Elder Joseph Anderson: ‘Life Is Good Because of the Gospel’
July 1983

“Elder Joseph Anderson: ‘Life Is Good Because of the Gospel’” Ensign, July 1983, 31

Elder Joseph Anderson:

“Life Is Good Because of the Gospel”

A sense of history surrounded the April 1970 general conference as the General Authorities gathered in the Salt Lake Temple to prepare for the Solemn Assembly which would sustain Joseph Fielding Smith as the tenth President of the Church. As Joseph Anderson sat down to take minutes, he reflected that President Smith was the fourth President of the Church he had served as secretary to the First Presidency, a post he had held since 1922. He considered all the Brethren his friends, and they loved him in turn—only a few months earlier, they had joined in a chorus of “Happy Birthday” to honor his eightieth birthday.1

The Brethren gathered in that meeting listened with anticipation, for a number of vacancies among the General Authorities were to be filled at the approaching conference. The First Presidency called a new member of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Boyd K. Packer, and then Joseph heard, to his amazement, his own name. The Lord had called him to serve as an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve. He looked up with surprise and wondered if he had heard right. All the Brethren were looking at him—the men whom he had felt it an honor to serve—and realized that he was now to be numbered with them. “Nothing was further from my mind,” he said later.2

For Elder Anderson, it was the crowning joy of a life of service that began 20 November 1889. Born in Salt Lake City, the youngest of eleven children, Joseph moved as a child with his family to Roy, Utah, a small farming community.3 Here, he grew up under the nurturing of a very spiritual mother, Isabella Watson Anderson. At his birth, she had wanted to name him after the Prophet Joseph Smith and started for the chapel with that intent, but out of modesty she settled for just “Joseph.”4

Young Joseph’s father, George Anderson, was a Scottish immigrant, a one-time coal miner who had become a section supervisor for the railroad that traversed Weber County.5 George was a quiet, impeccably honest man, Elder Anderson remembers, so the boy’s heritage was founded on principles of integrity and reverence that would serve him well in his career as secretary and confidant to Presidents of the Church.

Not far removed from the pioneer era, Joseph also learned early the value of working hard and paying his own way. As a child, he hired out to work in a tomato cannery in Roy during the fall months, spending much of the year herding cattle and staying up all night to irrigate the family farm. With his dog and horse, he became an expert cowboy at an early age, riding bareback and racing his friends on an old cowpony. Joseph survived many spills from his pony to graduate from a one-room school upon reaching the eighth grade. He learned his letters well and, when a young child, served as secretary of his ward Primary.6

An older brother and sister had been able to attend the University of Utah in Salt Lake; but since the family was too poor to send another, Joseph enrolled at Weber Academy (now Weber State College). At the Academy Joseph idolized his principal and English teacher, David O. McKay, “a handsome man, straight as an arrow, and a man of great personality” who disciplined his students by his bearing.

His teacher refused to let Joseph’s bashfulness keep him back: more than once he called on the young boy to pray or to diagram sentences on the blackboard in front of the huge class—a sweaty task, he recalls. His days at the Academy under David O. McKay influenced the rest of his life, as he studied English poetry and memorized parts of Sir Walter Scott’s “Lady of the Lake,” a Scottish classic beloved of Principal McKay, who had recently returned from the Scotland mission.7 Joseph’s love of words and his natural talent at shorthand, learned from a commercial course, later set him on his secretarial career.8

Encouraged by his teachers, Joseph went to work at age fifteen for an Ogden lumber company. (He was paid $15 a month, which amount he paid for room and board.) Despite his youth, he mastered the difficult Pitman shorthand, a method of speed writing involving shaded lines and geometric figures. The development of this skill was crucial to his self-confidence, and he resolved to be the best “shorthand writer” possible.9

