“President Gordon B. Hinckley: The Spiritual Sculpturing of a Righteous Soul,” Ensign, Jan. 1982, 7
In the spiritual sculpturing of a righteous soul, the tracings and lines of early experiences occasionally foretell what will stand out in bold relief later in life. The shaping patterns are sometimes surprisingly clear, as in the life of President Gordon B. Hinckley, to which the following examples demonstrate, each a success story in itself.
• For a brief period many years ago, President Hinckley was a Seminary teacher. Currently, he serves as chairman of the Executive Committee of the Combined Board of Education and BYU Board of Trustees—and has so led for several years during a period when the Seminary and Institute program has expanded in a remarkable way around the world. President Hinckley, who received the University of Utah Distinguished Alumni Award in 1971 and an Honorary Doctor of Humanities from BYU in 1979, possesses a broad perspective about education which has caused him to declare:
“There is need for another education, without which the substance of our secular learning may lead only to our destruction. I refer to the education of the heart, of the conscience, of the character, of the spirit—these indefinable aspects of our personalities which determine so certainly what we are and what we do in our relationships one with another.” (In Conference Report, Oct. 1964, p. 116.)
• In boyhood, President Hinckley’s first paying job was as a carrier for the Deseret News. In manhood, he became president of the Deseret News Publishing Company and so served for several years.
• His experience in missionary work is also “from the ground up.” Following his own full-time mission to the British Isles, he was appointed in 1935 by President Heber J. Grant to serve as secretary of the Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee, a forerunner of today’s Public Communications Department.
This experience was added upon when President David O. McKay appointed him staff director of the Missionary Department, where he served for seven years from 1951 until called as a General Authority. Still later, as a member of the Council of the Twelve (the Church’s Missionary Committee), he oversaw the worldwide operations of that same program.
• As a young man, President Hinckley once substituted “on the spot” for an absent Senator Reed Smoot, giving a speech that was very well received. In our time, his articulate spontaneity has been called upon to represent the Church on network television, such as during the 1980 Sesquicentennial as well as on the “Today” show.
• His staff work with state and federal selective service officials during the Korean War no doubt helped to prepare him for the chairmanship of the Special Affairs Committee to whom the First Presidency looks for aid in governmental and political matters. Likewise, being dispatched by Elder Joseph F. Merrill as a young missionary in London to remonstrate (successfully, by the way) with the head of a large and prestigious publishing firm concerning the lack of truth in a publication critical of the Church foreshadowed his current duties, some of which involve dealing with criticism of the Church.
• Soapbox speaking as a missionary in Hyde Park taught him skills now eloquently developed, the need for simplicity and directness in communications as well as how to shrug off undeserved criticism.
• His service (a mere two years after his mission) on the Sunday School General Board gave him a lasting concern for high quality teaching in the Church in order that members might truly be taught the gospel and thereby experience lasting spiritual conversion.
• His great love of the Prophet Joseph Smith obtained while listening as a youth to experiences told in his home, reflects the love his grandfather, Ira N. Hinckley, had for the Prophet, whom Ira heard speak in Nauvoo when Ira was but a boy of fifteen.
• Being taught as a boy both “how” and “why” one must prune fruit trees has helped President Hinckley to cast a watchful eye over conscientious Church departments and programs which sometimes have a tendency to proliferate unwisely.
• His experience with irrigating those same fruit trees assisted him to see the importance of getting “water to the end of the row” and now underscores his concern for improving communication in the Church. His involvement with Bonneville International is natural, and, as the Church’s far-flung communication network (soon to be augmented by hundreds of satellite stations) unfolds further, President Hinckley will strive to see that the living waters of the gospel get “to the end of the row.”
Brother Arch Madsen, president of Bonneville International Corporation, has said of him:
“In my 20 years of close association with President Hinckley, in spite of the fact that his responsibilities require him to be conversant with many areas of activity, I have witnessed time and time again the ability of this amazingly versatile person to grasp quickly the essence of very complex matters. This has been especially illustrated as he has worked with us in the exploding area of mass communications—a field baffling even to many of those who are constantly working in this arena.”
• A product of pioneer heritage, he himself pioneered the use of filmstrips and audiovisual materials in missionary work and then later led their use in the temples of the Church and in Church exhibits at world fairs.
