Thank you, President Kusch, for the invitation to speak today. You should know that I am an admirer of President and Sister Kusch. We live in the same stake, where they are well loved for their humble and devoted service to the Lord and His Church.
I also admire you students who have chosen to study here. My office is at the Triad Center, and I often see you in the parking lot, crossing the street or making your way to and from the BC Café. Nearly two decades ago, I began my career at a public relations agency and worked from an office that is now part of your campus. This is a great place to start a career!
In preparing for this opportunity, I have watched or read the remarks of many of your recent devotional speakers. In doing so, I was reminded of what I feel when I have been invited to guest lecture in some of your classes. I have experienced in your presence something very rare in the halls of higher education — the blessing to teach and to be taught at a college that values the education of both mind and spirit. I have seen your minds at work and felt the Spirit in the hallways and classrooms of this great college. I pray the same will be true for all of us today.
History and future
This unprecedented era of the COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything the world has yet seen. To quote one of my Deseret News colleagues, “We are living in the pages of future history books.”[i]
We are certain that the immediate future is uncertain. We don’t know whether or when things will go back to normal. You might wonder about the long-term economic consequences of this pandemic and what that means for your future. In spite of these particularly tumultuous times, you are not unlike the generations of college students before you who have worried about their potential and prospects and what kind of mark they might make in the world. I know I did.
I am encouraged by this comment President Gordon B. Hinckley made at a BYU commencement address: “The major work of the world is not done by geniuses. It is done by ordinary people, with balance in their lives, who have learned to work in an extraordinary manner.”[ii]
For the next few minutes, I would like for us to consider the history books we revere as scripture. I will discuss some of the unnamed heroes in the Book of Mormon and the Bible and how they can inspire us to make a difference in the world and in the Kingdom of God regardless of what job we have or calling we hold, whether we are geniuses or not. Looking to the past, we can, with God’s help, chart a faithful course into the future.
The scriptures are filled with the stories of people whose names we know and revere: Father Adam and Mother Eve, Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Joseph, Mary, Peter, Paul, Alma, Mormon, Moroni and so many more.
The scriptures also contain stories of faithful people whose names, for whatever reason, were not recorded. There are many stories of unsung people whose faith and examples can inspire us even thousands of years later. We might properly call them the unnamed heroes of the Bible and the Book of Mormon – people whose faith and actions played vital roles that enabled great things to happen.
Let me recount just a few.
The sisters of Nephi: Though only mentioned once in passing, we understand that Lehi and Sariah had at least two daughters in addition to their six sons. Joseph Smith taught that these sisters of Nephi married the sons of Ishmael.[iii] These women’s names, birth order and stories are not known to us, but their sacrifices were undoubtedly real. They faced uncertain times, family feuds and violence. After the Lord warned Nephi to separate from Laman and Lemuel, his sisters were among those who followed him, along with the families of Sam, Jacob and Zoram. The wording of the one verse in which they are mentioned makes it seem possible that Nephi’s sisters even left their husbands to follow their brother as the Nephites and Lamanites parted ways.[iv]
The woman of Canaan. A gentile woman approached Jesus, a Jew. Desperate for help, she begged the Savior to heal her daughter. At first, He “answered not a word.” She must have continued her pleading because the disciples said, “Send her away; for she crieth after us.” She pleads even more and the Savior rebuffs her: “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Undeterred, she came closer, worshipped him and said, “Lord, help me.” This time, he responded, “O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt.”[v] The unnamed woman’s daughter was healed. Her perseverance inspires me to increase the sincerity and humility with which I pray for specific blessings.
The lone Amalekite convert. Before they became some of the greatest missionaries who ever lived, Ammon, Aaron, Omner and Himni — the four sons of King Mosiah — tried to destroy the Church. Their lives were changed, along with Alma the younger, after a stern rebuking from an angel. They repented and embarked on a difficult and ultimately successful 14-year mission to the Lamanites. Their example inspires all those who labor to bring souls to Christ and the healing offered by His atoning sacrifice. Their efforts with two Nephite peoples were definitively less fruitful. They had zero converts among the Amulonites and one from among the Amalekites.[vi] Only one from an entire people — there’s got to be a great, untold mission story there. We surmise that this woman or man walked a lonely path and chose God over family, friends and traditions.
Though unnamed, Nephi’s sisters, the Canaanite woman and the Amalekite convert can inspire us to live with more faith in times of hardship and trial, even when we walk alone.
