President Spencer W. Kimball: No Ordinary Man

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“President Spencer W. Kimball: No Ordinary Man,” Ensign, Mar. 1974, 3

President Spencer W. Kimball:

No Ordinary Man

President Kimball once said, “What mother, looking down with tenderness upon her chubby infant does not envision her child as the president of the Church or the leader of her nation! As he is nestled in her arms, she sees him a statesman, a leader, a prophet. Some dreams do come true! One mother gives us a Shakespeare, another a Michelangelo, and another an Abraham Lincoln, and still another a Joseph Smith.

“When theologians are reeling and stumbling, when lips are pretending and hearts are wandering, and people are ‘running to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord and cannot find it’—when clouds of error need dissipating and spiritual darkness needs penetrating and heavens need opening, a little infant is born.” (Conference address, April 4, 1960.)

And so came Spencer Woolley Kimball. The Lord had managed those humble beginnings. He was not just preparing a businessman, nor a civic leader, nor a speaker, nor a poet, nor a musician, nor a teacher—though he would be all of these. He was preparing a father, a patriarch for his family, an apostle and prophet, and a president for His church.

There were testings along the way. Examinations in courage and patience, that few would have passed. As a little lad he suffered a facial paralysis that yielded only to the administrations of the priesthood. On one occasion he nearly drowned but was revived.

When he was 11 years old, his mother who was expecting the 12th child was not doing well, and was taken by his father to Salt Lake City where better medical attention was available.

One day the word came to the little school that the Kimball children were wanted at home. Little Spencer came running from his classroom to meet his brothers and sisters in the hall. They all raced home, there to find Bishop Moody. He gathered them all into his arms and then with a voice full of love and anguish said, “Your mama has died.” (Later would come a loving stepmother.)

When he was 13, as a motherless boy, he contracted typhoid and for weeks lay at the point of death. Smallpox followed; and there were other trials and there was other suffering, some known to a few, and some known to none but him.

After his call to the Twelve he suffered a series of heart attacks. The doctors said that he must rest. He wanted to be with his beloved Indians. Brother Golden R. Buchanan took him to the camp of Brother and Sister Polacca, high in the pines of Arizona, and there he stayed during the weeks until his heart mended and his strength returned.

One morning he was missing from camp. When he did not return for breakfast, Brother Polacca and other Indian friends began to search. They found him several miles from camp, sitting beneath a large pine tree with his Bible open to the last chapter of the Gospel of John. In answer to their worried looks, he said, “Six years ago today I was called to be an Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ. And I just wanted to spend the day with Him whose witness I am.”

His heart problems recurred, but did not slow him down for long.

In 1957 throat problems developed, to be diagnosed as cancer of the throat and of the vocal cords. This, perhaps, was to be his Gethsemane.

He went East for the operation. Elder Harold B. Lee was there. As he was prepared for surgery he agonized over the ominous possibilities, telling the Lord that he did not see how he could live without a voice, for his voice to preach and to speak was his ministry.

“This is no ordinary man you’re operating on,” Elder Lee told the surgeon. From the blessings and the prayers, an operation a bit less radical than the doctor recommended was performed.

There was a long period of recuperation and preparation. The voice was all but gone, but a new one took its place. A quiet, persuasive, mellow voice, an acquired voice, an appealing voice, a voice that is loved by the Latter-day Saints.

In the intervening time he could work. During interviews he tapped out on the typewriter answers to questions and spent his time at the office.

Then came the test. Could he speak? Could he preach?

He went back home for his maiden speech. He went back to the valley. Anyone close to him knows it is not a valley, it is the valley. There, in a conference of the St. Joseph Stake, accompanied by his beloved associate from Arizona, Elder Delbert L. Stapley, he stood at the pulpit.

“I have come back here,” he said, “to be among my own people. In this valley I presided as stake president.” Perhaps he thought that should he fail, here he would be among those who loved him most and would understand.

There was a great outpouring of love. The tension of this dramatic moment was broken when he continued, “I must tell you what has happened to me. I went away to the East, and while there I fell among cutthroats. …” After that it didn’t matter what he said. Elder Kimball was back!

On another occasion while going to a conference in Arizona, his car slid off an icy dugway in the Kaibab Forest, rolled down the mountainside over large boulders, and landed on a wood road below. The wood road providentially provided immediate access. Sister Kimball was seriously injured and was taken to the hospital in Kanab. After seeing to her needs, and with her urging, Elder Kimball boarded a bus to attend the conference.

