Just dropping by — why President Hinckley made a surprise visit to this branch of Church members

During my career at the Church News, I became accustomed to packing a bag and boarding a plane to report on the activities of the First Presidency, Apostles and other leaders of the Church as they attended and spoke at events on six continents and many islands.

One assignment, to a rather isolated place, to cover a meeting with President Gordon B. Hinckley didn’t require a plane ticket. It was to Promontory, Utah, about a two-hour drive northwest of Salt Lake City. Our destination was the Promontory Branch meetinghouse, located about 15 miles north of the Great Salt Lake.

As I arrived on Sunday morning, Oct. 15, 1995, I saw a white frame building where, on three sides, tall grass gleamed golden in the autumn sunshine. The solitude of the building — the only other structure in sight was a house across the road and slightly to the east — bespoke the isolation of Promontory, once a bustling railroad town.

The branch president, Brent H. Larsen, told me there was no longer a town, although Promontory was the name of the location of the Church meetinghouse.

“There are no stores, no services,” he explained, and said about 50 people lived on the 30-by-30-mile area that comprised the boundaries of the branch on the promontory of land jutting into the Great Salt Lake. (The branch was dissolved in 2004; its membership was transferred to Thatcher-Penrose 2nd Ward, Tremonton Utah West Stake.)

Only the branch presidency and their wives knew President and Sister Hinckley were to visit that day. The 35 or so members waiting in the chapel for the meeting to start did not display much more than passing curiosity as visitors trickled in to swell the congregation to about 50. It was the Sunday of branch conference, so visitors were expected.

As a petite woman took her place alone at the front of the chapel, branch member Ron Porter commented to the person next to him, “She looks just like Sister Hinckley.” As several men approached the podium, Kaye Draper whispered to Joyce Poulsen, saying, “That man looks like — oh my! That is President Hinckley!”

As he began his address to the small congregation, President Hinckley said, “I’m here to keep my word.” He explained that he had met President Larsen a year earlier, on May 10, 1994, at the 125th anniversary commemorating the driving of the “golden spike” to mark the completion in 1869 of the first transcontinental railroad at Promontory Summit, about 15 miles northwest of the Promontory Branch’s meetinghouse. President Hinckley said until then he’d had no idea there was a branch of the Church at Promontory and promised President Larsen he would visit one day. “He took me up on it and, somehow, I’m here, keeping my promise,” President Hinckley said.

Recently, I spoke with Carol Larsen, widow of the branch president, and Steve Peterson, both now of the Thatcher-Penrose Ward, about some of the highlights of President Hinckley’s visit. President Hinckley told the members if they had questions about any principles of the Church, to prove them by putting them to the test. That applied to the Word of Wisdom, tithing, missionary work, family home evening and temple work. President Hinckley said, “If you have any question about the value of service in the Church, get to work.”

Sister Larsen said, “Some of the things he told us that day he said other times, but it was special to have him there in that small, intimate chapel, where he looked us in the eyes and talked about living the gospel. He told us to try it and we would see that it’s true and blesses our lives.”

Brother Peterson said, “We were a small branch, just country folks. We applied what President Hinckley said to a lot of different lessons. For a long time we talked about the impact of that visit and the talk President Hinckley gave.”

After the meeting, President and Sister Hinckley went outside to pose for a photo with members of the Promontory Branch.

“We had invited President and Sister Hinckley to stay for dinner,” Sister Larsen recalled. “But they had other commitments.” She described how they prepared sack lunches for President and Sister Hinckley to eat in the car as they left.

“The children made large bibs to protect their clothes, not knowing who they were making them for,” Sister Larsen said. “President Hinckley sent the nicest thank-you note; he commented about each particular food, which came from our gardens or close by, and he even commented on the bibs. That really touched me that he would mention those details.”

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