The life story of Newel and Lydia’s son Jesse Knight raises a familiar but provocative question: How far will the temple’s sealing power reach out to rescue the wandering children and grandchildren of faithful, temple-married parents? Some Church members believe that eventually, regardless of when or how far some of their posterity may stray, the sealing power will bring them back. The answer to their question rests on the central issue of agency. It may help to ask it this way: If God extends redeeming grace and exalting power through the full blessings of Christ’s Atonement and the priesthood ordinances, why must each of us still engage the process so willingly?
The Jesse Knight Story
Jesse Knight was born in Nauvoo and was only a toddler on that cold Nebraska night in early 1847 when his father, Newel, died. He came west with the wagon-train Saints and grew up under the watchful care of his faithful mother. But in his adult years, he became inactive, even hostile toward the Church. Among other things, Jesse objected to the way he thought Church leaders and members treated Gentiles (nonmembers of the Church) in Utah.
Lydia wondered and worried and prayed for years about Jesse. During what turned out to be Lydia’s last visit to Jesse’s home in Payson, Utah, from her home in St. George, Jesse asked her, “Mother, how is it you are not preaching to me as you usually do?” She answered, “Jesse, I have prayed in the Temple for my children many times and on one occasion the Lord made known to me that I was not to worry about you any more, that you would one day understand for yourself. . . . I never intend to argue again with you about religion.”1
A few years after Lydia’s death in 1884, Jesse had an experience that awakened his spiritual senses. His children all became terribly sick from poisoned well water. His two-year-old child, Jennie—“the idol of the whole family”—was afflicted first, and the doctor expected she would not live. Lydia-like, Jesse’s wife Amanda called for the elders. Jesse protested that inviting them would make him feel like a hypocrite because he “had no faith in the Church.” But Amanda insisted, and the elders blessed Jennie as the family all knelt around her. Immediately Jennie regained consciousness and noticed the flowers in her window. “From that very moment,” wrote Jesse’s son William, “my father’s life was changed. He had seen the power of the Lord made manifest and remembered the words of his mother.”2
Even as Jesse’s heart was turning toward the Lord, many of his family remained deathly ill. Then, despite his prayerful pleading, eighteen-year-old Minnie died—but not before explaining that when Jennie had been so sick, Minnie had privately offered the Lord her own life as a sacrifice so that her two-year-old sister might live. As Minnie’s breath left her, she prayed, “Oh God, bless our household.” Jesse then remembered that years earlier, when Minnie was a baby, she had had diphtheria, and he had “promised the Lord that if he would spare her life I would not forget Him. I had not kept that promise. . . . I prayed for forgiveness and help. My prayer was answered and I received a testimony.”3
In the years that followed, Jesse became a mining prospector in the Tintic Mountains near his home in Payson. One day in 1896 while he was prospecting, Jesse “heard a voice distinctly say to him, ‘This country is here for the Mormons.’”4 Urged on by this prompting, Jesse located what he considered a promising site. He then invited an experienced miner named Jared Roundy to evaluate it and perhaps join Jesse in staking a claim to it. Roundy said he wanted no interest in an “old humbug like this.” BYU Geology Professor Jeffrey Keith, who has seen this property with his trained eyes, agrees that there was “no reason to anticipate finding anything of worth in [that] vicinity.”5
But Jesse confidently named it the “Humbug” claim, picked a likely spot there, and began the arduous task of driving a tunnel through layers of mountainous rock with a single jackhammer. His other equipment consisted of a wheelbarrow. One day as they walked together up the steep mountainside, before they had found any promising ore, Jesse’s son William heard his father say, “We are going to have all the money that we want as soon as we are in a position to handle it properly. We will someday save the credit of the Church.”
William was astonished at his father. But Jesse “had a strong feeling that he was going to have a great responsibility” to help the Church, and he wanted his children to understand that “any money we should get [would be] for the purpose of doing good and building up the Church.”6
After two months of hard-rock digging on their primitive tunnel, they found a rich enough deposit of silver and gold that they sold the ore in two shipments for about $20,000. That same year, President Wilford Woodruff confided in the local bishops that the Church was in financial difficulty and needed to find members who could make loans available. While on his way home one Sunday afternoon, Jesse Knight’s bishop Joseph Keeler said he heard “a voice as audible as that of a person” say “Jesse Knight will lend the Church $10,000.”7 Bishop Keeler went directly to Jesse’s home. Jesse said he would have a check for $10,000 ready the next morning, which Bishop Keeler then hand carried to the First Presidency. That was only the beginning of Jesse’s generosity to the Church.
Despite his earlier premonitions, Jesse really didn’t know on that day whether his mining venture would produce more ore. But perhaps he wanted to do what his mother had done in Kirtland, when she emptied her purse for the Prophet; and what she had done at Winter Quarters, when she gave her oxen and wagons to Brigham Young to help another family. By that time, Jesse had come to know that sacrifices of the heart mean more to the Lord than monetary sacrifices.
Jesse’s Utah mines eventually netted more than $10 million in 1900 dollars. In today’s terms, that is the equivalent of about $800 million.8 Thus Jesse Knight became “the willing conduit through which the Lord poured out a needed blessing” on the Church.9 Among other things he donated much of the land on which the present BYU campus is located, along with most of the cost for four of the first eight campus buildings. The current Jesse Knight Building at BYU is a memorial to his place in the university’s history.
