Relief Society Lesson: The Life and Ministry of Howard W. Hunter

Howard W. Hunter at the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden in Jerusalem, 1979

Howard W. Hunter at the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden in Jerusalem, 1979

In 2016, we will study the teachings of Howard W. Hunter during Relief Society and priesthood classes. Howard W. Hunter was president of the church for only nine months beginning in 1994, so most of the teachings included in the manual will be drawn from his service in other callings before he became president of the church. Check the manual footnotes to place text in context.

Some local wards begin the year with a lesson about the life of the prophet we will study throughout the year, based on the manual introduction.  I enjoy such lessons because they help us put the text in historical context and better understand the person we will be quoting throughout the year.

Childhood

Howard W. Hunter was born in 1907 to Will Hunter and Nellie Rasmussen Hunter and raised in Boise, Idaho.  He had one sister, Dorothy, who was two years younger than him.

Although Howard’s father was not a member of the Church, he did not object to the family’s participation and occasionally attended sacrament meeting with them. In addition to leading her children in Church activity, Nellie Hunter helped them build a strong religious foundation at home. “It was mother who took the lead in teaching us the gospel,” Howard recalled. “It was at her knee that we learned to pray. … I received a testimony as a boy at my mother’s knee.”

How can family members of different faith traditions support each other? What are effective strategies for raising children in families with parents who do not share the same faith tradition? How can ward members support part-member families?

When Howard was eight, he was looking forward to being baptized. “I became very excited about the possibility,” he said. However, his father would not give permission. Howard recalled, “Father … felt I should wait until I knew what course I wanted in life. I wanted to be baptized, though the time came and passed without that blessing.” Because Howard had not been baptized, he could not be ordained a deacon when he turned 12. “By that time, all my friends had been ordained deacons,” he said.“Because I wasn’t an official member of the Church, I wasn’t able to do many of the things that they did.” Howard was especially disheartened that he could not pass the sacrament: “I sat in sacrament meetings with the other boys. When it was time for them to pass the sacrament, I would slump down in my seat. I felt so left out.” Howard again approached his father, this time with his 10-year-old sister, Dorothy: “[We] began coaxing our father to allow us to be baptized. We also prayed that he might say yes. We were overjoyed when he finally gave his consent.”

Today, children may be barred from baptism due to lack of parental permission or due to a new policy that bans certain children from baptism, even if their parents would consent. How can we support youth who participate in the church but are not permitted to be baptized or ordained?  How can we support young women who may feel the same sadness that young Howard W. Hunter expressed because they are likewise watching from the sidelines, excluded from participating in priesthood opportunities like their male peers?

Young Adulthood

Hunter's Croonaders, 1927

Hunter’s Croonaders, 1927

From a young age, Howard showed an aptitude for music, and as a teenager he learned to play several instruments. At age 16 he formed his own music group,which he called Hunter’s Croonaders. This group performed frequently at dances, receptions, and other events in the Boise area. When Howard was 19, he was given a contract to provide music on a cruise ship that was going to Asia. For the first two months of 1927, Howard’s five-piece band played for dinners and dances as the ship crossed the Pacific and stopped at various cities in Japan, China,and the Philippines. The cruise was an enlightening experience for Howard, allowing him to learn about other people and their cultures. Although he spent most of his earnings on sightseeing and souvenirs, he reasoned, “The education has been worth what we spent.”  …On a spring evening in 1931, nearly three years after they met, Howard took Claire [Jeffs] to an overlook above the Pacific Ocean. There he proposed marriage, and she accepted. Howard recalled: “We drove to Palos Verdes and parked on the cliffs where we could watch the waves roll in from the Pacific and break over the rocks in the light of a full moon. We talked about our plans and I put a diamond ring on her finger. We made many decisions that night and some strong resolutions regarding our lives.” Those resolutions influenced Howard to make a life-changing decision four days before the wedding. After his band performed that night, he packed up his instruments and never played again professionally. Providing music for dances and parties “was glamorous in some respects,” he said, “and I made good money,” but he felt that parts of the lifestyle were incompatible with the life he envisioned for his family. “This left a void of something I had enjoyed, [but] the decision has never been regretted,” he said years later.

What interests have you sacrificed for your family? What interests have you maintained even when family circumstances have made it difficult? How have you come to a decision about which activities to balance with family duties and which to let go?

Business conditions in the United States were deteriorating because of the Great Depression, and in January 1932, the bank where Howard worked was forced to close. For the next two years he worked at a variety of jobs, trying to make ends meet. He and Claire were determined to be independent as long as possible, but after a year they accepted an invitation to live with Claire’s parents for a time.

