Mark E. Petersen—A Giant among Men

“Mark E. Petersen—A Giant among Men,” Ensign, Mar. 1984, 6

Mark E. Petersen—

A Giant among Men

“Here and there, and now and then, God makes a giant among men.” Such a giant among men was Elder Mark E. Petersen, a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, who passed away 11 January 1984. He personified righteousness, he exemplified industry, he demonstrated love. How he will be missed in mortality!

Elder Thomas S. Monson

Photography by Eldon Linschoten

Few men are given the opportunity to influence the Church in the manner Elder Mark E. Petersen influenced it for nearly forty years as one of the Lord’s special witnesses.

His was a pen of spiritual power. Mark Petersen combined an insightful mind with a faith-filled heart to work wonders with his words. His style was distinctively his own. The many years he worked as a reporter and editor showed in the crispness of his sentences, the probing and succinct questions which punctuated his messages, and the conclusions of his appeals which invariably penetrated the heart of the reader and prompted a determination to come closer to Christ.

With rare exceptions, he has written every editorial for the Church News during its fifty-three years. This publication is now distributed around the world. During World War II, for over four years he personally did almost all the writing and editing for a twelve-page monthly servicemen’s Church News.

The persuasive style of Mark Petersen’s pen is readily identified in the widely used missionary tracts entitled Which Church Is Right? and After Baptism, What? Who can determine the multitude of converts to the Church who readily acknowledge the impact for good these messages have had in their lives?

Significant and characteristic it is that the author’s name does not appear on the pamphlet After Baptism, What? It was only through “friendly persuasion” that the name of Mark E. Petersen appears in Which Church Is Right? Only the thought that many would wish to know the source of the overwhelming evidence discussed in this message persuaded the author to depart from his traditional preference for anonymity.

During his service in the Council of the Twelve, Elder Petersen has authored more than forty books, primarily on gospel themes—one for each year he served. In addition, he, with his beloved wife Emma Marr Petersen, coauthored a number of titles which found popular appeal and wide distribution. To this array could be added dozens of pamphlets, scores of articles, and hundreds of messages, all written to foster faith.

To match the persuasion of his written words, Mark E. Petersen was endowed with a rich and resonant baritone voice with which he proclaimed the word of God at home and abroad all the days of his life. He was a man of courage, a man of faith, a man of ability, a man of service, a man of love, a man of God. Indeed, Mark E. Petersen was “a man for all seasons.”

His preparation came in the home of quiet, frugal, hard-working parents, both of whom had been born in Denmark and who came to America in the first century of the Church in compliance with the call to come and build Zion. Mark’s father, Christian Petersen, came as a youth with his parents; his mother, Christine Anderson, came at age sixteen with a brother. In time, the two met, married, and reared five children: two daughters and three sons, Mark being the youngest son, with Christian Petersen, Jr., and Claude B. Petersen his brothers, and Mrs. Frank H. (Mona) Smith (Mark’s twin) and Mrs. Cortland P. (Phoebe) Starr his two sisters.

The family lived in a humble home located across the street from the present Welfare Square in Salt Lake City. Later, when Mark was sixteen, the family moved to a new home built by father and sons. His father, a carpenter and builder, worked with his boys, teaching them skills that Mark loved throughout his life.

Mark mentioned to several of his associates in the Twelve that he, as a boy, sang the song written by Evan Stephens, “I Am a Mormon Boy.” He often quoted the words:

A “Mormon” boy, a “Mormon” boy,

I am a “Mormon” boy;

I might be envied by a king,

For I am a “Mormon” boy.

My father was a “Mormon” true,

And when I am a man,

I want to be like him and do

Just all the good I can.

Mark revealed that his father was his Sunday School teacher and, a little later, the instructor of the deacons quorum of which Mark was a member. He then confided, “I used to honor him as I sang this song. I also remembered my Heavenly Father, and the command which the Savior gave us to strive to become like Him. Then, as I would sing this song, not only would I have gratitude for my earthly father but for my Heavenly Father also, and I would sing, ‘I want to be like him and do just all the good I can.’”

Our Heavenly Father must have heard that prayer, voiced in song by Mark the boy, for he most certainly honored Mark the man.

