In the 1985 Priesthood Session of General Conference, Elder Marvin J. Ashton gave a talk called “Spencer W. Kimball: A True Disciple of Christ.”
We Latter-Day Saints are often criticized for hero worship; we revere leaders of the past and we even sing hymns and primary songs about prophets in the present. In recent years, we have rightfully engaged in introspection regarding these tendencies and their unhealthy extremes. As more mature historiography has brought to light a litany of personal failings and shortcomings among church leaders and other prophetic figures of the past, many have found the gap between their previous cherished perceptions and their new uncomfortable awareness to be an insurmountable challenge to faith.
Some of the most vocal critics of the church have engaged in constant accusation and even asserted that in the governing councils of the church, there is a conspiratorial consensus that the whole of church history and all of our claims to authority are an elaborate fraud.
In this, I suggest that our critics have done us an enormous favor. We can point to numerous examples of revelation among church leaders past and present, but critics will always find ways to dispute that witness testimony. A much taller order for the skeptic, though, is the question of whether church leadership are good. That question is a core element of scriptural tests for the authenticity of prophetic callings. In Matthew 7:16, the Savior says of prophets that “You shall know them by their fruits…”. What are the fruits of living the restored gospel and applying oneself to consecrated service in the church for 50 years or more? What kind of person emerges from those life commitments? These questions are not hard to answer. And if it can be demonstrated definitively that church leaders are good, while critics insist that they are bad people, then what does that indicate about the methodologies and motivations of critics?
Elder Ashton’s April 1985 portrait of Spencer W. Kimball sheds light on this question, and in my response here, I’ll provide additional material to supplement Elder Ashton’s talk.
Elder Ashton begins his talk with stories of President Kimball’s humility and graciousness, which were extraordinary. He then moves into the story of President Kimball’s visit to the Utah State Prison, which has been deeply impactful to me as I have read it numerous times over the years. I’ll quote it here in full:
One day a few years ago President Kimball said, “Marvin, I’d like you to take me to visit the Utah State Prison.” He remembered that when I was in charge of the Social Services programs for the Church I had had the responsibility for prisoners.
I said, “President Kimball, I don’t want you to go to the prison. I am afraid for your safety. There are some men confined there who would do anything to attract attention by embarrassing, injuring, or insulting you. I just don’t want you to go.”
That was once when I felt I couldn’t grant his request. He took my advice, and we didn’t go.
However, about two months later, D. Arthur Haycock, President Kimball’s personal secretary, phoned me and said, “Elder Ashton, President Kimball wants you to go to the Utah State Prison with him.” The next day we went. My delaying tactic had lasted only a few weeks.
I called Warden Morris and said, “May we come and visit you? We do not want anyone to know of our visit. Could we just meet in your office and not go through the minimum, medium, or maximum security places? Perhaps you could invite two inmates with whom President Kimball could visit in your office. Later we could look around the grounds and talk with others.” He agreeably made the arrangements.
We traveled to the institution, where about a thousand people are incarcerated. Soon into the warden’s office came two prisoners. I was impressed with how hard the convicts looked—how mean, how sullen. After they were introduced and sat down, I broke the silence by saying to President Kimball, “Would you like to say a few words to these two men?”
He said, “Yes.”
They both looked steadily down at the floor. President Kimball waited, and finally when one raised his head up a little, President Kimball looked directly into his eyes.
Let me just pause for a minute and set the stage. One prisoner had been convicted for murder and the other for manslaughter. Here is a prophet. Here were two hardened criminals. What do you say? What do you do? Do you say, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves? What a waste for you to be in such a place as this”? Those are things that might cross your mind and mine.
As I mentioned, as President Kimball caught the eye of one of them, he looked at him with a penetrating stare and said, “Tell me about your mother.”
This inmate looked up and told him about his mother. Tears came to his eyes as he talked in detail about his mother.
