President Gordon B. Hinckley: First Counselor


Boyd K. Packer

Photo courtesy of Busath Photography

When Gordon B. Hinckley first spoke at the pulpit in the Tabernacle as a General Authority, he said:

“I know that I have not come that road alone, and I feel very grateful that many men and women—the great and good men who are here today, and the … wonderful people, many whose names I do not remember—have helped me.” (In Conference Report, April 1958, p. 123.)

It would be misleading to present a biographical sketch of Gordon B. Hinckley and center first on him. To make it representative of what he truly feels, we should begin with the tender, guiding, patient, enduring influence of his wife—Marjorie Pay Hinckley. It was her influence as much as anything else that brought Brother Hinckley to his calling.

To understand her influence, we need to look back to the refining, testing days of the pioneers, to her grandmothers.

Her paternal grandmother, Mary Goble, was thirteen years old when she came with her family to Utah from England. Her father drove an escort wagon which accompanied a handcart company.

Mary’s mother, sister, and brother all died on that terrible journey. Her feet were frozen, and later her toes were amputated. Little Mary rode into the valley in the same wagon with the body of her mother.

Sister Hinckley’s maternal grandmother, Martha Elizabeth Evans, married George Paxman, the stalwart son of a stake president. He knew carpentry, and they moved to Manti, where he worked on the temple. They lived in a sod-roofed house and were happy sweethearts sealed in the sacred covenants of the gospel.

Eight months before their second child was born (Sister Hinckley’s mother), he was injured. He was setting the massive east doors of the temple. Perhaps one of the heavy doors slipped a little and he strained to hold it in place.

Within the week he died an agonizing death of a strangulated hernia. Martha provided for her girls with a sewing needle. She was sixty-two years a widow, ever sweet, never losing faith. Her daughter’s daughter was destined to be the wife of an Apostle, a counselor to Presidents.

President Hinckley’s forebear, Thomas Hinckley, served as governor of Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, from 1681 to 1692. His grandfather, Ira Nathaniel Hinckley, lost his parents and, with his brother, traveled from Michigan to Springfield, Illinois, to live with his grandparents. As a teenager he walked to Nauvoo and met the Prophet Joseph Smith.

He came west with the pioneers. During the Civil War he volunteered for service in the Union army guarding the transcontinental telegraph line. Later he was sent by Brigham Young to Cove Creek, where he built the fort that stands today.

On the trek west, Ira Hinckley stayed back for a season to plow the prairies and plant grain that he would not harvest. The harvest belonged to those who came afterward. The forebears of Brother and Sister Hinckley planted fields of faith for those who followed them.

That spirit has come as a legacy to Brother Hinckley. He feels he does not own but holds it in trust to protect and to increase for those who will come in the generations ahead. Worthy Saints would have it that way, earning blessings for their children and their children’s children. That “residual of faith,” as he calls it, is gathered from the influence of good people. It shows in both President and Sister Hinckley.

Brother Hinckley’s father, Bryant S. Hinckley, was one month old when he was taken to Cove Fort. There he spent his childhood years. The family later moved to Fillmore, where Ira N. Hinckley was called to preside over the stake. Bryant S. Hinckley would follow in the footsteps of his father and preside over the Liberty Stake in Salt Lake City, then the largest stake in the Church with approximately fifteen thousand members. Gordon B. Hinckley would be the third generation to preside over a stake of Zion.

Bryant S. Hinckley received three endowments: a quick mind, a firm faith, and—something rare in those days—a generous education.

He married, and children were born to them. Then his wife died, leaving him with the little family to raise. At the time, he was president of what is now known as LDS Business College. Lovely Ada Bitner, who taught English and shorthand there, had gone east to learn the new Gregg shorthand and became the first in the area to teach the method. LeGrand Richards was one of her students. Another teacher at the school was young J. Reuben Clark, Jr., who would one day be counselor to Presidents.

Bryant and Ada were married, and the family increased. You do not say a “second” family or “another” family, for, as President Hinckley said, “We were all the same; it was one family.” Among the children born to Bryant and Ada was Gordon Bitner Hinckley, who entered mortality 23 June 1910.

When Gordon was ordained a deacon and eligible to attend stake priesthood meeting, his father took the somewhat unwilling boy to his first meeting and, as a member of the stake presidency, went to the stand. Gordon stayed on the back row.

The congregation of men sang as the opening song “Praise to the Man.”

Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah
Jesus anointed that prophet and seer. …

Something happened! “There welled up in me an overwhelming conviction!” President Hinckley said later. A spirit of confirmation flowed into his heart, and a spirit of testimony affirmed to that boy deacon that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. He knew it! He knew it! He knew it as firmly as he knew that he lived! From that moment on he was armed with that “residual of faith.”

Later, when the faith of this bright university student was challenged by doubts (always a part of the education of the young members of the Church), the memory of that moment sustained him. Even today, more than six decades later, he cannot tell of that experience without slipping a finger under his glasses to prevent a tear from rolling down his cheek.

That is a lesson for the youth of the Church. If Brother Hinckley came from the university shaken a bit in faith, he reestablished it forever by responding to a call to serve a mission in England. He had plans for going east for an advanced degree in journalism, for he had a talent with words. But that must wait.

It was at the depth of the Depression, and because of an unfavorable exchange rate at that time, England was the most expensive mission in the world. He began his labors in Preston, where the early Apostles had opened the work. He served as assistant to Elder Joseph F. Merrill, a member of the Twelve and President of the European Missions. G. Homer Durham, who later was to be a President of the First Quorum of the Seventy, was one of Elder Hinckley’s companions.

He returned with an assignment from his mission president to report to the First Presidency a condition that could not adequately be conveyed in writing. He was to spend just a few minutes with President Heber J. Grant and his counselors. He was there for the duration of the meeting. As it turned out in the months ahead, that report was a job interview as well.

A new committee of the Twelve was organized to bring to missionary work the power of the latest means of communication. Brother Hinckley was to serve as producer and secretary for the Church Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee. This was, in fact, the beginning of the Public Communications Office in the Church. His plans to go to Columbia University would be put aside. His career as a seminary teacher, for he taught half-time when he returned from his mission, would be replaced. The committee included six members of the Twelve, with Elder Stephen L Richards as chairman.

There was an empty office available, but no furniture at the moment. He went downstairs to the main office to ask for a ream of paper. “A whole ream?” What did he intend to do, write a book? Did he know how many pages were in a ream? He did.

Being resourceful, he went to a former missionary companion whose father dealt in office furniture and came away with a rickety reject table. One leg was short; that could be fixed with a block of wood. The top was warped and split a little; that could be ignored. He brought his typewriter from home and, in a most unlikely place, began a career that would take him to the ordination of an Apostle and to the First Presidency of the Church.

There were other hard lessons in his youth. In 1918, when Gordon was eight, the telegram came. The children were gathered to the house to learn the tragic news. His older brother Stanford, serving in France with the Allied forces, had died.

That affected young Gordon; it affected mature Gordon. Years later, during the Korean and Vietnam wars, he was to have much to do with the military, and with missionary work. Missionary work was his first love.

He reached an understanding with the Selective Service officials that allowed the best balance between missionary and military service that the emergencies would permit. All was done within the laws.

He visited servicemen and women in camps around the world. He taught them that a serviceman who lived the gospel was a missionary. In a cold room in Korea, and along the front in Vietnam, his heart was touched and his faith was extended as he heard the testimonies of those missionaries in olive drab.

When he was a boy, Thomas E. Callister, his stake patriarch, gave young Gordon a blessing. Patriarchs are prophets.

“Thou shalt grow to the full stature of manhood and shall become a mighty and valiant leader in the midst of Israel. …

“The Holy Priesthood shall be thine to enjoy and thou shalt minister in the midst of Israel as only those can who are called of God. Thou shalt ever be a messenger of peace; the nations of the earth shall hear thy voice and be brought to a knowledge of the truth by the wonderful testimony which thou shalt bear.”

When he returned from the mission in England, he assumed the promise of his patriarchal blessing was fulfilled, for he had borne testimony of the truth in the four great capitals of that day: London, Berlin, Paris, and Washington, D.C.

President David O. McKay introduces the newest Assistant to the Twelve, 6 April 1958.

But further fulfillment awaited him. He was sustained as an Assistant to the Twelve 6 April 1958, and in 1960 he was given responsibility for the Church in Asia. He was ordained an Apostle 5 October 1961. In 1962 he accompanied President Henry D. Moyle of the First Presidency to the missions of the United States, Great Britain, and Europe. President Moyle had great influence upon him, as did President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., also of the First Presidency.

The blessing Gordon B. Hinckley received as a boy has been augmented even further in recent years. President Spencer W. Kimball called him as a Counselor in the First Presidency 23 July 1981, and as Second Counselor 2 December 1982. President Ezra Taft Benson called him as First Counselor in the First Presidency 10 November 1985.