When throat problems reoccurred, he underwent treatment, almost between appointments in his office.

He had Bell’s palsy for several weeks with the drooping muscles in his face.

Two years ago his doctors advised heart surgery to correct the early damage to his heart. His associates remember the agony of his decision. What would the outcome be? The doctors shook their heads, for there were no statistics on 77-year-old men undergoing open heart surgery for such major repair.

But again, this was no ordinary man the doctors were operating on, and the surgeon sought a blessing under the hands of President Harold B. Lee. “A composite of two procedures at once made it one of the most risky and complex operations ever done,” said his surgeon.

There have been many more experiences, but these are representative of the obstacles and challenges he has overcome. In all of this there has been a remarkable patience and absence of complaint. He has kept his discouragement to himself and would not miss an appointment.

Those closely associated with him have seen that these problems have had some effect on his working habits, best characterized by a quote from one of the Twelve who said, “Yes, President Kimball isn’t himself. He’s cut down from 18 to 17 1/2 hours of work each day.”

Happily his surgeon recently reported, “In a complete assessment of your general physical status, all of our findings were indicative of superb structure and function of your body. No individual has ever been called to preside over the Church with such thorough medical preparation and examination prior to his ordination. … Your body is strong; your heart is better than it has been for years, and … by all our finite ability to predict, you may consider this new assignment without undue anxiety about your health.”

President Kimball himself is an experienced surgeon of sorts. Not a doctor of medicine, but a doctor of spiritual well-being. Many a moral cancer has been excised, many a blemish of character has been removed, many a spiritual illness of one kind or another has been cured through his efforts. Some on the verge of spiritual oblivion have been rescued by him. He has written a book—literally years in preparation—The Miracle of Forgiveness. Many have been protected by the counsel he has written. Countless others have been inspired to set their lives in order and have experienced that miracle.

There have been other trials too, greater far than those we have mentioned, too sacred to publish, but he has told his Brethren of the Twelve.

On two occasions, each time when he was on assignments to stake quarterly conference, and each time not related to problems incident to the conference, there was unleashed against him the very might of the adversary. He endured during those hours, not to be recorded here, something akin to what his grandfather had experienced when, as an Apostle of the Lord, he opened the work in England, something not unlike the Prophet Joseph experienced as he first knelt in the Grove.

These trials have made him humbly dependent upon the power of the Lord. To pray with Spencer W. Kimball is an experience!

All of the testing has not robbed him of his sense of humor. He is obviously a very happy man. When you travel with him there is many a chuckle. He makes those around him happy. His abundant humor is always in good taste.

On one occasion he was returning from Canada with one of his associates. The stewardess on the flight offered them all kinds of refreshments that are not proper for Latter-day Saints. After failing with coffee, tea, and alcoholic beverages, she asked, with some concern, “Isn’t there anything I could get for you?”

“I would like some lemonade, if you have some,” President Kimball replied.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “We don’t have any aboard.”

She turned to go down the aisle and then no doubt remembered that lemon slices are often served with alcoholic beverages. She had some lemons aboard, for she turned and said, “But perhaps I could squeeze you a little.”

Brother Kimball threw up his arms as a barrier and in an expression of mock concern replied, “Don’t you touch me!”

He is happy and positive and always reassuring to be around. His handshake is hearty and warm and sincere, and he is ever alert to reach out to those who otherwise might be overlooked or ignored. Those who meet him for the first time are impressed at once with his courtesy.

A very visible characteristic of President Spencer W. Kimball is his penchant for hard work. When introducing the Welfare Program, the First Presidency declared, “Work is to be re-enthroned as a ruling principle in the lives of our Church membership.” He loves to work.

The blessing of work has been a principal characteristic of Spencer W. Kimball from the early days of his life. His father, a very meticulous and orderly man, wanted everything kept “just so.” The fences should be painted, the yard should be kept in order. The harnesses well-oiled. The brass polished. This was not a well-to-do family, but a family with a father busy as a stake president trying to support a large family. The cow and the vegetable garden were important.

The children were not without opportunity to play, but work was a governing principle in the household.

He said on one occasion, “There was never a new staple or a new strand of wire. It was always fix the fence with what there was, to put it together again somehow so that it would hold.”

As a boy, as boys will, he wondered at the unending incessant toil necessary to make a living. And, as boys will, he thought how free he would feel when he got away from the farm and all the work involved.

