I’m working from the text of the talk by Bishop H. David Burton from the Sunday Morning Session of the most recent General Conference. It’s interesting that this was the talk I was asked to teach from, because Bishop Burton is the only speaker in that conference that I have a problem with. It’s likely unfair of me to have this problem with him, but it turns out that I do. About a decade ago, Bishop Burton came to our Stake Conference and, during the Adult Session, repeated the notion that faithful women in the Church who die without being married are promised that this will be made right in the next life, but that men do not have that promise. He presented this in a way to put pressure on single men in the Church to stop slacking off and get married. I was sitting next to my single male friend in his late 20s, and could sense his discomfort in this. I can’t help but wonder if Bishop Burton has noticed the shortage of single men in the Church. If so, I wonder if he’s ever considered that this pressure and disrespectful way of speaking to and about them has anything to do with that shortage. I don’t suspect he would much enjoy being spoken of in a similarly disrespectful fashion.
While I was not and am not a single man in the Church, I hope to be one shortly. I am not going to let Bishop Burton’s well-intentioned remark drive me from the Church, and I suppose I should feel grateful for the Surf City gender-ratio I will be facing when I enter the Mormon Meat Market. But my heart goes out to single men who feel like they don’t fit in the Church because they don’t have a wife. I don’t think the Church is benefiting by their absence, and by failing to be a help to them in their struggles.
Now, with my little temper-fit out of the way about the messenger, it’s time to look at the message he delivered.
Bishop Burton speaks of the importance of being virtuous, and he focuses in particular on what he calls the “ity” virtues. These include:
Being me, I like to look into word origins and etymology if we’re going to be hanging a lot off of our understanding of the meaning of that word, so I looked and found this entry (I love Etymonline):
virtueearly 13c., “moral life and conduct, moral excellence,” vertu, from Anglo-Fr. and O.Fr. vertu, from L. virtutem (nom. virtus) “moral strength, manliness, valor, excellence, worth,” from vir “man” (see virile). Phrase by virtue of (early 13c.) preserves alternative M.E. sense of “efficacy.” Wyclif Bible has virtue where K.J.V. uses power. The seven cardinal virtues (early 14c.) were divided into the natural (justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude) and the theological (hope, faith, charity). To make a virtue of a necessity (late 14c.) translates L. facere de necessitate virtutem. [Jerome]Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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So “virtue” has to do with being manly, efficacious, and powerful in a pre-pre-feminist sense. We’re not talking about driving cars fast, watching sports, scratching and belching here — we’re talking about being brave, strong, and excelling in what we do. Often, when we’re using the word “virtue” today, we’re using it as a euphemism for physical virginity in women, as something to be lost, but this understanding of its origin shows that there’s a lot more to it than that (and a little bit of unintended irony when we speak of “virtuous (manly) women.” A better understanding of the word from this origin is to see it closer to how we currently understand the word “heroic,” so we’re seeing not a prim, if attractive woman sitting in a long-skirt, with her hair in a bun and maybe wearing a kerchief, knees together and hands folded on her lap, but an unselfconscious Sir Galahad, courageously seeking the Holy Grail with a pure heart. I will not define what this understanding means in the context of a “virtuous woman,” but I do see something leaning more to the feisty side of pure than the prim side when I bring these ideas together — someone not to be trifled with or put down.
So a virtue, then, is not just a trait of goodness — it’s something that is consistent with being Galahad-like. Something which perhaps requires, but certainly demonstrates courage and character. Bishop Burton says:
We need only look around us to see what is taking place in our communities to realize that personal traits of virtue are in a steep decline.
I must say that I do not see large numbers of people demonstrating courage and character. Certainly not among those who tend to attract our attention. In my business, I can tell you that too many children are being raised in homes that are destructive to the building of these virtues.
We need to stand tall and be firmly fixed in perpetuating Christlike virtues, even the “ity” virtues, in our everyday lives. Teaching virtuous traits begins in the home with parents who care and set the example. A good parental example encourages emulation; a poor example gives license to the children to disregard the parents’ teachings and even expand the poor example. A hypocritical example destroys credibility.
I don’t necessarily share Bishop Burton’s implicit confidence that a good example translates to emulation, particularly during childhood, but I do believe that the conspicuous demonstrating and building of virtue in the presence of our children will give them a model for building their own virtue throughout their lives.
Virtuous traits, especially the “ity” virtues, must never be forgotten or set aside. If forgotten or set aside, they will inevitably become the “lost virtues.” If virtues are lost, families will be measurably weakened, individual faith in the Lord Jesus Christ will soften, and important eternal relationships may be jeopardized.
We don’t need to see the loss of virtues society-wide to have cause of concern — we need only see it close to home to have a threat. I like that his focus is less on preaching virtues, and more on demonstrating them and practicing them.
Traits of virtue broadly practiced can loosen Satan’s firm grip on society and derail his insidious plan to capture the hearts, minds, and spirits of mortal men.
Now is the time for us to join in rescuing and preserving that which is “virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy.” As we allow virtue to garnish our thoughts unceasingly and we cultivate virtuous traits in our personal lives, our communities and institutions will be improved, our children and families will be strengthened, and faith and integrity will bless individual lives.
Again, I don’t believe that we are able to nor responsible to change and save our society, world or even community, but I do believe that we are able to and responsible to do what we can to improve things, primarily through example, but also through discussions of precepts and principles.
I do want to get into some discussion about the definition of “manly men,” but I think an important answer is going to be found in 3 Ne 27:27:
And know ye that aye shall be bjudges of this people, according to the judgment which I shall give unto you, which shall be just. Therefore, what cmanner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even das I am.
I may have more to say about this after I teach the lesson. Comments are certainly invited.