It is not an exaggeration now to say that it would be easier to list the places he has not preached than to list those countries where his ministry has taken him. He has borne testimony in every country in the Western Hemisphere, save the small Guianas in South America; in virtually every country in Europe, including Russia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia; in the Orient, including the Philippines, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia; in the near East; in Africa; and in the islands of the Pacific. Patriarchs do have prophetic insight, and Brother Hinckley, obedient to his callings, lives to see the fulfillment of his blessing.

Perhaps it is essential for one who is to serve with humility and distinction in the kingdom of God to be given, as a blessing, some characteristic or attribute which causes him to regard himself as inadequate.

Such a “gift” does not often show itself on the surface. Usually it is hidden deep within, and it shows in many small ways that an individual has learned the lesson that Moses learned when, emerging from a great vision, he said: “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.” (Moses 1:10.)

Somewhere in the make up of Gordon B. Hinckley there is such a tempering feeling. Perhaps it centers in his admission that as a boy he was shy. Without this “gift,” high station would have made him oblivious to the feelings and the needs of the rank and file of humanity, to the widow and her mite, to the poor among men. But he is not oblivious to her or to them; they are constantly on his mind. “I have a feeling for the rank and file of the Church because I am one of them,” he has said.

Brother Hinckley served for several years on what was informally called the “Heartbreak Committee.” There the cases of those who had seriously transgressed were considered. He has sympathetic love for those who suffer from guilt, and particularly the innocent who are affected by it.

That regard for the rank and file is there when he grumbles (that is the correct word) about such things as misused authority, domineering executives, academic elitism, unreasonable conduct in family life, or worldly pretensions.

Some see the respect shown to the leaders of the Church and suppose that their lives are all honor and joy. President Stephen L. Richards, who was a teacher and associate of great influence for Brother Hinckley, spoke in a general priesthood meeting of the handling of difficult problems that happen in the lives of some members. “Brethren, it is almost enough to take the joy out of our callings.” Those who know President Hinckley know how heavily these matters weigh upon him. It is in these moments that his captivating sense of humor comes to the rescue.

Interestingly enough, an inner perspective of self-worth qualifies him as well to meet with the great of the earth. He sees no need to “put on airs.” We have been with him when he has met presidents, ambassadors of nations, generals, admirals, and others of high station.

Only a minute into the conversation and Brother Hinckley makes some disarming remark, causing everyone to chuckle, and then everyone is at ease. Not a shred of dignity is lost in the doing of this, and at just the right moment he is reading passages of scripture from the Book of Mormon to the President of the United States.

No man of this generation has traveled so many miles, to so many places, with so single a purpose—to preach the gospel, to minister to the Saints, to see to the redemption of the dead.

Elder Hinckley somehow has always seemed to be near when comfort and consolation are needed for suffering Saints. He was in Tonga when a boatload of Saints was tragically drowned. He rushed to that particular island to give comfort. He was in South America when a devastating earthquake hit Peru. Again his consoling, sympathetic voice was heard and help was called forth. He was in Korea when bullets screamed by the hotel where he stayed.

President Hinckley was called by President David O. McKay to find a way to hasten the work of redemption of the dead. The films which now guide us through the endowment were the result. And, beginning with the dedication of the Swiss Temple, where this pattern of instruction was introduced, he has participated in the dedication or rededication of thirty-one temples. In recent years, when both President Kimball and President Romney have been unable to travel, Brother Hinckley has been assigned the sacred duty of presiding at the dedication of eighteen temples and pronouncing the dedicatory prayers.

President Hinckley has participated in the dedication or rededication of thirty-one temples. Here he and Elder W. Grant Bangerter discuss a model for a new temple.

He speaks with tenderness when you discuss with him the meaning of the sacred temple covenants in his own family. He and Sister Hinckley have five children: Kathleen H. Barnes, Richard Gordon, Virginia H. Pearce, Clark Bryant, and Jane H. Dudley. The children, and those whom they have married, do not regard his prominence as a challenge to their own identities. Rather, they see a sacred ministry in which they have a vital sustaining part. They have counted it a blessing. “Full credit for this,” he insists, “must go to their mother.”

One is impressed in a review of the life of Gordon B. Hinckley that there has been some organized plan of preparation for the responsibility he now holds.

