How a Missionary’s Former Investigator Became His Mission President—and Lifelong Friend

Contributed By Jason Swensen, Church News associate editor

  • 7 February 2019

Marshall Islands/Kiribati Mission President John Larkin, left, was recently reunited with one of the missionaries who taught him the gospel decades earlier, Elder Laddie Stewart. Elder Stewart and his wife, Sister Lori Stewart, have been assigned as senior missionaries to President Larkin’s mission.  Photo courtesy of the Pacific Area.

Article Highlights

  • Elder Laddie Stewart serves as a missionary in the mission now led by his former investigator, John Larkin.
  • Elder Stewart and President Larkin consider their friendship as divinely inspired.

“I felt entirely overwhelmed with emotions and said, ‘I get to work with John—I’ll have to call him President Larkin.’” —Elder Laddie Stewart, senior missionary in the Marshall Islands/Kiribati Mission

At this moment a missionary is knocking on the door of a would-be investigator.

A few possible outcomes:

  • Man opens his door. Missionary and his companion offer to share a gospel message. Man declines and shuts the door.
  • Woman opens her door and invites the missionary and her companion to sit down for a few minutes. Soon the missionaries are teaching about God’s love for His children. They agree to meet again.
  • Man opens his door. He’s hoping to find answers to a few questions about the Church. Missionary introduces himself then shakes the hand of the man who will one day be his mission president.

Anyone who has served a proselytizing mission likely recognizes the first two scenarios.

The third outcome? Highly unlikely—and seemingly impossible. But for senior missionary Elder Laddie Stewart and his one-time-investigator-turned-mission president, President John Larkin, it’s a priceless reality.

In the early weeks of 1983, 19-year-old Elder Stewart and his companion, Elder Michael Bouy, were serving in Melbourne, Australia, when they followed up on a member referral.

They located the address and knocked on the door. John Larkin answered and invited them in. He had discussed the Church with a Latter-day Saint friend and eagerly began asking the missionaries question after question. Elder Stewart and Elder Bouy couldn't answer all his queries—but their teachings and testimonies soon took hold.

“I was deeply touched by their humility, their genuine concern, and their passion for the gospel—and I later realized that the greatest influence during the lessons was the Spirit of the Lord,” wrote President Larkin in an email to the Church News. “I always felt good when the missionaries were in my home, and I always looked forward to their next visit.”

(He also remembers sweetening their frequent visits with generous slices of apple pie.)

This photo from 1983 includes Elder Laddie Stewart, left, and his investigator John Larkin. Larkin was baptized and is now serving as Elder Stewart’s mission president in the Marshall Islands/Kiribati Mission.

Elder Stewart and his companion challenged their inquisitive investigator to find answers and guidance through prayer. Personal revelation, they taught, would become his trusted friend.

John accepted their invitations and was soon preparing for baptism.

“The whole process took about a month from our first meeting to baptizing him,” said Elder Stewart. “The member lessons were just a spiritual feast. [John] was so energetic that he had us teach a friend who joined the Church a month later.”

Even as a young missionary, Elder Stewart knew John Larkin “was going to do great things.”

The new convert initially hoped he could serve a full-time mission. But at 29, he was too old. So, he instead accepted a calling to teach institute. He also became a husband and later a father. He and his wife, Robyn, are the parents of six children.

“Looking back, I can see that teaching institute was my mission for gaining a deeper knowledge of the gospel,” he said.

In 1988, “Brother” Larkin became “Bishop” Larkin. He would later serve in a stake presidency and presided over the Canberra Australia Stake for nine years.

Meanwhile, young Elder Stewart returned home to Arizona, attended college, began his career in education, married his wife, Lori, and started a family of his own.

Then, “out of the blue,” he said, the phone rang. He immediately recognized the Australian accent on the other end of the line.

“John reached out to me and said he was coming to the States on a business trip and would like to reunite and visit,” said Elder Stewart. “I was beyond thrilled to see one of my converts doing so well.”

Additional visits to the United States would follow, and the two growing families gathered together whenever possible.

In 2016, President Larkin was called to preside over the Marshall Islands/Kiribati Mission. Half a world away, his friend Laddie marveled that the curious investigator who once filled their missionary discussions with gospel questions and apple pie would now be leading young missionaries.

Elder and Sister Stewart themselves had set a goal to serve a full-time mission together. Following his retirement last year from Mesa Public Schools, the Stewarts requested a senior missionary assignment with the Church’s International Teaching Education Program.

Soon a mission call to the Marshall Islands/Kiribati Mission arrived.

“I felt entirely overwhelmed with emotions and said, ‘I get to work with John—I’ll have to call him President Larkin,’” he said.

Welcoming the Stewarts to the mission field marked an unforgettable moment for President Larkin.

“I count serving alongside Elder Stewart on a mission as a highlight of our 36-year friendship,” he said. “His humility and kind nature continues to touch my heart.”

Elder and Sister Stewart have been in the mission field for just a few weeks, he added, “and already their love for the people and love for the gospel of Jesus Christ is touching the hearts of many others.”

Both men agree there are no coincidences in life. Elder Stewart references Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who taught that hindsight allows people to “connect the dots” of their own divinely guided lives.

“Going on a mission when I was 19 years old was a dot. Meeting and teaching John was another. … Now, getting to serve with him is a milestone-sized dot. I am honored and filled with joy.”

Sister Lori Stewart and her husband, Elder Laddie Stewart, outside the New Zealand Missionary Training Center prior to reporting to the Marshall Islands/Kiribati Mission. The Stewarts’ mission president, President John Larkin, was once Elder Stewart’s investigator in Australia.