It was overcast and threatening rain—typical northwest England fare. But for President Gordon B. Hinckley, Sunday, 12 June 1994, was glorious. I observed his enthusiasm firsthand, having accompanied him to Preston, where he had served as a missionary 61 years earlier and where he had returned to preside at the ground breaking of the Preston England Temple.
His emotions were tender as he greeted Gertrude Corless, who had lived in Preston when he served his mission. When he learned that a brother with whom he had tracted was in the audience, he immediately picked his way through the crowd of more than 10,000, searching faces as he walked. When he spotted Robert Pickles, now confined to a wheelchair, tears began to flow. And as he bent down to embrace him, and then stood holding his hand as they talked, it was obvious that years of separation hadn’t diminished the feelings for his old friend.
To spend any time at all with President Hinckley is to find that his emotions run deep and are easily tapped. If he were to write about himself, he would no doubt describe the people and places dear to him and the experiences that have moved him. There would be very little about what or how much he has done.
He would almost certainly recall a defining experience from his missionary days. Young Elder Hinckley had dealt with poor health and intense opposition when he arrived in Preston. He wrote his father that he was wasting both time and money. A short letter came by return mail: “Dear Gordon, I have your recent letter. I have only one suggestion: forget yourself and go to work.” Says President Hinckley: “With my father’s letter in hand, I … got on my knees and made a pledge with the Lord. I covenanted that I would try to forget myself and lose myself in His service.
“That July day in 1933 was my day of decision. A new light came into my life and a new joy into my heart. The fog of England seemed to lift.”1
As a boy, Gordon Hinckley and his family spent summers on the family fruit farm. There, in the dark country nights, he and his brother often slept outside, where they would locate first the Big Dipper and then the North Star. In time, Gordon learned what mariners had known for centuries—that regardless of the earth’s rotation, the North Star held its position—and this unique constellation came to have special significance to him. “It was something that could always be counted on, … an anchor in what otherwise appeared to be a moving and unstable firmament.”2
How significant that such an object would catch Gordon B. Hinckley’s fancy and that as a young man he would learn about losing himself in the Lord’s work! And how telling that old friends from England could arouse such emotion! For in these qualities—his vision, dedication, and sensitivity to others—is the essence of the man.
President Gordon B. Hinckley is known widely as a great leader who has shouldered heavy responsibility with masterful results. But this is just one facet of a man who is moved to tears easily yet is also quick to laugh, who loves life and believes opportunities are limitless for those who dream big and work hard, whose sense of humor is infectious, and who epitomizes optimism, even in the midst of dark clouds. “Things will work out” is a familiar reassurance.
Those who know President Hinckley marvel that there is always more to discover about him, for he has what seems to be an endless supply of talent and capacity. Both the depth and breadth of his knowledge and experience are impressive. Yet he has described himself as a shy, freckle-faced boy who has never felt adequate to the tremendous callings that have come to him.
In his first general conference talk, he revealed a charming self-deprecation that won friends immediately: “I am reminded of a statement made by my first missionary companion when I received a letter of transfer to the European Mission office. After I had read it, I turned it over to him. He read it, and then said: ‘Well, you must have helped an old lady across the street in the pre-existence. This has not come because of anything you’ve done here.’”3 Despite his high profile as a Church leader for nearly four decades, President Hinckley thinks of himself as an ordinary man who has been given extraordinary opportunities. After 13 years in the First Presidency, he still refers to himself as “Brother Hinckley.”
Nonetheless, President Hinckley himself has said that “the most persuasive gospel tract is the exemplary life of a faithful Latter-day Saint.”4 Though he certainly did not have himself in mind, his is a fascinating story worthy of telling.
