Standing in front of the heroic-sized casting of the Prophet Joseph Smith in the lobby of the beautifully refurbished Joseph Smith Memorial Building, Gordon Bitner Hinckley was formally introduced to the public and the press on 13 March 1995 as the fifteenth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Near the end of a warm, often witty, always winning exchange on a wide-ranging number of questions posed in this news conference, President Hinckley was asked by a reporter, “What will be your focus? What will be the theme of your administration?”
Instinctively he answered, “Carry on. Yes. Our theme will be to carry on the great work which has been furthered by our predecessors.”
That simple answer—crisp, clear, unpremeditated, inspiring—says much about our new prophet, seer, and revelator. “Carry on” is a familiar phrase taken from the text of a hymn written by Ruth May Fox some sixty-five years ago, a musical rallying cry filled with joy and determination. Its opening line and sometimes title? “Firm as the mountains around us”! Its bold declaration? “Stalwart and brave we stand”! Where? “On the rock our fathers planted For us in this goodly land—The rock of honor and virtue, Of faith in the living God. … Carry on, carry on, carry on!” (Hymns, 1985, no. 255.)
So many hymns, like so many scriptures and sermons, could be cited to underscore the qualities and cast light upon the strengths of the prophets of God. But perhaps no hymn does better at catching something of the essence of President Gordon B. Hinckley than does this forthright and optimistic call to “carry on.”
For one thing the hymn is youthful. It was written for young people and is particularly inspiring when sung by young people. And by the estimation of all who know him—or have to keep up with him—President Hinckley is the youngest 84-year-old anyone can remember. The brisk bounce in his step, the unrestrained buoyancy of his spirit, and his consuming appetite for hard work and long hours would be admired in a man half his age. President Gordon B. Hinckley looks young, acts young, and loves youth with all its potential and promise.
“We are particularly proud of our youth,” he chose to say in that first, brief public statement. “I think we have never had a stronger generation of young men and women than we have today. … They are going forward with constructive lives, nurturing themselves both intellectually and spiritually. We have no fears or doubts concerning the future of this work” (Ensign, Apr. 1995, p. 5). He loves young people because at heart he is one of them—with never any fear of any kind “concerning the future of this work” (ibid.).
To no less a publication than the New York Times, President Hinckley recently said in an interview conducted in Nauvoo, Illinois, “I see so many good people everywhere—and there’s so much of good in them. And the world is good. Wonderful things are happening in this world. This is the greatest age in the history of the earth.”
From what source does this irrepressible optimism come to President Hinckley? It comes from that foundation of faith which inspired our forebears in this church to “carry on.” Indeed, the New York Times, in interviewing President Hinckley, received not only a lesson in LDS history, but great insight into the very meaning of faith:
“We have every reason to be optimistic in this world,” President Hinckley insisted. “Tragedy is around, yes. Problems everywhere, yes. But look at Nauvoo. Look at what they built here in seven years and then left. But what did they do? Did they lie down and die? No! They went to work! They moved halfway across this continent and turned the soil of a desert and made it blossom as the rose. On that foundation this church has grown into a great worldwide organization affecting for good the lives of people in more than 140 nations. You can’t, you don’t, build out of pessimism or cynicism. You look with optimism, work with faith, and things happen.”
Whether the reporter for the New York Times knew it or not, he was getting vintage President Gordon B. Hinckley—articulate, knowledgeable, courteous, confident, stirring. And always filled with faith in God and in the future.
“Things will work out” may well be President Hinckley’s most repeated assurance to family, friends, and associates. “Keep trying,” he will say. “Be believing. Be happy. Don’t get discouraged. Things will work out.”
First Counselor Thomas S. Monson, whose friendship with President Hinckley dates back more than forty-five years—long before either of them was a General Authority—and continues unabated, says: “President Hinckley is a prophet with keen vision, an enormous capacity for work, and abiding faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He combines all of that with a clear, commanding mind and a very tender heart. The Church and indeed the whole world will be blessed by his special qualities of leadership.”
New Second Counselor and forty-year friend James E. Faust says of the man whom he first met when they were young counselors serving in the presidencies of adjoining stakes: “President Hinckley is so capable, so knowledgeable and experienced about so many things, that sometimes people are in awe of him. But he is a very kind and considerate man.”
