What happened when President Heber J. Grant felt prompted to call a ‘comparative stranger’ instead of a close friend to be an Apostle

Editor’s note: The following excerpt comes from a book about special witnesses of Jesus Christ. You can read this chapter in its entirety at truthwillprevail.xyz as well as other chapters as they are posted. This excerpt is republished here with permission.

In 1919 a flu pandemic swept the world, killing many millions. It forced the Church to shut down its temples and meetinghouses and all public gatherings for months. President Joseph F. Smith himself had become incrementally ill for some time before that and had been largely confined to his room. Few church members and most of the Apostles had no idea how ill he really was. On November 19, 1918, President Heber J. Grant (then President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles) visited the ailing prophet. Then and there, President Joseph F. Smith, on his deathbed, gave his final parting charge to President Heber J. Grant. His son, Bishop David A. Smith, recorded the following: 

President Grant came into the Beehive House yesterday afternoon to inquire as to father's condition, and I suggested that he go in and speak to him, but he said he did not want to disturb him. I said, “You had better wait and see him, as it may be your last chance to speak to him.” Father being awake, I told him Brother Grant was there, and he directed me to tell Brother Grant that he wanted to see him, and when Brother Grant entered the room he took him by the hand and 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.”’ This was the last message that President Smith delivered to anyone.1  

Heber had loved Joseph F. all his life, sustaining and supporting him: “I believe that I am safe in saying that no man who has ever stood at the head of the Church, within the recollection of us who were born in this valley, ever thrilled the hearts of the people in testifying that his Redeemer lived, as did our late beloved President Joseph F. Smith.”2  No public funeral was held because of the flu pandemic.

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On November 23, Heber was set apart as the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.3 In his first address as President, given in the delayed (June) general conference, Heber gave what has since become known as one of the greatest talks ever given at a general conference. In it, he pledged his remaining life to serve the Lord and the people, and he briefly referenced his acquaintance with each President of the Church from Brigham Young through Joseph F. Smith. He spoke of their testimonies and the hallmarks of their service.4 

One of his first obligations as Church President was to present a name to the Quorum of the Twelve to fill the vacancy caused by the passing of President Smith. One source quotes President Grant as remembering, “I went into the elevator and rode up to the fourth floor of the temple. On the way up I heard three times, as clearly as I ever heard any voice in my life, the name Melvin J. Ballard. I only knew Brother Ballard in passing, that he was at the time president of the Northwestern States Mission.”5 In his diary, President Grant recorded: “When I became the President and it was up to me to nominate someone to the Council of the Twelve I told the Lord in prayer that he knew who I wanted for an Apostle, namely, Richard W. Young, but that I wanted the impression of the Spirit as to whom he wanted, and I finally nominated Melvin J. Ballard.”6 

President Grant later commented on the lesson taught him by this experience: “I have been happy during the twenty-two years that it has fallen to my lot to stand at the head of this Church. I have felt the inspiration of the living God directing me in my labors. From the day that I chose a comparative stranger to be one of the Apostles, instead of my lifelong and dearest living friend, I have known as I know that I live, that I am entitled to the light and the inspiration and the guidance of God in directing His work here upon this earth. And I know as I know that I live, that it is God's work, and that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God, the Redeemer of the world, and that He came to this earth with a divine mission to die upon the cross as the Redeemer of mankind, atoning for the sins of the world.”7 

Elder Ballard was the first of many Apostles called by President Grant. President Boyd K. Packer shared, in brief, another story: “In 1930 J. Reuben Clark was named as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Two and a half years later he was called by letter as second counselor to President Heber J. Grant. General conference had come and gone, and a vacancy in the First Presidency was not filled. A senior Apostle told me that two members of the Twelve waited upon President Grant and said, ‘We see you did not fill the vacancy in the Presidency.’ President Grant replied, ‘I know the man the Lord wants me to have, and he is not ready yet.’ Pointing his cane at each of them, he said, ‘I know that feeling when it comes. I had it when I called you! And I had it when I called you!’ ‘When that cane pointed at me,’ one of them told me, ‘I felt as if I had been electrocuted.’ It was nearly a year before President Clark was able to come to Church headquarters.”8 

As the years of his administration passed and he fulfilled his calling as a special witness, President Grant’s words rang with truth and testimony: “When I think of the men who have occupied this position, from President Brigham Young to President Joseph F. Smith, I indeed feel weak, but my faith and my knowledge regarding the divinity of the work in which we are engaged are so perfect that I have no doubt whatever that the Lord will give to me, with the aid of my counselors and the Council of the Twelve, with whom I meet in council every week, the inspiration to guide and direct the affairs of this Church in a way and manner which will be pleasing and acceptable to him.”9 

