“The Life and Ministry of Howard W. Hunter,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Howard W. Hunter (2015), xii–37
“Life and Ministry,” Teachings: Howard W. Hunter, xii–37
On June 6, 1994, the day after Howard W. Hunter was set apart as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he extended two invitations. Speaking with a tone of gentle encouragement, he said:
“First of all, I would invite all members of the Church to live with ever more attention to the life and example of the Lord Jesus Christ, especially the love and hope and compassion He displayed. I pray that we might treat each other with more kindness, more courtesy, more humility and patience and forgiveness.”1
Encouraging people to follow the Savior’s example had been a focus of President Hunter’s teachings for decades. “Please remember this one thing,” he had said a few years earlier. “If our lives and our faith are centered upon Jesus Christ and his restored gospel, nothing can ever go permanently wrong. On the other hand, if our lives are not centered on the Savior and his teachings, no other success can ever be permanently right.”2
President Hunter’s second invitation was for Church members to partake more fully of the blessings of the temple:
“I also invite the members of the Church to establish the temple of the Lord as the great symbol of their membership and the supernal setting for their most sacred covenants. It would be the deepest desire of my heart to have every member of the Church be temple worthy. I would hope that every adult member would be worthy of—and carry—a current temple recommend, even if proximity to a temple does not allow immediate or frequent use of it.
“Let us be a temple-attending and a temple-loving people. Let us hasten to the temple as frequently as time and means and personal circumstances allow. Let us go not only for our kindred dead, but let us also go for the personal blessing of temple worship, for the sanctity and safety which is provided within those hallowed and consecrated walls. The temple is a place of beauty, it is a place of revelation, it is a place of peace. It is the house of the Lord. It is holy unto the Lord. It should be holy unto us.”3
President Hunter continued to emphasize these two invitations throughout his service as President of the Church. Although his time as President lasted only nine months, these invitations inspired Church members worldwide to be more Christlike and to seek the blessings of the temple with greater devotion.
In the mid-1800s, Howard W. Hunter’s ancestors in four different countries joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On his mother’s side, these ancestors were from Denmark and Norway. After emigrating from their homelands, they were some of the earliest settlers of Mount Pleasant, Utah. A descendant of these stalwart pioneers, Nellie Rasmussen, would become the mother of a prophet.
On his father’s side, Howard had ancestors with deep roots in Scotland and New England. Those who joined the Church sacrificed greatly, but most of them discontinued their affiliation after a few years. The birth of John William (Will) Hunter in 1879 marked the beginning of the third generation in the Hunter line that was no longer connected with the Church. And yet Will Hunter would become the father of a prophet.
When Will Hunter was 8 years old, his family moved to Boise, Idaho. About 16 years later, Will met Nellie Rasmussen when she came to Boise to stay with an aunt and uncle. Will soon began courting Nellie, and after two years he proposed marriage. Nellie hesitated for some time, but Will persisted, and she eventually accepted his proposal. The couple was married in Mount Pleasant, Utah, and returned to Boise to make their home. Their first child, Howard William Hunter, was born in Boise on November 14, 1907. Their only other child, a daughter they named Dorothy, was born in 1909.
At the time of Howard’s birth, the Church had only one small branch in Boise. Howard’s mother was an active member of the branch who raised her children in the gospel. Of her, Howard said, “She was always faithful. … She served as president of the Primary and [Young Women]. I can remember going to church with mother, sometimes before the scheduled hour for the meetings, and then staying after so she could complete her work.”4 Although Howard’s father was not a member of the Church, he did not object to the family’s participation and occasionally attended sacrament meeting with them.
In addition to leading her children in Church activity, Nellie Hunter helped them build a strong religious foundation at home. “It was mother who took the lead in teaching us the gospel,” Howard recalled. “It was at her knee that we learned to pray. … I received a testimony as a boy at my mother’s knee.”5
The Boise Branch was made into a ward in 1913, a few days before Howard’s sixth birthday. Two years later, when Howard was eight, he was looking forward to being baptized. “I became very excited about the possibility,” he said. However, his father would not give permission. Howard recalled, “Father … felt I should wait until I knew what course I wanted in life. I wanted to be baptized, though the time came and passed without that blessing.”6
Because Howard had not been baptized, he could not be ordained a deacon when he turned 12. “By that time, all my friends had been ordained deacons,” he said. “Because I wasn’t an official member of the Church, I wasn’t able to do many of the things that they did.”7 Howard was especially disheartened that he could not pass the sacrament: “I sat in sacrament meetings with the other boys. When it was time for them to pass the sacrament, I would slump down in my seat. I felt so left out.”8
Howard again approached his father, this time with his 10-year-old sister, Dorothy: “[We] began coaxing our father to allow us to be baptized. We also prayed that he might say yes. We were overjoyed when he finally gave his consent.”9 Nearly five months after Howard turned 12, he and Dorothy were baptized in a public swimming pool. Soon afterward, Howard was ordained a deacon and passed the sacrament for the first time. “I was frightened, but thrilled to have the privilege,” he recalled.10 Among his other duties, Howard pumped the bellows for the organ and started the fire to warm up the chapel on cold Sunday mornings. “A whole new world opened up to me as I learned the responsibilities of being a member of the Church and holding the priesthood,” he said.11
As a young man, Howard joined his ward’s Boy Scout troop and worked hard toward earning the highest award—Eagle Scout. When he neared his goal, he became involved in a friendly competition. “There were two of us vying to be the first Eagle Scout in Boise,” he remembered.12 The other young man finished the requirements first, but Howard seemed satisfied to be the second person to earn the award.13
Howard learned to be industrious early in life. He helped widows and other neighbors, sold newspapers, and worked on his uncle’s ranch. As he grew older, his jobs included caddying at a golf course, delivering telegrams, and working at a drugstore, a newspaper, a hotel, a department store, and an art store.
