Elder Neal A. Maxwell: An Understanding Heart
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“Elder Neal A. Maxwell: An Understanding Heart,” Ensign, Feb. 1982, 6

Elder Neal A. Maxwell:

An Understanding Heart

In one of the most stirring invitations in all recorded scripture, Moroni entreats us to “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart, that ye may be filled” with what Paul and Moroni considered the greatest of the spiritual gifts—charity: “the pure love of Christ,” the love that Christ himself had “for the children of men.” Moroni pleads with us to understand that this gift is worth a lifelong quest, for “whoso is found possessed of it … it shall be well with him.” (Moro. 7:47–48; Ether 12:34.)

In the life of Elder Neal A. Maxwell, the long and difficult search is being fulfilled. And well it should be, since “no one can assist in this work except he shall be humble and full of love, having faith, hope, and charity.” (D&C 12:8.) Giving full due to his stature as an educator, an administrator, a writer, and a political scientist, it is the spiritual maturing of a charitable heart that best characterizes the course of his personal development.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell

In the spring of 1920, eighteen-year-old Clarence Maxwell moved with his parents from Bozeman, Montana, to Salt Lake City, Utah. The Maxwells were not members of the Church. On a chilly January morning two years later, Clarence met a young man about his age named George Flinders while the two were waiting for a trolley car. After a brief conversation, George invited Clarence to attend “Mutual” with him that evening in the nearby Wandamere Ward chapel. Because the “young lady” Clarence had been dating had recently sent word “via her mother” that “she was no longer interested in me,” as Clarence later told the story, his evenings were free. And so he went with George to Mutual, where the M-Men group he visited promptly elected him class secretary, “it being the first of the year [and] they were electing officers.”

Within a month, Clarence met Emma Ash at a ward Valentine’s Day dance and “shortly thereafter commenced going steady with her.” He joined the Church the following June, then married Emma in the Salt Lake Temple after another few months. Three years later, on July 6, 1926, Emma bore a son, whom they named Neal Ash Maxwell.

Over half a century later, Clarence wondered aloud why his parents had decided to move to Utah and why in the course of one year they had made four moves to different homes in Salt Lake, until finally arriving in the Wandamere Ward. His feeling that God had directed these events “was confirmed later when our son, Neal, was told in his patriarchal blessing, ‘Your line of descent has been prepared beforehand.’”

On 6 April 1974 Elder Neal A. Maxwell stood before a general conference of the Church, newly sustained as an Assistant to the Twelve, to express appreciation “for humble parents who both told and showed me that the gospel and Church are true.” Last October, Elder Maxwell again stood before the membership of the Church to be sustained as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

Neal Maxwell grew up in Salt Lake City with a boy’s usual fears and aspirations. He loved athletics and developed early skill as a basketball player. But by the time Neal entered Granite High School, his friends had suddenly grown enough taller that he failed to make the basketball team. By then he had also developed a serious case of acne, the scars of which he still carries. By nature shy and sensitive, Neal experienced additional social discomfort during his high school years. His family home was very modest and he raised pigs as a 4-H project. His work with the pigs occasionally made him the object of stinging remarks from his friends. These minor bruises to his feelings as a young man would later help bless him with a keen sense of empathy for others.

Neal’s first experience with the world of arts and letters did little to bolster his shaky self-confidence. His high school English teacher gave him a D minus. When he protested, she said, “Neal, you are capable of doing A work. Until you do, you will continue to get D minus.” Shocked into action, he responded with an intensity that led to A’s in English and a job as coeditor of the school paper. More significantly, he began an adventure with “the world of words” that was to become a great source of satisfaction to him and service to others.

After two years with the army infantry, which included fighting in 1945 on Okinawa, Elder Maxwell served a mission to Canada. Helping maintain his sense of realism, the Maxwell children occasionally remind their father that on his mission he baptized two people and excommunicated four in one branch—for a net loss of two.

Neal majored in political science at the University of Utah. He then worked in Washington, D.C., as a legislative assistant to Utah Senator Wallace F. Bennett. In 1956 he returned to the University of Utah, where he successively worked at a wide variety of faculty and administrative jobs, from the public relations office to Dean of Students to Executive Vice-President. During this time, he completed his M.S. in political science and taught enough to be selected by a group of university students as their favorite professor.

