Seventy-nine men have been called as special witnesses of the Lord Jesus Christ and made members of the Council of the Twelve Apostles in this dispensation, seventy-nine men out of tens of thousands of adult males who have been members of the Church since it was organized in 1830.
It takes a special type of man to be an apostle. It is a high and holy calling, a calling that requires one to dedicate one’s full time and consecrate one’s whole life to serving God and his fellowmen. President Joseph F. Smith declared: “The duty of the twelve apostles of the Church is to preach the gospel to the world, to send it to the inhabitants of the earth, and to bear testimony of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as living witnesses of his divine message.”
Ordinarily, such a call has come at general conference time, but because of the extreme urgency of the work and the unbelievably heavy load being carried by each member of the Council of the Twelve, the call to the seventy-ninth man chosen, Elder Marvin Jeremy Ashton, came between conferences, on December 2, 1971, just one month after the passing of Elder Richard L. Evans, whose death created the vacancy Elder Ashton fills. His name is being presented for the sustaining vote of Church members at the various stake conferences throughout the Church and will be presented to the general membership at general conference in April.
Soon after Elder Ashton’s appointment was announced, he was asked by a reporter if the call shocked him. His answer was, “No, the call didn’t shock me; it surely surprised me, but it didn’t shock me. No one who is striving to do his duty in the Church should ever be shocked when a call comes.” Neither was his call a shock or even a surprise to anyone who knew him well. Being named to the holy apostleship was just one more link in the chain of service and devotion that Elder Ashton has been building. In fact, his entire life and the lives of his forebears are demonstrations of how the Lord prepares his servants for leadership.
Elder Ashton’s forebears were among the early converts to recognize the truth of the restored gospel in far-off lands. His great-grandfather, Edward Ashton, who was born in 1821 in North Wales, eagerly accepted the gospel when he heard it from the missionaries, was baptized in July 1849 at the age of 28, and sailed for America the following year. Forsaking kindred and homeland, he cast his lot with the Saints. The Ashton name has been prominent and respected in the Church ever since.
Elder Ashton’s father, Marvin O., filled a mission in the British Isles, was a bishop, a member of a high council, in a stake presidency, and president of a stake, and from 1938 until his death in 1946 he was a member of the Presiding Bishopric of the Church.
Thomas E. Jeremy, Elder Ashton’s maternal great-grandfather, was converted in the early days of the Church in Wales and was among the first Welsh Saints to come to the United States in 1849. His son, John Jeremy, an intelligent man who loved history, was widowed and left with three small daughters to raise alone. One of these daughters was Elder Ashton’s mother.
Elder Marvin J. Ashton has been a General Authority, an Assistant to the Twelve, since October 1969, when he was called to be managing director of the Church’s new Unified Social Services program. In this capacity he has worked with minority groups, the underprivileged, the unfortunate, and the downtrodden, and has endeared himself to countless of these people. He has also been serving the Church as president of the Deseret Book Company and as a member of the board of directors of Deseret Gymnasium for twenty-one years. Prior to his appointment as an Assistant to the Twelve, he had served as first assistant in the general superintendency of the Young Men’s Mutual Improvement Association for eight years, as second assistant for three years, and as a member of the general board of the YMMIA for twenty-one years.
In these assignments he has traveled over the world, carrying the programs for youth to the stakes and missions of the Church. His new calling will be an enlargement of the work he has been engaged in throughout the years.
What special talents and qualities does Elder Ashton bring to his new position? Those who know him best talk about his abiding faith in the Lord, his undeviating devotion to the Church, and his unquestioned love for his fellowmen. He is kind, soft-spoken, a good listener, a gentleman, a peacemaker. He is keenly interested in and unusually sensitive to the needs and problems of others. He has a disarming smile, a keen sense of humor; he is polished and refined and has a commanding personality. When he walks into a room, those present pay attention.
The writer and others had the privilege of being appointed to the MIA general board about the same time (1949) as Elder Ashton and have observed his growth over the years. As we watched him conduct meetings, make reports, give talks, analyze problems, and fill his many responsibilities, we were always amazed at how cool he remained under pressure, how well he weighed his counsel and advice before giving it, his great talent for reconciling two points of view, and his ability to keep confidences. We observed his fine rapport with the youth of the Church, his unique ability to understand them, and his talent to choose words and relate stories to which they would respond. He is the kind of man to whom others are drawn for counsel. We were impressed by his loyalty to his leaders and by his constant support of the General Authorities.
