In the October 1899 general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Elder Heber J. Grant, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said, “No obstacles are insurmountable when God commands and we obey.”1 This simple expression was a recurring theme in Heber J. Grant’s life and ministry. He was not spared from adversity, but he approached every obstacle with faith, obedience, diligence, and enthusiasm.
President Heber J. Grant lived in an era of extraordinary change. He was born in 1856 into a world of oxcarts and horse-drawn carriages, when many journeys were measured in months. When he died in 1945, he left a world of automobiles and airplanes, when journeys were measured in hours. The stagecoach mail of his youth gave way to other means of communication: the telephone, the radio, and airmail.
Born 26 years after the organization of the Church and 9 years after the pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, Heber J. Grant witnessed a time of great progress in the kingdom of God on the earth. Throughout his life, he enjoyed close association with Presidents of the Church, and he also helped prepare men who would succeed him in that calling. In his youth he frequently visited the home of President Brigham Young. As a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, he served under the leadership of Presidents John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, and Joseph F. Smith. He served in the Quorum of the Twelve with three others who would become Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith, David O. McKay, and Joseph Fielding Smith. During his service as President of the Church, Heber J. Grant ordained Elders Harold B. Lee, Spencer W. Kimball, and Ezra Taft Benson to the Apostleship. And in 1935 he and his counselors in the First Presidency hired a young returned missionary named Gordon B. Hinckley to work as the executive secretary of the Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee of the Church.
Heber Jeddy Grant was born on 22 November 1856 in Salt Lake City, Utah, the only child of Rachel Ridgeway Ivins Grant and Jedediah Morgan Grant, who was serving as Second Counselor to President Brigham Young. Nine days after Heber was born, his father died of a combination of typhoid and pneumonia.
For much of his childhood, Heber and his widowed mother struggled to survive financially. They endured “blustery nights with no fire in the hearth, months with no shoes, never more than a single homemade outfit of homespun at a time, and except for an adequate supply of bread, a meager fare which allowed only several pounds of butter and sugar for an entire year.”2
Rachel was determined to support herself and her young son. She worked as a seamstress and took in boarders. Her brothers offered to give her a life of ease if she would leave the Church, but she remained true to her faith. This devotion and sacrifice made a lasting impression on Heber, who later recalled:
“My mother’s brothers who were well-to-do financially offered to settle an annuity upon her for life if she would renounce her religion. One of her brothers said to her: ‘Rachel, you have disgraced the name of Ivins. We never want to see you again if you stay with those awful Mormons,’—this was when she was leaving for Utah—‘but,’ he continued, ‘come back in a year, come back in five years, come back in ten or twenty years, and no matter when you come back, the latchstring will be out, and affluence and ease will be your portion.’
“Later, when poverty became her lot, if she actually had not known that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that the gospel was true, all she needed to do was to return east and let her brothers take care of her. But rather than return to her wealthy relatives in the east where she would have been amply provided for, with no struggle for herself or her child, she preferred to make her way among those to whom she was more strongly attached than her kindred who were not believers in her faith.”3
Rachel Grant and her son were poor financially, but they were rich in their love for one another and their devotion to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. President Grant said, “I, of course, owe everything to my mother, because my father died when I was only nine days of age; and the marvelous teachings, the faith, the integrity of my mother have been an inspiration to me.”4
Inspired by his mother, Heber J. Grant developed a characteristic for which he would be known throughout the Church: persistence. His diligence and willingness to work helped him overcome natural weaknesses. For example, other boys made fun of his awkwardness on the baseball diamond. He responded to their jeers by earning enough money to buy a baseball and spending hours throwing the ball against a barn. As a result of his persistence, he later played on a championship baseball team. In school, some of his classmates teased him about his sloppy handwriting. He later recounted: “These remarks and others, while not made to hurt my feelings but in good-natured fun, nevertheless cut deep, and aroused within me a spirit of determination. I resolved to live to set copies for all who attended the university, and to be the teacher of penmanship and bookkeeping in that institution. … I commenced to employ my spare time in practicing penmanship, continuing year after year until I was referred to as ‘the greatest scribbler on earth.’” He eventually won first prize in penmanship at a territorial fair and became a teacher of penmanship and bookkeeping at the University of Deseret (now the University of Utah).5
Heber J. Grant entered the business world at a young age so he could help support his mother. At 15, he was hired as a bookkeeper and policy clerk in an insurance office. He also worked in the banking industry and earned money after hours by writing cards and invitations and making maps.