He also served as the bishop of a student ward. In that role, he spent many hours counseling young people struggling with both intellectual and behavioral problems. From these experiences, Bishop Maxwell developed a resolve to help that has since borne valuable fruit as he has counseled LDS students and scholars to grow in spiritual as well as intellectual maturity.

During the latter part of his University of Utah service, Brother Maxwell worked as the university’s liaison with the Utah legislature. This association led to his being one of the prime movers in establishing the Utah System of Higher Education, on whose board of regents he now serves. He also represented the university in some of its contacts with the leadership of the Church.

By the late 1960s, Neal Maxwell had become an articulate and effective spokesman in Utah both for higher education and for the Church. After serving on the YMMIA General Board and as a member of the Church’s Leadership Committee, he was called in 1967 as one of the original Regional Representatives of the Twelve. During this time he was associated on a number of Church and civic matters with Elder Harold B. Lee, with whom he developed a relationship of mutual trust and thorough communication.

In early 1970, President David O. McKay passed away, bringing to an end twenty years of illustrious leadership. During the time of President McKay’s presidency, Church membership had nearly tripled, from about one million to about three million. Large segments of that growth came outside the United States and among the college-age population. Growth and internationalization had quickly emerged as the Church’s primary challenges as the decade of the 70s began.

President Harold B. Lee became a counselor to President Joseph Fielding Smith and then succeeded President Smith in 1972. President Lee was thus a leading figure in a general reexamination by the Church of its structure and its programs in the early 1970s. The educational system of the Church came under President Lee’s searching scrutiny as part of that process. It was a natural time to reexamine the future of Church education: BYU had reached its enrollment ceiling of 25,000; Ernest L. Wilkinson, who had been serving both as president of BYU and as chancellor of the Church School System, had reached retirement age, as had other key figures in the educational system; the seminaries and institutes were experiencing enormous growth; and responding to the worldwide needs for education among Church members loomed as a gigantic task.

The response of the First Presidency was to reestablish the position of commissioner of education, a post that in earlier years had been held by such leaders as David O. McKay and Adam S. Bennion. In June 1970, Neal A. Maxwell was appointed commissioner, with a charge to breathe new vitality, vision, and organizational unity into the far-flung educational interests of the Church.

Neal Maxwell not only enjoyed the confidence of the First Presidency and the Church Board of Education—he was also known and respected in the Church’s educational community. As commissioner of education, he quickly established himself as something of an interpreter between that community and the leadership of the Church, thereby enabling a fresh surge of confidence to flow both ways between the two groups. New leaders were appointed within the first ten months of Commissioner Maxwell’s administration, not only for BYU, but also for Ricks College, BYU—Hawaii, and the Church seminaries, institutes, and schools.

After the death of President Harold B. Lee in December 1973, Commissioner Maxwell was called as an Assistant to the Twelve in 1974. In 1976, the First Presidency created an enlarged Correlation Department at Church headquarters, which had the delicate but vital responsibility of assisting the Council of the Twelve to coordinate and evaluate all programs of the Church. Elder Maxwell was assigned to be the first managing director of the new department. Shortly thereafter, he was relieved of his duties in the Church Educational System to devote full time to ecclesiastical matters. When the First Quorum of the Seventy was organized in October 1976, Elder Maxwell was called as one of the Quorum’s seven presidents. He served there until his call as a member of the Council of the Twelve in July 1981.

I was sitting in the congregation at the Tabernacle when Elder Maxwell gave one of his first general conference talks. His speaking style was so provocative that it left the brethren among whom I sat visibly breathless. They were not accustomed to such phrases as “The living of one protective principle of the gospel is better than a thousand compensatory governmental programs—which are, so often, like ‘straightening deck chairs on the Titanic.’” Or, “Hearts ‘set so much upon the things of this world’ are hearts so set they must first be broken.”