Joseph knew that his salary arrangement with the lumber company would not serve his goals, so he headed for Salt Lake City before he was sixteen. Salt Lake merchants were not accustomed to teenagers expert at shorthand, typing, and office work, but Joseph soon made his way as an employee of the Consolidated Wagon and Machine Company at $25.00 a month. He was given the most unpleasant job in the company—bill collector—but his modest and charitable character made him a success, and he became secretary to the general manager of the company. Meanwhile, his shorthand improved rapidly, as his gruff but kindly boss started dictating to him the moment he entered the office. The friendly give-and-take between employer and employee was better than all the shorthand practice in the world.10

After six years of work in Salt Lake City, Joseph was called to the Swiss-German mission and departed in October 1911. Upon arriving in Zurich, Switzerland, he was overwhelmed at the task that faced him. “I was really quite concerned when I saw those big German sentences across the tops of the shops and so forth,” he recalls. “I wondered how I would ever learn that language.” But he absorbed German rapidly, thanks to “the gift of tongues”—along with much prayer, hard work, tracting, and studying. His companion taught him to speak a new sentence every day: first he learned to say, “Bitte lesen Sie dieses” (Please read this) as he handed tracts to German families. “I had more investigators come out to meetings before I could learn the language than afterwards, I think,” he reflected.11

Elder Anderson returned from the mission field in May 1914. It didn’t take long for him to find a new companion. Norma Ettie Peterson was the daughter of Hugo D. E. Peterson, editor of a Salt Lake newspaper for Swedish immigrants, the Utah Posten. “She was blonde and I was dark, and I thought she was the prettiest girl in the city,” says Elder Anderson, who courted her, swimming and dancing, at the old Saltair resort near the Great Salt Lake.12 They were married 11 November 1915, in the Salt Lake Temple. Salt Lakers were impressed by the striking couple: Norma Anderson, with her brilliant platinum-blond hair and dark eyes; and Joseph, his handsome black mustache reminding people, much to his delight, of the movie star Ronald Colman.

To support his new family, Joseph was employed at the Merchants Bank, then the Utah Fuel Company, but felt he was not progressing in his work. He wanted to get away from shorthand into some other job, he says, but “I made up my mind if I had to write shorthand all my life, I was going to get the best position of that kind that there was.”

For a number of years he pursued his goal of working for President Heber J. Grant, whom he had known and admired as a boy in the Salt Lake business community.13 It was not an easy pursuit. President Grant was a “rapid-fire speaker,” and few secretaries had been able to record his sermons in shorthand. Undaunted, Joseph sat in the audience during a Sunday talk in the Tabernacle to take down the President’s remarks. A little later he recorded another of President Grant’s talks given in the Assembly Hall, at the request of the President who had been impressed by Joseph’s minutes of the earlier talk. “He surely gave me the drilling of my life. He was a fast speaker.” Illustrations, stories, poetry, quotations went by “like a threshing machine.” Afterwards, Joseph felt a little dejected, but his wife encouraged him to go to the library and copy some of the President’s references and quotations.14

On 1 February 1922, Joseph Anderson became private secretary to President Grant, beginning an intimate association that would last twenty-three years. The firm, monumental figure beloved by the Church became Joseph’s personal friend. “Generosity,” replies Elder Anderson when asked which of President Grant’s qualities he remembers most. “I kept his accounts. I know of the many times he helped those in need, even paying off mortgages of widowed friends from his own pocket.”

President Grant was always ready to give. After an energetic conference talk in San Diego, the President invited Joseph to play golf with him. “I had never played golf, … but I couldn’t very well turn him down,” Elder Anderson reminisced. The President arranged for a lesson and a pail of golfballs to practice with, and then they played a number of holes. The next day in Los Angeles President Grant suffered a debilitating heart attack. On the way to the hospital, he whispered, “‘Joseph, you made some very good strokes yesterday.’ I said, ‘Yes, President, I’m afraid you’ve converted me. I will have to get some clubs and get busy.’ ‘Don’t you worry about the clubs,’ he said, ‘I’ll take care of that. I’ll buy them.’”15