As he looked ahead to further opportunities, he “had an overwhelming ambition for a university education and a degree from a great school.” He felt that he had “very little hope of obtaining it, having no means and having a widowed mother to look after,” but he was offered an appointment to study at the United States Naval Academy. He recalled:
“For the first time in my life I did not sleep well; I lay awake nearly all night long, rejoicing that the ambition of my life was to be fulfilled. I fell asleep just a little before daylight; my mother had to wake me.
“I said: ‘Mother, what a marvelous thing it is that I am to have an education as fine as that of any young man in all Utah. I could hardly sleep; I was awake until almost daylight this morning.’
“I looked into her face; I saw that she had been weeping.
“I have heard of people, who, when drowning, had their entire life pass before them in almost a few seconds. I saw myself an admiral in my mind’s eye. I saw myself traveling all over the world in a ship, away from my widowed mother. I laughed and put my arms around her, and kissed her and said:
“‘Mother, I do not want a naval education. I am going to be a business man and shall enter an office right away and take care of you, and have you quit keeping boarders for a living.’
“She broke down and wept and said that she had not closed her eyes but had prayed all night that I would give up my life’s ambition so that she would not be left alone.”6
As Heber pursued his interest in business, he achieved success at a young age, particularly in the banking and insurance industries. He gained a reputation as an honest, hardworking businessman. Heber M. Wells, the first governor of the state of Utah, observed, “He can walk into the offices of the executives and directors of the greatest financial and industrial institutions in America and be warmly and affectionately greeted by men who are proud to know him as friend and as a leader of finance and industry.”7 A financial publication in 1921 included the following tribute to President Grant: “Mr. Grant possesses the characteristics of a real leader—strength of purpose, nobility and humility of character, enthusiasm for all causes in which he enters, and indefatigable industry. He is well known and respected by the business men of the western third of the United States, regardless of their religious affiliations.”8
Heber J. Grant was not always successful in his business endeavors. For example, in 1893 an economic crisis swept across much of the United States, leaving hundreds of banks, railroads, mines, and other businesses in financial ruin. This crisis, called the Panic of 1893, caught Elder Grant, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, by surprise. He was left with debts that took him years to repay. During those difficult times, the entire Grant family united to help reduce the household’s financial strain. “As soon as we were old enough,” remembered a daughter, “we started to work … , and it was the greatest satisfaction of our young lives to feel that we were helping him by caring for ourselves.”9
Ultimately, President Heber J. Grant prospered financially, and he used his means to help individuals, families, the Church, and the community. He said: “While I have worked hard for Cash, you know, as do all my friends that have a full knowledge of the innermost sentiments of my heart, that Cash has not been my god and that my heart has never been set on it, only to do good with what might come into my possession. I most earnestly desire that I may always feel this way.”10
President Grant took great pleasure in giving away books. He gave away thousands of them, most of which he personally inscribed. He said that he purchased these books with his “cigar money,” reasoning that the amount of money he spent to support his gift-giving habit was about the same as the amount a smoker would spend to support the appetite for cigars.11 In giving so many gifts, he sometimes lost track of what he had done. “I once gave a man a book,” he said, “and he thanked me very kindly for it, and said, ‘Brother Grant, I thoroughly appreciate this book. It is the third copy you have given me of it.’” After that experience, President Grant kept an index of the books he had given.12
It was said of President Grant that “he gives because he loves to,—it seems to be just the impulse of a great and generous heart.”13 His daughter Lucy Grant Cannon referred to him as “the most generous man in the world” and told of his particular concern for the widows and the fatherless—“clearing their homes of mortgages, getting their children into business positions, seeing that those who were sick had proper medical attention.” Even “during those lean years which followed the panic of 1893,” she said, “when to give a nickel was harder than it had been to give five or ten dollars, father still helped those in distress.”14