But for all his strength and confidence now, the initial outlook was not quite so promising for Bryant S. and Ada Bitner Hinckley’s first son, born 23 June 1910 in Salt Lake City. As a child Gordon was not as healthy and robust as some. At age two he was stricken with whooping cough, the effects of which were threatening not only to the lungs but to the limbs and very life of such a young child. This malady would be followed by a serious history of asthma and allergies, all of which took their toll on the struggling lad’s health. “The boy needs more fresh air and sunlight,” the doctor told the anxious parents. So immediate plans were made to acquire a small farm in the East Millcreek area of Salt Lake City, in that day very much “in the country” from downtown Salt Lake City and quite literally “just what the doctor ordered” for young Gordon.
On that farm through summers, weekends, and holidays Gordon grew to health and learned to work. And somehow there near the soil and close to nature his confidence in God’s good and provident hand prospered like the hundreds of fruit trees and vegetable seeds he planted, tended, and harvested.
“After a day of good, hard labor, my younger brother Sherm and I would sleep out under the stars in the box of an old farm wagon,” President Hinckley recalls with a wistful look and smile. “On those clear, clean summer nights, we would lie on our backs in that old wagon box and look at the myriads of stars in the heavens. We could identify some of the constellations and other stars as they were illustrated in the encyclopedia which was always available in our family library. We identified some of the more visible patterns in the heavens, but our favorite was the North Star. Each night, like many generations of boys before us, we would trace the Big Dipper, down the handle and out past the cup, to find the North Star.
“We came to know of the constancy of that star,” he recalls. “As the earth turned, the others appeared to move through the night. But the North Star held its position in line with the axis of the earth. Because of those boyhood musings, the polar star came to mean something to me. I recognized it as a constant in the midst of change. It was something that could always be counted on, something that was dependable, an anchor in what otherwise appeared to me a moving and unstable firmament.”
The Hinckleys’ son Richard says of those boyhood days: “You could tell that even in his early years he was starting to form impressions and feelings about that quality of steadiness and of immovability and dependability. Those have always been great traits of his, and I think he has always appreciated them very much in others.”
Part of that constancy comes from a heritage deeper and more distant than those work-filled days in East Millcreek as a boy. President Hinckley’s grandfather, Ira Nathaniel Hinckley, heard the gospel as a boy of seven only to find himself orphaned at nine. Later he made his way to Nauvoo and beyond, crossing the Plains to the Salt Lake Valley—burying his beautiful young wife along the way. Several years later Ira, remarried and established, accepted a call from Brigham Young to take charge of the Church ranch at Cove Creek, Millard County, in southern Utah. “As [this ranch] is some distance from any other settlement,” wrote President Young, “a man of sound practical judgment and experience is needed to fill the place. If you think you can take this mission you should endeavor to go a week from next Monday. [Signed] Your brother in the gospel, Brigham Young.”
Says Ira’s admiring grandson, “They went where they were asked to go, and did what they were asked to do, regardless of what it cost in terms of comfort or money or life itself.” President and Sister Hinckley’s daughter Virginia adds: “To truly understand Dad it is necessary to understand his ancestry and its impact on his life and on his values. It’s woven through everything he’s ever done. It’s just the fiber of his life. It has always provided the continuity and the inspiration in his life. And he has always tried to show his gratitude.”
It was there in the heart of Millard County that Ira erected the historic Cove Fort and presided over a fledgling stake of Zion, providing the circumstances in which his children, including President Hinckley’s father, Bryant S. Hinckley, would be raised.
President Hinckley’s brother, now the director of the Cove Fort Mission for the Church, notes the legacy that came from such stern times in the western wilderness. Observing that the still-standing but newly refurbished fort was built of volcanic rock laid in lime mortar, with walls at the base a full four feet in thickness, Sherman Hinckley says of his brother: “He is solid. There’s nothing small about him. He’s been firm in the faith all his days. He takes after his father and his grandfather who were likewise. I’d say that in a way he’s a lot like Cove Fort. He’s rock solid.”
