Home / Testimonies / Susan Easton Black

“Tell me a story,” I would plead of Grandma as a child. Though I wanted to hear of Cinderella, Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty, she would say, “Susan, I can only tell you stories that are true. If you want to hear truth I have something to say.” Not wanting to sleep, I enthusiastically listened to stories of Jesus, the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and those whose sacrifices created our legacy of faith.

Though I believed in the truthfulness of Grandma’s stories, there was one that caused me discomfort. It was of a young pioneer girl named Sarah Ann who was in danger of being trampled by stampeding buffaloes. In this perilous situation she knelt and prayed for protection. “In answer to her prayer,” said my grandmother, “she remained unharmed, even though hundreds of buffalo stampeded around her.” Instead of marveling with wonder at the miracle, I emphatically pronounced, “That’s impossible!” Grandma countered, “It is not impossible to those who have faith. Susan, it was because Sarah Ann had faith and you don’t.”

Such forthrightness caused me to ponder, then and now. I attended Church, paid tithing, and said my prayers, but the essence of faith, the substance of “things which are hoped for and not seen” had eluded me (Ether 12:6). As the years passed my outward demeanor mirrored faith, but my inner faith was lacking. I rationalized faithful events as good fortune, favorable circumstances, and just being “plain lucky.” Would I ever have a faith like Sarah Ann’s?

The answer was slow in coming, but in retrospect paralleled my desire for faith. That desire was ignited my freshman year at Brigham Young University. On a whim, a girlfriend and I decided to spend the weekend in Salt Lake City. While sitting with suitcase in hand at Temple Square, my friend casually remarked, “The President of the Church, David O. McKay, lives just across the street in the Hotel Utah.” Her continual nods of assurance and our curiosity led us to the hotel. Speaking with the bellboy and hotel manager about where the famous resident lived was frustrating. Their refusal to disclose his whereabouts, punctuated with security implications, fell on deaf ears. We left them, determined to answer the question, “If I were a prophet of God, behind which door in this hotel would I choose to live?”

After hours of knocking on doors and greeting blank stares from grumpy hotel guests, we staked out three floors. An innocent chambermaid on one of the floors revealed the answer. Excitedly, we hugged each other as only BYU freshmen can. Our enthusiasm was boundless, until we decided to see if the prophet was home. Being the smaller of the two, I was designated to knock on the door. If the knock was answered, I was programmed to say, “We are selling early orders for Girl Scout cookies; would you care to place an order?”

As I walked toward the door I felt reticent; yet, as my feet faltered and heart pounded, my friend pushed me forward. It wasn’t until I reached the door and was knocking that she ran like a flash of light to the far end of the hall. I was just turning to run when the door opened and before me stood the prophet. He looked surprised but didn’t say anything. Neither did I; I couldn’t. I felt like I had a key to the celestial kingdom but did not belong—I was not worthy to be in his presence. I started to cry and then to sob. He took me by the hand and said, “Won’t you come in?” I waved to my friend down the hall, whose open mouth betrayed her surprise, and entered the prophet’s home. Our discussion remains personal, but the resulting impact of that meeting was to change my inner direction dramatically. I resolved, as never before, not just to mirror faith, but to know of faith, to be faithful like Sarah Ann each day of my life so I would be worthy to see again a prophet, my Savior, and my Father in Heaven.

O that I could say I had always lived up to that resolve. I can echo Nephi in saying, “My heart sorroweth because of my flesh; my soul grieveth because of mine iniquities. I am encompassed about, because of the temptations and the sins which do so easily beset me. And when I desire to rejoice, my heart groaneth because of my sins” (2 Nephi 4:17-19).

To strengthen my resolve, I consciously determined that I would study in depth the scriptures, doctrinal discourses, early Church records and histories, and biographies of the righteous. I can say with Parley P. Pratt, “I [have] always loved a book. If I worked hard, a book was in my hand in the morning . . . A book at evening; . . . a book at every leisure moment of my life.”1 After decades of reading and reading and reading more I learned: “If ye will awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words, and exercise a particle of faith, . . . let this desire work in you” (Alma 32:27). That inner working has now resulted in a knowledge of the great truths about faith. From the scriptures I have learned that “the Lord is able to do all things according to his will, for the children of men, if it so be that they exercise faith in him” (1 Nephi 7:12). We must “ask in faith, nothing wavering” (James 1:6) because “it is by faith that miracles are wrought” (Moroni 7:37). “Jesus [is] the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2); “your hearts are changed through faith on his name; therefore, ye are born of him and have become his sons and his daughters” (Mosiah 5:7). We all yearn to hear, “Thy faith hath made thee whole” (Enos 1:8).

