Keep the Commandments

Stephen L. Richards
Stephen L. Richards

My dear brethren and sisters:

I recall an occasion in the life of President Heber J. Grant which brings to me some thoughts for this conference. It was shortly before he became ill and near the close of his administration. He came to the temple one Thursday to meet with the brethren of the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve in the regular weekly meeting. In a thoughtful and reflective mood, he said, in substance:


Brethren, in the natural course of events my administration is nearing its close. I have been wondering what I might do in the time that remains to best promote the welfare of the Church and the people.

For a moment I thought he had some new project to announce, but this was quickly dispelled when he continued by saying that he had reached a very simple conclusion. He said the conclusion he had reached was that he could do nothing that would be of more value and lasting good to the cause of our Father and his people than to devote the remainder of his life and effort to getting the people to keep the commandments. I am sure that all the brethren who heard him were in agreement and deeply impressed by the farseeing wisdom of his utterance. I was, and I have recalled the incident on many occasions.

We live in a world of sensationalism. “What’s new?” is the inquiry on everyone’s lips. It often constitutes a form of friendly salutation. There is an insatiable demand for news, and the news to be arresting and intriguing, must be far out of the ordinary, often shocking and tragic, and the “scoops” which usually win the plaudits of the people in the great majority of cases arise out of the perpetration of high crimes, catastrophes, disasters, scandals—public and private—and the doings and antics of notorious people.


Keeping the commandments, as President Grant used the phrase, is not news in the modern sense. It is seldom dramatic. It doesn’t often arrest attention, and very infrequently wins a place in the headlines for a man or woman, and there are those who look with a measure of contempt and belittlement upon persons who order their “humdrum” lives in strict conformity with all the commandments.

In spite of the prosaic and commonplace aspect of this subject, I have long been convinced, my brethren and sisters, that the most challenging, dramatic, and vital thing in our lives is this “keeping the commandments.” It tests every fiber of our beings. It is at once a demonstration of our intelligence, our knowledge, our character, and our wisdom. I will try to show that this is true.


It takes intelligence, and a high order of intelligence, to worship God truly and understand his commandments and their far-reaching significance. Some of these sophisticates who call the good “dumb” give a very convincing demonstration of their own intellectual limitations. I observe, too, that there are some of our scholars who disparage the intellectual effort put forth in the acquisition of religious and spiritual truth and the science of theology. Out of my own limited exposure to education and my observation of learned men I do not hesitate to assert that it takes just as high an order of intelligence to comprehend and assimilate spiritual truth and divine law as it does to master the equations and formulas in the field of secular education. The great body of divine scripture, although contained in few books, has been, through the centuries. and will continue to be, a challenge to the most profound scholarship and the greatest minds which the world has produced, and it would be well for the cynics and agnostics and sophisticates of the present day to remember that many of the most outstanding institutions of learning had their inception under religious auspices; that churches and church people have been the foster fathers of education and that the Holy Bible has inspired more goodness, high idealism, lofty sentiment, freedom of thought, justice, mercy, and quest for learning than any other book and perhaps all other books ever produced in all the history of the world. Let no man disdain the intellectuality of spiritual learning.

How glorious and satisfying to the inquisitive nature of man is spiritual and religious knowledge and understanding. The intelligence and purpose of God made manifest in the orderly organization of the universe, the place of man in the great design furnish a concept, not only more lofty and idealistic than anything in all literature but one that is also more practical in application to the problems of man and society than any other which has ever been tried and tested.


From every quarter of the world we have evidences of a dearth of the knowledge of God and his ways. I think it safe to say that the greater part of all the opposition and enmity to social progress, to liberty, justice, and peace is attributable to lack of understanding, a woeful ignorance of divine concepts and truth. I cannot see how the rank and file of the people who are classed as atheistic communists could accept the godless totalitarianism of Marx and Lenin if they really had a comprehension and knowledge of the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the eternal plans of the Father for the well-being and exaltation of his children. I can understand how their leaders, lustful for power and domination, and beset by the constant fear of losing their unrighteous dominion will subordinate every decent, honorable, and virtuous principle to the gaining of their ends, but I cannot believe that even their own people would support these avaricious leaders if they had the truth.