But with all of this he is known for his frankness and courage. He is a real competitor in athletic games as well as in the game of life. He has been blessed with a great will to excel and is respected as an expert businessman and money manager. He has the reputation of being generous, prudent, and punctual. Those who have played tennis with him for more than thirty years have said they have never known him to be late even for a tennis appointment. His friends say that he never wastes time and that he is always very well organized. With him, when it is time to conduct business, he is all business; when it is time to play and have fun, no one plays harder or enjoys himself more.
The baby boy who was to be named Marvin Jeremy Ashton was born to Marvin O. and Rae Jeremy Ashton on May 6, 1915, in a two-story, yellow brick home at 1341 Browning Avenue in Salt Lake City. The home in those days was on the outskirts of the city, and as an infant in his bedroom Marvin often heard the coyotes howl in the foothills of the Salt Lake Valley.
His father and mother taught him early the value of hard work and the worth of a dollar. As a young boy Marv raised rabbits and pigeons and worked on the family-operated, two-acre produce farm, raising and selling fruits and vegetables. Later, while attending high school, he helped in his father’s hardware store in Sugar House. He worked his way through the University of Utah by putting in a half day’s labor in the store and going to school a half day. He was graduated with honors from the University of Utah School of Business and still found time to participate in numerous extracurricular activities, including serving as sports editor of the school newspaper for two years.
Marvin O. and Rae Ashton reared their children on the advice “Always remember who you are,” and “Always do your own thinking and stand on your own two feet.” The Ashton children remember no specific teaching on such matters as the Word of Wisdom. In their home, involvement in all manner of church activities and keeping all the commandments were just taken for granted. The mother taught Primary and was a Relief Society teacher and officer while the father worked in the ward and stake and was in the Presiding Bishopric. There was no thought in the children’s minds except to be active in the Church. Sunday was a holy day. Going to meetings, participating in MIA, and paying tithing were all part of the routine. Marv and his brother Wendell, who is now a Regional Representative of the Twelve, progressed through the priesthood and the Scout and M-Man programs, always being leaders among their peers.
In sports Marv has always excelled, and it is fascinating to observe his progress from junior member of a losing ward M-Man basketball team to director of the entire athletic program of the Church. At the age of 16 he was big enough and skilled enough to make the Parley’s Ward M-Man basketball team, but since the eligibility rules required participants to be 18, he practiced with the team for two years without ever playing a league game. During these years his ward seldom won a game.
But the Parley’s Ward team was not always to be a losing team. Newspaper reports from the period tell of the team’s success and often praise Marv’s abilities and accomplishments. The following excerpts are typical:
“Marvin Ashton, stellar center of Parley’s Ward, still tops all scorers in the Highland Stake basketball race, having run up to date a total of 92 counters.”
“It is always left to Parley’s to make the season’s most outstanding upset. Marvin Ashton, inspired from something, rang up a total of 14 points. … Ashton’s shots were the weirdest so far of the season. His set-up during the last quarter was something which every one of the 400 fans will not forget soon.”
“Marv Ashton recently scored every one of his team’s 21 points against Highland Park.”
Later, in the mission field, he was captain of the basketball team that won the British National title and a member of the team that won the European international championship. The team practiced and played after the mission day labors were over, two nights a week. An interesting sidelight is the fact that because they couldn’t afford to buy suits, team members helped to cut, fit, and sew their own suits on diversion days.
As chairman of the YMMIA Athletic Committee and later as assistant superintendent of the YMMIA, Elder Ashton had the rare opportunity of serving the youth of the Church worldwide for twenty-one years. His first assignment on the board was to direct the 1948–49 all-Church basketball tournament. This activity was not new to him, as he had previously served as supervisor of the Salt Lake Division, a member of the Highland Stake MIA board, and superintendent of the Parley’s Ward YMMIA. While in the general superintendency he helped initiate junior softball, junior basketball, junior volleyball, tennis, and golf in the all-Church athletic program and had much to do with the planning and designing of the George Q. Morris Softball Park in Salt Lake City, where six games can be played simultaneously.