These truths are not new but eternal. The followers of Christ in the meridian of time and the Saints of the latter days made the discovery of these truths years before and lived lives of enduring faith. But I needed to discover those truths anew to reach an understanding of who I am in the eyes of Deity and why Jesus loved me so much he would atone for my sins that I might return to my Father in Heaven.

Helping me in the process of discovering faith have been the journals and histories of early Saints who knew and loved the Prophet Joseph Smith. I stand amazed at their resolve to cling tenaciously to their faith amid the Extermination Order, the Haun’s Mill Massacre, and the prospects of war. It seems to me that they echoed the words of Joshua, that no matter what trial beset them, they resolved, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15). For, like Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15). And like Joseph Smith, “What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty,” and yes, his faithful Saints, from worshiping him (D&C 121:33).

The names and stories of those who remained faithful and endured in righteousness are not lost. They are told and retold by their thankful posterity from generation to generation. As we remember with gratefulness our legacy, let us recall the faithful declarations of the past. Near Liberty, Clay County, Missouri, Samuel Bent was the object of religious persecution. He was tied to a tree and whipped by a mob, and saw his wife die from the effects of these privations.2 Yet he nobly declared, “[My] faith is as ever and [I feel] to praise God in prisons and in dungeons and in all circumstances whatever [I] may be found.”3

Titus Billings’s escape from mobocracy in Missouri was plagued with starvation and frostbite: “For three days and nights he had only slippery elm bark for food.” His feet were “frozen so badly the flesh came off in pieces.”4 Yet, like Samuel Bent, he praised God for his faith.

When Joseph Smith Sr. was imprisoned for a $14 note of indebtedness against him, he was promised he could go free if he renounced the Book of Mormon. His thoughts turned to the Apostle Paul: “I was not the first man who had been imprisoned for the truth’s sake; and when I should meet Paul in the Paradise of God, I could tell him that I, too, had been in bonds for the Gospel he had preached.”5

Another of those who epitomized the faith I wanted to obtain, a faith like Sarah Ann’s, was John Murdock. At age seventeen John “came near bleeding to death; yea death stared me in the face, but I covenanted with my Heavenly Father that if he would preserve my life, I would serve him.” True to his resolve, John turned to prayer and meditation and began his search for the gospel of Jesus Christ that professed and practiced the ancient ordinances.6 He first united with the Lutheran Dutch Church, but “soon found they did not walk according to the Scriptures.” He next joined the Presbyterian Cedar Church, but he said, “I soon became dissatisfied with their walk, for I saw it was not according to the scriptures.” He then united with the Baptists, but withdrew himself from them when he recognized “their walk not to agree with their profession.”7

Continuing his search for truth, John turned to the Methodist faith, but discovered “when I did not please them I would have to be silent among them awhile.” By 1827 he had joined the Campbellites. “It caused me to rejoice believing that I had at last found a people that believed the Scriptures,” wrote John. For three years he faithfully attended their meetings, but as the ministers denied the “gift and power of the Holy Ghost,” John lost interest and concluded that “all the [religious] Sects were out of the way.”8

Then in the winter of 1830 his prayers were answered. Four missionaries sent to the Lamanites arrived in Kirtland from the state of New York. They preached, baptized, and built up the Lord’s church after the ancient order. Curious, John journeyed twenty miles to see the new preachers for himself and rebuffed a Campbellite who tried to dissuade him. “I told him I was of age, and the case was an important one, of life, and death, existing between me and my God, and I must act for myself, for no one can act for me.”9

He arrived at Isaac Morley’s home in Kirtland about dusk and was introduced to the four men and presented with a copy of the Book of Mormon. He said that as he read the new scripture, “the spirit of the Lord rested on me, witnessing to me of the truth of the work. . . . About ten oclock [the next] morning being Nov 5th, 1830, I told the servants of the Lord that I was ready to walk with them into the water of baptism.”10

John wrote, “This was the third time that I had been immersed, but I never before felt the authority of the ordinance, but I felt it this time and felt as though my sins were forgiven.” After being ordained an elder, he returned home rejoicing and endeavored to bear testimony. To his joy, “my family gladly received me and my words, Thank the Lord.”11

It was John Murdock who, after the death of his wife, gave his surviving twins, Joseph and Julia, to Joseph and Emma Smith to rear. It was John who served a mission with Hyrum Smith to Missouri (D&C 52:8-9). On the trek his feet became wet: “I took a violent cold by which I suffered near unto death. . . . [But] I could not die because my work was not yet done.”12

