On 21 July 2004, Elder Neal A. Maxwell, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, passed away after an eight-year battle with leukemia. At the time of his death, he was with his family at his home in Salt Lake City. Elder Maxwell was 78 years old and had served as a General Authority for more than 30 years. He served as an Assistant to the Twelve, a member of the Presidency of the First Quorum of Seventy, and as an Apostle.
Born on 6 July 1926 in Salt Lake City, Utah, Neal Ash Maxwell was the oldest of six children. He grew up in a loving family with five uncles determined to make their first nephew into an all-state basketball player. Hoping to play on the famous Granite High School team, Neal worked very hard practicing his basketball skills. Unfortunately, he stopped growing at a critical time and would not reach his adult height until after high school. As he described later, not making the team was his “first real disappointment in life.” 1
In his teen years, Neal also suffered from severe acne and was teased because he raised pigs, a project he had participated in since a young boy. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, also of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, said the compassion evident in Elder Maxwell’s speaking and writing was developed in his teenage years. “What scarred the skin,” Elder Holland said, “seems to have softened the heart.” 2
After graduating from high school towards the end of World War II, Neal joined the army. He had a life-changing experience while in a fierce battle on Okinawa, Japan. During a battle, Neal’s mortar position was under fire. Three shells in a row had exploded, each closer to his foxhole than the previous one. He realized the enemy had determined his position. The next shell would land on top of him. He prayed “one of those selfish, honest prayers,” 3 asking for protection from the next bomb. In his pocket he carried a copy of his patriarchal blessing that said his life would not be shortened and that he would not be deprived of fulfilling every assignment that was given to him in the premortal existence.
The shelling stopped. He later wrote: “I am sure the Lord answered my prayers. … The following night they began to pour shells in, but almost all of them were duds—either the ammunition had gotten wet or they were not exploding in the very thick, oozing mud. … I felt preserved, and unworthily so, but have tried to be somewhat faithful to that promise that was given at the time.” 4
After fulfilling his enlistment in the army, Elder Neal Maxwell was called to a full-time mission in the Canadian Mission, with headquarters in Toronto. After serving successfully, he returned to attend college and prepared to enter a career as an educator. He married Colleen Hinckley, and their family grew to include four children (Cory, Becky, Nancy, and Jane) and 24 grandchildren.
He was executive vice president at the University of Utah at the time of his appointment as the commissioner of education for the Church Educational System in 1970. He held that position for six years. He was called as an Assistant to the Twelve in 1974. In 1976 he was called to the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy, and in July 1981, he was called to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Known for his extensive vocabulary and elegant writing style, Elder Maxwell has always presented a challenge to translators. During one general conference, the translators had categorized each talk in levels of difficulty. All of the talks fit in levels one through four except Elder Maxwell’s. His talk was alone at level five. 5
President Gordon B. Hinckley said Elder Maxwell spoke “differently from any of the other General Authorities. He just has a unique style all his own. We all admire it.” 6
Towards the end of his life and while struggling with leukemia, Elder Maxwell had a sacred experience that he could only compare with what happened half a century before on Okinawa. The Spirit whispered, “I have given you leukemia that you might teach my people with authenticity.” 7
Elder Maxwell will be remembered for his stirring words as he acted as a special witness for Christ.