Once, when Mark was about ten, Elder Heber J. Grant of the Council of the Twelve spoke in sacrament meeting in Mark’s ward. So impressed was young Mark by Elder Grant’s words about the Book of Mormon and about the young boy Nephi that he took his father’s Book of Mormon and read for himself the story of Nephi. Mark said that his deep love for the Book of Mormon began with that experience.

During his youth, Mark served in priesthood and auxiliary callings, helped his father build, and then became a newspaper carrier—a harbinger of a career which took him to the pinnacle of professional journalism.

After graduation from high school, Mark entered the University of Utah “to be an engineer. My father built homes—but he wanted to build bigger things, and so he decided that I would be an engineer and plan the things he would build. It was not to be; I decided to be a teacher of English and history.”

A teacher, then, he would be—but a teacher of a different sort. Two months after his nineteenth birthday, he set out on his first major teaching assignment, that of a missionary to Canada, where he served in Nova Scotia. Many years later, in August of 1960, Mark took special delight and personal pride in receiving the assignment to preside at the creation of the first stake in Eastern Canada—the Toronto Stake. This was the 300th stake of the Church and a benchmark for growth. More than 94 percent of the stake membership attended the organizational meetings. The members were pleased that a Canadian missionary had returned home for such an historic event.

The highlight of his post-mission life was accepting a call to serve as ward chorister. The choir accompanist was a gifted, vivacious, dark-haired girl named Emma Marr McDonald, whose family roots went back to Scotland.

The ward choir romance blossomed and was, said President Gordon B. Hinckley, who was a youth in the ward at the time, “an ideal for all of us young men and women who knew them and observed them.”

A little over a year after he returned from his mission, Mark and Emma Marr were married in the Salt Lake Temple, 30 August 1923, making him, as he once observed, “an American by birth, Scandinavian by ancestry, and Scottish by marriage.”

During this period, Mark served not only as ward choir leader, but also as a member of the ward Sunday School superintendency.

But he was not satisfied with his life’s employment. He worked as a bookkeeper for a period and then as a checker of railroad cars, at one point working in Lynndyl, some ninety miles southwest of Salt Lake City. Mark’s natural interest in people and in events of importance to the community and world, and an inner feeling that he could work with words, prompted him to make a change in his career.

One day, he appeared at the desk of the city editor of the Deseret News, asking if there might be an opening. He stood there, six feet tall, slender of build, displaying a shy smile. There was no opening. However, this did not deter Mark. “Nearly every afternoon,” some say, twenty-three-year-old Mark stopped to ask the same question: “Do you have an opening yet?”

Then one afternoon, about six months later, the city editor replied differently. The young woman who had covered the Church Office beat was leaving. The salary was $90 a month. If he wanted the job, he could have it. It was both a joyful and a painful moment; $90 a month was less than he made checking railroad cars. But as Elder Petersen said later, “I wanted to be a newspaperman more than anything else in the world.”

From that modest beginning, he became a reporter, then copy reader, news editor, managing editor, and editor. He became general manager in 1941, and later president of the company and chairman of its board of directors.

Among the Deseret News family, Mark E. Petersen became a living legend. He shunned publicity even to the point of forbidding his picture to appear in the newspaper he published. In part this was due to his natural modesty, but also it was in keeping with a personal philosophy which precluded using the columns for which he was responsible for his own self-aggrandizement. He insisted that all staffers, both young and old, call him by his given name, Mark. There was no distinction of age, wealth, or position. All were part of Mark Petersen’s extended family.

It was Mark Petersen who guided the Deseret News into the ranks of metropolitan newspapers and who was instrumental in the formation of the Newspaper Agency Corporation, which enhanced the quality and increased the circulation of the newspapers of Salt Lake City and became a model for similar agency operations in other cities. He was a pioneer by the Webster definition: “One who goes before, showing others the way to follow.”

Tender are the accounts of his visits to the homes of employees. Frequently, he left behind a gift: perhaps a turkey, a carton of apples, or an autographed book. Always he left a gift of love, an expression of friendship, and a word of encouragement.

When a staff member was hospitalized, Mark was the first to his bedside. When one died, it was Mark who brought comfort to the family. Invariably he was invited to speak at the funeral service.

To the end of his life, Mark visited the homes of retired staffers. He could be seen escorting them to musical or dramatic events in the city. Frequently, he would take for a drive the housebound and the ill. Ever concerned, always helpful, is it any wonder that the name “Mark” leads all the rest as the name given to children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of those who knew him and loved him at the Deseret News?