• In the midst of wars and rumors of wars, President Hinckley’s many visits with servicemen in Korea, Vietnam, and on battlefields long silent, such as those in the Philippines and Okinawa, have given him a great passion for peace but also a capacity to discern “that silver thread” which shines through the “tapestry of war”:
“I make no defense of the war from this pulpit. There is no simple answer. The problems are complex almost beyond comprehension. I seek only to call your attention to that silver thread, small but radiant with hope, shining through the dark tapestry of war—namely, the establishment of a bridgehead, small and frail now; but which somehow, under the mysterious ways of God, will be strengthened, and from which someday shall spring forth a great work affecting for good the lives of large numbers of our Father’s children who live in that part of the world. Of that I have a certain faith.” (In Conference Report, Apr. 1968, p. 24.)
• In such faith he has seen the tender sprout of the Church grow. His first visit, in 1961, to the Philippine Islands included a prayer of rededication. There was then only one member of the Church in all of the Philippines. Today, there are 41,000 members, thirteen stakes, and four full-time missions in those same islands.
• The frugal habits of youth are fortunately seen in President Hinckley’s fiduciary sense for the sacred tithing funds of the Church. Very recently, he served on the Member Finance Committee, whose recommendations were adopted by the First Presidency and the Twelve and implemented in the Church. In this recognition of the financial burdens our people bear, President Hinckley, unsurprisingly, was a major influence.
• His assignment years ago as a member of the Twelve to the East Rim of Asia was forerunner to such current assignments as his recent visit to the People’s Republic of China with a BYU entertainment touring group. In like manner, a previous assignment to supervise South America gave him familiarity with one of the most rapidly growing areas of the Church.
• President Hinckley’s many years of service at Church headquarters in various capacities have been appropriately augmented by extensive experience on various boards involved in the business sector. These activities include positions with Beneficial Life Insurance Company; Deseret News Publishing Company (president and chairman of the board); Radio World-Wide New York, Inc.; KSL, Inc.; Recording Arts, Inc.; Deseret Management Corporation; Bonneville International Corporation; KIRO, Inc., Seattle; Utah Power & Light Company; and Zion’s First National Bank.
• Yet his extensive executive experience has been accompanied by growing compassion and empathy for people who are troubled or who live and serve in situations of stress. These attributes have been honed and refined over the years in his dealings with hundreds of missionaries and servicemen who needed to be counseled, reassured, and given hope.
He remembers hearing servicemen pleading for a sacrament meeting because they had not had the sacrament for weeks, and new members pleading to have Church publications that they might be nourished by the gospel.
His compassion has been demonstrated in so many ways. One stricken missionary, sent home for hospitalization, rented a humble room near the hospital for summer treatments; he soon found himself possessing a comforting fan which had been in Brother Hinckley’s office.
He is grateful for the many shaping influences of his life, as he said on the occasion of first being sustained a General Authority in 1958, following his service as the president of the East Millcreek Stake:
“Since President McKay spoke with me late last evening I have been thinking about the road that led here. I know that I have not come that road alone, and I feel very grateful for the many men and women—the great and good men who are here today, and the … wonderful people, many whose names I do not remember—who have helped me.” (In Conference Report, Apr. 1958, p. 123.)
My close personal association with President Hinckley has attested that this is a man who sees beyond the moment and below the surface. So far as progress in the Church is concerned, he knows the difference between an announcement and an accomplishment. While he desires others to think well of the Church, he can discern flattery aimed at the institution of the Church; he does not let such compliments for the Church divert him from our institutional challenges.
Church members can be grateful that President Gordon B. Hinckley has been thus prepared. He not only reflects his own unique history but also has a sense of spiritual history which is so much needed now as he helps to lead the Church into an unparalleled future.
His mind is furnished with fixed principles, and the enriching experiences of life have given him unusual opportunities to apply those principles.
When others describe President Hinckley as a man of good judgment, good humor, good will, and good natured, the common adjective good is the key to so much that makes up this man.
His wife, Sister Marjorie Hinckley, able in her own right, observes of her husband how deeply she appreciates his “integrity and loyalty,” saying, “He has never hesitated to do whatever was needed to make me and the family more comfortable.” Sometimes the increased comfortableness is the result of his own hard work, for President Hinckley’s respite and renewal often consist of working with his hands both in gardening and in repairing things—skills acquired in a rural setting so many years ago which have not been lost.
Her husband, says Sister Hinckley, “always expressed complete confidence in his wife and children,” giving them the encouragement which caused them “to reach beyond themselves.”
One can see President Hinckley’s prescient concern, expressed years ago, over the importance of the institution of the family, especially in these times of social disintegration.
