President Monson’s Biographer Testifies of Prophet's Call
By Melissa Merrill, Church News and Events
Members of the Church—and many others throughout the world—know President Thomas S. Monson for his warm style and his ability to teach gospel principles by using powerful personal experiences. While those experiences help many feel as if they know President Monson, perhaps few know him as well as Heidi Swinton—his biographer.
Sister Swinton's article “Have I Done Any Good in the World Today,” recounting her experience writing the story of the prophet's life, appeared in the March Liahona and Ensign. Additional articles from Sister Swinton about the prophet will appear in August in the Liahona, Ensign, and Friend magazines. And recently, Sister Swinton met with Church News and Events to talk about the role of prophets and to share her testimony of President Monson as today's living prophet.
The Power of the Prophetic Word
Writing President Monson’s biography was not Sister Swinton’s first time writing about Latter-day prophets; she served on Church Curriculum Department committees helping compile and write the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church series, particularly the volumes about Church Presidents Joseph Smith (1805–1844), Brigham Young (1801–1877), Joseph F. Smith (1838–1918), and Harold B. Lee (1899–1973). In that experience, she said, she learned to “recognize the power of a prophet through his words.”
So that is where she started: with President Monson’s words. Although she and her husband were in England, where he was serving as a mission president, she began poring over all of the talks that President Monson had given.
“The stack was enormous,” Sister Swinton said, noting that the collection included not only general conference talks but also commencement addresses, funeral sermons, community speeches, fireside transcripts, and more. “I read them all, and as I read them, I would pray to come to understand how I could teach principles through his life, because that’s what he does.
“I tried very hard to have it reflect not only his life but the way he would tell his life, which is through stories and examples, and then by honing in on one principle.”
Sister Swinton noted President Monson’s reputation for being a “good storyteller” but emphasized the importance of remembering that he’s not simply telling a story—he’s inviting people everywhere to do and become something.
“[President Monson] doesn’t call them ‘stories’ anyway,” Sister Swinton said. “They’re ‘true experiences’ or ‘true accounts.’ And what he’s teaching us [through these accounts] is that in every corner of our lives, in every interaction with others, there is an opportunity to make a difference.”
“That’s what he’s asking us to do—and not to check it off as a service project for the week,” she added. “I’ve never actually heard him say project. He simply goes out and finds people to serve.” In fact, he has often said, “the sweetest experience in mortality is to know that our Heavenly Father has worked through us to accomplish an objective in the life of another person” (To the Rescue, 4).
The Influence of an Example
It’s a lesson President Monson underscores with the way he lives. “Whatever the Lord asks him to do, that’s what he does,” Sister Swinton said. “If he feels prompted to visit a particular [person], that’s where he goes.”
Personal visits, she noted, have the same emphasis in the prophet’s journal as matters of Church administration.
“We have a tendency to distinguish between this need and that need, and the Lord doesn’t,” she explained. “The Lord sees every need. … The priorities are what the Lord would have you do.
“When we are close enough to the Lord to feel [His direction] and receive a prompting and then act on it, then we’re on His errand. That’s what I have learned from President Monson: you just put yourself in the Lord’s hands and make yourself able, worthy, and qualified.”
That example, while admirable in anyone, is particularly powerful in a prophet of God, Sister Swinton added. “He’s saying in this really loud, noisy, angry, frustrated world that has lost touch not only with religion but most of all, with God, that we have to hang on and that we have to be the light in the darkness and that we sometimes have to step out into the darkness and be that light for people who have lost hope and lost faith.”
The Role of a Prophet
It’s a message that President Monson’s life experiences have uniquely prepared him to teach and share now, she said. And it’s a message she hopes comes through in the biography—a work that was not written only with events or milestones or chronology in mind.
“The way I approached [writing the biography] was to say, ‘This is a prophet of God. And this biography is a reflection of how the Lord prepared him to serve right now and how He has put him in places where he needed to learn the things he would later teach us, and now he’s prepared to do that,’” Sister Swinton said. “We have a man who was prepared before the world began (see Abraham 3:22–23). The Lord knew what He was going to need right now at this point in the latter days, and He prepared Thomas Spencer Monson for that role.”
That role—a prophet, seer, and revelator—may not be one the world understands, she continued, but it’s one the world desperately needs.
“How do I quantify what a prophet does?” Sister Swinton asked, “It’s so simple. We sing the song, ‘We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.’ We belt out that first line, ... but the key is in the next line: ‘To guide us in these latter days.’ That is what he does. He is the Lord’s voice (see D&C 1:38).
It’s important, she said, that we don’t dismiss what that voice tells us as simply nice stories or even good ideas. Rather, we must act.
“I know that Thomas Spencer Monson is a prophet of God, and for me, those words are not casual,” Sister Swinton said. “Those words resonate in my heart, and I am so grateful to have had that confirmation from the Spirit.
“I know that my Redeemer lives, and I know that because of the loving-kindness of giving us a prophet whose voice we can trust, whose experiences in life are real and tangible and honest, whose heart is so full of love and charity and compassion. I’ve seen it, and I’ve experienced it.
“What a prophet of God does for us is point us to the Lord Jesus Christ and His power, His Atonement,” Sister Swinton concluded. “He exercises the power of the priesthood on earth today. Everything he does, everything he touches on behalf of the Lord, lifts a life. When we sing, ‘We thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet,’ I think we are recognizing that the Lord is reaching into our lives at this time and this place and saying: Here is a man you can trust. Go forward.”