The young missionary had spent the morning scrubbing the floors of the mission home washing and ironing his shirts, and mending his socks. Then, since it was preparation day, he had decided to visit the university library. Finding nothing of particular interest in the book stacks, he pulled out his own copy of the Doctrine and Covenants and began reading section 76—Joseph Smith’s vision of heaven.
He became so absorbed in the Prophet’s description that he didn’t notice the passing of time, and it was night when he finally left the library. As he walked across the spacious lawn toward the streetcar, he looked up into the heavens: “There was no moon, but the sky was clear. … The Southern Cross and other brilliant stars, visible in the Southern Hemisphere, shone with unusual grandeur. As I gazed in wonder, I seemed to see beyond the stars the things I had been reading about. I could not then and I have not been able since to recall walking across the lawn.”
Retelling this experience in 1965, President Romney said: “Since that Saturday evening in Sydney, Australia, forty-three years ago, I have never been content to view life through the lens which reveals but the narrow span between mortal birth and death. I cannot remember of having made, during the intervening years, a single voluntary major decision or judgment without testing it by my knowledge of revealed truth.” (Address delivered at Brigham Young University, 27 May 1965, p. 20.)
That life-shaping experience has continued to influence the discernment and perspective of Marion G. Romney, recently called as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. His great love of revealed truth is obvious in the many sermons he has delivered over a lifetime of service. And his ability to weigh decisions by a knowledge of the divine has been a hallmark of his ministry.
Because President Romney’s health currently keeps him from taking an active part in Church administration, Elder Howard W. Hunter serves as acting president of the Quorum. But President Romney continues to be a beloved leader and friend to the many Latter-day Saints who, through his inspiration, have come to understand more clearly the doctrines of the kingdom.
President Spencer W. Kimball, under whom he served as Counselor in the First Presidency, recognized and relied upon his gifts: “President Romney is able to reflect on an issue before us in the context of the scriptures which he knows so well,” he said, “and he relates problems to the scriptures in an especially keen way.” (In Regional Representatives’ seminar, 5 Oct. 1979.)
Marion G. Romney’s spiritual training began early. Eight days after Marion’s birth on 19 September 1897 in Colonia Juarez, Mexico, his father, George S. Romney, left to serve a two-year mission in the northern United States. Marion’s mother, Artemesia Redd Romney, took in washing and knitting to support herself and her baby and to send money to her missionary husband. Her son grew up learning the blessings of service and sacrifice.
During his father’s absence, Marion became so ill that few expected him to survive. At his mother’s request, priesthood holders gave him a blessing. When they promised that the baby would live to accomplish a great mission, his health immediately began to improve—and his mother taught him that he had been healed by the power of the Lord.
She also taught him to pray and to love the standard works. Since textbooks were scarce in the LDS colonies, Marion and the other children usually studied out of the scriptures. He was promised in his patriarchal blessing that if he were faithful he would “become mighty in expounding the scriptures.”
The young boy learned that through the love of the Lord Jesus Christ, it is possible to find peace even in a world filled with turmoil and wickedness. By 1912 the colonists found themselves in the middle of a revolution. Young Marion was disturbed by the troops pursuing each other through the countryside, taking supplies from the colonists—and he was terrified when shooting began just ten miles from his home.
But his terror was tempered as he listened to his mother sing hymns of faith and testimony as lullabies to her children. “The words of the songs she sang comforted me. Some of them have been ringing in my mind through all the years of the intervening two-thirds of a century.” (Ensign, July 1981, pp. 3–4.)
Through harrowing experiences, he learned that the Lord cares for his Saints even in the midst of calamities. As fourteen-year-old Marion and his family were attempting to escape the perils of the Mexican revolution—taking with them only one trunk of belongings for the entire family—two rebel soldiers stopped them, took all of their money, and aimed their guns at them.
“I offered a prayer to my Heavenly Father to spare my life,” he recalled. “For some reason, these Mexicans did not fire, and we continued on safely to the railroad station. For the preservation of my life on this occasion I have always been very grateful to the Lord, and this experience has given me a desire to live in such a manner as to demonstrate to the Lord my appreciation.” (Instructor, July 1943, p. 401.)