Dorothy Hunter said her brother had a “driving ambition” and a “brilliant mind.”14 Complementing these attributes were qualities of compassion and generosity. Recalling his caring ways, Dorothy said, “Howard always wanted to do good and to be good. A wonderful brother, he looked out for me. He was kind to our mother and father.”15
Howard’s compassion also extended to animals. “Every stray cat could find a haven at our house, even against family objections,” he said.16 One time some neighbor boys were tormenting a kitten by throwing it in an irrigation ditch near the Hunters’ home. Every time it crawled out, the boys threw it back in. Soon Howard came along and rescued the kitten. “It was lying there almost dead,” Dorothy recalled, “and he brought it home.”17
“It won’t live,” his mother said.
“Mother, we have to try,” Howard insisted.18
Dorothy said they “wrapped it in a blanket and put it near the warm oven and nursed it,” and with this care the kitten revived and lived with the family for many years.
Howard was ordained a teacher in 1923, just before the creation of the Boise Second Ward. Needing another place to meet, and anticipating future growth, local Church leaders proposed building a stake tabernacle. The Saints in Boise were asked to contribute $20,000 toward the construction of the building.19 In a meeting where leaders made an appeal for donations, young Howard W. Hunter was the first person to raise his hand and make a pledge. The amount he pledged—$25—was a large sum in 1923, especially for a 15-year-old. “I worked and saved until I was able to pay my commitment in full,” he later said.20 The tabernacle was completed in 1925, and President Heber J. Grant came to dedicate it that December.21
From a young age, Howard showed an aptitude for music, and as a teenager he learned to play several instruments. At age 16 he formed his own music group, which he called Hunter’s Croonaders. This group performed frequently at dances, receptions, and other events in the Boise area.
When Howard was 19, he was given a contract to provide music on a cruise ship that was going to Asia. For the first two months of 1927, Howard’s five-piece band played for dinners and dances as the ship crossed the Pacific and stopped at various cities in Japan, China, and the Philippines. The cruise was an enlightening experience for Howard, allowing him to learn about other people and their cultures. Although he spent most of his earnings on sightseeing and souvenirs, he reasoned, “The education has been worth what we spent.”22
Howard came home from the cruise to the joyful news that his father had been baptized while he was gone. The next Sunday, Howard and his father attended priesthood meeting together for the first time. A caring bishop had been encouraging Will Hunter to be baptized, and Howard said that “it was through a [home] teacher that a greater interest was created on his part for the church.”23
After the cruise, Howard was uncertain about his future. He kept busy with musical activities and other jobs, including his own business, but none of these held the prospect of a good career. When his business venture stalled in March 1928, he decided to visit a friend in Southern California. He originally planned to stay for only a week or two, but he soon decided to remain and seek what he described as “employment with opportunity.”24 In California he would find not only a career but also his wife, extensive opportunities to serve in the Church, and a home for more than three decades.
Howard’s first jobs in California were selling shoes and working at a citrus packing plant, where some days he loaded between 45 and 50 tons of oranges into railroad cars. “I didn’t know there were this many oranges in the world,” he mused. One day he had “a terrible time” because he had to sort lemons according to color, and he could not differentiate the yellow and green shades due to color blindness. “Before the day was over I thought I would have a nervous breakdown,” he recalled.25
After two weeks at the citrus plant, Howard applied for a job at a bank in Los Angeles, which hired him immediately and began promoting him quickly. He also continued his musical activities, playing with various bands in the evenings. In September 1928, about six months after Howard moved to California, his family was reunited when his parents and sister moved there.
During his youth, Howard had attended church but had not studied the gospel in great depth. In California he became much more attentive to gospel study. “My first real awakening to the gospel came in a Sunday School class in [the] Adams Ward taught by Brother Peter A. Clayton,” he recalled. “He had a wealth of knowledge and the ability to inspire young people. I studied the lessons, read the outside assignments he gave us, and participated in speaking on assigned subjects. … I think of this period of my life as the time the truths of the gospel commenced to unfold. I always had a testimony of the gospel, but suddenly I commenced to understand.”26 For Howard, the experiences in that Sunday School class began a lifelong love for studying the gospel.
Howard enjoyed associating with other young adults in the Los Angeles area. They attended church together, sometimes going to two or three wards on a Sunday, and participated in a wide variety of activities. One of those activities had lasting significance for Howard. A few months after he arrived in California, he and some friends attended a Church dance and then went to the beach to wade in the surf. That evening, Howard met Clara May (Claire) Jeffs, who was on a date with one of his friends. Howard and Claire soon developed a mutual attraction that flowered into love.
They dated a few times in 1928 and became more serious the next year. “She had light brown hair and was a very beautiful girl,” Howard later said. “I think the thing that impressed me most was the depth of her testimony.”27 On a spring evening in 1931, nearly three years after they met, Howard took Claire to an overlook above the Pacific Ocean. There he proposed marriage, and she accepted. Howard recalled:
“We drove to Palos Verdes and parked on the cliffs where we could watch the waves roll in from the Pacific and break over the rocks in the light of a full moon. We talked about our plans and I put a diamond ring on her finger. We made many decisions that night and some strong resolutions regarding our lives.”28
Those resolutions influenced Howard to make a life-changing decision four days before the wedding. After his band performed that night, he packed up his instruments and never played again professionally. Providing music for dances and parties “was glamorous in some respects,” he said, “and I made good money,” but he felt that parts of the lifestyle were incompatible with the life he envisioned for his family. “This left a void of something I had enjoyed, [but] the decision has never been regretted,” he said years later.29 His son Richard observed, “I have often thought of the remarkable discipline (I call it grit) it must have taken to give up something he deeply loved because he valued something more.”30
Howard and Claire were married in the Salt Lake Temple on June 10, 1931, and returned to Southern California to begin their life together. Business conditions in the United States were deteriorating because of the Great Depression, and in January 1932, the bank where Howard worked was forced to close. For the next two years he worked at a variety of jobs, trying to make ends meet. He and Claire were determined to be independent as long as possible, but after a year they accepted an invitation to live with Claire’s parents for a time.