Then came the day, years later, when as a young businessman, prospering perhaps a little, he was able to have a farm of his own. And he has told of the day that he walked out, took a handful of soil and as it sifted through his fingers he reverently said to himself, “this is my land.” Then he knew how much he loved the soil, what it meant to him in his life.

The family and the friends and associates of President Kimball know that he is never still. There has always been a restlessness about him to be getting things done. He is up early and works long hours and gets a little rest along the way. A time or two each day he will stretch out on the floor—perhaps in the bishop’s office or the high council room if he is at a conference—and sleep for ten minutes. He bounces back with renewed energy to continue his thorough, detailed work.

I passed them on the highway once, up near the Idaho border. They were heading north to conference. Sister Kimball was driving, with Brother Kimball in the back seat, his little typewriter in its accustomed place on his lap, papers on either side of him, for this was an opportunity to work, to do more to help others. This mobile office, as those who have traveled with him know, is characteristic of his dedication to work.

Where does he get the strength? Most of the sources are available to anyone—but one source, available to him alone, can be said in a word—Camilla.

Camilla Eyring came to teach at the academy in Thatcher, Arizona, and Spencer was attracted to the lovely girl from the colonies in Mexico. With her family she came out of Mexico in the exodus, fleeing before the armies of Pancho Villa. She had been encouraged by her parents to seek an education and with limited means she had gone to Brigham Young University. She was attracted to the clean-cut, well framed young man, with his alert sense of humor, his sharp mind, with some music in his soul. There was what would have to be described as a whirlwind courtship. In a matter of weeks they knew they were right for one another. There began a companionship that will last through the eternities.

Sister Kimball is a remarkable woman. She is a woman of intelligence and culture and strength. But that is another story, an account that by all means ought to be written and printed and read.

The family is the center of all that is important to President Kimball. President and Sister Kimball have four children. They desired to have more, but that frail footpath of life over which spirits must cross into mortality is often beset with obstacles. It is sometimes very difficult and occasionally not possible to invite a spirit to cross it.

They are grateful for their children. Their three sons have served on missions, their four children have married in the temple. There are now 27 grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren. Like all parents, President and Sister Kimball pray constantly over their family. Conscious that each is an individual spirit, each with his agency, they are attentive and concerned as father and mother, grandfather and grandmother, and great-grandfather and great-grandmother.

Typical of the concern of Brother and Sister Kimball for their children was the challenge they faced when Eddie was stricken with polio. Their home was in Safford, Arizona. At that time the treatment available was in California. The Kimballs came to know the road between Safford and Los Angeles in intimate detail, for they drove it time, after time, after time. There were the operations and the trips back for checkups, for therapy. There were trips for further treatment, some of them disguised as family vacations. Always they were trying to make the best of what would come under the ordinary heading of trouble. But there were no complaints about the pressures of travel and the financial burden, for this was their boy.

President Spencer W. Kimball is a poet. His sermons, prepared with great labor, are lyrical and beautiful and powerful. Yet their power is not in their prose, but in the preaching. It has been said that a poet is next to a prophet. In President Kimball we find a prophet who is a poet.

Perhaps this gift came from his illustrious grandfather, of whom it was said, “A lover of choice language, he was, and, when loftily inspired, a user of much that was beautiful and sublime. A never-failing fountain of poetic thought and imagery.” (Life of Heber C. Kimball, 1967.)

Consider a sample or two, a few nuggets only, from a gold mine of strength and power in his sermons. In a sermon on the Book of Mormon, we find this:

“Across the stage of this drama of life through the ages, marched actors in exotic, colorful costumes from the blood-painted nudity of the warrior to the lavish, ornamented pageantry of royal courts—some actors loathsome and degraded, others so near perfection that they conversed with angels and with God. There are the sowers and reapers, the artisans, the engineers, the traders, and the toilers, the rake in his debauchery, the alcoholic with his liquor, the pervert rotting in his sex, the warrior in his armor, the missionary on his knees. This dramatic story is one of the greatest ever played by man.” (Conference address, April 6, 1963.)

In a sermon on tithing, these paragraphs:

“I saw him lying in his death among luxurious furnishings in a palatial home. His had been a vast estate. And I folded his arms upon his breast, and drew down the little curtains over his eyes. I spoke at his funeral, and I followed the cortege from the good piece of earth he had claimed to his grave, a tiny, oblong area the length of a tall man, the width of a heavy one.

