“President Boyd K. Packer: Farewell to a Master Teacher,” Ensign, August 2015, 1–16
Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lost more than a dedicated leader when President Boyd K. Packer, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, passed away. They lost a master teacher who taught even the most complex gospel topics with clarity.
President Packer dedicated his life to serving his Heavenly Father and to teaching Heavenly Father’s children, beginning with his own family, continuing with a career in seminary, and then in his worldwide ministry as a General Authority. He looked to the Savior as his model for teaching. In his 1975 book Teach Ye Diligently, he wrote:
“Consider, please, that He has declared, ‘What manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am.’ (3 Nephi 27:27.) …
“I do not hesitate to admit that I desire to teach as He taught. Though that may be far beyond my capabilities, He is, nevertheless, the ideal. …
“… It is not untoward for any of us to aspire to be like Him.”2
As a young man, President Packer pledged to God full and unwavering lifelong loyalty.3 He lived out that pledge and left a legacy that will be a spiritual landmark for other disciples of Jesus Christ. While the world in general might not be aware of all of Boyd K. Packer’s contributions, his works are known to the Source of their inspiration.
Boyd Kenneth Packer was born on September 10, 1924, the 10th of 11 children born to Ira Wight Packer and Emma Jensen Packer. Theirs was a family in which hard work and obedience to gospel principles were simply the way one lived. Ira was a skilled mechanic who owned an auto-repair garage in Brigham City, Utah, about 60 miles (100 km) north of Salt Lake City. Both of Ira’s parents came from farming backgrounds. Emma grew up with a love of nature and the outdoors that would carry over into the life of her son Boyd. His love of the outdoors, nature, and animals was expressed in much of his artwork, particularly his detailed, sensitive carvings of birds.
His ancestors were pioneers, British on his father’s side and Scandinavian on his mother’s. The brass door knocker on President Packer’s front door and on the doors of his grandchildren’s homes is modeled after a yoked ox carving he made. For members of the Packer family, it symbolizes two important things: first, their pioneer ancestry and, second, willingness and faith to take on the yoke of the Master (see Matthew 11:29–30).4
“Sometimes in my growing years I thought we were poor,” he once wrote in a short life history. “I later learned that that was not true. We just didn’t have any money. We were always rich in the things most significant in our lives.”5
At age five, Boyd contracted polio. His illness was diagnosed at the time as pneumonia, and he seemed to recover with no significant aftereffects. But the polio would come to be a challenge later in life.
Because of World War II, he was unable to serve a mission. In 1943 he joined the United States Army Air Corps, graduating as a pilot in 1944. He was trained to fly bombers and spent almost a year stationed in Japan after the war was over. Because of pain he suffered while serving as a pilot, X-rays were taken, showing evidence of his earlier polio in the malformed bones of his knees and hip. (In the last years of his life, the effects of that polio left him using a wheelchair.)
While in the military, he found ample opportunity to study the gospel, reading the Book of Mormon several times. He referred to that book as “the single most powerful influence in my life.”6 More than once he told the story of gaining his own witness of the truth of the gospel in an isolated bunker one night on a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean. He walked away from that bunker a different man because he knew. What had been a belief and a hope had crystalized into certainty. He knew.7
He also found ways to be a missionary. Boyd K. Packer was one of those Latter-day Saint servicemen who helped reintroduce the gospel in Japan in the mid-1940s. He was instrumental in bringing Tatsui Sato into the Church, a man whose later work in translation helped many Japanese members enjoy the scriptures and temple ceremonies in their own language.
Returning home, Boyd enrolled in Weber College (now Weber State University) in Ogden, Utah. There he met Donna Smith, whom he married on July 28, 1947, in the Logan Utah Temple. They would become parents of 10 children: Allan, Kenneth, David, Laurel, Russell, Spencer, Gayle, Kathleen, Lawrence, and Eldon.
President Packer always credited his wife for the success of their home life. He described her as a dynamic woman who had “a great and powerful motivating influence.”8 Her influence on him was described well by a longtime friend, Elder A. Theodore Tuttle (1919–86), of the First Quorum of the Seventy. He and President Packer served together as teachers and administrators in the Church Educational System.
