Relief Society Lesson 20: The Kingdom of God Moves Forward
The lesson manual frames the lesson with this quote: “It is the business of those who profess to be engaged in [God’s] work to move on, to go forward. … So long as there remains a step forward to be taken, that step should be taken.” Thus, at the offset we know that it is not just God’s kingdom that needs to (and will) move forward–it is the individuals that make up that kingdom. Which means you, and me, and the sister we sit beside in Relief Society, as well as the sister who sometimes sits by herself.
It was helpful for me to keep this call for individual movement and progression in mind as I went through the lesson. While I do believe that the “Kingdom of God” will go forward, it can be a bit overwhelming for me to envision it in some of the ways that President Snow mentions. It is much easier for me to grasp individual persons, taking individual steps forward in their daily decisions and lives. Only then can I picture all of those small movements adding up to the big, forward, rolling movement of the Church.
It might be good when teaching this lesson to ask the sisters what they think of when they hear the phrase “moving forward” or the word “movement,” and then to think of what it might mean when applied to God’s kingdom and people.
At first they might envision a race, or a participant in a race. Or a particular time in their life when they have endured, by placing one metaphorical foot in front of the other. Or any date that marks progression, like the first day of school or the new year.
Then they might think about Joseph Smith’s (and Daniel’s) prophecy about the stone rolling forth that will fill the whole earth. Or Zion. Or missionary work. Some might think of the succession of prophets, and the hope that our dispensation will not be left without guidance, which in fact is the direction the lesson chooses to go.
We are offered a brief narrative history of the early days of the church, focused entirely on the passing away of early leaders. It is told from President Snow’s perspective: Each time he was saddened and surprised. Each time the church carried on.
This may not seem all that remarkable to us today, because it has been happening for quite some time, but there were many people in the beginning who thought “that this Church could not prosper except Joseph guided its destinies.” In fact, this was so much the case, that “when the time came when he was to pass away from this world as a martyr into the spirit world, the Saints throughout the kingdom of God were greatly agitated.”
Let us think about it for a bit, and try to imagine how and why the early Saints felt as they did. First, their prophet was just murdered. Second, there was not an established pattern for what would happen next, or who would lead the Church. As a BYU Studies article on the “Succession Crisis of 1844” explains
Not only did most Mormons have only the haziest concept of what should transpire in the leadership of the LDS Church if the founding prophet were to die, but between 1834 and 1844 Joseph Smith had by word or action established precedents or authority for eight possible methods of succession: 1) by a counselor in the First Presidency, 2) by a special appointment, 3) through the office of Associate President, 4) by the Presiding Patriarch, 5) by the Council of Fifty, 6) by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, 7) by priesthood councils, 8) by a descendant of Joseph Smith, Jr.*
Ultimately, as Snow remarked, “The responsibility [to lead the Church] then devolved upon the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles” as well as the longest standing member of that quorum, Brigham Young.
After 33 years, Young died. After ten, John Taylor. After eleven more, Wilford Woodruff. Snow was next in line to serve, which made him feel a desperate longing for reassurance. The story that follows is among the most beautiful and sacred of the entire lesson, and is worth having one of the sister’s read aloud in its entirety. Not only does it relay a visit President Snow received from our Savior, Jesus Christ, but it comes to us through the wisdom and foresight of a woman–Snow’s granddaughter, Alice Pond.
Snow told Alice of his experience, once, when they were together in the Salt Lake Temple. She chose to write it down. In Alice’s words:
In the large corridor leading into the celestial room, I was walking several steps ahead of grand-pa when he stopped me and said: ‘Wait a moment, Allie, I want to tell you something. It was right here that the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to me at the time of the death of President Woodruff. He instructed me to go right ahead and reorganize the First Presidency of the Church at once and not wait as had been done after the death of the previous presidents, and that I was to succeed President Woodruff.’
Then grand-pa came a step nearer and held out his left hand and said: ‘He stood right here, about three feet above the floor. It looked as though He stood on a plate of solid gold.’
Grand-pa told me what a glorious personage the Savior is and described His hands, feet, countenance and beautiful white robes, all of which were of such a glory of whiteness and brightness that he could hardly gaze upon Him.