Fortunately, the President recovered to live five more years, although his life was very much endangered. From his sickbed, he insisted that every well-wishing card and gift of flowers be acknowledged, and, though barely able to move his hand, signed his name to every response. “He was the kindest of men,” says Elder Anderson. A day or two before his death at 88, President Grant met with his faithful secretary for the last time. “‘Joseph, have I ever been unkind to you?’” he asked. His secretary was happy to be able to say, “You have never said an unkind word to me.”16

In 1922, George F. Gibbs stepped down as secretary to the First Presidency and Joseph took his place—the second man in the history of the Church to hold that position. He remained for nearly fifty years, handling the President’s vast correspondence as well as that of the First Presidency. During this time, he also served for twenty-two years on the Bonneville Stake high council, as a councilor in the Thirty-third ward bishopric, and in various priesthood-quorum presidencies in both the Thirty-third ward and the Douglas ward.

As secretary to the First Presidency, Elder Anderson enjoyed a close relationship with the Counselors. He remembers fondly the consideration of President Charles W. Nibley, Counselor to President Grant. Keeping up with President Grant’s active pace was not always easy for his secretary/driver. More than once, President Nibley suggested, “‘Heber, don’t you think you should leave Joseph at home with his family tomorrow?’”17 In this way Elder Anderson managed a little week-end respite from time to time.

In addition to his duties under the First Presidency, Joseph became clerk of the general conference. In the early years, he took down in shorthand the conference sermons and collected them for publication in the official Conference Report. “Even after … we commenced using the recording machines, I wrote them in shorthand.”18 Joseph did not want one inspired word to be lost, and enjoyed this assignment immensely. He also greatly enjoyed his service over the years as secretary to the Council of the First Presidency and the Twelve.

Joseph learned to respect and appreciate the example of the General Authorities, and many of them became his personal friends. “These men are not mediocre men: they are giants of the Lord,” he says, and he loves them all. He especially cherishes memories of his early associations with such men as Elder Rudger Clawson and Elder James E. Talmage. “In language, Elder Talmage was the most technical man in the world,” he recalls. “A great scholar, Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and member of the Webster Dictionary board. ‘Good morning. … How are you,’ he asked on one occasion, and I answered, ‘Pretty good.’ Dr. Talmage replied, ‘Brother Anderson, the Lord says there’s no one good save one!’ I should have said, ‘Very well, thank you.’”19 In his later years Elder Talmage was somewhat handicapped, and Joseph often helped carry him up the temple stairs to attend meetings. Many times, Elder Talmage would stay in his office overnight because of his difficulty in moving around: “He often called me up to his office to talk. … I think he got a little lonesome. If I was late … evenings, my wife knew … I was with Dr. Talmage.”20

Perhaps Elder Anderson’s closest friend in the high councils of the Church was President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Counselor to Presidents Grant, Smith, and McKay. “Seldom did a day pass that we weren’t together for hours,” he recalls. “He was like a father to me, and he often said he looked upon me as a son. … Too much can never be written nor told about the greatness and goodness of this man.” And President Clark’s opinion of Joseph was reciprocal: “I have well-nigh exhausted the good adjectives I know in trying to express to Joseph my appreciation for his work. Joseph is a humble but great soul. … I am more his debtor than I can ever repay in this life, and I must wait until Eternity to show him my gratitude, my respect, and my love.”21

His many personal experiences with the Brethren over the decades have endeared them to Elder Anderson. At the accession of President George Albert Smith in 1945, Joseph was asked to stay on as secretary to the First Presidency. He traveled widely with President Smith and learned that he was truly a “man of love.”22 He recalls that President Smith laid his own overcoat on a bale of clothing to be shipped to the Saints suffering in post-war Europe. Elder Anderson remembers going with him when he called on the presidents of the United States and Mexico. They kept former President Herbert Hoover waiting in the outer office while President Smith explained the Book of Mormon and bore his testimony to President Avila Camacho of Mexico.”23

