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Church presidents have shown the way

Drawing upon the lives and examples of nine of his predecessors, President Thomas S. Monson spoke to BYU students and faculty on Sept. 15 concerning "Principles from Prophets."

President Monson, 16th president of the Church, explained that recently while in a room in the Salt Lake Temple where the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve meet once each week, his gaze was drawn to portraits of presidents of the Church, from Joseph Smith through Gordon B. Hinckley.

"I thought, 'We have had great presidents of this Church. Each one has guided us; his writings have stimulated us; his messages have inspired us. To show us the way, we have those whom the Lord has provided.' "

President Monson then spoke of Church presidents he has known: President Heber J. Grant, President George Albert Smith, President David O. McKay, President Joseph Fielding Smith, President Harold B. Lee, President Spencer W. Kimball, President Ezra Taft Benson, President Howard W. Hunter and President Gordon B. Hinckley.

President Monson shared some personal glimpses of each of these presidents, including the lengths of tenure; highlights of their administrations; teachings; their favorite songs, foods, scriptures and quotations; and traits.

Heber J. Grant, ordained and set apart as President of the Church Nov. 23, 1918, at age 62; died May 14, 1945, at age 88.

President Monson said that President Grant presided during a time when there was tremendous change in the world, including the financial challenges of the Great Depression. "He assisted in the development of the Welfare Program of the Church and helped the members cope with the tragedy of World War II," President Monson said.

He described President Grant as a persistent person, as illustrated when young Heber practiced long hours to learn how to throw a baseball and developed beautiful penmanship through extensive practice.

Interesting facts: a favorite song, "Do What Is Right"; favorite food, bread and milk; favorite quotation, "That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do; not that the nature of the thing has changed, but our capacity to do has increased."

A trait of President Grant was persistence, President Monson said. "Persist in all those things which are good and noble."

George Albert Smith, ordained and set apart as President of the Church May 21, 1945, at age 75, died April 4, 1951, at age 81.

"He was president of the Church when I served as a bishop, and he signed my bishop's certificate," President Monson said.

"I believe one of President Smith's most noble accomplishments was after World War II. Starvation was rampant in Germany and in other nations of Europe. President Smith met with United States President Harry Truman and said, 'We'd like to send welfare supplies to the starving people of Europe, but the bureaucracy and the red tape in postwar Europe are keeping us from doing so.'

"President Truman heard his plea and opened the way. He asked, 'How many months will it take for you to assemble your supplies?'

"President Smith replied, 'President Truman, they're already assembled. All you need do is say go, and they'll be rolling within 24 hours.' President Truman was taken aback by this slender man who spoke rather softly but, oh, could he move things along. The supplies were sent, and Elder Ezra Taft Benson was also sent to oversee their distribution. Lives were saved as a result."

In speaking of President Smith's compassionate heart, President Monson related the incident in which the Church leader gave his coat to a man who was working in very cold weather on the street near the Church Administration Building.

A capacity crowd of BYU students joins in singing an opening hymn during the BYU devotional Sept. 15, at which President Thomas S. Monson was the featured speaker.
A capacity crowd of BYU students joins in singing an opening hymn during the BYU devotional Sept. 15, at which President Thomas S. Monson was the featured speaker. Photo: Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

Interesting facts: President Smith's favorite song, "Let Us Oft Speak Kind Words"; favorite food, apple pie with a little warm milk on it; favorite statement, "There's a great tug-of-war going on between the Lord and the adversary. Stay safely on the Lord's side of the line."

President Monson said, "A trait of President Smith's, which he would no doubt encourage us to incorporate in our lives, would be compassion."

David O. McKay, ordained and set apart as President of the Church April 9, 1951, at age 77; died Jan. 18, 1970, at age 96.

In October 1963, President McKay extended to Thomas S. Monson the call to serve as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve.

"As I sat there in his office, he had me pull my chair up very close to him, and he put his hand on my knee," President Monson recounted. "His eyes penetrated to my very soul. I will simply say this much about a very sacred experience, which I don't share often. He said, 'Brother Monson, the Lord has called you to the apostleship. You will become the newest member of the Council of the Twelve.' We both wept a little bit. I later wept a lot more when I realized the extent of my responsibilities.

"President McKay was a man of many attributes, but one which stands out is that of consideration. He was always considerate of others."

Interesting facts: President McKay's favorite song, "O Say, What is Truth?"; favorite food, Cummings chocolates; a favorite expression, "True Christianity is love in action."

"Again," said President Monson, the noble principle from President McKay that I would share with you today is consideration. May we ever be considerate."