President Grant’s daughter Frances Grant Bennett said, “Though the strength of [my father’s] character is well known, few people realize what a remarkable family man he was.”15 His responsibilities in the Church required him to travel frequently, but he remained close to his family members by writing thousands of letters and notes to them. His grandson Truman G. Madsen recalled: “His way of coping with the distance imposed by frequent travel was to write. … On trains, in waiting rooms, in hotels, and sitting on the stand between meetings, he would pen messages to share his experiences and impressions and to answer theirs.”16
His daughter Lucy remembered the wonderful times she and her brothers and sisters spent with him when he returned home from ministering to the Saints:
“What a jubilant time we had when he came home! We would all gather around and listen to his experiences. I can see him now walking around the house with a child on each foot, or tossing the children up on his knee. …
“Memory carries me back to the rides we used to take behind our horse, old John. Although the two seats of our surrey were crowded we all must go. Father would take our favorite drive, down West Temple [Street] and then to Liberty Park. West Temple had rows of cottonwood trees. If it was early spring and the sap was coming up in the trees, father would stop and cut a tender limb from the tree and make us whistles. How interested we were in watching him make the bark come off smoothly and put the notch in the tree fiber; then on went the bark again and our whistle was ready. And how those whistles would sound as we rode slowly home. Each one seemed to be pitched just a little differently.”17
President Grant was able to maintain discipline in the home without resorting to physical punishment. His daughter Lucy said: “I am afraid ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ was never taken as a serious command by our father. … I think we were hurt worse to know that we had displeased our parents than we would have been to have felt the sting of the switch.”18
President Grant urged parents to “so order their lives that their example will be an inspiration to their children,”19 and he lived according to this teaching. His daughter Frances told of a time when she learned from his example:
“An incident occurred which made so profound an impression on me that I have remembered it all my life. I used some language father didn’t approve of, and he told me he would have to wash such words out of my mouth. He scrubbed out my mouth thoroughly with soap and said, ‘Now your mouth is clean. I don’t ever want you to make it dirty with such words again.’
“Several days later at the breakfast table, father was telling a story, and in quoting someone else he used a profane expression. I was quick to pick it up.
“‘Papa,’ I said, ‘you washed my mouth out for saying words like that.’
“‘So I did,’ he answered. ‘And I shouldn’t say them any more than you should. Would you like to wash out my mouth?’
“I certainly would. I got the laundry soap and did a thorough job of it.
“My father could have hedged. He could have said he wasn’t really swearing, which, of course, was true; but that wasn’t his way. A little child couldn’t tell the difference between a quotation and the real thing, and he realized it. From that moment I knew that my father would be absolutely fair in all his dealings with me, and I never found him otherwise. After that, I never heard him even quote profane things. He loved to tell a lively story and he would say, ‘John said, with emphasis,such and such,’ but he never said the words. He was a great believer in teaching by example and never asked us to do anything he wouldn’t do himself.”20
Lucy remembered her father’s tender love for her mother, who died at age 34: “During the years of my mother’s illness, which lasted over a long period of time, his attentions were so constant and considerate as to be commented upon not only by his family and intimate friends but by strangers who knew of this evidence of devotion. For six months I was with my mother while she was receiving treatment in a California hospital, and as often as was possible he was with us. Flowers came at frequent intervals; fruit, dainties, new clothes—everything he could send her was hers. Almost every day a letter reached her, and if for some reason it was delayed even the nurses would notice it. I remember the Sister Superior (we were in a Catholic Hospital) saying to mother that in all her years of nursing she had never had any man treat his wife as considerately as mother was treated.”21
Lucy also told of her father’s continuing care for his own mother: “A more thoughtful or affectionate son it has not been my privilege to see. His anxiety to have her happy in her old age, his willingness to share all he had with her and to provide well for her was almost a passion with him. Every day when we had family prayers and it was his turn to pray he would kneel by grandmother and pray so she could hear it, even in her deafness. He talked to her and she could hear his voice when she was not able to hear some others. … For the last seven years of grandmother’s life she lived in my home, and I can not recall a day’s passing when father was home that he did not come or telephone or get word from grandmother. He was always so proud of her because of her gracious ways, her splendid spirituality, and her handsome and radiant face—a face which showed that contentment and peace were hers.”22
