“President Henry B. Eyring: Towering Intellect, Childlike Humility,” Liahona, September 2018
One of President Henry B. Eyring’s sons said recently, “My dad can be described in two words: pure motives.” Surely everyone who has ever met this new Second Counselor to President Russell M. Nelson, watched him interact with others, or heard him give a sermon would agree. Indeed, it would seem that the wonderfully varied dimensions of Hal Eyring’s life (as he has always been known to family and friends) are one long manifestation of a singularly pure virtue, one consistent demonstration of a single “pure motive”: to be in both word and deed precisely what God wants His children to be.
President Eyring’s method for pursuing that goal is as clear and uncomplicated as the task itself—and no less challenging! From his childhood now through to his 80s, Hal has undertaken these efforts to be right before God by seeking earnestly for—and being willing never to act without—the guidance of the Holy Ghost, a heavenly companion he will reference in almost every conversation he has, every administrative decision he makes, or every public declaration he utters. To enjoy the companionship of the Holy Ghost is Henry B. Eyring’s overarching means to a celestial end. It is a manifestation of his truly childlike humility. It is evidence of his singular spiritual purity.
Ironically, it is the many paradoxes of his life that make the purity of it even more striking. Born to and named for a Nobel-contending chemist, Hal tried his hand at physics and chemistry but chose business for his academic career, a topic about as far from the Eyring tradition as one could get. With access along the way to significant wealth, he and his wife, Kathleen, have chosen their entire married life to live modestly and frugally—on occasion almost painfully so (at least as their children laughingly report). Professionally educated at one of the United States’ premier universities, tenured as a full professor at another, and visiting fellow at a third, one could not get higher on the educational ladder than Hal had climbed at a relatively young age, yet he left that academic significance and professional security to preside over a virtually unknown two-year college (unknown at least to any and all of his Harvard, Stanford, and MIT associates), a school he had never visited—Ricks College—in a city whose location he could not have pointed out to anyone—Rexburg, Idaho, USA.
The purity and paradox go on. Bright beyond the usual examples of that intellectual quality, President Eyring is not willing to depend on his own talent or mental acumen to make any decision on matters that have spiritual consequence. Bold in the fullest measure of that word when needed and strong beyond the customary definition of strength, he simply will not, as President M. Russell Ballard (and President Eyring’s own children) have noted, “be rushed into making a decision hastily or choosing a course of action without care. He would never act in any way that would put the Church or anyone else he was responsible for at risk.”1
One concluding example of the purity and paradox lying at the very center of Henry B. Eyring’s soul might sum up this remarkable man’s integrity:
Once President Eyring had a need to provide the sacrament to a group not able to join in the regular setting of a ward sacrament meeting. Before he pursued that kind gesture, he placed a series of rather urgent calls to the bishop of his ward to seek permission to do so. Of course, the bishop willingly and lovingly granted the request.
I cite this particular incident for a purpose. Surely the lesson is obvious to everyone. This is a member of the First Presidency of the Church asking. This is an ordained Apostle, one holding all the priesthood keys any human being can hold on this earth. This is one who could and does give direction to every other ward and stake priesthood leader in the Church, including the bishop of his own ward in Bountiful, Utah, USA. This is one who can overlay his keys on those of any local leader and as a presiding officer of the Church is often required to do so. But with the purity of heart that characterizes everything he does and the paradox not everyone would be so prepared to demonstrate, this is President Henry B. Eyring scrupulously following the protocol outlined for every lay member of the Church everywhere in the world, humbly presenting his petition before the Lord’s anointed and more than willing to take the counsel and abide by the decision of his local leader.
This rich spirituality and transparent purity of President Eyring’s faith began early. Born to Henry and Mildred Bennion Eyring on May 31, 1933, while Henry Sr. was a world-renowned professor at Princeton University, Hal was raised in a region in which there were so few Church members that the Eyrings held Sabbath meetings in their home. President Eyring would later joke that he and his younger brother, Harden, constituted the whole Primary of the branch, and their older brother, Ted, filled out the entire Young Men program. Their mother, Mildred, was the pianist and music leader, though how she did both he doesn’t quite remember.
Not being able to worship with a large ward didn’t prevent Hal from beginning to gain a testimony. “I learned then,” he recalled, “that the Church is not a building; the Church isn’t even a lot of people. I felt close to Heavenly Father and knew [even then] that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is His church; it didn’t matter that our little branch met in our dining room.”
When Hal was 13, his father took a significant position at the University of Utah. The younger Henry attended early-morning seminary and took some enjoyment in playing on his high school’s basketball team, but by his own admission never made any close personal friends.
While feeling sorry for himself one day, he received an impression that would change his life. He felt it was a warning from God: “Someday, when you know who you really are, you will be sorry you didn’t use your time better.” He responded to that prompting by reading the Book of Mormon several times as a teenager. He also felt guided by President David O. McKay’s book Gospel Ideals, which, among other things, taught him how to properly treat women, a devotion he would show all of his life to his beloved wife, Kathleen.
