SHARON, Vermont — President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, paid no attention to the cold outside the Joseph Smith Memorial Birthplace visitors’ center. He buttoned his suit jacket and walked straight into the bitter, morning breeze.
The venerable 91-year-old Church leader spent the next hour surveying the monument and the site of the original Smith home. He walked down a wooded trail, viewing the foundation of a home that once belonged to Solomon Mack (Lucy Mack Smith’s father) and stopping to see the remains of a historic stone bridge — still bearing ruts carved by wagon wheels some 200 years ago.
This area, where the Smith children spent their formative years, has great significance to President Ballard, a great-great-grandson of Hyrum Smith, brother of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
But as he prepared for the trip, President Ballard said his thoughts also turned to another grandfather, Elder Melvin J. Ballard — who spent a few of his last days at the site.
Near the end of his life and despite ill health, Elder Melvin J. Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from 1919 to 1939, traveled to Sharon, Vermont; his wife pled with him not to go.
Still, when he arrived in Sharon, Elder Ballard stood for 40 minutes and boldly declared his witness of the Prophet Joseph Smith in the very place he was born. Then he drove to Boston and delivered what would become his final address and witness as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. He returned to Salt Lake City — driving every mile there himself and needing help to get out of his car — and died of Leukemia two weeks later.
“He was here and he would not — even though he had very little energy — give up the responsibility he had to declare the word of the Lord to the world … in the birthplace of the Prophet in this, the dispensation of the fullness of times,” said President Ballard.
When given the chance to contemplate his grandfather’s last journey, President Ballard reflected on his own childhood.
“My grandfather Ballard died when I was not yet 11,” said President Ballard. “And, unfortunately, in those early years of my life, my parents were not active in the Church. And one of the great sadnesses of my life today, is that I never heard him speak, I never heard him sing. I never went to the Tabernacle, to a general conference in my childhood. And I’ve often thought, if I had known that this was going to happen to me, this matter of coming along many years later and moving about in his footsteps, I would have wanted to know, and I would have been happy to have him tell me, more about what it meant to be an Apostle.”
Watching President Ballard walk the sacred grounds of Joseph Smith’s birthplace was reflective. This sacred spot not only represents a significant beginning, but also a powerful sense of pressing forward.
One year ago, on President Ballard’s 90th birthday, he attended the funeral of his beloved wife, Sister Barbara Ballard. Since then, he has maintained a busy work and travel schedule as the Church’s longest-serving General Authority.
His daily actions are a tribute to his heritage. Just as Joseph Smith Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith endured crop failures and economic hardships while living in Vermont and Elder Melvin J. Ballard continued to share his witness of the Savior in the last weeks of his life, President Ballard traveled to Boston and addressed a gathering of 12,000.
With apostolic vision, he buttoned his suit jacket, stepped to the podium and asked Latter-day Saints to “join a new movement.”
“I plead with you this evening to pray for this country, for our leaders, for our people and for the families that live in this great nation founded by God.”
President Ballard pleads with Latter-day Saints to ‘pray for this country’ as United States is at ‘another crossroad’
Like the founding fathers who established the United States, and his Smith and Ballard ancestors, President Ballard asked all of us to, in spite of the challenges before us, press forward.
Speaking at another meeting in Boston just 24 hours earlier, President Ballard had explained why this pressing forward mattered in 1805 when Joseph Smith was born and why it matters today. We have to keep moving, he said, “because it is true.”
— Sarah Jane Weaver is the editor of the Church News.