And everyone who knows President Gordon B. Hinckley agrees. Rodney H. Brady, a distinguished educational, governmental, and business leader in his own right, has as president and chief executive officer of Bonneville International (the Church’s broadcasting corporation) worked under the direction of its chairman, President Gordon B. Hinckley, for ten years. “In my present position I have spent literally hundreds of hours with President Hinckley,” Brother Brady says. “In all that time I have never seen a man more fair in his considerations nor more decisive in his conclusions. When it is time for a decision to be made, he makes it—but always with a view to any previous promises made. I have never known a man of greater integrity.”
Such observations coincide with the assessment of Stanley D. Rees, former president of the North German Mission, later president of the Swiss Temple, and longtime associate of President Hinckley. “I have known Gordon Hinckley for fifty-nine years,” says Brother Rees, smiling. “I grew up in his neighborhood, and his father, Bryant Hinckley, was my stake president. As long as I have known him, I have never seen him do anything nor say anything that would in any way be inappropriate in his present calling. I would trust him with everything I own.”
Part of this Cove Fort, rock-solid, polar-star, firm-as-the-mountains integrity came from the things he had read and learned as well as from the family heritage he had been given. Both his father, Bryant S. Hinckley, and his mother, Ada Bitner Hinckley, were professional educators and had fine training for that day. In addition, Sister Hinckley was a musician and Brother Hinckley a skilled writer of history. President Hinckley remembers that as a boy there was in their modest family home an inviting library with a large oak table, a good lamp, several comfortable chairs, and more than a thousand books collected by his well-educated parents. President Hinckley’s son Clark notes that his father has often spoken to his children about what a quiet, inviting place it was.
“Apparently it was a wonderful place to study,” Clark says, “and it reflected a love for good books and learning in that home. Now,” he adds with a smile, “I don’t think that as a boy Dad spent all his time reading, but there is no question he was exposed to great literature and that it had an impact on him. He speaks often of the ‘ambiance’ which that room had, an inviting impression he carries in his mind to this day.”
President Hinckley grew up putting that love of language and literature to good use. His early academic intentions were toward a degree in journalism, so he went to the University of Utah to prepare. “I was most fortunate,” he recalls, “in the happenstance events that formed my early university education. I went to enroll in a freshman English class, and all the sections were filled. Because there were several of us still trying to register, they had to open up a new section, and apparently there was no one to teach it but the able and gifted head of the department. I had a wonderful introduction to the English language at his hand. I loved him and all my instructors. I read Carlyle and Emerson, Milton and Longfellow, Shakespeare and all the others. And from there I went on to study Latin and Greek. I couldn’t do it now, but once I could have read you the Iliad and the Odyssey in the original Greek. I finished up my work at the university with a minor in ancient languages.”
Inevitably, when people meet President Hinckley, they comment on his facility with language, as it gives expression to the breadth and grasp of his intellect. “President Hinckley is a master orator,” says Wendell J. Ashton, his former missionary companion and a friend of more than sixty years. “I’ll never forget Lord Thompson of Fleet saying privately to his son a few years ago, ‘This Hinckley is a great speaker. He knows how to move people.’”
Even though it was the time of the Great Depression and relatively few young men were serving missions, Bishop John C. Duncan approached him and urged him to consider a mission. President Hinckley discussed it with his father, his beloved mother having just passed away three years earlier from cancer. It was a hard time for the family, financially and every other way.
“Nevertheless I remember my father saying, ‘We will do all we can to see that your needs are met,’” President Hinckley recalls poignantly, “and he and my brother committed to see me through my mission. It was at that time that we discovered a little savings account my mother had left—change saved from her grocery purchases and other shopping. With that little bit of help added, it appeared I could go on my mission.”
He left shortly thereafter for England, considering sacred those coins so meticulously saved by his mother. “I guarded them with my honor,” he says on the edge of emotion. That respect for money sacrificed for and saved, and his memory of such an era of deprivation, affect to this day his detailed, watchful oversight of the Church’s financial expenditures. It is not insignificant that the principal appointment on his office credenza is a framed, minute, ancient coin—a lepton. Half a farthing. The “widow’s mite” mentioned in Luke 21:1–4.
Surely his mission to Great Britain was one of those polar-star, firm-as-the-mountain experiences which would affect virtually everything else President Gordon B. Hinckley would do for the rest of his life.
