Elder Neal Ash Maxwell: A Promise Fulfilled


6 July 1926–21 July 2004
Elder Neal A. Maxwell

Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

As a soldier under heavy enemy fire in World War II, young Neal Maxwell promised that if the Lord would preserve his life, he would dedicate that life to the Lord’s service.

The Lord spared his life.

Young Neal kept his promise.

Almost 60 years later, on 21 July 2004, the Lord released Elder Neal Ash Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from his mortal service after an eight-year battle with leukemia. He was 78.

A Lifetime of Service

“The death of this wonderful leader brings to a close a chapter in Church history spanning over 30 years of faithful leadership,” said President Gordon B. Hinckley. “Elder Maxwell’s lifetime of service to the Church and his country reached across borders into the hearts and homes of people throughout the entire world.”

Elder Maxwell died on the 23rd anniversary of his 1981 call as an Apostle. Prior to that call he served two years as an Assistant to the Twelve and five years in the Presidency of the Seventy. Elder Maxwell also served as a bishop, Commissioner of Church Education, a member of the Young Men general board, and as a regional representative.

“As long as our hearts pump,” Elder Maxwell said, “some of the time they should pulsate because we’re reaching out to others. And as long as there is breath in our lungs, some of that breath should be used to bestow on others deserved commendation and needed encouragement” (quoted in “Research Foundation Honors Elder Maxwell,” Ensign, Aug. 2002, 77).

Service in Seeming Obscurity

At his funeral, held on 27 July in the Tabernacle on Temple Square, Elder Maxwell was also remembered for his service to his wife, Colleen; 4 children; 24 grandchildren; and 2 great-grandchildren. He was the son of Clarence H. and Emma Ash Maxwell.

“In a world filled with much laboring and striving in parliaments, congresses, agencies, and corporate offices,” Elder Maxwell taught, “God’s extraordinary work is most often done by ordinary people in the seeming obscurity of a home and family” (That My Family Should Partake [1974], 122).

Elder Maxwell saw himself as one of those ordinary people striving to do an extraordinary work. He focused on his family. “We knew my father had a heavy commitment to his ministry,” his son, Cory, said in a funeral address. “But we also knew he not only loved us, he loved to spend time with us.”

Elder Maxwell often expressed deep admiration for his wife of almost 54 years and her “spiritual instincts.” He called her a “more complete” Christian than he, referring to her high desire to serve and low need for recognition.

A Career in Public Service

With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political science, Elder Maxwell spent the beginning of his career in politics. He worked in Washington, D.C., as a legislative assistant and later taught political science at the University of Utah. At one time he was encouraged to run for political office.

But Elder Maxwell’s early experiences taught him “that the living of one protective principle of the gospel is better than a thousand compensatory governmental programs—which programs are, so often, like ‘straightening deck chairs on the Titanic’” (“Why Not Now?” Ensign, Nov. 1974, 12).

As an educator, Elder Maxwell won a place as a student favorite at the University of Utah. He became an assistant to the president, dean of students, and finally executive vice president.

In his final conference address he warned: “Do not expect the world’s solutions to the world’s problems to be very effective. … Only the gospel is constantly relevant, and the substitute things won’t work” (“Remember How Merciful the Lord Hath Been,” Liahona and Ensign, May 2004, 45).

A Way with Words

Elder Maxwell will be remembered in part for his ability to eloquently express himself. He discovered early his talent for turning a phrase, and during his 78 years he wrote some 30 books and countless talks. Under inspiration he achieved a mastery of words that has moved millions.

“When he opened his mouth, we all listened,” said President Hinckley in a funeral tribute. “His genius was a product of diligence. He was a perfectionist, determined to extract from each phrase and sentence every drop of nourishment that could be produced. Each talk was a masterpiece, each book a work of art worthy of repeated reading. I think we shall not see one like him again.”

Elder Maxwell cultivated his ability to express important ideas in insightful ways, but he taught that it is the Spirit who communicates truth to those who hear. “The Spirit,” he said, “can help those to whom you testify to likewise catch hold of your words in a way that their minds and hearts will grasp them” (“Testifying of the Great and Glorious Atonement,” Liahona, Apr. 2002, 12; Ensign, Oct. 2001, 15).

A Living Sermon

Elder Maxwell’s teaching did not begin or end with words. “Deeds,” he taught, “not words—and becoming, not describing—are dominant in true discipleship” (“Becoming a Disciple,” Ensign, June 1996, 14).