On March 20, 1934, Howard and Claire’s first child was born, a son they named Howard William Hunter Jr. and called Billy. That summer they noticed that Billy seemed lethargic. Doctors diagnosed him with anemia, and Howard twice gave blood for transfusions, but Billy’s condition did not improve. Further tests revealed a severe intestinal problem for which doctors recommended surgery. Howard recalled: “I was taken into the room on a table beside him and gave blood during the operation. At the conclusion, the doctors were not encouraging.”31 Three days later, seven-month-old Billy passed away as his parents sat beside his bed. “We were grief-stricken and numb as we left the hospital into the night,” Howard wrote.32 “This was a severe blow to us.”33
Two months before Billy was born, Howard had obtained employment with the Los Angeles County Flood Control District. His work there introduced him to legal documents and court proceedings, and he decided to pursue a career as an attorney. Fulfilling that goal required years of resolve and hard work. Not having an undergraduate degree, Howard had to complete many classes before he could be admitted to law school. He took the classes at night because he needed to keep working. Even during his years in law school, he continued to work full-time. “To work all day and go to school at night, and, in addition, to find the time to study was not an easy task,” he wrote.34 “It was not unusual for me to study far into the night.”35 Howard maintained that rigorous schedule for five years, finally graduating in 1939 as third in his class.
While Howard was in law school, two other sons were born to Claire and him—John in 1936 and Richard in 1938. Because of Howard’s job with the Flood Control District, the family was able to buy a small home.
In 1940, about a year after Howard graduated from law school, he was called to serve as bishop of the newly created El Sereno Ward in California. Surprised by this calling, he said, “I had always thought of a bishop as being an older man, and I asked how I could be the father of the ward at the young age of thirty-two.” The stake presidency responded by assuring him that he could be “equal to the assignment.” Although Howard felt overwhelmed, he promised, “I will do my best.”36 He fulfilled that promise with great commitment, inspiration, and compassion during his more than six years of service as bishop.
Once again, Howard faced heavy demands on his schedule and energy, but he felt that his service returned many blessings. “I found myself inundated with consuming responsibilities,” he said. “It was a glorious work and a great blessing.”37
An immediate need for the new ward was finding a place to meet. The bishopric leased some rooms in a local building, and ward members began to raise funds for their own meetinghouse. The construction of Church buildings was soon put on hold because of World War II, but ward members looked to the future and continued to raise money. For one of the fundraisers, known as the “onion project,” they went to a pickle plant to trim onions. The odor of the onions would linger, which prompted Bishop Hunter to quip, “It was easy to tell in sacrament meeting if a person had been snipping onions.”38
Other fundraisers included shredding cabbage in a sauerkraut plant and packaging and selling surplus breakfast cereal. “These were happy days when we worked together, people of all classes and ability supporting the bishopric in raising funds to build a chapel,” Bishop Hunter recalled. “Our ward was like a big, happy family.”39 After much patience and sacrifice, the goal of the ward’s own meetinghouse was finally realized in 1950, nearly four years after Howard was released as bishop.
Being a bishop during World War II presented unique challenges. Many male members of the ward were serving in the military, leaving families without husbands and fathers at home. The shortage of men also presented challenges in filling Church callings. Consequently, during part of his tenure as bishop, Howard also served as Scoutmaster. “We had a group of fine young men who could not be neglected,” he said. “I worked with the boys for nearly two years and they made excellent progress.”40
Howard was released as bishop on November 10, 1946. “I will always be thankful for this privilege and the education of those years,” he said. Although the experience was “difficult in many ways,” he and Claire “were grateful for the values it brought to our family.”41 Expressing gratitude for Bishop Hunter’s service, one ward member wrote: “He brought our small ward membership together in a united effort and taught us to accomplish goals that seemed beyond our reach. We worked together as a ward, we prayed together, played together, and worshipped together.”42
Although Howard was released in 1946, his special bond with members of the El Sereno Ward continued. His son Richard said that “to the end of his life, he stayed in contact with them and knew where they were and what their circumstances were. Whenever he traveled to a place where one of the old ward members [lived], he would make contact with them. The love he had for the ward members lasted his whole life.”43
Howard and Claire Hunter were loving parents who taught their sons values, responsibility, and the importance of the gospel. Long before the Church designated Monday night for family home evening, the Hunter family set aside that night as a time for teaching, telling stories, playing games, and going places together. When the family traveled, they sometimes went to temples so John and Richard could perform proxy baptisms for the dead. Howard and his sons also enjoyed building model trains, going camping, and doing other outdoor activities together.
Howard was both working full time and going to law school when John and Richard were born, and he was called to be a bishop when they were very young—ages four and two—so building a strong family required an extra measure of devotion from Claire. She gave that devotion gladly. “My desire and my greatest ambition … has been to be a good wife, to be a good homemaker, and to be a really good mother,” she said. “We have worked hard to keep our boys close to the Church; the boys and I have had wonderful times together.”44 Howard often paid tribute to Claire for her influence and sacrifices in raising their sons.
During the years of raising a family and serving in Church leadership callings, Howard also built a thriving law practice. Working mostly with business and corporate clients, he became a highly respected attorney in Southern California. He was elected to serve on the board of directors of more than two dozen companies.