For nineteen years following the death of President Smith, Joseph served in the administration of President David O. McKay. His boyhood teacher was now the leader of the Church. President and Sister Emma Ray Riggs McKay represented to Joseph the same great example of love for each other and the gospel that became legendary in the Church. “He was always loving, considerate, and courteous,” he remembers. When the Prophet was near death, Elder Anderson recalls visiting him in his apartment and finding him on the couch holding hands with his sweetheart. “I asked Sister McKay how she was, and she said, ‘I am all right, but I am concerned about my boy.’ I said, ‘He is still your boy, is he?’ She answered quickly, ‘He surely is.’ To this I said, ‘He is the best, is he not?’ and she answered, ‘Most certainly.’”24

Joseph felt great reverence for President McKay in nearly thirty years of serving him, and sensed the scope of Church activity broadening during his presidency. In these years of worldwide expansion, Joseph’s counsel was often sought by the First Presidency because of his long experience. His sound advice and expertise were put to good use in the business world as well. When unoccupied with Church affairs, he sat on the board of Deseret Book, serving forty years as secretary and treasurer.25 His files contain a handsome certificate awarded by the Encyclopaedia Britannica for his article on the Church, which he contributed as a spokesman for the First Presidency. In addition, he has devoted his talents to the directorship of a small sugar company and a railroad company where he served as vice-president.26 His efforts in these matters and his Church service have earned him recognition in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in Finance and Industry, and Who’s Who in Religion.

Soon after his call to serve as a General Authority, Elder Anderson continued his life-long work with Church records as Managing Director of the Church Historical Department. Under his leadership, the department expanded into a major research facility as well as a carefully organized repository for the vast archival holdings of the Church.

In 1977 Elder Anderson became a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy, and went into partial retirement two years later, at ninety years of age, with Emeritus status.

But Elder Anderson’s retirement is only partial. At the age of ninety-three, he still comes to his office at 50 East North Temple and looks down through a picture window at the bustling “Avenues” neighborhood of Salt Lake City. His office walls are clustered with photographs of former Presidents of the Church and Apostles—all with endearing inscriptions. His bookshelves are stacked to the ceiling with first editions of many gospel-related classics, including a copy of his own memoirs, Prophets I Have Known, published in 1973. Relaxed in his office chair, he looks slim and vigorous, and the force of his testimony is unabated.

“Life has been good,” he feels, “because of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Grateful for his health, he attributes his vigor and freedom from physical ailments to the blessings of the Lord and exercise. He still swims two or three times a week at the Deseret Gymnasium, continuing a practice of some eighty years, and takes long walks as he has always done. “Again, you can’t expect the Lord to do it all. Obedience to the laws of health will bring it.”

No one who has watched Elder Anderson at the pulpit doubts this. As he speaks, he strikes his fist for emphasis, his arm challenges the air, and his whole body brims with energy. His voice is sonorous and strong with testimony.

Conscious that many of his hearers need encouragement in the faith, he exhorts them lovingly. “Oh, don’t neglect it! Don’t neglect the saving powers of the gospel and miss entirely the greatest blessing of a lifetime.” His plea is reinforced by the sense that he is one of us, by the warm fellowship that brings his hearers up to his own level. There is no condescension in his voice—only a brotherly eagerness to spread the joy of his testimony.

Despite all his experience, he insists on his “ordinariness”. “I have never been a bishop, never presided over a stake or a mission,” he notes. In his first conference address in October 1970 he confessed himself “humbled by … inadequacy.” He was able to accept the call with serenity, however, because his eighty years had taught him how to “pay the price.” Elder Anderson draws confidence from a simple principle of the gospel: “When we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” (D&C 130:21.) He stresses his dependence on the Lord, with constant prayers that the Lord will “qualify” him to do the work, but he has no illusions about doing his part. “The price is the keeping of the commandments,” he affirms. “One cannot receive exaltation in the kingdom of our Heavenly Father at bargain prices.”