In a foreword to one of President Packer’s books, his friend Theodore wrote: “There is one source of inspiration available to Elder Packer that is not available to anyone else. That is Donna. … She is the one who has borne their ten children—and borne much of the responsibility of rearing them, due to his call as ‘special witness.’ She it is who is his sweetheart, his friend, and his quiet support.”9
President and Sister Packer were wonderful examples of unity. Their son Allan explains: “If you see Dad, you see Mom. If you see Mom, you see Dad. They’re together; they’re unified. They influenced each other, especially, of course, in the home.”
His role as father was always a top priority, so he found time for his children. If he was carving wood or painting and his children wanted to participate, he would let them. His son Allan remembers: “He would stop and give us a brush with some paint, and we could work. And then when we would lose interest, … he would go about repairing. And so behind some of the layers of paint are some contributions that the kids made.”10
As a young father, Boyd served the Church in local callings and also his community as a city councilman in Brigham City. At the same time, he was employed by the Church Educational System. He had received an associate’s degree from Weber College (1948) and a bachelor’s degree from Utah State University (1949). He received a master’s degree also from Utah State University (1953) and a doctorate from Brigham Young University (1962).
In 1955 he was appointed as an assistant administrator of seminaries and institutes for the Church. He was serving in that role when he was called as an Assistant to the Twelve in October 1961, shortly after his 37th birthday. While he was an Assistant to the Twelve, he also served as president of the New England Mission, where his integrity and ability helped him make many friends for the Church among civic and business leaders.
Despite the heavy demands of these callings, President Packer continued to put family first. Said his son Allan: “He always … knew that the family was the eternal organization—and so that had priority. If we called his office, his secretary had instructions that no matter when we called or what meeting he was in, we were always to be able to be put through. And that’s what we experienced if we needed to even just say hi. Sometimes we were a little embarrassed if we were interrupting a meeting with several of the senior Brethren, but that was the instruction—it was that he was always available.”11
In 1970 he was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles following the death of President David O. McKay. His service in the quorum began as a new President of the Church was sustained: President Joseph Fielding Smith. Elder Packer’s later callings to preside over the quorum would also coincide with the sustaining of new Church Presidents. In June 1994, when President Howard W. Hunter retained President Thomas S. Monson as Second Counselor in the First Presidency, Elder Packer, the next senior Apostle, became Acting President. In February 2008, he was set apart as President of the quorum after President Monson became President of the Church.
A 1970 article reporting on his call to the Quorum of the Twelve quoted Elder Packer regarding how he had planned his life:
“A number of years ago I chose several basic objectives in life—things that I wanted to be and do. First, I wanted to be a good father. … Livelihood, hobbies, even social opportunities had to be weighed against whether or not they related to that ideal. I soon learned that the perfect plan for fatherhood was the gospel. … Home is the center of the gospel—and of my life. …
“The second goal that I had was that I … wanted to be good—good for something. Mostly I wanted to be a good son, to both my earthly father and my Heavenly Father. I have never thought that I deserved to have good children unless I could be one myself. I’ve had an idea that we contribute to the glory of our Father in heaven when we add in our own person one more worthy individual. I’ve felt that I wasn’t worthy to get what I wasn’t willing to give.”
Elder Packer spoke also of how we can receive help in pursuing objectives like these: “It seems to me that there is a great power in the Church—in all of us—that is untapped because we are always setting about to do things in our way, when the Lord’s way would accomplish much greater returns. … Why don’t we talk to our Father? In specifics? About real problems? As often as we would with our earthly father if he were nearby?”12
President Packer’s service in general Church leadership brought many years of schooling under the hand of the Lord. His ministry spanned generations and continents.
One woman recalled how Elder Packer, speaking in the pioneer tabernacle in her southeastern Idaho town in the 1960s, touched her life when she was a teen. He called on young people in the congregation to go home and express love for their parents and thank them for their sacrifices. Expressions of love like this were not common in her home nor in the homes of her peers. Elder Packer’s message caused her to consider what it was costing her parents, in labor and self-denial, to raise a large family on the income from a small farm. It gave her new appreciation for her pioneer ancestry and spiritual heritage.
In Germany in the early 1970s, Elder Packer and his wife had to travel by train from Munich to Berlin overnight to fulfill one of his Church assignments. Two young missionaries had taken them to the train. As it was pulling out of the station, one of those young elders asked through the window if Elder Packer had any German money. When Elder Packer responded no, the missionary, running alongside the train, handed him a 20-mark note.
