One of the greatest gifts from our Heavenly Father is the ability we’ve been given to communicate with one of another. We have many senses—including smell, touch, vision and hearing—that we use to communicate. But none of these equal the power of our ability to use the spoken word.
By speech we can exchange our thoughts, give warnings, show appreciation and provide comfort, to name only a few. Most often we use the spoken word to communicate our feelings and to teach, inspire, and motivate. But if we are not careful, the spoken word can do as much damage to the human soul as it does good. We have a warning about this danger in the words of the apostle James: “Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not so to be” (James 3:10).
As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we have a double responsibility to watch every word we speak because we know that the effects of our speech have eternal ramifications. We must always follow the counsel in the Doctrine and Covenants: “Therefore, strengthen your brethren in all your conversation, in all your prayers, in all your exhortations, and in all your doings” (D&C 108:7).
However, we do not always listen to and follow this advice. When we do not, and we speak unkindly to one another, great harm can be done. The following incident is true and should never have happened. The effects of a few poorly chosen words said to a tender-hearted young mother proved very damaging to this daughter of our Heavenly Father.
In the early 1940s, World War II was raging. Thousands of men and women in our country responded to the call to duty and went off to serve in the war. This had a rippling effect on the home front in America. There simply were not enough male workers to meet the country’s needs at home. So, many women, young and old—housewives, mothers and even grandmothers—responded and tried to fill in for these missing workers.
It was in 1944 that the bishop of a ward in Arizona found he did not have enough sisters to teach Primary. Most mothers had gone off to work full-time jobs, leaving no one to teach the children. In those days, Primary was usually held on Thursday afternoons. What was he to do? He felt impressed to comb through the ward membership list, seeking out sisters who could aid in filling the teaching openings he had. As in every ward, there were many sisters on the records he did not see often (or at all) in church. These were the “less actives.” As he and his counselors reviewed the list of names, a Sister Marge came to mind. Why not her? She was a pleasant and capable sister with children in primary who had not attended church due to a Word of Wisdom problem—she smoked.
But here, he thought, was an opportunity to tenderly guide her and her family back to activity while helping to teach the children in primary—which the ward needed badly. Her family included a nonmember husband and three children. The bishop arranged a visit to Marge’s home and, after explaining the ward’s need, he extended a call to Marge to teach in Primary. It did not take long for her to think it over. With the approval of her husband, she said yes to the calling. Marge promised to do her best.
For over a year, everything went well. She was faithful to her calling. She loved working with the children and was making progress with her Word of Wisdom problem. The family had started attend services. All was well.
In September of 1945, the war ended formally. Everyone rejoiced! The men and women in uniform were coming home. Employment in businesses was beginning to improve. With the war’s end, things were getting back to normal in America.
It was at this point that the bishop asked to meet with Marge. Having no thought that anything was wrong, she happily went to the ward thinking there might be more she could do in her calling. As the bishop welcomed Marge into his office, he sat her down and from behind his desk, he quietly said these words: “Marge, now that the war is over and the GOOD WOMEN are back, I’m going to release you from your calling in Primary.” There wasn’t much more spoken except a few words of thanks for her service—but Marge was so stunned that she never heard those words.
In only a few seconds, Marge’s world crashed down around her. She was so heartbroken she could not speak. She left the office and slowly walked home trying to clear the tears in her eyes and preparing what to say to her husband and family. The words “good” women meant to her that she was a “bad” woman. The bishop, despite what he may or may not have meant, offered no other explanation. She did not understand. Where was this bishop’s love and compassion? She had truly been faithful in her calling. She may still have had a few problems in her life, but everyone does. Why did that make her a bad woman?
We don’t know and maybe never will know what influenced this bishop to utter these hurtful and destructive words. He certainly could have been more considerate, loving, and charitable in this situation. But the words had been spoken and a life was forever changed.
Nothing was ever done to correct or withdraw these words. Marge stayed home from church after that. She would always take her children to Sunday church services. She would also attend all her children’s special events and programs. But Marge and her husband never again attended church services together. Added to that, her husband never again felt close enough to the gospel to take the missionary lessons.
Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf perhaps best summed up what may have happened here and what still unfortunately happens all over the world:
“You will find that this Church is filled with some of the finest people this world has to offer. They are welcoming, loving, kind, and sincere. They are hardworking, willing to sacrifice, and even heroic at times.
And they are also painfully imperfect.
They make mistakes.
From time to time they say things they shouldn’t. They do things they wish they hadn’t.
But they do have this in common—they want to improve and draw closer to the Lord, our Savior, even Jesus Christ.
They are trying to get it right.
They believe. They love. They do.
They want to become less selfish. More compassionate, more refined, more like Jesus”
(Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Believe, Love, Do,” November 2018 Ensign).
Our hopes and prayers are that someday in the hereafter, Marge and her bishop will meet again and reach out to one another in the true spirit of love, repentance, and forgiveness and mend the damage from these misspoken words from so long ago.
I conclude with the words of Melvin J. Luthy:
“Brigham Young taught an interesting principle, that by controlling our words we gain control of our thoughts. The Epistle of James teaches us that small things like the bit in a horse’s mouth or the rudder on a ship can control the larger body (James 3:1-4). So also, by the small matter of controlling our tongues, we gain control over our bodies” (Melvin J. Luthy, “Truth, Lies, and the Power of the Word,” BYU Devotional, November 9,1999).
May we all guard our words as we would guard our precious gold.
George Domm was born and raised in upstate New York around historical LDS sites such as the Hill Cumorah and Palmyra. He was very familiar with the Church long before he was baptized in 1959. Soon after joining, he found himself serving a full-time mission for the Church in Berlin, Germany. That was his first of four missions! George currently lives in American Fork, UT with his wife, Margaret, and busies himself trying to keep up with their 11 children and 42 grandchildren. He loves to do family history and play golf with "all the old men in our neighborhood." His goal is to one day shoot his age, 74.