“President Thomas S. Monson,” Ensign, July 1995, 6
As Gladys Monson lay in Salt Lake City’s St. Mark’s Hospital on Sunday, 21 August 1927 with her first son, her husband, G. Spencer Monson, told her a new bishop had been installed in the Sixth-Seventh Ward of the Pioneer Stake that day. The mother’s response, “I have a new bishop for you,” proved to be prophetic. On 7 May 1950 this son, Thomas Spencer Monson, was sustained as bishop of this ward. Not yet twenty-three years old, the son, named for his father and his maternal grandfather, Thomas Sharp Condie, was perhaps the youngest bishop in the Church. And the ward, numbering more than a thousand members, including eighty-five widows, had the largest welfare responsibility in the Church.
Any concern whether the young bishop could handle this stunning administrative load was misplaced. Although young at the time, Thomas Monson was not a novice. He had served as a counselor in the bishopric, was a veteran of the United States Navy, was an honors graduate of the University of Utah, was the classified advertising manager at the Deseret News, and was married to a beautiful young bride, Frances Beverly Johnson.
Once installed in office, Bishop Monson went about his work with customary enthusiasm. Continuing the fine work of his predecessors, the once dowdy chapel was spruced up; the youth organizations were energized; sacrament meeting attendance soared; the needy were nurtured; and the widows were given tender, loving care. Indeed, Bishop Monson’s care of the widows stands as the most enduring badge of his service. It is well known that at Christmastime he called personally at the home of each widow, leaving a gift and his blessing. That practice has continued over the years. At first he took a week of his vacation in order to do it. At this writing only six of the widows remain alive. Those living next Christmas can anticipate his visit.
Such achievement did not go unnoticed. At a conference of the Temple View Stake in June 1955, President Joseph Fielding Smith presented the name of Bishop Thomas S. Monson as the second counselor to stake president Percy K. Fetzer. Said President Smith: “Bishop Monson knows nothing of this appointment, but if he will accept it, we will be pleased to hear from him now.” Caught unaware, Brother Monson had to improvise. Pausing momentarily at the pulpit, he began by referring to a song sung earlier whose lyrics admonished obedience to the Word of Wisdom: “Have courage, my boy, to say no.” He then developed the theme “Have Courage, My Boy, to Say Yes.” This has been a recurring theme of Thomas S. Monson’s life. His service in the stake presidency entailed responsibility for youth programs, among others. His role in Scouting there and in the Sixth-Seventh Ward foreshadowed his eminent leadership in the Boy Scouts of America. At present he is the longest-serving member of its national executive board, is the recipient of the Silver Beaver and the Silver Buffalo Awards, and has received the Bronze Wolf, international Scouting’s highest recognition. He was honorably released from the stake presidency when he and Frances and their two children, Tom and Ann, moved to their new home in Holladay.
Meanwhile, President Monson was making steady progress in his business career. When the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune created the Newspaper Agency Corporation in 1952, he became its assistant classified advertising manager. Soon after, he was appointed assistant general manager and sales manager of the Deseret Press. Converting from letterpress printing to offset printing, the company focused primarily on printing telephone directories, full-color magazines, trade journals, catalogs, edition-bound books, and a variety of materials for the Church. He also became active in the Printing Industry of Utah, serving as its president. And he became a board member of the Printing Industry of America, which fostered contacts with the top printers around the world.
At Deseret Press, Brother Monson helped President J. Reuben Clark Jr. prepare his manuscript Our Lord of the Gospels for publication. They met regularly for months in President Clark’s office. The relationship that developed between them was almost that of father and son. When Thomas S. Monson was called to preside over the Canadian Mission, he took Frances and the children to visit President Clark. As Frances was expecting their third child, the Monsons said it would be named after him were it a boy. When told the child would be called Clark, the president urged, “Don’t be afraid of ‘Joshua Reuben.’” When Clark Spencer Monson was born in Toronto, Canada, the parents informed President Clark by wire. He responded with a classic letter (a Monson family treasure) addressed to the baby.
President Spencer W. Kimball regarded Thomas S. Monson as “truly a ‘do it’ man,” meaning one who acts promptly and resolutely. He also acted buoyantly and with unbounded optimism, qualities that typified his work as mission president. His main focus was the missionaries. He quickly learned their names, taught and counseled them regularly, and encouraged each one to become his best self. Such caring avoided early departures from the field or disciplinary councils. No missionary who served under President Monson received a dishonorable release or returned home before completing his service. Such leadership was reflected in the achievements of the missionaries during his tenure when converts per missionary and convert baptisms climbed sharply, fueling an aggressive program of erecting Church buildings.