A few years ago I was in San Francisco looking for a publishing house that would print some of our literature in the Russian language. By mistake I went into a printing establishment which I afterwards learned to be communistic. You should have seen the stony stare, and curt dismissal I received, when I asked if they printed religious literature. Afterwards I found a place where I was received by an intelligent Russian man who was sympathetic with my errand. I told him that it was our purpose to make some preparation for missionary work among his people. We discussed the situation for some time, and he made the significant remark: “Only God can save Russia.” He published a Russian newspaper, non-communist, with subscribers all across the nation. He gave me the information that there are approximately 15,000 Russian-speaking people around the San Francisco bay area and two million in the United States. He said there are approximately 900,000 displaced Russians in Europe, and he thought our missionaries could begin work among some of these Russians, looking forward to the time when through them there might be an introduction of the gospel into Russia itself. He knew something of our principles and our people and professed admiration for them. I felt that there was some evidence of his sincerity, when, after automatically offering me a cigarette, he immediately withdrew it and said, “Oh, I forgot, your people don’t smoke and drink.” Well, Russia is not the subject of my remarks, but I think that the present plight of that nation is a pertinent and persuasive illustration of the need of knowledge, spiritual and theological knowledge, as a basis for righteousness and peace.


At this point, I wish to voice appreciation for the great body of knowledge which has come to us in the revelations of this dispensation. When I think of the light which the Prophet Joseph Smith has thrown upon the knowledge of his day and our day, his interpretations of Holy Writ for centuries obscure in meaning to the learned of the earth, his enlargement of the vision of man, his incomparable contributions to the understanding of the vital relationships in life, home, family, community, government; his expositions of heaven and earth, salvation, exaltation, and eternity—all stamping him with the unmistakable marks of mighty faith and prophetic vision and understanding, I feel to exclaim with the author of our beloved hymn:

Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah, Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer.

He was “blessed to open the last dispensation” and “kings shall extol him” and “nations shall revere him” when the knowledge which he brought is disseminated through the earth to the understanding of the people thereof.


So, my brethren and sisters, we need knowledge—knowledge of the things of the Lord. Our Father said in the very beginning of his work, “let every man learn his duty”  D&C 107:99 It may be that there are a few of the commandments, the reasons for which are not very apparent to us. We accept some on faith as did the prophets of old, but in the main there is a sound discernible reason behind every commandment. A knowledge of the gospel reveals that reason, and gives additional encouragement and strength in keeping it.

For example the man who looks upon tithing as nothing more than a method of gathering money does not understand the law; but he who recognizes in it a great principle of true worship and spiritual growth will find infinitely more satisfaction in complying with its requirements. He will understand that the true test of devotion is the giving of one’s sell and that when a man parts with the proceeds of his labors, giving that which represents the expenditure of his brain power, his muscular strength, and his energy, he not only demonstrates his loyalty to the Lord and his work, but he adds to his own faith and his spiritual resources, his contentment, and his happiness. He builds up loyalty. He attains power to control rebellious and critical thoughts and tendencies. His conscience is clear. He can sleep comfortably with himself. Truly he grows in spiritual power.

Every commandment of God is spiritual in nature. There are no carnal commandments  D&C 29:34 We have learned this from modern revelation. While the commandments have effect upon the body and temporal things they are all in essence spiritual. The Word of Wisdom is spiritual. It is true that it enjoins the use of deleterious substances and makes provision for the health of the body. But the largest measure of good derived from its observance is in increased faith and the development of more spiritual power and wisdom. Likewise, the most regrettable and damaging effects of its infractions are spiritual, also. Injury to the body may be comparatively trivial to the damage to the soul in the destruction of faith and the retardation of spiritual growth. So I say, every commandment involves a spiritual growth. So I say, every commandment involves a spiritual principle.


I mentioned character in connection with keeping the commandments. When I come to think of it, keeping the commandments is about the only yardstick I know in measuring and appraising character, particularly with reference to those who have the knowledge our people have. We commonly refer to character as strong or weak, gentle or harsh, honest or deceitful, charitable or “tight,” and so on all down through the long list of attributes. Perhaps, the classification dreaded most by red-blooded people is that of weakling. That designation seems to be resented more than them almost any other, excluding criminal appellations, and, most unfortunately, among these are some who are boastful of sinful records and reputations. Weaklings are those lacking in the necessary stamina, strength, and courage to sustain a position. A person can be helpless physically and still not be a weakling, if he or she has the disposition and inner strength and courage to fight bravely on. It is the moral cowards and the ignorant who corrupt the world. I am aware that none of us has all the strength, resistance, and courage he would like to have, but I am afraid that there are many among us who have permitted their moral strength to be tapped and drained until there may not be much solid character remaining. They wouldn’t like to be called weaklings or cowards, but if they will examine themselves thoughtfully and frankly some may well admit that their strength is gone. I think I can tell you how many have come to this misfortune. They have been trying to ape the ways of the world. Many have forgotten that they have been called out of the world and enjoined to keep themselves unspotted from its sins. I suppose some haven’t even known what that meant and they have yielded to the sophistry and the sophistication and the practices of worldly-minded institutions and groups. Teddy Roosevelt used to say that it often took more courage to say “no” than it did to face a bear with a pistol. We’ve had a lot of men and women who unfortunately didn’t have the courage to say “no” and who unfortunately also did not have the pride of their great heritage in the Church and kingdom of God. It’s a great pity that it has been so. Think of the immeasurable good these men and women might have done if they hadn’t been so weak. If they had had the strength of character to stand for the right as they knew it. Think of the admiration they could have commanded for themselves and for their Church by simply declining the cigarette and the glass of beer and participation in indecent stories and tolerance for cheap jokes and witticisms directed at sacred things in their religion. I think of the strength they might have developed in themselves and in the youth who look to them if they had resisted the slot-machine, petty gambling on a golf game, a horse race or cards, and the allurement of the Sunday movie.