When that was over, President Kimball looked at the other one, who was now paying strict attention. He said, “Young man, tell me what your father does for a living.”
The prisoner said, “I do not know where my father is. I never hear from him.” And he went on and on talking openly about his family.
I won’t tell you the details, but what a lesson in counseling, interviewing, and kindness was being taught by this great prophet. I learned more about interviewing in those fifteen minutes than in any similar period in my life. No condemnation. No judging. Only displaying a real interest in the person and his circumstances.
Before our interview was over, somehow the press found out that President Kimball was there. They were at the door and wanted to get into the warden’s office for an interview and a picture. I remember one of the inmates said, “Mr. Kimball, could I have my picture taken with you?”
President Kimball responded with “Why don’t I stand between the two of you, and we will take all three of us at once.”
I did not feel very comfortable with President Kimball standing between those two men in this setting. I had the responsibility for his safety. I had tried to talk him out of it. But he is a disciple of Christ and holds on to the words of God: “I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: … Naked, and ye clothed me: … I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” (Matt. 25:35–36.)
After the pictures were taken, President Kimball looked at one prisoner and then at the other and said, “Thank you for letting me have my picture taken with you.” Is there any doubt we love him? He loves everyone. He teaches us the real meaning of Matthew 22:37–40:
“Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
“This is the first and great commandment.
“And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
“On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” [Matt. 22:37–40]
Let this sink in: a president of the church insisted, against the objections of his advisors, that he needed to visit a prison. While there, he spent time with two hardened convicts in an interview that brought them to tears, then afterward thanked them for the opportunity to take a picture together.
Who does that???
Spencer W. Kimball.
I also loved this insight into President Kimball’s meetings with the Q15, more relevant now in our modern contentious world than ever before:
Each week after the Twelve and First Presidency have met in the temple to take care of current business, we take turns reporting where we have been and what has been accomplished in the way of stake divisions or reorganizations, or missions visited, regional conferences attended, and so on. One week I remember among the Twelve we had been almost everywhere around the globe. President Kimball listened to all of us and then gave his report: “I spent Saturday and Sunday visiting the sick and the homebound.” The rest of us who thought we had had a busy and productive weekend realized that a man of God had again taught us a lesson.
Has our prophet taught us anything through his prayers? Very often the Twelve and the First Presidency pray together. When President Kimball takes his turn to be voice, he generally includes this phrase in his prayers: “Bless our enemies. Help us to understand them, and them to understand us.” He doesn’t ask for vengeance or retaliation, just for understanding so differences can be resolved. Perhaps family differences and neighborhood problems could be resolved if we would follow our prophet’s example and pray for patience and forgiveness.
Elder Ashton follows with a final few glimpses into the soul of President Kimball:
Have we learned the power and the need of unconditional love? He even shows love to his enemies and many become friends. He has no time for envy, hate, ridicule, or evil speaking. Do we?
Two or three weeks ago this great teacher gave me motivation to try even harder to follow his example. Each Thursday morning after the Twelve have met for two hours, we are joined by the First Presidency to take care of our joint business. When President Kimball comes into the room on the fourth floor of the temple, one by one we go by and shake his hand.
President Kimball, now worn from long years of service, has a difficult time seeing, hearing, and speaking, so when it was my turn, I said, “President Kimball, I am Marvin Ashton.” He took my hand, paused, and then finally said softly, “Marv Ashton, I love you.” That is all he said to me. What else do I need?
Elder Ashton’s talk demonstrates that while yes, we sometimes do have an unhealthy tendency toward hero-worship, it is also true that there is an amazing amount of value in knowing that living the restored gospel and serving in the church produce beautiful souls who are profoundly humble and compassionate.
What follows is a collection of excerpts from various sources; consider it a long addendum to Elder Ashton’s wonderful April 1985 Conference talk.
