My beloved brothers and sisters and friends, I humbly consider the invitation to speak today to be a very high honor. Having associated, along with some of my brethren, with President Howard W. Hunter for thirty-three years, I can testify that today we mark the passing of an extraordinary human being and one of the noble servants of Almighty God. In the death of President Hunter, the words of Ezekiel are appropriate: “And when this cometh to pass … then shall they know that a prophet hath been among them” (Ezek. 33:33).
President Hunter equated the role of prophets in the Church today with those in Old Testament and Book of Mormon times: “to stand at the head of the church and to provide spiritual bearings for those who espouse the gospel.” He went on to say, “Popularity is not the basis for teaching certain doctrines, though some feel that popularity makes them right. … We follow the course of teaching scripture and following strictly the teachings of the Savior as contained in scripture” (Twila Van Leer, “Christian Living Is Way to Reverse Moral Decline,” Deseret News, 3 July 1994, sec. A, pp. 1, 5).
In one of the first meetings of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve after President Hunter became the President of the Church, he said: “It might be that I will not be in this position for many years.” And in this, too, he was prophetic. But his accomplishments in less than one year have been truly remarkable. He traveled to Switzerland and met with Saints and the missionaries. He presided over the installation of President Eric Shumway as president of Brigham Young University—Hawaii Campus. He traveled to Tucson, Arizona, for a regional conference. Later he had the special experience of going back to be with old friends in Pasadena, California, where many years before he presided as the president of the Pasadena Stake. This was an especially satisfying moment for him. In Mexico he created stake number two thousand of the Church. He presided at the event commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s martyrdom. He called and ordained Jeffrey R. Holland as an Apostle and member of the Quorum of the Twelve. He dedicated the Orlando and the Bountiful temples.
Perhaps the most remarkable occurrence during his short time as President of the Church has been that the members of the Church all over the world have become bonded to him in a special way as their prophet, seer, and revelator. They have seen in him the personification of the attributes of the Savior himself. They have responded in a remarkable way to his prophetic messages of making our lives more Christlike and of making our temples the center of our worship. He invited any who found themselves outside the circle of the Church to return and to have their tears dried in the process. He knew what it was like to be without a companion. He knew what it was like to have physical limitations. He was in so many ways the personification of the counsel of Alma:
“And now I would that ye should be humble, and be submissive and gentle; easy to be entreated; full of patience and long-suffering; being temperate in all things; being diligent in keeping the commandments of God at all times; asking for whatsoever things ye stand in need, both spiritual and temporal; always returning thanks unto God for whatsoever things ye do receive” (Alma 7:23).
No doubt the membership of the Church came to respect and love him so much because he possessed so abundantly these Christlike qualities. Surely his intense sorrow and suffering over a period of many years also contributed to their affinity for him.
Where did he acquire these Christlike qualities which he possessed so richly? No doubt they came as a gift from the eternities before he came to this world. His patriarchal blessing states: “‘Thou art one of those whom the Lord foreknew. … Thou shalt lend thy talents to the church and shall sit in her councils and thou shalt be known for thy wisdom and thy righteous judgments’” (quoted in Eleanor Knowles, Howard W. Hunter, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1994, p. 227). Like Jeremiah, who was also foreordained, the Lord sanctified him and ordained him a prophet unto the nations (see Jer. 1:5).
These heavenly gifts and attributes were honed as he went time, time, and time again to Jerusalem in the Holy Land. Jerusalem was like a magnet to him. His leadership in acquiring the land and building the Jerusalem Center of Brigham Young University was truly inspired. His desire to be where the Savior walked and taught seemed insatiable. He loved all the sights and the sounds. He especially loved the Galilee. But he loved one place most of all. He would always say, “Let’s go to the Garden Tomb just once more, for old time’s sake.” There he would sit and meditate as though he were piercing the veil between himself and the Savior.
Although humble, meek, and unassuming, he was also endowed with great intelligence and determination, always industrious, always working hard at a job trying to better himself. His resolution was exemplified in so many ways, including working full-time and having a young family while going to law school during the Depression, graduating cum laude, and passing the California bar examination. His perseverance helped him succeed so well in the law, in business, and in all of his many Church callings. Always charming, gracious, cordial, friendly, gentlemanly, kind, and sympathetic, he had a way of drawing people to him. There was a special magic in his personality. Although outgoing in so many ways, yet he was also a private man. He had no inner conflicts and tensions. He had no ego needs. With all his wisdom, he could sit among his brethren and say very little. He was at complete peace with himself. As Shakespeare said, “In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man / As modest stillness and humility” (The Life of King Henry V, act 3, sc. 1, lines 3–4).
His delightful sense of humor was ever present. His beloved sister, Dorothy, also possessed this same charm. At one time we were together in Venice with a couple of hours to spare before going on to Jerusalem. I asked my wife, Ruth, “What have you always wanted to do in Venice?” And she replied, “I’ve always wanted to take a gondola ride and have you sing ‘O Solo Mio.’” President Hunter then responded, “If Jim’s going to sing, I’m not going to go!” We went for the gondola ride, but I did not sing!
President Hunter’s family was his great pride and joy. He and Claire had three sons. The heartbreaking death of little William, who died as a young child, left John and Louine and Richard and Nan to bring to him his eighteen adored grandchildren and twenty-two great-grandchildren. His tender loving care of his wife Claire for more than ten years while she was not well was the most noble devotion of a man to a woman that many of us have seen in our lives. After her passing, it was a lonely time for several years until he married Inis. Together they have shared so many happy memories and experiences. We are grateful beyond expression to you, Inis, for your companionship and your loving and devoted care of him. You brought a sparkle to his eye and joy to him in the crowning years of his life and his ministry.
Any expression of thanks to the many doctors and nurses and others who have tended him over the years is inadequate. Their devotion and care went beyond professionalism and had the element of love as well in their tender care. The very many who helped him in any way have been privileged and blessed for their special kindness.
President Hunter’s spiritual depth was so profound as to be unfathomable. Having been under the guiding influence of the Lord Jesus Christ as his special witness for so many years, President Hunter’s spirituality was honed in a remarkable way. It was the wellspring of his whole being. He was quiet about sacred things, humble about sacred things, careful when he spoke about sacred things.
With all of you, I rejoice in the great blessing it has been to have lived at a time when he has been on the earth. We have learned so much from his life, his example, his influence, his love, and his testimony.
I’m sure the Lord would say of him as he has of others, “I will bear him up as on eagles’ wings; and he shall beget glory and honor to himself and unto my name.
“That when he shall finish his work I may receive him unto myself, … and blessed and holy is he, for he is mine” (D&C 124:18–19). No doubt as Mormon, another prophet, promised, when Howard William Hunter died Jesus stood with open arms to receive him (see Morm. 6:17).
I so testify in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.