The Bells of Hell

Posted on April 10, 2012


Nothing fires my soul like a good fight. That’s not a particularly demure or cultivated thing to say (and it’s probably quite misleading), but I figure God created me and has been busily molding so he’s okay with what he’s fashioned, and I certainly didn’t manufacture a stiff upper lip all by myself.

With perfect timing today, I ran across this article about Clara Barton, the founder of The American Red Cross. I’m a biographical historian (if amateur), so I love that kind of thing, and for some reason I’ve never read about this fascinating woman. Her story, paralleling so interestingly the lives of many great people, was far from ideal, a study in reversal. I especially like her own words: “thin black snakes of depression” that she fought by chasing instead of beheading, and the words of the Post journalist: “Calmest in a crisis, most fully functional as others panicked, she did her best work in the dark.”

We learn a great deal about ourselves by paying attention to stories of others lives and our reactions to them. In my estimation, it’s one of the best reasons to study history and to uncover the personalities of our progenitors.

A few years ago Elder Jeffery R. Holland spoke in a regional broadcast and told a story of a young woman that had me sitting up in my chair with my head high and my eyes narrowed to the wind, heart pounding in my chest and shoulders flexed back. As he concluded I glanced around to gauge my children’s reactions, and was brought up short when one of my sons burst out laughing. “No fire, nobody to save, Mom,” he chuckled. Safe to say, Elder Holland hit a resonant tone.

The story was of Belle Smith, young pioneer wife and mother. While her husband Stanford helped a train of wagons down the a steep crevice in the rock, through dangerous sand and across the river by ferry, she waited with their wagon and their children. As the train moved on, he looked up to see her still standing at the top with theirs after the men had moved on. Furious, he climbed and stood hand in hand with her to survey their terrible predicament. Belle had loaded the wagon and hitched the horses, tying their old mule Nig to the back. As her husband despaired how they would get the wagon down the cliff when it had taken many men holding each of the other wagons back, Belle squared her shoulders and said, “I’ll do the holding.”

She then busied herself getting the children to a safe place back from the crevice. Three-year-old Roy held the baby, and sister Ada sat in front of them and said a little prayer as Belle kissed each of them and tucked quilts snugly around them. “Don’t move, dears. Don’t even stand up. As soon as we get the wagon down, Papa will come back for you!”

Stanford braced his legs against the dashboard and they started down through the Hole-in-the-Rock. The first lurch nearly pulled Belle off her feet. She dug her heels in to hold her balance. Old Nig was thrown to his haunches. Arabella raced after him and the wagon holding to the lines with desperate strength. Nig rolled to his side and gave a shrill neigh of terror. . . .

[Belle] lost her balance and went sprawling after old Nig. She was blinded by the sand which streamed after her. She gritted her teeth and hung on to the lines. A jagged rock tore her flesh and hot pain ran up her leg from heel to hip. The wagon struck a huge boulder. The impact jerked her to her feet and flung her against the side of the cliff.

The wagon stopped at the end of the chute. Stanford jumped off the wagon and first noticed the bloodied, bruised, and almost lifeless mule that had been dragged most of the way down. There, holding onto the reins, blood streaming from her leg, and covered from head to foot with dirt, was Arabella. She had been dragged down along with the mule–but she wouldn’t let go. She had hung on for all she was worth.

Brent L. Top, a much better historian than I, earlier told this story with other great stories in a rousing talk that has my pulse going this afternoon, my heart pounding firm after yet another heart-stopping reversal today. It’s a good thing to read if you need to rouse yourself and “fresh courage take.” Indeed, as the song says, “why should we think to earn a great reward if we now shun the fight?”

I’ve sometimes laughed at the statement “I want to be the kind of woman that when she gets up in the morning, the devil says, ‘Oh crud, she’s up.'” Laughed, but had every intention of being just that. Brigham Young, in all his hyperbolic splendor, was that kind of man. He had this to say:

We completed a temple in Kirtland and in Nauvoo; and did we not hear the bells of hell toll at the time we were building them?  They did, every week and every day. . . .  Some say, ‘I do not like to do it, for we never began to build a Temple without the bells of hell beginning to ring.’  I want to hear them ring again.

Like Clara Barton, resilience wasn’t one of my birth bequests, but by the grace of God it has become one of my strengths, and I probably do my “best work in the dark” too. Since a youth I’ve been sit-up-straight-and-shoulders-back inspired by Helaman’s counsel to his sons, Lehi and Nephi:

And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.

There’s a reason I don’t blink when I think of cleaning up 6 inches of sewer in my basement multiple times, or facing someone who is murderous, or working until my back aches. There’s work in the dark to do, and it’s often ugly and discouraging and intimidating. It is courage more than anything else that we need in those moments, and it is a life of experience nursing our courage along that makes us equal to the task. As Prof. Top stated in that wonderful address:

Our challenges and tests today may come in different packaging, but giving all you have to the Lord is still all you have. It still takes faith–the same faith of our pioneer forebears–to keep our covenants: to love God with all our heart, might, mind, and strength. It takes the same faith and commitment today to love God more than mammon and to willingly lay our all on the altar. Being a disciple of Christ today still requires the fire of covenant burning in our hearts and guiding us through our own individual wildernesses of life.

Let the bells of hell toll. My heart won’t fail, and yours won’t either. We’re made of sterner stuff.

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