From his childhood, John Sears Tanner has found joy in learning. Quoting poet Emily Dickinson, who wrote, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” he said, “There have been times when learning has been so exciting, so joyful, it feels like that—that the top of my head is going to come off.”
That excitement has extended to both his education and career as well as his many opportunities to teach the gospel, first as a missionary in the Brazil South Mission from 1969 to 1971 and then as a bishop, stake president, high councilor, Gospel Doctrine teacher, in his current assignment as president of the Brazil Sao Paulo South Mission, and now in his recent call as first counselor in the Sunday School general presidency. He was sustained in that call on April 5, 2014.
“When [teaching] happens right, the Holy Ghost is there and you feel the excitement of learning; you feel like you’re on sacred ground,” President Tanner said.
Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, in July 1950, to William Coats Tanner Jr. and Athelia Sears Tanner, President Tanner grew up in South Pasadena, California, as the fifth of 13 children. His parents created a rich educational environment in the home, including a strong gospel core. “I don’t remember learning anything at church that I hadn’t already learned at home.” He also developed a love for literature that was nurtured as he pursued a degree with a major in English from Brigham Young University and later a doctorate in English at the University of California, Berkeley.
While at BYU he met Susan Winder. The two developed a strong friendship from which they later built a romantic relationship. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple in 1974. Together they have raised five children.
President Tanner began his academic career as an assistant professor at Florida State University. He became a member of the faculty at BYU in 1982; he has worked there since then as an assistant, associate and full professor of English, and department chairman and academic vice president.
The most important part of gospel teaching, he said, comes from something he learned early in his career. Teaching must come from a place of love, not of fear or ambition, but from charity, the pure love of Christ.