Spencer W. Kimball:

By Petrea Kelly

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    Spencer W. Kimball

    In the spring of 1972, President Spencer W. Kimball, who was serving as the Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was very ill. Throat cancer had returned, and his heart was threatening to fail due to a clogged artery and a malfunctioning valve. He was seventy-seven years old. The cancer was stopped with cobalt treatments, and his physicians recommended a complex surgical procedure on his heart, with only some chance of success.

    In a meeting with his doctors and President Harold B. Lee of the First Presidency, President Kimball said wearily, “I am an old man and ready to die.” He wondered whether, at his age, it made sense to fight so hard to extend his life when, perhaps, his time had come. President Lee arose and said with power, “Spencer, you have been called! You are not to die! You are to do everything you need to do to care for yourself and continue to live.”

    Spencer did not give up and die. He was not a man who gave up, no matter how difficult the task.

    A Time of Change

    The surgery was performed and was successful. While he was recovering, President Joseph Fielding Smith passed away. Eighteen months later, President Harold B. Lee also passed away, and Spencer W. Kimball became the twelfth President of the Church. Considering his age and health history, most people expected his administration to be a brief “caretaker” period. But instead, it was a vigorous time of miracles. For the next twelve years, in the words of Elder Neal A. Maxwell, “one often got the feeling that [President Kimball] was always on the next ridge waiting for the Church to catch up. Though he smiled at us and beckoned us, he would like to have seen us move more than just a bit faster.”

    He talked about the importance of missionary work and challenged us to “lengthen our stride.” He said, “It seems to me that the Lord chose his words when he said ‘every nation,’ ‘every land,’ ‘uttermost bounds of the earth,’ ‘every tongue,’ ‘every people,’ ‘every soul,’ ‘all the world,’ ‘many lands.’” He urged us to pray that the hearts of leaders of oppressive governments would be softened and that they would allow the missionaries to come into their lands. The number of missionaries doubled, and nearly three million people came into the Church. At the time of his death, 60 percent of the stakes in the Church had been created during his time as President.

    He stressed the importance of temple work, and the number of temples rose from fifteen to thirty-seven, with several others announced or under construction.

    He discussed the importance of the family as the basic unit of the Church, and a new Sunday meeting schedule was introduced to give families more time together.

    A new English hymnbook was published; it became a standard for many language editions that later followed.

    He taught the importance of scripture study, and new editions of the standard works with more extensive cross-referencing and a better topical guide were published. Individuals and families were encouraged to study the scriptures. Two revelations were added to the scriptures—the vision of the celestial kingdom given to Joseph Smith (D&C 137) and the vision of the redemption of the dead given to President Joseph F. Smith (D&C 138).

    The First Quorum of the Seventy was formally organized and expanded, so that there were more General Authorities to handle the responsibilities of a rapidly growing worldwide church. Men from half a dozen nations were called to that Quorum. All the General Authorities, including President Kimball, traveled extensively, and area conferences were held in many cities on six continents.

    But perhaps the most exciting moment occurred in June 1978 when the Lord revealed that the time had come to extend the priesthood to worthy men of all races. (See OD 2.)

    When He Whispered, We Listened

    Every good teacher knows that one of the best ways to get the attention of students is to whisper. President Kimball whispered, not because he wanted to, but because cancer had taken most of his vocal cords. And he got our attention! We listened raptly to his inspired counsel:

    “I find that when I get casual in my relationships with divinity and when it seems that no divine ear is listening and no divine voice is speaking, that I am far, far away. If I immerse myself in the scriptures the distance narrows and spirituality returns.”

    “Grow all the food that you possibly can on your own property.”

    “We ask you to clean up your homes and your farms. … Make our properties a thing of beauty to behold.”

    “Every person should keep a journal and every person can keep a journal.”

    “Suffering can make saints of people as they learn patience, long-suffering, and self-mastery.”

    “Marriage can be successful as long as selfishness does not enter in.”

    “The spectacle of a nation praying is more awe-inspiring, more powerful, than the explosion of an atomic bomb.”

    “Security is not born of inexhaustible wealth but of unquenchable faith.”

    “I know that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God and that he was crucified for the sins of the world. He is my friend, my Savior, my Lord, my God.”

    Years of Preparation

    Surely the Lord had prepared Spencer W. Kimball for just this time, had known of his unique talents, had seen him grow through many trials, and knew that he was the man who could lead the Church in a time of such growth and excitement.

    He was born 28 March 1894 in Salt Lake City, the sixth child of Andrew and Olive Woolley Kimball. When he was three years old, his father was called to be president of the St. Joseph Stake in southeastern Arizona, so the family made the four-day move south.

    Spencer thrived in the Gila Valley, but he also learned sorrow. There his mother died when he was just eleven years old. Four of his sisters also died.

    The first World War thwarted his hopes for more advanced education, but he served a mission in the central United States and later married Camilla Eyring, who was a school teacher. They had three sons and a daughter. He established his own insurance business, was active in community affairs, and served in Church callings as diverse as music director, stake clerk, and stake president.

    Persistence Rewarded

    One youthful experience tells us much about his personality and abilities. When Spencer was fourteen, he attended a meeting in which the speaker asked how many in the congregation had read the Bible. He felt miserable that he could not raise his hand. He wrote, “That very night at the conclusion of the sermon I walked to my home a block away and climbed up to my little attic room in the top of the house and lighted a coal-oil lamp that was on the little table, and I read the first chapters of Genesis. A year later I closed the Bible, having read every chapter in that big and glorious book.”

