Elder Marvin J. Ashton: Friend to Prisoners and Premiers
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“Elder Marvin J. Ashton: Friend to Prisoners and Premiers,” Tambuli, June 1987, 6

Elder Marvin J. Ashton:

Friend to Prisoners and Premiers

Elder Marvin J. Ashton

For the first time in History, on 7 January 1984,, a premier of the People s Republic of China was about to visit the United States of America. As his helicopter hovered over the little community of Laie, Hawaii, hundreds of diplomats, reporters, military officials, and interpreters waited among the palm trees of the Brigham Young University—Hawaii campus. When the helicopter landed, a tall, silver-haired man stepped forward from the crowd. He was the man delegated to greet Premier Zhao Ziyang on behalf of the president of the United States. The man was Elder Marvin J. Ashton of the Quorum of the Twelve.

To Elder Ashton, meeting the premier of China was more than anything else an opportunity to make a new friend. “I learned that he is proud of his family,” Elder Ashton recalls. “I found him to be a man of dignity, warmth, and a naturalness that made us comfortable together.”

Later in the day, a magnificent reception was held for the premier in the Royal Hall in Honolulu. As the premier passed by, he saw Brother and Sister Ashton standing quietly behind three rows of guests, left the reception line, and shook the Ashtons’ hands. Before departing, Premier Zhao commented to Elder Ashton, “I don’t know what I will experience in my travels to the United States and Canada, but I want you to know this visit here with you will be the highlight.”

A “Doctorate in Human Relationships”

Elder Marvin J. Ashton was an ideal choice to meet the Chinese leader. Although his background is in business, Elder Ashton could be said to have a “doctorate in human relationships.” As a Church leader, his greatest satisfaction is in working with people and watching them grow. He is beloved throughout the Church for his messages of compassion and hope.

His gentle interest in people of all backgrounds has also led him to serve in his community. Over the years, he has been a social services director, a counselor to teenagers and convicts, and a community leader.

Marvin Jeremy Ashton was born in Salt Lake City on 6 May 1915. His father, Marvin O. Ashton, was in later years a member of the Presiding Bishopric of the Church. A hardware and lumber dealer, he gave Marvin every opportunity to learn the business. Rae Jeremy Ashton, Marvin’s mother, was a supportive wife, active in Relief Society and Primary—a wonderful mother for her three boys and three girls.

After graduating from high school, Marvin went on to the University of Utah School of Business. He was sports editor of the daily student newspaper and also worked half-days at the family store. “My father told me that if I were going to serve a mission, I would have to pay for it myself.” After he finished college, Marvin was able to pay the expenses of his entire mission in Great Britain.

Missionary Basketball Star and Magazine Editor

In those days of struggle for the Church in England, the missionaries took part in organized sports and choral singing, trying to create a new Church image. Elder Ashton decided to give both a try. “I don’t know how well I did in the ‘Millennial Chorus’ audition,” he chuckles. “They didn’t ask me to be the chorus.” But he was more successful in basketball. In fact, he was captain of the missionary team, the “Saints,” which won a grand national championship in Britain and an all-Europe championship at Lille, France.

Marvin returned from his mission in 1939 and the next year married Norma Berntson in the Salt Lake Temple. She had been president of an association for women college students, had graduated with honors from the University of Utah, and had been a schoolteacher for several years. In the year before they were married, Marvin built his bride a home. He then continued building houses as a business until he could pay for their home.

A Ministry of Compassion

By 1948 the Ashtons had two boys and two girls, and Marvin was called to serve on the general board of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association. He served on that board for twenty-one years, learning about the needs and challenges of youth. “If I had my wish,” he says, “I’d work with teenagers. You have to be willing to listen.” In his community, he helped develop a home for young people in trouble.

In 1969 Elder Ashton was called as an Assistant to the Council of the Twelve. He was the last General Authority called by President David O. McKay, who was weak from age and illness. “He said to me in his frail voice, ‘I want you to help me,’ “recalls Elder Ashton. “In no way could I resist that appeal.”

In his ministry as a General Authority, Elder Ashton has been a disciple of the kind Jesus spoke of when he said, “I was in prison, and ye came unto me.”(Matt. 25:36.) It was Elder Ashton’s task to unify the Church’s social services. In doing so, he learned about the serious problems facing alcoholics, delinquents, unwed mothers, and prison inmates. He helped establish a family home evening program in which inmates had weekly contact with a Latter-day Saint family. According to Elder Ashton, those inmates who participate in this program are less likely to return to prison after their release than are those who do not.

“Do You Know Where You Met Me Last?”

Once, at the Jordan River Temple, Elder Ashton was approached by a young man about to be married. “Do you know where you met me last?” the young man asked. “At the Utah State Prison. You spoke to the inmates at a Christmas gathering there.”

“Oh,” responded Elder Ashton, a little surprised. “What did I say to help you?”