“Yesterday I saw that same estate, yellow in grain, green in lucerne, white in cotton, seemingly unmindful of him who had claimed it. Oh, puny man, see the busy ant moving the sands of the sea.” (Conference address, April, 1968.)

And who could forget his description of Berlin following the war:

“We went to Europe,” he said, “without a camera—the only persons in Europe, I think, who did not have a camera.”

And so he recorded his impressions with his pen. From his journal:

Friday, August 26, 1955:

Ten years now since the world war tragedy!

Here were fences around the former grand estates

Wire fences,

Rusty fences,

Wind-blown rotting fences,

Proud, haughty fences leveled in humiliation.

Metal gates hanging unkept; creaking hinges.

Naked walls, irregular walls, pock-marked walls, and weeds

growing from their toothlike stabbing jaggedness;

Green ivy trying hard to cover the nakedness of

walls—gaping—absent walls but with scores of

broken bricks still indicating where—

Chipped walls,

Grass atop the jagged walls holding brave little flowers struggling for existence.

There were windows, too many windows, cold, open windows, open to storm and sky

Boarded-up windows,

Bricked-up windows,

Glassless windows.

There were jagged chimneys piercing skys,

Iron bedsteads hanging from chimneys,

Plumbing pipes reaching into space like dragons’ claws.

Here were trees—

Limbless trees except for new growth,

Tall trees leaning, branches all one side,

Amputated limbs and trunks, but not with saw.

Jagged arms pointing at—at whom are they pointing?

Vines climbing naked trunks to cover broken limbs and torn and battered trees.

Small trees, ragged shrubs growing from the rubble where once were pianos, rugs and pictures;

Trees growing untended

Vines climbing and spreading to cover ugliness.

Nature trying to sweeten sourness.

Grotesqué figures standing out against the sky, pointing into space like accusing hands and fingers.

Empty pools,

Broken swimming pools, a reminder of leisure and luxury of forgotten rich.

Twisted steel,

Arches without buildings,

Doorways without walls

Porches and doorways, nothing else, porches and doorways.

Sagging floors.

Ceilings of splintered wood, shattered plaster hanging like cobwebs.

Excavations like graves,

Excavations which are graves—

Excavations where rodents play and insects find their homes.

Proud estates, quarter blocks, ghost yards, spectre houses, all so still.

Silence, silence, deathly silence

No playful shouts, no children laugh.

Silent walls, silent houses, silent blocks, silent death.

Bricks are here—

Broken bricks,

Pulverized bricks,

Piled up bricks, covering bones of humans never found.

Rubble, rubble, rubble,

Foundations upended,

Rotting wood,

Twisted steel,

Destruction, devastation, desolation,

Broken fountains,

Shattered statues,

Creaking shutters,

Rusty mail boxes,




Screaming jaggedness!

Unmolested squirrels scampering,

Tiny birds twittering

To bring back life to deadness.

Walls, chimneys, trees, grotesque writhing apparitions!

Persons? Things? Dragons? Disfigured, deformed things

Slumped in misery and shame.

(Conference address, October 1, 1955.)

And there are many other sermons: Obedience, Broken Power Lines, Hidden Wedges, Tragedy or Destiny—Inspiration pouring through a man with a gift and the spirit to sustain it.

Many of his sermons over the years have been about the Lamanites. A concern for them has dominated his ministry.

The Prophet Joseph Smith recorded, “… the title-page of the Book of Mormon is a literal translation, taken from the very last leaf, on the left hand side of the collection or book of plates, which contained the record which has been translated. … Said title page is not by any means a modern composition, either of mine or of any other man who has lived or does live in this generation.” (History of the Church, Vol. I, p. 71.)

The title page declares:

“Wherefore, it is an abridgment of the record of the people of Nephi, and also of the Lamanites—Written to the Lamanites, who are a remnant of the house of Israel; and also to Jew and Gentile.”

No man in this dispensation has done more to see that the message of the Book of Mormon gets to the Lamanites than has Spencer W. Kimball. No man has worked with greater zeal that “they may know the covenants of the Lord, that they are not cast off forever—.” (Book of Mormon, title page.)

There are more than 60 million people of Lamanite extraction. It is no accident that the Church now prospers among them in Mexico, Central and South America, in the islands of the sea, and among the Indian tribes of North America. President Kimball, all of his life as an apostle, has restlessly urged and encouraged and pressed the work among them.

