The following tribute to Spencer J. Palmer who passed away on November 27, 2000, was written by GEMS subscriber Mark Peterson. Brother Peterson teaches Korean at BYU, was a missionary in Korea from 1965-1968 under President Palmer and served as President of the Korea Pusan Mission from 1987-1990.
A TRIBUTE TO SPENCER J. PALMER
Spencer Palmer served his church in Korea on several occasions and in a variety of ways. His first involvement in Korea was as a chaplain in the army, during the Korean War. Later, after getting a PhD in Korean History, and teaching at BYU, he returned as the mission president, from 1965 to 1968. And between 1988 and 1990, he served as the president of the Seoul Temple. He was the second mission president of the Korea Mission, replacing Gail Carr; and he was the second president of the Seoul Temple, replacing Robert Slover. But he never did anything second rate; he dug into each assignment with amazing energy and commitment.
When President Palmer served as a chaplain, he was based, for a time, in Pusan. He was instrumental, with several other LDS servicemen, in laying the foundation for the church in Korea. And when the first Korean leader of the church, Kim Ho Jik, returned from his studies in the United States there was the beginnings of a network of young church members who helped move the work forward.
After returning from Korea, Spencer began a PhD program at the University of California at Berkeley where a humorous event took place, one that he enjoyed retelling and was told at his funeral by Elder Richard Wirthlin. At a Stake Priesthood meeting, the Stake President was speaking about the growth of the church around the world, and he said that in that very congregation there were brethren who could speak various languages of the world. And he began to call upon brothers to bear their testimonies in Spanish, and German, and Chinese, and Japanese, and then he called on Brother Palmer to bear his testimony in Korean. Well, at that time, he had just begun his Korean language studies and he did not know many things to say. But quickly he thought of four sentences that he could generate. "My name is Spencer Palmer." "This is a pencil." "I don't know anything about Joseph Smith." "In the name of Jesus Christ, amen." He knew the "I-don't-know" form, but did not yet know the "I-know" form, and he said what he could with great emphasis. When he sat back down in the congregation, an elderly brother next to him said, "I surely felt the spirit of your testimony."
After completing his degree at Berkeley, he with Paul Hyer, who had also completed a Ph.D. in Asian Studies at Berkeley, began to build the Asian Studies program at BYU. And Professor Palmer found himself in the religion department teaching world religions. He always believed that there were great truths, with which the restored gospel could identify within the great world religions of Buddhism, Confucianism, Islam and others. But he found that the religion faculty were a little wary of such an approach because they had just dismissed a faculty member who, while teaching world religions, became a moral relativist and began teaching that each of these religions were as valid as our own. Spencer's unwavering testimony was so strong that he was able to convince his colleagues that indeed they should again allow the teaching of "world religions", but it was titled "the Restored Gospel and World Religions." Spencer Palmer was a master at convincing people that they should change their positions on issues, even when they were firmly entrenched.
Soon he was called to return to Korea, this time to preside over the missionary work there. The mission was small, only seven branches in three cities. When he left the mission there were seventeen branches in seven cities. Missionary numbers grew and baptisms were numerous. He led not only the missionary work, but also the building of the branches and districts. Soon after he left the first stake was created. One day in 1966 an inspired missionary, Paul Dredge, was talking with an elderly member of the church, Kum Pa-ul, about a prime piece of real estate, a hill on the western side of Seoul that some developers had leveled off, but could not complete as their hoped for project. Spencer called Elder Hinckley who was then supervising work in Asia, and got permission to buy the property. They called it "temple hill". But in the years that followed they forgot about the dream of a temple and a chapel was built on the hill, a mission home, and a seminary and institute building. In 1983, when the Church was ready to build a temple, which was much sooner that anyone had anticipated, they looked all over the city for property, but none of the spots they liked worked out. Finally, they settled on what had once been called "temple hill" but no one called it that any longer. They removed the chapel and began building the temple; the mission home became the temple president's home, the seminary and institute building was converted to apartments for temple workers, and the temple was dedicated on December 14, 1985, with Spencer Palmer in attendance.
President Palmer and his wife Shirley were called to preside over the temple from 1988 to 1990. While they were there, the numbers of endowments and other temple ordinances increased dramatically. But a more-interesting dynamic began to take place. The Palmers would see faces that were only faintly familiar from the days when they presided over the mission twenty years earlier. They remembered many that they worked with as leaders, but in the meantime, many good faithful, maybe ordinary members, were attending the temple. They wanted to jog their memories on who all these saints were, so they began to ask those who visited the temple if they would write down their conversion stories. Soon the task grew into a record of all those who joined the church before 1970. And eventually a large book of those stories, those testimonies, was compiled in Korean, and then translated and published in English, too. Its title in the English version is "Korean Saints: Personal Stories of Trials and Triumph, 1950-1980."
In the '50s as a chaplain, in the '60s as a mission president, in the '70s as an Area Representative, in the '80s as a temple president, and throughout his life in numerous ways the growth of the Church in Korea, and countless Korean saints have been blessed by the life and service of Spencer J. Palmer. Kamsahamnida (thank you).