From Jeffrey R. Holland, The Inconvenient Messiah (quoting from the biography Spencer W. Kimball):
Do you recognize this struggle? The date is July 14, 1943:
“No peace had yet come, though I had prayed for it almost unceasingly. … I turned toward the hills. I had no objective. I wanted only to be alone. I had begun a fast. … “My weakness overcame me again. Hot tears came flooding down my cheeks as I made no effort to mop them up. I was accusing myself, and condemning myself and upbraiding myself. I was praying aloud for special blessings from the Lord. I was telling Him that I had not asked for this position, that I was incapable of doing the work, that I was imperfect and weak and human, that I was unworthy of so noble a calling, though I had tried hard and my heart had been right. I knew that I must have been at least partly responsible for offenses and misunderstandings which a few people fancied they had suffered at my hands. I realized that I had been petty and small many times. I did not spare myself. A thousand things passed through my mind. Was I called by revelation?…
“If I could only have the assurance that my call had been inspired most of my other worries would be dissipated. … I knew that I must have His acceptance before I could go on. I stumbled up the hill and onto the mountain, as the way became rough. I faltered some as the way became steep. No paths were there to follow; I climbed on and on. Never had I prayed before as I now prayed. What I wanted and felt I must have was an assurance that I was acceptable to the Lord. I told Him that I neither wanted nor was worthy of a vision or appearance of angels or any special manifestation. I wanted only the calm peaceful assurance that my offering was accepted. Never before had I been tortured as I was now being tortured. And the assurance did not come…
“I mentally beat myself and chastised myself and accused myself. As the sun came up and moved in the sky I moved with it, lying in the sun, and still I received no relief. I sat up on the cliff and strange thoughts came to me: all this anguish and suffering could be ended so easily from this high cliff and then came to my mind the temptations of the Master when he was tempted to cast Himself down—then I was ashamed for having placed myself in a comparable position and trying to be dramatic. … I was filled with remorse because I had permitted myself to place myself … in a position comparable, in a small degree, to the position the Saviour found Himself in when He was tempted, and … I felt I had cheapened the experiences of the Lord, having compared mine with His. Again I challenged myself and told myself that I was only trying to be dramatic and sorry for myself.
“… I lay on the cool earth. The thought came that I might take cold, but what did it matter now. There was one great desire, to get a testimony of my calling, to know that it was not human and inspired by ulterior motives, kindly as they might be.
How I prayed! how I suffered! How I wept! How I struggled!”
From Vaughn J. Featherstone, Charity Never Faileth:
Some time ago I had the privilege of attending a stake conference in the company of President Spencer W. Kimball, before he became president of the church. Elder Kimball worked tirelessly holding one meeting after another until late Saturday night. On Sunday we held a meeting with bishoprics and high councilors at eight a.m. This was followed by the general session, a meeting with the seventies quorum, an interview with the patriarch, and the dedication of a chapel, with a talk to seminary students in the evening. We went to the stake president’s home about nine o’clock to wait for our plane, which did not leave until nearly eleven. The stake president’s wife wanted to fix us dinner, but Elder Kimball said,
“Please, all I need is a bowl of milk and some of your homemade bread to break up in it.”
A few years ago while on a stake conference assignment I visited and spoke to Latter-Day Saints in the military service at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. There I met Chaplain John Cooper, who told me that his father had been a stake president in Logan, Utah, for something like fourteen years. During those years the father had kept a guest book, and after he passed away, that book was given to his son. Chaplain Cooper asked me to sign it.
I did so, and and then I thumbed through the pages. There were the signatures of the Brethren from the days when two of them would travel to each stake quarterly conference, then when one visited each conference, and then when one visited every other conference. Most of the General Authorities had signed the book. As I went through it, I saw President Spencer W. Kimball’s name.
Name: Spencer W. Kimball.
Position or Title: Apostle.
Hobby: I love people.
I thumbed through many more pages and then I saw President Kimball’s name again.
Name: Spencer W. Kimball.
Hobby: I love people.