“I do not know when I began to love the children of Lehi. It may have come to me at birth, because those years preceding and after I was born, were spent by my father on missions among the Indians in Indian territory. He was president of the mission. This love may have come in those first years of my childhood, when my father used to sing the Indian chants to us children and show us souvenirs from and pictures of, his Indian friends. It may have come from my patriarchal blessing which was given to me by Patriarch Samuel Claridge, when I was nine years of age. One line of the blessing reads:

“‘You will preach the gospel to many people, but more especially to the Lamanites, for the Lord will bless you with the gift of language and power to portray before that people, the gospel in great plainness. You will see them organized and be prepared to stand as the bulwark “round this people”.’

“I do not know when my appreciation for them came, but I have always had a sympathetic heart for the sons and daughters of Lehi.” (Conference address, April 6, 1947.)

On September 13, 1946, President Kimball recorded the following in his journal:

“I went down to the office of President George Albert Smith at his request … relative to the Indians. We talked about the Navajos in the mission. He then said, ‘Now I want you to look after the Indians—they have been neglected. You watch all the Indians. I want you to have charge and look after all the Indians in all the world and this includes those in the Islands also.’

“I told him I would do my best. I told him that this commission given me twice before, fulfilled my patriarchal blessing literally. … He indicated that he wished me to lead this committee in a vigorous program for all the Indians in all the world.”

In Brother Kimball’s mind this burden was easy and the yoke was light, for this would be a labor of love.

He has often spoken of Moroni, who wandered alone, having custody of the records prepared by his father, Mormon.

“I make not myself known to the Lamanites lest they should destroy me. …

“Wherefore, I wander whithersoever I can for the safety of mine own life.” (Moro. 1:1, 3.)

In spite of the fact that they were seeking his life, Moroni continued:

“I write a few more things … that perhaps they may be of worth unto my brethren, the Lamanites, in some future day, according to the will of the Lord.” (Moro. 1:4. Italics added.)

There follows the only treatise in the Book of Mormon on church government. The chapters that follow explain the bestowal of the Holy Ghost, the ordination of priests and teachers, the mode of administering the sacrament, the conditions and mode of baptism, and church discipline. All of this, addressed to the Lamanites.

President Kimball has worked unceasingly and unrelentingly for them. As Moroni of old, he has sought to “cause my church to be established among them.” (D&C 28:8.)

As Moroni concluded his writing he again addressed his words to the Lamanites:

“Now I, Moroni, write somewhat as seemeth me good; and I write unto my brethren, the Lamanites.” (Moro. 10:1.)

There follows the great declaration, applying perhaps to all, but, as most have overlooked, addressed “to the Lamanites.”

“And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.

“And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.” (Moro. 10:4–5.)

If there is one golden thread characteristic of the ministry of Spencer W. Kimball, it is his love for, and his ministry among the Lamanites.

To enter President Kimball’s office is to see the mementos of his travels among them. A Sioux headdress, given when he was adopted into the tribe and given a name. The painting of a Hopi man. Another of a Chilean Indian. The wooden doll, lovingly carved and dressed by little Sister Two Dogs at Pine Ridge, South Dakota. The carved plaques of the Amazon Indians. The bow and arrow from another tribe. The beautiful carved figures of a Bolivian Indian man and woman. And mementos from the islands of the sea.

The Indian name he was given is Washte-Ho-Wamblee. The literal translation is: “Good voice eagle.” And, as he was told by his Lamanite brethren, it means: He who flies across the world lifting his voice to bring good tidings of truth.

This is no ordinary man who presides over The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The day he was ordained an apostle he became a different man, a special witness of the Lord Jesus Christ as those in ancient times.

“He went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.

“And when it was day, he called unto him his disciples: and of them he chose twelve, whom also he named apostles.” (Luke 6:12–13.)

In that day He called them: Peter, James, John, Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, and the others, to stand as special witnesses of Him.

In this day He has called them: Spencer, Nathan, Marion, Ezra, Mark, Delbert, and the others—Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ. Men possessing the same authority, sustained by the same witness as those He ordained in former days.

The Lord Himself is the head of His church. Spencer W. Kimball, a prophet, seer and revelator, is its president. As one among those who know him very well and who love him very much; as one who shares in that special witness, I testify to that.

Photograph by Eldon Linschoten

Illustrated by Ted Henninger

There among all the debris of that war-torn land was “grass atop the jagged walls holding brave little flowers struggling for existence.”

The name the Indians gave him is Washte-Ho-Wamblee, or “He who flies across the world lifting his voice to bring good tidings of truth.”