In his profession, Howard was known for his integrity, precise thinking, clear communications, and sense of fairness. He was also known as a “people lawyer”—someone who “always seemed to have time and the interest to help people with their problems.”45 One attorney said that Howard “was much more concerned about seeing that people got the help they needed than that he got compensated for it.”46
In February 1950, Elder Stephen L Richards and Elder Harold B. Lee of the Quorum of the Twelve traveled to California to divide the rapidly growing Pasadena Stake. They interviewed many brethren in the stake, including Howard. After prayerfully considering whom the Lord would have serve as stake president, at nearly midnight they sent for Howard and extended the calling to him. Elder Richards and Elder Lee told him to get a good night’s sleep and call them early the next morning with his recommendation for counselors. “I went home that night, but I didn’t sleep,” Howard said. “The calling was overwhelming. Claire and I talked for a long time.”47
After President Hunter and his counselors were sustained, they began assessing needs in the stake. A high priority for the new stake presidency was helping members build spiritual strength. One concern was that families were becoming fragmented, partly because they were involved in so many activities. After leaders prayed and counseled together, they felt impressed to emphasize family home evening and to reserve Monday nights for families. All Church buildings in the stake were closed on Monday nights, and “no other events were held which would conflict with that sacred evening,” explained President Hunter.48
Early in his service, President Hunter and other stake presidents in Southern California met with Elder Stephen L Richards to discuss a seminary program for high school students. President Hunter recalled, “[Elder Richards] explained that they would like to try an experiment with early-morning seminary classes in an area where the law did not provide for released time [from school] for religious education.”49 President Hunter was appointed chairman of a committee that studied the feasibility of the idea. After completing the study, the committee recommended introducing early-morning seminary for the students in three high schools. As a youth, President Hunter’s son Richard was part of the early-morning seminary experiment. He recalled, “We wondered whether someone had lost their mind to have a class at 6:00 a.m., but it became our favorite time of the day, where we could be together as Church friends and learn.”50 This program was soon expanded to other students and was the forerunner of the early-morning seminary program for the youth of the Church.
At the October 1951 general conference, the First Presidency met with the stake presidents from Southern California to announce their desire to build a temple in Los Angeles. The prospect of having a temple nearby brought great joy—and would require great sacrifice, as Church members were asked to contribute $1 million toward its construction. When President Hunter returned to California, he met with stake and ward leaders and said, “Give the people the opportunity of receiving great blessings by contributing generously to the temple.”51 Within six months, members in Southern California had pledged $1.6 million toward building the temple, which was dedicated in 1956.
In addition to contributing funds for the temple and other Church buildings, members provided volunteer labor. When meetinghouses were built, President Hunter spent many hours assisting with a shovel, hammer, or paintbrush. Additionally, members provided volunteer labor for Church welfare projects, which included poultry farms, citrus groves, and canneries. For eight years, President Hunter had the assignment of coordinating the work of 12 stakes on these projects, and he often assisted in the work himself. “He never asked anyone to do something or take an assignment that he wouldn’t do himself,” a friend observed.52 Years later, as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Hunter said:
“I have never been on a gloomy welfare project. I have climbed trees and picked lemons, peeled fruit, tended boiler, carried boxes, unloaded trucks, cleaned the cannery, and a thousand and one other things, but the things I remember most are the laughing and the singing and the good fellowship of people engaged in the service of the Lord.”53
In November 1953, President and Sister Hunter and other members of the Pasadena Stake traveled to the Mesa Arizona Temple to do ordinance work. November 14 was President Hunter’s 46th birthday, and before a session began that day, the temple president asked him to address those who were assembled in the chapel. He later wrote of this experience:
“While I was speaking to the congregation, … my father and mother came into the chapel dressed in white. I had no idea my father was prepared for his temple blessings, although Mother had been anxious about it for some time. I was so overcome with emotion that I was unable to continue to speak. President Pierce [the temple president] came to my side and explained the reason for the interruption. When my father and mother came to the temple that morning they asked the president not to mention to me that they were there because they wanted it to be a birthday surprise. This was a birthday I have never forgotten because on that day they were endowed and I had the privilege of witnessing their sealing, following which I was sealed to them.”54
About three years later, the eternal bonds of President Hunter’s family were completed when Dorothy was sealed to her parents in the newly dedicated Los Angeles California Temple.
As a stake president, Howard led with love. A woman who served in a stake calling said, “You felt appreciated and wanted and needed. … He made people responsible when they received a calling, but if they needed his opinion or counsel, he was always there. We knew that we had his complete support and interest.”55 One of his counselors noted, “He praised people for their accomplishments and let them rise to high expectations.”56 A stake member who said President Hunter was her most influential teacher explained, “This man loved others by putting them in high priority, by listening to understand, and by sharing his experiences with others.”57
By the fall of 1959, Howard W. Hunter had presided over the Pasadena Stake for more than nine years, giving service that had blessed the lives of thousands of Latter-day Saints in Southern California. His ministry was about to expand to bless the lives of Church members throughout the world.
On October 9, 1959, between sessions of general conference in Salt Lake City, Howard learned that President David O. McKay wanted to meet with him. He immediately went to the Church Administration Building, where President McKay greeted him warmly and said, “President Hunter, … the Lord has spoken. You are called to be one of his special witnesses, and tomorrow you will be sustained as a member of the Council of the Twelve.”58 Regarding that experience, Howard wrote:
“I cannot attempt to explain the feeling that came over me. Tears came to my eyes and I could not speak. I have never felt so completely humbled as when I sat in the presence of this great, sweet, kindly man—the prophet of the Lord. He told me what a great joy this would bring into my life, the wonderful association with the brethren, and that hereafter my life and time would be devoted as a servant of the Lord and that I would hereafter belong to the Church and the whole world. … He put his arms around me and assured me that the Lord would love me and I would have the sustaining confidence of the First Presidency and Council of the Twelve. … I [told him] I would gladly give my time, my life, and all that I possessed to this service.”59
As soon as Howard left President McKay’s office, he went to his hotel room and called Claire, who was in Provo visiting their son John and his wife and their baby. At first Howard could hardly speak. When he finally told Claire of the calling, they were both overcome with emotion.
