By Liz Adair
I’m teaching Old Testament this year in seminary, and as we read through these ancient stories, I realize most of these people, the characters in these stories, had no inkling that they would become immortal. Oh, maybe Moses or Samuel or Isaiah or one of the prophets privileged to see into the future, but surely not Rachel and Leah, Dinah, Hannah, Agag, Boaz or Elimelech. I have an idea that each was just trying to get through a tenuous life the best s/he could. Some made better decisions, some had purer motives. A few may have aspired to be remembered, but I doubt that Agag wanted to go down in history as the king who was hacked to pieces by Samuel. He probably had something more regal in mind for his legacy.
But these people live on! How many millions, down through the ages, have read of Rachel’s beauty and barrenness and Leah’s plainness (fine eyes notwithstanding) and fecundity? Any woman who has ever loved a man can identify with that story, whether the love was requited or not. And what mother reads of Hannah’s promise to give her son to God––a promise made before she held the baby in her arms––what mother reads that and doesn’t ache for Hannah as she takes Samuel to the temple and puts him in the care of the old priest, Eli? Can you not picture her making her annual pilgrimage to see her son, carrying with her a coat, bigger than last year’s by her best guess at how he would have grown in this year?
I’ve been immersing myself in the words of other people long dead this last week. I’m the only one who has these writings, for they’re family letters that have been passed down to me through a series of deaths. I sat on the floor yesterday surrounded by a pile of them written in the first three decades of the twentieth century. As I picked up one and then another, I was struck by the legacy left in those pencil scrawls on pages from a lined tablet. I watched the round schoolboy penmanship of a fourteen year old boy, beginning with four lines that he sent to his mother along with part of his cowboy's wages, grow more fluid over the course of the dozen years his letters spanned. His writing matured as well, and that narrative opened a window on a time and a place in my family’s history that is chronicled nowhere else.
That was the setting when I sat down to read scriptures with my husband last night. We’re plowing through the Book of Mormon again, and we came to the place where Nephi is talking about the Liahona, and he says: And there was also written upon them a new writing, which was plain to be read, which did give us understanding concerning the ways of the Lord; and it was written and changed from time to time, according to the faith and diligence which we gave unto it. And thus we see that by small means the Lord can bring about great things. (1 Nephi 16:29)
I have read those words before many times. In fact, I often quote the ‘by small means the Lord can bring about great things’ phrase. I’ve always connected it with things other than writing, but here is a note from my great aunt in 1965 telling me about the route her family traveled by wagon train to get to
I’m sure that the young cowboy, sitting at a remote cow camp tending a windmill and writing to his mother by light of a coal oil lamp, never thought that his simple words would be set down for strangers to read hundreds of years later. But he, like many of us, was driven to set his thoughts to paper. And by that small act, repeated over and over by people like you and me, great things are brought to pass.