“Spencer W. Kimball: Man of Faith,” Ensign, Dec. 1985, 39
Dear Sister Kimball, beloved family and friends, I am honored to speak of my President, my leader, and my teacher, President Spencer W. Kimball.
Sister Kimball, as well-earned tributes are extended to President Kimball by countless multitudes, may you know that they are intended for you as well, for we know that his greatness could not have been achieved without you. Your intelligent insights, patience, love, and your ability to endure all things cause us to honor you also as one of the great in the history of the Church.
Since his passing last Tuesday night, recapitulations of his life, so well prepared and presented by the media, have been thrilling to me. We have read statements of dignitaries from all walks of life. We have reviewed videotape recordings of some of his best moments with presidents, kings, and magistrates from countless countries.
When Sister Kimball asked that I speak at her husband’s funeral, she made two very interesting qualifying statements to me. First, she said with a smile, “No one knew his heart better than you.” Second, “You knew him at his worst moments.”
I thought, how typically modest! Anyone else might select a speaker without exposure to a man’s worst moments, but not President and Sister Kimball.
They truly appreciated their doctors, nurses, and staff. Each one privileged to render service to President Kimball felt a lift and love from him. He loved those who served, in part because he was a servant himself. He typified this scripture:
“He that is ordained of God and sent forth, the same is appointed to be the greatest, notwithstanding he is the least and the servant of all.” (D&C 50:26.)
President Kimball really believed the Lord, who said, “He that is greatest among you shall be your servant.” (Matt. 23:11.)
Accomplishments during his presidency might be labeled as the fruits of his administration. Because they are so sweet and spectacular, they have attracted appropriate attention.
But the great lessons of the life of President Spencer W. Kimball would be missed if one admired only the fruits without probing the roots of his profound faith and spirituality. He deeply believed that “with God nothing shall be impossible.” (Luke 1:37.)
This was first evident to me twenty-one years ago when he and Elder LeGrand Richards, as Apostles of the Lord, called me to serve as a stake president. During the course of our interview I had indicated that in cardiac surgery we were beginning a new era of aortic valve replacement. I expressed great concern that our mortality rates were high and the course so difficult for patients and doctors alike. As they set me apart, President Kimball pronounced a blessing which marvelously included the promise of ability to perform that operation with reduced mortality.
This happened. The operation became much safer, and routine. Neither he nor I knew then that, eight years later, I would perform that very operation on him.
Recent accounts of the media have reported President Kimball’s having been subjected to open-heart surgery, but they could not have reported how he arrived at that weighty decision to undergo such an operation. I share this account now with permission of Sister Kimball.
In March 1972, when President Kimball’s heart was failing and he sensed that death was nigh, he obtained a conference with his file leaders in the Church, the First Presidency. To provide medical information as requested, he invited his devoted cardiologist, Dr. Ernest L. Wilkinson, and me.
President Kimball breathlessly began, “I am a dying man. I can feel my life slipping. At the present rate of deterioration I believe that I can live only about two more months. Now I would like my doctor to present his views.”
Dr. Wilkinson then reaffirmed President Kimball’s feelings, concluding that recovery would be unlikely and death would ensue in the not-too-distant future.
Then President Kimball called on me as a cardiac surgeon and asked, “What can surgery offer?”
I indicated that an operation, if it were to be done, would consist of two components. First, an aortic valve replacement would be required. Second, an important coronary artery with a blockage should be treated with a bypass graft.
President Harold B. Lee of the First Presidency then asked the crucial question, “What would be the risks with such a procedure?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “In a man aged seventy-seven, the risk of either of these operations is significant. But to do both on one whose heart is failing would entail risk so high that the operation cannot be recommended as a safe one.”
As a weary President Kimball responded, “I am an old man and ready to die,” President Lee interrupted. He rose to his feet, pounded his fist to the desk, and said, with his prophetic power, “Spencer, you have been called! You are not to die! You are to do everything you need to do to care for yourself and continue to live.”
President Kimball replied, “Then I will have the operation.”
He underwent that complex operation not because it was deemed to be reasonably safe in the opinion of his medical advisers, but because he was obedient to the counsel of the Lord, expressed through the leaders of the Church—regardless of personal risk.
The outcome is well known. He was blessed to survive the operation which reversed the tide of his deterioration.
I shall never forget the feeling I had as his heart resumed beating, leaping with power and vigor. At that very moment, the Spirit made known to me that this special patient would live to become the prophet of God on earth.
Over the years of my service to President Kimball, I was often asked the questions, “When does President Kimball speak as a prophet? And when does he speak as a man?”
I never asked myself those divisive questions. I only asked, “How can I follow him better and become more like him?” By his example, he became my great teacher.
As I watched him face his own trials, I witnessed the reality of his love. When his beloved Camilla developed severe illness, I sensed the intensity of his love for her. I witnessed the depth of his love for others as he frequently disappeared from his own hospital bed to bless the sick, even strangers. Whether their problems involved fever, cancer, or the heart, he could say in sympathy, “I know how you feel.”
From him I learned what is required of a prophet. He penned this description years before the prophetic mantle descended upon his shoulders:
“To be a prophet of the Lord, one does not need to ‘be everything to all men.’ He does not need to be youthful and athletic, an industrialist, a financier, or an agriculturist; he does not need to be a musician, a poet, an entertainer, a banker, a physician, a college president, a military general, or a scientist.
“He does not need to be a linguist and speak French and Japanese, German and Spanish, but he must understand divine language and be able to receive messages from heaven. …
“The Lord said: “… ‘whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.’ (D&C 1:38.)” (Spencer W. Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1975, pp. 318–19.)
From President Kimball I gained reaffirmation of the necessity of obedience to law. On one occasion when his cardiac pacemaker was malfunctioning, surgical revision was required. When he arrived at the hospital for this operation, President Kimball greeted me with his usual warm embrace and asked, “Will you give me a blessing?”
After I was privileged to perform that sacred ordinance, he then made this unforgettable statement: “Now you may proceed to do that which must be done in order to allow that blessing to be fulfilled.”
We operated. A small break was found in the insulation of an electrode, repair of which took care of the problem. He knew and I knew that not even for God’s prophet can there ever be a blessing without “obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.” (D&C 130:21.)
From President Kimball I learned courage. In fact, were he speaking to us on this solemn occasion, he might invoke this scripture to move us from weeping to working: “Shall we not go on in so great a cause? Go forward and not backward. Courage, brethren; and on, on to the victory!” (D&C 128:22.)
Through moments best and worst, I perceived his faith and the constancy of his adoration of the Lord. He was one with Jesus, as was Paul, who said:
“I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20.)
From one who knew his heart as well as any other man, from one who knew him in his worst moments, I solemnly proclaim that President Spencer W. Kimball taught as a prophet and testified as a prophet. He had the dignity of a prophet and the humility of a prophet. He had the courage of a prophet and the kindness of a prophet. He gave succor as a prophet, and he suffered as a prophet. He spoke as a prophet and was spoken to as a prophet. He revealed as a prophet and received revelation as a prophet. He blessed as a prophet and was blessed as a prophet. He loved as a prophet and was loved as a prophet. He lived as a prophet and died as a prophet, sealing with his life his testimony that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, that His Church has been restored to the earth, that this work is true. To this testimony I humbly add mine, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.