The Parable of Two Lamps

Elder James E. Talmage

Elder James E. Talmage

Among the material things of the past,—things that I treasure for sweet memory’s sake and because of pleasant association in by-gone days,—is a lamp. It is of the Argand type, commonly known in the day of its popularity as the “student’s lamp,” so named in acknowledgment of its particular and peculiar suitability for the reader’s table. Lamps of this kind were among the best in the long-ago. A very few years divide the long-ago from the present as measured in terms of improvement and progress. In the long-ago of which I speak, illuminating gas was known only in large cities or in pretentious towns with a history; and electric light in dwellings was a rare novelty. Candles and oil lamps were the only common means of domestic illumination.

The lamp of which I speak, the student lamp of my school and college days, was one of the best of its kind. I had bought it with hard-earned savings; it was counted among my most cherished possessions. That type of lamp was provided with a small hollow wick, and had a straight cylindrical chimney, with a constriction near the base, where an enlargement adapted it to the burner. It was constructed in accordance with the best scientific knowledge of the day. Its tubular wick, less than a fingerbreadth in diameter, with efficient air-inlet at the bottom, insured fairly complete combustion with a minimum loss of energy through useless generation of heat. The oil reservoir was supported on an upright standard, removed by several inches from the place of combustion; and, in consequence, the holder cast no shadow upon the printed page or writing tablet, provided, of course, the lamp was properly placed.

I took good care of my lamp. I had in it a pride such as the horseman feels in his favorite mount. He likes personally to groom and feed his steed, and so I allowed none but myself to trim the wick, burnish the chimney, and fill the reservoir of my lamp. When brightly burning, with its deep-green opaque shade, brilliantly deflecting and reflecting beneath, it diffused a wholly satisfactory illumination upon my page; and, as I kept vigil night after night, through the late and early hours, my lamp came to be more than a mere physical illuminant-it was a sympathetic companion, an inspiration to spiritual enlightenment. You who have been in stress and strife, you who have had to wrestle with difficulty and contend with seeming fate, you who have been blessed through all such taxing strain with a never-failing friend, an ever-present and ever-ready companion,—you may know somewhat of the affection I felt and feel for my faithful lamp.

Compared with waxen candle and ordinary oil-burning lamps it was of high efficiency. What matters it today that such a lamp is counted dim? It was the best I knew; it was excellent in its time. Do you ask how much light it gave? I can answer your query with precision, for as early as that time, in the long-ago, I was a student of science: and I had tested my lamp according to the laws of photometry in the improvised laboratory I had contrived. The light was of about twelve candle power, in terms of the generally recognized and standardized rating. It was brilliant in that period, in the long-ago, remember.

One summer evening I sat musing studiously and withal restfully in the open air, outside the door of the room in which I lodged and studied. A stranger approached. I noticed that he carried a satchel. He was affable and entertaining. I brought another chair from within, and we chatted together till the twilight had deepened into dusk, the dusk into darkness.

Then he said: “You are a student, and doubtless have much work to do of nights. What kind of lamp do you use?” And without waiting for a reply, he continued; “I have a superior kind of lamp I should like to show you, a lamp designed and constructed according to the latest achievements of applied science, far surpassing anything heretofore produced as a means of artificial lighting.”

I replied with confidence, and I confess, not without some exultation: “My friend, I have a lamp, one that has been tested and proved. It has been to me a companion and a friend through many a long night. It is an Argand lamp, and one of the best. I have trimmed and cleaned it today; it is ready for the lighting. Step inside; I will show you my lamp, then you may tell me whether yours can possibly be better.”

We entered my study room, and with a feeling which I assume is akin to that of the athlete about to enter a contest with one whom he regards as a pitiably inferior opponent, I put the match to my well-trimmed Argand.

My visitor was voluble in his praise. It was the best lamp of its kind he said. He averred that he had never seen a lamp in better trim. He turned the wick up and down, and pronounced the adjustment perfect. He declared that never before had he realized how satisfactory a “student lamp” could be.

I liked the man; he seemed to me wise, and he assuredly was ingratiating. “Love me, love my lamp,” I thought, mentally paraphrasing a common expression of the period.

“Now,” said he, “with your permission I’ll light my lamp.” He took from his satchel a lamp then known as the “Rochester.” It had a chimney which, compared with mine was as a factory some-stack alongside a house flue. Its hollow wick was wide enough to admit my four fingers. Its light made bright the remotest corner of my room. In its brilliant blaze my own little Argand wick burned a weak, pale yellow. Until that moment of convincing demonstration I had never known the dim obscurity in which I had lived and labored, studied and struggled.

“I’ll buy your lamp,” said I; “you need neither explain, nor argue further.” I took my new acquisition to the laboratory that same night, and determined its capacity. It burned at over forty-eight candle power-fully four times the intensity of my “student lamp.”

Two days after purchasing, I met the lamp-peddler on the street, about noon-time. To my inquiry he replied that business was good; the demand for his lamps was greater than the factory supply. “But,” said I, “you are not working today?” His rejoinder was a lesson. “Do you think that I would be so foolish as to go around trying to sell lamps in the day-time? Would you have bought one if I had lighted it for you when the sun was shining? I chose the time to show the superiority of my lamp over yours; and you were eager to own the better one I offered, were you not?.”

Such is the story. Now consider the application of a part, a very small part, thereof.

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, which is in heaven.”

The man who would sell me a lamp did not disparage mine. He placed his greater light alongside my feebler flame, and I hasted to obtain the better.

The missionary servants of the Church of Jesus Christ today are sent forth, not to assail nor ridicule the beliefs of men, but to set before the world a superior light, by which the smoky dimness of the flickering flames of man-made creeds shall be apparent. The work of the Church is constructive, not destructive.

As to the further meaning of the parable, let him that hath eyes and a heart see and understand. (James E. Talmage, The Parables of James E. Talmage [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1973], 5.)

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About LDS Scripture Teachings

I write about ways scripture applies in our lives: LDSScriptureTeachings.org
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One Response to The Parable of Two Lamps

  1. Pingback: Trading in a dollar for five dollars | LDS Scripture Teachings

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