In 1963, John F. Kennedy toured Germany. Knowing he was coming, six Mormon missionaries serving there prepared a surprise for him. They worked to create a 40-foot banner that read, “Welcome President Kennedy—the 1,100 Mormon Missionaries in Germany.” It was sewn by a woman in the Cologne branch of the Church from materials various members had donated. One company painted it. Another hung it for the missionaries. It was strung between a chicken restaurant and a pole the city erected just for that purpose. When Kennedy passed by, he was standing in the moving car and a camera captured him turning his head to read the banner.
Just three months later, and two months before he was assassinated, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech at the Tabernacle on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Tabernacle is owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is the home of the famed Mormon Tabernacle Choir. JFK considered it to be one of the very best speeches he’d given as president and he gave a copy to his parents. Kennedy had received 45.17% of the popular vote in Utah when he ran for president, but took none of the electoral vote.
The trip was his fifth to Utah. His previous trips had been as a senator and candidate. This trip was part of an 11-state tour. Some 125,000 people lined the streets to cheer his motorcade when he left the airport in the same open-air car in which he would be killed eight weeks later. Most of his tour was spent talking about conservation, but his speech to Utahns focused on foreign policy. President Kennedy spoke to a full house that included David O. McKay, then the Mormon prophet. He received numerous standing ovations.
Kennedy complimented the Mormons in his speech:
Of all the stories of American pioneers and settlers, none is more inspiring than the Mormon trail. The qualities of the founders of this community are the qualities that we seek in America, the qualities which we like to feel this country has, courage, patience, faith, self-reliance, perseverance, and, above all, an unflagging determination to see the right prevail.
He also noted that Utah had a higher per capita rate of high school graduation followed by college attendance than any other state. Kennedy expressed his dismay that nationwide, eight or nine million children would not finish high school, with many achieving no more than a sixth grade education in a time when machines were creating a need for a more educated populace. He called on Utahns to join the fight for water conservation, a focus of his speaking tour.
Kennedy then moved on to the actual topic of his talk. He acknowledged that many wondered why the United States was becoming so involved in world politics. Many wanted to return to the isolationist policies of the past. However, Kennedy pointed out that what happened in the United States impacted other countries and their actions impacted us. He wanted us to be able to positively influence other countries and to be better able to protect ourselves. Again, he drew on Mormon history to encourage his listeners to support him in this:
If our task on occasion seems hopeless, if we despair of ever working our will on the other 94 percent of the world population, then let us remember that the Mormons of a century ago were a persecuted and prosecuted minority, harried from place to place, the victims of violence and occasionally murder, while today, in the short space of 100 years, their faith and works are known and respected the world around, and their voices heard in the highest councils of this country. As the Mormons succeeded, so America can succeed, if we will not give up or turn back. ”
He later said that Brigham Young led his followers from Nebraska to Salt Lake in 108 days, but that a missile could go from one continent to another in just a half hour.
It might have surprised listeners when he then quoted a Mormon scripture from the Doctrine and Covenants, a book of modern revelation. He quoted the admonition of Section 136 to go to a land of peace. The verse was given to him by a Mormon attorney, Oscar W. McConkie Jr., who worked with Kennedy’s speech writer to prepare the speech.
About Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.