By the opening of the 20th century, the Church had a long-established practice of apostolic visits to stakes: Some member of the Quorum of the Twelve attended virtually every quarterly stake conference. That called for a lot of strenuous traveling, but with the stakes all located in a relatively compact part of the world – a long, narrow corridor stretching from southern Alberta to northern Mexico – it was possible.
Not so for the missions. Oh, the European Mission headquartered in Liverpool had an apostle as president, and conferences in several of the missions in the U.S. were occasionally visited either by assignment or because an apostle was in the area on other business. The European mission president often visited the missions on the continent, and in 1901 Francis M. Lyman even made an unprecedented tour of the Turkish mission. But if you were a Latter-day Saint in South Africa, or Australia, or Samoa, you were not likely to see any General Authority unless you emigrated to Utah or its neighborhood.
Church leaders appreciated the need for apostolic visits to the missions. Not only would it be a source of encouragement to the Saints and missionaries, it would also help leaders make decisions and understand the unique needs of various parts of the world, through input from an apostle who had actually been on the ground.
And, it may very well be, the prospect of a long tour of exotic missions was attractive to at least some of the apostles who liked to travel.
Late in 1902, Francis M. Lyman wrote to his brethren from Liverpool: “My mind has been drawn to the fact that there are many countries on this side of the world that have not been visited and blessed by any of the Apostles. I have felt disposed to offer my services at the close of my labors here to go home by way of India, China, Japan, Philippines, Australia, New Zealand, Samoa and the Sandwich Islands. It would give me immense satisfaction to go home that way and perform that important mission as a crowning feature of my life’s travel.”
He estimated the costs, considered a traveling companion, and assured his brethren that the suggestion was not made with any intent to hasten his release from this current assignment. I believe he was sincere in that. His recent trip to the Middle East had been a very difficult one requiring days on horseback, something that nearly crippled the apostle, who was past 60 years of age. He understood that travel was not unalloyed pleasure.
Brigham Young, Jr., one of the Quorum, died on April 11, 1903, after years of struggling with kidney disease. Matthias Cowley, another member of the Quorum, wrote to Heber J. Grant – then in the Japan Mission – that a week or so earlier, those members of the Quorum who were in Salt Lake City called on Brigham, Jr., and asked if he had any instructions for them. The dying apostle “bore to them one of the grandest testimonies” Elder Cowley had ever heard. “Among other things he expressed a very strong desire that one of the apostles should be sent to visit all the missions of the Church in the world, and that this should be done as soon as possible.” In a friendly personal letter, but without any intention of formally issuing such a call, Elder Cowley told Heber that he, Heber J. Grant, would be Elder Cowley’s choice for such a mission.
And oh, how Heber wanted to make that tour! Within a day or two of receiving Elder Cowley’s letter, Heber wrote to the presidents of the missions in Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, and Tahiti. “For many years I have advocated that one of the members of the Quorum of the Apostles be sent to visit all of the missions of the Church on the Islands in the Pacific. [Elder Cowley] tells me that it is his opinion that something of this kind will be done, and he thinks I will be called to make the trip. I write to ask that you tell me what will be the best season of the year to visit your mission.”
He didn’t want to appear too eager, though. “I really hope that Prest. Lyman will be appointed to visit these missions,” he added modestly. “I think he would enjoy the trip.”
He closed all his letters by requesting that these presidents “kindly say nothing of my having written you” when they wrote their own letters home. “I would not want the brethren to feel that I was ‘running before I was sent.’”
Heber may have told the Pacific mission presidents that he hoped President Lyman would make the contemplated tour … but that was, perhaps, not the most candid line he ever wrote. When he responded to President Lyman’s regular letter the following month, Heber did all he could to win the assignment for himself.
First, he suggested to President Lyman that his place was in Salt Lake City. “Personally, I had hoped that you would be called home, as it is my feeling that the President of the quorum should be in constant contact with the Presidency, and be almost as it were a third counselor, and in this way he can keep the rest of us in proper shape.”
Then, he casually reminded President Lyman of how old he was, and of how young Heber was. “Yes, we are getting on in years … I recall when I thought 46 [Heber’s own age as he wrote] was a good age, and looked on Bro. Brigham [Jr.] as an old man when we were together in Arizona and Mexico. He was 46 and I was 26. Now he is gone and I am the old man.” But, he wrote, “I feel just like a boy.”
He then brought up what was really on his mind: “For years I have wanted all the missions of the Church visited once a year by an apostle, and have felt it was as important as visiting the saints if not more so, and I had intended asking permission to go to the missions in the Pacific if I were ever able to make the trip, and when I heard what Bro. Brigham said on this subject my heart rejoiced.”
He returned to what he had written to the Pacific mission presidents, “I hoped that you would take a trip around the world and go to Australia on your way home.” But that was not advisable, he suggested. “At your age perhaps it is as well not to make such a trip. You do not like the sea … it would be a hardship to have a long trip to get there, and you would not enjoy the trip as someone else would.”
As it turns out, the call didn’t go to either Francis M. Lyman or Heber J. Grant. It wasn’t until 1920, when David O. McKay traveled to missions around the world, that most of these remote regions had their first apostolic visitor.
I laughed when I read these letters yesterday and saw how transparent Heber was in offering to sacrifice his youthful self to traveling in place of the decrepit old man. I hope no reader takes this in the wrong way, as my making fun of him or pointing out a fault for the sake of spotlighting a wart. Rather, I was delighted by this glimpse into his personality. Heber J. Grant is a man I would enjoy knowing better.