The Sacrifice of Service

The following notice was published in the Nauvoo Neighbor in Jan 1844.


This announcement, probably meant to benefit German immigrants living in the sixth ward, warmed my heart and made me think of a church functioning as a Christian community. I wanted to imagine myself stumbling out across the ice of the Mississippi to gather wood for my destitute coreligionists.

But then I read on, placing the notice in immediate context.


The warning, apparently from the pen of editor John Taylor, reports that taking wagons across the river, what Bishop Carn has asked, is dangerous, as the February ice is growing thin. Suddenly a great act of service becomes a risk of broken limbs and frostbitten toes.

This image pushed me to revisit decisions I have made in my life. A few years ago, I was involved in projects for healthcare reform in the Former Soviet Union. After those projects came to a close, I gave serious thought to working with Paul Farmer’s group in Russia, even meeting with Paul and others to discuss options. The problem? They are treating prisoners with drug-resistant tuberculosis in resource-poor areas. One of Paul’s closest friends died several years ago after being infected on a similar project in Peru, and many of the people serving are at risk for acquiring the infection. I had nightmares about widowing my wife and orphaning my children, so I backed out. I remembered a friend from college, a public health epidemiologist, who told me that Mormons would never amount to much because they always chose their families over the world. The choice still haunts me sometimes, feels like a betrayal of a spiritual calling. My wife and I have started to talk about doing dangerous service when our children are around thirty, when we have become expendable again, but this is far from clear.

So, of all the tangents that Carn vs. Taylor could inspire (Did Taylor tell him beforehand about the warning? Did anyone come? Did anyone fall into the icy river? Did Carn and Taylor have harsh words?), my question is: when do family obligations become a cover for fear or selfishness? What sacrifices for outsiders can fairly be made when we are in a family?


  1. I think that this is the most important impediment to Mormon greatness. The preponderance of dysfunctionality among the greatest achievers illustrates the price that so many Mormon’s, male and female, won’t countenance.

    An interesting aspect of the specific case you illustrate in Nauvoo is that the wood was being donated by the Law brothers (I presume it is the Law bros.). At the time of this notice, William was cut off from the First Presidency and rumors abounded that he was the Brutus that would betray Joseph. He viewed the hierarchy of the Church as being completely apostate, yet the Bishop sought his aid.

  2. Steve Evans says:

    Brother and sister, blogging side by side. ‘Tis Zion, says I.

    I think family is more often a cover than not. I know it is for me.

  3. it was william and wilson law, who despite their antipathy for JSJ still “believed in” old Mormonism and were still important civic and business leaders in Nauvoo. Carn was loyal to JSJ and then BY, moving West in the main exodus. You do wonder whether Taylor’s jab was in part at the source of the lumber.

  4. Not to be mired in the fascinating history here, I would say I definitely maked cost/benefit decisions based on service opportunities. I have a 3 year old little girl and one on the way, and I pretty much skip most opportunities to serve which do not allow for her involvement. So I volunteer to baby sit during enrichment a lot, and I don’t go to the farm or the bishop’s storehouse. I only help on moves when It’s someone I know well enough to make sure it is ok for me to bring my family with me.

    Why? because I want to be involved in the lives of my children now, while they still want to be involved in my life. I am pretty aware that the time will come when they won’t want me around and will think I am an idiot, so I want to enjoy the good times while they last. My daughter is not always going to wake up at 4 am and want to come cuddle with her Dad. I can either resent it, or cherish it.

    I guess that old scripture (or song by the Birds, if you are like me) speaks to me.

    For every time
    turn turn turn
    There is a season…

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I guess I am preternaturally Mormon, as I have always made decisions about my career and involvement in service and other activities with family uppermost in mind. I even practice a kind of law–public finance–that is relatively civil in terms of time demands (by the standards of the legal profession) so that I can spend time with family. This may keep me from becoming a great anything, but my values put family first above just about all else. And I suspect that this is a very common value system among LDS. So if I were in your shoes, Sam, I would have done exactly the same thing. (But I also think it is healthy to reflect and contemplate whether that was the right decision.)