I understand that there are organized forces in our communities telling young people that these and other infractions of our moral code have no religious significance and urging them to be free from such restraint. They would disassociate conduct from religion. Well, they can’t do it any more than they can separate living from life.

Do you think that weak abandonment of well-recognized standards has commanded even the respect and admiration of new-found friends of the world? What a tragic mistake it is for any man to reach false conclusion that in order to get business or political preferment or social prestige he must compromise the truth. I wish that a hundred or a thousand men of this Church, if there be that many, would withdraw themselves from lodges and secret orders which they were counseled never to join. It is my opinion that most of our men allied with these secret orders had to show some weakness before they were invited. It is my observation that invitations come only to those who do not give wholehearted loyal support to the Church and its standards. The Church needs the undivided allegiance of these men, and they need the Church, as do their families also. Just so sure as they divide their allegiance the world will claim them. I make an earnest appeal to all my brethren who have joined these secret orders to leave them and renew their associations in the quorums of priesthood and the organizations and activities of the Church. I know that every single one who responds will be blessed in so doing.


I have a further word to say to my brethren who are members of service clubs, chambers of commerce, and other non-secret business, professional and social organizations. Brethren, you don’t need to abandon any principle, any standard or approved practice of the Church to which we have the honor to belong to maintain good standing in these organizations. If you do, you had better get out. Our men can and do win the respect of all if they have the courage of their convictions. There is little respect on the part of any for the weakling. I have found it a great honor to represent this mighty Church of the Lord in many capacities. I have not always felt worthy of the honor, but I trust that the pride of membership in the Church and kingdom of God will never leave me. The Apostle Paul must have looked down through the ages of men and foreseen their weaknesses, when, and giving that famous definition of the gospel, he said:

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation . . .  Rom. 1:16

It is too bad when men and women become ashamed of the gospel. When they do, they succumb to their weakness, the world soon gets them and they lose the richest things of life. If therefore, my brethren and sisters, and my other friends who may listen, if you would develop great character, the strength of constant purpose, resistance to evil, nobility in thought and purpose, if you would know the richness of life and experience contentment and its deepest satisfactions, keep the commandments.


Just another thought, and I am done. We all prize wisdom. It is said to be the greatest of gifts. It is really the power to apply beneficent knowledge in all the decisions and vicissitudes of life. How we need wisdom in the composition of the troubles and difficulties of the world. How we need wisdom in our own affairs, with our families, our business, and our associations. Almost every day is a day of decision. What to do. What choice to make. I don’t know of a better way to secure the wisdom that we need than by keeping the commandments. We are enjoined by the commandments to study, to pray, to work and to serve, and be humble and contrite of spirit. The great promises are to the meek who shall inherit the earth  Matt. 5:5 Wisdom is not to be found among the arrogant, the haughty and self-sufficient, nor among the sinful and the anti-Christs of the world. Wisdom is a gift to the prayerful student, to the faithful and the obedient, to those who repose their trust in the counsels of the spirit and the priesthood of God.

There was great import in those inspiring, simple words of President Grant’s uttered in the Holy Temple. They embodied the message that has come down to us through all the presidents of the Church. I know it is the message of our present President and his associates. It has been voiced a thousand times in the words of every true leader. It is not news, but it will never grow old. It is the eternal message for the government of man—keep the commandments. Oh God, grant us the intelligence, the knowledge, the character, and the wisdom to obey, I humbly pray, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Original Source

Elder Stephen L. Richards
Of the Council of the Twelve Apostles
Stephen L Richards, Conference Report, April 1949, pp. 137-144
Accessed 20/2/2017