Over a period of half a century he has known and loved and, in one capacity or another, worked with seven Presidents of the Church: Heber J. Grant, George Albert Smith, David O. McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, Spencer W. Kimball, and now Ezra Taft Benson.

In his church service he has served as a teacher and leader in his ward, as a member of the Sunday School General Board, as stake president, and as adviser to the auxiliaries.

At one time or another he has been chairman or acting chairman of important committees of General Authorities. These include the General Priesthood Committee, the Missionary Committee, the Temple Committee, Church Correlation Committee, Personnel Committee, Budget and Appropriations Committee, the Board of Education and Board of Trustees of Brigham Young University (and the executive committees of both), Public Communications Committee, Special Affairs Committee, and the Information and Communications Systems Committee.

One notices that these span the breadth of the affairs of the Church in temporal and spiritual affairs.

Young Gordon Hinckley had taken courses in economics while at the university. This put in place some fundamentals on which he would draw in later life. Leaders in business came to recognize his astute insight, and he was invited to become a member of boards of directors. At one time he served on the boards of nine substantial corporations scattered from Seattle to New York. Some were Church-owned, some public, and one a private corporation. He has deliberated with business leaders in major financial and policy decisions. For a number of years he served as president of Church News Publishing Company, and he now serves as chairman of Bonneville International Corporation, which operates broadcast properties across the nation.

One may wonder, is such service compatible with the calling to the ministry? There is no professional clergy in the Church; the Brethren are called from all walks of life. But their duties include the management of the sacred resources of the Church, the tithes and offerings.

And one sees meaning in the injunction of the Lord to his Apostles that they are not to be taken out of the world but to stay in the world, but not to be of the world.

The necessary business affairs of the Church extend across the world. These affairs have to do with the management of funds to build chapels and temples and to finance missions and a hundred other things that are central to the mission of the Church. While professional accountants can be hired to oversee these affairs, the Committee on the Disposition of the Tithes—the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve, and the Presiding Bishopric—must assume full responsibility. The valuable experience Brother Hinckley received has been helpful in preparing him for service as a trustee of the sacred funds of the Church.

These business and civic contacts have kept Brother Hinckley in touch with the affairs of men. He has developed an astute knowledge of public and political matters. This too has been of great value to the Church. More than once when moral issues were involved and the interests of the Church were threatened, his wisdom has been called upon to help find a way through difficult days.

But it is not the standards of the world that guide President Hinckley. A well-marked, well-used volume of scripture is ever at hand.

And, if early in the morning you should tap on his office door for counsel on a problem, you may experience a slight delay; just long enough for him to get up from his knees and come to the door. When you know that, you know why the Lord has called Gordon Bitner Hinckley as an Apostle, as a counselor to prophets and Presidents.

Ideas for Home Teachers

Home teachers may wish to acquaint members of the Church with the accomplishments and ministries of President Gordon B. Hinckley, First Counselor in the First Presidency, and President Thomas S. Monson, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, by using this and the adjacent article as the substance for their discussion.

  1. 1.

    Relate your feelings and testimony about the new First Presidency of the Church—President Ezra Taft Benson, President Gordon B. Hinckley: First Counselor, and President Thomas S. Monson, Second Counselor.

  2. 2.

    Are there quotations in the articles that you might read aloud and discuss?

[photos] Top, left: Gordon B. Hinckley when he was producer and secretary for the Church Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee. Top, right: University of Utah graduation photograph, spring 1932. Middle, left: Since his mission to Europe in the early 1930s, Gordon B. Hinckley has been a guiding influence in the Church’s worldwide missionary effort. Middle, right: Known for his firm testimony of the Restoration, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley addresses workers and missionaries at the Hill Cumorah Pageant. (Photo courtesy of The Deseret News.)

[photos] Top, left: Elder Gordon B. Hinckley in his office. Top right: With his wife, Marjorie Pay Hinckley, in April 1970. (Photo courtesy of The Deseret News.) Middle: President Joseph Fielding Smith looks at Elder Hinckley’s book on Church history, which became a standard reference for missionaries. (Photo courtesy of The Deseret News.) Bottom, left: For years, Elder Hinckley supervised Church growth in the Far East. Here he greets people in the People’s Republic of China. (Photo courtesy of The Deseret News.)

[photos] Top, left: President and Sister Hinckley have shared a lifetime of Church service. Bottom, left: A familiar sight since 1981, President Hinckley conducting a session of general conference. (Photo courtsey of The Deseret News.) Bottom, right: A meditative moment in his seat in the Tabernacle.