When President Joseph F. Smith lay dying in 1918, Heber J. Grant, then President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was at his bedside. Taking Heber’s hand, President Smith said: “The Lord bless you, my boy, the Lord bless you; you have got a great responsibility. Always remember this is the Lord’s work and not man’s. The Lord is greater than any man. He knows whom He wants to lead His Church, and never makes any mistake. The Lord bless you.”1
With these words of encouragement, the leadership of the 495,000 members of the Church fell to Heber Jeddy Grant. World War I had just ended, and people were struggling to recover from its horrible devastation. A worldwide influenza epidemic, which eventually killed more than 20 million people, began in the fall of 1918. Because of it, the April 1919 general conference in which President Grant was to be sustained had to be postponed until June.2
But the more-than-six-feet-tall (185-cm) leader was ready for the task. For the next 26 1/2 years, President Grant served as prophet, seer, and revelator. As the seventh President of the Church, he served longer than any other Church President had except Brigham Young. During these years the Church almost doubled in size, growing to 954,000; built 3 new temples; and added 16 missions. Under President Grant’s leadership, the Church inaugurated the welfare system, began microfilming family history records, and established the weekly Tabernacle Choir radio program. President Grant delivered a sermon during the Church’s first radio broadcast and did much to change the negative image of the Church that existed at the time.
President Grant had been well prepared spiritually by the example of his parents. His father, Jedediah M. Grant, Second Counselor in the First Presidency to President Brigham Young, died of pneumonia at age 40, only nine days after Heber’s birth on 22 November 1856. However, the legacy of faith and righteousness his father left was a motivating factor throughout Heber’s life. “Years after his death I was reaping the benefits of his honesty and faithful labors,” President Grant later explained.3
The influence of Heber’s mother, Rachel Ridgeway Ivins Grant, was equally as powerful. Rachel’s wealthy family in the eastern United States offered her a large income if she would renounce the gospel of Jesus Christ. But she refused and stood by her testimony. After the death of her husband, the young widow, who had been left penniless, worked sewing clothing and taking in boarders in order to provide for her son.
She taught Heber the value of hard work, and together they eked out a meager existence. In the process, Rachel and Heber grew very close. He was later to say of her: “I stand here today as one whose mother was all to him. She was both father and mother to me; she set an example of integrity, of devotion and love, of determination, and honor second to none. I stand here today as the president of the Church because I have followed the advice and counsel and the burning testimony of the divinity of the work of God, which came to me from my mother.”4
While his mother was the dominant influence in Heber’s life, the Lord placed many others in his path to help guide and direct him. One of the first of these associations was with President Brigham Young (1801–77). Young Heber, too poor to own a sled, entertained himself in the winter by catching hold of passing vehicles, sliding on the snow a block or two, and letting go. One day when he was six years old, Heber caught hold of President Young’s sleigh. As Heber later told the story, President Young “was very fond of a fine team, and was given to driving quite rapidly. I therefore found myself skimming along with such speed that I dared not jump off, and after riding some time I became very cold.”
Finally President Young noticed Heber, told his driver to stop, tucked the cold child under buffalo robes, and then asked who he was. When President Young discovered that the boy was Jedediah M. Grant’s son, he expressed his love for Heber’s father and the hope that Heber would be as fine a man. Before President Young dropped Heber off, he invited the boy to visit him in his office. Thus began a friendship that lasted until President Young’s death. Of this friendship, Heber said, “I learned not only to respect and venerate him, but to love him with an affection akin to that which I imagine I would have felt for my own father, had I been permitted to know and return a father’s love.”5
Poverty defined Heber’s growing years but not negatively. Having little money was a challenge that never deterred him. Wanting to learn to pitch a baseball but not having enough money for a ball, Heber earned the money by shining boots for his mother’s boarders. Later he longed to attend the Salt Lake Theatre; instead of feeling sorry that he had no money to buy tickets, he obtained a job as a water carrier for theater patrons and was thus allowed to watch the plays.6
As Heber grew older, his persistence and fortitude were put to good use in business ventures. Offered an appointment to the United States Naval Academy, he opted to stay near his mother and to become a businessman instead.7 After finishing his schooling at age 16, Heber got a job as a bank clerk and learned bookkeeping. His honesty, ability to work hard, and great desire to learn soon opened up many opportunities. By the time he was 20 years old, he had been made the assistant cashier of Zion’s Savings Bank and Trust Company, and he had purchased an insurance agency.8
The poverty of Heber’s youth made him compassionate and prepared him to lead the Church through the aftermath of World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II.
