Grampa Bill's General Authority Pages
N. Eldon Tanner N. (Nathan) Eldon Tanner

1898 - 1982

  • Born 1898
  • Baptized as a child; Aaronic Priesthood as a youth; Melchizedek Priesthood as a young man
  • Married Sara Isabelle Merrill 1919; five children
  • Branch President, Bishop, Stake President
  • President of West European Mission
  • Assistant to the Twelve 1960-62
  • Ordained Apostle and sustained to the Twelve 1962
  • Second Counselor to David O. McKay, 1963-70
  • Second Counselor to Joseph Fielding Smith, 1970-72
  • First Counselor to Harold B. Lee, 1972-73
  • First Counselor to Spencer W. Kimball, 1973-82
  • Died 1982

Adapted from The Ensign, January 1983, p.6
    Nathan Eldon Tanner was born on 9 May 1898 in Salt Lake City, the first of eight children born to Nathan William Tanner and Sarah Edna Brown Tanner, Utahns who had gone to Canada by covered wagon to homestead in Aetna, a tiny settlement near Cardston. His childhood was happy but filled with many responsibilities. As the eldest of eight children, he was expected to help on the farm and was often given responsibilities in the care of his younger brothers and sisters. On one occasion, the entire family was ill with smallpox. For three days and two nights he had no sleep as he tenderly cared for the sick.

    “An event that happened when he was about fifteen,” wrote President Hugh B. Brown, “is indicative of his character. He was thrown from his horse while herding cattle. When he got to his feet, he discovered that three fingers on his left hand were broken at the knuckle joints and were twisted back against his hand, with the bones of the middle finger protruding through the flesh. With characteristic pluck he grasped his fingers, straightened them, remounted his horse, and rode to a doctor, who marveled at the boy’s spunk. The bones were all correctly in place, and the doctor had only to stitch up the flesh.” (Ensign, Nov. 1972, p. 14.)

    Such spunk was doubtless responsible for many of his life’s successes. Determined to obtain an education despite heavy responsibilities on the farm, he completed nine grades of schooling in Aetna, attended high school in Cardston, a night academy in Raymond, and later the Calgary Normal School. In 1919, his first teaching position was combined with administration when he became principal of a three-room school at Hill Spring. Here he met and fell in love with one of the teachers at the school, Sara Isabelle Merrill. They were married on 20 December 1919; when the Alberta Temple was dedicated in 1923, they were among the first couples to be endowed and sealed for eternity.

    With a growing young family, Eldon supplemented his teaching income by running a general store in Hill Spring; he also served as a health officer and participated actively in the community. In 1929 the family moved to Cardston, where he was asked to be principal of a public school and serve on the town council.

    Heber G. Wolsey, former managing director of the Church Public Communications Department, was a student in that Cardston school where “Mr. Tanner” was principal and eighth grade teacher. On the first day of class, Brother Wolsey recalls, the young educator entered the classroom and said, “Boys and girls, we’ll be together for seven hours a day for the next year. In that time I only want to teach you one thing.” And then he walked to the board and wrote, in two-foot-high letters, THINK!”

    “To supplement his teaching salary,” wrote Sister Tanner, “he sold suits and insurance, milked cows, raised chickens and a vegetable garden. When he was elected to the Alberta Legislature in 1935, in the first Social Credit Government, he was chosen as Speaker of the House. He had never even attended a session of legislature, and was now to act as chairman of that august body of sixty-three members. We were given an elegant suite of rooms in the legislative buildings, to use as we liked, and … it seemed that he had fallen into the ‘lap of the Gods,’ but only he and I knew the hours, day and night, that he spent studying parliamentary procedure. This was the beginning of jobs which he was given, which he said were far beyond his ability to cope with. He has always had favorite sayings and slogans. One was: ‘The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight; but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upwards in the night.’ And he tried to accomplish what he set out to do by doing just that: By rising at five A.M. to teach himself typing when he was running the store in Hill Spring; by searching the scriptures at the same hour when he was made bishop and later called to the General Authorities of the Church.”

    Eldon’s perseverance and stability made him a valued asset in both governmental and ecclesiastical circles. In 1936 he was appointed Minister of Lands and Mines in the Provincial Cabinet, a position which was later expanded to include two departments—Mines and Minerals, and Lands and Forests. In this capacity he sponsored legislation to govern development of natural resources, especially petroleum, which became the pattern for other Canadian provinces to follow and helped to make Alberta the first province free from public debt.

    While acting as Minister in the Alberta government, he earned the well-deserved nickname of “Mr. Integrity” because he refused to compromise by accepting gifts of any kind and was strictly honest in his dealings. That affectionate title followed him through a lifetime of success based on principles of fairness and integrity.

    After sixteen years of distinguished government service, Eldon Tanner turned his energies to industry, serving first as president of Merrill Petroleum, Ltd., and director of the Toronto Dominion Bank of Canada. In 1954, answering an appeal from government officials, he agreed to become president of Trans-Canada Pipelines, Ltd., and direct construction of a $350 million, 2,000-mile pipeline across Canada from Alberta to Montreal. Upon completion of the project one authority observed, “It was the greatest undertaking since the building of the transcontinental railroad and was accomplished in less than four years.”