“I don’t remember what you said,” the young man replied, “but afterwards you came down among us and shook my hand. When I realized that an Apostle of the Lord would shake the hand of a man like me, I knew I must be worth something.” This experience had marked the beginning of repentance and forgiveness for the young man.

Elder Ashton spends many hours giving counsel. Often a stake president will request that he talk to those who have moral problems or marital difficulties. He believes that the only way to help people is to help them in their current situation, without concentrating on their past mistakes. When he counsels with those who have transgressed, he says, “I’m not so concerned with what you’ve done or where you’ve been as I am with where you’re going from here.”

A Believer in People

His success as a counselor comes from his faith in people. “If you don’t have faith in people, they won’t change for the better,” he says. Elder Ashton experienced this principle in his own young life. “When I was in junior high school, I was not getting the best grades in geometry. My teacher said, ‘I’m not going to tolerate this when I know what your potential is. You can do better, and I’m not going to let you do worse than you really can.’ “Elder Ashton recalls, “That was a turning point, not only in that class, but in my life, because I knew that that teacher believed in me. The best bishops I ever had were the ones who believed in me enough to give me something extra to do—just working around the churchyard as a deacon was enough.”

Remarkable Spiritual Impressions

A new dimension came to his life of service when he was called as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on 2 December 1971, filling the vacancy left by the death of Elder Richard L. Evans. Since that time, he has had many wonderful experiences. “Some of my most striking spiritual impressions come in the callings of new stake presidents. You pray and ponder for someone to take that place, and through the priesthood power you know who it is. You have a deadline, and the Lord helps you to meet it. You start interviewing at two o’clock, and by five o’clock you have found out what the Lord already knew. I have learned that you can’t get inspiration from the Lord without doing your part to make it possible—the plea must be accompanied by a humble search for the answer.”

As a special witness of Jesus Christ, Elder Ashton always keeps in mind his mission to lift and teach others. Once one of his friends who was inactive in the Church was about to send his son on a mission. When Elder Ashton heard of this, he made an appointment with his friend, just to put his arm around him and say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if he were going into the mission field as your son for time and all eternity?” The inactive brother soon prepared himself and his family for the blessings of the temple.

Today, after more than a decade of service in the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Ashton is approaching his seventy-third birthday. The once-sandy-colored hair, still curly, is now shining white. But there is a definite youthfulness about him, befitting a man who has so long been a friend to the young people of the Church. When he rises from his chair he towers over everyone else in the room, and his pleasant face often crinkles up in a boyish smile. His voice is mild and pleasant, and he speaks to complete strangers without formality, as if he had always known them.

Physical activity has always been important to Elder Ashton. He looks and feels much younger than he is because of his regular exercise program. He tries to play tennis weekly and walk a few miles each evening, when possible with his wife, Norma. Of Sister Ashton, her husband says, “Norma is the best thing that ever happened to me. We’ve always liked doing things together.”

Two Simple Rules for Raising Children

Always his family has been first on his list of priorities. About his role as a father, he says, “There are two simple rules for raising children—love them and discipline them. Always explain to them the need for discipline without impulses, flashes of anger, slaps, or sarcasm.” Another important point: “Try to listen about 75 percent of the time. Ask your children what they think, give them a voice. Instead of giving them orders, ask them what they think we should do. If you’ve taught them well, you’ll be surprised at the wise decisions they will help you make.”

Elder Ashton still tries to stay close to his children and has made a point of welcoming sons-in-law and daughters-in-law as full members of the family circle.

Elder Ashton has only one major personal concern: “Doing what I know I should do.” He also empathizes with those who don’t. In all his messages to the Saints he echoes the same invitation the Master made: “He wants you. He will welcome you straightway regardless of where you have been, where you are now, or what talents you possess or lack.” (In General Conference, April 1983.)

The fellowship of this brotherly disciple of Christ is genuine and extends to high and low. He cheers everyone he meets, from premiers of great nations to the most despondent prisoner. The troubled, the neglected, the weary—even the felon—have felt his love for them. No one who knows Elder Ashton can doubt whom he follows, nor the truth of the Savior’s words: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35.)

  • Breck England, a high school English and French teacher, serves as a counselor in the bishopric of the Bountiful (Utah) Twenty-first Ward.

As a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Ashton has the opportunity to extend love to members throughout the world.

Photography by Brent Harridge

Marvin J. Ashton’s abilities showed early in life as he earned the Eagle Scout badge.

Elder Ashton in conversation with President N. Eldon Tanner, formerly First Counselor in the First Presidency.

The Ashtons gathered their children and children’s spouses for a portrait after a party honoring Elder Ashton.

Above: Young Marvin Ashton (center, back row) with his father’s family in 1943. Upper right: Marvin J. Ashton and Norma Berntson Ashton on their wedding day in 1940. Lower right: In 1984, Elder Ashton received an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from the University of Utah, for achievement and service. Far right: Elder Ashton received the Silver Beaver Award, one of Scouting’s top honors in recognition of service.