Just before his 24th birthday, Heber J. Grant was called to leave his home in Salt Lake City and move to Tooele, Utah, where he would serve as stake president. Of this time in his life, he recalled, “I was without experience, and I felt mightily my weakness.”23 However, he dedicated himself completely to his new responsibility. He later said: “It never entered my head but what I was to stay [in Tooele] all the days of my life. I never thought of anything else.”24
On 30 October 1880, the members of the Tooele Utah Stake were surprised when 23-year-old Heber J. Grant, a virtual stranger, was presented as their new stake president. He introduced himself to the congregation by delivering a short discourse. Although the sermon was shorter than he would have liked, it gave the people a glimpse of the man who would serve as their priesthood leader. Years later, he recounted the central message of the address:
“I announced in a speech that lasted seven and a half minutes that I would ask no man in Tooele to be a more honest tithe payer than I would be; that I would ask no man to give more of his means in proportion to what he had than I would give; I would ask no man to live the Word of Wisdom better than I would live it, and I would give the best that was in me for the benefit of the people in that stake of Zion.”25
President Grant served faithfully as stake president for two years before his call to the holy Apostleship.
On 16 October 1882 Elder Heber J. Grant was ordained an Apostle by President George Q. Cannon, First Counselor to President John Taylor. During his 36 years in the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Grant contributed to the Church as a leader, teacher, businessman, and missionary. He served as a member of the general superintendency of the organization for young men in the Church and was one of the principal founders of the Church magazine titled the Improvement Era. He also served as the business manager of the Improvement Era.
As an Apostle, Elder Grant spent five years in full-time missionary service. Responding to calls from the First Presidency, he organized and presided over the first mission in Japan and later presided over the British and European Missions. In his counsel to the missionaries who served with him, he often repeated two themes. First, he admonished them to observe the standards of the mission and keep the commandments. Second, he encouraged them to work hard. In the British Mission, he set the pace by working more hours per day than ever before. Throughout that mission, productivity soared even though the missionary force diminished slightly from year to year.26
President Joseph F. Smith passed away on 19 November 1918, knowing that Heber J. Grant would succeed him as President of the Church. President Smith’s final words to President Grant were: “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.”27
The First Presidency was dissolved, leaving the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as the leading authority in the Church, with President Heber J. Grant as the President of that Quorum. On 23 November 1918 President Grant was set apart as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He retained the counselors who had served with President Smith: President Anthon H. Lund as First Counselor and President Charles W. Penrose as Second Counselor.
President Grant’s first general conference as President of the Church came in June 1919, after a two-month postponement due to a worldwide influenza epidemic that affected life in the Salt Lake Valley. A portion of his first conference address as President of the Church echoed his first address as president of the Tooele Stake:
“I feel humble, beyond any language with which God has endowed me to express it, in standing before you here this morning, occupying the position in which you have just voted to sustain me. I recall standing before an audience in Tooele, after having been sustained as president of that stake, when I was a young man twenty-three years of age, pledging to that audience the best that was in me. I stand here today in all humility, acknowledging my own weakness, my own lack of wisdom and information, and my lack of the ability to occupy the exalted position in which you have voted to sustain me. But as I said as a boy in Tooele, I say here today: that by and with the help of the Lord, I shall do the best that I can to fulfil every obligation that shall rest upon me as President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to the full extent of my ability.
