SALT LAKE CITY — Gazing at an auditorium filled with LDS military chaplains and their wives, President Boyd K. Packer recalled a time less than 50 years ago when the entire chaplain corps of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had dwindled to five or six men.
On Tuesday, President Packer, president of the church's Quorum of the Twelve, addressed the final session of the three-day 2011 Chaplains Seminar held at the Church Office Building.
"World War II was over and Vietnam was coming on," President Packer recalled. "Our men were retiring after full service, and we had great difficulty in getting replacements because the regulations had been set that a chaplain in order to qualify had to have 90 semester hours in an accredited university seminary."
But the church, with its lay leadership, does not have ministers trained in university seminaries.
"We tried to abide by that," President Packer said. "We knew we wanted to keep the chaplains."
Future church president Harold B. Lee, then one of the senior apostles in the Quorum of the Twelve and on some boards of prestigious businesses in the East, tried to use his influence to get a concession for Mormon chaplains, but to no avail.
"So the dwindling number of chaplains we looked at with worried eyes," President Packer said.
A member of the church's military committee, Elder Packer was called out of a meeting one day and told that an appointment had been made regarding the matter with the president of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson. Elder Packer was to meet with him the next day.
Not yet a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, and having been a General Authority of the Church for only about three years as an assistant to that quorum, he wondered what to do.
"As I was leaving the building, I stopped to see Brother Lee," he recalled. "I said, 'Do you have any counsel?' and he said, 'Yes I do. Just remember this isn't 1830, and there aren't just six of us.' "
The remark alluded to the formal organization of the church on April 6, 1830, with six members and to the church's struggle to survive in the early days in the face of oppression and persecution.
"That was greatly encouraging to me," President Packer said.
He went to Washington and met with President Johnson, who sent him to Cyrus Vance, assistant secretary of defense.
"Tell me what it is you want," Vance said. "A fair hearing" was the reply.
Elder Packer was accompanied, he said, by a U.S. senator from Nevada who was chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who was Mormon himself.
After a subsequent meeting with the secretary of defense a concession was worked out "that is in force now, and here you are," he recounted, "and we've had a steady stream of wonderful men who have made their way through their service and have just been good Latter-day Saints."