Hartman Rector Jr., a champion of Mormon conversions and former church leader, dies at 94

Hartman Rector Jr. loved to talk about Mormon conversions — his own and others.

After all, Rector’s 1952 baptism into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Japan, while serving in the U.S. Navy, was a pivotal moment for the young seeker.

“I was like a starving man who had found food and drink for the first time,” the dynamic Latter-day Saint leader said in 1994. “I loved it.”

Within 16 years of joining the Utah-based faith, Rector — who died Tuesday in Orem at age 94 — rose to the rank of Seventy at age 43, at the time the only adult male convert serving as a full-time general authority.

As a Seventy, he served in a variety of positions — including as mission president in the Alabama/Florida region in 1971-1972, in the presidency of the Seventy, and again as mission president in San Diego from 1977 to 1979.

Rector was a relatively young Mormon authority when he arrived in the Southern states to oversee a group of missionaries. He and his wife, Connie, had begun their family, which would increase to include nine children.

“He was vibrant and vigorous,” recalled Curt Bench, a Utah bookstore owner who served as Rector’s secretary in the mission. “He was a take-charge guy, who relished his role.”

An ever-popular and powerful speaker, Rector was “inspiring to his missionaries,” Bench said. “Everyone respected him.”

He was a high-energy leader, the former missionary said, who continuously preached that strict adherence to God’s commands was the way to eternal life.

Rector was a born proselytizer, who began collecting conversion stories from his missionary and general authority work. Eventually, he would publish with his wife, who died in 2015, four volumes of these accounts called “No More Strangers.”

Rector made headlines in The New York Times in 1981, when he said in the spring General Conference that same-sex attraction is “an acquired addiction” and that “promoters of homosexuality” were mistaken to say they were born gay — stances that the church has long since abandoned.

As did Rector himself later in life. “Within the last decade, my father’s views on homosexuality had changed quite a bit from where they were in the ’70s and ’80s,” said John Marcus Rector. “He no longer believed being homosexual was an addiction or a choice.”

His dad’s shift was not due to a deep theological dive, the son said. It was “where his heart was guiding him.”

In 1994, Rector became an emeritus general authority at 70, and, in his final General Conference sermon, retold his own tale of discovery and rebirth as a Latter-day Saint.

“The gospel of Jesus Christ does truly make us brothers and sisters and a great family of Jesus Christ,” he told members gathered in the Tabernacle on Salt Lake City’s Temple Square, “as we seek to follow him and become his sons and his daughters.”