SALT LAKE CITY — Oct. 3, 1987, was unseasonably warm in Salt Lake City, with a high approaching 83 degrees — about 13 degrees warmer than the typical Oct. 3 along Utah’s Wasatch Front. That’s what prompted LDS Church President Ezra Taft Benson to open his sermon during the Saturday evening priesthood session of the 157th Semiannual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by taking off his suit coat.
“Brethren, I know what you’re thinking,” the 88-year-old church president said, standing in white shirt sleeves at the pulpit of the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Temple Square, which has a much-deserved reputation for being unpleasantly stuffy when it is warm outside. “You’re thinking that I want to be comfortable, which is true.”
Then he went on to authorize all of the other men in the Tabernacle to take off their coats and jackets before settling into the topic for his priesthood meeting sermon — fatherhood.
“Fathers, yours is an eternal calling from which you are never released,” President Benson said in remarks titled, “To the Fathers in Israel.”
“Callings in the church, as important as they are, by their very nature are only for a period of time, and then an appropriate release takes place. But a father’s calling is eternal, and its importance transcends time. It is a calling for both time and eternity.”
President Benson suggested two basic responsibilities for every Latter-day Saint father — providing for the material needs of their families and giving spiritual leadership to their families. He also gave 10 specific ways fathers can provide such leadership (please see box).
“Oh, husbands and fathers in Israel, you can do so much for the salvation and exaltation of your families!” President Benson concluded. “Your responsibilities are so important!”
So important, in fact, that the subject of fathers and fatherhood is frequently addressed by LDS general authorities and officers during general conference sessions. Although no statistics are kept regarding the frequency of specific general conference sermon topics, Internet “word clouds” or “wordles” based on the frequency of specific words used during recent general conferences indicate the word “father” appears rather prominently — not as prominently as words like “God,” “Jesus,” “Christ,” “Lord” and “Savior,” but prominently enough to suggest it is a key topic in general conferences.
“Noble fatherhood gives us a glimpse of the divine attributes of our Father in Heaven,” said President James E. Faust, then of the church’s First Presidency during the April 2001 general conference. “A father should be many things. He should magnify his priesthood and be an example of righteousness. In companionship with his wife, he should be the source of stability and strength for the whole family. He should be the protector and the provider and the champion of the members of his family. Much of his love for his children should flow from his example of love, concern and fidelity for their mother. By his uncompromising example he should instill character into his children.”
During the only general conference over which he presided as president of the LDS Church — the October conference of 1994 — President Howard W. Hunter spoke strongly of the father’s role in the LDS family. “A man who holds the priesthood regards the family as ordained of God,” President Hunter said. “Your leadership of the family is your most important and sacred responsibility. The family is the most important unit in time and in eternity and, as such, transcends every other interest in life.”
More recently, Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles warned of the negative impact on society as the influence of fathers fades in modern families.
“Satan, in his carefully devised plan to destroy the family, seeks to diminish the role of fathers,” Elder Perry said in April conference 2004. “Increased youth violence, youth crime, greater poverty and economic insecurity, and the failure of an increasing number of children in our schools offer clear evidence of lack of a positive influence of fathers in the homes. A family needs a father to anchor it.”
Speaking more specifically to LDS fathers, Bishop H. Burke Peterson of the Presiding Bishopric expressed his concern about “what goes through a boy’s mind when he hears his dad quarrel with or speak unkindly to his mother, or abuse her in any way.”
“I’ve wondered where he puts his values when dad goes hunting on Sunday, or works in the yard, or goes shopping on the Sabbath,” Bishop Peterson said during his October 1982 general conference address. “Is there a lasting impression on a boy’s heart when he hears dad criticize the bishop, the home teacher or the Sunday School teacher — or maybe even the prophet? Though it may be ever so slight, does it have an effect?
“I’ve been thinking,” he continued. “What respect will a 14-year-old Aaronic Priesthood holder develop for the law when his dad drives 45 miles an hour in a 25 mile zone, or 70 when it should be 55? Are there acts of dishonesty that are so small they can escape the gaze of a boy? Is it possible that if a boy hears his father swear or curse he will grow up to think that that is the mark of true manhood, or of a Melchizedek Priesthood holder?”