From Barbara Morgan Gardner, The Priesthood Power of Women
My parents met at Brigham Young University. My mother had been an active member of the Church all her life, although by the time she reached adulthood, her mother had become inactive. My dad was raised in an inactive home. His mother died by suicide when he was a young teenager. Due to the circumstances of his youth, he determined at a young age that he would raise his family differently from how he was raised. My dad basically raised himself as an active member, thanks in great part to the support of wonderful friends and Church leaders. He served a mission for the Lord in the Eastern States, and, to make a long story short, after he returned from his mission, my parents eloped to the Salt Lake Temple, where they were sealed. None of their parents attended. After their marriage, my parents continued their education at BYU. My mom graduated in elementary education and used her degree to teach school while helping my dad get through school. (She would continue to use her degree throughout the rest of her life, especially in the raising of her children.)
While still in school, my mom gave birth to their oldest daughter. Four miscarriages followed, and the doctors put my mom on bed rest, as she had become quite weak with these pregnancies. The doctors tried to convince my parents to not have more children, and even to abort their current unborn baby, but they both felt strongly that they wanted and were inspired to have more children. Now, with my mom pregnant for the sixth time but extremely weak, my parents decided that it would be best for my dad to drop out of school and my mom to leave work for a while so they could move to Michigan, where my mother could receive help from her family. Not having enough money for all of them to fly, and aware of the danger a long drive would impose on my mom and the baby, my parents sold everything they had: musical instruments, car, clothes, and so on, to get my mom on that airplane with my sister. In fact, my dad had thirty-five cents extra in his pocket that he gave to my mom in case she needed it.
Knowing that money would be tight for him, and his drive longer than her flight, she snuck the money back into his coat pocket, just in case. The plan was for my dad, in his junker car, to drop my mom and sister off at the airport and then drive all day and night and meet them in Michigan. All went as planned until the pilot announced that, due to weather, the plane would have to make an emergency landing in Chicago. Having been instructed by the doctor that she couldn’t hold anything heavier than a loaf of bread, and having no money, no extra change of clothes for her or her daughter, no extra food, and no extra diapers, my mom got off the airplane with my sister. Hours went by, and there was no indication of when they would be leaving. My mom was exhausted and concerned. Finding no available seat, she eventually slumped down against a wall with my sister cradled in her lap.
In this position, she prayed and pled for help, hoping not to lose this baby and wanting to relieve the burdens of her young daughter. Within moments, a kind, elderly man came and knelt by them on the floor, assessed the situation, and began offering help. He immediately picked up my soaking wet and sobbing toddler sister and wrapped her in his arms. Carrying my sister, the gentleman went to the desk and, with some type of persuasion, got my mom and sister on the next flight to Michigan. Although my mom did not recognize the man, she later reflected that she should have been more embarrassed for their circumstances, as my sister soaked his suit with her dripping wet diaper and she herself was in a horrible state. But, in the moment, she was overwhelmed with gratitude for the kindness of this elderly gentleman.
Months later, after giving birth to a healthy boy, my parents were at a fireside being broadcast from Salt Lake City. When President Spencer W. Kimball began speaking, my mom immediately recognized him as the man in the airport. She immediately wrote him a letter, thanking him for his service. He responded that he would never forget that day in the airport and thanked her for her service as a wife and mother. My mom was cautious in speaking of this story, never wanting to bring undue attention to herself, always stating that it was President Kimball’s story. In many ways it is. But for me, it’s also a story of how the Lord uses His priesthood to bless His righteous disciples: President Kimball as a priesthood key holder, and my mom and dad, both endowed with priesthood power and authority for their own family. President Kimball, as an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, held all the keys of the kingdom of God on the earth in this dispensation. Because of this priesthood authority, he literally could act in the name of God in all things. Because of his righteousness, he was blessed with incredible priesthood power. My mother has mentioned on a number of occasions that, during the time President Kimball was helping her, she literally felt as if he were blessing her—healing her, in a sense. In fact, after this experience with President Kimball, my parents were blessed to have ten more naturally born children, adopted another, and also raised my dad’s nephew, whom I know only as my brother. Their ability to rear thirteen children was clearly a miracle and defied all the odds previously pronounced by the doctors.
