Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, to Richard and Lena Sonntag, Elder Philip T. Sonntag grew up in Liberty Stake. “Of course, I don’t remember my coming into the world,” Elder Sonntag says, “but as other people have related it to me, the circumstances were quite remarkable. After my mother had had five children, she didn’t know whether it would be wise to have any more, so she petitioned the Lord for an answer. Later at Relief Society one day, the stake patriarch spoke. As he talked, he said that he was impressed that a sister there needed a blessing, adding that if that sister would come to him after the meeting, he would give her a blessing. The patriarch told my mother in the blessing that the Lord was pleased that she desired to have more children and that in doing so she would not feel the pains of childbirth nor suffer any difficulties. She had me and six more children and never suffered the usual pains of childbirth.
I had great parents. They instilled in us a love for the gospel. Mother was usually there to meet us whenever we came home. If part of the family had already had family prayer when some other family members returned, she would say, ‘Come, let’s have evening prayers,’ and we would pray together.
“My father was born in Germany. Later he came to America, met my mother, and joined the Church. Before the Great Depression, he ran several cafes. However, he lost them during the Depression, and there was just no other work available. As I look back on it, I don’t know how he managed as well as he did, but we never missed a meal.”
As each Sonntag child became old enough to get a job, he worked to help maintain the family. Elder Sonntag used to sell hot dogs and popcorn at ball games; he also worked at the growers’ market early in the mornings. “When any of us children brought home a dollar of earnings, Mother would have that child set aside a dime for tithing and a dime to keep or spend. The rest went toward family expenses.”
In Elder Sonntag’s ward a group of twelve boys his age played ball together and were good friends. They were also energetic and drove many Sunday School and Primary teachers away. Elder Sonntag relates that “the teachers all loved us, but they didn’t want to teach us. One, however, Sean Christensen, knew how to get through to us by teaching us a game that used our hands and kept us from hitting each other. Meanwhile, he would bear his testimony that God lives and that Jesus is the Christ.
“This teacher challenged us to go on missions. It meant a great deal to him to have ‘his boys’ be worthy to be missionaries, and Brother Christensen’s challenge greatly helped us to prepare.
“I had been taught to obey the Word of Wisdom, and I earnestly tried to obey it all my life. When I was married and a young bishop and the father of three children, my brother and I were involved in a serious car accident. I walked to get help for the other people in the accident, who were unconscious. By the time I got to the hospital myself, I’d lost a great deal of blood, and the doctors thought that I wouldn’t live. I asked the Lord to let me live to fulfill my responsibilities as husband, father, and bishop, and I heard a voice speaking, just as clearly as I might speak to you, say that because I had lived the Word of Wisdom all my life, I would ‘run and not be weary, and … walk and not faint’ [D&C 89:20] and that I would receive even more blessings. When my wife arrived at the hospital, someone suggested that she not go into my room because I looked so terrible. She asked, ‘Is he breathing?’ and went in anyway. She also received the same witness that I would live.”
Elder Sonntag wants the children of the Church to know that “it is a privilege to be a member of the Church and to live the commandments. The commandments are easy when you decide that you are going to keep them. The Word of Wisdom is not a hard thing—it is a blessing. It is within the power of each of you to determine what you want to be. There is no other you in the whole world. You are the only you; you are an individual. You alone can decide what you want to be and where you’re going to go. Choose the Lord’s way and live the gospel, for that will bring you the greatest happiness.”