  6. I think one thing that Mormons do bat higher than average at is making money. That, too, is often done with family in mind.

    What about all the fabled Mormon spooks? Are they running around Tora Bora, or are they the kind of spooks you see in the movies, wearing suits and ordering assassinations from Langley?

  7. In order for our actions to even qualify to be called service, they must, I think, involve some kind of sacrifice, some counting of the cost. I have used family as an excuse for my own laziness in the past, but that doesn’t mean that the real sacrifices the parenting requires are any less worthy than some other deed.

    Bishop Carns sounds like an outstanding human being.

  8. Your point about parenthood reminds me of Tolstoy’s character Andrei Bolkonsky in War and Peace.

    When Prince Bolkonsky gets married spontaneously he comes to resent his wife because he feels that marriage constrains his pursuit of service and glory. However, he does not let that stop him from becoming Kutusov’s aid de camp and getting himself shot rallying panicked troops at Austerlitz. In his absence, Bolkonsky’s wife perishes in childbirth. Though the Prince survives, his sister raises his son under the supervision of his father.

    On a different note, the Polish experience is fascinating with respect to celibacy.

    The Czechs and Slovaks rose twice against the Bolshevics, the Hungarians and Germans once. No matter how often Poles suffered bloody pubishment, they never stopped defying their Soviet oppressors.

    The reason why Poles contributed more than any other people is probably that they had developed a culture of resistance and enjoyed the leadership of their clergy. It’s a lot harder to intimidate a childless mystic sworn to poverty.

    Of course, celibacy induces its own pathologies.

  9. Ronan, I know more than one American spy that is no longer active…

    Hellmut, nice point about the polish priests. A fascinating case, and I would argue very similar to the culture surrounding LDS missionaries. I remember a pervasive meme that if one were to die, being a missionary is the way to go (no family, excellent cause, etc.).

  10. I hear the CIA also offers desk jobs, not just James Bond type jobs.

  11. I’ve heard LDS make terrible spies because we don’t drink, so we don’t blend in well in many social situations.

  12. I should add that at one point I really wanted to serve my country by being in the military (I was on my mission during 9-11) but when it came down to it, I ended up with the choice of being present for the birth of my daughter, or being in officer training school.

    When I was sitting in the little room, ready to swear in, I felt a prompting to go talk to my wife, I went to her and asked her how she felt. She felt what I can only call a stupor of thought, and she and I walked away from our chance to serve in the military, receive a pension at the age of 55 and serve missions for the rest of our aged lives.

    Now I work in the private sector where there is absolutely no guarantee I will ever retire.

    I guess I am trying to say that sometimes taking the less exciting road of being a run of the mill family man is the greater sacrifice and service.

  13. don’t worry, matt, military retirement pay isn’t all it’s cracked up to be! we don’t know a single recent retiree who has been able to live off of their retirement pay alone, even after cutting the budget, moving to podunk idaho, and so on.

    my family and my husband’s has always been military and law enforcement or fire department, so there’s always been an element of this “family versus whatever” in our lives. family has always won out. my husband turned down nice financial bonuses from the military to stay enlisted because we didn’t feel it right for our family for him to spend the next umpteen years deployed. he stayed away from the private sector equivalent because while the pay was great (phenomenal, even!), the hours were rotten. he could have made a nice living continuing his work in russia, but decided as badly as he wanted to go there, it wasn’t safe for our family. his dad was law enforcement and quite high-ranking in state service. they talk big about how your relative will be mia to help others when a big catastrophe hits, but dad always said if it was that big of a catastrophe, he’d be at home with his family.

    for me, i feel a great calling for humanitarian work in areas like africa, where it wouldn’t be the best situation for my small kids (i don’t have angelina jolie’s paycheck!). as badly as i feel about not helping where i feel i should, i am pacified by knowing that my children are my primary priority and a priority that is god-ordained. it sounds nice to use it as an excuse, i’m sure, “oh, i’d be off changing the world, if it weren’t for all of these children i have to raise unto righteousness,” but it’s true. someday. someday…

  14. Wow, I think this is a good question. What does Paul Farmer say about it? He sacrifices his family a lot right? What does his family think, I wonder? Do they hate him a little because he’s never around?

