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What E’er Thou Art: Act Well Thy Part

"What E' er Thou Art: Act Well Thy Part" - by Matthew O. Richardson

Not long ago, my wife and I attended a choral concert at BYU. At intermission, I stood to stretch my legs and the young man standing next to me said, “You look like you're a smart person.” Now (pause), before I continue, you should know, that I have no idea what could have possibly given him that impression. But whatever it was—I wish I knew—because I would repeat it as often as possible. It was what he said next, however, that cemented this memory in my mind. “Can you predict the future?” he asked. “What an unusual question to ask a complete stranger,” I thought to myself. This is not the fare for the usual intermission chit-chat—at least, not for me—so I assumed that he must be joking. I half-chuckled as I said, “I wish I could, wouldn’t that be nice?” It was immediately clear that this young man was not joking, for his smile faded, he grew quiet, and his demeanor darkened just a bit. “I’m sorry,” is all I could offer. He turned, muttered that he was going to get a drink of water, and left the auditorium. “That was strange,” I thought again. Just as intermission was ending and the lights were dimming, this young man returned to his seat and quietly sat down beside me. The curtains raised and the concert began again. I don’t think I heard a single note from the rest of the concert. All I could think about was this young man. Something was obviously weighing on him and my mind raced. Was he in trouble? Why was he so worried? Why was the future weighing so heavily upon him? Oh, I longed to be smarter so I could help in some way. Oh, how I wished I could predict the future.

As I sat in the darkened theater, it dawned on me that maybe his question wasn’t really all that unusual. After all, how many of us would like to know a little about the future—especially our own future? Throughout the ages, men and women have turned to a variety of sources in hopes of predicting, or knowing the future. They attempted to read the stars. They consulted with self-proclaimed soothsayers, prognosticators, seers or others with some mysterious or dark title. Some even tried working with the “dark side,” which, by the way, was not partnering with Darth Vader or even he-who-must-not-be-named. When I was in college, I wished I could gaze into a crystal ball long enough to see five years into the future. I wanted to see what it was going to be like and I wanted to see if I was going to be part of it.

If none of these things are available, then perhaps you need to move on to even more powerful resources, like the all-knowing Magic Eight Ball. This idea was first hatched in a Three Stodges movie in 1940 (which should tell you something about this predictive power), but it took Albert Carter and Abe Bookman to bring it to reality in the 1950s. It works like this. Will I pass my English class? (look at the ball for answer). Will I ever graduate? (look at the ball for answer). Will I ever be employed? (look at the ball for answer) Will she say yes?

For questions like that, we need to consult an even higher predictive power—like the Cootie Catcher. This paper origami fortune-teller is also known as a chatterbox, salt cellar, whirly-bird, or a paku-paku. Pick a color. Blue? B-L-U-E! Pick a number. Three? One, Two, Three…You will have three kids named Janice, Jeffrey, and Jehoshaphat (yes, all beginning with a J). You will live in Singapore, drive an old Volkswagen, and have a dog, named Crimson Dawn. Oh…and you will live happily ever after—mostly. Go ahead and laugh. But I imagine many—if not all—of you have employed such desperate tactics in your life!

As weird, improbable, and silly as all of this sounds, somehow these things cause us to feel a little better about our fears of the future. Until the next shadow of doubt falls upon our path—that is.

Thoughts like these—and much, much more rattled around in my brain during the post-intermission concert. I then recalled worrying about my future when I was his age and felt the need to reach out to him somehow. I wondered if I should fold my program into a Cootie Catcher and reveal this young man’s future after the show. Perhaps I should give him some advice or tell him something that I had learned from my own experience that may prove helpful. With this in mind, I thought of Elder Boyd K. Packer once saying, “Young men speak of the future because they have no past, and old men speak of the past because they have no future.” “Oh no,” I thought, “my desire to speak of my past experiences confirms that I am an old man!” None-the-less, I knew I had to say something more to that young man before he left. Maybe I was feeling what Elder Jeffrey R. Holland once expressed, “We who have already walked that portion of life’s path that you are now on try to call back to you something of what we have learned. We shout encouragement. We try to warn of pitfalls or perils along the way. Where possible we try to walk with you and keep you close to our side.”

