Editor's note: Richard Wilkins, former BYU law professor and Ebenezer Scrooge for 27 years, died over Thanksgiving weekend. We are highlighting the following article in honor of his passing.
There is a good reason why President Thomas S. Monson loves to read and reference Charles Dickens’ timeless classic, “A Christmas Carol.”
“I personally feel it is inspired of God,” the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints wrote in the Ensign's August 2008 First Presidency Message. “It brings out the best within human nature. It gives hope. It motivates change. We can turn from the paths which would lead us down and, with a song in our hearts, follow a star and walk toward the light.”
President Monson has cited “A Christmas Carol” in each of his last two First Presidency Christmas Devotional messages. From the ghost of Jacob Marley to Ebenezer Scrooge, and from three visiting spirits to Tiny Tim and the Bob Cratchit family, Dickens’ immortal tale teaches true gospel principles of repentance, redemption, Christ, family, and service. Unselfishness and caring for the poor are also major themes that always instill the spirit of Christmas in the prophet’s soul.
“This touching account never fails to inspire me,” President Monson said earlier this month in his devotional message.
What is so powerful about a 168-year-old Christmas story? What are some examples from “A Christmas Carol” that illustrate LDS principles, lessons and themes?
Richard Wilkins, a former Brigham Young University law professor who has studied and acted in the role of Scrooge for 27 years, and R. William Bennett, author of the recently released novel, “Jacob T. Marley,” have their ideas.
Life in 1843
Before discussing the main messages, Wilkins said its helpful to understand the circumstances in which Dickens, often called the man who saved Christmas, wrote his Christmas story.
Christmas was in decline in the 1840s. It was not even a day off for most workers. Few people would have remembered or gathered for festive celebrations, said Wilkins, a Dickens expert. Young children were forced to work 15-18 hour days in factories and were ill-fed, ill-clothed and ill-treated. Dickens himself worked in a boot-blacking factory at age 12 after his father was imprisoned for debts. Educational opportunities for the poor were very limited.
In 1843, Dickens was invited to give a speech at the Manchester Athenaeum. He spoke about the need to eliminate want and ignorance. The speech was well received and when he concluded, Dickens received a standing ovation, Wilkins said.
That’s how the Dickens came up with the idea for “A Christmas Carol.” He had promised to write a pamphlet called, “A Plea to the People of England on Behalf of the Poor Man’s Child,” and the “Carol” became his plea, as well as a political statement against a lack of child labor laws and lack of education among the poor.
“The idea of a man’s obligation to assist his fellow man is at the heart of the story,” said Wilkins, who spends much of the year working abroad for the government of Qatar. “President Monson is a man who has given his entire life in service to others. That begins to explain why he loves this book so much.”
Wilkins has played the role of Scrooge for 27 years at Hale Centre Theatre’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol."
Both Wilkins and Bennett agree that at its core, “A Christmas Carol” is a story of repentance, family, service and Jesus Christ.
“A lot of retellings of the story and movies leave out the Christ-centered message and the need to serve,” Wilkins said. “It not only preaches against treatment of the poor, it is also a warning about self-centeredness. It's not just about Scrooge and his money; it's about the power he had to get money and his misuse of that power. It's about building relationships with family and nourishing each other. It's about learning from the past, living in the present and looking to the future and understanding they are all connected. The 'Carol' is a song of redemption."
Scrooge’s mighty change
How Scrooge goes from a miserable miser and “Bah Humbug” to “happy as an angel” in one eventful night is well known.
The story reveals that he was left alone as a child. He had a father who ignored him and a sister, who loved him. Nothing is mentioned about a mother.
“We are all sort of like Scrooge,” Wilkins said. “We carry around in our adult hearts the accumulation of the hurts and slights we had as children. That’s one of the crucial elements of the story.”
Before he became a slave to business affairs, Scrooge had a fiancÚ, but Belle returned the ring.
“He was too concerned with what he wanted,” Wilkins said. “To see him move from hurt little boy to a young man who feared the world is just enough detail to say, 'gee, that’s me.' We all need to change our heart."
Marley and service to others
Scrooge was blind to serving others, Bennett said. Scrooge thought reminding his old partner Marley what a great businessman he was might cheer him up when Marley showed himself to Scrooge on Christmas Eve.
“Business!” Marley replied. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.”
“This is one theme I followed in my book,” Bennett said. “People cross our paths for a reason. If we live a self-consumed life, we don’t even see them. But if we open our eyes, opportunities will present themselves for us to serve them and be served.”
The Cratchit Family
While Scrooge is with the ghost of Christmas present, they visit the home of Cratchit, Scrooge’s clerk. Life is desperate. They are poor, but they are happy and inspired by the big heart of Tiny Tim, Wilkins said.
“They have everything they need because of the love and care they have for each other,” Wilkins said.
Scrooge’s only family, a nephew named Fred, invited his uncle to dinner on Christmas. Still with the ghost of Christmas present, Scrooge saw his nephew defend him to his family and friends, despite harsh words Scrooge had spoken earlier to Fred. “He never receives kindness from Scrooge, ever, but Scrooge sees that a family cares for you even when you are a terrible person.”
Ignorance and want
Before departing, the ghost of Christmas present shows Scrooge two demon children — ignorance and want — the reason Dickens wrote the story, Wilkins said.
“The message is ignorance breeds want,” he said. “We have to educate ourselves and each other. It is by education that we eliminate want and improve ourselves. We need to work hard and assist each other. That is the central message of Christmas present.”
Scrooge’s final visit is hosted by the ghost of Christmas yet to come. It’s a chilling foretelling of consequences. Scrooge is able to contrast his lonely, friendless death with that of Tiny Tim.
“Tiny Tim was a sweet little boy with nothing but a crutch, yet he worked to help his family and others be happy. When they remembered him, they were inspired by the kind of life he lived. He left a legacy of love,” Wilkins said. “Scrooge had nothing. People were excited for him to die. We can leave death with love and tenderness in our hearts, depending on the person who died and the decisions we make upon our death.”
The final message
Like Scrooge, President Monson hopes every person will see the error of his or her ways and learn happiness can come to us if we forget self and worldly gain, concentrating instead on helping others and learning to embrace the love of family and friends. As Scrooge declared at the last, President Monson quoted in his recent devotional message, “I will honor Christmas in my heart and try to keep it all year, I will live in the past, present and future, the spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shutout the lessons that they teach.”
“The spirit of Christmas is the spirit of love and of generosity and of goodness. It illuminates the picture window of the soul, and we look out upon the world's busy life and become more interested in people than in things," President Monson said. “When we keep the spirit of Christmas, we keep the spirit of Christ.”
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