    I don’t know how to make this decision (I don’t have a family to consider) but it seems that one should continually look for opps to serve and then ask this question. Sometimes it won’t feel right and sometimes it will, I would guess.

    Also, this might make me sound like a horrible person but I lost my dad (well yours too smb) when I was 13 and while it was hard, it didn’t ruin me. I think people can survive the deaths of loved ones, which leads me to believe that sometimes service that even puts our lives in danger is okay.

  15. I’ve heard LDS make terrible spies because we don’t drink, so we don’t blend in well in many social situations.

    Don’t worry, Kristine. Gentiles aren’t doing that much better.

    Markus Wolf, the East German intelligence chief, reports a CIA attempt to recruit him. The first thing that the American operative asks him is to stop smoking. Mind you, Wolf was in his own house and the CIA guys had stopped by unannounced.

  16. regarding decisions to maximize time with family (separate from risky endeavors) it’s funny that we often demonstrate respect for those who have made the largest sacrifices of time with their families: General Authorities as well as local church authorities, politicians, business leaders, the “self-made” men of affluence. We almost seem to have a split mind within Mormonism, and I’m not sure we’ve figured it out.

  17. My husband went surfing with some friends in Wa state once, and one guy had never been out surfing before. They’d all spent hours in the freezing water (you have to be pretty hardcore to surf in Wa) when they noticed the new guy wasn’t around. They looked and spotted a hand waving feebly, way out in the water. My husband and his friend Jerry started paddling their boards out to him. About halfway there they realized the guy was so far out, if they continued, they’d not be able to make it back to shore. They decided my husband, who had a wife and kids at home, would go back to shore, and Jerry would continue paddling out.

    My husband made it back to shore to discover his other friends had already called the coast guard and a helicopter and boat were on the way. Jerry made it out to the guy just in time to get him up on his board and prevent him from drowning (he was getting hypothermia). When the helicopter came, they retrieved the half-drowned guy, and wanted to take Jerry too. But Jerry didn’t want to leave the boards in the water. He opted to wait for the boat.

    Would my husband have continued to paddle out and save that guy if he’d been the only one available to? Yeah. But I’ll be selfish and admit I was glad Jerry was there to take the risk that day.

  18. Surfing in Washington? Holy Cow…er, Holy Frozen Cow.

  19. (Number 1 reason we moved to Cali: warm beaches.)

  20. Stapley, you’re a wuss. As a kid I surfed in the Irish Sea with just shorts on. Nowadays I have to wear a wetsuit, but still. Sometimes, it’s so cold your head throbs.

  21. Change a child Change the the world…

  22. Steve Evans says:

    Ben — only if you save a cheerleader.

  23. Ben, I’m very sympathetic, but what happens if that child only changes a child and so on? doesn’t that “save a child, save the world” calculus require that at some point one of these children rises up and achieves greatness through risk of loss or neglect?