Years later, as a member of the First Presidency, he counseled Church members to take the Holy Spirit as a guide through their own times of adversity. “I know that such guidance can be had. … If I receive the Holy Ghost and follow his guidance, I will be among those who are protected and carried through these troubled times. And so will you, and so will every other soul who lives under his direction. If ye are prepared, ye need not fear.” (Ensign, July 1981, p. 5.)
Preparation—temporal as well as spiritual—has been a frequent theme of President Romney’s sermons. For decades he has been a key figure in the Church’s welfare program. When, as a young bishop in the mid-1930s, he heard the Brethren urge the Saints to store food and other necessities, he immediately built shelves at home and in the basement of the meetinghouse and filled them with clothing and food. Later, as stake president, he developed a prototype of the new program on a stake and regional basis.
When called to be a General Authority in 1941, he became assistant managing director of the Church Welfare Program and served in that position for eighteen years. From 1959 to 1963, he was general chairman of the department. Later, as a member of the First Presidency, he continued to give direction to the work, speaking regularly in welfare sessions of general conference.
President Thomas S. Monson recalls the important role Marion G. Romney played in helping him, as a young bishop, learn principles of Church welfare: “Brother Romney was a frequent visitor to our stake and region. … As he taught welfare precepts from the handbook and responded to questions, one brother asked him, ‘Brother Romney, why do you seem to know whatever’s in that handbook?’ to which Brother Romney, with that twinkle in his eye and smile upon his lips, responded, ‘I wrote it!’” (Ensign, Nov. 1980, p. 89.)
This dimension of President Romney’s service was a natural extension of the principles he learned as a boy. Elder Harold B. Lee, with whom he served for so many years, commented on his “rugged, individualistic nature tempered by a keen, sympathetic understanding of the problems of the unfortunate. Who knows but that through the experiences of the Mexican ‘Exodus,’ and the years which followed, there was being forged under the watchful eye of the Almighty a sharp, finely tempered human instrument in the person of Marion G. Romney to be used under the call of the Lord to cut a pattern in demonstration of the Lord’s way in caring for his saints in a day when man-made systems had all but destroyed the Christian concept of ‘pure religion.’” (Relief Society Magazine, Dec. 1951, p. 803.)
Marion Romney indeed knew what it meant to go without—and to work hard. In Mexico he helped his father produce all the family’s food. In California he stayed out of school for a year to learn carpentry and earn money for the family. When they moved to a farm in Idaho, Marion began every school year late and finished early so he could help with the harvesting and planting. When the family moved to Salt Lake City so his father could finish his degree at the University of Utah, Marion again stayed out of school a year and worked to help support the family. He worked full time throughout his college and law school years. And he always paid a full tithing, a habit he developed early. During the winter of 1913–14, when the combined incomes of George S. Romney and his brother Gaskell totalled $80.00 a month, it was young Marion’s job—a chilly task because he had no warm clothes—to take the tithing money to the bishop.
Because of the family’s difficult financial circumstances, the prospects of going on a mission were slim. But when he heard Elder Melvin J. Ballard speak in stake conference, he was determined to serve, even though it meant turning down an athletic scholarship. He used up all of his savings during his mission, borrowed the balance from the bank, and repaid the loan when he returned.
Marion pursued his education with equal determination. In 1917, the family moved to Rexburg, Idaho, where his father became president of Ricks Academy and helped develop it into a junior college. Marion, captain of the football and basketball teams, graduated in 1920. He received his B.S. degree in 1926 and his LL.B. degree in 1932 from the University of Utah. In 1975 BYU awarded him an honorary doctor of laws degree.
Working to stretch his own and the family’s meager resources as far as possible, and struggling to go on a mission and to get an education, Marion G. Romney learned firsthand the principles of thrift, self-reliance, and trust in the Lord. “We did not feel discouraged,” he said, “because in those days people took pride in being self-reliant. As a matter of fact, self-sustaining people were not only tolerated but actually respected.
“I have always been and am now grateful for the self-reliant, thrifty, industrious atmosphere in which I grew up.” (Address delivered at BYU, 13 Mar. 1963, p. 2.)
Ida Jensen walked into Marion Romney’s life when his father hired her to teach at Ricks Academy. She didn’t see him that first day she went to the Romney home—he was sitting in another room, sick with the flu. But he certainly noticed her: “I saw her with her golden hair and her smiling face. I have never seen any girl since that time that I cared about.” (Church News, 15 Dec. 1973, p. 5.) They were married six years later—on 12 September 1924 in the Salt Lake Temple—after his mission and more schooling for both of them. She was the valedictorian of her graduating class at BYU.
