It has been just a century since big cities became so important to so many people. The way it happened was that a handful of scientists in Europe discovered a way to produce synthetic fertilizers cheaply. This breakthrough, along with a few other advances in agriculture, enabled farmers, almost overnight, to produce many times as much food as they had before. And since almost everybody in those times was a farmer, it soon became obvious that they could grow a lot more than they needed to survive.
Now agriculture is not always a lot of fun. If there is a chance of doing something that requires less physically demanding work, most people are eager to take it. And, in fact, many people did just that. By the time of World War I, many rural areas began seeing their sons and daughters leave for the city. By mid-century, New York City, which was the largest city in the world at the time, had over ten million people living there. By the end of the century, there were several cities with that many people. Cities with over a million people were common.
During this same period of urban growth, or shall we say rural abandonment, more and more boys began having problems growing up. A hundred years ago, the problems of juvenile delinquency were almost unheard of. Boys grew up on farms and learned how to work from an early age. There were many manly examples nearby for them to learn from and the transition from boy to man happened naturally. In fact it happened so naturally that nobody stopped to give it much thought. It just happened.
It worked because boys want to become men, and the world of men was easily defined. A boy takes great pride when his voice starts changing and he begins to hear a deeper sound than he used to hear. Then, when he starts to grow so fast that his pants and shoes no longer fit from one season to the next, he knows something is going on. When he starts to grow hair where he didn’t have any before, he begins to look at the world in a very different way. When all of this happens, the developing man needs to prove that he is no longer a boy. On a farm this is easy to do.
A man is strong enough to wield a heavy scythe. This means he can cut more grain than someone less strong. He can manage a team of horses or oxen with more confidence. He can heft a shovel and axe more deftly, accomplishing more than he could as a boy. A man is strong enough to build a barn or even a house. Before the advent of sawmills, it required the strength of a man to cut down trees, move them to a building site, and position them into sturdy structures. When a teenage boy was trusted to do this kind of work, he understood that he was becoming a man. After all, his body, including his growing muscles, was starting to look like a man.
This doesn’t mean that all boys used to grow up to be great men. Greatness has never been a democratic virtue. It does mean, though, that whereas boys used to grow up with a healthy sense of their proper place, all too many of them now have no idea about what they should do with their lives. Instead of shouldering a responsible life, they remain boys in grown-up bodies. Our urban lives and communities have made it hard for boys to find the right circumstances to become responsible adults - to become men. The prevalence of fatherless homes and the lack of venues where men can work side-by-side with boys are so common today that many of us can’t imagine any other way. This is at the heart of our problem.
Let’s at least try to imagine a different kind of world. If, by chance, we can learn how life used to be, maybe we can make changes to improve the way things are today. A couple of examples from Church history come immediately to mind. In both examples, we watch a boy become a man in spite of real setbacks. In the case of Joseph F. Smith, we see this happen in a fatherless family. In the case of B.H. Roberts, we see it happen without a father and without the support of a strong family. Despite the challenges, both boys became extraordinary men. Of course, a big part of the reason is that they were both extraordinary individuals in their own right. But they also lived in times when it wasn’t difficult to become a man.
Joseph F. Smith was the son of Hyrum Smith (the brother of the Prophet Joseph Smith) and Mary Fielding. He was only five years old when his father was killed at Carthage just outside of Nauvoo, Illinois where he lived. He witnessed first hand the challenges his mother faced as she outfitted a wagon, prepared her children (and other disadvantaged saints) for the long trip west, and refused to give up when others made it difficult for her to succeed.
On their trek to the Salt Lake Valley, Joseph, though only a boy, had to take responsibility on many occasions for the wagon and the team of oxen. This was no easy task because his company only had half as many animals a they needed to pull their two wagons. They were forced to hitch the two wagons together and have the animals pull both in tandem. When the trail was flat, the team managed well enough. When they came to a hill, however, Joseph would have to unhitch the wagons, pull one of them up the hill with the oxen, and then go back down the hill to get the other one.
This was a lot of work. In fact, it was a man’s work but since there were not enough men to do it for them, the nine-year-old Joseph managed to do it by himself. He was also required to take his turn guarding the wagons during the day, a job normally done exclusively by men. He would have had to do the same at night but his mother wouldn’t allow it.
Once his family got to the Salt Lake Valley, Joseph continued to be responsible for the cattle. During the first winter in the valley, one of the cows gave birth out on the range. Joseph, though not yet old enough to be a deacon, would not desert the calf. In spite of a pack of hungry wolves, he carried and pushed the newborn calf until he arrived back to the safety of his home.
Only a few years later, at the age of 15, Joseph was called on a mission to the Hawaiian Islands. This seems unbelievably young to us, yet Joseph was known to be fully up to the task. He had been doing man’s work for years. His son Joseph Fielding Smith later wrote of his maturity at this early time of his life that, “[At] the time of his mother’s death he was thirteen years of age, but the life he had led during all the tribulation the family had passed through had made of him a man at that tender age.”