As soon as the concert finished and as the house lights came up, I quickly turned to this young man before he could stand. I gently grabbed his arm and looked him straight in the eyes. “While I cannot predict what your future will be like,” I said quietly, “it is possible for you to predict what YOU will be like in the future.” I handed him my program and said, as I pointed to the scribblings that I had written on the front cover, “Give it some thought,” I said. I stood, smiled, shook his hand, and said, “Trust me. This really helps.” I turned and left the concert.

I hope that he read what I had written on my program. I sincerely and earnestly hope that he gave it some thought. What did I write? I wrote, “Search diligently, pray always, and be believing, and all things will work together for your good, if ye walk uprightly and remember the covenant wherewith ye have covenanted one with another.” (D&C 90:24). You should know, that I had underlined the conditional part of this scripture starting with “IF.” The underlined portion read, “IF ye walk uprightly and remember the covenant wherewith ye have covenanted one with another.”

I sincerely wished I had more time to share with this young man why I underlined this part of this powerful scripture. Sadly, the time and place didn’t allow that to happen. So, with your indulgence, I will share my reasons with you instead, and I do so, in the spirit of Elder Holland’s heartfelt sentiments of calling back to you something of what I have learned, with a desire to warn of the pitfalls and perils along your way.

I find the phrase “walk uprightly” fascinating. By definition this means to “walk” or “proceed” by “adhering to rectitude; righteous, honest, or just—accord with what is right.” Wow, that is a mouthful. It seems logical that, IF you want things to work together for your good, then you need to proceed in righteousness or in accordance with that which is right. I commend this approach to you. Another way to look at this phrase, however, is to “walk” or “proceed” in a “raised, erect or vertical, as in position or posture.” For any of us dealing with the pressures of the future that cause fear, doubt, and discouragement, know something of Paul’s phrase about “hands which hang down” and “feeble knees” that could use a little “lifting” (Hebrews 12:12). Some of us are searching, praying, and exercising every particle of faith we can muster. Yet, it still feels overwhelming and hope seems to escape us. What else can we do? Perhaps we must heed Jehovah’s counsel to Joshua at a time when doubt overwhelmed Israel. Said Jehovah, “Have I not commanded thee? Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest” (Joshua 1:9). In other words, stand up straight, square your shoulders, and raise your neck. In times like these, there can be no slouching or shrinking. Walk uprightly. But wait, that is not all. This scriptures states that you must stand tall because of the covenant you covenanted one with another. What covenant is that? When entering into the baptismal waters, we promised that we, among other things, would be willing to mourn WITH those that mourn, comfort those in need of comfort, and stand as a witness for others at all times and places (Mosiah 18:9). In other words, we promised to help one another, support one another, be there for one another, and to help others become what they are capable of being. I want to share with you an example of this profound concept.


In 1897, David O. McKay was called to serve a mission in Scotland. He was thrilled to return to his “motherland” and had very high expectations of bringing the restored gospel to his kin. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much enthusiasm for a message about God, Jesus Christ, and a restored church brought about by a boy-prophet. Even when he was able to share his message, he was ridiculed for his “American” accent. To make matters worse, there were some asserting that missionaries didn’t come to Scotland to share a message, but to steal their “bonny lasses” away for plural marriage. Some of you returned-missionaries know all too well what I am talking about. Feeling a bit sorry for himself, he and his companion went on a diversion for the day (or what we now call a “P-day”) and they went sight-seeing. Well, it appears that this one “diversion day” turned into several days of diversion and touring. And on one of these diversion days, David O. McKay found himself standing at the wall of Stirling Castle taking in the historic sites before him. They left touring the Castle around five o’clock to return to their newly acquired lodgings. As the two missionaries walked along Back O’ Hill Road, they approached a construction site for new apartments that would be known as the Albany Crescent buildings. From the sidewalk, David O. McKay noticed something unusual about the building. “Over the front door was a stone...something unusual in a residence, and what was still more unusual, I could see from the sidewalk that there was an inscription chiseled in that arch…” McKay recalled: “I was half way up the graveled walk, when there came to my eyesight a striking motto carved in stone-- “What e’er Thou Art, Act Well thy Part...’”

While some may conclude that this phrase was unique or even homespun, others will point out that it is very similar to a line from the well-known poem, An Essay on Man, written by the English essayist and poet Alexander Pope in 1733-1734. In epistle four, Pope penned, “Act well your part, there all the honour lies.” Whether the phrase, “What e’er thou art, act well thy part,” was a variation of Pope’s work, homespun by Allan himself, or inspired from another source doesn’t change the inspirational quality.

