(Compiled by Dennis B. Horne)
Mission President Matthew Cowley (Part 2)
[Editorial Note: Below is a continuation of reminisces by Glen Rudd about his personal experiences with his mission president Matthew Cowley, who, as Brother Rudd explained, was a somewhat different but wonderful mission president, unlike what is usual today. Most of the material is self-explanatory; there may be a little repetition present.]
We saw great miracles happen in those days. My testimony to you is that miracles do happen! They are happening on the earth today, and they will continue to happen, particularly to those who believe and have great faith. Miracles occur frequently in the lives of humble, fine Latter- day Saints who have the faith to make them possible. My feeling is that the greatest of all miracles is the one that happens in the life of a person who really learns how to pray, who exercises faith to repent, and who lives the gospel in a simple and obedient way.
Many times President Cowley said, “The gospel of Jesus Christ is simply beautiful and beautifully simple.” President Cowley spent his whole life trying to explain that there isn’t anything very complicated about the Church. The Savior has always been direct and plain in giving commandments to us. In fact, most of the Church leaders I have known have taught the same thing. I am convinced that understanding increases when we talk or teach in a direct and simple way.
But many of us complicate simple things to the point of causing confusion. For instance, we are told to do missionary work by following the promptings of the Spirit. We could complicate this by writing books on how to follow the Spirit in doing missionary work, but that is really unnecessary because the Lord has a manner of communicating with us in a very simple way. Generally, all that a person has to do is to pray in faith and wait for the answer. Sometimes we need to do a little more than just wait, but the more simple we can keep our prayers, the more simple and more direct the answers will be.
Now, let me say a little more about Matthew Cowley. He was a very uncomplicated man. Some who couldn’t understand his simplicity became confused about what he did and found it difficult to understand him. I had the opportunity of being his close associate for fifteen years.
After he died, some people asked me about him. One man said, “I just can’t understand how Brother Cowley did all the things he did.” The real answer is that Brother Cowley went directly to the Lord, told the Lord what he wanted, and received the answer. There wasn’t anything hard about that; Brother Cowley just did it.
Mission presidents today must be well organized in order to hold district and zone meetings and all the necessary appointments and interviews. They have made plans for almost every day weeks in advance. But Brother Cowley rarely planned anything; he just lived by following the promptings of the Spirit of the Lord.
As President Cowley’s traveling companion in the mission field, I received instructions from him to keep my briefcase packed with a couple of changes of clothing. He said, “When I say ‘We’re going,’ you grab your bag, beat me to the car, and don’t ask any questions.”
When that would happen, I would grab my bag and go to the car. Being a young, eager missionary, I often wondered where we were going—but I didn’t ask.
Once, after we had driven a few miles, he asked, “Would you like to know where we’re going?”
Then he said, “So would I! I’m not sure just where we’re going, but we’ll keep going; and when the Lord tells us to turn, we’ll turn, and we’ll end up where He wants us to be.”
When the Maori people in the New Zealand Mission needed help, they prayed for President Cowley to come to them. One day he drove up to a post office in a rather distant city in New Zealand. There were two sisters standing by the post office, waiting. When he got out of the car, one said to the other, “See, I told you he would be here soon.”
President Cowley said, “What’s going on here?”
One of the sisters said, “We needed you, and we’ve been praying. We knew you would come, and you always go directly to the post office, so we decided to wait here until you arrived.”
It was just that simple. People would tell the Lord what they wanted, and somehow or other President Cowley was led by the Spirit to go to where they were. He wasn’t disorganized, but I have never known anyone who planned less and accomplished more, simply by doing what he felt impressed to do.
During the last several months while I have been speaking at stake conferences, I have had difficulty myself getting past the simple principles of personal and family prayer, faith, and repentance. I believe in these things; I think they are as plain and simple as anything in the whole world can possibly be. So I am going to tell you three simple stories about prayer, faith, and repentance.
Prayer is the way we talk to the Lord. We bow before Him, and in humble prayer we pour out the feelings of our heart, thank Him, and ask Him for special blessings. If we have simple faith, those answers will come.
