I wanted to share a few thoughts about a part of Cheryl A. Esplin’s talk “FillingOur Homes with Light and Truth”
I was impressed by the story she shared about the experience of a member of her ancestor’s family:
Several months ago I read the testimony of my great-grandfather’s sister Elizabeth Staheli Walker. As a child, Elizabeth immigrated to America from Switzerland with her family.
After Elizabeth married, she and her husband and children lived in Utah near the Nevada border, where they ran a mail station. Their home was a stopping place for travelers. All day and all night they had to be ready to cook and serve meals for travelers. It was hard, exhausting work, and they had little rest. But the greatest thing that concerned Elizabeth was the conversation of the people they associated with.
Elizabeth said that up to this time she had always taken for granted that the Book of Mormon was true, that the Prophet Joseph Smith had been authorized of God to do what he did, and that his message was the plan of life and salvation. But the life she was experiencing was anything but what would strengthen such a belief.
Some of the travelers who stopped were well-read, educated, smart men, and always the talk around her table was that Joseph Smith was “a sly fraud” who had written the Book of Mormon himself and then distributed it to make money. They acted as if to think anything else was absurd, claiming “that Mormonism was bunk.”
All this talk made Elizabeth feel isolated and alone. There was no one to talk to, no time to even say her prayers—although she did pray as she worked. She was too frightened to say anything to those who ridiculed her religion. She said she didn’t know but what they were telling the truth, and she felt she could not have defended her belief if she had tried.
Later, Elizabeth and her family moved. Elizabeth said she had more time to think and was not so distracted all the time. She often went down in the cellar and prayed to Heavenly Father about what was troubling her—about the stories those seemingly smart men had told about the gospel being bunk and about Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.
One night Elizabeth had a dream. She said: “It seemed I was standing by a narrow wagon road, which led around by the foot of a low rolling hill; halfway up the hill I saw a man looking down and speaking, or seemed to be speaking, to a young man who was kneeling and leaning over a hole in the earth. His arms were stretched out, and it looked as if he was reaching for something from in the hole. I could see the lid of stone that seemed to have been taken off from the hole over which the boy was bending. On the road were many people, but none of them seemed to be at all interested in the two men on the hillside. There was something that came along with the dream that impressed me so strangely that I woke right up; … I could not tell my dream to anyone, but I seemed to be satisfied that it meant the angel Moroni [instructed] the boy Joseph at the time he got the plates.”
In the spring of 1893, Elizabeth went to Salt Lake City to the dedication of the temple. She described her experience: “In there I saw the same picture [that] I had seen in my dream; I think it was [a] colored-glass window. I feel satisfied that if I saw the Hill Cumorah itself, it would not look more real. I feel satisfied that I was shown in a dream a picture of the angel Moroni giving Joseph Smith the [gold] plates.”
Many years after having this dream and several months before she died at nearly age 88, Elizabeth received a powerful impression. She said, “The thought came to me as plain … as if someone had said to me, … ‘Do not bury your testimony in the ground.’”5
Generations later, Elizabeth’s posterity continues to draw strength from her testimony.
The story of Elizabeth Staheli Walker demonstrates a number of principles.
First, it can be a challenging experience for lifetime members to go from an environment that accords with their belief to an environment that challenges belief. One is forced to re-examine the foundation of their testimony and ground it more firmly.
Elizabeth had no one to talk to and no time to say her prayers. It seems she had to make time to pray by praying during her work, since she didn’t have quiet, alone moments. (I think she’s a good example of taking the initiative by doing what she could. What if she had just decided not to pray at all since circumstances weren’t perfect?)
What other resources might Elizabeth have had to strengthen her? I personally wonder how daily scripture study might have made a difference. It would have been difficult to fit that in with her busyness, but I think she could have snatched a few verses here and there, just like she fit prayer in.
The people who thought Mormonism was absurd were at least not violent about it. But they told stories that probably gave a different view of the Restoration, a view of it being a fraud. It is admirable that even though Elizabeth didn’t have the resources to defend her faith, she at least clung to it the best she could. And later in her life, she had time to pray about the troubling stories, so she did pray about them. It shows she had confidence that she could learn the truth from God, rather than letting those stories pull her away.
I love that Heavenly Father gave her a dream. I found this dream very interesting because it is a composite of truth and symbolism. The truth part of it was of Joseph Smith retrieving the gold plates from the Hill Cumorah under the direction of the angel Moroni. The symbolic part of it was the road at the foot of the hill with many people on it, none of whom were at all interested in what was happening on the hill. This perfectly symbolized the situation she’d lived through at the mail station. She’d met many people on their way to somewhere else who were not at all interested in the events of the Restoration. And to cover their disinterest, they had pretended a view that it was all absurd and a fraud and not worth their attention.
The fact that Elizabeth was in the dream and on the road showed that Heavenly Father knew she’d been influenced a bit by the people who were disinterested, but she could still see and recognize the importance of what was happening on the hill. And later, when she saw that very scene represented in a colored-glass window at the Salt Lake Temple, she had yet another confirmation that Heavenly Father had shown her something special.
She didn’t tell her dream to anyone, but she did write it down and that meant that this experience of spiritual witness was not lost forever. The dream was just for her; it addressed her doubts and concerns. It is also valuable for us today because it shows us another way that Heavenly Father may speak peace to our doubts and help strengthen our testimonies. It also shows us the importance of recording the dreams we have that teach spiritual principles. Some day those records will be appreciated by our descendants, or even wider.
I know Heavenly Father still can speak to us in dreams. I occasionally have dreams that show me where I am spiritually in life and often they suggest to me what I need to do to improve. One of those dreams is like having an experience without actually living it, so the truths penetrate deeper.
The spiritual experiences Heavenly Father gives us and the ways we seek His guidance help fill us up so that we will be able to withstand the challenges to our faith, whether they come from people who are disinterested, or from people who are outright hostile. I think that is the major message from Sister Esplin’s talk.