To perpetuate Mark’s emphasis on excellence, the Deseret News presents to a winning staffer the Mark E. Petersen Excellence in Writing Award at the annual gathering of company employees and their companions.

It has been said that an organization is the lengthened shadow of its leader. Such is the imprint of Mark Petersen on the Deseret News.

With Mark Petersen’s positions of responsibility in journalism, there came appointments to civic boards, committees, and groups. Mark served as a director of the Chamber of Commerce and the Utah Manufacturers Association, as vice-president of the Kiwanis Club, as president of the Bonneville Knife and Fork Club, and as vice-president of the Newspaper Agency Corporation. He gave freely, thoughtfully, and energetically to many good community interests.

He served on the board of trustees of Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah) and of Weber State College (Ogden, Utah). He was awarded an honorary doctorate from Brigham Young University in 1970 and also received a Distinguished Service Award from the University’s Department of Communications in 1972.

In the years at the News, the cub reporter who became president learned to make decisions under pressure. Because there is nothing more perishable than news, the newspaperman cannot put off what he has to do today. In addition to a “do-it-yourself” philosophy, Mark also learned a “do it now” necessity, which has been an invaluable asset and has helped to make his personal and professional accomplishments possible.

During these years, Mark served faithfully and capably in ever more responsible positions in the Church. He was called to the high council of the Liberty Stake in Salt Lake City while yet a very young man, and he later served as a counselor in the stake presidency of that stake. When he moved to another part of the city, to Highland Stake, he was immediately called to its high council—but he began serving only after a several months’ delay because his former stake leaders could not bear to give him up. When the Highland Stake was divided and the Sugarhouse Stake was organized in 1943, he was called to serve as first counselor in the new stake presidency.

So widely recognized was he at the time of his calling to the Council of the Twelve in 1944 that the news accounts said he had been for some time “in great demand” as a public speaker in Church and civic circles.

By this time two lovely daughters graced the home of Elder Mark E. Petersen and his beloved Emma Marr. To them—Marian and Peggy—as well as to their parents, this call changed the course of the Petersen family. True it is that he continued to guide and serve at the Deseret News for years to come. True it is also that he continued to serve in many important civic positions. But the call to help guide and bless the entire Church now became his life’s beacon.

The calling fit admirably the empathy, the breadth and depth of Mark’s heart and soul. To be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles means, among other things, to be a member of committees that oversee important Church concerns. It means attending weekly conferences “for the rest of your life.” As one of the Brethren once said, it means absorbing assignments and opportunities for service that require total commitment to the work of the Master to buoy and lift, teach and train, lead and direct the Saints of God. It means accepting the burdens and strengthening the hopes of the Church and its people.

To all this and more came Mark Petersen. I like the way another member of the Twelve, Elder Richard L. Evans, once described him:

“Mark E. Petersen, of the Council of the Twelve, is a sincerely modest man, humble of heart, but of great courage and competence and a capacity for work which drives him, as he in turn drives himself—ceaselessly it seems.”

With the call to the Apostleship came added responsibility and the assignment to let his voice be heard and his influence felt throughout the entire earth. In the forty years he served in the Twelve, Mark visited a good share of the stakes and most of the missions of the world. Wherever he has gone his indelible impression has remained.

For two glorious weeks in 1960 Mark and Emma Marr toured the Canadian Mission at the time I served as president. My wife Frances and I felt their inspiring presence as the four of us met with missionaries and members throughout the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. After every meeting, investigators came forward to announce that the words of Elder Petersen and the spirit he reflected had persuaded them to “come unto Christ” and be baptized. The members rejoiced, the missionaries prospered, and the work moved forward with enthusiasm. The words of Oliver Cowdery best describe this mission tour made by Elder and Sister Petersen: “These were days never to be forgotten.”

Above all, his calling as an Apostle of the Lord sealed his powerful trust in God with a certainty that was inspiring. Once, a government leader in a country distant from the United States heard Elder Petersen speak and said, “That man has inner authority—the kind of which I have never seen before. If I were a Christian, I would say God saved him for a special time and a special work.”

Those who heard Elder Mark E. Petersen’s voice and those who read his words could readily see that here was a fearless defender and testifier of truth, intelligent in thought, radiant and warm in personality, succinct and powerful in expression, unwavering and unflinching in commitment and belief. He could teach, persuade, warn, explain, and encourage. He was a most able exponent of Church doctrines and programs. His was an ability to make complex things simple and easily understood, often through the use of questions to identify a specific point for discussion.

