Friday, August 7, 2009

Harold B. Lee's Optimism

Ever since his election and subsequent inauguration Barack Obama has been a polarizing figure on the American landscape. His race has a lot to do with it -- I never knew I had so many bigoted friends -- but his brand of politics is the biggest part of it.

Months ago the public and private comments about him sent me scrambling back in the recesses of my memory for an event in the life of President Harold B. Lee, when he went to Ricks College in another dark hour in America's history. That's why history is so important. Having a grasp of what has gone before sometimes helps with current perspective. For example, one of the reasons I love Abraham Lincoln so much is that if we think America is polarized now it all pales into insignificance compared with what he faced.

I sometimes have to remind myself that my children were all too young and would never remember this event unless I told them about it or they had read about it.

It was a time in our recent past as a nation when we were engulfed in the maelstrom of the Watergate scandal and Nixon would resign in disgrace a few months later. In that time of depressing and dark thoughts about whether or not America would survive, President Lee offered this assessment for the young students in his audience.

This is from my Dad's biography about President Lee, (see L. Brent Goates, Harold B. Lee: Prophet & Seer, 558-59):

On October 26, 1973, President and Sister Lee went to Ricks College in Rexburg, Idaho, where, after a luncheon with faculty and Church leaders, both were speakers at a devotional assembly before a student body and homecoming audience of over five thousand persons assembled in the Hart Auditorium and two other buildings. Before speaking, President Lee was presented with a painting of the Teton Mountains and a plaque containing a beautifully inscribed tribute. An originally composed song entitled "Listen to the Wondrous Voice" and other music dedicated to President Lee was sung by the combined Ricks College choruses.

At Ricks College - A Spiritual Peak

President Lee recognized a spiritual peak on this occasion and was prompted to say to his audience: "There is a wonderful spirit here today. There is something unusual about this meeting today. I don't know what it is. Maybe it is one of those occasions when we could feel and hear and see remarkable things happen. You have brought with you a tremendous spirit, and I feel it."

President Lee's entire message hit a pinnacle of patriotic spiritualism and has been quoted often in defining the Church's attitude toward its elected officials and the destiny of America as a chosen land. President Lee's call for optimism, even in the gloom of the Watergate scandal, which shortly would bring about the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, became a rallying banner for the Saints to follow. He firmly stated that this country would survive against all its enemies, whether from within or without.

President Lee told his listeners that the United States is a great nation: We are living in a time of great crisis. The country is torn with scandal and with criticism, with faultfinding and condemnation. It is an easy thing to climb on the bandwagon and join the hotheads in condemnation, little realizing that when they do, they are not just tearing down a man, they are tearing down a nation, and they are striking at the underpinnings of one of the greatest of all nations of all the world -- a nation that was founded upon an inspired declaration we call the Constitution of the United States. The Lord said it was written by men whom he raised up for that very purpose, and that Constitution stands today as a model to all nations to pattern their lives.

President Lee then pointed out why the United States is such a favored land: "This is the cradle of humanity, where life on this earth began in the Garden of Eden. This is the place where the New Jerusalem is. This is the place which the Lord said is favored above all other nations in the world. This is the place where the Savior will come to his temple."

Stressing again that the United States will never fail, he said: "Men may fail in this country. Earthquakes may come, seas may heave themselves beyond their bounds, there may be great drought and disaster and hardship, as we may call it, but this nation, founded as it was on a foundation of principles laid down by men whom God raised up, will never fail."

President Lee then shared with his collegiate audience a portion of his remarks made recently in a meeting of the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve:

While it is true there are dangers and difficulties that lie ahead of us, we must not assume that we are going to lie down and watch the country go to ruin. We should not be heard to predict ills and calamities for the nation. On the contrary, we should be providing optimistic support of the nation. You must remember, brethren, that this Church is one of the most powerful agencies for the progress of the world, and we should all bear our testimonies [so] that we... all sound with one voice. We must tell the world how we feel about this land and this nation and bear our testimonies about the great mission and destiny that it has. It is the negative, pessimistic comments about the nation that do as much harm as anything to the country today. Brethren, we must tell them in a positive way what they should be doing. We should not be so concerned about finding out what is wrong with America, but we should be finding what is right about America and should be speaking optimistically and enthusiastically about America.

His classic statement of trust in the destiny of America was also made during this sermon: "Yes, men may fail, but this nation won't fail. I have faith in America, and you and I must have faith in America if we understand the teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Like perhaps all of you, I have grave and somber thoughts about what the future might bring with Obama's hand on the rudder of the ship of state. Then I remember that half the population felt the same about George W. Bush. Despite the political divide, we can and must find room for optimism because so many others (our growing posterity among them) look to you and me for guidance and encouragement when they are suffering thoughts of doubt and fear.

We must all, like Harold B. Lee, develop unwavering faith and hope in the unfolding plan of our Father in Heaven in the last days as He brings to pass His "strange act" and performs His "strange work." (See D&C 95:4; 101:95).

And that Millennial agenda transcends politics.


  1. David,
    That was wonderful. I hope you don't mind. I'd like to share it with my family.