One sentence to describe Church presidents

In this article, Peggy Noonan discusses a conversation Clare Booth Luce says she had with JFK in 1962.

She told him, she said, that “a great man is one sentence.” His leadership can be so well summed up in a single sentence that you don’t have to hear his name to know who’s being talked about. “He preserved the union and freed the slaves,” or, “He lifted us out of a great depression and helped to win a World War.” You didn’t have to be told “Lincoln” or “FDR.”

This got me thinking about one-sentence descriptions of Church presidents (for those interested in politics, a future post may consider U.S. presidents — this post will discuss only Church presidents).

Here is a stab at one-sentence descriptions of Church Presidents:

Joseph Smith:  “He received the Book of Mormon, founded the modern-day Church of Jesus Christ — the leader of the last dispensation of time.”

Brigham Young:  “He was the great pioneer leader of the Church.”

John Taylor:  “He was with Joseph when he died and was loyal to the end.”

Wilford Woodruff:  “He ushered in reconciliation with the United States government, issued the Manifesto ending polygamy and dedicated the Salt Lake temple.”

Lorenzo Snow:  “He saw the Savior in the Salt Lake temple, instituted tithing laws to overcome the Church’s financial difficulties and solidified the succession issue among prophets and apostles.”

Joseph F. Smith:  “He was the first Church president who, as an adult, didn’t know Joseph Smith,  the great missionary to Hawaii and the prophet who had the great vision of the redemption of the dead.”

Heber J. Grant:  “He was the businessman prophet who led the Church through the Great Depression and World War II.”

George Albert Smith:  “He concentrated on love, reconciliation and rebuilding Europe in the aftermath of World War II.”

David O McKay:  “He was the man who looked and dressed like a modern-day prophet and who became the first leader of a truly worldwide Church.”

Joseph Fielding Smith: “He reemphasized the importance of the Restoration and urged members to return to the teachings of Joseph Smith, in part through his book ‘Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith.’ ”

Harold B. Lee:  “He emphasized Family Home Evening, home teaching and and priesthood correlation during his short presidency.”

Spencer W. Kimball: “He was the prophet who overcame great health problems, including some that made it difficult for him to speak, and was known as one of the kindest men of his generation, especially for his book ‘The Miracle of Forgiveness.’ ”

Ezra Taft Benson:  “He was the prophet who, though active in right-wing politics earlier in his life, avoided politics entirely after becoming leader of a growing Church and was also known as the great promoter of re-reading the Book of Mormon.”

Howard W. Hunter:  “He emphasized temple attendance during his short time as president of the Church.”

Gordon B. Hinckley:  “He was the great builder of temples worldwide and the promoter of the Church using modern-day public relations tactics.”

Thomas S. Monson:  “He is the great story-telling prophet who is known for loving widows and the less fortunate.”

What do you think of these one-sentence descriptions? Please feel free to suggest better ones, keeping in mind that a reader should, by reading the description, know which prophet is being mentioned.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

32 thoughts on “One sentence to describe Church presidents

  1. Dear Nazi, you have chosen a good name for yourself. Personally, I found repeating “he was” 15 times to be a bit too repetitive. But the subjects have been restored to all 16 now. You can go back to reading “The Elements of Style” now.

  2. Great post Geoff. I have been thinking how I would have written those sentences, some of which would be similar and some of which would be different. And then I remembered that at the Solemn Assembly at which Harold B. Lee was sustained as president of the Church, he did something similar in his remarks, albeit he condensed his summary to paragraphs instead of single sentences:

    “Joseph Smith was the one whom the Lord raised up from boyhood and endowed with divine authority and taught the things necessary for him to know and to obtain the priesthood and to lay the foundation for God’s kingdom in these latter days.

    “There was President Brigham Young, who was foreordained before this world was, for his divine calling to lead the persecuted Saints in fleeing from the wrath that threatened the Saints in those early gathering places in Missouri and Illinois and to pioneer the building of an inland commonwealth in the tops of these majestic mountains, to fulfill God’s purposes.

    “To look upon the features of President John Taylor was to gain a realization that here was one, as President Joseph F. Smith spoke of him, ‘One of the purest men I ever knew. …’

    “As I saw the sainted face of President Wilford Woodruff, I was aware that here was a man like Nathanael of old, in whom there was no guile, and susceptible to the impressions of the Spirit of the Lord, by whose light he seemed to almost always walk ‘not knowing beforehand the thing he was to do.’

