Experience of Dallin Oak's Great Grandfather

grass hut

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I had been up against an imaginary cliff...

In 1895 my great-grandfather, Abinadi Olsen, was called on a mission to the Samoan Islands. Obedient to the call of the prophet, he left his wife and four small children, including my maternal grandmother, Chasty Magdalene, in the town of Castle Dale, Utah. He traveled by train and ship to the mission headquarters in Apia, a journey of 26 days. His first assignment was to labor on the island of Tutuila.

After many weeks of living in what he called a grass hut, eating strange food, suffering severe illnesses, and struggling to learn the Samoan language, he seemed to be making no progress in his missionary work. Homesick and discouraged, he seriously considered boarding a boat back to Apia and telling the mission president he didn't want to waste any more time in Samoa. The obstacles to the accomplishment of his mission seemed insurmountable, and he wished to return to his wife and children, who were struggling to support him in the mission field.

A friend who heard Abinadi Olsen describe the experience some years after his return, quoted him as follows:

"Then one night, as I lay on my mat on the floor of my hut, a strange man entered and in my own language told me to get up and follow him. His manner was such that I had to obey. He led me out through the village and directly up against the face of a perpendicular solid rock cliff. 'That's strange,' thought I. 'I've never seen that here before,' and just then the stranger said, 'I want you to climb that cliff.'

"I took another look and then in bewilderment said, 'I can't. It's impossible!'

"'How do you know you can't? You haven't tried,' said my guide.

"'But anyone can see'—I started to say in objection. But he cut in with, 'Begin climbing. Reach up with your hand—now with your foot.'

"As I reached, under orders that I dared not disobey, a niche seemed to open in the solid rock cliff and I caught hold. Then with my one foot I caught a toe hold.

"'Now go ahead,' he ordered. 'Reach with your other hand,' and as I did so another place opened up, and to my surprise the cliff began to recede; climbing became easier, and I continued the ascent without difficulty until, suddenly, I found myself lying on my pallet back in my hut. The stranger was gone!

"'Why has this experience come to me?' I asked myself. The answer came quickly. I had been up against an imaginary cliff for those three months. I had not reached out my hand to begin the climb. I hadn't really made the effort I should have made to learn the language and surmount my other problems" (Fenton L. Williams, "On Doing the Impossible," Improvement Era, Aug. 1957, p. 554).

It is hardly necessary to add that Abinadi Olsen did not leave the mission. He labored for three and a half years, until released by appropriate authority. He was an exceptionally effective missionary, and he was a faithful member of the Church for the rest of his life.

Experience of Dallin Oaks great-grandfather (New Era, August 1985)