His most eloquent sermon was the manner in which he lived. His was a sincere effort to become a true disciple of the Savior, regardless of the challenges faced. He believed that “the only real veneration of Jesus is emulation of Him. Indeed, striving to become like Him is a special way of bearing and sharing our testimony of Him” (Even As I Am [1982], 2).

Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said that an example of living testimony was found in Elder Maxwell’s life: “His courage, his submissive attitude in accepting his affliction with cancer, and his stalwart continued service have ministered comfort to thousands and taught eternal principles to millions. His example shows that the Lord will not only consecrate our afflictions for our gain, but He will use them to bless the lives of countless others” (“Give Thanks in All Things,” Liahona and Ensign, May 2003, 98).

Elder Maxwell loved the Lord and knew of His love for us, explaining “we may turn from him, but he is still there. We may feel that he is hidden from us because of the cloud cover of our concerns, but he is still close to us. We—not he—let something come between us, but no lasting eclipse need ensue. … Our disregard of him is no match for his love of us. Yes, Jesus of Nazareth lived! He lives now! He guides his Church!” (“All Hell Is Moved,” in 1977 Devotional Speeches of the Year [1978], 181).

Another Kind of Battle

Elder Maxwell was first diagnosed with leukemia in 1996. Through aggressive but debilitating treatments, he was in and out of remission during the next eight years.

A few years before his initial diagnosis, Elder Maxwell taught that although we are happier when we keep the commandments, it is also true that “faithfulness will bring special challenges. It seems God is always stretching those who meekly serve Him.” But like Abraham, Peter, Amulek, and Jesus, each of us can overcome challenges to “become a distinguished alumnus of life’s school of affliction, graduating with honors” (quoted in “Priesthood Brethren Asked to Be Christ’s Servants,” Ensign, July 1993, 75).

Through his untiring ministry in the face of adversity, Elder Maxwell has indeed graduated with honors, and the tears at his passing were—as he said of other passings—“not of despair but … of appreciation and anticipation” because “for disciples, the closing of a grave is but the closing of a door which later will be flung open with rejoicing” (“All Hell Is Moved,” 181).

A Promise Fulfilled

In his final general conference address in April 2004, Elder Maxwell observed that “the Lord knows how many miles we have to go ‘before [we] sleep’” (Liahona and Ensign, May 2004, 45).

Keeping the promise he made long ago in a foxhole on a faraway hill required many miles of Elder Maxwell, but each mile was numbered by the God he served until the day his mortal service was complete.

Beloved Colleague Honored by His Brethren

At his funeral, speakers offered the following tributes to Elder Neal A. Maxwell:

President Gordon B. Hinckley: “He has accomplished more in these past eight years [of his illness] than most men do in a lifetime. … He comforted, blessed, and encouraged his fellow sufferers. Their oppressive burdens were made lighter by this good Samaritan who bound up their wounds and brought the sunlight of hope into their lives. … Like the Master whom he loved, he ‘went about doing good’” (Acts 10:38).

President Thomas S. Monson, First Counselor in the First Presidency: “His service to the Lord’s work has been exemplary and without flaw. If I were asked to summarize Neal’s vast influence for good at home and abroad, I would choose the line: … ‘I served.’ Neal Maxwell served his country, his Church, his family, his fellowmen, his God.”

President James E. Faust, Second Counselor in the First Presidency: “He was a great Apostle, an extraordinary human being, an exemplary son, husband, brother, father, and grandfather. He had a great mind to teach. He lived a great life to emulate and had great heart. … The glory of God was manifested in him and in his accomplishments.”

President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “He endured with perfect patience the challenge of his last days. … Both Neal and Colleen … know for certain that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world, that He accomplished the Atonement, the Resurrection of all mankind.”

[photos] Opposite page (from left): As an infantry soldier in World War II, 1944. Displaying numerous ribbons earned while raising pigs. As a missionary to eastern Canada, 1947–48.

[photos] Above: Organizing games with some of his grandchildren. Right: Making a presentation at a University of Utah board of regents meeting. Far right top: With his wife, Colleen Hinckley Maxwell. Far right bottom: Speaking at April 1997 general conference and expressing gratitude for the treatments that, while causing his hair loss, had allowed him to come “thus far.”