“My wife has been a support and guidance all through my life,” President Romney said before her death, “and when I have been discouraged, she has made me feel that she had the confidence that I could succeed, and so I have kept going.” (Church News, 15 July 1972, p. 7.)
Although money was scarce during those first years of marriage, they continued their courtship, frequently spending the evening at the Salt Lake Theater. Sometimes, however, they couldn’t afford to buy two tickets together, and they seldom had money for bus fare.
“We laugh a lot together,” Sister Romney said in 1975. “He’s my dessert in life.” (New Era, June 1975, p. 19.)
The Romneys’ courtship lasted throughout their fifty-five years of marriage. A few days after her death in 1979, he said: “When Ida died, something went out of me.” At the graveside service, he told Elder James E. Faust: “Be good to your wife. Take her with you everywhere you can.” (Ensign, July 1981, p. 35.)
As a young couple, Marion and Ida had endured great heartache. Their first child was stillborn; another lived only six days. But faith softened their sorrow and a promise, given in a blessing when Marion became a General Authority, gave them reassurance: “Blessed are you because of your faith in my work. Behold, you have had many afflictions … nevertheless I will bless you and your family, yea, your little ones, and the day cometh that they will believe and know the truth and be one with you in the Church.” (As quoted in Ensign, Nov. 1972, p. 27.)
They were blessed with two other sons, Richard J. of Winters, California, and George J. of Salt Lake City, and they have eight grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. George’s wife, Joanne, speaks of her father-in-law as “a kind and loving man who always treats me like a daughter.”
She tells of the fun times they have had together. For years President Romney would put on a Santa Claus beard every Christmas and hand out presents. And since Ida didn’t want Christmas to end, they always had the grandchildren come back on New Year’s Day for more presents. Each year they would rig up a “fishpond” where the children would pull strings and find prizes tied to the end. Grandpa Romney, on his hands and knees, did the tying.
The Romneys shared their love of the scriptures with their boys. On one occasion, when Elder Romney and one of his young sons were reading alternate verses in the Book of Mormon, he heard the child’s voice breaking and assumed he had a cold. After a while the boy asked his dad if he ever cried when he read the Book of Mormon.
“Yes, Son,” he answered. “Sometimes the Spirit of the Lord so witnesses to my soul that the Book of Mormon is true that I do cry.”
“Well,” the boy said, “that is what happened to me tonight.”
“I know not all of [your children] will respond like that,” he later said in general conference, “but I know that some of them will, and I tell you this book was given to us of God to read and to live by, and it will hold us as close to the Spirit of the Lord as anything I know. Won’t you please read it?” (In Conference Report, Apr. 1949, p. 41.)
Over the years, Brother and Sister Romney often had family home evening with their son George and his family, who lived only a few doors away. “We’d read scriptures together,” says Joanne. “You always learned something when you were in his presence and having a gospel discussion.”
Indeed, President Romney had much to share with his family and with the Church because of his own struggles to know and trust the Lord’s will. “During the early years of our married life,” he once said, “my wife and I intensely desired what we considered to be a particular blessing. We set about through fasting and prayer to obtain it. … But though we fasted often and prayed fervently, the years rolled by without bringing us the desired answer to our prayers. Finally, we concluded that we had not fully understood somehow—that we were concentrating our faith and prayers upon receiving the particular thing, which by predetermination we had set our hearts upon. … We had to learn to be as earnest in praying ‘if it be Thy will,’ as we were when presenting our personal desires and appeals. We have no need to fear that our well-being will not be served by such an approach.” (Address delivered at Salt Lake Institute of Religion, 18 Oct. 1974, pp. 8–9.)
Marion G. Romney practiced law for eleven years in Salt Lake City, serving as assistant county attorney, assistant district attorney, assistant city attorney, and state legislator.
Then, on 6 April 1941, he became the first man ever called as Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve. Ten years later, on 11 October 1951, he was ordained an Apostle. On 7 July 1972 he was sustained as President Harold B. Lee’s Second Counselor in the First Presidency, and on 30 December 1973 he was called again to the same position under President Spencer W. Kimball. He became President Kimball’s First Counselor 2 December 1982, and President of the Quorum of the Twelve 10 November 1985.
