(Compiled by Dennis B. Horne)
[Editorial Note: Below are experiences told by Elder Rudd and Elder Cowley about the Maori people (and others) repenting quickly and sincerely. If readers would like to watch Elder Cowley’s general conference talk where he discusses the same subject, copy and paste the following link into your browser: https://catalog.churchofjesuschrist.org/assets?id=33ed0c94-1a66-4c72-947e-d7caf824a051&crate=0&index=0 ]
One of my best Maori friends, the father of ten children, deserted his wife and family and ran away with another married woman. This was a staggering blow for the branch of the Church they were both members of. My friend was divorced from his wife and he and the married woman were both excommunicated. They continued to live in the same Maori village, only a few houses from where his former wife and children lived. While he had done a terrible thing he was not ostracized by the Church members, which included nearly the whole village.
He continued to attend Church though he was no longer a member. After a period of time he truly repented. He was rebaptized into the Church and eventually received a restoration of his priesthood blessings. He worked doubly hard in the branch to make up for his transgression. Most everyone forgave him and they continued to love him.
When one of the members of the Quorum of the Twelve created a stake in that area, almost everyone in the branch (which was to be made a ward) suggested that this good man be their bishop. The General Authority even interviewed the man's former wife and asked, "Who would be the best man to be the bishop of the ward?" She said, "The best man in our branch is my former husband." When the ward was created, he was not chosen as the bishop, but he did serve in the bishopric as a special counselor to the bishop. The newly called bishop was married to one of the man's daughters by his first wife. My friend was faithful and true to the Church until the end of his life.
I knew him before the transgression and I knew him after. His life was a great example of the power of repentance and forgiveness.
There was a man by the name of Syd who lived in a little Maori village on the east coast of New Zealand. At that time there was a large branch of the Church there with about four hundred members. One Saturday afternoon, after a long, eight-hour drive, President Matthew Cowley arrived at this village and went directly to see his old friend, Syd.
As a young man, Syd had been an outstanding athlete. He had attended high school and college in the United States. He had become a well-known basketball player, and, as an all-star athlete, he had received a lot of publicity. His picture had been in the newspapers many times, and everybody had known about this fine athlete from New Zealand.
Syd had been ordained a seventy while he had lived in the United States, and when he arrived back in New Zealand, he had found that he was the only seventy in the whole area, and he didn’t have a quorum to belong to. He had become somewhat inactive, and he hadn’t been keeping the Word of Wisdom, but deep within his heart he still knew the gospel to be true.
As a mission president and a friend, President Cowley called on Syd. (Let me explain that among the Maori members and the missionaries, President Cowley was known as Tumuaki, a word of utmost respect, meaning “President” in the Maori language.) “Tumuaki” found Syd sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch, smoking a big cigar. Syd didn’t stop chewing on his cigar as President Cowley sat down beside him to visit.
After they had talked and laughed for a while, President Cowley became serious and said, “Syd, I want you to come to church tomorrow.”
They both looked toward the old chapel, and Syd said, “I think it’ll fall in if I do. I haven’t been there for a long time. I don’t think I’d better risk it.”
President Cowley said, “Syd, I want you to be there. I’m going to do something important tomorrow.” Syd inquired, “What are you going to do?” President Cowley answered, “I’m going to release the branch president and put in a new one.” Syd said, “Why don’t you just tell me who the new branch president will be, and then I won’t have to get myself cleaned up for church in the morning.”
President Cowley said, “Well, I’ll tell you who it is. It’s going to be you.” Syd pulled that old cigar out of his mouth, looked at it, and said, “Tumuaki, you mean me and my cigar?” President Cowley said, “No, Syd—just you. We don’t need your cigar.”
Then Syd threw the cigar out on the ground in front of the porch. He thought for a minute, turned to President Cowley, and very humbly said, “Tumuaki, I don’t break the Word of Wisdom any more. I’m a full-tithe payer. I’ll be the branch president, and I’ll be worthy. Tomorrow morning I’ll be there, and I promise you that I’ll be the best branch president in the whole country. You won’t have to worry about me and whether or not I’m living the gospel.”
For the next several years, Syd served as one of the strongest and finest leaders in the mission. His son became the first bishop in the ward when the stake was created. Just recently, his grandson was released from serving as a bishop. Syd’s whole family is strong and active in the Church today and is one of the great families in New Zealand. Why? Because old Syd knew how to repent, he repented on the spot. When he was called to repentance, he quit his worldly ways. He became and remained a faithful Saint until the day he died.
In most cases, that’s all there is to repentance. Do you see how really simple that was? President Cowley never did ask Syd to repent. He gave him an opportunity to be of service to the Church in a priesthood calling. Syd knew that if he accepted that calling, he could no longer sin, so he immediately quit. It was over—just like that! The Lord accepted his repentance, and Syd became a great leader.
The brother told the congregation that as he stood in front of the Christus, it seemed to come alive, and he looked up at it and said aloud, "Why would you want to atone for somebody like me?" He said he had the greatest spiritual experience of his life as he stood there and realized what the atonement of the Savior really meant. He was born and raised in the Church but had been inactive for many years.
On the way home he said to his wife, "I have resolved never to drink again." She said, "I have heard that many times, and we'll have to wait and see." However, the next morning, when she fixed his breakfast, she prepared his usual pot of tea. He refused it, saying to her again that he was now observing the Word of Wisdom. Since that day he has lived the Word of Wisdom. He has repented.
The experience in front of the Christus and the great feelings he had in seeing the beautiful lights and the display of the birth of the Savior had touched his life to the point where he now has a completely regenerated life. He truly came "unto Christ" on that occasion and is now demonstrating the fact by the way he lives.
One of Matthew’s best friends was Mose Miller, whom both he and his father Matthias dearly loved. However, Mose was a confirmed alcoholic. He was left $400,000 in his youth and drank it all up. Periodically, he promised Elder Cowley that he would quit “next Tuesday morning.” One Tuesday morning at 6:00, Elder Cowley came into my hospital room, where I had been for several days, and sat by my bed. He told me that his old friend Mose had finally quit drinking; he had just died a few minutes before.
He had been sitting up with Mose in the hospital all night long. Just before Mose died, he asked Elder Cowley to place a triple combination in his hands, and he died holding that precious possession, which he loved dearly. Mose was a good and faithful Latter-day Saint with a bad problem, but he had the love and respect of Matthew Cowley and many others.
Mose was buried on a Thursday, and during the weekly meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Cowley was excused partway through. President Clark asked if he was going to speak at the funeral of his alcoholic friend. Elder Cowley responded, “Yes, I am, and I want you to know that he was a great Latter-day Saint. He would have defended you or any one of the First Presidency or Twelve with his life. However, he had a terrible weakness that kept him from being as wonderful as he might have been.”
Elder Cowley was a sort of patron saint watching over the Alcoholics Anonymous group in Salt Lake City. He attended quite a few of their meetings and spoke on several occasions. Many of the alcoholics came to his office to receive blessings. He never gave a man a blessing while he was drunk, but asked him to go home and come back as quickly as he could when he was sober so that the complete man could get the blessing. Some days his office smelled like a brewery, with one person after another coming in. This, of course, was in the days when there was no security and most anyone could walk in off the street to visit him.