  24. I’ve been reading the posts on this website for a few weeks now, but I have never written anything before. (Disclaimer: I am not a parent; I am certain my perspectives will change if/when I have children of my own).
    Nevertheless, I am interested in the other extreme, i.e. neglecting the family for a “worthy cause” as opposed to using family as a cover. I have done a moderate amount of reading about a type of character that one of my professors called “moral exemplars.” These people, such as Gandhi, Mother Theresa, MLK, Virginia Durr and so on, all attempted to rectify the injustices they saw in their world. While we cannot deny the significant impacts these individuals have had on the world, there was a common thread running through each of their stories.
    The moral exemplars seemed to have love/patience/time for everyone except for those who were closest to them. It is disturbing to look into the private lives of some of our most revered leaders and see that, except for the ones, such as Mother Theresa, who abstained from marriage and having children, the families of exemplars always seemed to suffer. For example, in his attempts search for God, truth, and love, Gandhi often either forsook his family entirely (leaving them in India for years at a time while he risked his life in apartheid-era South Africa) or dragged them into his “experiments of truth” at his own convenience (without consulting to make sure they were comfortable with the idea, he brought them to other countries; obliged them to adopt the local customs/dress; enrolled his children in his own experimental schools). He was absent for much of his son’s formative years, and later spoke with regret regarding the way his sons turned out, even going so far as to attribute it to his own lifestyle choices. (I must make a note that Gandhi was in an arranged marriage and I cannot help but believe that he would not have made the choice himself he would have stayed single to spare everyone the grief – but don’t quote me on that one).
    I guess the point I am trying to make here is that this concern over using family as a cover from serving in the world can be taken to the other extreme. There are many examples of people who (intentionally or unintentionally) have used their service to the world as a “cover” from service within their families.

    Phew! Sorry that ended up so long.

  25. It was not so long ago that the sacrifice of one’s family for a greater cause was considered noble and a moral duty. Jesus himself seems to have taught such a principle. Early LDS church leaders thought nothing of calling men to leave their families for years at a time to do missionary work. We no longer think that way. Why? Have we just gotten soft, lazy and selfish? Of was the moral calculus of our predecessors flawed? If I have the ability to save the lives of many fathers by taking some significant risk with my own, why would I not be morally obligated to do that? Are the lives of other children not as valuable as the lives of my own children? In my own life, I behave as my own family is more important, but I have trouble finding a moral basis to justify my behavior.

  26. P. Anderson says:

    Early LDS church leaders thought nothing of calling men to leave their families for years at a time to do missionary work.

    Early LDS church leaders didn’t have the human capitol that current ones do. There are (or were last April) 52,000 full time missionaries that are single adults, or married couples with grown children. We have enough members now that we can afford to ask for the all encompassing, leave-your life behind kind of service only from those who have few other obligations and attachments.

  27. a random cougar says:

    For what it’s worth, the CIA is the only employer I’ve seen at every single BYU career fair I’ve been to.

    One could surmirse that they value linguistic abilities and difficulty in blackmailing (via teetotaling and monogamy) over the ability to order a martini. And yes, they have a multitude of desk jobs. : )

  28. re: 19, susan, one of the things we hate about california are how cold the beaches are, ha! of course, we came from hawai’i and are appropriately spoiled. the water is just so darn cold here! (if i’m not mistaken, you live just up the road, er, interstate from us.) i guess it could be worse… this could be ohio!

    i know that for my husband’s current line of work and his previous one (with whatever the security clearance is just below top secret, i can never remember), they reeeeeally like the lds. there were assumed to be a lot less liabilities and a lot of benefits like a stronger than normal support system. but they actively discourage “the family man” from taking any of the real covert jobs. it makes sense for the family, in terms of time spent away, risk factors, and so on… but i think (and this is just an *i* think) it makes sense for the employer, who may find someone like a spy (or whatever, you james bond people can fill in the correct word for me) to be more of a liability if he has a family. didn’t they get jack bauer to crack a bit when it came to his moronic daughter?

    (contrary to my (over?)use of parentheses, i am not lisa from fmh.)

  29. I’m in Huntington Beach, any mouse. My husband learned to surf in Hawaii, and when we moved back to WA, continued to surf there. He’s gotten soft, though, and mostly surfs in the summer here in Cali, when he can trunk it.

  30. Enjoyed the post. Thanks, Sam.

    What sacrifices for outsiders can fairly be made when we are in a family?

    I don’t know, but here are a few guidelines I try to use:

    -Follow the Spirit. Easier said than done.

    -Pick interventions that aren’t as risky. Seems to me that there are less dangerous ways to fight multi-drug resistant TB (advocacy, health systems development, lobbying, education, etc.)

    -Make decisions together with family/spouse.