Sent first to Preston in Lancashire (where Heber C. Kimball and others had pioneered the first transatlantic mission nearly one hundred years before), Elder Hinckley found some of that discouragement common to missionaries facing new circumstances in a new land. He was not well physically, and as he went to his first street meeting in that impoverished mill town in the north of England, he recalls: “I was terrified. I stepped up on that little stand and looked at that crowd of people that had gathered. They were dreadfully poor at that time in the bottom of the Depression. They looked rather menacing and mean, but I somehow stumbled through whatever I had to say.”
Down in spirit and facing no success in missionary endeavors, Gordon wrote a letter to his father, saying: “I am wasting my time and your money. I don’t see any point in my staying here.” In due course a gentle but terse reply came from his father. That letter read: “Dear Gordon. I have your letter [of such and such a date]. I have only one suggestion. Forget yourself and go to work, With love, Your Father.”
President Hinckley says of that moment, “I pondered his response and then the next morning in our scripture class we read that great statement of the Lord: ‘For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it’ (Mark 8:35).
“That simple statement, that promise, touched me. I got on my knees and made a covenant with the Lord that I would try to forget myself and go to work. I count that as the day of decision in my life. Everything good that has happened to me since then I can trace back to the decision I made at that time.”
No sooner had young Elder Hinckley thrown himself into the work in Lancashire than he received a letter calling him to London as a special assistant to Elder Joseph F. Merrill, a member of the Council of the Twelve Apostles and president of the European Mission.
“We didn’t baptize many people in London in those days,” recalls mission companion Wendell J. Ashton, “but Elder Hinckley was a knockout in those street meetings on Hyde Park corner. I can promise you we learned to speak quickly on our feet. And Elder Hinckley was the best of the bunch. I have always thought that he gained tremendous firsthand experience there in London’s Hyde Park doing what he would so skillfully do for the rest of his life—defend the Church and speak up courageously of its truths. He was good at it then and he is good at it now.”
Soon enough young Elder Hinckley was back in Salt Lake City, weary, underweight, and (with grand irony in light of what lay ahead in his life) with a desire “never to travel anywhere again.” To keep an appointment with the First Presidency prearranged by his mission president regarding special challenges in the European Mission, he went to the Church Administration Building to meet President Heber J. Grant and his two counselors, J. Reuben Clark Jr. and David O. McKay. “President Grant told me they had allowed fifteen minutes for me on their agenda. I began to speak and they began to ask questions, and I left the room one hour and fifteen minutes later. Several days later President McKay called me and asked that I come to work as the secretary of the newly organized Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee of the Church.”
That began, save for a brief two-year interlude during the war, a sixty-year career of staff assignments and General Authority callings at the headquarters of the Church. “President Hinckley’s unusually rich experience in Church administration combines history and memory in a remarkable way,” says longtime associate Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. “His knowledge of things ‘as they were’ and now ‘as they are’ have prepared him to contribute to ‘things as they will be.’” The Administration Building, where the young missionary made that first impressive report to the First Presidency, is the same building today in which he now presides as President of the Church exactly sixty years later.
Young Gordon B. Hinckley was as helpful as he was impressive to the many leaders of the Church he assisted with staff work. All found him to be bright, responsive, and very hardworking. But perhaps no one was closer to him, nor had more of an influence upon him through those years, than President Stephen L Richards.
When President Hinckley first began working at Church headquarters, Elder Stephen L Richards, then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, chaired the Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee of the Church, to which Gordon was assigned as executive secretary. Later, when Elder Richards became First Counselor to President David O. McKay in the First Presidency of the Church, Gordon stayed at his side as executive secretary of the Missionary Committee, which President Richards chaired.
“Stephen L Richards had a tremendous impact for good upon my life,” President Hinckley says fondly. “He was a strong and gentle man who was particularly kind to me.”
Obviously the feeling was mutual, for President Richards wrote to his young assistant on 22 December 1953:
“Dear Gordon, Please accept my heartiest good wishes for a happy Christmas time for you and your family. I cannot tell you how deeply I appreciate your association and help. I do not see how I could carry forward my assignment without the efficient service you so willingly give. I am sure the Lord will bless you for it, for you are a great contributor to his holy cause. Gratefully and devotedly your brother and friend, [signed] Stephen L Richards.”
