“Elder Marvin J. Ashton: A Voice of Faith and Hope,” Ensign, Apr. 1994, 74–78
The voice of Elder Marvin Jeremy Ashton of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles was a voice of peace, a voice of love, and a voice of assurance that it is always possible to start afresh, with the help of the Lord.
His quiet yet powerful voice was stilled when he died at age seventy-eight in a Salt Lake City hospital on 25 February 1994. But his words and works will continue to echo in the lives he touched as he taught people who they truly are and what they may become.
“When we have a yearning and don’t know what it is for, perhaps it’s our soul longing for its heartland, longing to be no longer alienated from the Lord and the pursuit of something much higher, better, and more fulfilling than anything this earth has to offer,” he said in his last general conference address. “May our yearning for home be the motivation we need to so live that we can return to our heavenly home with God our Father on a forever basis” (Ensign, Nov. 1992, p. 23).
Speakers at Elder Ashton’s funeral on March 2 in the Tabernacle on Temple Square talked of his returning to his heavenly home to continue his service to the Lord. Tributes came from his brethren among the General Authorities and from his sons.
President Gordon B. Hinckley, First Counselor in the First Presidency, recalled standing with other members of the Quorum of the Twelve at Elder Ashton’s ordination more than twenty-two years ago. “He became an Apostle. What is an Apostle? It is an endowment of priesthood, which was received in this dispensation under the hands of Peter, James, and John, who had received it anciently; it is a restoration of that same authority given by the Lord.”
This, President Hinckley explained, “involves all of the keys of the holy priesthood to officiate in the government of the Church, to bless with blessings that are effective even beyond the veil of death, and above all else to stand as a witness before the world of the divine mission of the Redeemer of the world, the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
President Hinckley read Elder Ashton’s recent testimony to his brethren of the Twelve:
“I suppose if I have one word on my mind, it is the word gratitude, and appreciation for the fact that we can be here and about his business. Sometimes we should be more aware of not being too much in a hurry while the Lord is at the helm and knows our situation.” Elder Ashton told members of his Quorum: “While I am not getting better, I am coping with it. I love the Lord and thank him for his blessings.”
In his remarks, President Thomas S. Monson, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, pointed out that Elder Ashton “had confidence in the nobility of the human soul. He knew each soul had the capacity to become as God, and he treated him or her accordingly, not for what he was, but what he could and should become.”
President Monson characterized him as a man who passed up no opportunity to do good. “Marvin Ashton taught all of us to grasp the moment, to render the deed, to bestow the compliment, and to serve God and his fellowmen. He truly was a man of great love.”
Just two days before his death, Elder Ashton had come to President Monson’s office on a matter of Church business, President Monson recalled. Elder Ashton had leaned on the arm of Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Twelve, using a cane with his other hand. It was hard for him to breathe, but he was about the Lord’s work. After Elder Ashton left, President Monson said, “I thanked God, in a silent prayer, for the sweet association I had with Marvin J. Ashton.”
Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Twelve spoke for other members of the Quorum in remembering Elder Ashton’s faithfulness. He referred to section 138 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the account of a vision in which President Joseph F. Smith saw the organization of the work of the Lord among the spirits of the dead, who were longing to be redeemed. “From the prophetic account of that vision, we can be sure that Elder Ashton is continuing in his ministry as one of those appointed messengers clothed with power and authority, commissioned to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness.”
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Seventy recalled that Elder Ashton had once quoted words of President Howard W. Hunter of the Quorum of the Twelve as a guide for General Authorities: “As special witnesses of our Savior, we have been given the awesome assignment to administer the affairs of his Church and kingdom and to minister to his daughters and his sons wherever they are on the face of the earth. By reason of our call—to testify, govern, and administer—it is required of us that despite age, infirmity, exhaustion, and feelings of inadequacy, we do the work he has given us to do, to the last breath of our lives.”
Elder Ashton’s sons, Stephen K. and M. John Ashton, also spoke at the funeral. Stephen noted that his father’s life reflected his personal beliefs, and recalled a few of the sayings for which Elder Ashton was known: “You haven’t failed until you have quit trying”; “The time is now!”; “Nobody’s a nobody”; and “You can get there from here.”
John said that his father “rarely preached, but he gave volumes of sermons. He was—his life was—a sermon.”
