Sunday Lit Crit Sermon: Sterling W. Sill on Medicine for the Soul

Sterling_W._SillAmong the General Authorities of my own youth, perhaps the biggest promoter of books and learning was Sterling W. Sill. As a teen I received as a gift and read his The Majesty of Books (1974) and it reinforced my love of books and belief that they are, as Sill claims, the greatest of human innovations.

The following excerpts are from one of his most memorable and most literature-oriented conference talks, Medicine for the Soul, given in 1972.

Sill was born in Layton, Utah in 1903 and served a mission to the Southern States from 1924 to 1926. After returning, he joined New York Life, rising in the company to lead the Intermountain office, which became the largest in the company. He also served on the Board of Regents for the University of Utah and as its chairman. Sill was called as a general authority in 1954, serving as an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve until 1976 and as a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy from 1976-1978. He was then given emeritus status until his death in 1994.

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Medicine for the Soul

By Sterling W. Sill

Over the door of the library in the ancient city of Thebes, an Egyptian king once carved an inscription that said: “Medicine for the Soul.”

Like all thoughtful people, this wise ruler understood that if the mental, spiritual, and emotional health of his people was to be properly cared for, it must be constantly nourished. And because ideas, ideals, and ambitions can be most effectively supplied through books, this great king had provided an ample literary storehouse as a place where his people could get the necessary help for thinking good ideas, building up proper attitudes, vitalizing their faith, motivating their ambitions, and increasing their righteousness, that they might help themselves to save their souls.

This idea of a mental and spiritual storehouse still provides one of our most constructive opportunities. It is reported that there is a physician in Birmingham, Alabama, who goes around writing prescriptions for people, to be filled not at drugstores but at bookstores. He knows what all of us know, that our most serious sicknesses are our soul sicknesses.

One of the tragedies of our times is the increase, to epidemic proportions, of the psychosomatic diseases brought on by our sins and emotional disturbances. As someone has pointed out, we never get stomach ulcers because of what we eat; we get stomach ulcers because of what is eating us. And as we are presently being eaten up by our ignorance, our sins, and our weaknesses, we are suffering some staggering moral death-and-disability losses.

One of the most effective cures for all of our present-day problems is found in the literary remedy that comes from thinking uplifting thoughts and living the great principles of the gospel. The science of writing has probably made books our greatest invention. Writing is preserved speech; it is potential ambition. By effective study we can acquire knowledge, build faith, and develop an enthusiasm that will lead us to any desired accomplishment.

It was the Savior of the world who said: “Man shall not live by bread alone. “¦” (Matt. 4:4.) And because of the wonders of our day, every family may have its own library of great books, including the word of God himself. But before anyone can be benefited by any of our great literature, he must effectively believe in it.

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Someone has pointed out that books are among life’s most precious possessions. They are the most remarkable creation of man. Nothing else that man builds ever lasts. Monuments fall, civilizations perish, but books continue. The perusal of a great book is as it were an interview with the noblest men of past ages who have written it.

Charles Kingsley once said, “There is nothing more wonderful than a book. It may be a message to us from the dead, from human souls we never saw who lived perhaps thousands of miles away, and yet these little sheets of paper speak to us, arouse us, teach us, open our hearts and in turn open their hearts to us like brothers. Without books, God is silent, justice dormant, philosophy lame.”

John Milton once said, “Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a progeny of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.” (Areopagitica.)

“¦

Just before the resurrected Christ ascended to his Father, he gave a thrice-repeated instruction to his chief apostle, saying, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:16.) That important responsibility for feeding the flock is also in force among us. But our personal salvation is a joint enterprise, and the responsibility for feeding our souls is one of the primary do-it-yourself projects that God himself has put into our hands. This great Egyptian king had provided the library, but the people were required to take the medicine themselves.Our present state of malnutrition is not because of any famine for bread nor a thirst for water, but it is for the hearing and the obeying of the word of the Lord. That is, our many soul-deaths do not occur because a remedy is not available; it is only because we are failing to take that medicine which has already been provided and has already proven its effectiveness.

Emerson pointed out one phase of our problem when he said, “On the brink of an ocean of life and truth, we are miserably dying. Sometimes we are furtherest away when we are closest by.” So frequently that is true.

Think how near they were who lived contemporaneously with Jesus. He walked among them. They heard him speak. And yet they were so far away that they said, “His blood be on us, and on our children.” (Matt. 27:25.) And so it has been and so it may be with us. We are so near and yet we may be so far away. We live on the edge of an ocean of knowledge, but each must take his own steps that will bring him there.

“¦

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While Sill’s remarks might be seen as preaching to the choir (and overstatements at times), many of the statements he makes above are though-provoking and insightful. I’m intrigued by the opportunities he is speaking about when he says “this idea of a mental and spiritual storehouse still provides one of our most constructive opportunities.” I’m not sure if he means that the ideas in the storehouse are constructive opportunities, or that the creation of these storehouses are themselves constructive opportunities, but I see value in both of these.

I don’t think the idea that “writing is preserved speech” is unique to Sill, but I think it is true. But the intriguing statement comes next: “it is potential ambition.” How is writing ‘potential ambition?’ I suspect Sill would say that it is because of the power it has to help us “acquire knowledge, build faith, and develop an enthusiasm that will lead us to any desired accomplishment.” I don’t think he means these come from merely reading, but rather from the process of writing also.

His suggestion that “before anyone can be benefited by any of our great literature, he must effectively believe in it” is also intriguing. Perhaps he simply means that we need an open mind when approaching literature or that we must believe in the power of literature. I think this is true also–often the condemnations I hear of well-written books involve claims that the book “doesn’t reach me” or “isn’t my kind of thing.” These both assume that the reader doesn’t need to put much effort into the process–that reading is all about entertainment. I hope that readers see this can not be true.

Sill also states above, discussing books, that “nothing else that man builds ever lasts.” At one time we might have questioned the idea, since so many books had become effectively unavailable to most audiences. Increasingly, however, the idea that books can and should last forever is more of a reality. Google books, the Internet Archive and other digital archives don’t care about a book’s quality or subject or anything else. They digitize all–and baring some substantial change, these works will last forever–and within reach of the majority of mankind instead of merely shelved in an academic archive somewhere. While I’m not sure Sill is right that nothing else lasts, I do agree that books last, and seem like they will last forever.

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