In one illustration typical of Jesse’s willingness to keep his covenantal promises, President Heber J. Grant once asked him for $5,000 for a purpose Jesse didn’t fully understand. President Grant suggested that he go home and pray about it. Jesse did so and returned with a check for $10,000, saying to President Grant, “Next time I’ll just pay what you ask without praying about it.”10
How Temples Sealing Impact Generations
What does the intergenerational Knight family story teach us? The story gives rise to some good questions. What caused Jesse to receive a new spiritual heart? What role did his parents’ temple sealing and his mother’s unusual faithfulness play in his return? What about the sacrifices of his father, Newel, and of his grandparents Joseph and Polly Knight?
The entire story does suggest that the principle of “keep your covenants and your covenants will keep you” applies up and down the generational ladder. After reflecting on this story, Jeffrey Keith asked, “Do blessings carry forward that far?” He then answered his own question with Moses’s stirring words: “Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations” (Deuteronomy 7:9).
To what extent, then, will the temple’s sealing power ensure the return of posterity who stray? Will it be enough to bring all of them back, if the sealed parents are faithful, no matter where or why or when the children wander?
In a widely quoted statement, Elder Orson F. Whitney once said that Joseph Smith “never taught more comforting doctrine” than the promise that the eternal sealings of faithful parents would save not only themselves but their posterity:
Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain.11
Some parents have taken this statement to mean that the temple’s sealing power will unconditionally assure the eternal return of all their posterity. However, in a 2003 general conference message, President James E. Faust said that some people have misunderstood Elder Whitney’s statement:
"A principle in this statement that is often overlooked is that they must fully repent and 'suffer for their sins' and 'pay their debt to justice' [in this life or beyond the veil]. . . . Mercy will not rob justice, and the sealing power of faithful parents will only claim wayward children upon the condition of their repentance and Christ’s Atonement. . . . Perhaps in this life we are not given to fully understand how enduring the sealing cords of righteous parents are to their children. It may very well be that there are more helpful sources at work than we know. I believe there is a strong familial pull as the influence of beloved ancestors continues with us from the other side of the veil."12
Newel and Lydia Knight were sealed in the Nauvoo Temple. They were covenant keepers, and they were blessed for their devotion. For years Lydia had exhorted Jesse to follow her example, with what Lehi called “all the feeling of a tender parent” (1 Nephi 8:37). But when Jesse kept pushing her away, Lydia took her desires to the Lord in His temple. She later told Jesse what the Lord had whispered to her about him, and she didn’t worry about him anymore. Like Alma the Elder, perhaps she asked the Lord for His intervention of grace in her gifted son’s life, knowing that her lifetime of consecration was all she could do. Lydia didn’t bargain with the Lord—she just continually gave Him all she had, holding nothing back, and He kept His promises in His own way and in His own time.
The Lord did come to Jesse, answering not only Lydia’s prayers but those of Jesse’s wife and family. But He didn’t compel Jesse to submit. It’s not that He won’t help faithful parents, but that He can’t override the agency of His children—because they cannot grow spiritually unless they are willing to participate in the process. Even the grace of God can’t make us grow unless we reach out . . . to take hold of it. . . .
As we learn from Lehi’s family, even when an angel comes to the wayward children of faithful parents, that doesn’t ensure lasting conversion. . . .
I once heard President Howard W. Hunter answer a question about child-to-parent sealings by saying that in the eternities, nobody will be sealed to someone they don’t want to be sealed to. That knowledge motivates me to live in such a way that my wife and our children and their children will want our family sealings to continue.
I could also see more clearly that as we try to love our posterity . . . the motives behind our love—the why and the how of our affections—will be purified.
And since those who die are given some season for repentance (see D&C 138:32–34), our descendants will yet have further opportunities to learn—both from their own experiences and from those of others—what matters most in the eternities. We each learn in our own way and in our own time, but we can and do learn.
Lead image from lds.org.
A friend once asked Elder Bruce C. Hafen, "If Jesus Christ is at the center of the gospel and the center of the temple, why doesn't the temple endowment teach the story of the life of Christ? What's all this about Adam and Eve?" After thinking about this provocative question, Elder Hafen concluded, "I have come to believe that the story of Christ's life is the story of giving His Atonement, and the story of Adam and Eve is the story of receiving His Atonement—and their story is our story."
In The Contrite Spirit, Elder and Sister Hafen use the lens of the temple to share their insights about receiving the Atonement of Jesus Christ, shedding further light on the central doctrine of the gospel while deepening our understanding of temple ordinances. As we further explore the Atonement based on the covenants of the temple, we will better understand how the Atonement applies to us.
^1. J. William Knight, The Jesse Knight Family: Jesse Knight, His Forebears and Family (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1940), 33.
^2. Ibid., 34.
^3. Ibid., 35–36.
^4. Ibid., 37.
^5. Jeffrey D. Keith, “Feeling the Atonement,” BYU Devotional, October 9, 2001.
^6. Knight, Jesse Knight Family, 39.
^7. Ibid., 84.
^8. This estimate uses the “economic power”’ standard—the equivalent current value as a share of the nation’s gross domestic product. See measuringworth.com.
^9. Keith, “Feeling the Atonement.”
^10. Knight, Jesse Knight Family, 86.
^11. In Conference Report, April 1929, 110. Also quoted in note 12 below.
^12. James E. Faust, “Dear Are the Sheep That Have Wandered,” Ensign, May 2003, 62.