    He learned to work hard and long on his father’s farm, and he was not one to give up easily. When he was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1943, he was shocked, overwhelmed, and humbled. In his first talk as an Apostle at the October 1943 general conference, he testified:

    “I remember reading that Jacob wrestled all night, ‘until the breaking of the day,’ for a blessing; and I want to tell you that for eighty-five nights I have gone through that experience, wrestling for a blessing. Eighty-five times, the breaking of the day has found me on my knees praying to the Lord to help me and strengthen me and make me equal to this great responsibility that has come to me.”

    The announcement of the June 1978 revelation also illustrates his patience: “We have pleaded long and earnestly in behalf of these, our faithful brethren, spending many hours in the Upper Room of the Temple supplicating the Lord for divine guidance.

    “He has heard our prayers, and by revelation has confirmed that the long-promised day has come when every faithful, worthy man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood” (OD 2).

    Perhaps Spencer W. Kimball’s patience and tenacity were just the qualities needed to bring about this great blessing from the Lord.

    “I Love People”

    In a speech to a group of servicemen shortly after he had been called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Kimball expressed his feeling of humility and wonder that such a call could come to him. But then he said, “I don’t know exactly why the Lord has called me, but I have one talent to offer. My father taught me how to work; and if the Lord can use a worker, I’m available.”

    He became a legend for his energy, his long working hours, and the way he applied his motto—“Do It”—to himself. But always evident in his life was his great love of people. In fact, he often described himself by saying, “I love people.”

    He had a special love for the Lamanites. In his patriarchal blessing he was told, “You will preach the gospel to many people, but more especially to the Lamanites.”

    As a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, he was given responsibility for the Indian mission and later for the South American missions. President George Albert Smith gave him a special charge to look after the Indians throughout the world.

    Stories abound of his kind acts and thoughtfulness. One snowy day when many airline flights had been canceled, thousands were stranded in a busy airport. A young mother and her two-year-old child waited in line after line trying to buy a ticket. The child was tired and hungry, and the mother was pregnant and could not carry her child. As the child sat whimpering on the floor, the mother moved her along with her foot. As people behind her in the line muttered and criticized, the young mother wanted to cry.

    Then a man approached her with a kind smile on his face, “Young lady, it appears to me that you need a little help.” He took the child in his arms, comforted her, and gave her a stick of chewing gum. After he told the other people of the woman’s plight, they agreed to let her go to the front of the line. The man took her to her flight. As she boarded the plane, she thought, “What a wonderful man, and I don’t even know his name.” A few days later, she saw his picture in a newspaper and learned that he was Elder Spencer W. Kimball of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

    On another occasion, a bishop in South America asked if Elder Kimball could bless a dying man in the hospital between stake conference sessions. They raced to the hospital and ran up the stairs and down the hall. As they entered the room, the bishop recalled, “There was an amazing change. Elder Kimball seemed to have all the time in the world.” They visited unhurriedly, administered to the man, and took their leave. Once out the door, they ran to the car and sped back to the conference.

    Many people, sick in the hospital, were blessed and comforted by a much sicker Spencer Kimball during his many hospital stays. He once said, “My life is like my shoes—to be worn out in service.”

    He spent a great deal of time counseling those who had become weakened by sin or were struggling with adversity. The sorrow and joy he shared with them inspired his books The Miracle of Forgiveness and Faith Precedes the Miracle, which have, in turn, inspired many more members of the Church.

    He Did Not Give Up

    Had Spencer W. Kimball died at the age of seventy-seven, he would have lived a marvelous life as a missionary, husband, father, businessman, stake clerk, stake president, and, for thirty years, Apostle. His many struggles with poor health, his acts of kindness, his loving wisdom would have stood as a monument to him.

    But, at an age when most people retire and take their ease, he was given the greatest challenge a man could have. He accepted a calling he never expected to have and magnified it in such a way that millions of people, living and dead, were blessed.

    Spencer W. Kimball Highlights, 1895–1985






    28 March: Is born in Salt Lake City.



    Kimball family moves to Thatcher, Arizona.



    18 October: His mother, Olive Kimball, dies.



    Serves a mission in the central United States.



    16 November: Marries Camilla Eyring.



    Becomes president of the Mount Graham [Arizona] Stake.



    7 October: Is sustained as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.



    Throat cancer requires removal of one and one-half vocal cords.



    Publishes The Miracle of Forgiveness.



    Becomes acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.



    Undergoes heart surgery.

    7 July: Becomes President of the Quorum of the Twelve.



    30 December: Is set apart and ordained twelfth President of the Church.



    6 April: Is sustained as President of the Church.



    3 April: The Saints accept additional revelations as scripture.

    2 October: The First Quorum of the Seventy is organized.



    Dedicates Poland for the preaching of the gospel. (This was the first visit of a Church President behind the Iron Curtain.)



    8 June: Announces a revelation that the priesthood is extended to all worthy male members.



    The LDS Edition of the King James Bible is published.



    2 March: The consolidated meeting schedule is instituted.



    A new edition of the Triple Combination is published.



    August: A new English hymnbook is published.

    5 November: Dies in Salt Lake City.


    1. Edward L. Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball,” in The Presidents of the Church, edited by Leonard J. Arrington, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1986.

    2. Edward L. Kimball, “Spencer W. Kimball,” Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 volumes, New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1992, 2:785–89.

    3. “Spencer W. Kimball,” in My Kingdom Shall Roll Forth: Readings in Church History, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1980.

    4. Ensign, December 1985, pages 8–41.

    Illustrated by Paul Mann

    President Kimball traveled widely, holding area conferences, dedicating temples—extending the blessings of the Church in an increasing arc throughout the world. His love extended to every nationality and brought him to seek the revelation that extended the priesthood to all worthy males.