Joseph Fielding Smith, ordained and set apart on Jan. 23, 1970, at age 93; died July 2, 1972, at age 95.

"As one of the Church's most prolific writers, President Smith's numerous books and articles helped educate generations of Latter-day Saints concerning the history and doctrine of the Church," President Monson said. "He was direct in his teaching of adherence to gospel principles, and yet he was particularly tender in his attitude toward those who fell short."

Interesting facts: a favorite song, "Prayer is the Soul's Sincere Desire"; a favorite food, sweet pickles; a favorite quotation, 'Wickedness never was happiness" (Alma 41:10).

President Thomas S. Monson, left, shares a jovial moment with BYU President Cecil O. Samuelson prior to President Monson's devotional address.
President Thomas S. Monson, left, shares a jovial moment with BYU President Cecil O. Samuelson prior to President Monson's devotional address. Photo: Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

"What would be his guiding principle for us? It would be gospel scholarship," President Monson said. "He was truly a scholar. I believe we could say that he would leave for you and for me this advice: Be studious."

Harold B. Lee, ordained and set apart as President of the Church July 7, 1972, at age 73; died Dec. 26, 1973, at age 74.

President Monson spoke of how President Lee directed a religion writer's focus from controversial aspects to the Church's welfare and educational programs. George Cornell, senior writer of religion for The Associated Press, "began to take notes and, as a result, almost a full-page story from The Associated Press described our educational effort and our welfare program. No mention whatsoever was made of the controversial subjects of that time. This was the persuasive ability of Harold B. Lee."

He said President Lee also took time to teach. "On one occasion, our oldest son had a tumor in his leg, and we were naturally very worried, as were the doctors. Our son was in the hospital to have surgery, which could possibly lead to the amputation of his leg. Brother Lee had been my stake president as a boy, so I asked him if he would join me in giving a blessing to our son. He consented, and as we met at the hospital one evening after work, he stopped me before we went up the stairway and said, 'Tom, there is nowhere in the world I would rather be, and there is nothing that I would rather be doing than standing by your side in giving a priesthood blessing to your son.' The operation was successful; the tumor was benign. I shall ever be indebted to Harold B. Lee for being where the Lord needed him to be at a particular time."

Interesting facts: a favorite song, "Praise to the Man"; a favorite food, bread and milk; a favorite quotation, "Stand ye in holy places, and be not moved" (Doctrine and Covenants 87:8).

"What would be a guiding principle from him? I would say he would encourage us to be in tune with and to be responsive to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit."

Spencer W. Kimball, ordained and set apart as president of the Church Dec. 30, 1973, at age 78; died Nov. 5, 1985, at age 90.

"For President Kimball, obstacles became his opportunities," President Monson said. "He was totally dedicated, a worker such as one seldom sees. He cared not at all about personal aggrandizement."

President Monson described having noticed that one of President Kimball's shoes had a large hole in it and said to the prophet's secretary, Arthur Haycock, "You can't let the President wear those shoes." Brother Haycock said that he frequently hid those shoes, but President Kimball searched for and found that particular pair most of the time.

"President Kimball was known for his statement, 'My life is like my shoes — to be worn out in the service of the Lord.'

"President Kimball was totally, completely, unequivocally dedicated to the Lord. He was dedicated to living the gospel."

Interesting facts: a favorite song, "I Need Thee Every Hour," which, President Monson said, demonstrates his humility; a favorite food, date-nut bread crumbled into a glass of milk; a favorite quotation or a lesson from him, "Lengthen your stride."

President Monson said he believed a guiding principle from his life would be dedication.

President Thomas S. Monson addresses BYU devotional assembly.
President Thomas S. Monson addresses BYU devotional assembly. Photo: Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

Ezra Taft Benson, ordained and set apart as president on Nov. 10, 1985, at age 86; died May 30, 1994, at age 94.

"President Benson was the only President of the Church to have received the honor of 'Most Preferred Man' at BYU when he was a student here," President Monson said.

He spoke of President Benson's early apostolic years when he was called by President George Albert Smith to fill a special mission to war-torn Europe. "The magnitude of his call was overwhelming," President Monson said. "For ten-and-one-half months President Benson labored night and day, blessing the members of the Church in Europe who had suffered through years of war, giving them nourishment for their bodies and everlasting hope for their souls. From the chaos of war came Saints — scattered, battered, and very much in need. To them came Ezra Taft Benson, with his superb organizational skills and with the inspiration of Almighty God.