Another early and remarkable example of becoming a man is Brigham Henry Roberts (or B.H. Roberts, as he is more commonly called) who became the Church‘s most important scholar in his time and a president of the Quorum of the Seventy. As a child, young Harry lived without both of his parents for several years and was accustomed to the environment of a broken home. Both of his parents joined the church in Lancashire, England in 1857 (the year Roberts was born). But it wasn’t long before his father abandoned the family.
A few years later, Harry’s mother, after acquiring just enough money to transport herself and her small children to Utah, left Harry and his older sister Polly with members in England. She hoped to send for them when she could earn enough money. Unfortunately, these members turned out to be less than trustworthy. Not long after Harry’s mother left for Utah they stopped attending church and began wandering around England. They often worked as entertainers in bars where Harry learned to dance and sing in order to earn his keep. When he could get away with it, he crawled under a bar room table to sleep.
As if this weren’t tragic enough, he ended up losing contact with his mother altogether. This was partly because of the negligence (perhaps intended) of his guardians but also because his care was entrusted to another family. Years were to pass before he was able to make contact again with the Church and make his way to Utah by participating in the Perpetual Immigration Fund. Roberts would later write of the years that, “my childhood was a nightmare; my boyhood a tragedy.”
There is an interesting story of young Harry walking across the plains that captures both the sense of his youth and of his maturity at this early age. His curiosity sometimes tempted him to leave his company in order to go exploring. On one occasion he found himself in a thicket and decided to rest. Before long he was asleep and only woke up when the last wagon was rolling away in the distance. He jumped up and ran to catch up, only to find a river between him and the others. A man on the other side asked if he knew how to swim. Harry said yes and quickly took off his shoes (they were actually clogs) and jacket, leaving them on the bank, and then swam across. He expected others coming after him to pick up his things, but he never saw them again.
For weeks Harry was left walking barefoot across the plains. Then one day his luck changed. he had been exploring in a small abandoned cabin where he discovered a corpse of a man who had only recently died. The body was still wearing a pair of boots. They were too big for Harry but that didn’t stop him. He removed them and returned to the wagon.
He then decided, however, that he wanted the boots to look nice for his mother when he arrived in Salt Lake. So, accordingly, he placed them carefully in the wagon and walked the rest of the way to the Salt Lake City barefoot. When his company finally arrived in the valley, Harry was seen walking down Main Street wearing a pair of shoes several sizes too large. Somehow this was quite fitting. He had certainly proven that he was capable of filling them.
It was good that Harry was a hardy boy because life continued to be difficult even after arriving in the valley. At the age of twelve, he had a job with Utah Central Railway as an ox-team grader. This was a challenging job that required leading a team of oxen while also manipulating a heavy wood or metal scraper that the team was pulling. In order to remove hard uneven mounds of dirt, the grader had to be positioned just right. Truman Madsen wrote of the experience that, “[b]y shouts and an expert whip hand he could simultaneously drive the oxen and manipulate the controls of the scraper. He did a man-size day’s work.”
As Harry got older, he found work in Tooele County in a mining camp. His work habits served him well as an errand boy and general camp hand, but life there had very definite disadvantages, as only mining camps have. As an impressionable youth he ended up participating in “irregular habits,” “Improprieties,” “recklessness,” “jumped claims,” “fights and gun play,” and even as a spectator of “murder”. His bishop ended up having him disfellowshipped from the church.
This is a hard way to grow up. In one sense, the stark realities of surviving forced a responsibility on young men at an early age - clearly an important part of growing up. But the example of B.H. Roberts also shows that this is, by itself, not enough. Manhood, in the eyes of the Lord requires more than just working hard.
Truman Madsen’s account of Harry’s mining years indicated that, “[b]y standards other than those of the Latter-day Saints, his mining camp lapses might be written off as “growing up.”” To Roberts, however, this was not the kind of “growing up” that he was proud of. He struggled the rest of his life to stay above the bad habits he learned as a youth. Many years later as a General Authority he pleaded for leaders to catch young men between boyhood and manhood when they needed the most help.
Fortunately for Roberts, the same bishop that had disfellowshipped him, helped him back into the Church. Some time later he began working with a blacksmith and came under the influence of a righteous mentor. Thereafter, he was able to put his life in order and start on the road to becoming a man of God.
These examples of Joseph F. Smith and B.H. Roberts are just two of so many others. Growing in to a man of God may have been as challenging as ever, but the mere fact of growing up was taken for granted. Today this is certainly not the case.
Far too many boys are not growing up. They may be shaving and well past their teenage years and still be incapable of, or unwilling to, shoulder the responsibilities of manhood. Is it any wonder then that the much more difficult goal of becoming a man of God seems now to be almost unreachable to so many of our struggling youth? What has changed? What can we do to fix this very serious problem?
[To be continued]