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President Henry B. Eyring: A blessing of peace at Christmastime

President Eyring remembers events of December 1941

Childhood memories are for me the most vivid and the emotions from those times most easily recovered. Just a few weeks ago, I walked through heavy snow that reached above the tops of my shoes to stand next to a fence that now surrounds the yard of the house in which I lived as a boy.

President Henry B. Eyring
President Henry B. Eyring

My daughter and her husband stood at my side. We had driven through the storm from their apartment in New York City to the town of Princeton, N.J. Our purpose was to recover and create memories. Since she was a little girl she had heard my stories of that house and the happiness I had felt living there with my mother, father, my older brother and my younger brother.

I noticed in the snow what appeared to be green leaves of a bush next to the house. As a little boy, I had given my mother a hydrangea plant for her birthday. That was the spot where she and I had planted it, next to a downspout, so that it would be watered in the summer rains. It's blue flowers had pleased my mother so much that she mentioned to me her feeling of loss to leave it behind when years later we sold the house and moved away to go to the west. We had been gone 64 years so those green leaves in the snow were only a trigger of a happy memory.

President Henry B. Eyring, with his family, recently visited his childhood home in Princeton, N.J.
President Henry B. Eyring, with his family, recently visited his childhood home in Princeton, N.J. Photo: Photo courtesy of President Henry B. Eyring

Because on that winter day we didn't want to bother the people who lived in the house, we stood looking at the darkened windows of the first floor as the snow fell softly. I realized that the window before us was in the porch next to the living room. I couldn't see into the darkened rooms but that only made the memories flood back in full color.

Perhaps because of the falling snow, I could see in my mind the rooms as they were in the Christmas of 1941. I could see the decorated Christmas tree in the middle of the living room. Then came the memory of my mother patiently smiling as she repaired our efforts to hang tinsel from the branches of the pine tree. That brought back my feelings of her loving kindness.

President Henry B. Eyring and his daughter, Mary E. Carter, visit his childhood neighborhood in Princeton, N.J.
President Henry B. Eyring and his daughter, Mary E. Carter, visit his childhood neighborhood in Princeton, N.J. Photo: Photo courtesy of President Henry B. Eyring

In my memory I could see the rest of the room. If there had been lights in the darkened house, I could have seen the fireplace across from the tree where our stockings were hung on the mantel. In the days of the 1930's an apple in the stocking seemed to us a bounteous gift on Christmas morning. We knew that unemployed fathers were selling apples on chilly city streets to buy food for their children in those depression years. I still can feel blessed when I remember those crisp red delicious apples and our warm fireplace in that room.

Then, another picture came back to me as I stood in the snow. In those rooms now darkened I remembered a Sunday morning. My mother was playing the piano for the dozen Latter-day Saints who gathered there from miles around to worship with the Princeton Branch. Among the hymns of the Restoration they surely must have sung that day were the words of a child's prayer: "And stay by my cradle till morning is nigh."

Then, the scene for me changed. Memories flooded back. Sometime later that Sabbath day, we gathered around a radio at the end of the living room. Someone must have told my parents to listen. I still remember looking at the lighted dial on the front of the round-topped radio as we heard a man's voice.

Dec. 7, 1941, file photo, provided by the U.S. Navy, pictures the USS Arizona  in flames after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Dec. 7, 1941, file photo, provided by the U.S. Navy, pictures the USS Arizona in flames after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Photo: U.S. Navy

The newscaster described bombs, fires, and sinking ships in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I had known that war was raging for others far away for years. Now it had come to us. I heard alarm in the man's voice. Yet as I watched my parents, I could see that they were calm. They seemed to be at peace. A feeling of peace flooded over me.

That feeling persisted in the days before Christmas, on Christmas day itself, and in the Christmases that followed. I now know what a miracle that Christmas memory of peace was, especially for my mother.

As a young girl she had grown up with a beloved cousin. His name was Mervyn Bennion. He was the captain of a ship anchored in Pearl Harbor on the Sunday of Dec. 7. On Dec. 6, the night before, he had been with his wife at a pleasant social with the Latter-day Saints in Honolulu. Their hosts were the stake president and his wife who was a relative of Sister Bennion. They invited the Bennions to stay for the night. Brother Bennion thanked them but said that he felt his place was to be on his ship.

The following morning, Sunday, Dec. 7, Mervyn Bennion was in his cabin getting dressed for a trip ashore to meet his wife for Sunday School when a sailor dashed in to report an air attack. Captain Bennion gave the command: "To Your Battle Stations!" He ran to his place of command on the flag bridge.

It was nearly Christmas day when my mother learned of the heroic death of the cousin she so much loved. For hours after he was mortally wounded he resisted the efforts of his men to take him to safety.

As well as I can recall, when my mother learned of Mervyn's death she shed no tears, just as she showed no fear as she heard the radio report of the battle that took his life and might take the life of others she loved. Faith in the Lord drove out fear. Faith in His Atonement brought her the peace that passes understanding.

Time and many experiences have made that memory of the 1941 Christmas season more precious and clear. I am not even sure that we received the Church News in New Jersey in that far away time. But the First Presidency of the Church had published a Christmas greeting in January of 1941 that I didn't read until after that wonderful day with my daughter standing in the snow outside the home of my childhood in 2011.

As you would expect from prophets, seers, and revelators, they wrote foreseeing the Christmas day at the end of 1941 and all the Christmases that would follow until the Savior comes again to bring perfect peace:

"We send to the Saints in all the earth our greetings and blessings. ...

"We invoke upon all war-ridden countries the spirit of love, forbearance and forgiveness. ..."

And then they spoke for the Savior:

"We pray the Lord to heal all those who are stricken with disease and not appointed unto death. May He soften the pain of the wounded and bring to them health and strength.

"We ask Him to bless all those who are bereft—the lonely orphan, the sorrowing widow, the heart-wrung mother." ("Greeting from the First Presidency," Improvement Era, January 1941.)

I realize now that the prayer of the First Presidency was answered for my mother and all those who are bereft by the loss of those they love. One of those who signed that letter was J. Reuben Clark, the First Counselor in the First Presidency. His daughter was the wife of Mervyn Bennion, who became a widow on Dec. 7.

President Clark was blessed by the prayer for peace as was my mother in the tragedy of war and those tested by the tribulations that followed. All have been blessed with the testimony that the First Presidency bore in their Christmas message.

They pleaded for this blessing: "May there come to every man that walks the earth the testimony of the Savior that came to Martha:

"I am the 'resurrection and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live' " (John 11:25).

My mother showed me in that Christmas season long ago and in the years that followed that she knew what Martha knew, and so felt peace. That was and is the experience promised in the last days, "When peace will clothe the world as with a mantle" (Ibid, Improvement Era, January 1941).

As I walked through the snow with my daughter and her husband, I felt warmth coming from the Christmas memory we had found together.

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