As part of Keepa’s ongoing campaign – did you know it had become a campaign? – to improve Sacrament Meeting talks, I thought it might be useful to print short, successful talks from time to time, for us to consider how and why they work. If you don’t like to read long embedded quotations, consider skipping to the discussion of why the talk works, and then perhaps returning to that part of the talk if some point interests you.
This one was given at the October conference, 1909. Remember that at that date, men were called on to speak without notice. Some may have prepared some rough ideas for speaking “just in case,” but the ideal was for them to speak as the spirit directed them.
This particular talk was given in an “overflow” meeting on Temple Square – when there were too many conference-goers to fit into the Tabernacle and the Assembly Hall, they met in groups in the open air, under the trees. Because there was no loudspeaker or broadcasting technology, each group was addressed by different speakers.
Elder Charles H. Hart.
We are informed by the poet that “the groves were God’s first temples.” We are enjoying the privilege of standing under the shade of trees upon this historic square this afternoon, and listening to the music and the instructions of the elders.
My mind was impressed this morning with that part of the remarks of President Smith concerning the responsibility we are under of saving souls. At the A.Y.P. [Alaska-Yukon-Pacific] Exposition at Seattle, in the Alaskan building, there is a glass cage, surrounded by very strong iron bars. There is a treasure within that glass house that attracts the attention of passers-by at all hours of the day. They stand about the glass cage, longingly looking in upon the golden treasure, the gold bricks, and the gold nuggets within; but if all of those golden treasures were multiplied a thousand times, they would not equal the value of a human soul.
In visiting Arizona a few months ago, I was told the story of the search for the body of a man who was supposed to have been drowned in the Little Colorado River. His friends and neighbors turned out and searched day by day in those turbid waters to recover the remains, but without success up to the time of my visit.
Just before that I was in Summit County, and heard narrated the search for a poor old lady, who, in her declining years, had wandered off in the snows of winter, and the search was going on for her body, for it was believed that shortly after she had ben out in the snow and the cold she had perished. The search went on day after day in a systematic manner. Horsemen rode a few rods apart so that they might know that every rod had been carefully searched. And so the hunt went on from day to day; not in the hope of saving a human soul, but simply to administer to the comfort of loved ones in recovering the body.
A year or two ago a half dozen of my friends and associates went into a steam launch upon the Bear River, and as they were gliding swiftly, at the twilight of a summer’s day, suddenly the boat struck a submerged pile, and they were precipitated into the water, and two of them, the best swimmers, never reached the shore alive. In Logan the stores were closed; men in all vocations went from that town, from Smithfield, from Newton, Clarkston – went in large numbers, and dragged the river. Expert divers were summoned from a distance of a hundred miles to dive in the water to recover the bodies. Every known means of dragging the stream was put into effect. When darkness prevented the search to advantage, men rolled themselves in their blankets near the stream, in order to be at hand when daylight should come; and so the search went on day after day. I remember after the lapse of a day or two, the bishop of Wellsville telephoned to me to know if the bodies had been found, and he concluded by saying, “Wellsville stands ready to send one hundred men, if necessary, to participate in the search.” Not for the purpose, I say, of saving a human soul, or even of saving life, because life, of course, was long since extinct; but for the purpose, merely, of recovering the tenements of clay, to minister to the sentiment of their friends in giving them a Christian burial, instead of leaving the bodies [to] remain in a watery grave.
If we will make that sort of an effort, my friends, in order to recover mere bodies, mere tenements of clay, what should we do when a human life, or a human soul, is in peril? What price can we place upon a human soul? The Psalmist has given us some words bearing on that question. “they that trust in their wealth, and boast themselves in the multitude of their riches; none of them can by any means redeem his brother, nor give God a ransom for him.”
The Savior has also given us some idea of the value of a soul when He says, “For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
I once saw a young man shortly after a drowning, in which he had endeavored to save those who had perished, and, as the tears streamed down his cheeks, the thought that was uppermost in his mind was whether he had done the very best he could to save his drowning companions. It was true that nothing had been left undone by him, but in his anxiety as to whether he had fulfilled his full duty that thought was uppermost in his mind.
As I understand it, there is a responsibility upon each one of us in reference to the welfare of his fellow man. Ezekiel, in the third chapter, discusses the question in this way:
Son of man, I have made thee a watchman unto the House of Israel: therefore hear the word at my mouth, and give them warning from me. When I say unto the wicked, ‘Thou shalt surely die’; and thou givest him not warning nor speakest to warn the wicked from his wicked way, to save his life; the same wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Yet if thou warn the wicked, and he turn not from his wickedness, nor from his wicked way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.
Again, when a righteous man doth turn from his righteousness, and commit iniquity, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die; because thou hast not given him warning, he shall die in his sin, and his righteousness which he hath done shall not be remembered; but his blood will I require at thine hand. Nevertheless, if thou warn the righteous man, that the righteous sin not, and he doth not sin, he shall surely live, because he is warned; also thou hast delivered thy soul.
So that here is a duty, not only to warn those who are in sin, but also to warn the righteous who may wander into sin, for we know full well that though a man today may be justified through the grace of Jesus Christ, his salvation is not sure, and he may fall from grace. Although he may be classified as a righteous man, still he ma fall. And there may be a responsibility upon someone within warning distance of him for not warning him of some false step that he has taken, some by and forbidden path that he has entered upon.