As a young man, Heber was bothered by a promise made to him in his patriarchal blessing that he would be called to the ministry in his youth. Thinking this meant he would serve a mission for the Church, he was disturbed when at age 23 he had received no mission call. This lack caused him to feel concerns about his status and also about the Church. Thoughts began to cross his mind that the patriarch had not been inspired, and if so, maybe other revelations weren’t inspired either. As he pondered, he grew more confused. He knew the Church was true, so why did doubts continue to plague him? Eventually he concluded that the patriarch must have made a mistake, but still he found no peace concerning the issue.
One day while he was walking down Main Street in Salt Lake City, these thoughts began to torment him again. Heber stopped right there on the sidewalk and spoke out loud, even though no one was present: “Mr. Devil, shut up. I don’t care if every patriarch in the Church has made a mistake in a blessing, and told a lie, I believe with all my heart and soul that the gospel is true and I will not allow my faith to be upset.”
Never again was Heber tormented by these negative thoughts. And within a short period of time he was called to serve as a stake president—a fulfillment of his patriarchal blessing.9
Ordained an Apostle in 1882 when he was only 25 years old, Heber worried that he was not capable or worthy of the trust that had been placed in him. While on a visit to Native Americans in Arizona, he left his companions to pray and meditate about the matter. He later explained that while he was alone he “seemed to see” a council on the other side of the veil. The council was discussing who should fill two vacancies in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Heber’s father and the Prophet Joseph Smith proposed Heber’s name. That satisfied Heber’s concerns. “It was also given to me,” Heber said, “that that was all these men … could do for me; from that day it depended upon me and upon me alone as to whether I made a success of my life or a failure.”10
President Grant was a loving husband and father. Once his wife suggested that they should tell each other of their faults. President Grant agreed. She mentioned one or two of Heber’s faults and then invited him to tell hers. A slight twinkle came into his eyes, and he replied, “You haven’t one.”11
President Grant loved his 10 daughters and was very close to them, but the fact that his only 2 sons died while still children was a deep and lasting sorrow to him.
Through many years of traveling to carry out his Church responsibilities, President Grant felt lonely whenever he was away from his family. His return home was marked with great joy. His daughters remember how on these occasions he would tell them of his experiences, walking around the house with a child on each foot and delighting in their company.12
Those who knew President Grant personally agree that two characteristics stood out among the many good qualities he possessed: his persistence and his sense of humor. President Grant often referred to the story of an ant that made 69 attempts to carry off a grain of corn before it was successful. “This wonderful lesson of perseverance by an insect has been an inspiration to me all the days of my life,” he said.13
An example of his persistence is demonstrated in the way he learned to sing. When President Grant was 43 years old, he decided he wanted to sing, despite the fact that he had never been able to carry a tune. As he explained:
“I had a private secretary with a beautiful baritone voice. I told him I would give anything in the world if I could only carry a tune. He laughed and said, ‘Anybody who has a voice and perseverance can sing.’ I immediately appointed him as my singing teacher.
“My singing lessons started that night. At the end of two hours’ practice I still couldn’t sing one line from the song we had been practicing. After practicing that one song for more than five thousand times, I made a mess of it when I tried to sing it in public. I practiced it for another six months. Now I can learn a song in a few hours.”14
President Grant’s sense of humor was evident in the stories he shared of his efforts in learning to sing. He told of a time when he was practicing his singing next to a dentist’s office. He heard someone in the hall remark that it sounded like somebody was having teeth pulled.15
President Grant was 62 years old when he became the seventh President of the Church on 23 November 1918. He was 88 years old when he died on 14 May 1945. He was stern from the pulpit when he needed to be. He preached extensively for Prohibition, which made illegal the manufacture and sale of alcohol in the United States, and against the dole. But he also often used his sense of humor to make a point. When speaking on the attributes of Latter-day Saints, he once said: “I have heard it remarked that when a measure is before Congress, which would injure the Mormons, that the Saints pray that it may be defeated, and if it is not, they thank God any way. … There is some truth in this remark. A Mormon knows that the promises of God are true, and He said that all will be tried; realizing these things the Latter-day Saints will acknowledge their Maker not only in blessings but also in tribulations.”16
Above all, President Heber J. Grant was a man of abiding faith who bore witness as he traveled all over the world, including the years he spent presiding over missions in Europe and in Asia. He once testified: “I know that God lives, I know that Jesus is the Christ, I know that Joseph Smith was a Prophet of God, I know that the Gospel tree is alive, that it is growing, that the fruits of the Gospel growing upon the tree are good. I have reached out my hand, I have plucked the fruits of the Gospel, I have eaten of them and they are sweet, yea, above all that is sweet.”17 But more than just tasting, President Grant did all he could to offer the fruit to others because he knew from his own experience that the gospel would sustain people through any adversity.