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The legacy of home and visiting teaching

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LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson once recalled growing up in Whitney, Idaho, and hearing his father call with a "shrill" voice, "Tie up your teams, boys, and come on in. The ward teachers are here."

The two men never failed to come each month by foot or on horseback, President Benson said in his 1987 talk "To the Home Teachers of the Church."

"We always knew they would come. I can’t remember one miss. And we would have a great visit. They would stand behind a chair and talk to the family. They would go around the circle and ask each child how he or she was doing and if we were doing our duty. Sometimes mother and father would prime us before the ward teachers came so we would have the right answers. But it was an important time for us as a family. They always had a message, and it was always a good one," President Benson said.

"We have refined home teaching a lot since those early days in Whitney. But it is still basically the same. The same principles are involved: caring, reaching out, teaching by the Spirit, leaving an important message each month and having a concern and love for each member of the family."

Home and visiting teaching have long been important duties for members serving in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Both programs have influenced countless lives. Although the concept of home teaching has existed since the early 1900s, this year marks the 50th anniversary of home teaching's official 1964 inauguration.

Visiting teaching has been equally important, having walked hand in hand with the Relief Society since the largest women's organization in the world was created in 1842. It remains today a way for sisters to minister and develop love for one another, the Relief Society General Presidency said in 2012.

This is a brief look back at the development and impact of home and visiting teaching, including personal experiences of dedicated home and visiting teachers.

Home teaching history

Before there were home teachers, there were "block" and "ward" teachers, according to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. Prior to the 1900s, block teachers looked out for families according to geographic proximity. In 1912, they were called "ward" teachers.

In spring 1963, the program was "expanded and renamed 'home teaching,’ ” with emphasis on the responsibility of the entire priesthood to "watch over the Church as commanded in the early revelations — to be concerned with the whole family as a group and as individuals," the article said.

In May of that year, a 24-member home teaching committee was called by the First Presidency under the direction of Elder Marion G. Romney of the Quorum of the Twelve and Elder Alvin R. Dyer, assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve, according to the LDS Church News. The committee consisted of current or former stake presidents and other stake leaders. One notable member of the home teaching committee was Thomas S. Monson, who was called as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve five months later in October 1963.

The committee's job was to visit stake conferences and promote the new program in preparation for launch in January 1964. On May 15, 1963, President David O. McKay addressed the committee in the Church Administration Building. His remarks were published the following week in the LDS Church News.

The prophet spoke about the authority of the priesthood and revelation in watching over the members of the church. If home teaching can function effectively in a ward of 300 or stake of 5,000, President McKay said, it can work in any country around the world.

"Home teaching is one of our most urgent and most rewarding opportunities to nurture and inspire, to counsel and direct our Father’s children," President McKay said. "It is a divine service, a divine call. It is our duty as home teachers to carry the divine spirit into every home and heart. To love the work and do our best will bring unbounded peace, joy and satisfaction to a noble, dedicated teacher of God’s children."

Visiting teaching history

According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, it was after the founding of the Relief Society in 1842 that Emma Smith suggested sisters be appointed to look after the poor. Within a year, 16 sisters were called "to search out the poor and suffering, to call upon the rich for aid, and thus as far as possible, relieve the wants of all," the article said.

During those early years in Nauvoo, Illinois, the sisters reported on their visits, including specific needs, in front of all present at regular Relief Society meetings. Time was also set aside at the meetings to distribute any donated items to families in need, the article said.

In a 2009 Ensign article, President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency, said the Relief Society ceased to function for several decades due to difficult circumstances. Then in 1868, Brigham Young called Eliza R. Snow to assist bishops in organizing Relief Societies. Snow was later called as the second general president of the Relief Society in 1880.

As the Relief Society grew in the years that followed, reporting the needs of families to the Relief Society president became confidential in 1921. The sisters still collected donations, but the modification allowed visits to feel more friendly, the article said.

Another change came in 1944, according to "Daughters In My Kingdom." On the recommendation of Relief Society General President Amy Brown Lyman, the First Presidency announced that visiting teachers would "discontinue the collection of charity funds." The change was seen as a "rebirth of visiting teaching," the book said.

President Eyring said the church's visiting teaching program is the "only system which could provide succor and comfort across a church so large … and varied."

“The members of Relief Society have always been trusted by local priesthood shepherds. Every bishop and every branch president has a Relief Society president to depend upon. She has visiting teachers, who know the trials and the needs of every sister," President Eyring wrote. "She can, through them, know the hearts of individuals and families. She can meet needs and help the bishop in his call to nurture individuals and families."

'Sacred calling'

In May 1987, President Benson said home teachers are the front line of defense to watch over and strengthen each individual and family. "Home teaching is not just another assignment, it is a sacred calling," he said.

President Benson taught three fundamentals essential to effective home teaching in a talk titled "To the Home Teachers of the Church." First, church members are encouraged to "know well those you are to home teach." Second, "know well the message you are to deliver in each home." Third, "truly magnify your calling as home teacher."

Pete Strickland, 73, of Syracuse, Utah, is one member of the church who has taken President Benson's advice to heart. Strickland has been an active home teacher throughout his life. Before moving to Utah in recent years, he lived in Missouri for nearly four decades.

While in Missouri, Strickland was assigned to the family of Dan and Linda Black for more than 10 years. Linda Black was a member of the church; Dan Black and the couple's three children were not members. The first time Strickland knocked on the door, eight miles from his own home, he and his son "hardly got beyond the door," Strickland said.

But father and son persisted. In time, they were allowed to leave a prayer. Then they were permitted to share a short thought. With time, friendship and genuine love, they progressed to where Strickland was invited to baptize the Blacks' three children. He eventually baptized Dan Black as well.

"They have since been to the temple. The son served a mission. All three children were married in the temple," Strickland said with a smile. "It was such a blessing to see that happen in their lives and to know that maybe you had even just a small part in bringing that about was a great privilege."

Learning to love

In her 2009 general conference talk, "Relief Society: A Sacred Work," former Relief Society General President Julie B. Beck said in reference to visiting teaching, “Because we follow the example and teachings of Jesus Christ, we value this sacred assignment to love, know, serve, understand, teach and minister in His behalf.”

Linda Strickland, Pete's wife, knows this to be true.

Inspired by her 93-year-old mother, who still goes visiting teaching, Linda Strickland has relished her visiting teaching assignments over the years. However, many years ago, she was assigned to a sister she was "less fond of."

"We didn't have much in common, and I didn't relate to her or think I ever would," Strickland said.

Regardless, she visited the sister, and with time, their differences dissolved.

"As I got to know and understand her better, I grew to love her. When she moved away, I was really sad. We had formed a friendship," Strickland said. "Sometimes you are given people to visit and you may not see the purpose or understand why, but there is a reason. I think it was more for my benefit than it was hers. That was a good experience."

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