“I will ask no man to be more liberal with his means, than I am with mine, in proportion to what he possesses, for the advancement of God’s Kingdom. I will ask no man to observe the Word of Wisdom any more closely than I will observe it. I will ask no man to be more conscientious and prompt in the payment of his tithes and his offerings than I will be. I will ask no man to be more ready and willing to come early and to go late, and to labor with full power of mind and body, than I will labor, always in humility. I hope and pray for the blessings of the Lord, acknowledging freely and frankly, that without the Lord’s blessings it will be an impossibility for me to make a success of the high calling whereunto I have been called. But, like Nephi of old, I know that the Lord makes no requirements of the children of men, save he will prepare a way for them, whereby they can accomplish the thing which he has required [see 1 Nephi 3:7]. With this knowledge in my heart, I accept the great responsibility, without fear of the consequences, knowing that God will sustain me as he has sustained all of my predecessors who have occupied this position, provided always, that I shall labor in humility and in diligence, ever seeking for the guidance of his Holy Spirit; and this I shall endeavor to do.”28
President Grant served for almost 27 years as President of the Church—longer than any Church President other than Brigham Young. During that time, members of the Church, along with millions of others throughout the world, suffered through the aftermath of World War I, the financial devastation of the Great Depression, and the trials and horrors of World War II. While this was a time marked by adversity, it was also a time of rejoicing. Latter-day Saints celebrated the 100-year anniversaries of the First Vision and the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They rejoiced in the dedication of temples in Laie, Hawaii; Cardston, Alberta; and Mesa, Arizona. And beginning in October 1924, those who were unable to attend general conference in the Salt Lake Tabernacle or surrounding buildings could hear the words of latter-day prophets over the radio airways.
In his messages to the Saints, President Grant repeatedly emphasized the importance of keeping the commandments. He declared, “I promise you, as a servant of the living God, that every man and woman who obeys the commandments of God shall prosper, that every promise made of God shall be fulfilled upon their heads, and that they will grow and increase in wisdom, light, knowledge, intelligence, and, above all, in the testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ.”29 When he spoke about the need to keep the commandments, he often gave particular attention to the Word of Wisdom and the law of tithing. In one conference address he taught:
“The devil is ready to blind our eyes with the things of this world, and he would gladly rob us of eternal life, the greatest of all gifts. But it is not given to the devil, and no power will ever be given to him to overthrow any Latter-day Saint that is keeping the commandments of God. There is no power given to the adversary of men’s souls to destroy us if we are doing our duty. If we are not absolutely honest with God, then we let the bars down, then we have destroyed part of the fortifications by which we are protected, and the devil may come in. But no man has ever lost the testimony of the Gospel, no man has ever turned to the right or to the left, who had the knowledge of the truth, who was attending to his duties, who was keeping the Word of Wisdom, who was paying his tithing, who was responding to the calls and duties of his office and calling in the Church.