A few hours later, that 20-mark note proved crucial to finishing their journey safely. It helped change the mind of an East German soldier, who could have put Sister Packer off the train and arrested her because her older type of passport was not accepted by his government.
The young missionary who had handed that 20-mark note to a visiting Apostle was David A. Bednar, who, some 30 years later, would serve with President Packer in the Quorum of the Twelve. The point of the story, President Packer said, was that when we are in the service of the Lord, we need not worry about being able to fulfill our assignments because His hand will be with us.13 Anyone who followed the ministry of Boyd K. Packer knew that the hand of the Lord was with him.
The love he possessed for his fellow Latter-day Saints could be felt when he ministered among them. On a narrow, hilly spot in the Mayan highlands, in the Momostenango Guatemala Stake, there is a small meetinghouse that was dedicated by Elder Packer in the mid-1980s. The members who were present fondly recall how the strength of his witness touched their spirits, and they still remember the love they felt as an Apostle of the Lord walked among them.
The Brethren who served with Boyd K. Packer in the Quorum of the Twelve came to know his ability to teach gospel principles and his steadfastness in following them. “Elder Packer is very much a teacher,” commented President James E. Faust (1920–2007), who served as a counselor in the First Presidency. “While all of the Twelve are teachers, he’s a teacher in the Twelve.” Elder Packer’s love of and use of the scriptures in leadership roles influenced the direction of the entire Church, President Faust said.14
Elder Russell M. Nelson once noted that when the Quorum of the Twelve was weighing a problem, Elder Packer would often search for relevant teachings from the Book of Mormon to help find a solution. “Without the Book of Mormon, Elder Packer couldn’t be the prophet he is. He is a gifted seer.” His teaching from the scriptures was characterized by “deep comprehension,” Elder Nelson said. “No one has plumbed the depths of this man.”15
Once Elder Packer was asked if it is difficult for 12 men with strong intellects and widely varying backgrounds to agree on the direction of the affairs of the Church. Members of the Twelve, he explained, “share something that no other men on earth share.” They bring great individual strengths and abilities to bear on their collective responsibilities—and then they unanimously bend their wills to divine inspiration received. “We’re all individual, and we’re all resolute, but we’re all one.”16
In his later years, the expression of his apostolic witness seemed to become somehow more urgent for him and ever more plain. President Packer’s voice of testimony was a reliable constant in the Church, a word of witness that never faltered. It was never hard for the hearer to discern that Boyd K. Packer knew.
After the sustaining of President Monson in the April 2008 general conference, President Packer’s report of what happened showed both reverence for Church callings and certainty as to their divine origin. “There was no question about what would be done, no hesitancy,” he said. “In that sacred meeting, Thomas Spencer Monson was sustained by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as the President of the Church.” The process was not new, President Packer explained. “The Lord Himself set in motion this pattern of administration.”17
In 2010, President Packer returned to his hometown of Brigham City to break ground for the Brigham City Utah Temple on the site of his old elementary school. Two years later he presided over its dedication.
Throughout the process he showed his characteristic humility. “I didn’t propose there be a temple in Brigham City,” he said. “The Brethren brought that up. My contribution was not objecting. The same was true of the dedication; I didn’t assign myself to that. I am glad I was assigned to it. I am grateful.”18
Throughout his life, President Packer was constantly striving to improve. He spoke of the living Apostles, including himself, as “ordinary people” who might wonder why they should be called to this holy office. “There are many qualifications that I lack. There is so much in my effort to serve that is wanting. There is only one single thing, one qualification that can explain it. Like Peter and all of those who have since been ordained, I have that witness.
“I know that God is our Father. He introduced His Son, Jesus Christ, to Joseph Smith. I declare to you that I know that Jesus is the Christ. I know that He lives. … He made His Atonement. Of Him I bear witness.”19
Many years ago, after receiving a personal witness on that tiny island in the Pacific, he wanted to give something back. He wanted to formalize his commitment as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
“It had become critically important,” he remembered, “to establish this intention between me and the Lord so that I knew that He knew which way I had committed my agency. I went before Him and said, ‘I’m not neutral, and you can do with me what you want. If you need my vote, it’s there. I don’t care what you do with me and you don’t have to take anything from me because I give it to you—everything, all I own, all I am.’”20
Those who loved and honored Boyd K. Packer will have every confidence that the Lord has accepted his offering, an offering magnified through a lifetime of sacred service.