On Sunday morning, April 8, 2008, President Thomas S. Monson gave his first address to a general Church congregation since being sustained as President of the Church, which occurred the day before.
He said that during the more than 44 years he had served as a General Authority, he traveled worldwide, enjoying meeting Church members, and feeling of their spirit and love.
However, he said, he was aware of some casualties on the pathway of life; some had departed "from the road markers which point toward life eternal, only to discover the detour chosen ultimately leads to a dead end. Indifference, carelessness, selfishness, and sin all take their costly toll in human lives."
President Monson was a counselor to President Ezra Taft Benson when the First Presidency issued an appeal that read, in part: "Come back and feast at the table of the Lord, and taste again the sweet and satisfying fruits of fellowship with the Saints," (First Presidency message, Ensign, March 1986, p. 88).
In his April 2008 general conference address, President Monson said, "In the private sanctuary of one's own conscience lies that spirit, that determination to cast off the old person and to measure up to the stature of true potential. In this spirit, we again issue that heartfelt invitation: Come back. We reach out to you in the pure love of Christ and express our desire to assist you and to welcome you into full fellowship. To those who are wounded in spirit or who are struggling and fearful, we say, 'Let us lift you and cheer you and calm your fears.' Take literally the Lord's invitation, 'Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light' " (Matthew 11:28-30).
The experiences of W. W. Phelps stand as testimony that there is a way for those who have wandered to "come back."
Brother Phelps (1792-1872) was a skilled writer who was active in politics and aspired at one time to be governor of New York. After he read the Book of Mormon, he visited Kirtland, Ohio, in June 1831. In Section 55 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord calls W. W. Phelps "my servant William" (verse 1). He is called and chosen to be baptized, ordained an elder and preach the gospel (verses 1-3), and is told he is to assist Oliver Cowdery to do the work of printing, selecting and writing books for Church schools (verse 5) and is to travel to Missouri, which will be the area of his labors (verse 6).
Though he was especially called by the Lord and became a staunch aide to the Prophet Joseph Smith, W. W. Phelps fell into apostasy. He became a member of the first stake presidency organized as the saints moved into Missouri. He handled Church funds that were collected in anticipation of a temple being constructed in Far West, Mo. However, he became embroiled in a controversy over alleged misuse of funds. When he was censured in a vote by the Church membership in 1838, he turned into a disaffected and bitter enemy of the Church. To make matters worse, because of his and others' false testimonies, the Prophet Joseph Smith and others were incarcerated in Liberty Jail. W. W. Phelps sank to the depths of bitterness and engaged in vile persecutions of the Saints. He was excommunicated in 1839.
In poverty — worldly possessions as well as spiritually — he happened to meet Elders Orson Hyde and John E. Page, missionaries in Ohio. Having found no peace in apostasy, he poured out his anguish to them. They suggested that he write to Joseph Smith. On June 28, 1840, W. W. Phelps wrote a stirring letter of repentance, in which he declared: "I have seen the folly of my way, and I tremble at the gulf I have passed. … I know my situation, you know it, and God knows it, and I want to be saved if my friends will help me. … I have done wrong and I am sorry. The beam is in my own eye. … I ask forgiveness. … I want your fellowship; if you cannot grant that, grant me your peace and friendship, for we are brethren, and our communion used to be sweet …"(History of the Church 4:41-41).
From Nauvoo on July 22, 1840, the Prophet replied to the letter, saying, in part: "Truly our hearts were melted into tenderness and compassion when we ascertained your resolves. … It is true, that we have suffered much in consequence of your behavior — the cup of gall, already full enough for mortals to drink, was indeed filled to overflowing when you turned against us. … 'Had it been an enemy, we could have borne it.' ... However, the cup has been drunk, the will of our Father has been done, and we are yet alive, for which we thank the Lord. … Believing your confession to be real, and your repentance genuine, I shall be happy once again to give you the right hand of fellowship, and rejoice over the returning prodigal. … 'Come on, dear brother, since the war is past. For friends at first, are friends again at last' " (History of the Church 4:163-64).
Brother Phelps did come back. He lived a productive and loyal life in Illinois and Utah until his death. He used the writing skills, which the Lord had acknowledged in the revelation mentioned in Section 55. He wrote countless words of testimony. The current Church hymnal includes 15 of his hymns. Latter-day Saints worldwide sing his words of witness written by the man who had once borne false testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith: "Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah. … Praise to his memory. … Hail to the Prophet ascended to Heaven …" ("Praise to the Man," Hymns No. 27).
An invitation to come back was answered. The returned blessed not only the life of W. W. Phelps, but also the lives of millions who have drawn and continue to draw inspiration from his writings.
Just like the Prophet Joseph Smith invited him to return, so have prophets in later times appealed to others. The prophet of our day, President Thomas S. Monson, extends the invitation to all who have wandered and, in essence, holds open the door welcoming their return to "feast at the table of the Lord, and taste again the sweet and satisfying fruits of fellowship with the Saints."
May we all stand beside President Monson at that open door.