How have your extended families supported you through difficult times? How have you supported them?

On March 20, 1934, Howard and Claire’s first child was born, a son they named Howard William Hunter Jr. and called Billy. That summer they noticed that Billy seemed lethargic. Doctors diagnosed him with anemia, and Howard twice gave blood for transfusions, but Billy’s condition did not improve. Further tests revealed a severe intestinal problem for which doctors recommended surgery. Howard recalled: “I was taken into the room on a table beside him and gave blood during the operation. At the conclusion, the doctors were not encouraging.” Three days later, seven-month-old Billy passed away as his parents sat beside his bed. “We were grief-stricken and numb as we left the hospital into the night,” Howard wrote. “This was a severe blow to us.”

How can we support people who experience tragedies?

Howard and Claire Hunter, with their sons, John and Richard

Howard and Claire Hunter, with their sons, John and Richard

In 1940, about a year after Howard graduated from law school, he was called to serve as bishop of the newly created El Sereno Ward in California. Surprised by this calling, he said, “I had always thought of a bishop as being an older man, and I asked how I could be the father of the ward at the young age of thirty-two.” …Being a bishop during World War II presented unique challenges. Many male members of the ward were serving in the military, leaving families without husbands and fathers at home. The shortage of men also presented challenges in filling Church callings. Consequently, during part of his tenure as bishop, Howard also served as Scoutmaster. “We had a group of fine young men who could not be neglected,” he said.“I worked with the boys for nearly two years and they made excellent progress.” …Howard was both working full time and going to law school when [sons] John and Richard were born, and he was called to be a bishop when they were very young—ages four and two—so building a strong family  required an extra measure of devotion from Claire.

How have you balanced family and church duties? How can we support parents who have time-consuming callings? How can we best utilize the talents of female members of our wards, given that church policy mandates that so many callings be filled by men?

An immediate need for the new ward was finding [and raising money for] a place to meet. …For one of the fundraisers, known as the “onion project,” they went to a pickle plant to trim onions. The odor of the onions would linger, which prompted Bishop Hunter to quip, “It was easy to tell in sacrament meeting if a person had been snipping onions.” Other fundraisers included shredding cabbage in a sauerkraut plant and packaging and selling surplus breakfast cereal. “These were happy days when we worked together, people of all classes and ability supporting the bishopric in raising funds to build a chapel,” Bishop Hunter recalled. “Our ward was like a big, happy family.” After much patience and sacrifice,the goal of the ward’s own meetinghouse was finally realized in 1950, nearly four years after Howard was released as bishop.

How can we make service enjoyable? How can we work well together as a ward or with others in our community?

Service as Stake President

In February 1950, Elder Stephen L Richards and Elder Harold B. Lee of the Quorum of the Twelve traveled to California to divide the rapidly growing Pasadena Stake [and called Howard W. Hunter to be Stake President.] …“I went home that night, but I didn’t sleep,” Howard said. “The calling was overwhelming. Claire and I talked for a long time.” After President Hunter and his counselors were sustained, they began assessing needs in the stake. A high priority for the new stake presidency was helping members build spiritual strength. One concern was that families were becoming fragmented, partly because they were involved in so many activities. After leaders prayed and counseled together, they felt impressed to emphasize family home evening and to reserve Monday nights for families. All Church buildings in the stake were closed on Monday nights, and “no other events were held which would conflict with that sacred evening,” explained President Hunter.

How have you worked to build unity in your families? How does family home evening work in your family?

At the October 1951 general conference, the First Presidency met with the stake presidents from Southern California to announce their desire to build a temple in Los Angeles. The prospect of having a temple nearby brought great joy—and would require great sacrifice, as Church members were asked to contribute$1 million toward its construction. …In addition to contributing funds for the temple and other Church buildings, members provided volunteer labor. When meetinghouses were built, President Hunter spent many hours assisting with a shovel, hammer, or paintbrush. Additionally, members provided volunteer labor for Church welfare projects, which included poultry farms, citrus groves, and canneries. For eight years, President Hunter had the assignment of coordinating the work of 12 stakes on these projects, and he often assisted in the work himself. “He never asked anyone to do something or take an assignment that he wouldn’t do himself,” a friend observed. Years later, as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Hunter said: “I have never been on a gloomy welfare project. I have climbed trees and picked lemons, peeled fruit, tended boiler, carried boxes, unloaded trucks, cleaned the cannery, and a thousand and one other things, but the things I remember most are the laughing and the singing and the good fellowship of people engaged in the service of the Lord.”

What sacrifices have you made for your ward and community?  How have these sacrifices contributed to your character?