Throughout his career President Hinckley has shown remarkable qualities of mind and judgment which have served him thoroughly and well. “But the greatest judgment he has ever shown in his entire life,” President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, says with a smile, “is the judgment he showed in marrying Marjorie Pay. You cannot know him unless you know her—the tender, guiding, patient influence she has been in his life and in that of their children.”
“Marjorie was ‘the girl next door’ when we were growing up,” recalls President Hinckley’s younger sister Ramona H. Sullivan, “only in this case it was the girl across the street. And she was very pretty. The thing I remember most about Marge in those early years is how polished and impressive she was, even as a young girl, in giving readings and performances in the meetings and activities of our old First Ward. All the other kids would just sort of stand up and mumble through something, but Marjorie was downright professional. She had all of the elocution and all of the movements. I still remember those readings she gave.”
Although they didn’t start dating seriously until after he was home from his mission, it was one of those very youthful readings Marjorie Pay gave which first caught his attention. “I saw her first in Primary,” President Hinckley says with a laugh. “She gave a reading. I don’t know what it did to me, but I never forgot it. Then she grew older into a beautiful young woman, and I had the good sense to marry her.”
The Hinckleys were married 29 April 1937 and have had born to them three daughters and two sons—Kathleen H. Barnes, Richard Gordon, Virginia H. Pearce, Clark Bryant, and Jane H. Dudley. To this extremely close-knit family have since been added twenty-five grandchildren and thirteen great-grandchildren.
“My husband has always taught by example,” Sister Hinckley says with obvious admiration. “Throughout our married life I have never heard him lecture the children. They just knew what he expected of them because they watched him.
“For that matter,” she continues, “he has always been an example to everyone. In all the years I have known him I have never seen him say or do anything unworthy of an Apostle. Now, don’t misunderstand,” she laughs. “He is not sanctimonious by any means. He has a wonderful sense of humor. But he has never, ever done anything out of line. I think he is wonderful!”
It’s not surprising that President Hinckley and the Hinckley children think Sister Hinckley is wonderful, too. “Mom is guileless,” says oldest daughter Kathleen. “She is absolutely pure. She is a friend to all and can’t give enough praise to people, whether that be the milkman, the mailman, the garbageman—everyone.”
Youngest daughter Jane remembers her as their head cheerleader. “She knew everything we were doing and everything we were interested in, and now knows the same about all her grandchildren. She loved having us home after school and couldn’t wait for summer vacation to arrive. Other mothers were only too happy to see school start again in the fall, but not Mom—she would weep! She would grieve that we were leaving her.”
With hearty laughter son Richard recalls the time he had to stay after school for some kind of grade-school disciplining. Always awaiting the children’s arrival from school each day, Sister Hinckley was immediately lonely when her son did not walk in the door with the others. The next thing anyone knew, she appeared from out of nowhere at the young penitent’s classroom, saying to a startled teacher, “You can do anything you want to this boy all day long, but after three P.M.he’s mine.”
President Hinckley has been able to take his wife on many of his major travel assignments around the world. When he did, Sister Hinckley always brought that world back to their children. “She would write spellbinding letters,” recalls Kathy, “and then make a full report to the whole family when she got home. Sights, sounds, mementos—everything. It was a production!
“For example, I remember the beautifully vivid description she gave of the events associated with the dedication of the Seoul Korea Temple. Such a firsthand report included a description of the national dress and costumes worn by the Korean sisters which she observed as Mom and Dad left the temple with the official party. She was reliving all of it—and helping us live it—with an enthusiastic, bright-eyed account of every aspect of the experience, particularly that of these women’s beautiful apparel and appearance. Right in the middle of that mesmerizing description, my father looked up and said, ‘What costumes?’ That is the difference between my mother and my father.”
Throughout these years of service and travel, President Hinckley has had many opportunities to bless the Saints—literally bless them, with hands upon their heads—in countries far and near.
In September 1972 newly ordained President Harold B. Lee asked Elder Hinckley, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, to accompany him on a historic trip to Europe and the Middle East. It would be the first visit to the Holy Land by a President of the Church in some two thousand years.
