Howard W. Hunter knew little about his ancestry during his early life. His great-grandfather John Hunter seems to have brought little if any family information or records with him when he emigrated from Scotland in the early 1860s. John Hunter’s disaffection from the Church and his life in remote areas of the western United States severed him from the Church and its library facilities from which he might have learned something about his ancestry. John Hunter Jr. and Will Hunter suffered the same disability. As with other principles of the gospel, once Howard Hunter became aware of the importance of gathering family genealogical information and family stories, he became absorbed in the process. He was avid in gathering names, dates, and places and connecting family lines as a means of facilitating vicarious temple work. His later roles as Church Historian and as president of the Genealogical Society added important emphasis to these endeavors.
Over the years, as Elder Hunter fulfilled his apostolic responsibilities by traveling over the earth, he made it a point to visit the towns and villages where his ancestors had lived. By this means he gave context to his genealogical records, putting a face, as it were, to the written page. Thus in 1972 while in Europe, he and Sister Hunter, accompanied by mission president Paul L. Pehrson and his wife, visited places where his Danish ancestors had lived. They took pictures, visited parish churches, and interviewed persons at the various sites. At one village in Denmark, Elder Hunter found the ancient church where his great-grandfather Morten Rasmussen was christened and members of his family had worshipped. During this tour, Elder Hunter visited every site in Denmark which he was aware of where his Danish ancestors had lived and worshipped. It sparked in him deep feelings of love and appreciation for this heritage, bequeathed to him through his beloved mother, Nellie Rasmussen. While traveling in Norway on another occasion, he visited Norwegian villages once inhabited by members of the family of his great-grandmother, Nilla Pedersen. (Her name is cited in some other sources as Torgersen, her father’s surname, though the Norwegian—and Danish—naming system gave a child the father’s first name plus “sen” or “son” as their surname. Thus, Nilla Pedersen was the child of Peder Torgersen, who was the child of Torger Pedersen, etc. When they came to America, the authorities would have required Nilla to take her father’s surname as hers, thus creating the confusion among sources.)
President Hunter’s Scottish ancestry came into dramatic focus on October 20, 1987. On that day he was honored at an early birthday luncheon (see “News of the Church,” Ensign, January 1988, 75). It was hosted by Elder David B. Haight of the Twelve, a former president of the Scottish Mission. Also attending was Elder Bernard P. Brockbank, the first president of the then–Scottish-Irish mission. Present too was Mr. Charles Hunter, heir of the Scottish clan Hunter, who was destined to become the World Chief of the clan and the thirtieth Laird of Hunterston, the clan’s ancestral home. President Hunter was given a framed certificate, recognizing him as a lifetime member of the Clan Hunter and lauding “his great example of humanitarian service and love for all mankind” and acknowledging him as “one of the noblest scions of a noble race, and one of the greatest Hunters of them all.” President Hunter also was presented with a tartan and a framed silkscreen print of a painting of Hunterston Castle, located on the west coast of Scotland. While President Hunter’s innate modesty constrained him to downplay the generous compliments in the certificate, he appreciated the sentiment and observed that while he had never lived in Scotland, “many of us feel it is our homeland.”
This event and what it revealed greatly expanded the landscape of President Hunter’s ancestry and opened up broad avenues of new family research. The Hunters of Scotland trace their ancestry to the Normans who immigrated to Great Britain following the conquest of England in 1066 by William of Normandy. Their loyalty to the Norman court resulted in a regal gift to the family of a thousand acres in western Scotland which became known as Hunters Toune. On May 2, 1374, Scotland’s king Robert II confirmed this royal charter to William Hunter, the laird of Hunterston Castle. For more than six hundred years before Charles Hunter’s meeting with President Hunter, successive lairds had presided over Hunterston Castle. The thought of such longevity must have been enormous to one born and raised in Boise, Idaho, where cultural age was computed in decades, not centuries.
President Hunter toured Hunterston Castle in September 1989 with his son Richard. While there, he obtained a brief history of the castle which, upon his return to Salt Lake City, was copied into his personal record. While in Scotland on this occasion, President Hunter and Richard also visited Paisley Abbey, founded in 1163, which is thought to be the place where John Hunter, President Hunter’s great-grandfather, was baptized a member of the Church of Scotland.