It is the sense of this responsibility that enables these missionaries, these with whom I have the honor of speaking this afternoon, to remain abroad, as they do, for so many long years, gratuitously giving the best years of their lives in order to warn others. Brother Ellsworth who shall follow me, has been out, I suppose, some eight or ten years now. Brother Bennion has been in the missionary field for a number of years and Brother Herrick is just entering upon what will probably be a long missionary career for him. They do it gratuitously, and for the love they have for their fellow-men, to discharge this responsibility; for they know that a soul is precious in the sight of God; that Mormonism is the science and art of life, and that it will have a saving effect upon those who will give heed to its teachings, just in proportion as they understand that great system of truth, and will put it into practice and into effect in their lives.
It is on account of a realization of the sense of the importance of saving souls that there is such joy at the return of the prodigal. I confess that I do not like to hear the story of the prodigal son presented with a view of impressing, perhaps, a license to sow wild oats, or anything of that sort, but I like to hear it presented for the forgiveness manifested by the father in taking back to him his wayward son.
I was impressed the other day with the thought of an aged sister who was about to make her will. She had forgotten at first that there was an additional consideration due one of her children, the wayward son. She said, “You know he and his father had some friction, and he wandered away from home, and it is my desire, if I can, to make up to him, in a small way, by showing a greater interest in him than in the other children.”
It was a realization of this principle of saving souls that gave joy to the shepherd in the parable of the lost sheep, in leaving the ninety and nine that were safe, and going after the one lost sheep, and in bringing it safely within the fold. I feel that the words of President Smith this morning were timely, and of great importance to us all, of doing all we can for the salvation, first of those of our own household, and then of all mankind.
May the Lord bless us, and enable us to put into practice these principles of warning and saving others, doing our full duty to them, that we ma not stand under condemnation, neither as to our children, nor as to our Father’s children in general. May the Lord bless us and help us to endure true and faithful to the end, I ask in the name of Jesus. Amen.
This is not the greatest talk ever given – it will not be included in any compilation of the Best Mormon Speeches – but it does work. It no doubt kept the interest of Elder Hart’s listeners; it made a valid gospel point; and because the talk appealed to each listener’s secret sense of heroism (don’t we all long to be heroes, if we had the chance?), his audience likely felt a motivation to watch for the opportunity of warning a neighbor.
But how does it work that way?
First, the speaker launches right into his topic with just the barest of introductions. There is no lame joke about how frightened he is to stand and speak, no cutsey story about how he met his wife and she didn’t like him at first, no complaint about not having been assigned a topic, or any of the other tedious openings that we hear every Sunday. Skip the irrelevancies that give your audience a chance to wander away mentally (or physically in the case of Elder Hart’s outdoor meeting).
Second, Elder Hart opened with a series of short incidents that probably caught the attention of his hearers. People respond to story-telling – so much so that I’m willing to bet that if Keepa readers only let their eyes skim down the talk, they were caught at one or more points by the obvious story-telling in this talk, and read a sentence or two even though they had intended only to jump to the discussion here.
These short stories were dramatic and emotional, without being sentimental. There is an innate wish, I’m sure, in nearly every human being to be a hero to some degree, and when we’re sitting safely at home, with no physical risk to ourselves, the idea that we could be heroes if only the opportunity would present itself is especially appealing. I have no doubt that many of Elder Hart’s listeners were nodding, thinking to themselves that they would have been among the searchers, and they no doubt would have been successful.
These stories were filled with visual detail, allowing each listener to see in his mind’s eye the crowds staring at the piles of gold, the men on horseback searching through the desert for a lost woman, the men camping by the side of Bear River so they could resume dragging and diving by the dawn’s early light. When you include a story in your talk, take a lesson from these: show your characters in action by describing the scene, as in these stories, rather than merely telling your audience that something happened. Use scraps of conversation, as some of these stories do – that draws an audience straight into your story.
The stories were a legitimate analogy of the gospel point Elder Hart wanted to make. Stories should always advance your main point, not be tacked on to fill up time.
Elder Hart used scripture in a very natural way. His first two scriptural statements sound to me as though he quoted or paraphrased them offhand, without interrupting the flow of his talk to look up such short statements. He no doubt read the longer extract from Ezekiel. Each of the scriptures advanced the flow of his talk, and it feels to me as though he knew those scriptures very intimately: there is no sense that he turned to some concordance and reeled off the first scripture listed there. He quoted from scripture in the same natural and purposeful way that he quoted his conversation with the bishop of Wellsville.
He stuck to one small point, too: We must warn our neighbors, because their souls are precious. This is, I think, the greatest key to good Sacrament Meeting talks in wards where speakers are assigned a broad topic. If you were assigned “missionary work” as a topic, for instance, you would do well to narrow your focus down to the single sub-topic of warning your neighbor, rather than wandering through all the possibilities of how missionaries are called, and what the word “missionary” means, and how missions help missionaries mature, and who the greatest missionaries in scripture were, and why we should all be member-missionaries, quoting ten scriptures you found in the Topical Guide, and, oh, yeah, by the way, the reason we need to be missionaries is because the souls of men are precious.
Do you agree that this is a successful, if not great, talk? How and why (or not)?