Since early childhood, Hal’s deepest dreams were to be married and form a family. He thought about his future children so often that he’d already given them the collective nickname “The Redheads,” imagining them with red hair like his mother’s.
This dream finally moved toward fruition during his service as a counselor in the Boston District presidency, a Church calling Hal had while he was pursuing his graduate work at Harvard University following his undergraduate studies at the University of Utah. As a doctoral student in the summer of 1960, Hal represented the district presidency at a single-adult devotional held at the Cathedral of the Pines in southwest New Hampshire, USA, a natural outdoor amphitheater of note in the region. At the event he saw a young woman in a red and white dress and was impressed by the pure goodness she radiated. He thought, “That’s the best person I’ve ever seen. If I could be with her for the rest of my life, I could be every good thing I ever wanted to be.”
The young woman was Kathleen Johnson from Palo Alto, California, USA, who hadn’t intended to be in New England that summer but, at the insistence of her friend, had attended summer school with her at Harvard. Following that outdoor devotional, Hal arranged to meet Kathy at church one Sunday and was happy to hear she enjoyed playing tennis. Hal had been playing tennis several times a week with a college friend and was a good natural athlete, so he assumed a game of tennis would be an ideal first date and a way for him to make a terrific impression. What Kathleen didn’t tell him was that she had been the captain of her high school tennis team! “She cleaned me out,” Hal still grumbles about the match. This was the first of his future wife’s remarkable examples of living humbly and then helping her husband to do so.
Following their marriage and Hal’s eventual appointment to the faculty of the business school at Stanford University, late one night in December 1970, just a few months before Hal was released as the bishop of the student ward in Palo Alto, Kathy asked a question seemingly out of the blue. As Hal climbed into bed after a demanding day, she leaned over and asked, “Are you sure you’re doing what you ought to be doing with your career?”
Her question caught him by surprise. Everything in their life seemed perfect. The future seemed bright and clear, even down to the Eyring dream home that Hal had recently outlined in his journal. It would include such niceties as “a room for projects, large enough and rough enough to work on and store a kayak,” along with “at least five electrical outlets by the kitchen table” and “a shed or bathhouse retreat for writing.”
“What do you mean?” Hal asked his wife.
“Couldn’t you do studies for Neal Maxwell?” she suggested, referring to the Church’s new Commissioner of Education. At this, Hal was truly dumbfounded. He had only met Neal A. Maxwell once, and he knew that Kathleen had never met him at all. He tried to describe to her why such a career shift would not be a good fit for him, yet she insisted he at least pray over the matter. This he did immediately, dropping to kneel by the bed and offering a short prayer. When no answer came, Hal felt the matter decided and soon went to sleep.
The following morning, however, Hal received two distinct spiritual impressions that would forever alter the course of his career and his life. He captured both in his journal. First, “Don’t use your human judgment to eliminate opportunities presented to you: pray about them all with an open mind.” And second, “Do the tasks you are assigned in the Church and your profession as well as you can; they are preparation.”
The first impression came as something of a rebuke that Hal would forever thereafter live by. After having previously rejected three different job offers without praying over them, into his mind came the words, “Don’t you ever make that mistake again. You don’t know which end is up in your career.”
With this spiritual direction fresh in his mind, Hal was prepared when less than three weeks later, Commissioner Maxwell called to schedule a meeting with him in Salt Lake City. Brother Maxwell got right to the point. “I’d like to ask you to be the president of Ricks College,” he said. Hal replied that he would have to pray about it. He did and the terse answer he received was, “It’s my school.” The rest, as they say, is history. His service in the Church since then has been as exemplary as it has been conspicuous, moving on to serve as Deputy Commissioner of Education and then Commissioner (twice), followed by calls to the Presiding Bishopric, the Quorum of the Seventy, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and as a counselor to three Presidents of the Church.
But in a very real sense to Hal, no calling in the Church was more important for him than another: “The pressures at every stage of life can tempt us to reject or neglect calls to serve the Savior,” President Eyring has taught. “Some of those calls may seem unimportant, but my life, and my family, was changed for the better by my accepting a call to teach a deacons quorum. I felt the love of those deacons for the Savior and His love for them.”2
One concluding paradox: I can think of almost no one I know who would be more adverse to conflict and repulsed by violence than my friend Henry B. Eyring. Yet he graduated as the top ROTC cadet in his class at the University of Utah and served his country with distinction in the United States Air Force. If one had to go to war—and we most certainly are in one that began in the councils of heaven—you would want, first of all, to be led by someone who hated the very thought of war. But if (spiritual) war it was to be, then you would plead for that leader to think clearly, even brilliantly, to measure every tactical and strategic option against revealed doctrine, and to live for and seek the confirmation of the Holy Ghost in every decision that he made. Such a singular defense of the sacred in a battle against anything unhallowed or profane demonstrates perhaps the ultimate purity of Henry B. Eyring’s sometimes seemingly paradoxical life. I would be proud to serve on his flight crew, aboard his battleship, or in his foxhole.