[Howard W. Hunter’s father, Will Hunter, was baptized in 1927, while Howard was away working on the cruise with Hunter’s Croonaders.] In November 1953, President and Sister Hunter and other members of the Pasadena Stake traveled to the Mesa Arizona Temple to do ordinance work. November 14 was President Hunter’s 46th birthday, and before a session began that day, the temple president asked him to address those who were assembled in the chapel. He later wrote of this experience: “While I was speaking to the congregation, … my father and mother came into the chapel dressed in white. I had no idea my father was prepared for his temple blessings, although Mother had been anxious about it for some time. I was so overcome with emotion that I was unable to continue to speak. President Pierce [the temple president] came to my side and explained the reason for the interruption. When my father and mother came to the temple that morning they asked the president not to mention to me that they were there because they wanted it to be a birthday surprise. This was a birthday I have never forgotten because on that day they were endowed and I had the privilege of witnessing their sealing, following which I was sealed to them.”

Have you had any memorable temple experiences with your family you would be willing to share? How have these experiences brought you closer as a family? If not all of your family members may participate in temple work, how have you negotiated family events like weddings to balance your religious convictions with family unity?

Service as an Apostle

Elder Hunter was ordained an Apostle on October 15, 1959, at age 51. At his first Conference address, he said,

“President McKay, … I accept, without reservation, the call which you have made of me, and I am willing to devote my life and all that I have to this service. Sister Hunter joins me in this pledge.”

Why did Claire join her husband in this pledge?  Why did Elder Hunter feel it important to acknowledge her pledge, as well as his own? How do wives of church leaders join their husbands in pledging their lives to the Church?

President Hunter at the Polynesian Cultural Center

President Hunter at the Polynesian Cultural Center

As an apostle, Elder Hunter’s assignments included presiding over the Genealogical Society of Utah, the forerunner of the Church’s Family History Department; overseeing the Polynesian Cultural Center in its early years; and establishing the Orson Hyde Memorial Garden in Jerusalem and the Brigham Young University (BYU) Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies.

Have any of you have any experiences with any of these Church programs that you would be willing to share?

When [Claire Hunter] reached the point of needing constant care, Elder Hunter was determined to provide as much as he could while also fulfilling his responsibilities as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. He arranged for someone to stay with Claire during the day, but he cared for her at night. Elder Hunter endured some health problems of his own during these years, including a heart attack in 1980. Claire suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in 1981 and another in 1982. The second one left her so incapacitated that doctors insisted she be placed in a care center so she could receive proper medical attention. She remained in the center for the last 18 months of her life. During that time, President Hunter visited her at least once a day except when he was traveling on Church assignments. Although Claire did not recognize him much of the time, he continued to tell her of his love and to make sure that she was comfortable. A grandson said, “He was always in a hurry to see her, to be by her side, and take care of her.”

Seven years after Claire’s death, in 1990, Elder Hunter remarried to Iris Stanton.

How can we support those among us who are primary caretakers of a loved one?

On February 7, 1993, President Hunter went to Brigham Young University to speak at a fireside that was attended by 17,000 people. He was just beginning his address when a man rushed onto the stand, carrying a briefcase in one hand and a black object in the other. “Stop right there!” the man shouted. He threatened to detonate what he claimed was a bomb unless President Hunter read a prepared statement. President Hunter refused and stood resolutely at the pulpit the entire time the man was threatening him. As fear and commotion spread through the building, the audience began to sing “We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.” After a few minutes of suspense, two security personnel restrained the man, and President Hunter was lowered to the floor for safety. When order was restored, he rested briefly and then continued with his remarks. “Life has a fair number of challenges in it,” he began, and then added, “as demonstrated.”

 

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is an advocate, mother, professional, lover of the arts, hater (but doer) of housework and seeker of truth. Podcast: Religious Feminism Podcast Twitter: @aprilyoungb

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4 Responses

  1. Rayanne Sorensen says:

    Thank you so very much for your thoughts on the introduction! I especially like your discussion questions. I wasn’t sure how I was going to present this lesson tomorrow.

  2. Caryn says:

    Thank you for sharing your ideas. it’s so much information! I loved reading it and learning more of President Hunter, but was unsure how to incorporate this into a lesson.

  3. Gen F says:

    I appreciate the time that must have gone into preparing for this lesson. I have never taught in relief society before. I am brand new to this calling and this is my first lesson and I have felt overwhelmed to say the least. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing this. Id like to use some of your questions you have come up with. May blessings rain down upon you!

  4. Rachel says:

    This was so beautiful and inspiring. I also really appreciate your thoughtful questions, and the way you tied his experiences to some of the things we as individuals and as a church are experiencing today. Thank you.

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