and revelation are factors in connection with the things of God, therefore the pain and stress of mental effort are not required.”10
Certainly one of the greatest examples of a man who followed this two-step formula was our late prophet Joseph Fielding Smith. He too was confronted with an abundance of worldly knowledge to pursue, but even as a young boy he put first things first. As one of his sons said of him: “My father has always been a student, even since his childhood days, always loving the Lord, always studying, preparing himself.”11 He continued: “Even from his infancy! He had read the Book of Mormon twice before he was ten years of age. His father gave him a copy that was defective, some pages missing, that he wore out with his reading and rereading of these scriptures. He loved doctrinal books.”12
In a letter to his son while he was serving a mission, President Smith described some of the material he studied:
“Among these things I remember that one thing that I did from the time I learned to read and write was to study the Gospel. I read and committed to memory the Children’s Catechism and primary books in the gospel. Later I read the History of the Church as recorded in the Millennial Star. I also read the Bible, the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, the Doctrine and Covenants and other literature which fell into my hands. I learned at a very early day that God lives. He gave me a testimony when I was a child and I have tried to be obedient, always with some measure of success.”13
Thus was fulfilled a promise given to Joseph Fielding Smith in his youth by a patriarch: “You have never known the time when you did not believe and feel within your bones that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that his mission was divine.”14
But if he devoted so much of his time to gospel study, is the study of other topics unimportant, you wonder? Certainly not, but he insisted that all studies be placed in their proper order:
“… it must eventually come to pass in the case of those who gain the exaltation and become sons of God; that they must, in the eternities, reach the time when they will know all things. They must know mathematics; they must know all the principles of science; they must be prepared in all things—by learning, by study, by faith—to comprehend these principles of eternal truth, even as our Father in heaven comprehends them; and unless men will put themselves in harmony with him and his Spirit and seek the light which comes through the Spirit, they never will reach the goal of perfection in these things. It is, however, knowledge of the principles of the gospel that will save men in the kingdom of God.”15
If you are to obtain salvation and the opportunity to learn all things, you must first have faith in Jesus Christ—faith that is strong enough to motivate repentance and inspire righteous living; faith that results in answered prayers and power in the ministry. Part of the Lord’s program for the strengthening of such faith is to seek and teach wisdom that is found in the best books.