Humble servants today
Throughout my life I have seen inspiring acts of faith and service, large and small. Let me share a couple of examples.
As a bishop, I often heard kind words from our ward members who prayed for me and expressed gratitude for my service. The faith and prayers of my fellow ward members sustained me in important ways and helped me keep going. Sometimes, while sitting in sacrament meetings, looking out into our congregation, I had this thought: there can be no bishop without a ward, no shepherd without a flock. If I were the only one serving and ministering in our ward, very little, if anything, would have been accomplished. Thankfully, that is not the case. Most of the work in a ward is accomplished by faithful, humble Saints. Bishops come and go, but without stalwart, dedicated disciples of the Lord, nothing in the Church would ever move forward. I want to be more like those members of my ward, whom I admire so much.
Recently I conducted a temple recommend interview for a woman in our stake. Because the pandemic conditions have changed how we do many things in the Church at least temporarily, we held the interview via Zoom. This wonderful woman was anxious to maintain a current temple recommend even though all of the temples were closed. As she moved into another room for our interview, I saw that her living conditions were most humble. I felt great love and admiration for this dear sister, whose life boasts no riches, rank or worldly honor. Undoubtedly, however, she is favored of the Lord, for she loves and serves Him. As we spoke, she told me how much she misses her weekly temple worship. She expressed deep gratitude for the opportunity to renew her recommend and said she planned to be back in the temple the very first day it reopens.
What a marvelous example from someone who is dedicated to the Lord and whose name is certain to be recorded in the Book of Life, even if it never marks the pages of world history.
Visibility does not equate to value
During family scripture study a few weeks ago, my wife read a quote that she had written in the margins of her Book of Mormon. It’s from an address President Howard W. Hunter gave, “To the Women of the Church,” in 1992, when he was an Apostle. He cautioned,
"Don’t be overly concerned with status. ... [O]ur focus should be on righteousness, not recognition; on service, not status. The faithful visiting teacher, [or ministering sister, we might say today] who quietly goes about her work month after month, is just as important to the work of the Lord as those who occupy what some see as more prominent positions in the Church. Visibility does not equate to value.[vii]"
My faithful and service-oriented wife said that President Hunter’s words have comforted her during the many times she has cared for our children while I was away at Church meetings or otherwise occupied by my callings.
I do not have the words to express the depth of my gratitude to Nicole for her vital though less-than-glamorous service in our home. While some of my callings have been more visible, her time with our children has been more consistent and is ultimately more important for our family. And she does all that and much more on top of faithfully fulfilling her own Church callings.
“With the help of these”
Let me now speak of a group of people who played a pivotal role alongside a very well-known person in the Book of Mormon. Although their names are not recorded in scripture, I believe we can learn important lessons from their service.
Inserted between our translation of the small plates of Nephi and Mormon’s abridgment of the large plates of Nephi, is an 18-verse interlude called the Words of Mormon. It follows the three shortest books in the Book of Mormon and precedes two of its longest. Mormon, the great abridger and historian gives us an overview of one of the record’s truest heroes: King Benjamin. Mentioned briefly in the Book of Omni, we are told that “King Benjamin was a just man before the Lord,”[viii] so Amaleki decided to entrust the plates of Nephi to him.
On the next page, among the words of Mormon, we learn more about this king.
- He wielded the sword of Laban — a treasured Nephite heirloom and symbol — to lead his people in defense against Lamanite aggression.[ix]
- After King Benjamin and his forces “had driven [the Lamanites] out of all the lands of [Nephite] inheritance,” he turned his attention to spiritual foes among his own people, where false Christs, prophets, and preachers created contention and dissension.[x]
He was successful, using legal means, at seeing that these false teachers were punished for their crimes.
We learn in the early chapters of Mosiah that King Benjamin was a wise and loving prophet and king. To me, his powerful speech on the tower at the temple in Zarahemla is among the most vivid events described in the Book of Mormon.
We all know about King Benjamin, after all, his name is recorded in three successive books of the Book of Mormon. Importantly, there were others who helped him.
Our careful historian, Mormon, indicates that, King Benjamin, “with the assistance of . . . many holy men . . . did once more establish peace in the land.”[xi]
In other words, there were many unnamed, barely mentioned people who, “did speak the word of God with authority.” And “with the help of these” King Benjamin affected great change.[xii]
He did not and could not have done it alone.