Gordon Bitner Hinckley was born 23 June 1910 to Bryant S. and Ada Bitner Hinckley. In the early thirties, with the Great Depression at its zenith, he graduated from the University of Utah and planned to study journalism at Columbia University when an unexpected mission call arrived. He soon left for England. Prior to Gordon’s returning home, his mission president, Elder Joseph F. Merrill of the Council of the Twelve, asked him to report personally, after his return, to President Heber J. Grant on the problems of missionary literature. Before long, he was working for the Church as producer and secretary for the Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee. This was the beginning of the Church’s public relations work. For two decades he pioneered the use of media in the Church and wrote scores of gospel tracts.
On 29 April 1937 Gordon married the vivacious Marjorie Pay, whom he had known for years. In time they had five children—Kathleen (Barnes), Richard Gordon, Virginia (Pearce), Clark Bryant, and Jane (Dudley).
President Hinckley was serving as a stake president when he was called as an Assistant to the Twelve on 6 April 1958. His call to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles came on 5 October 1961. He served as a Counselor to President Spencer W. Kimball from 23 July 1981 until 10 November 1985 and to President Ezra Taft Benson until 30 May 1994; and he is now President Howard W. Hunter’s First Counselor. Second to President Hunter in apostolic seniority, he is also President of the Quorum of the Twelve. President Hinckley, who has worked with eight Church Presidents, is now the longest serving of any living General Authority. When he was called to the Twelve, the Church had 1,800,000 members and 345 stakes, compared with nearly 9,000,000 members and almost 2,000 stakes today.
Those who work with President Hinckley regard him as a man of vision. He deeply considers matters such as simplifying the programs of the Church and increasing the faith of its members. Indeed, he has spent much of his life helping others catch a vision of the Lord’s work. “Survey large fields and cultivate small ones,” he has counseled—an invitation that describes his approach of seeing the big picture and then fulfilling his own stewardship. “I invite you,” he has said, in a typical declaration, “to look beyond the narrow boundaries of your own wards and rise to the larger vision of this, the work of God. We have a challenge to meet, a work to do beyond the comprehension of any of us. … No body of people on the face of the earth has received a stronger mandate from the God of heaven than have we of this Church.”5 This recurring theme is woven into nearly every sermon he has given.
President Hinckley’s propensity for looking at the big picture extends to many arenas. Shortly after he married, he tackled the formidable task of building a small home, designing it to be added upon as the family grew. Son Clark says, “Dad always had a plan for the future. In the house he built, he left areas for doors within walls, under the theory that as he remodeled and expanded, the doors would be needed as part of the plan.” Eldest son Dick adds, “It seems our home was always a year or two behind the family growth, and Mother constantly had to deal with some unfinished aspect of home or yard. When they moved into a condominium years later, Mother said, ‘At last, brick walls that Dad cannot knock out or change!’”
The ability to see beyond the here-and-now was not lost on his family. President Hinckley always wanted his children to get an education, marry in the temple, and see the world and meet its people. Even today, says daughter Kathy, “we all love to travel and meet new people. It’s in our blood. From Dad we got the sense that nothing was too big to tackle, no distance too far to go.” Virginia adds, “Dad had confidence that we were capable of meeting any challenge.”
President Hinckley himself is not intimidated by a difficult task. As newlyweds, the Hinckleys moved into the Hinckley farmhouse—a summer home with no furnace. Kathy says, “Dad approached this problem the way we would see him solve many others—head-on. He ordered a furnace and began reading the installation instructions. The furnace worked perfectly. He’s wanted us to take on challenges using the same approach—decide on what you want, follow the instructions carefully, and work at it.”
“Dad could fix anything,” Dick says, “whether it was the gearbox of the washing machine or a lawn mower or the family car. Such resourcefulness, coupled with an unusual degree of pragmatism and good sense, has paid great dividends in Dad’s life. I imagine there have been many challenges over the years which may have seemed impossible to less imaginative men, but for which he has found unique solutions.”
His colleagues say President Hinckley’s instincts are nothing short of phenomenal, that he has a sixth sense about how to proceed through issues loaded with religious, social, or political complexities. In helping direct the affairs of the Church, he displays keen insight.