To illustrate this, I will tell you about one day when President Cowley and I were traveling. We arrived at the home of Brother Stewart Meha, a great and wonderful Maori man. He presided over his large family as a true father and leader. President Cowley and Brother Meha spent all afternoon sitting on the porch and talking about the Church and other interesting things. I listened to them part of the time and visited with the children and others who lived in the area near Brother Meha’s home. Incidentally, there were two or three other homes in this little Maori village, but I discovered that most of the people living there belonged to Brother Meha’s family; they were his children or his grandchildren.
When it came time for the evening meal, Brother Meha stood on his front porch and, in the Maori language, shouted out to all of his large family, “Haere Mai Ki Te Kai.” Then he said, “Haere Mai Ki Te Karakia.” These phrases meant, “Come on home for supper, Come on home for prayer.”
Soon family members came from every direction. We all assembled in his home in the big front room. The room had very little furniture in it, and everybody gathered in a large circle. Brother Meha was at the head of the circle, President Cowley was on his left, and I was next to President Cowley. On Brother Meha’s right was a little child about eight years of age. All around the rest of the circle were the other children, with some adults in between.
Brother Meha said to the little boy on his right, “You start.” I bowed my head in anticipation of the little boy’s prayer. Instead of praying, he quoted a scripture, after first reciting the chapter and verse. Then the young person next to him recited a scripture with the reference. After about four scriptures had been given, I realized that we were going around the circle, with each person quoting a different passage of scripture. One youngster started to quote one that had already been used, and he was quickly corrected.
I immediately began to think of a scripture that I could quote when my turn came. I had been in the mission field just a little over a year, and I had mastered two wonderful passages of scripture. I mentally polished up my first scripture, and had no sooner silently rehearsed it than one of the young people gave that exact scripture. This, of course, slowed me down for a minute, but I thought it was all right because I still had one in reserve. I worked a little on it, only to hear someone directly across from me quote it. I then panicked as I realized that I could not think of another scripture that I could give.
My turn was coming closer and closer, and I felt tension building up within me. My mind went totally blank. In my moment of greatest concern, President Cowley nudged me with his elbow and, out of the side of his mouth, said, “Quick—tell me a scripture. I can’t think of a single one to say.” I then realized that the two of us were in the same desperate situation.
At that moment, it was my turn. I bravely said the first article of faith. President Cowley followed by quoting the second article of faith, and then Brother Meha prayed. I think that that night he prayed for the mission president and the missionaries a little harder than usual. When the prayer was finished, a little boy about eight years of age came over to us and said, “I guess you two guys don’t know that the Articles of Faith are not allowed in our scripture study.”
Brothers and sisters, that was an excellent example to me of family prayer and how children can be taught the scriptures! If we gather together and have prayer, it is probably the finest teaching experience that a mother and a father can provide for their children. Prayer is simple and should remain that way. Prayers do not need to be long or complicated; they need only to be simple and sincere. If we want to talk to the Lord, we do it through prayer. If we listen with faith, we will hear His answers. We can also search the scriptures, for in them we are given, in an uncomplicated way, the answers we need.
One morning in 1940, President Matthew Cowley poked his head in the secretary's office and said, "Let's go." I grabbed my briefcase that was always packed and ready, and beat him to the car. After a few minutes of driving he said, "We are going to the city of Tauranga where I started my mission over twenty years ago, when I was just seventeen years of age."
After about a three-hour drive, we arrived in Tauranga. We drove about three miles to a little Maori village called Judea. This village was nearly all Latter-day Saints. Down the road a short distance was a town called Bethlehem which was mostly Catholic. Brother Cowley had spent most of his first year as a missionary in this district headquartered in Judea.
As we were driving Brother Cowley said, "I have to go visit my Maori mother." He explained that she had been the sister who had helped teach him the Maori language while he was recovering from a serious illness. He had lived with her family and she had nursed him back to good health. He would read out loud every day from the Maori Bible and try to learn Maori words. She would correct him whenever his pronunciation was not right. She began tutoring him and really ended up being his Maori language teacher. She did not speak much English; and that was a blessing because it forced Brother Cowley to concentrate more on Maori. It wasn't long before he was able to speak Maori very fluently.
This kind, wonderful woman took care of him and mothered him until he was able to resume regular missionary work.
When we arrived at the little house where she lived-just a small, humble home-we went in. We were told the woman was in bed in the back room; which was nothing more than a lean-to. When we got back there we had to get on our knees because the room was only about four feet high. We crawled on some Maori woven mats to where she was laying. She was seriously ill and quite old. I didn't fully sense what was going on inside of Brother Cowley until we reached her. Then I knew that he truly loved her for what she had done for him as a young boy.
