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 Salt Lake 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.” (General conference, April 1958.)

It would be misleading to present a biographical sketch of Gordon B. Hinckley and focus 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 a wagon which accompanied a pioneer handcart company.

Mary’s mother, sister, and brother all died on that terrible journey. Her feet were frozen, and later her toes were removed. 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 faithful son of a stake president. He knew carpentry, and they moved to Manti, Utah, where he worked on the temple there. They lived in a sod-roofed house and were happy companions sealed in the sacred covenants of the gospel.

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

Within the week he died an agonizing death as a result of internal injuries. Martha provided for her daughters by sewing for a living. She was a widow for sixty-two years, ever sweet, never losing faith. Her daughter’s daughter was to become the wife of an Apostle, a counselor to Presidents.

President Hinckley’s grandfather, Ira Nathanial Hinckley, lost his parents and was sent from Michigan to Springfield, Illinois, to live with his grandparents. As a teenager he walked to Nauvoo, Illinois, and met the Prophet Joseph Smith.

He traveled westward with the pioneers. During the U.S. 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, Utah, where he built the fort that stands today.

On the trek west, Ira Hinckley stayed back for one season to plow the prairies and plant grain that he would not harvest. The harvest belonged to those who came afterward. The forebearers 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 this legacy of faith 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 Cove Fort was built. The family later moved to Fillmore, Utah, 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 gifts: a quick mind, a firm faith, and—something rare in those days—a good education.

He married and they had children. Then his wife died, leaving him with the little family to raise. At the time, he was president of Latter-day Saint Business College, and lovely Ada Bitner came to teach English and shorthand. She had gone to school in the east to learn a new type of shorthand and became the first in the area to teach the method. LeGrand Richards, a future Apostle, 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.”

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 hymn “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 sixty years later, he cannot tell of that experience without putting 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 to attend Columbia University, New York, for an advanced degree in journalism, for he had a talent with words. But that must wait.

It was during the Depression, and because of an unfavorable monetary exchange rate at that time, England was the most expensive mission in the world. He began his missionary work 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 give a report to the First Presidency on the condition of the mission. He was scheduled to spend just a few minutes with President Heber J. Grant and his counselors, but the meeting lasted much longer. As it turned out in the months ahead, that report to the First Presidency 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. Gordon 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 the university would be put aside. His career as a seminary teacher, for he taught part-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. Being resourceful, he went to a former missionary companion whose father sold office furniture and came away with a shaky 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 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, a telegram came bearing the tragic news that his big 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 United States military 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 frontline in Vietnam, his heart was touched and his faith was extended as he heard the testimonies of those missionaries in uniform.

When President Hinckley was a boy, Thomas E. Callister, his 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 his mission in England, he assumed that 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.

But further fulfillment awaited him. He was called as an Assistant to the Twelve in 1958 and as an Apostle in 1961. In 1961 he was given responsibility for the Church in Asia. In 1962 he accompanied President Henry D. Moyle to every mission in the United States, Great Britain, and Europe. President Moyle had great influence upon him, as did President J. Reuben Clark, Jr.

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, except 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 character of Gordon B. Hinckley there is such a feeling. Perhaps it has at its center his admission that as a boy he was shy. Without this “gift,” high positions in society would have made him insensitive to the feelings and the needs of ordinary men and women, to the widow and her mite, to the poor among men. But he is aware of their needs; he is constantly thinking of them. “I have a feeling for the members 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 awareness of the members of the Church is evident when he grumbles (that is the correct word) about such things as misused authority, domineering executives, the academic privileged class, 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. We have been with him when he has met presidents, ambassadors of nations, generals, admirals, and others of high station.

Within minutes of the introduction Brother Hinckley makes some humorous remark that causes everyone to chuckle, and then everyone is at ease. He maintains his dignity while doing 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 kilometers, 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.

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 sessions in the temple were the result. And, beginning with the dedication of the Swiss Temple, where this system 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.

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. Pierce, 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 and stake, as a member of the Sunday School General Board, 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 callings cover all 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. He has counseled business leaders in major financial and policy decisions.

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 instruction 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 be in charge of 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 informed about the affairs of men. He has developed a keen 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, he has been asked to help find a way through difficult days.

But it is not the standards of the world that guide President Hinckley. He always has a well-marked, well-used volume of scripture close by.

And, if early in the morning you should gently knock 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.

[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. Center 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. Center 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.) Bottom left: President David O. McKay introduces the newest Assistant to the Twelve during General Conference, 6 April 1958.

[photos] Top left: Elder Gordon B. Hinckley in his office. Top right: With his wife, Marjorie Pay Hinckley, in April 1970. Center: 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. Top right: 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. Bottom, left: A familiar sight since 1981, President Hinckley conducting a session of general conference. (Photo courtesy of The Deseret News.) Bottom, right: A meditative moment in his seat in the Tabernacle on Temple Square.