Ordained to the Quorum of the Twelve on 2 December 1971, Elder Ashton was, at his death, sixth in apostolic seniority (beginning with President Ezra Taft Benson). Prior to being a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Ashton served as an Assistant to the Twelve beginning on 3 October 1969.
He was born in Salt Lake City on 6 May 1915 to Marvin O. and Rae Jeremy Ashton and was named after his father, who served as a member of the Church’s Presiding Bishopric from 1938 until his death in 1946. Young Marvin’s parents were models of integrity and service to their three sons and three daughters; in their home it was simply accepted that gospel standards and service to the Church were the norm.
Hard work was another of the family norms. Marvin J. raised rabbits and pigeons and worked on his family’s two-acre produce farm as a boy. While in high school and college, he worked in his father’s hardware store.
It was through Marvin’s own initiative that he became an outstanding Boy Scout. There was no troop in his ward when he turned twelve, so he and several friends rode their horses to another ward building to participate in Scout meetings each week. He became an Eagle Scout and developed a lifelong love of Scouting, later serving in local, regional, and national council positions for the Boy Scouts of America. He received the Silver Beaver and Silver Antelope Scouting awards for his service to boys and as an adult was also honored with the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award.
During his life, Marvin J. Ashton had ample opportunity to give of himself to young people, and he enjoyed it. Before his call as a General Authority, he served for twenty-one years with the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association (now the Young Men)—ten years as a general board member and eleven years in its general superintendency. He traveled the world carrying Church programs for youth to local units. While serving in the YMMIA, he was given the Homer “Pug” Warner Award (named for an earlier advocate of Church basketball and athletics) for his exemplary service.
Speaking to a group of institute students in May 1993, he commented: “I love young people. I have tried to be your trusted friend over the years. I never want to shout it. I prefer to be your friend and advocate quietly but with deep love, encouragement, and respect” (address to Central Valley Institute students, Salt Lake Tabernacle, 16 May 1993). Those who knew him knew that this self-description was true.
Sports were important in his life because of their value in terms of personal enjoyment, their value in maintaining personal fitness, and their value in reaching and molding young people. During his years of directing YMMIA athletics, activities were expanded to offer many opportunities in which young people could participate. Elder Ashton was known for saying that everyone should keep fit, and he practiced what he preached.
A standout in Church basketball as a youth, he was captain of a Latter-day Saint missionary team that won the British national title while he was serving as a full-time missionary in the British Isles. In tennis, the brotherly rivalry that began when he and his brother Wendell both were children endured for seventy years. He lovingly said that one of the reasons he first dated Norma Bernston, whom he married in the Salt Lake Temple in 1940, was her parents’ tennis court. In 1951, he was a member of the winning team in the all-Church tennis doubles championship; in 1954, he and his wife won the mixed doubles championship; and in 1969 they made it to the finals in all-Church competition. He consistently maintained his own personal fitness regimen of tennis and jogging.
Yet his life was well balanced between the physical and the spiritual, the administration of temporal affairs and ministration to the hearts of those who needed loving kindness.
The public man was well known for his administrative ability, both in the Church and outside of it. At his death, he was chairman of the Church’s Leadership Training Committee and a member of the Correlation Executive Committee and the General Welfare Services Committee. He was a member of the Church Board of Education and its executive committee, as well as a trustee of Brigham Young University, from which he received an honorary doctor of humanities degree. He was also a member of the National Advisory Council of the University of Utah, from which he graduated; that school honored him with a Distinguished Alumnus Award and an honorary doctor of laws degree. He also served higher education as a member of the Utah State Board of Regents.
Before his call as a General Authority, Marvin J. Ashton was vice president of a wholesale lumber business he founded. He served in the Utah State Senate (1957–61). Through the years, he held a number of significant business positions: chairman of the board of Deseret Book Company and of the ZCMI department store organization; vice chairman of the board of Zions Securities Corporation, which manages the Church’s real estate holdings; and a director of First Security Corporation and Beneficial Development Corporation.