“There are some who are forever asking to know what the Lord wants of them, and who seem to be hesitating on that account. I am thoroughly convinced that all the Lord wants of you and me or of any other man or woman in the Church is for us to perform our full duty and keep the commandments of God.”30
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, when people all over the world struggled with unemployment and poverty, President Grant and his counselors, Presidents J. Reuben Clark Jr. and David O. McKay, were concerned about the well-being of the Latter-day Saints. On 20 April 1935 they called into their office Harold B. Lee, a young stake president whose stake had been successful in caring for the poor and needy. President Lee recalled:
“President Grant … said that there was nothing more important for the Church to do than to take care of its needy people and that so far as he was concerned, everything else must be sacrificed [so that] proper relief [could be] extended to our people. I was astounded to learn that for years there had been before them, as a result of their thinking and planning and as a result of the inspiration of Almighty God, the genius of the very plan that was waiting and in preparation for a time when, in their judgment, the faith of the Latter-day Saints was such that they were willing to follow the counsel of the men who lead and preside in this Church.”31
In April 1936, after counseling with President Lee and with General Authorities, businessmen, and others, the First Presidency introduced the Church Security Plan, which is now known as the welfare program of the Church. In the October 1936 general conference, President Grant explained the objective of this program: “Our primary purpose was to set up, in so far as it might be possible, a system under which the curse of idleness would be done away with, the evils of a dole abolished, and independence, industry, thrift and self respect be once more established amongst our people. The aim of the Church is to help the people to help themselves. Work is to be re-enthroned as the ruling principle of the lives of our Church membership.”32
President J. Reuben Clark Jr. testified: “The Welfare Plan is based upon revelation. … The setting up of the machinery is the result of a revelation by the Holy Ghost to President Grant.”33 Elder Albert E. Bowen, who was ordained an Apostle by President Grant, explained the vision of the program: “The real long term objective of the Welfare Plan is the building of character in the members of the Church, givers and receivers, rescuing all that is finest down deep in the inside of them, and bringing to flower and fruitage the latent richness of the spirit.”34
In February 1940 President Grant suffered a stroke that impaired his speech and temporarily paralyzed the left side of his body. This did not prevent him from continuing in the work of the Lord. He worked a few hours each day, and he continued to give brief talks at general conferences for the next two years. On 6 April 1942 he delivered a general conference address for the last time. Thereafter, his talks were read by others. His final general conference address, read by Joseph Anderson on 6 April 1945, concluded with these words of testimony:
“The most glorious thing that has ever happened in the history of the world since the Savior himself lived on earth, is that God himself saw fit to visit the earth with his beloved, only begotten Son, our Redeemer and Savior, and to appear to the boy Joseph. There are thousands and hundreds of thousands who have had a perfect and individual testimony and knowledge of this eternal truth. The gospel in its purity has been restored to the earth, and I want to emphasize that we as a people have one supreme thing to do, and this is to call upon the world to repent of sin, and to obey the commandments of God. And it is our duty above all others to go forth at home and abroad, as times and circumstances permit, and proclaim the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is our duty also to be mindful of those children of our Father who have preceded us in death without a knowledge of the gospel, and to open the door of salvation to them in our temples, where we also have obligations to perform.
“I bear witness to you that I do know that God lives, that he hears and answers prayer; that Jesus is the Christ, the Redeemer of the world; that Joseph Smith was and is a prophet of the true and living God; and that Brigham Young and those who have succeeded him were, and are, likewise prophets of God.
“I do not have the language at my command to express the gratitude to God for this knowledge that I possess. Time and time again my heart has been melted, my eyes have wept tears of gratitude for the knowledge that he lives and that this gospel called Mormonism is in very deed the plan of life and salvation, that it is in very deed the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. That God may help you and me and everyone to live it, and that he may help those who know not the truth, that they may receive this witness, is my constant and earnest prayer, and I ask it in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.”35
President Grant’s condition continued to deteriorate until he passed away on 14 May 1945. Funeral services were held four days later. President Joseph Fielding Smith recalled: “As the cortege passed thousands stood in the streets for many blocks with bowed heads. He was honored by representatives of other Churches and the bell of the Catholic Cathedral tolled. … Men of renown from distant parts came to do him honor, many of the stores in the city closed their doors and there was a general mourning because a mighty man had been taken home after a long and eventful life.”36
Presidents J. Reuben Clark Jr. and David O. McKay, who had served as President Grant’s First and Second Counselors, spoke at the funeral. Their tributes echoed the feelings of the hundreds of thousands of Latter-day Saints who had sustained President Heber J. Grant as their prophet.
President Clark said that President Grant “lived righteously and drew from our Heavenly Father the blessings which come to those who keep and obey his commandments.”37
President McKay declared, “Persevering in accomplishment, sincere, honest, upright in all his dealings, positive in expression, dynamic in action, uncompromising with evil, sympathetic with the unfortunate, magnanimous in the highest degree, faithful in life to every trust, tender and considerate of loved ones, loyal to friends, to truth, to God—such was our honored and beloved President—a distinguished leader, a worthy exemplar to the Church and to mankind the world over.”38