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President Thomas S. Monson: On the Lord’s Errand

On any given day at a handful of nursing homes in Salt Lake City, a buoyant yet distinguished elderly gentleman would be seen talking, laughing and listening to the residents. Despite his heavy load of religious assignments, Thomas S. Monson, the president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was a self-appointed chaplain for these facilities.

President Monson’s love for the elderly can be traced to his earliest positions in the Church. He was assigned to be a bishop in Salt Lake City when he was just 22 years old. His lay ministry included responsibilities for over 1,000 members — 85 of them widows — and the largest welfare load in the Church.

"He always took great pride that the Lord had given him the chance, even traveling as he was, as an apostle, to go and speak at the funeral of those widows,” said President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor to President Monson in the First Presidency.   

President Eyring continued, "He was a consummate minister to individuals. The prominent and the obscure."

President Monson remembered one particular year when a drought caused a severe shortage of food for the needy, especially fresh fruit. He offered a prayer late one night at the meetinghouse, asking the Lord for help. “I pleaded that these widows were the finest women I knew, that their needs were simple and conservative and that they had no resources on which they might rely.”

The next morning, President Monson said, he received a call from a man in the congregation who owned a large wholesale produce company. “Bishop,” he said, “I’d like to send a semi-trailer filled with oranges, grapefruits and bananas to the Church for those who would otherwise go without. Could you make arrangement?”

President Monson not only provided physically for the needy in his congregation, but he also forged lasting friendships. He took a week of his personal vacation time each Christmas season to visit every single one of the widows in his congregation. For the first several years he took them a hen from his own poultry coops as a gift.

These visits continued decades after President Monson was given other Church assignments for as long as each of the 85 widows lived. Fellow Church leader Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “Perhaps no one in the present leadership of the Church has spoken at so many funerals — he once had three in one day — and always very personal remarks are given for the sometimes ordinary and otherwise unknown souls that he has met and loved during his ministry.”

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf, who served as second counselor to President Monson in the First Presidency, said, “He's really the one who's concerned about the rescue of the one. He is one who walked through the world looking for opportunities where he could serve individuals.”

President Uchtdorf also called President Monson a great teacher. “The Lord himself taught in parables. President Monson taught in parables. His parables will never be forgotten.”

President Monson also had a gift for reaching out to the youth in the Church and served for nearly three decades on the National Executive Board of the Boy Scouts of America.

"He would lighten almost any situation that he was in, that I so appreciated when things were difficult," said President Eyring, who said President Monson was always optimistic.  

Perhaps President Monson’s example of how to minister to others came from his childhood. He was born on August 21, 1927, in Salt Lake City to G. Spencer and Gladys Condie Monson, who were of Swedish, English and Scottish ancestry.

President Uchtdorf credits President Monson’s mother with teaching him how to serve the poor and needy. “When the homeless came by and knocked on the door, his mother invited them in.  And he shared with us how he was impressed.  How she not only fed them with food, but gave them a message.”

He describes his childhood as idyllic, with hours spent fishing and exploring the surrounding valleys. “Ours was a close-knit family,” President Monson said. “We gained a sense of appreciation and love for our relatives, because all of us lived together on one corner on Salt Lake’s west side.”

President Monson vividly recalls riding in his family’s 1928 Oldsmobile each Sunday with his dad to the home of his Uncle Elias. “I would wait in the car while Dad went inside. Soon he would emerge from the house, carrying his crippled uncle in his arms like a china doll. I would open the door and watch how tenderly my father would place Uncle Elias in the front seat and wrap a blanket around his legs. Then we would take him for a ride around the city. Dad never wanted any thanks for this service, but his lesson was not lost on me.”

After graduating from high school, President Monson enrolled as a freshman at the University of Utah but soon shipped out for basic training in San Diego as a member of the United States Navy Reserve. When the war ended in 1946, he returned home, graduating two years later with honors from the University of Utah with a degree in business.

It was at a university dance that he first saw the young lady who would later become his wife — Frances Johnson. At the end of their courtship, President Monson said he had planned a special evening to propose to Frances, but his youngest brother, Scott, spoiled the surprise by blurting out, “Tommy has a ring for you, Frances!” the moment she entered the door. Tom and Frances were married in the Salt Lake Temple on October 7, 1948. She passed away on May 17, 2013.

“From the first day of our marriage, Tom has served in leadership positions. Some have asked how a new bride adjusts to that, but it has never been a sacrifice to see my husband doing the Lord’s work,” Frances said. “It has blessed me, and it has blessed our children. He always knew that if it was for the Church, I expected him to do what he had to do.”

Her shared commitment to serving in the Church is something President Monson valued. “In 59 years of marriage I have never known Frances to complain once of my Church responsibilities. In those 59 years I have been gone many days and many nights, and I have rarely been able to sit with her in the congregation. But there is no one like her — absolutely no one. She is in every way supportive and is a woman of quiet and profoundly powerful faith,” President Monson said in 2007.

This mutual commitment to Church service was tested again and again as President Monson was called to numerous lay leadership positions and asked to take a leave of absence from his job at the Deseret News to move his family to Toronto, Canada, where he served as the president of the Canadian Mission for three years.

Upon returning home, President Monson participated in a variety of Church committees but was unprepared when Church President David O. McKay asked him to be one of 12 modern-day apostles who help govern The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

After sharing the news with Frances, President Monson recalls, “That night neither of us slept very well. My feet were like ice.” In what he would later describe as one of the most dramatic days of his life, President Monson was ordained an apostle on October 4, 1963. He was 36 years old.

Twenty-two years later he would find himself serving in the First Presidency, the highest governing body of the Church. He served in the First Presidency for over two decades as a counselor to three Church presidents.

Although President Monson had heavy responsibilities and demands on his time, Frances said he considered his highest priority to be that of husband and father. In fact, he often shared his spiritual experiences with his children. Daughter Ann said some of her fondest memories came from “hearing him tell of the special inspiration he had in calling a patriarch or of the faith-promoting experiences he had interviewing missionaries.”

His son Thomas said, “Every night before I went to bed, I would go upstairs to his office, and whatever he was doing he would put aside, and he would play me a game of checkers. That is one of the sweetest memories I have of my father.”

Clark Monson also recalls teaching moments with his father. “Dad and I were out fishing on a boat, and he asked me to reel in my line for a moment. When our lines were in and the rods set aside, Dad said, ‘In about five minutes your brother Tom will be sitting down to take the bar exam. He’s worked hard through three years of law school for this, and he’s probably a little apprehensive. Let’s just kneel here in the boat. I’ll offer a prayer for him, and then you offer one.’ That was one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

Of the passing of his wife, Frances, President Monson later said, “She was the love of my life, my trusted confidant, and my closest friend. To say that I miss her does not begin to convey the depth of my feelings.”

“I'll miss him as a friend, as one who can be trusted,” said President Uchtdorf. “One who was very kind, very generous, very caring, loving. But also very clear in his ways and constant.” He said it was that trust by government leaders in East Germany that led to the building of a temple behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.

"I don't think it ever was the idea that he thought himself a great temple builder," expressed President Eyring. "It was that he saw the blessing of having temples everywhere, and he wanted it for the people."

President Uchtdorf also noted the inspiration President Monson received when choosing locations for new temples around the world. “When you look at African locations -- I traveled the world, but I think I would never have thought that we would have in some places where we have now.”

In the midst of visits with widows, playing checkers with his son or attending to worldwide needs of members of the Church, President Monson has always been “on the Lord’s errand” (D&C 64:29).

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