Very early on after President Joseph F. Smith inaugurated family home evening in the Church 100 years ago, the family of Erastus and Roseltha McEwan Birch heeded the counsel to gather their family together regularly for gospel discussions and the sharing of talents, games and light refreshments.
Today, descendants of Brother and Sister Birch have photographic evidence of the faithfulness of their progenitors in following counsel from a prophet. It is for them an ever-present visual reminder to carry forward that legacy.
Granddaughter JoAnn G. Stephens provided the Church News with a copy of that photograph as she responded to an article that appeared Feb. 1 marking a century since President Smith introduced home evening in April 1915 and 50 years since the practice was revitalized in 1965 under President David O. McKay’s leadership.
In the article, readers were invited to respond with special memories or personal insights pertaining to family home evening. Sister Stephens of Alpine, Utah, is among many who did so. Her response and others will be highlighted in this and several follow-up articles to appear in the Church News in coming weeks and on the Church's website, www.lds.org.
“The Church sent a photographer to Silver City to take the picture,” wrote Sister Stephens, who said she understands that it dates to 1917. Silver City was a silver-mining town and today is a ghost town in the East Tintic Mountains of Juab County in central Utah.
“My grandmother had the children all dressed in their Sunday best,” Sister Stephens recounted. “When[the photographer] got there, he asked her if the girls had white dresses. She told him that they did but that they were clean but not ironed. He told her it didn’t matter if they were wrinkled, that the wrinkles wouldn’t show up in the picture.”
Sister Stephens pointed out some significant elements in the photo:
“My grandfather had his scriptures, grandmother some knitting. The war was on, and the sisters were providing things to the soldiers overseas. One of the pictures in the room was in honor of the first Gold Star Mother of the First World War.
“The big gypsum crystal on the piano was a significant find in the Tintic Mining District. That district funded various Church projects, including the early development of BYU. My grandfather was superintendent of a mine in Silver City.”
He was also a local luminary in Church leadership as bishop of the Silver City Ward and, later, president of the Tintic Stake for 30 years, a sealer in the Salt Lake Temple and, for a time, a missionary in the Eastern States Mission.
In addition to Sister Birch, others in the photo are daughter Mary Virginia Birch, who is dancing; son Vivan Birch, playing a violin; son Emron Birch, holding a songbook; and daughter Ada Elsie Birch at the piano. The boys would all go on to serve missions.
“The picture was to illustrate a typical family home evening and activities that could be done, such as prayer, reading the scriptures, singing hymns, musical, dance and other performances; basically families enjoying an evening of time together,” Sister Stephens remarked.
It was Ada (her married name was Green) who, upon her passing, left the picture to her daughter, Sister Stephens.
“We feel it is a family treasure, and I have copied it for each of my children,” Sister Stephens said. “They hang in their homes [to] remind them of the legacy they have of family home evening.”
Other fond remembrances of family home evening came from Church members who experienced it after 1965, when the First Presidency re-emphasized the practice, and, for about a decade, published a yearly Family Home Evening Manual for distribution to every home in the Church.
Susan Erickson Schmidt of Layton, Utah, recalled her time as a pre-teen when her father would gather the family together.
“He was holding the new Family Home Evening Manual,” she said. “He opened it and read the prophet's message. He read the blessings that would come to families who held family home evening. He paused and looked at each of us.
“ ‘I want those blessings for our family. Will you help us so we can share in those blessings?’
“In other words, would we all support, listen, sit still, and take our turns when our family diligently held Monday night family home evenings?
“I remember Mom’s illustrations and charts, Dad’s stories of faith when he served in the military or on his mission, the music, the treats.
“I remember using flashlights to follow the rod of iron through the house as we met up at the tree of life [see 1 Nephi 8].
“I remember my dad holding a stick and asking if any of us could break it. We all could. Then he added many sticks, symbolizing us all holding together in a united group. No one could break us!
“I was born of goodly parents. What a marvelous Church we have! It is full of wonderful things to help us, like family home evening.”
Peter and Eileen Young of Edmonton, Alberta, joined the Church in 1962 and thereafter followed the counsel to hold family home evening, trusting that it would be a “valuable tool” for raising a righteous posterity.
“We followed the manual and incorporated many of our own resources,” wrote Sister Young who, like her husband, is now in her late 80s. “Sometimes the phone would ring. My husband would be quick to answer: ‘We are having family home evening. How about you?’ This would cause some embarrassment to our children, especially if the call was directed to them!”
Their faithfulness with family home evening paid off in the end, as illustrated by the 80th birthday party given May 12, 2007, to the couple (born 17 days apart) by their children, children’s spouses and extended posterity.
“The highlight was a skit,” Sister Young said. “The topic: family home evening! The different scenes were well scripted, but the choice line was, ‘Hello, we are having family home evening. How about you?’ ”
The script is now a treasured part of Sister Young’s personal history.
As an aside, she said, “I teasingly call our family akin to the Tower of Babel, as 10 different languages are spoken as a result of the various missions served — including us!”
Paul and Ashlee Willardson of the Hyrum (Utah) 6th Ward have been holding family home evening on Monday nights since they started having children. They made that commitment when they married in the Logan Utah Temple in 2006.
“Holding weekly family home evenings has provided us with a consistent opportunity to teach the gospel to our family,” Sister Willardson said. “It’s not always easy with little children, but we have found that even the most simple, basic lessons can invite the Spirit into our home and provide powerful opportunities to teach and bear testimony of gospel truths.”
She said home evening helps them connect as a family and gives their children a safe environment to ask questions about any topic. Using music also helps their children develop talents by leading, playing piano and singing.
“One thing we have enjoyed doing is acting out scripture stories to help make the lesson more interactive and fun,” she said. “Some small, encouraging moments have been when our children have asked more questions and opened up additional discussion.”
One of the children who normally doesn’t sing has joined in to sing a favorite Primary song.
The Church News is still accepting family home evening memories and insights and will consider them for publication in the coming weeks as more articles are published in this landmark year for this tradition. Send your comments to R. Scott Lloyd by email ([email protected]) or by postal service: R. Scott Lloyd, LDS Church News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, Utah 84101.
— Contributing: Rod Boam