At the completion of Richard Swett’s three-year assignment to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Denmark, the Swett family was honored with a farewell reception at the Copenhagen embassy attended by over a thousand of the Danish upper crust. 

Amid formalities and goodbyes, many of the dignitaries and diplomats who had met with Richard and his wife Katrina in the ambassador’s residence expressed endearment toward the couples’ children, particularly the Swetts’ youngest daughter who often interrupted official functions, running down the big stairs in her pajamas and entering the home’s library to ask mom to be tucked in and to have a nighttime prayer. 

“It kind of became a tradition,” Katrina Swett said. “I think that having a big family, and a family for whom family was of central importance, was a way — just by example and just by virtue of being there — that we were able to share what things were most important to us.”

The Danish press and diplomatic class took immediate notice of, and, according to Katrina Swett, responded positively to, the new ambassador’s large family — seven children ranging from 3 to 14 years old — and their membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

Since the Swetts’ return from Denmark in 2001, the number of Latter-day Saints in the foreign service has continued to grow, ranging from lower level staffers to U.S. ambassadors serving in some of the most difficult and strategically significant posts, including in the Middle East, where for several years there was a trifecta of Brigham Young University graduates in ambassador positions. 

According to former U.S. ambassadors and other experts in foreign affairs, reasons for Latter-day Saints’ abundant representation in the foreign service likely include the church’s emphasis on sending young people around the world to serve missions, the success of international relations and language programs at the church’s flagship Brigham Young University, and the civic values encouraged by the Latter-day Saint faith.

Past and present representation

Church leader and noted lawyer J. Reuben Clark Jr. served as U.S. Ambassador to Mexico from 1930 to 1933, at which time he was sustained as second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Over the decades that followed, other Latter-day Saints served in high-ranking State Department positions — including David M. Kennedy who served as U.S. Ambassador to NATO from 1972 to 1973. But it wasn’t until the late 2000s that a trend of increasing Latter-day Saint representation became more pronounced.

In 2009, Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor, was named U.S. ambassador to China. Huntsman was already fluent in the Mandarin language thanks to the two-year mission he served in Taiwan as a young man. Several years later, in 2017, he was appointed as ambassador to Russia, becoming the first American ambassador to serve as chief of mission in both countries. 

During these same years, experienced diplomats who had attended BYU began to be a mainstay in the implementation of U.S. policy in the Middle East. 

Robert “Steve” Beecroft, a BYU graduate, who had previously served as executive assistant to Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, was named U.S. ambassador to Jordan in 2008, followed by ambassadorships in Iraq and Egypt beginning in 2012 and 2017, respectively. 

Beecroft’s postings overlapped with those of two other BYU alumni: Deborah Jones and Matthew Tueller. Jones served as ambassador to Kuwait from 2008 to 2011 and as ambassador to Libya from 2013 to 2015. Tueller served consecutively as ambassador to Kuwait, Yemen and Iraq from 2011 to 2022. 

Current Latter-day Saint U.S. ambassadors include: Jeff Flake, the former senator from Arizona, who was named ambassador to Turkey in 2021; Thomas Udall, the former senator from New Mexico, who was named ambassador to New Zealand that same year; Jeffrey Hovenier, a career member of the foreign service who was named ambassador to Kosovo in 2022; and Elizabeth Fitzsimmons, who was named ambassador to the African nation of Togo, also in 2022. 

Though the number of high profile diplomatic positions held by Latter-day Saints has grown, the total number of Church members in the foreign service is harder to pin down. Religious status is not recorded by the government agency. But anecdotes abound about American Latter-day Saints returning from missions with a desire to serve their country.

‘Go forth to serve’

Were it not for his church mission to France and Belgium, it’s possible Gregory Newell, U.S. ambassador to Sweden from 1985 to 1989, never would have stepped foot in the world of foreign affairs. 

His mission, Newell said, instilled in him a love for the “richness of humanity.” After receiving a bachelor’s degree in political science and international relations from BYU, Newell went on to become the youngest assistant secretary of state in U.S. history under President Ronald Reagan. In this capacity, Newell was tasked with formulating policy for nearly a hundred international organizations and conducted diplomatic missions to over 60 countries around the world. 

“As a (church) missionary, one is representing a culture, a set of beliefs, that are not yours, but rather, a higher purpose, in this case, the gospel of Jesus Christ. In diplomacy, it’s very much the same in terms of representing principles and policies and interests of a national government, such as the United States, to a foreign people in the world who have different views and different history,” Newell said.

This parallel between missionary work and foreign service is also clear to Valerie Hudson, who holds the George H. W. Bush Chair at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M and is a Deseret News contributor. She taught international affairs at BYU for over 20 years. 

“Absolutely there’s a connection there,” Hudson said. “Missionary work requires that a successful missionary be open to new things and appreciate new things, also having a pleasant and friendly demeanor, able to find common ground with other people from different cultures. That’s what missionaries do day-in and day-out, and those are certainly the baseline skills that you need to be a successful diplomat, a successful member of the foreign service.”

Brigham Young University, where over 6 in 10 students are returned missionaries, has long been one of the best places to study for prospective diplomats. From 2013 to 2020, BYU ranked 10th among universities that sent the most students to work in the foreign service, doing better than Harvard which came in at No. 11. And last year, BYU was No. 1 in the nation for Boren scholarship recipients, one of America’s most prestigious national security awards. 

But BYU’s true strength is to be found in languages. The university produces more foreign language graduates than nearly any other, and has one of the best Arabic programs in the country. Tueller, who spent a decade as U.S. ambassador in some of the most diplomatically challenging posts in the Middle East, was one of the first four students in the BYU Arabic program, and has been rumored to speak some the best Arabic in the foreign service.

A lasting impact

While foreign service officers are tasked with implementing policy from Washington, their personal values are often reflected in how they interact with government leaders and local residents.

“Latter-day Saints are good citizens in the countries they live in. So, I think public service and civic engagement are truly embedded values in our lives,” said Cory Leonard, assistant director at the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies at BYU. 

For the Newells, welcoming their fifth child shortly after arriving in Sweden was enough for people to inquire about their personal values. This initial splash was repeated again when Newell was recognized helping locals move and clean carpet as part of his home teaching efforts in the Stockholm First Ward.

Over the course of their 312 years in Sweden, the Newell family also used public family concerts as a way to connect with the people there. The children — all under 7 — would sing, followed by a piano performance by Newell’s wife, Candilyn, who had played professionally from a young age. Concluding the event, Newell would give a brief talk on family life. 

Just days before leaving Sweden, the Newells looked out over an eclectic gathering of more than a hundred Swedish elites — from royal family members to ministers of government — and local church leaders, including stake, temple and mission presidents and their wives. The unlikely group had gathered in Villa Åkerlund, the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Stockholm, to hear the family’s final concert.

Newell remembers his surprise when Prince Bertil, a member of the Swedish royal family and deputy to the king, stood up at the conclusion of the event to express appreciation for the family’s example.

“We will always remember you in our hearts,” the prince said, according to Newell. “Not for what you did in the palace, not for what you did in the foreign ministry throughout the country, but what we’ve observed about your family. You’ve taught us lessons that somehow we long ago lost.”