Now, as the president of the mission, he had come to give her a blessing. What a privilege it was to be with him. We knelt beside the mats upon which she lay and put our hands on her head. Brother Cowley gave her a magnificent blessing, as only a loving son could give to his mother. It was marvelous to feel the spirit on this occasion and to see this wonderful old Maori sister and a very humble mission president meeting each other again after so long a period of time. This was one of the most spiritual experiences I had on my mission.
Elder Cowley got up early one morning while in Samoa to find a single file line of people standing outside his little sleeping house, all waiting to receive blessings. He blessed those people, one after another, for a long period of time. He watched one man in particular, who stood against a tree nearby, but never got into line. After Elder Cowley had blessed quite a number of people, he went over and acknowledged the man’s presence, and asked what was wrong with him. The man said nothing was wrong; he was just standing there wishing he was sick so he could receive a blessing like the rest of them. Elder Cowley told him there was no need to be sick to receive a blessing, and he promptly placed his hands on the man’s head and gave him the blessing he desired.
In 1940, when the First Presidency called the missionaries home because of the war, we had one week to gather all the missionaries to headquarters to catch the Mariposa. It was a hectic week, but we managed to get everyone into Auckland on time, including the last group of missionaries from Australia who sailed into New Zealand for a one- day layover. That particular day, we had another funeral and President Cowley requested that about five of them accompany us to the funeral. They were astounded at the things we did, which not only included speaking, praying and singing, but also assisting in the actual burial of the deceased. One of the missionaries said, “I think I did more real missionary work today than I did in the whole two years in Australia.”
The Sunday before we were to leave, President Cowley wanted to hold meetings all day. Priesthood meeting was with just the missionaries, during which he spoke with great tenderness. He hated to see us go home. “Up to now,” he said, “I have been your mission president; but next time I see you, I’ll just be your friend. If any of you have any legal problems or run into difficulty, be sure to call on me. As a friend, I would love to help you.” He also reminded us to be active in civic affairs and politics; at least enough to know what was going on. He gave excellent instructions on honoring our priesthood and serving the Lord.
The rest of the meetings that day were attended by more than five hundred saints, who came to bid the missionaries farewell. Every missionary was called upon to give a short talk in at least one of the meetings.
When the day arrived to leave on the Mariposa, as we left the mission home, we shook President Cowley’s hand and bid farewell. My companion and I, who were the secretaries of the mission, were two of the last to leave. Brother Cowley, however, did not follow us down to the boat. He was “too busy vacuuming” the carpets in the mission home, which he had been doing for the last hour, and just couldn’t quit. How lonely he seemed, as we walked away. He was a very tender man. He enjoyed having missionaries around and he truly loved them.
President Cowley (along with the other mission presidents in the Islands) stayed on. He wrote me on occasion to bring me up to date on what was happening in the mission. In one letter he said, “I now know what was wrong with our mission, why we didn’t do very well and baptize very many. It was you missionaries. You were the ones who were holding up the work. Now that you’re gone, local missionaries and local people are doing better than ever. Tithing and fast offerings have greatly increased, activity in the Church has grown, and I am now convinced where our problem was.” This was part of President Cowley’s humorous way of expressing himself.
Many years ago, President Matthew Cowley told a story about blessing a little baby boy who had been born blind. President Cowley was visiting the small village of Porirua one Sunday, when the father asked him to give him a name and blessing. He also asked President Cowley to give him his eyesight while he was at it. While giving the blessing, the thought came into President Cowley's mind that the boy could not hear either, and that he had a problem with balance. So he blessed him that as he grew, he would gradually overcome the problems he had at birth.
It took the boy quite a while to learn to walk and get around; but eventually, he overcame all the physical difficulties he had a birth.
President Cowley repeated this story two times, once at BYU and once in General Conference. For over forty years, the story has been told and retold as one of the great miracles of our time.
I have visited with Junior on several occasions. He is now over fifty years old. All of his life he has been active in the Church, although very retiring and quiet. He has never taken a real leadership position, but always wanted to support and sustain. He is very sincere in his desire not to be looked upon as being a miracle person, just a good normal person.
