One of the enduring strengths of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the clear and dependable way a new prophet and president of the church is chosen upon the death of his predecessor. There are no surprises, no lobbying, and no dissension among those authorized to carry out the transition.
This carefully prescribed procedure was evident this week as Howard W. Hunter became the prophet, seer and revelator and 14th president of the church. As senior apostle and president of the church's Council of the Twelve, he brings nearly 35 years of service and experience as a church general authority to his demanding new duties.The choices of President Gordon B. Hinckley as first counselor and president Thomas S. Monson as second counselor in the First Presidency also were expected. The pair have carried much of the weight of church leadership for many years as well as during the failing health of President Ezra Taft Benson.
Both are seasoned and experienced leaders who have a commanding grasp of both the worldwide scope of the church and the details of its day-to-day operations.
With the naming of the new First Presidency, Elder Boyd K. Packer becomes acting president of the Council of the Twelve.
In some respects, President Hunter takes the helm of the church as a less well-known personality to the church membership than his predecessors. Part of this is due to the rapidly growing and far-flung membership that now totals about nine million. Another reason is the personal style and manner of the new president - intensely private, self-effacing, low-key, quiet, soft-spoken. He is an unassuming, behind-the-scenes worker.
This has led to a somewhat austere and distant image. Yet he is warm, intense and has great empathy for other people. In a recently published biography by Eleanor Knowles, President Hunter is described by associates who have worked with him in ecclesiastical and professional capacities: "A good listener. He has a way of making people feel at ease." "When you travel with him, he's always watching to make sure everybody is taken care of, that nobody is being inconvenienced or put out." "Have never seen him distraught. He is concerned with and sensitive to others." "He has extraordinary patience."
President Hunter is known to weigh matters carefully and move cautiously, hearing every side in a dispute, prefering to seek consensus and to mediate differences.
However, these warm and people-centered traits should not be confused with ineffectiveness or weakness. When it is time for a decision, he is honest and forthright. His opinions are praised for sound judgment and quiet wisdom. As another associate said, "He is tough when he needs to be tough, gracious when he needs to be gracious and forgiving when he needs to be forgiving."
The new president has an astute legal mind. He was a successful corporation lawyer and businessman in Southern California when he was called as an apostle Oct. 10, 1959. During his service as a bishop and stake president in California he was recognized as an extraordinarily able and innovative administrator and organizer.
His service as a general authority has covered many areas. For example, he spent 12 years as president of the church's Genealogical Society and for two years was official church historian. Both represented long-standing personal interests as well as church assignments.
President Hunter brings other skills and experiences to the calling as head of a rapidly growing world church. He is personally knowledgeable about, and has often visited, the Middle East. He served as a major figure for many years in the long effort to build the BYU Jerusalem Center. He also served for a dozen years in the South Pacific, where he was president and chairman of the board of the Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii, helping to develop the facility that has become a world-renowned attraction. He has a special rapport with the Polynesian people.
President Hunter has suffered ill-health in recent years but has a reputation as an extremely hard worker. At age 86 and suffering some recurring trouble with his legs, he cannot do all that he wants to do physically. But the reins of the church clearly are in the hands of a leader of impressive intellect as well as a great capacity for human warmth.
At the press conference announcing his new role, President Hunter voiced that warmth in calling for members to treat each other with more kindness, concern, humility, patience and forgiveness. For those who have transgressed or been offended, his plea was for them to "come back." And he urged all members to be temple-worthy and make their sacred religious covenants the center of their lives.
Like all who preceded him in his new position, President Hunter's over-riding goal is to work not only for the advancement of the LDS Church but for the eternal well-being of all humankind. May he be remembered in the prayers of good people everywhere.