Sarah Jane Weaver: What the story of John Howland taught President Ballard about expecting the Lord’s hand

Standing at the birthplace of Joseph Smith in Sharon, Vermont, President M. Russell Ballard traced a pedigree chart of his ninth great-grandfather, John Howland — who lived during the 17th century.

President Ballard had spent the morning of Oct. 19 at the sacred site, addressing missionaries in the area and surveying the monument and other significant sites around the Joseph Smith Birthplace Memorial Visitors’ Center.

Then, standing near the pedigree chart that now hung on the wall of the visitors’ center, President Ballard explained why John Howland’s story mattered to him — and to each one of us.

A young, single man, John Howland was an indentured servant to John Carver. He crossed the Atlantic Ocean with other Pilgrims on the Mayflower in late 1620.

Elder Randall K. Bennett, Elder D. Todd Christofferson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, walk around the Joseph Smith Birthplace Memorial in Sharon, Vt., on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019.
Elder Randall K. Bennett, Elder D. Todd Christofferson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, walk around the Joseph Smith Birthplace Memorial in Sharon, Vt., on Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

During that historic voyage, the crew and passengers of the Mayflower encountered many turbulent storms, which kept the passengers below deck. In the middle of one storm, John emerged and was swept overboard.

William Bradford, also a passenger on the Mayflower, reported:

“In these storms the winds were so fierce and the seas so high the Pilgrims were forced to remain below deck. And one of them John Howland came above and, with a roll of the ship, he was thrown into the sea; but it pleased God that he caught hold of a rope that was trailing in the water and held on though he was several fathoms under water till he was hauled up by the same rope to the brim of the water, and then with a boat-hook and other means got him into the ship again and his life was saved; and though he was something ill with it, yet he lived many years after, and became a profitable member both in church and commonwealth.”

Speaking the following day in the DCU Center in Boston, Massachusetts, on Oct. 20, President Ballard continued the story.

“When the Mayflower finally arrived in the New World, they discovered they were more than 250 miles north of their intended location. Because of the lateness of the season and lack of supplies, they decided to stay there.

“When they explored their new home, they found land already cleared, corn supplies and an abandoned village whose inhabitants had died in the disease epidemic of 1616 to 1618.

“Later, a leader of one of the villages arrived in the struggling settlement to help the Pilgrims. They formed an alliance, and during the second fall after their arrival in the New World, 52 colonists and some 90 natives celebrated Plymouth’s first successful harvest — the first Thanksgiving in Plymouth.

“At the time, John Howland was not as famous as fellow passengers William Bradford, John Carver and Myles Standish. However, standing where we now stand, with nearly 400 years between us and these courageous Pilgrims, he may have had a greater impact on the history of the United States than any of them.”

President Ballard explained that four years after arriving in the New World, John married fellow Mayflower passenger Elizabeth Tilley. From that union came 10 children and nearly 90 grandchildren.

Today, an estimated 5 million Americans trace their roots to John and Elizabeth, according to President Ballard.

Their descendants include three U.S. presidents — Franklin D. Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush; American poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; and two influential 19th-century American religious leaders — the Prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum Smith, explained President Ballard.

“Brothers and sisters, please look for the Lord’s hand in your lives and in the lives of your family.”

“Think about it for a moment — the existence of these political leaders, poets and prophets hinged on this one young man finding and grabbing a rope in the ocean and holding on tight to be saved,” he said. “It was a miracle!”

President Ballard said he sees the hand of the Lord in John Howland’s life. He recalled viewing  earlier this year John Howland’s headstone in Plymouth.

John Howland’s headstone memorializes him as a “godly man” and “ancient professor in the ways of Christ.”

But President Ballard saw something much greater in the life of John Howland. It is something we can all see in our own lives as well.

“Brothers and sisters, please look for the Lord’s hand in your lives and in the lives of your family, as I do in the lives of my ancestors and family,” said President Ballard. “Expect it. Do not dismiss it. Do not relegate the experiences in your lives to coincidences. As you see the hand of the Lord in your lives, thank Him for it. Please record and share your stories. The more you recognize the Lord’s hand in your lives, the more you will see it in your lives today.”