From Edward Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride:
A young man attending BYU–Hawaii fought off any suggestions he go on a mission and let his hair grow to express his rebellious feelings. He tucked his long hair into a cap when he went to class. He felt unloved. One day President Kimball was on campus to speak to the students. Later, the young man sat on a bench by the temple, musing. He saw a cluster of people gathering around the temple entrance, and President Kimball emerged. The first thought that came was anxiety that President Kimball would discern his rebellious spirit and chastise him for having long hair in violation of school rules. As the prophet came nearer, he left the group and walked directly to the youth, who later recalled, “A feeling of shame engulfed my soul and I wanted to run. When he reached me, he threw his arms around my neck, kissed my cheek, and whispered, ‘I love you.’ I could not dispute it—he loved me. I actually felt it. I cried. I couldn’t control myself. I went behind the temple and continued to sob as his pure love melted away my anger and bitterness.”
When Thomas E. Brown, a stake president and Church employee, had occasion to confer with the President, Spencer would have him sit beside him. During their conversation, Spencer would hold his hand and tell him how much he loved him. Brother Brown remembered with deep emotion: “I would have climbed any mountain, swum any sea, crossed any desert for him. I believe he was the first man to ever say that he loved me; I never remember my father telling me that.”
As they both sat on the stand in their home ward sacrament meeting, Spencer took Neal Maxwell by the hand and whispered, “Do you know that I love you with all my heart?” The next week Spencer renewed the sentiment: “Do you remember what I said to you last week?”
Spencer’s charity extended to everyone but himself. He frequently chastised himself for being “weak,” “limited,” “incapable,” and “insignificant”—though he was the only one who thought so. His concern may have stemmed from worry that his inadequacies would reflect badly on the Church. In that vein Elder Packer commented, “If he’s ever uncomfortable, it’s around people that might be termed ‘prominent.’”
In June 1978, Janet Brigham, the Ensign’s news editor, went to Nauvoo to report the dedication of the Relief Society Monument to Women. From a distance she observed President Kimball was always surrounded by an entourage and people crowding in to shake his hand and talk to him. She hung back, collecting quotations and fighting off mosquitoes, feeling puzzled by a powerful desire to tell President Kimball that she loved him, particularly because of the recent revelation on priesthood. She thought of writing a letter but doubted it would get past his secretary. She felt so strongly about this impulse to speak to him that she even prayed about it.
The next morning right after one of the public meetings, she received instructions to take the Ensign photographer and hurry to Joseph Smith’s red-brick store, where President Kimball was going. But at that moment the photographer was in a plane taking aerial shots of Nauvoo, so she decided to use her own camera and do the best she could.
As she drove up across from the store, she saw a cluster of dignitaries around the President and dreaded being in yet another situation where important people would treat her as invisible. But as she started to cross the street, Spencer looked in her direction, broke away from the group, and walked over to greet her. She introduced herself and said, “You know, President Kimball, there’s something I’ve wanted to tell you.” She saw a slight look of apprehension on his face, as if he had heard more advice than he wanted, but he nodded politely and asked what that might be. She said, “I’ve wanted to tell you I love you.” She then explained how deeply touched she had been by the announcement of the priesthood revelation. “Somehow I felt it was important for you to know that.” A tear came to his eye, and he held her hand for a long time, saying, “Thank you” and expressing appreciation for the love of Church members. She felt that just as his humility enabled him to be the messenger for the revelation, so his humility allowed him to receive the love of the Saints. Although she had been much in evidence as a reporter, of all the dignitaries only he spoke to her that day.
