Leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have often used humor to deal with the pressures that come with their responsibilities, prompting one LDS educator to dub a sense of humor "a gift of the spirit."
Lawrence Flake, a professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University, told several hundred people gathered Tuesday during the school's annual Education Week that the late President James E. Faust recognized the value of using humor to smooth life's challenges.
Formerly second counselor in the church's First Presidency, President Faust was able to use his own sense of humor sensitively during the funeral of former BYU President Rex Lee, who fought a long battle with cancer and died at a relatively young age. The meeting was heavy with sorrow when President Faust shared an anecdote in which he and President Lee were involved in a meeting of the school's board of trustees.
When someone pointed out how difficult the entrance standards were for BYU's Law School which Lee helped charterPresident Faust, who was an attorney, said he didn't think he could qualify for entrance. "In fact, I don't think Abraham Lincoln could have gotten in," President Faust added.
Lee said Lincoln "came by and tried, but he had a beard," and was excluded from the law school because of BYU's dress and grooming code, President Faust related. "That was the turning point of the whole funeral service," Flake said, noting "everyone had a much-needed laugh. Humor at a funeral is difficult to do well but (President Faust) did it perfectly."
Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve appreciates humor, Flake said, but taught that "the most important thing about a sense of humor is the sense part." While bawdy humor is common, "there's little sense involved."
Many former LDS Church presidents had a sense of humor and appreciated it in others, he said. Church founder Joseph Smith "didn't tell jokes, but he was lighthearted and not light-minded."
Early church leader Parley P. Pratt said Smith "amused and entertained his audience. None listened to him that were ever weary of his discourse," and his audience would be "laughing one moment and weeping the next." Flake said Brigham Young also had a sharp sense of humor, more appreciated by some than others. One woman told him that her husband had told her to go to hell and asked what she should do. "Don't go," he replied.
President David O. McKay also appreciated humor, Flake said. A longtime friend of U.S. President Lyndon Johnson, President McKay received a call from the president one day in his office. "Happy birthday, President McKay. This is President Johnson." Thinking of all the local church leaders he knew with the same title, he replied, "Thank you. What is it you are president of?"
While Joseph Fielding Smith was a stern man in public, his wife, Jessie Evans Smith, was vivacious and outgoing, Flake said. When asked by her husband to speak during a priesthood meeting to which she had accompanied him, she opened with, "Brethren, do you know what you get when you grow marijuana on the stake farm?"
Startled, the men looked at each other waiting for the punch line. "High priests!" she chuckled.
President Gordon B. Hinckley's signature sense of humor punctuated many of his public addresses, including one of his last at the dedication of BYU's Alumni Center, which was named in his honor."Normally they don't name buildings for people who are still alive, but in this case they thought half-dead was good enough," he quipped.