For his devotion to the sports program he was given the Homer “Pug” Warner award in 1967. This is awarded annually by the Athletic Committee of the YMMIA to one “who possesses the fine quality of manhood exemplified by ‘Pug’ Warner,” the father of M-Man basketball in the Church. But his contributions to athletics were only a minor part of the service he rendered the youth of the Church. When he was released from the superintendency one of his associates wrote, expressing the feelings of many of the board members, “I don’t know of anyone who has ever given more of his time and means, and has been such a strong influence, in building testimonies in the lives of the youth of the Church. Yours has been a life of complete dedication to helping the young people.
“I mean it sincerely when I say you are one of the real choice souls sent down by our Father in heaven to help build faith and testimonies in our young people and prepare them to return to him.”
Elder Ashton has maintained a rigid schedule of tennis, jogging, and other activities to keep himself physically fit. Even since becoming a General Authority, he has tried to play tennis at seven o’clock on Saturday mornings before leaving for stake conferences and once during the week at noon. He also tries to play paddleball at seven o’clock two mornings a week at the Deseret Gymnasium. One of his favorite tennis partners and opponents is his lovely wife, Norma.
Elder Ashton was an outstanding missionary in Great Britain. One of the principal tracting techniques in the early days of his mission was selling Millennial Star subscriptions. During his first five months Elder Ashton sold more subscriptions to the Star than any other elder had ever sold during a one-year period. On July 7, 1937, his mission president, Joseph J. Cannon, wrote to him: “For two weeks now you have been writing Millennial Star subscriptions at the rate of three a day, and I tender you my admiring and sincere congratulations. That is work; there is no magic word that sells Star subscriptions. They come as the result of industry, intensity, personality, and faith.”
Because of his journalistic training and ability, he was later named associate editor Of the Star and also served as supervising elder of the British Mission office. Because of a friendship he made with a prominent Methodist clergyman in London, he was invited to direct the Methodist Boys’ Brigade program weekly for more than six months.
President Hugh B. Brown, president of the mission during the last year and a half of Elder Ashton’s service, praised him as an elder who was “always what and where he should be.” He wrote: “I have never had a young man in the field for whom I care more sincerely and whose affections and cooperation were more appreciated than your own.”
Although young Marv Ashton was very popular with the girls, he didn’t have a formal date until the night of his high school graduation. Her name was Norma Berntson. The Berntsons were a hard-working Norwegian family who lived a block down the street from the Ashtons in the same ward. John Berntson was a building contractor and had a tennis court in his backyard. It may have been tennis that first attracted Norma and Marv to each other, for they played a good deal together and engaged in many other activities in the ward before that first date. The romance developed through their college years, and they were married in 1940 in the Salt Lake Temple.
It was a union of two outstanding young Church and community leaders. Norma Ashton had always been active in the Church. She also worked to help put herself through the University of Utah, where she was president of the Associated Women Students, an officer of her sorority, and graduated with high honors in scholarship and extracurricular activities. She received her degree in education and taught school during the last year that Marv was on his mission. They continued their courtship a little over a year after he returned before they were married. On more than one occasion Marv has been heard to remark, “Norma is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
During most of his spare time during that last year, Marv worked to build a home, for he had always had a desire to build a home to take his bride into. To help pay off the mortgage and to supplement his earnings, he has since built five or six other homes, one at a time, and sold them. “I have always been uncomfortable with home mortgages,” he said, “and have always paid them off as rapidly as possible.”
Brother and Sister Ashton have been blessed with four children. John, an attorney, has filled a mission in the England Southwest Mission, and Stephen, an undergraduate in social work, is a returned missionary from New Zealand South. Their daughters are Mrs. Dale (Jonne) Wheadon, a University of Utah graduate now residing in Boise, Idaho, and Janice, a student at Brigham Young University. They also have one grandson.
Theirs has been an ideal marriage and a happy home, a home where the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ has shown forth. It has been a home filled with love and activity, and though both Marv and Norma have always been busy with church assignments, they have never neglected each other or their children. Since 1968 Norma has been a member of the general board of the Relief Society; prior to that, for a number of years while Marv was on the general board of the MIA, she served as ward and stake YWMIA president. There has never been a time when she has not held a position in the Church.
Each Wednesday night for twenty-one years was general board meeting night for Marv, but it was often family swim night for the rest of the family at the Deseret Gym. Frequently they would meet Dad for a treat on the way home. “With this background,” Elder Ashton quipped, “is it any wonder I am the worst swimmer in the family today?”