The next day, at the Saturday morning session of general conference, Howard William Hunter was sustained as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “I felt … the weight of the world on my shoulders,” he said of that time. “As the conference proceeded I was most uncomfortable and wondered if I could ever feel that this was my proper place.”60
President McKay called on Elder Hunter to speak in the Sunday afternoon session of the conference. After briefly reviewing his life and bearing his testimony, he said:
“I do not apologize for the tears that come to my eyes on this occasion because I believe that I face friends, my brethren and sisters in the Church, whose hearts beat the same as mine today, in the thrill of the gospel and in service to others.
“President McKay, … I accept, without reservation, the call which you have made of me, and I am willing to devote my life and all that I have to this service. Sister Hunter joins me in this pledge.”61
Elder Hunter was ordained an Apostle on October 15, 1959. At age 51, he was the youngest member of the Twelve, whose average age at the time was nearly 66.
For the next 18 months, Elder Hunter commuted between California and Utah as he completed the necessary work in his law practice and prepared to move. One of his clients said that “the Church must have made a very attractive offer” to entice him to leave such a successful law practice. Regarding that, Elder Hunter wrote in his journal:
“Most people do not understand why persons of our religious faith respond to calls made to serve or the commitment we make to give our all. … I have thoroughly enjoyed the practice of law, but this call that has come to me will far overshadow the pursuit of the profession or monetary gain.”62
Elder Hunter’s apostolic ministry would span more than 35 years, and during that time he would travel to nearly every country in the world to fulfill his charge as a special witness of Jesus Christ (see D&C 107:23).
In 1964 the First Presidency appointed Elder Hunter to be president of the Church’s Genealogical Society, which was then known as the Genealogical Society of Utah. That organization was the forerunner of the Church’s Family History Department. Its purpose was to gather, preserve, and share genealogical information throughout the world. Elder Hunter presided over the society for eight years, and during that time he oversaw far-reaching changes in expediting, refining, and expanding family history work.
By 1969 the organization had amassed “more than 670,000 rolls of microfilm, representing the equivalent of three million volumes of 300 pages each.” It had also collected “six million completed records of family groups, a card file index of 36 million individuals, and a book collection of more than 90,000 volumes.”63 Each week, about 1,000 rolls of microfilm were being added from around the world. Processing those records and making them accessible—both for research and for temple work—was an enormous task. Under Elder Hunter’s leadership, the Genealogical Society began using the latest computer technologies to assist with the work. One writer noted that the society became “world famous among professional organizations for its progressive record-keeping activities.”64
Elder Hunter was released as president of the Genealogical Society in 1972. Summarizing the impact of his efforts, Elder Richard G. Scott said, “He dedicated a significant portion of his life to that work and laid the foundations and the direction from which the Church is still reaping the benefits.”65
In 1965 the First Presidency appointed Elder Hunter to be president and chairman of the board of the Polynesian Cultural Center in Laie, Hawaii. At the time, the center had been open for only 15 months and was facing many challenges. Tourist attendance was low, and people had different points of view about the center’s objectives and programs. A week after Elder Hunter was appointed, he went to Laie and began a careful study of the center’s strengths and needs.
Under Elder Hunter’s leadership, the Polynesian Cultural Center became one of the most popular tourist attractions in Hawaii, drawing nearly one million visitors in 1971. Elder Hunter also oversaw a large expansion of the center and its programs. Also important, in Elder Hunter’s words, was that the center provided employment that allowed “thousands of students from the South Pacific [to be] assisted in getting their education, most of whom would not have been able to leave their islands to go to school [otherwise].”66
After presiding over the Polynesian Cultural Center for 12 years, Elder Hunter was released in 1976. His service as president helped fulfill the words of President David O. McKay, who said in 1955 that the small village of Laie had the potential to become “a missionary factor, influencing not thousands, not tens of thousands, but millions of people who will come seeking to know what this town and its significance are.”67
In January 1970, President David O. McKay passed away, and Joseph Fielding Smith was set apart as the new President of the Church. Joseph Fielding Smith had been serving as Church Historian for the previous 49 years, and when he became President of the Church, Elder Hunter was called to succeed him in that assignment. “President Smith had been the Church Historian for so many years that I could hardly visualize myself in that position,” he said.68
Elder Hunter approached this new responsibility with his usual zeal. “The assignment as given by the Lord through revelation is tremendously challenging—both in fulfilling the task of collection and writing and in making the material of use to the members of the Church,” he said.69 The Church News reported that the Church Historian was “responsible for all the record keeping of the Church, including minutes, temple records, all ordinations, patriarchal blessings, and … a current compilation of Church history.”70
In 1972, members of the Twelve were relieved of some of their heavy administrative duties so they could devote more time to their apostolic ministry. As part of that change, Elder Hunter was released as Church Historian but maintained an advisory role over the Church’s Historical Department. “This will leave me in a position of direction but relieved of the operational function,” he wrote.71 He continued in an advisory role until 1978.
Howard W. Hunter developed a special love for the Holy Land when he traveled there with his family in 1958 and 1960. During his service as an Apostle, he returned more than two dozen times. “His desire to be where the Savior walked and taught seemed insatiable,” said Elder James E. Faust of the Quorum of the Twelve.72
Keenly aware of the conflicts in the region, Elder Hunter carried a message of love and peace. “Both the Jews and the Arabs are children of our Father,” he said. “They are both children of promise, and as a church we do not take sides. We have love for and an interest in each. The purpose of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to bring about love, unity, and brotherhood of the highest order.”73
Between 1972 and 1989, Elder Hunter fulfilled key assignments for two special projects in Jerusalem: the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden and the Brigham Young University (BYU) Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies. Early in the Church’s history—in 1841—Elder Orson Hyde of the Quorum of the Twelve offered a dedicatory prayer on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem. In 1972 the First Presidency asked Elder Hunter to begin looking for possible sites to construct an Orson Hyde memorial in Jerusalem. In 1975 the city of Jerusalem opened the way for what would eventually become the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden, built on the Mount of Olives.