Sustained as a prophet, seer, and revelator for over thirty-four years, President Romney bears powerful witness of the Savior. “We not only believe in Him; we know Him,” he told Church members. “He is the rock of our salvation. He is the Head of this church. … I know that He now lives and that because He lives we too shall live.” (Address delivered at Ann Arbor, Michigan, Area Conference, 21 Sept. 1980, pp. 7–8.) “To the Lord Jesus, who bought us with a great price, we owe an undying debt of gratitude.” (Ensign, Nov. 1982, p. 51.)
When first called as a General Authority, he was concerned about his worthiness and ability for such an assignment. “But still, I had faith that the Lord could make me useful and I approached it in that way, always feeling that if I worked hard enough the Lord would do His part.” (Church News, 15 July 1972, p. 7.)
And through the years he has indeed worked hard. He usually arose at 5 or 5:30 A.M., took a walk or did exercises, and arrived at the office half an hour early to read the scriptures—sometimes carrying a sack lunch with him. Often he worked eleven-hour days.
As a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, President Romney had various responsibilities, including supervising the missionary work in Mexico, Europe, South Africa, and Asia. One assignment that was particularly meaningful to him was the privilege of returning to Mexico in 1961 to organize the first Spanish-speaking stake in the Church.
Another assignment was to be chairman of the Home Teaching and Family Home Evening Committees. With characteristic integrity, he incorporated into his own life the principles he preached: “I asked my bishop to assign me to do home teaching. I have done it regularly. Though I may be worn out when I come home from the office, after I have visited my families I feel rested and invigorated. I can honestly testify that there is no activity that I am engaged in, in all my church work, that I get more joy out of than I do visiting my home teaching families.
“Sister Romney and I also hold a family home evening on Monday. We read and discuss the scriptures and we go through the home evening manuals.” (Church News, 15 July 1972, p. 7.)
Loyalty and obedience are hallmarks of President Romney’s character. Elder Harold B. Lee once remarked, “To him loyalty doesn’t mean merely to accept blindly the counsel of Church Authorities, but, beyond that, the responsibility of receiving the witness in his heart that their counsel was inspired and could be accepted without reservation.” (Relief Society Magazine, Dec. 1951, p. 804.)
In President Romney, hard work is complemented by a refreshing, spontaneous sense of humor. When sustained as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, he said: “This call has set up a tremendous emotional reaction in me. I didn’t think there could be such a big tempest in such a little teapot.” Then, more seriously: “I suppose that I need the help of the Lord now more than I ever needed it in my life.”
Later in the address he expressed gratitude for his family lines, the Redds and the Romneys. “I am claimed by both of them,” he said. “The Redds claim I am a Romney, and the Romneys claim I am a Redd, but I am proud of them both.” (In Conference Report, Oct. 1951, pp. 60, 63.)
In his later years, he has frequently joked about growing old. He told a BYU audience: “Having once been where you are now and knowing what I do about human nature, I would not be surprised if some of you are asking yourselves, ‘I wonder how long the old fellow will ramble on?’” (Address delivered at BYU, 11 Feb. 1964, p. 2.)
Although the infirmities of age have weakened his strength, Marion G. Romney’s witness remains powerful. President Spencer W. Kimball acknowledged President Romney’s spiritual contribution to the leading councils of the Church: “His mind is one of those rare ones that is saturated with a consciousness of God. … His brethren have no question about the nearness of the Lord to him when he prays. His prayers are so earnest, his voice so tender, his appeal so real and sincere that we know the Lord is listening. His sincerity is of such quality that it touches the listeners, and all of us feel that because President Romney is praying, we are all closer to our Father in heaven. …
“All is holy where this man kneels.” (Ensign, Nov. 1972, pp. 22, 26–27.)
It has been over sixty years since that quiet yet momentous evening in Australia when a young missionary gazed into the heavens and was filled with the love of God. Marion G. Romney’s life and service testify of his commitment to that vision of eternity.
[photo] President Romney’s family at the time of his call to the Quorum of the Twelve, 1951: (Front) Elder Marion G. Romney; granddaughter Catherine; Sister Ida Jensen Romney. (Back, from left) Richard J. Romney; his wife, Joanne; George J. Romney.