A young woman in Spencer and Camilla’s neighborhood was excommunicated after confessing serious misconduct. For a month, every night after their supper, Spencer and Camilla walked down the street to her house to visit and comfort, setting an example for their neighbors. Elder Boyd K. Packer mused, “A lot of people like things clean and comfortable. He’s always been willing to go out to where the people are and he . . . really relates to people, especially to the children.
Adan Gutierrez, a father who was very troubled about his rebellious son, dreamed that he was in the temple. President Kimball, dressed in white, hugged him and said three times, “Everything is going to be all right.” A few days later, his priesthood quorum asked for volunteers to work at the temple. Brother Gutierrez volunteered and had a strong impression that he should arrive early, though he did not know why. As he entered the temple, the temple president met him and asked, “How would you like to meet the prophet? Look behind you; there he is.” President Kimball put his arms around him as in the dream. No words were spoken, but Brother Gutierrez felt the words “Everything is going to be all right.” Shortly after that, the son accepted a mission call.
In July 1974 Spencer flew to Spokane to speak at the World’s Fair, “Expo ’74.” At a banquet sponsored by the Spokane Stake, the young women of one ward served as waitresses. Instructed to act professionally, they lined up along a far wall to wait until the guests were all seated. A receiving line of dignitaries had formed to meet President Kimball when he arrived. As he entered, the room quieted. He was ushered toward the receiving line but veered away toward the young women. A hand at his elbow redirected him until he said in his hoarse voice, “Excuse me, I have some important people I need to greet first.” He walked across the stake center floor to the young women waitresses and spoke to each one as the people in the receiving line waited, surprised.
Just before the last session of the [Bolivia] conference, as the General Authorities waited in a room behind the stage, President Kimball told them, “Before we leave tonight I would like to shake hands with and express my appreciation and love to all the Lamanite people here at the conference.” Thinking of the number in attendance, President Romney urged, “President, I don’t think that is very wise. When we announce this we will have a real problem with security. We will have a problem with discipline. People will be stumbling over each other in order to shake your hand. You are already tired and have been on the road all this time. You need your rest.”
President Kimball sat silently for a few moments, then, without responding to President Romney’s objections, simply repeated that he wanted to touch the people. His advisers repeated their advice. Again he was silent. They looked to Dr. Ernest Wilkinson for help. “Doctor, how do you feel about this? Do you think he is up to it?” The doctor said it was unwise, considering all the recent travel, the altitude, his fatigue at the end of a long day, and the security problem. Again President Kimball sat silent a moment, then repeated his wish.
The others, realizing finally that he had made up his mind, yielded. As President Kimball concluded the conference, he announced, “I want to shake the hand of every person here.” An audible gasp came from the crowd. After the prayer, pandemonium ensued. Many of the crowd could not believe he would shake everyone’s hand, and they wanted to reach him before he quit. But once they realized he was serious, they stayed in an orderly line. They came—humble people, the well and the crippled. Some smiled, some wept, many gave him an abrazo. Some got in line a second time. President Kimball freely poured out his time and energy to greet each one, despite the altitude, his fatigue, and his old heart. The other five General Authorities lined up with him while Dr. Wilkinson, Earl Jones, and Arthur Haycock stood by anxiously.
At one point, Dr. Wilkinson quietly approached and asked whether he could stop soon. Barely glancing at him, President Kimball said, “If you knew what I know, you wouldn’t ask me that question.” The only help he would accept was from Elder McConkie, who stationed himself just beyond the President. As soon as a member had shaken President Kimball’s hand, Elder McConkie would reach out, take the person’s hands, and pull him or her along with his own greeting, lest the person stop to talk to President Kimball and make his promise to greet everyone impossible.
Dr. Ernest L. Wilkinson Jr., Spencer’s personal physician during the 1970s, sensed the President’s dedication when, sitting next to him during the sacrament prayers, he heard Spencer say under his breath, “I do love thee. Oh, how I love thee.”