This motto had an immediate and profound impact upon McKay. Of this experience, David Lawrence McKay, David O. McKay’s son, said that “this message struck Father forcefully.” Although McKay only talked about the impact that this phrase had upon him, the lower section of the stone should not be overlooked or dismissed. In fact, it appears that John Allan included the lower portion of the stone to emphasize the meaning and application of the motto in a dramatic and peculiar fashion.


Immediately below the engraved inscription, [SLIDE 8] “What E’er Thou Art: Act Well Thy Part,” is an unusual array of nine symbols neatly arranged into three rows and three columns. It is my guess that David O. McKay must have noticed the symbols on the stone. It was probably the symbols that first captured McKay’s interest for the symbols would have been the only part of the stone that would have been observable. Even though McKay never wrote or spoke about the symbols of the stone, when considering the motto and the symbols simultaneously, the impression and impact of the motto is remarkably deepened and punctuated.

When I began looking into the meaning of the symbols on the stone, I was told they were linked with Masonic symbolism. I discovered, however, that there is no evidence that John Allan was ever associated with the Masons and after some effort, it was easy to see that Allan’s symbols had no real resemblance to common Masonic symbols at the time.

Another source said that the stone contained navigational symbols revealing the landing-coordinates for a UFO invasion. I looked into this too. You will be happy to know that this too, was a false claim.

It turns out that each of these interesting shapes actually represent a number—a whole integer. Almost all of the geometric symbols are deciphered by counting the sides of the shape displayed. Thus, the top row includes the numbers (from left to right) five [S9], ten [S10], and three [S11]. The second row has the numbers four [S12], six [S13], and eight [S14]. Finally, the third row contains row the numbers nine [S15], two [S16], and seven [S17]. When considering the numbers in each row, a distinct pattern emerges. The [S18] sum of each number (5, 10, and 3) added together in the first row is eighteen. [S19] The sum of the numbers in the second row (4, 6, and 8) is also eighteen, as is [S20] the sum of the numbers (9, 2, and 7) in the third row. The same pattern emerges when viewing the columns on the stone. [S21] The sum of the numbers in the first column (five, four, and nine [from top to bottom]) is also eighteen. [S22] The middle column (ten, six and two) also totals eighteen. And the same is true of the [S23] sum of the third column (three, eight and seven). Interestingly enough, the sum of the numbers added diagonally [S24], in either direction [S25], is eighteen as well. As such, the symbols create what was commonly known at the time as a mathematic magic square.

The “magic” of the Albany Crescent stone is how the symbolism of the mathematical magic square not only underscores the motto of “What e’er thou art, act well thy part,” but how it actually gives the phrase a deeper and more meaningful context. Consider how the square is only “magic” when the numbers are in the proper place or order and when the numeric values coordinate with each of the other values. If, for example, the numbers five and ten in the first row are exchanged, the square would no longer be considered magical and its overall integrity becomes flawed. Likewise, it would be impossible to replace the number five (or any number in the square) with any other numeric value and still maintain the magic. In short, the proper overall outcome is dependent upon each number “acting well its part” as it relates to the greater whole. Without the magical square symbolism, the phrase “What e’er thou art, act well thy part” still emphasizes the importance of fulfilling one’s role or duty. In other words, this phrase could be stated something like: “Whatever you are” or “Whatever you choose to do, do it well.” When linked with the magic square symbolism, however, this message takes on a new paradoxical twist. While individualism is still valued and emphasized, it is valued only within the context of its contribution to the success of the greater whole. This is paradoxical because both the individual and the group are emphasized at the same time. This is a symbiotic relationship at its best. Not only is the success of both parties dependent upon one another, but both aspects are necessarily defined by each other as well.

It is possible that this relationship was understood by David O. McKay as is evident from his musings and thoughts after seeing the stone. His experience with the stone’s message seemed to simmer in his mind and in his heart. As McKay and Johnston walked back to their apartment, McKay expressed personal lessons and applications that were forming within him. He thought about his days of playing football at the University of Utah and told his companion of a custodian and how this humble man helped with the football gear and even assisted the players with their homework. “He was unassuming, unostentatious” McKay said of the custodian, “But he did his duty well.” Upon reflection, McKay concluded, “I realized then that I had just as great a respect for that man as I had for any professor in whose class I had sat. He acted well his part.” It is important to point out that McKay was not only seeing the importance of a man who did his duty honorably but that he may well have been seeing the relationship between the custodian’s part, the professor’s part, the football team’s part, and how each was connected one to the other and all were connected with the greater whole—the university. You see, it doesn’t really matter what number you are, it matters how well you act your part.