Though their names are lost to us, they helped establish and fortify a people who, many years later, following King Benjamin’s remarkable speech, would declare with one voice, “we are willing to enter into a covenant with our God to do his will, and to be obedient to his commandments in all things.”[xiii]
Hugh Nibley’s secret service
One of my favorite writers and all-around characters in the Church was the disciple-scholar Hugh Nibley. He had tremendous influence even though he never had what some might refer to as a “high calling.” He once wrote,
"I have undertaken many assignments given me by the leaders [of the Church], and much of the work has been anonymous: no rank, no recognition, no anything. While I have been commended for some things, they were never the things which I considered most important—that was entirely a little understanding between me and my Heavenly Father which I have thoroughly enjoyed, though no one else knows anything about it.[xiv]"
Although much of Brother Nibley’s work is widely known and has had a profound impact on many, including gospel scholars and Church members alike, the contributions to the Kingdom he most valued were those nobody else knows about, perhaps recorded only by the angels in heaven.
The same may be true for all of us. Our most important accomplishments could be the things very few people, if any, know about.
There is a vital place we are mentioned
There is an important place where we, collectively, as a people are mentioned. We rightly display the Savior’s name prominently in the Church’s new emblem, to emphasize whose Church this is. Now matched with a striking image of the resurrected Lord, His place in the Church and in our hearts is unmistakable. Right next to His name in the revealed title of the Lord’s restored Church, it mentions us: the Latter-day Saints.
The name of the Church has a singular focus with plural participants. We do not understand Saints to be venerated disciples to whom we pray for intercession. Rather, the Latter-day Saints are like the Saints of former days — unnamed people who follow the Lord, strive for holiness and choose “to repent and work righteousness rather than to perish.”[xv]
Almost every calling or assignment in the Church is temporary. It’s wise for us to avoid getting caught up in short-lived titles or aspiring to specific positions. Our identity in the Church as saints and disciples continues with us throughout our lives and beyond.
We serve with priesthood authority
The newly updated, General Handbook: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, teaches something that is profound to me. It says, “All Church members can exercise delegated authority as they are set apart or assigned to assist in accomplishing God’s work.”[xvi] That includes men, women and youth. It includes you and me. Each and every calling and assignment we seek to fulfill in the Lord’s Church is done with His authority. Governed by priesthood keys, it is not reserved for the prophets and apostles alone but is shared among all the Latter-day Saints.
In direct contrast to the way the world measures worth and influence — in numbers of followers, likes and shares — the true measurement of our contribution in the Kingdom of God might be summarized by our quiet efforts to serve the Lord and minister to those around us.
We can make a difference
The vast majority of our Father’s children will not have our names recorded in the annals of world history. We may not be mentioned in the personal journals of the presidents of the Church and our stories are unlikely to be told in future volumes of Saints. But we can make a difference.
It is my prayer that each of us will take heart from the humble heroes of the past and present and that we will be to President Nelson what the unnamed holy men were to King Benjamin: Helpers whose influence will affect history, even if our names are never mentioned therein.
I testify that Jesus is the Christ, His Atonement is real and it offers us hope for salvation, the gospel has been restored, the Church is led by a living prophet and the Book of Mormon is true.
In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
[ii] Gordon B. Hinckley. “Our Fading Civility,” BYU commencement address, 25 Apr. 1996, 15.
[iii] Sydney B. Sperry (1995). Did Father Lehi Have Daughters Who Married the Sons of Ishmael? Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 4(1), 235–238.
[iv]2 Nephi 5:6
[v] Matt. 15:28
[vi] Alma 23:14
[viii] Omni 1:25
[ix] Words of Mormon 1:13
[x] Words of Mormon 1:14
[xi] Words of Mormon 1:17-18
[xii] Words of Mormon 1:17-18
[xiii] Mosiah 5:5
[xiv] “The Best Possible Test,” CWHN 12:535, 537
[xv] Alma 13:10
[xvi] General Handbook: Serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 3.4
Burke Olsen is head digital officer at the Deseret News—the longest-running business in the state of Utah.
Before turning to journalism, he was a marketer and public relations practitioner. His experience spans the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, including the Pew Research Center, the Salt Lake 2002 Olympic Winter Games, the dedication of the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., Southern Virginia University and two PR firms.
Burke received a B.A. in communications from Brigham Young University and did graduate work in communications at The Johns Hopkins University.
He was a full-time missionary in Scotland and subsequently has served in the Church in a variety of callings, including high councilor, high priest group leader, young men president, and twice as bishop. He currently serves as a counselor in a stake presidency in North Salt Lake, where he lives with his wife and their four children.