Elder Maxwell’s public addresses and his thirteen books on Church themes are nearly all laced with verbal imagery, metaphors, and alliteration. These poetic devices and his sense of the well-turned phrase often make his language closer to poetry than to prose. For instance, “Let us have integrity and not write checks with our tongues which our conduct cannot cash.” Consider also: “The home lies at the headwaters of the stream of civilization and we must keep it happy and pure” rather than putting all our efforts into reducing the “downstream pollution.” The LDS educators who heard him will always remember his thoughtful response to the issue of balancing one’s Church and professional interests: “The LDS scholar has his citizenship in the Kingdom, but carries his passport into the professional world—not the other way around.”

In his first general conference talk, Elder Maxwell spoke of his “endless appreciation to Jesus Christ for his atonement, realizing that included in the awful arithmetic of that atonement are my sins.” He also reflected his early awareness of what it would mean to be a General Authority by quoting a comment from Elder Richard L. Evans, “who, one day on the way to another plane and another weekend of conferences, said gently, ‘Have you ever gotten homesick on the way to the airport?’” (Ensign, May 1974, p. 112.)

In a later conference talk paying tribute to the women of the Church, he spoke to those who “rock a sobbing child without wondering if today’s world is passing you by, because you know you hold tomorrow tightly in your arms.” (Ensign, May 1978, p. 16.)

One of his conference talks was addressed to those who “fully intend, someday, to begin to believe and/or to be active in the Church. But not yet!” In his tender but piercing invitation, Elder Maxwell said: “If, however, you really do not wish to commit now,” then let me warn of the following:

“Do not look too deeply into the eyes of the pleasure-seekers about you, for if you do, you will see a certain sadness in sensuality, and you will hear artificiality in the laughter of licentiousness.

“Do not look too deeply, either, into the motives of those who deny God, for you may notice their doubts of doubt. …

“Do not think too much about what you are teaching your family, for what in you is merely casualness about Christianity may, in your children, become hostility; for what you have not defended, your children may reject angrily. …

“Do not think, either, about the doctrine that you are a child of God, for if you do, it will be the beginning of belonging. …

“Joshua didn’t say choose you next year whom you will serve; he spoke of ‘this day,’ while there is still daylight and before the darkness becomes more and more normal.” (Ensign, Nov. 1974, pp. 12–13.)

Elder Maxwell’s tendency to compress meaning and feeling into compact verbal images reflects a mental quickness that expresses itself in other ways. Ken Gardner, chairman of the Board of Regents in the Utah higher education system, says he has never known anyone as prompt as Neal Maxwell to return phone calls, answer letters, or follow up on assignments. This responsiveness—combined with his judgment and his native intelligence—have made it easy for the Regents, the Presidency of the First Quorum of the Seventy, and other groups to look to him both as a thoughtful leader and as a reliable colleague who does his homework.

With some of these qualities in mind, former NASA director and former University of Utah president James Fletcher (for whom Elder Maxwell worked several years) considers him one of the most competent administrators he has known. In addition, even in such detail work as budgets or the statistics in the correlation evaluation report, he retains a broad “strategic” perspective that is awake to the broad implications of the issue at hand. When a staff aide makes a report to him, Elder Maxwell is usually asking questions within the first few minutes of the report about the “bottom line” implications he detects. He is so well read and alert that his son, Cory, cannot remember ever having surprised his father with a question. In addition, Cory recalls as a youth he didn’t use a dictionary very well because it was so easy to ask his dad the meaning of any word he encountered.

Even though Elder Maxwell may be best known among the general membership of the Church for his distinctive use of language, a closer look, even at his sermons, reveals a more substantive dimension. His conference talk addressed to inactive members carries between its eloquent lines a sense of empathy for the inactive person that is as kind as it is disarming. It shows that he understands them. His conference talk to the women of the Church similarly reflects an honest sensitivity to the questions and needs of contemporary LDS women. It shows that he understands them. His entire experience with those in the academic community shows not only that he understands them, but that he is open, approachable, and neither threatening nor threatened by the most difficult concerns of both LDS and non-LDS scholars. His experience with the political community has also built bridges of trust and communication that make it very natural for political leaders in both parties, in Utah and elsewhere, to know that in Neal Maxwell they have an understanding ear.