Then [grand-pa] came another step nearer and put his right hand on my head and said: ‘Now, grand-daughter, I want you to remember that this is the testimony of your grand-father, that he told you with his own lips that he actually saw the Savior, here in the Temple, and talked with Him face to face.’
President Snow’s decision to share this sacred event with his female relative reminded me of Christ’s many visits with woman, both before and after His passing. It testifies that women are worthy of hearing and having sacred experiences.
This story also tells us something else (that we may have heard many times before): it is not Joseph Smith’s church, or Brigham Young’s church, or even Thomas S. Monson’s. It is Christ’s and it is God’s. This last point brings me great comfort, because God is a mother and a father. No individual (and earthly) leader’s passing away will be enough to sink this ship.
When President Snow was sustained as President of the Church in October 1898, he invited the members to help the kingdom of God move forward (and to move forward themselves) simply by being a little bit better: “Let us decree in our hearts, let us inwardly testify to the Lord, that we will be a better people, a more united people at our next Conference than we are today. This should be the feeling and determination of every man and woman present in this solemn assembly.” And then he added his own commitment, “I feel in my heart that I will try to be more devoted than I have been in the past to the interests of the kingdom of God and the carrying out of His purposes.”
The rest of the lesson focuses on four themes:
1) In fulfillment of prophecy, the Lord has restored His Church on the earth.
It emphasizes our belief that this church is not a new church. It is a very old church that has been restored, and is continuing to be restored. One prophecy that is paraphrased is the hopeful verse in Joel 2:28. “The Spirit of the Lord shall be poured out upon all flesh to such a degree that their sons and their daughters shall prophesy, their old men shall dream dreams, [and] their young men see visions.”
2) The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is built on a sure foundation, and it will continue to move forward in spite of opposition.
This section repeats that “This Church will stand, because it is upon a firm basis. It is not from man… it has come directly from the Lord.” It also talks quite a bit about “force and power,” but with a nice reminder that “the love of God for His people” is one of those things that “will continue and abide.”
3) We are the people of God, and He will protect us as we go forward and do all that He requires.
This section calls to mind times when God’s children both needed deliverance, and were delivered. “So it has been so and ever will be with us.” Because of this, Snow ‘wished to make the point,’ that “it may become necessary in the future…for some of the Saints to act the part of Esther, the queen, and be willing to sacrifice anything and everything that is required at their hands for the purpose of working out the deliverance of the Latter-day Saints.” Indeed, “It is our business to step forward as did Esther, and be willing to risk all for the salvation of the people. In undertaking her task, Esther said, ‘If I perish, I perish.’ …But the people of God will not perish. There will always be a ram caught in the thicket for their deliverance.”
4) It is time for us to humble ourselves before God and accomplish the work He has entrusted to us.
This section repeats the opening quote: “It is the business of those who profess to be engaged in [God’s] work to move on, to go forward. … So long as there remains a step forward to be taken, that step should be taken.” Then, it asks us to be humble and prayerful as we try to find out exactly what those steps are.
Here I would ask the sisters to share either things that they feel they are doing to move forward or small steps that they think they could do. I would also share the following quotes from prophetic women of God.
I will go forward. … I will smile at the rage of the tempest, and ride fearlessly and triumphantly across the boisterous ocean of circumstance. … And the “testimony of Jesus” will light up a lamp that will guide my vision through the portals of immortality, and communicate to my understanding the glories of the Celestial kingdom.** –Eliza R. Snow
We not only survive, but we love life. We laugh; we enjoy; we go forward with faith.***– Kathleen H. Hughes
(Both were found in LDS Wave’s remarkable resource Words of Wisdom: A Collection of Quotes for LDS Women .)
What other questions might you ask? What other insights might you offer?
* D. Michael Quinn, “The Mormon Succession Crisis of 1844,” BYU Studies 1976.
**Eliza R. Snow, Poems, Religious, Historical, and Political, vol. 1 (1856), p. 148-49
***Kathleen H. Hughes, “Blessed by Living Water.” Ensign, May 2003