During the next few years, Elder Hunter traveled to Jerusalem many times to negotiate contracts for the memorial and to oversee its design and construction. The project was completed in 1979 and was dedicated that year by President Spencer W. Kimball. After conducting the dedicatory services, Elder Hunter expressed his belief that the memorial “will have a great impact for good in extending a favorable image of the Church.”74
Even before the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden was completed, Elder Hunter had been looking for a site where the Church could build a center for BYU’s study abroad program. The center would also provide a meeting place for members of the Jerusalem Branch. Overseeing this project would be one of the most complex, sensitive assignments of Elder Hunter’s ministry.
Church leaders selected a site, but obtaining approval for the land lease and building plans required nearly five years of what Elder Hunter described as “endless work.”75 After extensive debate and negotiations, the Israeli government allowed construction of the center to proceed.
By May 1988 the construction was mostly completed and the lease was ready to sign. By that time, Howard W. Hunter was serving as Acting President of the Twelve. He had undergone serious back surgery the previous year and was unable to walk, but nevertheless he flew to Jerusalem to sign the lease. While he was there, BYU students and members of the Jerusalem Branch held a small reception to express their gratitude. A history of the branch tells of this poignant scene as the reception began: “Still recovering from back surgery, President Hunter was wheeled through the main entrance by President [Jeffrey R.] Holland [of Brigham Young University] as the choir greeted them by singing ‘The Holy City.’”76 Tears were rolling down President Hunter’s cheeks.
In May 1989, President Hunter returned to Jerusalem to dedicate the center. This dedicatory service culminated a decade of extraordinary effort by him and others to bring the Jerusalem Center from a hope to a reality. “President Howard W. Hunter … was the constant thread and the loving watchman on the tower over that project from the time it was only a dream,” said Elder Jeffrey R. Holland.77 In the dedicatory prayer, President Hunter said:
“This building … has been constructed for the housing of those who love thee and seek to learn of thee and follow in the footsteps of thy Son, our Savior and Redeemer. It is beautiful in every respect, exemplifying the beauty of what it represents. O Father, we thank thee for the privilege of building this house to thee for the benefit and learning of thy sons and daughters.”78
When Howard W. Hunter was called as an Apostle in 1959, there were about 1.6 million members of the Church. During the following decades, he played a key role in the Church’s unprecedented worldwide growth. On hundreds of weekends, he traveled to stakes to strengthen members and call new leaders. He also met with government officials in many nations, helping open doors for missionary work.
By 1975, Church membership had increased to about 3.4 million and was growing especially fast in Latin America. Late that year, Elder Hunter and Elder J. Thomas Fyans, an Assistant to the Twelve, were assigned to divide 5 stakes in Mexico City. After meeting with leaders in the area and reviewing information from the stake presidents, Elder Hunter directed the organization of 15 stakes from those 5 stakes—all in one weekend.79 With typical understatement, he wrote, “I doubt there has ever been such a mass organization in the Church, and we were tired by the time we got home.”80
“My wife has been a sweet and loving companion,” Elder Hunter said when he was called to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1959.81 For many years, Claire usually accompanied Elder Hunter in his travels as an Apostle. President Thomas S. Monson recalled a time when he observed Claire showing her love for the children in Tonga: “She would take those sweet little Tongan children in her arms and put one on each knee as she spoke to them … and then explained to the teachers of the Primary how blessed and privileged they were to have the opportunity of teaching such precious little children. She knew the worth of a human soul.”82
In a 1974 interview, Elder Hunter said of Claire: “Throughout our whole marriage, … she has always been standing by with love, consideration, and encouragement. … She’s been a great support.”83
By the time of that interview, Claire had begun to experience serious health challenges. At first she had severe headaches and occasional memory loss and disorientation. Later she suffered several small strokes that made it difficult for her to talk or use her hands. When she reached the point of needing constant care, Elder Hunter was determined to provide as much as he could while also fulfilling his responsibilities as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. He arranged for someone to stay with Claire during the day, but he cared for her at night. Elder Hunter endured some health problems of his own during these years, including a heart attack in 1980.
Claire suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1981 and another in 1982. The second one left her so incapacitated that doctors insisted she be placed in a care center so she could receive proper medical attention. She remained in the center for the last 18 months of her life. During that time, President Hunter visited her at least once a day except when he was traveling on Church assignments. Although Claire did not recognize him much of the time, he continued to tell her of his love and to make sure that she was comfortable. A grandson said, “He was always in a hurry to see her, to be by her side, and take care of her.”84 Recalling his father’s care for his mother, Richard Hunter wrote:
“My mother had the best care possible in her declining years because Dad took care of her. All the family watched with great awe and respect as he switched into the role of a caregiver. … I remember the weight he felt when the doctor warned him [that] it may be the worst thing that could happen to her if she stayed at home and didn’t enter a skilled nursing facility. If she stayed at home, he would likely die in his attempt to care for her because of his own physical limitation. Then she would be left alone in her care. His devotion to her is one of the things that will always be tender for our family.”85
Claire passed away on October 9, 1983. Having observed Elder Hunter’s caring as Claire suffered through more than 10 years of illness, Elder James E. Faust said, “[The] tenderness which was evident in their communication was heartrending and touching. I have never seen such an example of devotion of a husband to his wife.”86
President Spencer W. Kimball passed away in November 1985, and Ezra Taft Benson succeeded him as President of the Church. Marion G. Romney became President of the Quorum of the Twelve by virtue of being the senior member of the quorum. Because of President Romney’s poor health, Elder Hunter, who was next in seniority, was set apart as Acting President of the Twelve. He became President of the Twelve in June 1988, about two weeks after the death of President Romney.