At 56 years of age Marv still holds his own. Steve recently revealed: “When I was a boy Dad said, ‘Steve, I’ll give you one hundred dollars the day you beat me in tennis.’ To this day I’ve never been able to do it.” Then with a smile he added, “On a good day, though, I can beat him in table tennis.”
The Ashton home has been a gathering place for the young people in the ward and the neighborhood. The Ashtons have a deep appreciation and love for people, both young and old. They are known as marvelous hosts and have a widespread reputation for the wholesome entertainment that they provide in their home.
With all of this, Elder Ashton has managed to serve in civic capacities. He has been interested in Scouting all his life, and both he and his sons hold the Eagle rank. He has received the Silver Beaver and Silver Antelope awards for his contributions to Scouting and has served as a national committeeman, a member of the regional executive committee, and on the executive committee for the Great Salt Lake Council. In 1960 he was appointed to the White House Youth Conference Committee for Utah.
Elder Ashton served as an admired and effective member of the Utah State Senate from 1959 to 1963. He was a Republican but always put the needs and welfare of the people above party politics. Toward the close of his term the Democratic party leader, Alonzo F. Hopkins, said, “I respect Marv’s judgment more than any man in the Senate.” A few years later, when Senator Hopkins died suddenly, Sister Hopkins asked Elder Ashton to speak at the funeral services because “Lon thought so much of him.”
Another associate, U.S. Congressman Sherman P. Lloyd, who was president of the state senate in 1959, once said, “Marv Ashton is one senator who, once he has weighed the facts and made up his mind, will never yield or change his vote regardless of how heavy or intense the pressure.”
The worth of a man can well be determined by the impact he has made on the lives of his associates. Here is what some close associates have said about Elder Ashton:
“The highlight of my work in the legislature was working with you on your committee. I am so grateful I had that privilege. I have followed your career since then and glorify you and your achievements. If I needed any further proof that the Lord is directing the Church in these days, I received it in reading in the paper last night of your appointment to the Council of the Twelve.”
“Among your many attributes, the one we admire most is your ability to be so warm, friendly, casual, and sincere and yet maintain a certain ‘polish’ with it all.”
“I especially admire his great understanding of human nature and his ability to develop people into leaders and workers in the Church of Jesus Christ. He is a true humanitarian, one who can and does help the sick at heart, the sick in mind, and those who need human understanding.”
“His contributions to the youth of the Church cannot be measured in years, but his influence for good has touched the lives of thousands of young men. This influence has brought many people into the Church and many more have been reactivated because of him.”
“Marv is one of the world’s best diplomats.”
“He has a quick wit and an excellent sense of humor. He is dedicated to the gospel of Jesus Christ in any capacity in which he is called to serve. Though he has held high positions, he does not seek for honor or glory for himself. In other words, he sets an example worthy of imitation.”
“Over the years we, his colleagues, have come to know him as a man tall among men, both in stature and in spirit, strong but not stubborn, unafraid of work and responsibility, a builder of confidence, a team player, gentle, smiling, friendly, and fun to be with, approachable, one who listens, youthful and loved by youth, a friend of sports, whether watching or playing, a strong voice for fair play, good sportsmanship, and doing things well.”
Such is the warp and woof of the fiber of Marvin J. Ashton, the seventy-ninth member of the Council of the Twelve of the Church of Jesus Christ in this dispensation.
On the wall of his office hangs an Indian proverb that typifies his life: “Listen or thy tongue will keep thee deaf.” On April 20, 1971, he gave a speech at a devotional at Brigham Young University that he called “He Answered Nothing.” The theme of his great message was that sometimes the most effective sermons, the most convincing messages, the sweetest tones, and the most penetrating responses are presented in complete silence. “These are the times,” he said, “when muscle tone, mental tone, and spiritual tone can most effectively speak for themselves in silence.”
As he travels throughout the Church in the service of the Master, the Saints love and respect him for the silent sermon he is and for the high moral, mental, and physical tone he radiates, for he is a man who loves God and his fellowmen, who places his duty to church above all else, who listens well, who speaks little but says much, whose favorite words of advice and comfort to God’s children everywhere are: “You can make it from where you are,” and to bewildered family members, “We only start to fail in the home when we give up on each other,” and who has been found worthy to be a special witness for Christ.