As he talks and writes to active Church members, Elder Maxwell’s innate sense of empathy is apparent. One of his oft-repeated themes is to reassure “those buffeted by false insecurity, who, though laboring devotedly in the Kingdom, have recurring feelings of falling forever short.” His understanding of the very human needs of new converts was demonstrated by a conference talk entitled “The Net Gathers of Every Kind” (Ensign, Nov. 1980, p. 14), in which he said: “If with quiet heroism they can make their way across the border into belief, surely we can cross a crowded foyer to extend the hand of fellowship.”

Not surprisingly, the members of Elder Maxwell’s family have also been blessed by his sensitivity. He has always been good to do with his children the things they hoped he would, from reading with them to playing games and taking regular family vacations. Even with all the children married, it is still a Maxwell family tradition to spend some vacation time together each year. At these outings, Elder Maxwell continues to be the family tennis champion—against what is reported to be some very stiff competition. He also has lunch regularly with his son and sons-in-law and participates in a longstanding gospel study group with his parents’ family.

As a father, Neal Maxwell has understood Elder Marvin J. Ashton’s observation that a twelve-year-old boy doesn’t so much want you to say you love him—he just wants you to play football with him. But in addition, one of the Maxwell children recalls the evening when her father sat down with her for a quiet, personal talk in which Elder Maxwell in love and simple language bore his testimony. She also recalls with some tenderness the times her father has given her father’s blessings. Another remembers when his father called him from a distant city to ask such perceptive questions and to give such needed counsel that the influence of inspiration was unmistakable.

Elder Maxwell’s family are also among his most trusted reviewers when he needs advice on an early draft of a book or a speech. Because of the high level of mutual trust, family members have been respectful but straightforward in trying to help. Though they appreciate their father’s speaking style, they do not hesitate to remind him occasionally that when he first proposed marriage to Sister Maxwell, he used such big words and talked so fast that she was not completely sure she understood him.

Other personal moments in Elder Maxwell’s relationships with people illustrate the way his genuine concern for the needs of others touches and blesses individual lives. There is the father, moved that one of the Brethren would be anxious to put the name of a terribly sick five-year-old on a special prayer roll; the well-educated new convert, surprised at a special dinner in his honor at the Maxwell home; the state legislator, worrying if he dare even broach a vexing church-and-state problem, reassured with both candor and confidentiality that he has been heard and understood; the talented single woman with serious professional aspirations, wondering where she fits in a family-oriented Church, encouraged beyond her expectations by the counsel of one who truly appreciates those who “make wise career choices even though they cannot now have the most choice career.”

The educated may think he is approachable because he is an educator; the new converts and those interested in social issues may sense in him a special interest in their concerns; the political leaders may think he understands their world because of his background in it; his family may feel he is an unusually devoted father; and in a sense they are all correct. But cutting through all the dimensions of Neal Maxwell’s broad range of interests is a core quality of empathy that consistently manifests itself, regardless of other personalities or subject matter. With the abundant help of Heaven, he has developed the spiritual gift of an understanding heart—the gift of charity.

One reason for Elder Maxwell’s personal sensitivity is the example of his wife, Colleen Hinckley Maxwell. He has often said that he “married up, spiritually.” Sister Maxwell is innately alert to the hopes, the concerns, and the feelings of others—totally without regard to their role or status. The Maxwells have four children, all of whom are now married: Becky, Cory, Nancy, and Jane. One of the children remembers that their mother’s charitable instincts were deep and constant. She is a wonderful cook, but so often the smell of fresh bread in the kitchen after school would come from loaves baked to be given to someone else. Sunday dinner was seldom for the family alone, as those in need of friendship were always invited in. “She has always championed the underdog,” says her husband.

The home in which Elder Maxwell grew up was blessed with a similar atmosphere. His mother and father were always looking out for their neighbors. After his mission, it was common for converts and others from his mission field to be invited into the Maxwell home almost as members of the family. Elder Maxwell describes his parents and his wife as being among that “critical mass of decent people” who hold neighborhoods together—“seemingly ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” One of his sisters has also worked as a public school teacher despite being legally blind. His admiration and appreciation for her have added to his ability to sense others’ needs and viewpoints.