As a businessman and administrator, Marvin J. Ashton was governed by the spiritual values that shaped his life, including dedication to helping those in need. In the state legislature, for example, he led a push for improved juvenile detention facilities. Then, as Assistant to the Twelve, he also served as the first managing director of the Church’s Unified Social Services Program (now LDS Social Services). While overseeing this Church department, he supervised programs dealing with youth counseling, foster children, prisoners, adoptions, Indian student placement, and other personal welfare concerns. He was instrumental in efforts to reach out to prisoners; one of those efforts was construction of a new interdenominational chapel at the Utah state prison.
The power of his one-on-one example was very strong. One young prison inmate, after feeling Elder Ashton’s love for him at close range, changed his life, eventually achieving temple marriage. “When I realized that an Apostle of the Lord would shake the hand of a man like me, then I knew that I must be worth something,” the former inmate recalled.
Elder Marvin J. Ashton once said: “It occurs to me that there are probably hundreds or even thousands who do not understand what worthiness is. Worthiness is a process, and perfection is an eternal trek. We can be worthy to enjoy certain privileges without being perfect” (Ensign, May 1989, p. 20). At another general conference, he taught: “Young people, bearers of the priesthood, God wants us to be victorious. He wants you to triumph over all of your foes. Stalwart and brave we must stand. God is at the helm. There is no reason for defeat” (Ensign, Nov. 1989, p. 37).
He taught masterfully of helping others in need and of finding hope for repentance through Jesus Christ. “It is … essential that we love and support one another,” he said in one general conference address. “We strengthen and build by pointing out the good traits of a person and cause fear and weakness by being unduly critical” (Ensign, Nov. 1991, pp. 71–72). On another occasion, he said: “Our unwillingness to follow the true and tested patterns given for our happiness causes the individual, family, and friends heartaches and ultimate disaster. … Following revealed patterns helps us to recognize our weaknesses, deal positively with them, overcome them, and rise to Christlike heights” (Ensign, Nov. 1990, pp. 20–21).
However others might have viewed his successes, Elder Ashton probably would have considered his family among his greatest achievements. He was sometimes heard to say, “Norma is the best thing that ever happened to me.” He and Sister Ashton are the parents of four children—M. John Ashton, Stephen K. Ashton, Jonne Ashton Wheadon, and Janice Ashton Sorensen—and grandparents of eighteen.
Elder Ashton served a mission to the British Isles after finishing his university studies. His mission taught him lifelong lessons about himself and about dealing with people. He was the kind of missionary, according to his mission president, President Hugh B. Brown, who was “always where and what he should be” (Ensign, Mar. 1972, p. 20). Before the end of his mission, Marvin Ashton was named associate editor of the Church’s British Isles publication, The Millennial Star. Later, Elder Brown and Elder Ashton would serve together in the Quorum of the Twelve.
Many years later, he wrote in one of his books about an incident in the mission field that taught him the value of love and patience in working with people. Elder Ashton had been assigned to labor with a companion who had serious problems. On their second day together, his companion punched him. Elder Ashton could have reported the incident and perhaps the missionary would have been sent home. Instead, he gained the opportunity to help that missionary change and become productive (see Marvin J. Ashton, The Measure of Our Hearts, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1991, pp. 80–82).
Elder Ashton also told of his enjoyment of the story of King Arthur, in which Queen Guinevere advises Lancelot not to boast of his own works but to prove his worthiness by his actions. Elder Ashton said: “How much more effective it is in our day also to let the world see our good works rather than to hear us dwell on our own accomplishments or point out our impressive achievements” (ibid., p. 51).
Elder Marvin J. Ashton personified that principle. He would not have called his own works to anyone’s attention, but others could easily see their effects. President Spencer W. Kimball once took the opportunity to write of him: “Thousands of lives, young and old, have been blessed by the wisdom of this noble man, wonderful Apostle, and friend.
“Elder Ashton has been a servant of the people as long as I have known him. His life literally is devoted to helping others seek out and reach righteous destinations. He teaches by patient encouragement and by quiet example” (foreword to Marvin J. Ashton, What Is Your Destination?, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1978, p. ix).
The life and mission of Elder Marvin J. Ashton can be seen in the light of something he once taught to a group of Church leaders. “What an honor it is to be a shepherd to God’s lambs—his children. What a glorious opportunity and satisfaction there is in warming the cold, gathering the lost, nurturing the hungry, and the stretching of one’s arms to make all feel the safety and comfort of being with the Good Shepherd” (address to the Regional Representatives Seminar, 1 Apr. 1988).