    #4: I want to be involved in the lives of my children now, while they still want to be involved in my life. I am pretty aware that the time will come when they won’t want me around and will think I am an idiot, so I want to enjoy the good times while they last. My daughter is not always going to wake up at 4 am and want to come cuddle with her Dad. I can either resent it, or cherish it.

    Great point, Matt. Isn’t there something to be said, as well, for your 9 year-old daughter waking up at 4am to see her mother working on a project to prevent malaria? Or explaining to your 13-year old that the cause mom and dad are involved in is, in fact worth the sacrifice and risk of being away from home or travel?

    #25: It was not so long ago that the sacrifice of one’s family for a greater cause was considered noble and a moral duty.

    I agree, Garf. There is something to be said for sacrifice for a cause greater than yourself.

    #24: The moral exemplars seemed to have love/patience/time for everyone except for those who were closest to them.

    True. If I remember correctly, Albert Schweitzer and Lowell Bennion also expressed regrets that they had not spent more time with family.

    (BTW, I will be linking to this post at my blog about global health from an LDS perspective. Sam, I hope you’ll contact me sometime:

  31. I have tremendous respect for Paul Farmer. I’ve read all his works, and the excellent biography about him “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” He has done so much good. At the very least, he’s brought a socioeconomic perspective to epidemiology that was much needed.

    He lost his marriage because of his devotion to saving “the world.”

    We work so hard to preserve life. Suffering should be alleviated, yes. Prevention? Sure.

    But as Mormons we can engage in saving ETERNAL life.

    That trumps physical life.

    That’s why as Mormons when we choose family but still are lifetime missionaries, we didn’t sell out.

  32. a random cougar says:

    I couldn’t help but notice that the deal in the ad was to trade cold freezing poor people for cold freezing other people (with a good chance of frostbite and/or breaking through ice), when perhaps they could’ve gotten wood just as easily somewhere else. Like post 30, there are certainly opportunities to do good that involve diving into the line of fire. There are others that don’t. It can lose that certain macho appeal but if it gets the job done, you can’t complain about that.

    As for the Russian TB opportunity- could there have been another fellow who could’ve done the job just as well, or even better? Perhaps a homegrown Russian who would’ve even known the language and culture and bureaucracy (kleptocracy) better and done a fine job? Maybe not, that poster knows the situation better than I could. What’s wrong with letting someone else take the limelight? What’s wrong with “never amounting to anything” if you do work that gets the job done anyway? (Or maybe in other words, since when were we in this for the honors of men? : )

  33. This post brings up many interesting questions about humanitarian service, public (global) health, and social justice.

    Certainly if Sam were moved by the Spirit and felt inspired to work in that specific TB project, then perhaps he should do it regardless of the risks, and even regardless of the effectiveness of his involvement.

    More often, however, it seems to me that individuals may be moved by the Spirit to help out, or they want to help out. The specific way, however, may not be the will of God.

    In those instances (most of the time, I think), results should be emphasized, methods should be evaluated, local people and resources should be utilized, the local system should be strengthened, and a long-term committment is needed.

    I plan on posting on this soon on my blog (see #30 above).

  34. re: 33, you bring up some important points. Sometimes in international work you’re right the gringo/americano is in it for the feel-good drama of the adventure (great cocktail stories) and may not have the real skills required to make change in a given cultural context. Sometimes the gringo is necessary to get the money to flow, an accommodation to the system that is necessary. Other times the gringo knows the situation well, speaks the language and knows the culture. For me, I was fluent in Russian, had lived there on and off for a long time, and had been working on infections in that region for much of the time. It seemed like a good fit and not a decision to seek for fame. The thing I’ve tried to understand since is whether it was fear or the Spirit speaking, as they both have fairly immediate access to our “reins” (pardon the obscure OT reference). I appreciate Chad’s input that spirt/revelation can easily trump established rules.


  1. […] Interesting post about the cost of service at the Mormon blog By Common Consent. Posted by chads Filed in Uncategorized […]