There have come into his life personal attacks from critics of the Church, yet he has handled each situation with quiet dignity. And in dealing with other challenges, he has demonstrated an intriguing combination of deference and strength.
President Hinckley has repeatedly reassured Church members that the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve hold the keys necessary to govern the Church and that the Lord controls the infallible system of prophetic succession:
“Let it be understood by all that Jesus Christ stands at the head of this church which bears His sacred name. He is watching over it. … His is the prerogative, the power, the option to call men in His way to high and sacred offices and to release them according to His will by calling them home. … I do not worry about the circumstances in which we find ourselves. I accept these circumstances as an expression of His will. … I assure each of you and the entire world that there is unity and brotherhood with total and united fidelity to one undergirding objective, and that is to build the kingdom of God in the earth.”6
Regardless of his topic, President Hinckley speaks plainly but with compassion. He comes to tears easily when considering those who have strayed or are suffering, or when relating stories of faithful Saints, past and present. Fostered by a belief that the past is a model for the present, his sermons and writings are rich with incidents from Church history, his knowledge vast about the people and events of this dispensation: “The comforts we have, the peace we have, and, most important, the faith and knowledge of the things of God that we have, were bought with a terrible price by those who have gone before us,” he has said. 7
President Hinckley himself has a rich pioneer ancestry. In 1867, Brigham Young called his grandfather, Ira Nathaniel Hinckley, to build a fort at Cove Creek to protect travelers from the elements and the Indians. (In May of this year, President Hinckley dedicated the restored fort.) Sister Hinckley’s paternal grandmother, Mary Goble, was just 13 when she immigrated to Utah from England. Mary’s mother, brother, and sister died during their trip across the plains, and she lost her toes to frostbite. President Hinckley has often cited Mary Goble’s difficult journey as a symbol of faith. In one letter to a daughter, Sister Hinckley wrote: “I am sitting in the Valley Music Hall, where Dad is the featured speaker at the regional fireside commemorating the handcart company. I can feel the Mary Goble story coming up fast.”
There is nothing pretentious about President Hinckley, who mingles with heads of state or members of the Church with equal ease and interest. I was with him when he met King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia of Spain and presented the Spanish monarchy with a beautiful leather-bound copy of the Book of Mormon. He spoke to them about the book with the same fervor that he had spoken to the missionaries.
On a stopover in Rome, President Hinckley gave Father Leonard Boyle, Prefect of the Vatican Library, a copy of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. The two men greeted each other like longtime friends. Father Boyle was impressed with President Hinckley’s knowledge of books and the techniques used to deter their aging. At the end of the meeting, the prefect observed in his thick Irish brogue, “President Hinckley is truly a very remarkable man.”
While inspecting the extensive remodeling of the Swiss Temple, President Hinckley insisted on meeting with members he had met in 1955 when he assisted with the original dedication. These friends were overjoyed to find that President Hinckley had not forgotten them.
A tireless worker, for many years President Hinckley devoted his few hobby-related hours to remodeling his home and improving the yard. When things were stressful at the office, he relaxed by putting on work clothes and hammering away at the latest home improvement project. On Thanksgiving Day, he dug the footings for the home he was building. He always thought holidays were for working.
President Hinckley still keeps an exhausting pace. At temple dedications he speaks at each session and rarely gives the same talk twice. In a letter to her children, Sister Hinckley wrote: “This sounds repetitious, but I have never known Dad to be so busy. He is trying to keep so many balls in the air [that] … it is frustrating for him. … At a time when most men retire he seems to be stretching himself further and further. I told him two nights ago that the sink drain is plugged, but he has not even made reference to the problem as yet.”
Through it all, President Hinckley’s sense of humor has sustained him. Humor is a Hinckley trademark. Virginia says the real entertainment in her father’s jokes is watching him tell them: “He laughs so hard as he approaches the punch line that he can hardly speak.”