McKay then reflected upon his “own part.” He thought of his activities prior to seeing the stone. He and his companion were sightseeing and even though he was impressed with the landscape, history and the courage of his Scottish heritage, he decided that his activity “was not missionary work.” He concluded: “Well, I am here as a missionary so I will act the part and be a good missionary!” Once again, however, it appears that McKay may have understood the greater context of the message. He said that as he was walking with Johnston he silently thought, “I thought about this motto, ‘What e’er Thou Art, Act Well thy Part,’ and took it as a direct message to me, and I said to myself, or the Spirit said to me, ‘You are a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; more than that—you are here in the Mission Field as a representative of the Church, and you are to act well your part as a missionary, and you get into the work with all your heart.” Obviously McKay could see the importance of being a good missionary, but he was also seeing how that related with a greater context—being a member of the Church. “I accepted the message given to me on that stone,” McKay reported, “and from that moment we tried to do our part as missionaries in Scotland.” Of this pledge, McKay’s son, David Lawrence McKay, said that his father’s rededication was done “completely and wholeheartedly.”

Nearly a year after this experience, McKay received a letter of encouragement from his sweetheart, Emma Ray Riggs, who counseled him to do his work well. Emma Ray’s phraseology apparently triggered a memory. In McKay’s response dated April 25, 1899, he reminisced on the experience he had in Stirling with the Allan stone. “As I again read your letter now before me, a warm feeling of appreciation of your encouraging words come over me; and your advice— ‘Do your work well’—will ever be remembered…It reminds me of a beautiful inscription carved over the door of one of the cottages in the east part of Stirling: ‘What e’er thou art, act well thy part.’ If one only chooses the good part and does his work well, success and happiness will certainly be his.”

The impact of the stone for McKay extended beyond his missionary service in Scotland. In later sermons, McKay spoke of the connection between the “parts” of our lives whether missionary, friend, family, neighbor, country, human race, and every creature. He often attributed his experience with the John Allan Albany Crescent stone, as the genesis—of sorts—to this understanding. “Remember this as a guideline in whatever position you are called to serve,” President McKay once taught in General Conference, ‘What e’er thou art, act well thy part.”


So, if you are ever filled with doubt about your future, what can/should you do? Have the confidence that “all things will work together for your good” by searching diligently, praying always, and being believing. You can impact your future by what you do today. So, find your part at this stage in your life, and go to work right now. The stone that inspired change to David O. McKay’s life continues to underscore our own need to walk uprightly, or, act well our part as we remember and keep our covenant to help others do the same. Please know that you are needed. I need you. And you actually need me. All the tens, three, fives, and sevens need you and you need them. In short, we need each other. And we need you to act well your part—whatever that may be. We need you to do your part now and in the future. So act well, for without you, there is no magic. Stiffen your resolve, straighten your back, and make strong those knees. This is what I wanted to tell that young man who wished I could predict his future.

I may not be very smart, and I understand that I am old so I will embrace a little more of Elder Holland’s remarks about giving advice. He said, “When you are young not all of life’s questions and difficulties have arisen yet, but they will arise, and unfortunately, for your generation, they will arise at a younger and younger age. The gospel of Jesus Christ marks the only sure and safe path.” A favorite quote of mine is from Corrie Ten Boom, a survivor of the awful atrocities heaped upon her in a concentration camp during World War II. She wrote, “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” I know God lives, that Jesus Christ is the only begotten of Him. Please come to know God so you may know how to move forward into the future with confidence. It is my prayer that you will search a little more diligently, pray always—not just when convenient or in urgent need, and that you will be more believing–that you will believe that Gods miraculous hand applies just as much to you and your affairs, as it does to everyone else. You Gotta Believe! I testify that our Father in Heaven wants “all things to work together for your good” and that He will help you (and others) in this quest. This will come to pass only as you “walk uprightly” and “remember the covenant ye have covenanted one with another.” So, stand a little taller; summon a little more courage; and act well your part. We are ALL counting on you.