Latter-day Saint Video Vault celebrates decades of uplifting, funny, weird, and sometimes cringe-worthy Mormon-related videos, most of which are now found on YouTube. Join Jared Jones every other Friday as he breaks down one of these classics.
Welcome back to the Vault! For this Friday before Mother’s Day I wanted to find the perfect Mother’s Day-themed film. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for (you know what it is when you pick it up). In my searching, I did find the tale of a mother working to find meaning in her Visiting Teaching service and decided to run with it.
Unto the Least of These was produced by Brigham Young University in 1959 for the Relief Society General Board. The film was based on an original story by Christine Hinckley Robertson and features an introduction by General Relief Society President Belle Spafford. President Spafford urges sisters to receive the blessings available to them by serving others through the Visiting Teaching Program. Please pause your letter-writing campaign. Yes. I know it is ministering now, but when this film was made it was called Visiting Teaching.
The film opens on a choir singing a choral setting of the scripture “unto to the least of these.” President Spafford urged viewers to listen to the beautiful words, but sound quality made that difficult for me. After a busy choir practice Jenny Lane (it’s Lethe Tatge—from The Mailbox!) asks Karen Blake to confirm her plans for visiting teaching. Karen doesn’t want to go. Jenny’s persistent earnestness wins out and the appointment is set.
Later on we see Karen in her kitchen trying to manage meal time for her three children minutes before her visiting teaching appointment. What could go wrong? One son is busy spelling his name with the alphabet from his alphabet soup (on his hand), another child is reading at the table and another is really enjoying some jam. Karen asks her oldest son for help with the sprinklers only to wind up soaked. Her daughter tells her she obviously couldn’t go now.
“Does it matter if you go, Mother?”
“It doesn’t matter to me if I go, and it doesn’t matter to anyone else,” Karen says.
This is the whole movie. Karen doesn’t like Visiting Teaching. She feels it is an awkward waste of time. I will admit I have had times when Home Teaching felt like that. I can relate. Jenny relentlessly encourages Karen throughout their visits to change her heart and find the magic of service.
They visit a widowed sister dealing with loneliness. The sister indicates a new sister who is a member of the church moved in nearby and Jenny insists they will stop by. This pronouncement receives some of the best side-eye ever seen in church film. We’re talking Academy Award-level disdain. They visit this sister, Anne Terry, much to Karen’s chagrin and learn Anne and her husband have been away from the church for some time and lost a child years before. Jenny segues into a spiritual message in a way that is both masterful and awkward. The visit ends well and they make their way to their final visit to a sister who is sick in bed only to find out it is her anniversary. They quickly whip up an anniversary cake and go on their way. After the impromptu pastry intervention Karen begins to catch the vision of Visiting Teaching.
Jenny and Karen’s visit had an impact on Anne. She tries to share her feelings with her husband Ralph but he is dismissive and Anne is left literally clutching her pearls. She calls Karen but a series of kid mishaps, misplaced phone numbers and evening company delay the conversation.
The film ends with a heartfelt in-person conversation between Karen and Anne. Each of them realize how Visiting Teaching has helped them change and increase their desire to come closer to Heavenly Father. Karen encourages Anne to go to Heavenly Father in prayer and with his help she will find eternal happiness. Both gaze wistfully and tearfully into the mid-distance and grasp hands.
The message of Unto the Least of These can apply to any gospel principle, program or life lesson. We learn something’s value by trying it. Just last week in Come Follow Me we read “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine.” (John 7:17). Karen gains a testimony of Visiting Teaching by going out and trying it even if she was dragged into it by a motivated leader/companion. The film is heavy-handed and preachy at times but there is someone for everyone to relate to: the leader, the disgruntled or reluctant minister, the harried parent, the person in need of service. We have been all these people at one point or another, and we can learn by doing.
Thoughts, Musings and Trivia
- In the early days of the church the calling of General Relief Society President was for life. Emmeline Wells was the first to be released. She served for 11 years and died 3 weeks after her release.
- Belle Spafford holds the record for longest General R.S. President tenure at 29 years.
- The choir featured in the film is the Singing Mother’s Chorus of Southern California.
- Crawford Gates wrote the orchestral arrangements for the film. He penned the hymns “Ring Out, Wild Bells” and “Our Savior’s Love” and also wrote the original score for the soon-to-be discontinued Hill Cumorah Pageant.
- Director Wetzel Whitaker was involved with many church films including The Windows of Heaven, Johnny Lingo and Pioneers in Petticoats. I plan on featuring each of these films in the coming months.