    Overshadowing his governmental and business concerns were always the two most important interests of this remarkable man’s life: family and the gospel. He and Sara reared five daughters. Twenty-four grandchildren and fifty great-grandchildren have also joined the family.

    Helen Tanner Beaton remembered her father as a warm, compassionate man who cared deeply about his family: “Daddy was branch president in Edmonton, Cabinet Minister in charge of two major government departments, and president of the Boy Scout Association. But he still got up with us in the night if we were sick, prepared breakfast every morning, and set up the washing machine and rinse tubs every Monday morning at 6:00 A.M. If we were new babies, he would get up and bring us to mother and then he would take us back to bed. He did that for five girls.”

    For many years of his life in Canada, President Tanner was deeply involved in Scouting as a member of the Canadian Scout Committee and as Provincial Scout Commissioner. He received the Silver Acorn and the Silver Wolf awards, the latter being the highest honor given to a Scouter in Canada. Yet he never lost sight of the young people themselves. Once when asked why he was interested in the Boy Scouts when he had no sons, he replied, “Well, I want to help boys to be worthy of my daughters.”

    From his youngest years, Eldon Tanner was committed to Church service. In 1932 he became counselor to a bishop in Cardston; two years later he was made bishop of the Cardston First Ward. He became president of the Edmonton Branch in 1938, was later called to the high council in the Lethbridge Stake, and in 1953 became the first president of the Calgary Stake, which office he held until his call as an assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve in 1960.

    “The Calgary Stake was standing first in the Church,” recalls Sister Tanner, “and now with the pipeline behind him it looked as though everything was just going to be easy. We built our new home, moving into it in May of 1960. On October 8, 1960, President David O.McKay called him in as a General Authority of the Church, which made all of his other accomplishments seem trivial and unimportant.

    “Now, indeed, he felt inadequate. None of his past seemed to have prepared him for this tremendous task. True, he had been bishop for six years and a branch president for fifteen, and a stake president for seven years, but this work had been principally administrative. He felt that his knowledge of the scriptures was scanty; his public speaking had been mostly on political and technical lines.

    “His … appointment to the Quorum of the Twelve made him feel even more humble. However, I personally feel that all his past life led up to this point. Every decision, small and great, that he has made has been prayerfully considered with the Church in mind.”

    The Tanners moved to Salt Lake City on 1 February 1961. As they made plans to furnish their newly purchased home, Eldon Tanner was called to accompany President McKay and President Hugh B. Brown to London to attend the dedication of the new Hyde Park Chapel. Four days later, Elder Tanner was asked to prepare to remain in London as president of the West European Mission.

    Soon after he became a member of the Quorum of the Twelve in October 1962, Elder Tanner was appointed president of the Genealogical Society of the Church, in which assignment he served enthusiastically until his call to the First Presidency in October 1963. At the death of President McKay in January 1970, he was named Second Counselor to President Joseph Fielding Smith. Following President Smith’s death in July 1972, he became First Counselor to President Harold B. Lee. President Lee’s death in December 1973 brought Spencer W. Kimball to the presidency; President Tanner was sustained as his First Counselor.

    Part of his devotion to community included becoming a citizen of the United States, which he did on 2 May, 1966. Questioned later about the seeming “desertion” of his native Canada, his response was that “we have responsibilities to the community in which we live. In order to fulfill our obligations, we need to be practicing citizens of the nation which shelters us.”

    President Tanner’s sense of community complemented his service as a General Authority. He was a member of the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce and the Salt Lake Rotary Club, a member of the boards of directors of several Utah corporations, and vice president of the Board of Trustees of Brigham Young University and the Church Educational System. In 1978 his integrity and accomplishments were cited by the Salt Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, which saluted him as “a man of superior character, a successful businessman with deep spirituality, a great leader esteemed by millions of people around the world.”

    Upon President Tanner’s death the First Presidency issued the following statement:

    “With the passing of President N. Eldon Tanner the entire Church feels a tremendous loss. He has served as a Counselor to four Presidents of the Church. He has carried much of the burden of administration during these many years. His wisdom and inspiration have been of incalculable benefit as the Church has moved forward with its divinely appointed mission.

    “None has been more steadfast in carrying the responsibilities of high office. None has been more faithful in the execution of duty.

    “His unflinching testimony of God the Eternal Father and of the Risen Lord Jesus Christ has been a strength to millions over the earth.

    “Our close association has been a warm and beautiful experience. Oh, how we shall miss him.

    “He has likewise been a strength to the people of this community and state, as well as to those of the entire nation and the people of Canada. His acumen in business was internationally recognized, as was his integrity, which became the hallmark of his character.

    “As we mourn his passing our hearts reach out to his bereft companion and children. May that peace which comes alone from God comfort and sustain them.”

    Hugh B. Brown, “President N. Eldon Tanner: A Man of Integrity,” Ensign, Nov. 1972, p.13
    “President N. Eldon Tanner Dies,” Ensign, Jan. 1983, p.6
    Lawrence R. Flake, Prophets and Apostles of the Last Dispensation, p.223
    2005 Church Almanac, p.58

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