In his advanced years, Elder Anderson is a living testimony to the efficacy of this principle. His willingness to pay whatever price is asked for the blessings of the Lord has resulted in a life of what he has termed “sweet associations” and “beloved experiences.”27 He feels sorry for the many who choose to live in an empty shell without the “life-shaping purpose” of the gospel. “Life is largely worthless unless it is held together, given shape and form by some great purpose,” he has fervently told fellow Church members. “And there is no greater purpose than that of helping our fellowmen as well as ourselves to attain the glorious salvation which our Lord has promised.”28

His family has perhaps been most influenced by his selfless energy. He cherishes the smiling pictures of his three children, Bette, Joseph R., and Elaine, which hang on his office wall, and finds great enjoyment in his ten grandchildren and twenty-five great-grandchildren, who call him “Papa.” Sister Anderson, for twenty years a leader on the YWMIA General Board, is “a beautiful woman,” says her husband. Chronically ill for some years, Sister Anderson has received his patient and devoted care. “A very strong and elegant woman,” comes the tribute of her children.

Elder and Sister Anderson’s children recall with fondness the gentle home atmosphere their parents maintained: “Papa was never rigid, but always sweet and humble,” says one daughter. At a depressed point in her life, the other daughter remembers, an encouraging letter from her father changed her whole attitude. “He never says anything unkind, and knows how to get down and have fun with us.” In his nineties, he still exercises with his grandchildren.

Businessman, secretary to Presidents, and General Authority in the Lord’s Church—these callings have helped shape the distinction of Elder Joseph Anderson’s life. Above all, he is a gentleman, aglow with the spirit and purpose of the gospel, a selfless friend to all who know him. Disraeli wrote, “Life is a struggle, and old age a regret,” but in Elder Joseph Anderson, there are no regrets. The poor country boy who rode bareback over the hills of Roy, Utah, nearly a century ago still stands among us a shining witness to the peaceful fruit of life-long devotion to the purposes of his Father, and a testimony that eternal growth is eternal joy.


  1. Shari Lindsay, Oral history interview with Joseph Anderson, 28 Nov. 1975, Church Historical Department, Ms d 200, 252, p. 9.

  2. Davis Bitton, Oral history interview with Joseph Anderson, 12 Jan. 1973 and 16 Mar. 1973, Church Historical Department, Ms d 200, 229, p. 23.

  3. Lindsay, preface.

  4. Bitton, p. 9.

  5. Bitton, pp. 2, 9.

  6. Bitton, pp. 1–3.

  7. Ibid.

  8. Bitton, p. 3.

  9. Bitton, pp. 3–4.

  10. Bitton, pp. 4–5.

  11. Bitton, p. 33–34.

  12. Bitton, p. 8.

  13. Bitton, pp. 6–7.

  14. Bitton, p. 7.

  15. Lindsay, pp. 6–7.

  16. Joseph Anderson, Prophets I Have Known, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1973, p. 56.

  17. Anderson, p. 78.

  18. Bitton, p. 11.

  19. See Lindsay, pp. 12–13.

  20. Lindsay, p. 13.

  21. Anderson, pp. 88, 89.

  22. Lindsay, p. 1.

  23. Ibid.

  24. Anderson, p. 131.

  25. Bitton, p. 17.

  26. Bitton, pp. 17–18.

  27. Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, p. 56.

  28. Ensign, June 1971, p. 76.

  • Breck England, a high school teacher, is a counselor in the mission presidency, Bountiful Utah Central Stake.

Elder Anderson with a group of special photographs that reflect important moments in his remarkably long-spanned career: clockwise, beginning at the far left, President J. Reuben Clark, Jr.; Elder Anderson’s parents—George and Isabella Watson Anderson; the First Presidency of the mid-1960s—Hugh B. Brown, David O. McKay, and N. Eldon Tanner; and Elder Anderson’s wife, Norma Peterson Anderson. (Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten.)

A tour of the European missions in 1937: left to right, Octave Ursenbach, a European mission president; Hugh B. Brown, president of the England Mission; Joseph Anderson; Elder Richard R. Lyman; President Heber J. Grant; a young European member; Sister Ursenbach.

In the late 1940s, Joseph Anderson (on the far right) accompanied President George Albert Smith (center) on a visit to the president of Mexico. While there, they met former United States President Herbert Hoover (to President Smith’s left).