Yet, with all of his faith, commitment, and energy, he was, as President Ezra Taft Benson has said, “one of the most kind, considerate, and gracious men I have known.” Graciousness was truly a dominant characteristic of Mark Petersen. From it flowed his refinement, his appreciation for education, for art, and particularly for music.

Easy it is to see why so many who knew him well loved him so dearly. He was, as a fellow member of the Twelve said, “a fair judge, a tireless worker,” and “a compassionate comforter of the sorrowing, a champion of those who have earnestly repented of mistakes, a persistent pursuer of the facts.” Another said, “I have never known Mark to do a cheap or shoddy or mean thing.” He was a man of full integrity, firm loyalty, personal courage, and great faith.

His personal teaching style often involved using the chalkboard or having the congregation recite aloud with him a song or scripture. We of the Twelve were privileged to participate in other memorable teaching and sacred experiences. Told at his funeral were several accounts of his being voice in prayer on occasion for the Brethren at our regular Thursday meeting, particularly one time when President Spencer W. Kimball was not well and not present.

Elder Petersen’s crystal clear faith and pleading soul sought in our behalf a blessing upon the President, and it was as if a “conduit opened to the heavens.” We knew that our prayer and our faith had been recognized. How completely natural that our spokesman on that occasion would be Elder Mark E. Petersen, such a giant of unshakable faith. He was one who would say, “If a miracle is needed, then shall we not ask if our Father will provide the miracle?” He often helped raise our faith to new heights.

I loved, respected, and admired Mark Petersen for these and many other traits and for his life of devotion to truth and to duty. These are seen as old virtues by many in our time, but they are virtues ever so dear to our Father in Heaven. As age crept up on him (could one really think of Mark’s energetic nature controlled by age?), sickness and attendant complications did what age alone could not. Even so, with gallant vigor he carried on until the end.

He is now with his dear Emma Marr, his companion who died in 1975 and with whom he created one of the greatest loving husband and wife relationships I have ever seen. They were equally yoked in faith and commitment and in their love of family, of music, and of the songs of Zion which they sang together again and again.

In his acceptance message at the time he was called to the Twelve, Mark said:

“I know that God lives. I know that Jesus is the Christ and the son of God. I shall take great pleasure in declaring His word for the remainder of my life.

“I am thankful for my testimony of the divinity of the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith. I love him. I know that his testimony, for which he died, is true.

“I willingly and gladly, although most humbly, accept this great call which has come to me. … I love the work. I shall give it my full strength and all the talent which God may give to me.

“I know that without the help of the Lord I am powerless to do any good in His ministry; but I know that if I live righteously, He will be with me.”

As his fellow quorum member, I declare to all: Mark E. Petersen accepted his call, he loved the work, he gave it his full strength and all his abundant talent.

We have been a blessed people to have had him for nearly forty years as one of our prophets, seers, and revelators. He was a “giant” here. We miss him. He is a “giant” there. They welcome him. Our beloved Mark has gone home.

Mark Petersen in the early 1940s when he was Deseret News managing editor and then general manager.

Like all grandfathers, Elder Petersen enjoyed visiting, playing with, and talking to his grandchildren.

Elder Petersen and his wife Emma Marr were avid readers and writers. Sister Petersen, who died in 1975, wrote numerous books for the youth of the Church.

Elder Petersen in the late 1950s. As a member of the Quorum of the Twelve for nearly forty years, he traveled throughout the world buoying up the Saints as he taught and bore witness of the Master.

The author of over forty books and hundreds of other works and editorials, Elder Petersen used his newsman’s self-taught approach to typing.

Elder Mark E. Petersen and wife Emma Marr at the time Elder Petersen was appointed West European Mission president, an assignment he carried for more than six years.

Visiting the Saints was always a joy for Elder Petersen, who often was accompanied by his wife. This was a 1959 visit to Hong Kong.

A man of modesty, graciousness, and personal industriousness, Elder Petersen is caught in a moment of study prior to a session of general conference in 1981.

For nearly forty years the stirring and resonant voice of Elder Mark E. Petersen brought faith and courage to Latter-day Saints through his general conference addresses. He was a fearless defender and testifier of the gospel.