President Hunter served as Acting President or President of the Quorum of the Twelve for eight and a half years. During that time, the worldwide ministry of the Twelve continued to expand as the Church grew from 5.9 million members to 8.7 million, with wards or branches in 149 nations and territories. “It’s an exciting time in Church history,” President Hunter said in 1988. “Today, walking isn’t fast enough. We have to be on the run to keep up and move the work forward.”87 In fulfilling the responsibility to bear witness of Jesus Christ and build up the Church throughout the world, President Hunter led by example. He traveled throughout the United States and to more than 25 other nations during his service as President of the Twelve.
President Hunter pressed forward despite many setbacks with his health. In 1986 he underwent open-heart surgery, and in 1987 he underwent back surgery. Although his back healed, he was unable to walk because of nerve damage and other complications. That October, he sat in a wheelchair while giving his general conference address. “Forgive me if I remain seated while I present these few remarks,” he began. “It is not by choice that I speak from a wheelchair. I notice that the rest of you seem to enjoy the conference sitting down, so I will follow your example.”88
Determined to regain the use of his legs, President Hunter went through a strenuous regimen of physical therapy. At the next general conference, in April 1988, he slowly walked to the pulpit with a walker. In December he used a walker to attend the weekly temple meeting of the First Presidency and Twelve, the first time in more than a year that he had not come in a wheelchair. “When I came into the council room, the brethren stood and clapped,” he said. “This is the first time I have heard clapping in the temple. … Most of the doctors have told me that I would never be able to stand or walk, but they have failed to take into consideration the power of prayer.”89
In April 1990, as a meeting of the Quorum of the Twelve was concluding, President Hunter asked, “Does anyone have anything that is not on the agenda?” When no one spoke, he announced, “Well, then, … if no one else has anything to say, I thought I’d just let you know that I’m going to be married this afternoon.” One member of the Twelve said the announcement was such a surprise that “everyone wondered if they had heard correctly.” President Hunter explained to his brethren, “Inis Stanton is an old acquaintance from California. I’ve been visiting with her for some time, and I’ve decided to be married.”90 Inis had been a member of the El Sereno Ward when President Hunter was bishop. Their paths crossed later when Inis moved to Utah and was a receptionist in the Church Office Building. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple on April 12, 1990, by President Gordon B. Hinckley.
Nearly seven years had passed since Claire’s death. Inis was a source of great comfort and strength to President Hunter during his service as President of the Quorum of the Twelve and President of the Church. She accompanied him on most of his travels to meet with the Saints all over the world.
On February 7, 1993, President Hunter went to Brigham Young University to speak at a fireside that was attended by 17,000 people. He was just beginning his address when a man rushed onto the stand, carrying a briefcase in one hand and a black object in the other. “Stop right there!” the man shouted. He threatened to detonate what he claimed was a bomb unless President Hunter read a prepared statement. President Hunter refused and stood resolutely at the pulpit the entire time the man was threatening him. As fear and commotion spread through the building, the audience began to sing “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” After a few minutes of suspense, two security personnel restrained the man, and President Hunter was lowered to the floor for safety. When order was restored, he rested briefly and then continued with his remarks. “Life has a fair number of challenges in it,” he began, and then added, “as demonstrated.”91
During the previous 20 years, President Hunter had endured numerous trials, including the failing health and eventual death of Claire, multiple hospitalizations for his own health problems, and great pain and physical disability. His teachings through those years often focused on adversity and bore testimony of the Savior Jesus Christ as the source for peace and help in times of trial. In one sermon he taught:
“Prophets and Apostles of the Church have faced … personal difficulties. I acknowledge that I have faced a few, and you will undoubtedly face some of your own now and later in your life. When these experiences humble us and refine us and teach us and bless us, they can be powerful instruments in the hands of God to make us better people, to make us more grateful, more loving, and more considerate of other people in their own times of difficulty.”92
Such teachings were like a loving embrace to those who were suffering. The inspired words of President Howard W. Hunter encouraged many to turn to the Savior, as he had done himself.
On May 30, 1994, President Ezra Taft Benson passed away after an extended illness. Six days later, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles met in the Salt Lake Temple to reorganize the First Presidency. As the senior Apostle, Howard W. Hunter was set apart as President of the Church. He called Gordon B. Hinckley and Thomas S. Monson, who had been serving as counselors to President Benson, to be his counselors.
In a press conference the next day, President Hunter made his first public statements as President of the Church. “Our hearts have been very tender since the death of our friend and brother Ezra Taft Benson,” he began. “I have felt his loss in a particularly personal way in light of the new responsibility that has come to me since his passing. I have shed many tears and have sought my Father in Heaven in earnest prayer with a desire to be equal to the high and holy calling which is now mine.