Truly, it was not complete. The calls of the Lord from his prophets would take him from house to house, from village to village, and from city to city, proclaiming the everlasting gospel to all who would listen, from the eastern United States to Australia. On October 14, 1852, a letter from Brigham Young released John from his final mission: “Return in peace. Your Mission is accomplished and others are on the way to follow up and build upon the foundation which you have laid.”13

Who were those sent to build upon the foundation he laid? Could they include me, if I am faithful “at all times and in all things, and in all places” to the truths I have learned (Mosiah 18:9)? The Saints of yesteryear, when the winds of adversity, the trials of faith, or the Abrahamic test raged and beat upon their houses, stood firm because their foundation was in Christ (see Matthew 7:25). These Saints accepted the name of Christ by baptism and did not allow their faith to be tossed to and fro like the waves of the sea (James 1:6); nor did they stray from the strait and narrow path to the filthy waters or spacious building of Lehi’s dream (1 Nephi 8).

They were not like their contemporary Jared Carter, who recognized that “the spirit of God in a measure has left me,” but failed to rectify the problem.14 Nor were they like William McLellin, who maintained his testimony of the Book of Mormon but denied the Lord’s chosen leaders, saying: “When a man goes at the Book of M. he touches the apple of my eye. He fights against truth—against purity—against light—against the purist, or one of the truest, purist books on earth. . . . Fight the wrongs of L.D.S.ism as much as you please, but let that unique, that inimitable book alone.”15

The faithful Saints learned and willingly embraced truth. They did not approach the gospel feast as a smorgasbord, offering a nibble here, a bite there, a taste, a smell, or even a desire to change the recipe. They accepted the gospel harvest as a feast of thanksgiving and embraced the truth as they came unto Christ and partook.

Through faith they had found the passageway to eternal life and clung to the rod of iron amidst the refiner’s fire, the fuller’s soap, and the trials that tested their integrity and tenacity. For them and for thousands and now millions of Latter-day Saints, faith increased to knowledge until they knew in whom they trusted: they knew their Redeemer lived (see Job 19:25).

I need to repeat that remembered legacy of faith. Their external trials of life are obviously different from mine, but my internal resolve must be comparable to theirs. May I forever be grateful to my Father in Heaven for the gospel in its fulness and for the opportunity to read preserved records and to ponder and choose the path of faith. May I endure in righteousness as I nurture my faith and strengthen my resolve to commit myself to a Christlike life. May I choose the path trodden by our faithful forefathers, who knew that yesterday’s faith needed to be nurtured today.

As I partake of the Lord’s supper, his feast, his delicious fruit, my hope of eternal brightness grows as I contemplate an infinite joy with the Saints of the Most High God—Abraham, Joseph Smith, John Murdock, and, yes, I could say with my grandmother, even Sarah Ann.

NOTES
1. Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley Parker Pratt, 6th ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1966), 2.
2. Andrew Jenson, Latter-day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia: A Compilation of Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 4 vols (Salt Lake City: Andrew Jenson History Company, 1901-36), 1:368.
3. Donald Q. Cannon and Lyndon W. Cook, ed. Far West Record: Minutes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1830-1844 (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983), 222.
4. Melvin Billings, comp., “Titus Billings, Early Mormon Pioneer” (n.p., n.d.), 21. In author’s possession.
5. Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958), 185.
6. Journal of John Murdock [typescript], 3. L. Tom Perry Special Collections, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.
7. Journal of John Murdock, 5, 7.
8. Journal of John Murdock, 4-5.
9. Journal of John Murdock, 6.
10. Journal of John Murdock, 7.
11. Journal of John Murdock, 7-8.
12. Journal of John Murdock, 10.
13. Reva Baker Holt, “A Brief Synopsis of the Life of John Murdock” (n.p, 1965), 12. In author’s possession.
14. Autobiography of Jared Carter [typescript], 28. Grammar has been standardized. Church History Library, Salt Lake City.
15. Larry C. Porter, “William E. McLellin’s Testimony of the Book of Mormon,” BYU Studies 10, no. 4 (Summer 1970): 486.

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Susan Easton Black (Ed.D., Brigham Young University) is a Professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University, where she joined the faculty in 1978. She is a past Eliza R. Snow Fellow, Associate Dean of General Education and Honors, and Director of Church History in the BYU Religious Studies Center. She was the recipient of the Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecturer Award in 2000, the highest award given a professor on the BYU campus.

Specializing in research on Joseph Smith and the early Latter-day Saints, and particularly on the Missouri and Nauvoo periods, Professor Black has authored, edited, and compiled over ninety books and as many articles. She is married to Harvey B. Black and currently serves as a ward Young Women’s president.

Posted March 2011