A highlight of the Monsons’ mission was the creation of the Toronto Stake, the three hundredth stake in the Church. It occurred during Elder Mark E. Petersen’s tour of the mission. Elder Alma Sonne, Elder Petersen’s companion, questioned why the Sunday services could not be held in the large school auditorium used on Saturday. “The crowd that my husband has in mind assembling would not fit in this building,” explained Frances. She was right. More than twenty-two hundred people filled the Odeon Carleton Theatre to overflowing, perhaps the largest gathering of Latter-day Saints in Canada to that date. Waitresses in nearby restaurants were perplexed that a non-caffeinated drink was the diner’s choice of beverage until they learned the Mormons had gathered.
While in Toronto, President Monson became acquainted with a prominent Canadian businessman, N. Eldon Tanner. Returning to the mission home after meeting him for the first time, Tom said to Frances, “This man is destined to be a member of the Council of the Twelve.” As we know, N. Eldon Tanner also became a member of the First Presidency, ably serving four Church Presidents during almost two decades. The first meeting of these two men takes on added interest when it is known that the vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles created on 4 October 1963, when N. Eldon Tanner was sustained as a member of the First Presidency, was filled the same day by Thomas S. Monson. A mutual admiration always existed between them.
Soon after returning from Canada in February 1962, Thomas S. Monson was appointed general manager of the Deseret Press. Major capital investment was required as the operation moved toward high-speed web offset equipment. This entailed a complete retraining program for all mechanical personnel. While immersed in these complex operations and in mastering the details of his new executive position, Brother Monson was called to a series of Church headquarters assignments: First came a call to serve on the Priesthood Missionary Committee under Elder Spencer W. Kimball. Then he was called to serve on the Priesthood Genealogical Committee under Elder N. Eldon Tanner, who then was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He was later called to serve on the Adult Correlation Committee and then on the Priesthood Home Teaching Committee under Elder Marion G. Romney. In all these capacities, he attended stake conferences in company with assigned General Authorities and gave instructions within the scope of his calling to local stake and ward leaders. In one instance when he was with Elder Romney, he even filled in to give instructions about welfare, a subject in which he had received much grassroots experience while serving as the bishop of the Sixth-Seventh Ward.
By October 1963 Thomas S. Monson had been exposed to most of the General Authorities of the Church, including President David O. McKay, who had heard his mission report and whom he had taken on a tour of the Deseret Press plant. All of them were acquainted with his background and training; with his extensive experience in ward, stake, mission, and general Church assignments; and with the reputation for excellence he had earned in every position he had occupied, whether in a Church or non-Church capacity. To all these brethren, then, it came as no surprise when President McKay, by revelation, called Thomas S. Monson to be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at age thirty-six. He was the youngest man who had been called to the Twelve since 1910, when Joseph Fielding Smith was called at age thirty-three. As he began speaking at stake and general conferences, members learned of his eloquent and persuasive style at the pulpit. And as he gave instructions and counsel at stake conferences, or as he toured missions, he was seen as being wise, experienced, and inspired.
But the members of the Church regarded this young man as much more than an articulate and competent leader. Trained in Church theology, they saw him as one foreordained in the premortal existence to become an Apostle of Jesus Christ and a prophet, seer, and revelator. They looked upon him as one of that select group of leaders shown in vision to Father Abraham (see Abr. 3:22–23). And they placed him in their estimation alongside the biblical prophets and the seventy-six men in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who had preceded him as members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Elder Monson’s family saw even more than this in him. They also saw the process by which he had grown from infancy to apostolic status. To see him standing at the Tabernacle pulpit as an Apostle could never erase their memories of young Tommy Monson who was a favorite around “the Terrace” on Fifth South and Second West Streets in Salt Lake City. This was a group of homes built by Grandfather Condie, who gave each of his four daughters and their husbands a home there. He also had a cabin in Vivian Park on the Provo River, where the families would intermingle during the summers. Indeed, until he was in his mid-teens, President Monson spent most of July and August each year at Vivian Park. It was there he began a lifelong hobby of fishing. In time he graduated from the common fishing pole of his boyhood to sophisticated fly fishing. It is inferred that a highlight of his fishing career came in New Zealand when he and Wendell Mendenhall fished with a fly called “Parson’s Glory.” Brother Monson’s reputation for truthfulness constrains us to believe his report that this outing yielded full limits of rainbow trout “five pounds and over in size.”
At home Tom Monson came under the influence of parents whose sturdy roots extended into Scandinavia and Great Britain. The father was of Swedish and English descent; the mother, Scottish. They taught him charity and hard work, among other virtues. Because the Terrace was not far from the railroad tracks, transients often knocked at the Monsons’ back door and asked for food. Gladys Monson never turned one away. Moreover, she would invite them into her kitchen to sit at the table while she prepared a sandwich, served with a glass of milk. President Monson also remembers taking plates of hot food his mother had prepared to a lonely neighbor fondly called “Old Bob.” “God bless you, my boy,” Old Bob would say, his eyes often filled with tears. “You have a wonderful mother.” These were not isolated cases of kindness; they illustrated a consistent pattern of charitable conduct. The example was not lost on the growing boy.