Further: “I bear witness to you here today that we have the truth, that God has spoken again, that every gift, every grace, every power, and every endowment that came through the Holy Priesthood of the living God in the days of the Savior, are enjoyed today. God lives, Jesus is the Christ, Joseph Smith was a prophet of the true and the living God. ‘Mormonism,’ so-called, is in very deed the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. God has given me a witness of these things. I know them and I bear that witness to you, in all humility.”10 

And again: “I thank the Lord that I am able to bear witness to you here today that I know that God lives, that he hears and answers our prayers; that I know that Jesus is the Christ, the Redeemer of the world, the Savior of mankind. I bear my witness to you here today that Joseph Smith was a prophet of the true and the living God, that he was the instrument in the hands of God of establishing again upon the earth the plan of life and salvation, not only for the living but for the dead, and that this gospel, commonly called ‘Mormonism,’ by the people of the world, is in very deed the plan of life and salvation, the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, that the little stone has been cut out of the mountain, and that it shall roll forth until it fills the whole earth.”11 

President Grant also delineated the absolute sureness of his testimony: “I do not need to say faith, for I can say knowledge. I know that God lives; that Jesus is the Christ; that Joseph Smith was a prophet of the true and the living God, and that Mormonism, so-called, is in very deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the plan of life and salvation, revealed again from heaven, and that all authority existing on the earth at any time has been bestowed again upon men by messengers from heaven.”12 

Read this chapter in its entirety at truthwillprevail.xyz.


Notes

1. Conference Report, April 1934, 10. President Grant reported this experience more than once. At the April 1942 general conference he said: “On the day that Brother Joseph F. Smith bade me good-bye, and he died that very night, he told me that the Lord never makes a mistake. He said: ‘You have a great responsibility resting upon you. The Lord knows whom He wants to preside over His Church and He never makes a mistake.’ I can testify to you that He has not made a mistake in my case any more than He did with each and all of my predecessors” (Conference Report, April 1942, 9).
2. Conference Report, October 1919, 201.
3. At the June 1919 conference, a mission president told this experience: “I want to bear you my testimony that God has shown me that President Heber J. Grant is the right man in the right place. Some four weeks ago, in the temple of our God, at a fast meeting, the President was speaking. I was sitting on my seat, looking very intently upon him, as I do upon all speakers, desiring to hear all they say. All of a sudden, President Grant had disappeared; I did not see him, but I saw our beloved president, Joseph F. Smith, who departed this life a few months ago. I saw the mantle of the Prophet resting upon our beloved brother, and I thought that this was another testimony unto me that he was the right man in the right place. I had never doubted but what this was the case—never in the world. I know the order of the Church too well for that; but God made manifest unto me that the mantle of the Prophet had fallen upon President Grant, and he was indeed his legal and lawful successor” (Conference Report, October 1919, 130).
4. Conference Report, October 1919, 3-14.
5. Hugh B. Brown, An Abundant Life: The Memoirs of Hugh B. Brown, ed., Edwin B. Firmage (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1988), 128-29.
6. Heber J. Grant diary, February 20, 1935. Of his call to the Twelve, Elder Ballard said: “I rejoice to be identified with this work. In my soul, I am thankful for a standing in this Church [of apostle]. I feel my weakness in appearing before the Latter-day Saints in the responsibilities that have come to me. When President Grant informed me that it was the will of the Lord and that the brethren had approved of that decision, that I should become a special witness for the Lord Jesus Christ, I was overwhelmed, because I did not feel that I was worthy of any such thing; and I answered him that if I believed that I could be worthy to be a special witness of the Lord Jesus Christ, an apostle, it would be the happiest hour of my life; for I look upon it as the highest honor that can come to a man on the earth; but my standard of what kind of men they ought to be was so great, so far above what I am, that I did not know if I could measure up to that standard or not. . .” (Conference Report, June 1919, 73).
7. Improvement Era, 44:267, 315.
8. Boyd K. Packer, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark Law Society Devotional, February 28, 2004, 3.
9. Conference Report, October 1919, 3.
10. Conference Report, April 1920, 15-16; see also Conference Report, April 1943, 7.
11. Conference Report, October 1919, 15.
12. Conference Report, April 1934, 11.
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