    “While President Lorenzo Snow had but a brief administration, he had a special mission to establish his people on a more solid temporal foundation by the determined application of the law of sacrifice, to relieve the great burdens placed upon the Church because of mistakes and errors which had unwittingly crept in.

    “When I want to seek for a more clear definition of doctrinal subjects, I have usually turned to the writings and sermons of President Joseph F. Smith. As I looked upon his noble stature. I thought of the nine-year-old boy helping his widowed mother across the plains and the 15-year-old missionary on the slopes of Haleakala on the isle of Maui being strengthened by a heavenly vision with his uncle, Joseph Smith. It was he who presided during the stormy days when an antagonistic press maligned the Church, but his was the steady arm by the Lord’s appointment to carry off the Church triumphantly.

    “I suppose I never drew closer to the meaning of a divine calling than when President Heber J. Grant placed his hands upon my shoulders and, with a deep feeling akin to mine, announced my calling to be an apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. As his picture looked down upon me, there came again to my mind the prophetic words of his inspired blessing when I was ordained in the holy temple trader his hands.

    “President George Albert Smith was a disciple of friendship and love. He was indeed a friend to everyone. My gaze at his likeness seemed to give me a warmth of that radiance which made every man his friend.

    “Tall and impressive was President David O. McKay, as he now looked at me with those piercing eyes, which always seemed to search my very soul. Never was I privileged to be in his presence but that I felt for a brief moment, as I had done on so many occasions, that I was a better man for having been in his company.

    “To him who sought no earthly honors, but whose whole soul delighted in the things of the spirit, President Joseph Fielding Smith was there with his smiling face, my beloved prophet-leader who made no compromise with truth. As ‘the finger of God touched him and he slept,’ he seemed in that brief moment to be passing to me, as it were, a sceptre of righteousness as though to say to me, ‘Go thou and do likewise.'”

    Harold B. Lee, “‘May the Kingdom of God Go Forth’,” Ensign, Jan 1973, 23

  3. I would have been thrown by the description of Joseph F. Smith, since he was born in 1838 in Far West, and would have at least seen and spoken to his uncle during the first six years of his life, would he not?

  4. P.S. This has been done; for example see Friend, Nov. 2003, 46, which gives the following sentences for the 15 latter day prophets up through GBH. I notice that the material is more-or-less correlated to what information is taught about each to the kids in Primary. Can you tell who is who?:

    He was the first to counsel us to have family home evening.

    He dedicated the Salt Lake Temple in 1893.

    He taught the importance of hard work in developing talents.

    He led the pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley.

    He received the Silver Buffalo Award from the Boy Scouts of America for his service.

    He translated the Book of Mormon.

    He taught the importance of paying tithing.

    He asked us to live more Christlike lives and to prepare to go to the temple.

    He led the Church in extensive temple building.

    He said, “Every member a missionary.”

    He encouraged us to keep a journal.

    He helped establish the current welfare program.

    He emphasized the importance of studying the Book of Mormon.

    He saw Joseph Smith martyred in Carthage Jail; his life was saved when a bullet was stopped by his watch.

    He was a great scriptorian, and during his administration the Friend magazine was first published.

  5. oh, one last comment… thanks for linking to our local trek story in your sidebar. The last picture in the multimedia slideshow is my son.

  6. Coffinberry, cool. If you live in the Longmont stake, I live in the Loveland stake. Sounds like the members of the Longmont stake had a great time.

  7. Coffinberry, I changed Joseph F. Smith by adding “as an adult,” meaning that Joseph F. Smith was the first prophet who was not an adult when Joseph Smith was alive.

  8. Tongue was fully in cheek. And /grammar nazi was not meant to signify a name or a handle–it was an end tag.

  9. Nate W, sometimes humor doesn’t translate well in a blog. You mean you don’t want to be known forever more as the Grammar Nazi? 🙂

    No offense taken at all — your suggestion was actually a good one, and that’s why I changed it.

  10. I’d have a very difficult time — impossible, probably — in identifying most of the presidents based on the Friend one-liners. Geoff’s are far better.