Neither did the son fail to notice his father’s industrious efforts to provide for his family during the Depression. G. Spencer Monson was the manager of the Western Hotel Register Company, a printer of hotel registers and menus and other materials. At an early age Tom began to help his father, at first doing odd jobs and later learning the printing trade. This taught him the valuable lesson of work while introducing him to a business that would occupy many of his adult years. Indeed, he presently serves as the chairman of the board of the Deseret News Publishing Company.
Of Swedish ancestry, Frances, with her native poise and graciousness, was easily integrated into the Monson clan at the Terrace. And at Tom’s first meeting with her parents, he acquired preferred status when it was learned that his great uncle, Elias Monson, had helped convert the Johnson family in Sweden. Tears filled the eyes of Franz and Hildur Johnson as they embraced their future son-in-law. Although the incident was tinged with mild embarrassment for Frances, who hardly anticipated such a reception for her young boyfriend, she and Tom reflected later that the relationship of their Swedish ancestors may have portended more than mere coincidence.
The residents of “Condie’s Terrace” were well known to President Harold B. Lee, who presided over the Pioneer Stake during the early Depression years. President Lee took a special interest in Tom Monson. Among other things, he ordained him a high priest and set him apart as a counselor in the bishopric. Later Tom sought Elder Lee’s advice about his status in the Naval Reserve and about a long-sought commission as an ensign he had received. At first he questioned Brother Lee’s advice that he decline the commission and request a discharge from the Naval Reserve. Tom reasoned that while declining the commission presented no problem, his request for discharge might not be granted, given the increased tensions in the Orient. “Have more faith, Brother Monson,” said Elder Lee. “Your future is not with the military.” Tom followed the advice and was released from the Naval Reserve in the last group processed before the outbreak of the Korean War. Elder Monson’s love for Harold B. Lee was reflected in the naming of his first son, Thomas Lee Monson.
Significantly, Elder Monson’s initial stake conference assignment after his ordination and induction into the Twelve was to accompany Elder Harold B. Lee to Edmonton, Canada. With them was Glen L. Rudd, a member of the Priesthood Welfare Committee and a former bishop and friend from the Pioneer Stake.
As a member of the Twelve, Elder Monson worked closely with Elder Lee in correlation matters. Although he was a junior member of the Twelve, Elder Monson was appointed chairman of the Adult Correlation Committee with responsibility for all programs and courses of study for the adults. He also became chairman of the Leadership Committee, responsible to train all General Authorities regarding Church programs to be taught during stake conferences. He later became chairman of the Missionary Executive Committee and chairman of the Church Welfare Executive Committee. His concern for the needy extends beyond those who are members of the Church. For instance, he was a moving force in arranging Church participation for the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen and for a shelter for the homeless in Salt Lake City. He was honored recently by Catholic Community Services for his ecumenical concern for people of all faiths. Meanwhile, Brother Monson successively had apostolic responsibility to supervise missions on the West Coast, in the South Pacific, and in Europe. During this latter assignment, which entailed frequent visits for twenty years, President Monson was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the construction of the temple at Freiberg, Germany, behind the Iron Curtain. It was dedicated in June 1985. Four years later, following contacts by President Monson with government leaders at the highest level, LDS missionaries were allowed to enter East Germany for the first time in fifty years. Also, LDS missionaries from East Germany were allowed to work in other countries. Events connected with these extraordinary milestones revealed the presence of divine influences that made them possible.
In all his assignments, Brother Monson has shown unusual spiritual sensitivity. He has learned to act upon spiritual promptings instantly and without question. Once as he shook hands with a group of priesthood leaders, he “knew” a certain bishop with whom he had shaken hands was to be a patriarch. Repeatedly he has had similar experiences, reflecting a promise in his patriarchal blessing that he would have “the spirit of discernment.” But such revelatory insights are not limited to the call of leaders. It is not uncommon for him to receive this inspiration as he counsels, talks on the telephone, or considers personal action to be taken. It is a spiritual gift he has received in abundance.
For thirty-two years, members of the Church have been inspired, instructed, and entertained by President Monson’s sermons at general conference. Some of them have been compiled in three published books, Pathways to Perfection, Be Your Best Self, and Live the Good Life. Most significant of his sermons and writings and most pertinent to his role as a special witness are those in which he bears testimony. “I testify that God does live,” he has said, “that Jesus is the Christ, our older brother, our Mediator with the Father, our Lord and our Savior, our Redeemer. I know that he lives, and I bear this solemn witness to you. May you have this same testimony in your hearts to guide you well throughout your sojourn on this planet in mortality and into the eternal worlds of our Heavenly Father.”