"Through the inspired welfare program of the Church, hundreds of tons of lifesaving food and clothing were transported across the vast Atlantic Ocean and, under the direction of this gifted leader, distributed to the hungry, the cold, the homeless.

Interesting facts: favorite song, "How Great Thou Art"; favorite food, fresh raspberries; favorite quotation, words spoken by the Lord: "What manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am" (3 Nephi 27:27).

A guiding principle from President Benson, President Monson said, was love. "The manner in which he treated his sweet companion and, indeed, all with whom he came in contact, provides an example for all of us. Let us love one another."

"What a personally satisfying and spiritually rewarding experience it was for me to serve as one of President Benson's counselors in the First Presidency of the Church."

Howard W. Hunter, ordained and set apart on June 5, 1994, at age 86; died March 3, 1995, at age 87.

President Thomas S. Monson, accompanied by Elder Russell M. Nelson, shared meaningful personal glimpses of nine presidents he has known.
President Thomas S. Monson, accompanied by Elder Russell M. Nelson, shared meaningful personal glimpses of nine presidents he has known. Photo: Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

President Monson served as second counselor to President Hunter.

"One of President Hunter's hallmarks was that of courtesy," President Monson said. "Whether in a moment of pleasant conversation or in times of constant pain, he was ever courteous."

Interesting facts: a favorite hymn, "Have I Done Any Good in the World Today?"; a favorite food, Alaskan crab; a favorite scripture, "Let another man praise thee … and not thine own lips" (Proverbs 27:2).

"What would be a guiding principle from President Hunter's life? I believe it would be his ability always to look for the best in people — such an important quality to emulate."

Gordon B. Hinckley, ordained and set apart as president of the Church on March 12, 1995, at age 84; died Jan. 27, 2008, at age 97.

"Two years after he was ordained a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1961, I joined him in that quorum, and we sat side by side for most of the next 44 years," President Monson said. "We had known each other for many years prior to our calls to the Twelve. He was a choice and beloved friend, as well as a trusted and respected colleague.

"President Hinckley is the president of the Church most of you remember best, for he was president during much of the time you were growing to young adulthood. He was a kind man who taught and who lived tolerance, never disparaging another person's beliefs."

He described President Hinckley as a wordsmith, well-read and a scholar, who could put words and phrases together in such a way that it was a pleasure to listen to his messages.

"As many of you know, each Thursday morning the members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles have a meeting in the Salt Lake Temple," President Monson said. "We are driven in carts underground from the Church Office parking lot to the temple. During the cold winter months, President Hinckley always wore a coat and a hat during the brief ride. As our cart passed under Main Street, President Hinckley knew that we were within the confines of the temple, rather than under the street and, without a word, would remove his hat and place it in his lap. He seemed to know instinctively when that moment arrived. It was such a simple yet profound expression of reverence and respect for the House of the Lord, and it made a deep impression on me."

President Thomas S. Monson shares memories and teachings of the presidents of the Church he has known with BYU students who fill the Marriott Center. The Church president typically addresses students at the beginning of each school year.
President Thomas S. Monson shares memories and teachings of the presidents of the Church he has known with BYU students who fill the Marriott Center. The Church president typically addresses students at the beginning of each school year. Photo: Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

Interesting facts: a favorite hymn, "God of Our Fathers, Known of Old"; a favorite dessert, pie and ice cream.

"He loved the Prophet Joseph Smith; he loved the Savior," President Monson said. "A favorite quotation was taken from the words of the Prophet Joseph concerning the Savior: 'And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father" (Doctrine and Covenants 76:22-23).

"What would be a guiding principle from President Hinckley's life? It is one which we would all do well to follow: Do your best."

In concluding his address, President Monson asked, "What can we learn from the presidents whom I have known and about whom I have visited with you today?" He then answered, "We can learn that they never wavered, never faltered, never failed; that they are men of God.

"May we be persistent in those things which are good and noble. May we ever stay safely on the Lord's side of the line. May we be considerate, studious and responsive to the whisperings of the Holy Spirit. May we be dedicated to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. May we love one another and always look for the best in people. May we do our best in all that we do.

"God bless you my dear young friends. Remember that there is another Whom you can follow — even the Lord Jesus Christ. He said, 'Come, follow me.' Let us follow Him. He has sent presidents of the Church whom we can have as a guide and whom we can follow. He Himself extended that kind, generous, personal invitation when He said, 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him' (Revelation 3:20).

"As the 16th president of the Church, my story is yet to be summarized by those who will follow. In the meantime, I pledge my life, my strength — all that I have to offer — in serving the Lord and in directing the affairs of His Church in accordance with His will and by His inspiration."

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