    This is a fun exercise. Makes you think about what matters to you most about each man, and the unique contributions of each. I’m still thinking about how I would have written them.

  11. Joseph F. Smith was also noted for being the first prophet born in the church.

    All prophets since him have been born in the church, that is, both parents were members at the time of their birth.

    Some apostles since then were born to two non-member parents, or one member and one non-member parent.

    Elder Widtsoe was a 12 year old convert. Elder Uchtdorf was born to non-member parents, but his family joined before he turned 8 and he was baptized at age 8 or thereabouts. And Elder Bednar’s mother was a member, but his father was not.

  12. T.E., you will find few bigger defenders than ETB and his politics in the Bloggernacle than me, but it is nevertheless true that he was sympathetic to the John Birch Society and extremely active in such causes in the 1950s and 1960s. You may want to read Greg Prince’s book on David O McKay to see how that affected the Church internally (he was constantly lobbying the Church on political issues, and President McKay had to mediate many disputes caused by political activism). ETB’s politics were notable and unique, and the fact that he put those politics aside when he became prophet is truly remarkable and noteworthy.

  13. T.E.: I agree with Geoff B. The phrase “active in right-wing politics earlier in his life” is both accurate and fair. In spite of what the left-wing mainstream media would have us believe, “right-wing” is not derogatory or a bad thing. ETB would likely have readily admitted, even volunteered, that he was a right-winger.

    It is only leftists and liberals who get offended at being called “left wing” or “liberal”. They usually try to hide under the label of “centrist” or “moderate”. Most rightists and conversatives I know are not ashamed to be known as such.

  14. Bookslinger: It is only leftists and liberals who get offended at being called “left wing” or “liberal”.

    Perhaps you need to get out a little more. There is no shortage in the world of liberals who very proudly wear the liberal label. (In my experience is it usually actual moderates who don’t want to be called liberal or conservative; left-wingers or right-wingers)

  15. GJ: I think there are few _actual_ moderates. I think most self-proclaimed moderates are in reality liberals. Hence, they’re the ones you see denying that they’re liberals.

    I know, there’s some circular logic in there. “Of _course_ a witch would deny being a witch. That’s how we know she’s a witch!”

    But then again, “triangulation” is a favorite liberal tactic.

  16. I think that Spencer W. Kimball’s lift of the priesthood ban is one of the most important events in the history of the Church. He restored Joesph Smith’s vision that the Church should cover the whole earth, and gave the priesthood to all, like Joseph did in his day.

    I would mention that through him, the blessings of the Gospel, especually those received in the Temple, are now available to the whole of the human family. This event seems to me far more important to mention in a sentence that describes SWK than his writing of The Miracle of Forgiveness.

    My two cents.

  17. oops, I meant to say “especially.” Hopefully the grammar nazi won’t catch me.

  18. He received the revelation that the priesthood was to be extended to all worthy males.

  19. Bookslinger: I think most self-proclaimed moderates are in reality liberals.

    Well no doubt everyone except hardcore conservatives look liberal to right wing extremists. No doubt everyone except hardcore liberals look conservative to left wing extremists as well. (But enough of this side subject — back to your regularly scheduled thread)

  20. Hmmm, I wonder what this political discussion of moderates vs. liberals has to do with one-sentence descriptions of Church presidents?

    Geoff J, what do you think of the subject at hand? I’d love your input. (I’m directing it at you because Book did comment higher up on the original subject).

  21. Good post, Geoff. I like what Ardis said in #11 about how this makes you think about what you remember or value about each president.

    Bookslinger (#13),

    All prophets since him have been born in the church, that is, both parents were members at the time of their birth.

    Howard W. Hunter’s father was not a member at the time of HWH’s birth. In fact, he would not allow his son to be baptized until he was 12 years old, making HWH technically a “convert” to the church and not one born in the church.

  22. Yea, you really need to work in the lifting of the ban for Kimball.

    Nothing about starting the fundamentalist movement under John Taylor?

  23. I respect Ezra Taft Benson’s politics in general terms, but the John Birch Society was considered a bit beyond the pale even back in the ’50s. The National Review, for example, was founded in part to keep the John Birchers and what is famously known as “the paranoid style of American politics” from becoming representative of the conservative movement, and was very successful in doing so.

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