But many general conference sermons about fathers illustrate the powerful, positive influence of fathers on the lives of their children. In his April 2000 conference talk, Elder Loren C. Dunn of the First Quorum of the Seventy told of a young man who was leaving his life on the family ranch to go on a full-time mission for the church.
“When the boy got into the mission field, it was all strange: too many people, not enough open spaces,” Elder Dunn said. “He wanted badly to go home. Finally, the mission president had the young missionary call his father. The father listened patiently as his son said how homesick he was, and then the father spoke in terms that his son could understand, and as I heard about this, it brought a smile to my face. He said with firmness but love, ‘Son, you’re just going to have to cowboy up.’
“The boy knew exactly what that meant, and he is hanging on as the spirit of his mission begins to come,” Elder Dunn reported. “He knows his father will not give up on him.”
Speaking in the October 2002 general conference, Elder F. Melvin Hammond of the First Quorum of the Seventy shared a personal story that helped him to appreciate the great blessing and opportunity of being a dad.
“Many years ago I took our only son on his first camping, fishing trip,” Elder Hammond said. “He was just a boy. The canyon was steep, and the descent was difficult. But the fishing was good. Every time I hooked a fish I would give the pole to the eager boy, and with shouts of joy he would reel in a beautiful trout.
“In the shadows and coolness of the late afternoon, we began our climb back up to the rim high above us,” he continued. “He scrambled rapidly up the mountain ahead of me with a challenging, ‘Come on, Dad. I’ll bet I can beat you to the top.’ The challenge was heard but wisely ignored. His small frame seemed literally to fly over, under, and around every obstacle, and when every step that I took seemed ridiculously like my last, he had reached the top and stood cheering me on.
“After supper we knelt in prayer. His small voice rose sweetly heavenward in benediction to our day. Then we climbed into our large double sleeping bag, and after a bit of pushing and pulling I felt his little body snuggle and settle tightly against mine for warmth and security against the night. As I looked at my son beside me, suddenly I felt a surge of love pass through my body with such force that it pushed tears to my eyes. And, at that precise moment, he put his little arms around me and said, ‘Dad.’
“’Are you awake?’
“’Yes, my son, I am awake.’
“’Dad, I love you a million, trillion times!’
“And immediately he was asleep. But I was awake far into the night, expressing my great thanks for such wonderful blessings clothed with a little boy’s body.”
Such experiences give mortal fathers a glimpse into the feelings of Heavenly Father toward his children, although Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said, “I cannot comprehend the burden it must have been for God in his heaven to witness the deep suffering and Crucifixion of his Beloved Son in such a manner.”
“His every impulse and instinct must have been to stop it, to send angels to intervene — but he did not intervene,” Elder Holland said in April 1999. “He endured what he saw because it was the only way that a saving, vicarious payment could be made for the sins of all his other children from Adam and Eve to the end of the world. I am eternally grateful for a perfect Father and his perfect Son, neither of whom shrank from the bitter cup nor forsook the rest of us who are imperfect, who fall short and stumble, who too often miss the mark.
“In that most burdensome moment of all human history, with blood appearing at every pore and an anguished cry upon his lips, Christ sought him whom he had always sought — his Father,” Elder Holland observed reverently. “ ‘Abba,’ He cried, ‘Papa,’ or from the lips of a younger child, ‘Daddy.’ This is such a personal moment it almost seems a sacrilege to cite it. A Son in unrelieved pain, a Father his only true source of strength, both of them staying the course, making it through the night — together.”
No wonder President Benson said men should count it an honor that “the sacred title of ‘father’ is shared with the Almighty.”
“Fatherhood is not a matter of station or wealth,” President Benson said during the April 1981 general conference, while he was still serving as president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “It is a matter of desire, diligence and determination to see one’s family exalted in the celestial kingdom. If that prize is lost, nothing else really matters.”
Including whether or not he kept his jacket on to say it.