Recently TCM (Turner Classic Movies) rebroadcast Ben-Hur. It was part of a retrospective on the career of Charlton Heston, who died April 5, 2008. As I watched this Oscar-winning epic, I was reminded that the film, in addition to being “A Tale of The Christ,” is about the relationship between the Roman Messala and the Jew Ben-Hur. Both are fictitious characters.
Returning spite for spite, Ben-Hur swore a vengeance-oath. The remainder of the film follows his quest for revenge against Messala, and his attempts to free his mother and sister from prison.
In a way, we are all like Ben-Hur. If we haven’t been wronged or burnt by friends and associates, we at least have had our toes stepped on. For example, Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (known as the Mormons), was betrayed many times by his close associates.
Take the case of W. W. Phelps. He was one of Joseph Smith’s close associates and leader of the Church in Missouri. He was an active member, and generous contributor. He oversaw many of the printing concerns, edited a newspaper, wrote the lyrics to many hymns, and even had a revelation (D&C Section 55) given to him.
However, in 1838 things changed. He fell out of favor with the members of the Church living in Missouri. Later, he spoke out against Joseph Smith and signed a petition that led to Joseph Smith’s arrest. Finally, on March 17, 1839, he was excommunicated.
W. W. PHELPS LETTER
But after two years of estrangement, he had a change of heart. Phelps had an impressive dream, and then wrote this following letter:
BROTHER JOSEPH—I am alive, and with the help of God I mean to live still. I am as the prodigal son, though I never doubt or disbelieve the fulness of the Gospel. I have been greatly abused and humbled, and I blessed the God of Israel when I lately read your prophetic blessing on my head, as follows:
“The Lord will chasten him because he taketh honor to himself, and when his soul is greatly humbled he will forsake the evil. Then shall the light of the Lord break upon him as at noonday and in him shall be no darkness,” etc.
I have seen the folly of my way, and I tremble at the gulf I have passed. So it is, and why I know not. I prayed and God answered, but what could I do? Says I, “I will repent and live, and ask my old brethren to forgive me, and though they chasten me to death, yet I will die with them, for their God is my God. The least place with them is enough for me, yea, it is bigger and better than all Babylon.” Then I dreamed that I was in a large house with many mansions, with you and Hyrum and Sidney, and when it was said, “Supper must be made ready,” by one of the cooks, I saw no meat, but you said there was plenty, and you showed me much, and as good as I ever saw; and while cutting to cook, your heart and mine beat within us, and we took each other’s hand and cried for joy, and I awoke and took courage.
I know my situation, you know it, and God knows it, and I want to be saved if my friends will help me. Like the captain that was cast away on a desert island; when he got off he went to sea again, and made his fortune the next time, so let my lot be. I have done wrong and I am sorry. The beam is in my own eye. I have not walked along with my friends according to my holy anointing. I ask forgiveness in the name of Jesus Christ of all the Saints, for I will do right, God helping me. I want your fellowship; if you cannot grant that, grant me your peace and friendship, for we are brethren, and our communion used to be sweet, and whenever the Lord brings us together again, I will make ail the satisfaction on every point that Saints or God can require. Amen. W. W. PHELPS. (History of the Church, 4:141-142)
This letter speaks for itself. There was no guile, or self-serving explanations. Phelps stood up, confessed his wrongs (“The beam is in my own eye.”), and was willing to make amends.
JOSEPH SMITH’S REPLY
In response, Joseph Smith wrote:
DEAR BROTHER PHELPS:—I must say that it is with no ordinary feelings I endeavor to write a few lines to you in answer to yours of the 29th ultimo; at the same time I am rejoiced at the privilege granted me.
You may in some measure realize what my feelings, as well as Elder Rigdon’s and Brother Hyrum’s were, when we read your letter—truly our hearts were melted into tenderness and compassion when we ascertained your resolves, etc. I can assure you I feel a disposition to act on your case in a manner that will meet the approbation of Jehovah (whose servant I am), and agreeable to the principles of truth and righteousness which have been revealed; and inasmuch as long-suffering, patience, and mercy have ever characterized the dealings of our heavenly Father towards the humble and penitent, I feel disposed to copy the example, cherish the same principles, and by so doing be a Savior of my fellow men.