“My greatest strength through these past hours and recent days has been my abiding testimony that this is the work of God and not men, that Jesus Christ is the authorized and living head of this church and He leads it in word and deed. I pledge my life, my strength, and the full measure of my soul to serving Him fully.”94
After expressions of love, President Hunter issued two invitations to Church members. The first was to be more diligent in following the example of Jesus Christ, and the second was to partake more fully of the blessings of the temple (see pages 1–3). He also invited those who were hurt, struggling, or afraid to “come back [and] let us stand with you and dry your tears.”95
Despite fragile health, President Hunter was determined to do all he could to meet with and strengthen the Saints. Two weeks after becoming President, he gave his first major addresses, speaking to new mission presidents and then to more than 2,200 missionaries. Later that month he went to Carthage and Nauvoo, Illinois, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. “Wherever we went, people crowded around him,” President Gordon B. Hinckley said. “He shook hands with thousands, with a particular smile when children gathered about to look into his eyes and grasp his hand.”96
On October 1, 1994, in the Saturday morning session of general conference, Church members formally sustained Howard W. Hunter as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and as prophet, seer, and revelator. In his opening address, President Hunter repeated his invitations for Church members to follow the Savior’s example and to “look to the temple of the Lord as the great symbol of your membership.”97 He emphasized temples again the next week, when he traveled to Florida to dedicate the Orlando Florida Temple. “The gospel plan that the Lord revealed is not complete without a temple,” he taught, “for it is herein that the ordinances necessary for His plan of life and salvation are administered.”98
In November, President Hunter spoke at a satellite broadcast commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Genealogical Society—an event that had special meaning for him, since he had presided over the organization from 1964 to 1972. “I look back in wonder at the tapestry woven by the Lord in the furthering of temple and family history work,” he said. He then declared, “I have one overriding message: This work must hasten.”99
President Hunter continued to labor vigorously through the end of the year. At the First Presidency Christmas devotional, he testified of the Savior and again emphasized the importance of following His example:
“The Savior dedicated His life to blessing other people. … Never did [He] give in expectation of receiving. He gave freely and lovingly, and His gifts were of inestimable value. He gave eyes to the blind, ears to the deaf, and legs to the lame; cleanliness to the unclean, wholeness to the infirm, and breath to the lifeless. His gifts were opportunity to the downtrodden, freedom to the oppressed, forgiveness to the repentant, hope to the despairing, and light in the darkness. He gave us His love, His service, and His life. And most important, He gave us and all mortals resurrection, salvation, and eternal life.
“We should strive to give as He gave. To give of oneself is a holy gift. We give as a remembrance of all the Savior has given.”100
As part of his address, he also adapted a message that had been published in a magazine the same year he was called as an Apostle:
“This Christmas, mend a quarrel. Seek out a forgotten friend. Dismiss suspicion and replace it with trust. Write a letter. Give a soft answer. Encourage youth. Manifest your loyalty in word and deed. Keep a promise. Forgo a grudge. Forgive an enemy. Apologize. Try to understand. Examine your demands on others. Think first of someone else. Be kind. Be gentle. Laugh a little more. Express your gratitude. Welcome a stranger. Gladden the heart of a child. Take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the earth. Speak your love and then speak it again.”101
The next week President Hunter traveled to Mexico City to organize the Church’s 2,000th stake. Nineteen years earlier in Mexico City, he had directed the organization of 15 stakes from what were 5 stakes in a single weekend. President Gordon B. Hinckley described the creation of the 2,000th stake as “a significant milestone in the history of the Church.”102
One night during those months, President Hunter’s son Richard was in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building and saw that one of the hostesses was in a wheelchair. “I could tell it was new for her,” he said. “I went to talk with her and said my father had a wheelchair just like hers. She said to me that the prophet of her Church also had a wheelchair just like hers. She said that if he can do it, then maybe she could as well. That gave her hope. I think that Dad was beloved by many. Perhaps one of the reasons for that is they could see he suffered just like they do, and he bore up under that load of suffering, and that gave them hope.”103
To begin the year 1995, President Hunter dedicated the Bountiful Utah Temple. He presided over six dedicatory sessions before becoming so fatigued that he was admitted to a hospital. After he was released a few days later, the Church issued a statement saying that he had prostate cancer that had spread to his bones. President Hunter did not make another public appearance during the final six weeks of his life, although he continued to meet with his counselors and conduct Church business at his residence. “I am grateful that he had the opportunity to dedicate [that temple],” President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “particularly in light of his earlier plea that members of the Church ‘look to the temple of the Lord as the great symbol of [their] membership.’”104
President Howard W. Hunter passed away on March 3, 1995, at the age of 87. His final words, spoken in “a very quiet, sweet voice” to those at his bedside, were simply, “Thank you.”105 Although he had been President of the Church for only nine months, his influence had been profound. “Members of the Church all over the world have become bonded to him in a special way as their prophet, seer, and revelator,” said Elder James E. Faust. “They have seen in him the personification of the attributes of the Savior himself. They have responded in a remarkable way to his prophetic messages of making our lives more Christlike and of making our temples the center of our worship.”106
At President Hunter’s funeral, President Gordon B. Hinckley said in tribute:
“A majestic tree in the forest has fallen, leaving a place of emptiness. A great and quiet strength has departed from our midst.
“Much has been said about his suffering. I believe that it went on longer and was more sharp and deep than any of us really knew. He developed a high tolerance for pain and did not complain about it. That he lived so long is a miracle in and of itself. His suffering has comforted and mitigated the pain of many others who suffer. They know that he understood the heaviness of their burdens. He reached out to these with a special kind of love.
“Much has been said about his kindness, his thoughtfulness, his courtesy to others. It is all true. He surrendered himself to the pattern of the Lord whom he loved. He was a quiet and thoughtful man. But he also could be aroused to voice strong and wise opinions. …
“Brother Hunter was kind and gentle. But he also could be strong and persuasive in his statements. … He was trained in the law. He knew how to present a matter. He laid out the various premises in orderly fashion. He moved from these to his conclusion. When he spoke, we all listened. His suggestions most often prevailed. But when they were not accepted, he had the flexibility to withdraw his advocacy. …
“For thirty-six years now, wearing the mantle of the holy apostleship, his has been a leading and powerful voice in declaring the teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ and moving forward the work of the Church. He has traveled widely over the earth as a true and able minister in the service of the Master. …
“Howard W. Hunter, prophet, seer, and revelator, had a sure and certain testimony of the living reality of God, our Eternal Father. He voiced with great conviction his witness of the divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of mankind. He spoke with love for the Prophet Joseph Smith, and for all of those who succeeded him in [the] line of succession until President Hunter’s own time. …
“May God bless his memory to our great good.”107