“On that trip President Lee became quite ill,” President Hinckley recalls. “Late one evening Sister Lee rang our room and asked if I would give her husband a blessing. President Edwin Q. Cannon of the Swiss Mission was traveling with us on this assignment, so I asked him to join me in administering to the President. We did so, and then, with a good deal of concern about President Lee’s health, I went to bed.
“Later in the night President Lee began to cough. It was a deep, terrible cough, and it went on for some time. Situated as we were in adjoining hotel rooms, I could hear him. He coughed and coughed and coughed. Finally all of that stopped and I went off to sleep, grateful he had been given some relief.
“Brother Lee said nothing at all of the matter the next day, but on the following day he said to me, ‘We had to come to the land of miracles to witness a miracle within ourselves!’ He then told me how in the most violent of the coughing, he had coughed up a very large clot of blood. Just a little more than one year later, he died from what was spoken of as a pleural embolism.”
Surely one of the most challenging moments came to the life of Gordon B. Hinckley when, in the summer of 1981, President Spencer W. Kimball called Elder Hinckley to serve as a counselor in the First Presidency. Although they were experiencing varying degrees of declining health, the First Presidency was “complete” with President Kimball, President N. Eldon Tanner, and President Marion G. Romney still serving. Nevertheless, in a moment of clear revelatory inspiration and good health, President Kimball asked Elder Hinckley to join the First Presidency as “Counselor in the First Presidency”—an additional counselor, for which there was ample precedent in Church history.
“When I accepted President Kimball’s call to join them, I did not know exactly how I would function or fit in, and perhaps they did not at the time,” says President Hinckley. “But the circumstances called for additional help, and I was more than willing to give it. I did not know whether it would be for a few days or a few months.”
As it turned out, President Gordon B. Hinckley would never again leave the First Presidency of the Church. In 1982 President Tanner passed away, with President Romney moving to First Counselor and President Hinckley being sustained as Second Counselor.
“That was a very heavy and overwhelming responsibility,” he recalls. “It was an almost terrifying load at times. Of course, I consulted with our brethren of the Twelve.
“I recall on one particular occasion getting on my knees before the Lord and asking for help in the midst of that very difficult situation. And there came into my mind those reassuring words, ‘Be still and know that I am God’ (D&C 101:16). I knew again that this was His work, that He would not let it fail, that all I had to do was work at it and do our very best, and that the work would move forward without let or hindrance of any kind.”
Things will work out. Keep trying. Be believing. Be happy. Don’t get discouraged. Things will work out.
These and other experiences like them have schooled President Hinckley for the sacred responsibility that is now his. “President Hinckley can do anything,” says friend and retired business and civic leader B. Z. “Bud” Kastler. “I compare him to General Patton, who was a great wartime traditionalist who adapted to changing military circumstances. President Hinckley is a traditional and very devout individual who will lead us into the changing circumstances of the twenty-first century.”
Perhaps no man has ever come to the Presidency of the Church who has been so well prepared for the responsibility. Through sixty years of Church administration he has known personally, been taught by, and in one capacity or other served with every President of the Church from Heber J. Grant to Howard W. Hunter. As one of his associates says, “No man in the history of the Church has traveled so far to so many places in the world with such a single purpose in mind—to preach the gospel, to bless and lift up the Saints, and to foster the redemption of the dead.”
Recollecting those crisp, clear nights of his youth, President Hinckley recently said to the worldwide Church: “Few of us see the Polar Star anymore. We live in urban centers, and the city lights affect our vision of the wondrous firmament above us. But, as it has been for centuries, the star is there, in its place, its constancy a guide and an anchor” (Ensign, May 1989, p. 67).
The same might be said of President Gordon B. Hinckley as he assumes the holy office to which he has been called—prophet, seer, revelator, Presiding High Priest and President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Like the prophets before him and the certainty of the gospel of Jesus Christ which guided them, he is there in his appointed place. “Stalwart and brave he stands.” His constancy and service and faith—firm as the mountains around him—are an anchor to us all. Surely the best thing we can do to sustain him in his office is to “carry on, carry on, carry on!”