It is true, that we have suffered much in consequence of your behavior—the cup of gall, already full enough for mortals to drink, was indeed filled to overflowing when you turned against us. One with whom we had oft taken sweet counsel together, and enjoyed many refreshing seasons from the Lord—”had it been an enemy, we could have borne it.” “In the day that thou stoodest on the other side, in the day when strangers carried away captive his forces, and foreigners entered into his gates, and cast lots upon [Far West], even thou wast as one of them; that thou shouldest not have looked on the day of thy brother, in the day that he became a stranger, neither shouldst thou have spoken proudly in the day of distress.”
However, the cup has been drunk, the will of our Father has been done, and we are yet alive, for which we thank the Lord. And having been delivered from the hands of wicked men by the mercy of our God, we say it is your privilege to be delivered from the powers of the adversary, be brought into the liberty of God’s dear children, and again take your stand among the Saints of the Most High, and by diligence, humility, and love unfeigned, commend yourself to our God, and your God, and to the Church of Jesus Christ.
Your letter was read to the Saints last Sunday, and an expression of their feeling was taken, when it was unanimously
Resolved, That W. W. Phelps should be received into fellowship.
“Come on, dear brother, since the war is past, For friends at first, are friends again at last.”
Yours as ever, JOSEPH SMITH, JUN. (History of the Church, 4:162-164. To read the original in Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, click here.)
Unlike Ben-Hur, Joseph Smith did not want revenge. When Phelps confessed and apologized, Joseph Smith welcomed him back with open arms.
B. H. Roberts, a church leader and historian, made this observation:
“When the great offense of Elder William W. Phelps is taken into account—amounting as it did to a betrayal of the Prophet and the Church in Missouri, during the troubles of the saints in that state—this letter is remarkable.”
“The Prophet’s frank forgiveness of his erring brother, gently chiding his wrong-doing, but at the same time remembering in a large way that brother’s former devotion and labors; the Prophet’s willingness to have the prodigal return and occupy his former high standing among the Saints—all this exhibits a broad-mindedness and generosity that can come only from a great soul, influenced by the spirit of charity enjoined upon his disciples by the teachings of the Son of God.”
“One of the surest evidences of Joseph Smith’s greatness of mind and of the inspiration of God upon him is to be seen in his treatment of those who had fallen but were willing to and did repent of their sins. His capacity to forgive under these circumstances seemed boundless.” (History of the Church, 4:162n)
Broad-mindedness, generosity, boundless forgiveness—these are good watchwords for anyone.
“Throughout the journey along the pathway of life, there are casualties. Some depart from the road markers which point toward life eternal, only to discover the detour chosen ultimately leads to a dead end. Indifference, carelessness, selfishness, and sin all take their costly toll in human lives.”
“Change for the better can come to all. Over the years we have issued appeals to the less active, the offended, the critical, the transgressor—to come back. ‘Come back and feast at the table of the Lord, and taste again the sweet and satisfying fruits of fellowship with the Saints.’”
“In the private sanctuary of one’s own conscience lies that spirit, that determination to cast off the old person and to measure up to the stature of true potential. In this spirit, we again issue that heartfelt invitation: Come back. We reach out to you in the pure love of Christ and express our desire to assist you and to welcome you into full fellowship.”
“To those who are wounded in spirit or who are struggling and fearful, we say, Let us lift you and cheer you and calm your fears. Take literally the Lord’s invitation, ‘Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’” (Looking Back and Moving Forward)
This conciliatory attitude means everything to me. It creates an atmosphere of warmth and human concern. This, I believe, is how Jesus Christ would do things. For W. W. Phelps, Joseph Smith, and even the fictitious Ben-Hur, the road to reconciliation is found in Jesus Christ. We can repair hurts, forgive, and come home again.