Sarah Jane Weaver: What Elder Holland taught me about exercising faith in Christ — even amid incomprehensible heartache

CASTLE FROME, Herefordshire, England — There really is no place like the rolling green hills and pastures around Benbow Pond in Herefordshire, England. Louise Manning, the property owner, is willing to share every detail of her working farm and historic home. She talks about the sheep, cattle and chickens and, of course, the cold wind.

This place is “pretty much unchanged since 1840, when Wilford Woodruff came,” she said last October when we met.

Traveling in England to cover the unique ministry assignment of three former British missionaries who are now members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles — President M. Russell Ballard, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland and Elder Quentin L. Cook — we had come to this place to record Elder Holland’s testimony. His great-great-grandmother Ellen Benbow and her adoptive parents, John and Jane Benbow, were baptized here, in these hidden hillsides, by Wilford Woodruff more than 180 years ago.   

It had been more than a year since Elder Holland had suffered a serious illness. Still, he flew to England after participating in general conference and fulfilling assignments that took him to southern Utah three times in just two weeks and then to Hawaii to formally install John S.K. Kauwe III as BYU–Hawaii’s 11th president.

The Benbow family farm in Castle Frome, England on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s 4th great-grand parents owned the farm and converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1840 through Wilford Woodruff.
The Benbow family farm in Castle Frome, England on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s 4th great-grand parents owned the farm and converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1840 through Wilford Woodruff. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

In the British Isles the three leaders had traveled to multiple cities, sharing their testimonies and meeting with missionaries.

Everyone was tired.

Still as Elder Holland approached Benbow Pond, he refused a chair. He would not — he could not — sit as he spoke about this site so important to Church history and his own family.

With his wife, Sister Patricia Holland, by his side — and balancing on the cane he was reluctantly using — Elder Holland squared his shoulders and spoke about this farm, where the Lord had directed early apostles. It was here that all but one of the 600 members of the local United Brethren’s congregation in the area eventually joined the Church. “It’s a very significant hour in Church history,” said Elder Holland.

It also marked his own path to Church membership. John Benbow — a wealthy farmer with a beautiful mansion and 300 lush acres — funded the printing of the Book of Mormon in England in 1840. Desiring to gather in Zion and help others do the same, John and Jane paid for the passage of at least 40 other Church members. In America, when the Prophet Joseph Smith was falsely arrested, John pledged all his holdings as bail. 

Because he knew the cause was true and would not — could not — deny it, John Benbow left his comfortable life in Herefordshire’s rolling hills, burying his wife a few years later and spending his final 11 years in a small windowless log home in the south end of the Salt Lake Valley.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles addresses BYU students in the BYU Marriott Center on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles addresses BYU students in the BYU Marriott Center on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. Credit: BYU Photo

I thought about John Benbow today as I listened to Elder Holland offer a devotional address at BYU. Speaking at the Church’s flagship university for the second time in just five months, Elder Holland talked about the need for the Lord’s faithful to exercise faith in Him — even amid incomprehensible tragedy and heartache.

Read more: Elder Holland at BYU: What one family’s story of forgiveness teaches about the meaning of faith

Elder Holland squared his shoulders and harnessed the power of the word — in a way that only he can — to deliver the ultimate message of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was a message that all will be forgiven and must forgive in order to be His; that the journey to Him requires all of us to “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).

In simple, yet powerful prose — that was confirmed by the Holy Ghost — he explained why the road to discipleship has never been easy. He pleaded with a transfixed audience, and the rest of us, to “practice now” so that we will “be strong for those times of affliction and refinement that will come.”

Be aware, he said, “that along this journey is some degree of anguish. That is because the road from faith to pure knowledge, from mortal trials to celestial rewards, always winds through Gethsemane.”

As part of his remarks, Elder Holland recounted the experiences of Troy and Deedra Russell — a couple who found peace after Troy Russell accidentally ran over their 9-year-old son, Austen, while backing his pickup truck out of the garage. 

The story of Troy and Deedra Russell, who are pictured here, was highlighted by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during a Brigham Young University campus devotional on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022.
The story of Troy and Deedra Russell, who are pictured here, was highlighted by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles during a Brigham Young University campus devotional on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2022. Credit: Troy Russell

One might think losing a child the way they lost Austen would be enough of a test for anyone to face, Elder Holland said. Yet, four months ago Deedra Russell, while driving on the interstate, was hit head-on by a drunken driver. After 132 days of hospitalization — some 40 of them in intensive care — she is still fighting for her life.

With remarkable courage and undeniable faith, the Russells forgave the driver, who also survived the collision and was in the audience at BYU when Elder Holland spoke. Simply said, the Russells would not — could not —  do anything but square their shoulders and lean on their powerful faith.

Elder Holland’s plea at BYU echoed his testimony at Benbow Pond — of his ancestors who traded 300 acres in Herefordshire for a log home in Zion because they would not — could not — deny what they knew. 

“What we need,” he said, “from all of us together, you and I, from those of you solidly in the Church as well as those struggling to hold on, is powerful faith, faith that sustains us here and now, not just on the day of judgment or somewhere in celestial glory.”