When our son Lee was on his mission to New Zealand, I took him to Porirua one day to visit Junior. Lee and I were both wearing dark horn-rimmed glasses. Junior has never worn a pair of glasses in his whole life.
Also, when Marva and I visited in Porirua a couple of times, we had pictures taken with him. There he stood, without any glasses and with, I think, the best eyesight of anyone I have ever known.
About a year ago, Junior was honored with a big birthday cake and party for his fiftieth birthday, a rather special occasion in New Zealand.
Junior's mother, who just recently passed away, was always very friendly and considerably active in the branch; but she never did join the Church. The rest of the family are fine, faithful Latter-day Saints.
In Matthew Cowley’s patriarchal blessing, he was promised that he would never get motion sickness. This turned out to be a tremendous blessing for him because he traveled on all kinds of boats, ships, small airplanes, etc. Once, he left on a ship from Samoa which did not allow passengers. He talked the captain into letting him sign as a member of the crew, perhaps the chaplain. When they went to bed on Saturday night, they crossed the dateline and it was Monday instead of Sunday. So he never did much work as a crew member on that ship.
Another trip was taken on a converted submarine chaser. The weather was terrible and the ocean was rough. Of that trip, Brother Cowley said that “the submarine chaser does everything but turn a double back summersault with a half twist. I expected it to go down at anytime to start chasing subs.” On the deck, there were 110 pigs, 1,000 chickens and several other animals enclosed. In addition, there were 38 native saints and Brother Cowley, their mission president. Everyone was seasick but him. He said some of the dark-skinned natives almost turned white because of seasickness—“not a snow white or lily white, but a greenish-yellow tinted white.” He continued, “Tahiti is probably the only place on earth where the roosters crow all night, pigs squeal, roosters crow, hens squawk, natives retch—this was a symphony I will long remember.”
He did not take his clothes off for six days. Everyone was sick, things were unsanitary, and he was unable to eat food. There happened to be a large shipment of oranges on board, so he became “a guinea pig for vitamin C.” He concluded by saying, “This converted submarine chaser made me wonder if it ever had really been converted.
The theater business was unbelievably popular in New Zealand when I was on my mission. Every city, even the small towns, had far more theaters than we had ever seen in America. Most members of the Church who lived out in the Maori districts had no electricity in their homes, so often the missionaries went into the nearby cities to visit the saints and ended up in the theater.
One evening, my companion and I arrived at the home of Brother and Sister Wi Duncan right at suppertime. After a wonderful meal, Brother Duncan asked if we would like to go with him to the “flick.” We both jumped at the opportunity. Immediately, I noticed that his wife Polly was distressed. We were unaware that they had just had a big argument about the frequency of his visits to the picture show and he had just promised that he would not go anymore. However, as soon as he saw a couple of elders, he just couldn’t restrain himself from taking them to a show. Polly quickly forgave us, but let us know of the trouble she continually had in keeping her husband away from the theater.
Months later, we missionaries living in the mission home decided that there was a show in town that we needed to see. One morning, the two elders that worked on the mission magazine went to the print shop at 10:00. Two others left to go tracting at 10:15. That left the other two of us. We went downtown to pay the bills and do some other important things. All six of us ended up in front of the theater at 10:55 and promptly went in for the 11:00 showing of “Angels with Dirty Faces,” starring Jimmy Cagney and Pat O’Brien. It was a really wonderful picture show, about a preacher and a gangster and their great love for each other in spite of the different paths they had taken.
Halfway through the movie the lights came on for intermission. We stayed in our seats and waited. One of us turned to look around; there, on the back row, sat our fine mission president. He pretended not to see us; but we knew that we had been caught once again. We stayed for the rest of the show, and when it was over, President Cowley ducked out quickly. We took our time getting out before continuing on with our respective errands.
That evening, halfway through supper, President Cowley said, “Brethren, I’ve noticed that you’re working too hard. I want you to ease up just a little time and go to an afternoon picture show.” He continued, “Incidentally, I went to one today and I would like to tell you about it.” He spent fifteen minutes telling us in the greatest of detail all about the movie that he – and we – had seen that day. He concluded by again telling us, “I appreciate the great work you do, but I am worried for fear that you’re overdoing it. I would like you to know that you should get out once in a while and see a good picture show.” He had a great way of lowering the boom when he needed to.