President Hinckley’s sense of humor gives him a light touch in many settings. For example, while chairing a budget session held early one afternoon in which Church Educational System managers were presenting their budget needs for the coming year, feelings became intense. Another General Authority turned to President Hinckley and asked, “What do you think?” President Hinckley, who had been listening with his chin resting on the palms of his hands, replied: “I think I am never again going to have stuffed pork chops for lunch.” Everyone laughed, and the tension was diffused.
When inspecting building projects, President Hinckley often refers to “Hinckley’s Law”: “It will cost more and take longer than they said it would.”
President Hinckley has enjoyed marvelous support from his family, none of whom take themselves too seriously—a trait fostered by both father and mother, who have stayed remarkably unaffected by years in the spotlight. Sister Hinckley has filled long absences away from children and grandchildren with letters postmarked from around the world. Virginia says, “The way we came to appreciate Dad’s callings was through Mother, because she made it a shared experience and told us every detail. When they went to the Seoul Korea Temple dedication and told us about the beautiful women in their Korean dresses who lined the halls as they came out of the dedication, we could picture what they’d seen. Dad, on the other hand, said, ‘Dresses? What dresses?’”
Yet while letters filled some gaps, Sister Hinckley longed to share more with their family. When President Hinckley asked her how she would like to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, she responded immediately, “I would like to walk the streets of Hong Kong with my children.” The request seemed far-fetched, but their children determined to save the money such a trip would require. Says Kathy, “I had heard Mother describe the streets of Hong Kong in such detail that when I stepped out into them I felt like I had come home. To finally be in Hong Kong was like stepping into Mother and Dad’s other world.”
Virginia says, “Because we were so certain about what Mother and Dad stood for, none of us had to worry about impressing others or appearing to be more than we are. That is just not Dad’s style. He refuses to take himself too seriously on things that don’t matter—simply because he is so sure of the things that do matter.”
And what matters is the gospel. Though home evening and family prayer were a regular part of the Hinckley routine, none of the siblings remember many heavy gospel discussions. Values and beliefs were communicated another way. “Dad was not a dictatorial father,” says Jane, “but you always knew where he stood.”
Dick describes his father’s influence during his growing-up years: “I don’t recall discussing many of my concerns with Dad, but in my heart I knew he knew the gospel was true, and that was terribly important to me. He was like an anchor. Not because he talked overtly about his feelings, but I simply sensed that he knew. God was real and personal to him. And when he prayed, I learned about the depth of his faith. He prayed for us, for those who were ‘downtrodden and oppressed’ and ‘alone and afraid.’ One phrase he used often was ‘We pray that we may live without regret.’”
Kathy adds, “There was great comfort growing up in a home where life was stable. We knew that circumstances could change, but that Dad’s values and commitments never would. We felt secure and cared for, which created an environment in which we were free to live, grow, develop, and become—because the basics were solidly in place.”
Likewise, President Hinckley has helped provide a sense of stability for the Church at large, leading out confidently when called upon to do so. He is both strong and compassionate and feels deeply about strengthening one another and lending comfort to the weary. He has often cited Brigham Young’s plea to the Saints, made when he learned that two companies of handcarts were in jeopardy from winter snows on the prairie, to “go and bring in those people now on the plains.”
Perhaps this account resonates within President Hinckley because he has devoted his life to bringing in those languishing on the plains of discouragement, despair, and sin. “I know that all about us there are many who are in need of help and who are deserving of rescue. Our mission in life, as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, must be a mission of saving. … We can do more to help those who live on the edge of survival.”8
President Hinckley took his father’s counsel, given 61 years ago, to heart; he forgot himself and went to work. With that commitment firmly in place, he has become as the North Star—an anchor and source of stability to all who have fallen within his influence. And he has blessed those who have had the good fortune to know him with wit, warmth, and an example worthy of emulation. As a wise man once said, the most persuasive gospel tract is a Latter-day Saint life well lived.
Such is the life of President Gordon B. Hinckley.