Elder Maxwell has been touched by the example of President Spencer W. Kimball. “Part of what makes President Kimball so special,” observes Elder Maxwell, “is that he has no idea how special he really is.” He recalls the time President Kimball was in the hospital as a patient, when the nurses kept having to go find him in other rooms—where he had gone “to visit the sick.” Watching President Kimball has inspired Elder Maxwell to spend more time consoling those confined to hospitals. Elder Maxwell has also been stirred by President Kimball’s great sense of selfless obligation to the Lord, His people, and His work.

He has also enjoyed the subtle humor in President Kimball’s counsel. On one occasion, President Kimball spoke for the First Presidency in giving a certain difficult assignment to Elder Maxwell and to Elder James E. Faust. Elder Maxwell responded, “President Kimball—surely you can find better men than the two of us for such a challenging task.” With a gentle smile, President Kimball replied, “Well, while we’re looking for two better men, would you two mind going ahead with the job?”

There is now a sense of theological significance in the feelings that have grown inside Elder Maxwell over the years about reaching out to others. He watches President Kimball spend and respend his energy, somehow completely unconcerned about his own needs. He remembers that President Harold B. Lee once recalled a spiritual experience through which he became aware that, as an Apostle, it was his duty to learn to love every person on the face of the earth. And then he reads 2 Nephi 31:20: [2 Ne. 31:20] “Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men.” The message is overwhelming. But for Elder Neal A. Maxwell, the message of charity resonates into the very core of his soul. He has long nourished an inborn sense of compassion, but now finds it everlastingly expanded by the call of the holy Apostleship.

Neal Maxwell was not called to this sacred service merely because of his intellect or administrative skill. These things are helpful, but when it comes time to fill a vacancy among the Twelve, the inquiry is of a spiritual order: “Wherefore of these men which have companied with us … must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection. … And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether … thou has chosen, that he may take part of this ministry and apostleship.” (Acts 1:21–25.)

Several years before the present-day prophets and Apostles had undertaken this same search to fill the vacancy in the Twelve created by the call of Elder Gordon B. Hinckley to serve in the First Presidency, Elder Maxwell had made clear his own priorities: “My testimony,” he wrote in 1975, “came in three ways: early in life came the witness of the Spirit, then the intellectual conversion, and then the experiential conversion. … The witness of the Spirit is more sure, but the other witnesses corroborate increasingly the relevancy of the gospel for our time.”

There have been impressive flashes along the path of Neal Maxwell’s life. But more important is the fundamental direction that path has taken—in the quiet shadows, the turns, the forks in the road; in sunshine and in shade, with quick footsteps and slow—he has become a worthy vessel to receive true charity—“this love, which he hath bestowed upon all who are true followers of his Son, Jesus Christ.” (Moro. 7:48.)

  • Bruce C. Hafen is president of Ricks College, Rexburg, Idaho, and teaches Sunday School in his ward.

Early photo of the parents of Elder Maxwell: Emma Ash and Clarence Maxwell, who “both told and showed me” the way.

Top left: As a primary youth. Above: Happily displaying over 90 ribbons earned in a 4-H pig raising project. Middle: In 1942, about 16 years old. Bottom: The high school student.

Above: Elder Maxwell, the Canadian missionary, following two years of World War II Army service, including fighting in Okinawa. Right: Mid-1950s, in Washington D.C., midst early fatherhood, while serving as U.S. Senatorial legislative assistant after 1952 university graduation. Below: Wedding day, November 22, 1950, in front of Salt Lake Temple, with bride, Colleen Hinckley.

Early 1960s, as bishop of University Sixth Ward, with bishopric, serving students at University of Utah where he joined administrative staff in 1956.

Top: Late 1960s, in chalk-talk with state legislative committee. His civic work has included chairman of Utah Constitutional Revision Commission, United Fund charity chairman, regional editor of National Educational Television. Below: 1963, as dean of students; here with University of Utah president, staff, and supporters, where for 15 years—the majority of his professional career—he served as political science professor, dean, assistant to the president, secretary to the board of regents, and vice president in two assignments. Bottom: March 1973, while a Regional Representative and Church Commissioner of Education, in videotape training for Church leaders from five regions.

Elder and Sister Maxwell with their four married children, spouses, and seven grandchildren.