Another source of inspiration to his family, Sister Hinckley says, has been President Hinckley’s “beautiful and articulate daily prayers.” She notes how he is eternally optimistic, always reassuring concerned individuals that “things will come out well in the end. His love of music and literature and of life itself has made being with him a great adventure,” Sister Hinckley observes.
Elder Howard W. Hunter, President Hinckley’s seatmate in the Twelve for about two decades, says of him:
“For twenty years Elder Hinckley and I sat side by side in the circle of the Council of the Twelve. I learned to appreciate his wisdom and judgment. No one was more pleased than I when he was sustained as a counselor in the First Presidency, although I will miss the strength I felt when we sat together. Men of his ability are rare, and he will make a great contribution to the Church in his new calling.”
Another seatmate for years in the Twelve, Elder Thomas S. Monson, describes President Hinckley as a “unique blend of knowledge coupled with compassion. His mind grasps quickly the details of any matter put before the Council. In his response, however, justice is always tempered with mercy.” He is, says Elder Monson, “a tireless worker” and has constantly “demonstrated his belief that one should put first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness.”
President Jeffrey R. Holland of Brigham Young University, who works under President Hinckley’s direction, describes him as “farsighted, fair, and forgiving,” a man who has “a sense of grace even under unusual pressure. We wonder if he, like Alma of old, had ‘the burdens which were laid upon [him]’ made lighter by the Lord’s touch, enabling him to ‘bear [them] with ease.’ In any case it always seems so to those of us who watch.”
The new counselor in the First Presidency has a great love of America, the host nation for the restored Kingdom. Yet he wisely does not insist on Americanization as a part of the implementation of the gospel in other nations.
He has a sense of the high importance of the precious reality that, in the end, the Church is built upon individual testimonies and the voluntary devotion and service of its members. In a general conference address he said of testimony, “Our detractors may debate theology, but they cannot refute this testimony which has come by the power of the Holy Ghost into my heart and into your hearts.” (In Conference Report, Oct. 1961, p. 116.)
True it is that his parents’ literacy and love of books have helped shape President Hinckley’s own unusual capacity to communicate. But his communication is the kind of which Walter Bagehot wrote:
“A strong anxiety first to find the truth and next to impart it, an evident wish not to push arguments too far, a clear desire not to convince men except by reasonable arguments of true opinion. … Nothing is laid down to dazzle or arouse; it is assumed that the reader wants to know what is true as much as the writer does to tell it.” (The Works of Walter Bagehot, ed. Forrest Morgan, The Travelers Insurance Company: Hartford, Connecticut, 1889, vol. 2, p. 153.)
At home in the world of words, President Hinckley often uses stories and experiences to illustrate important principles. His experience has clearly been distilled into a general wisdom which can readily be applied to new sets of facts. He has the ability to challenge data in a presentation without offending the presenters because they understand his sincere search for clarification and generalization. He is also willing to stand alone, if necessary, in order to make a needed point. And he knows the value of silence when humans are communicating with each other.
He can cope with complexity but prefers simplicity. Even when weary, he would rather be at work than at rest. Yet in all of this and much more, he has kept a highly developed sense of humor, seeing good cheer as a vital message of life.
But the essence of his soul is in the stirring fact that he has never lost his love of and interest in the Church’s worldwide heaven-given missionary calling to happily share gospel truth with all mankind. At the same time, one can see a broadening and a deepening in his two-and-a-half decades of utterances at successive general conferences, such as in his articulately expressed concern over the “erosion of morality” among the world’s inhabitants. His conversation with a young man in South America who had “dropped out” of society reflects both President Hinckley’s compassion and his insight as the two of them conversed over objectives such as “peace and freedom.” President Hinckley’s humble response to the young man’s condescending attitude toward true morality was expressed thusly: “I shocked him a little when I declared that his freedom was a delusion, that his peace was a fraud, and that I would tell him why.” (In Conference Report, Oct. 1970, p. 63.)
President Hinckley, the only leader in this dispensation who has gone from being a staff member at Church headquarters to membership in the First Presidency, has been continually schooled by the Lord in a truly impressive array of assignments and callings. And it began when an anxious, humble, and just-returned missionary came to Church headquarters on assignment from Elder Joseph F. Merrill to make a fifteen-minute report to the First Presidency. This appointment—stretched to nearly an hour and a half by the First Presidency’s interest—in a sense, has never ended. A faithful steward over small things, Gordon B. Hinckley now sits almost daily in that same First Presidency room to which he first came so many years ago!