“The Life and Ministry of Gordon B. Hinckley,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Gordon B. Hinckley (2016)
“Life and Ministry,” Teachings: Gordon B. Hinckley
On February 16, 1998, about 6,700 Latter-day Saints gathered at Independence Square in Accra, Ghana. They came to welcome their prophet, President Gordon B. Hinckley.1 He stood before them, with a smile on his face, and announced the long-awaited news that a temple would be built in their homeland. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said that when President Hinckley made this announcement, the people “stood and cheered, wept and danced, held each other, and cried.”2 Years later, after the temple had been built and dedicated, a woman who was present that day recalled the feelings of joy and expressed how the temple had blessed her:
“I still have a vivid picture in my mind of the Prophet Gordon B. Hinckley’s visit to Ghana and his announcement of a temple in our Motherland. The excitement on everyone’s face, the happiness, the shouts of joy are all still clear in my mind. …
“Today, because of a temple in our land, I am married and sealed to my husband for time and all eternity. The blessing of living with my family beyond this mortality gives me great hope as I strive to do all that I can to be with my family forever.”3
Throughout the world, President Hinckley helped people find this “great hope” in striving to live the gospel of Jesus Christ. As illustrated by the event in Ghana, he often ministered to thousands at the same time. He also reached out to people one by one. Elder Adney Y. Komatsu of the Seventy told of his feelings as a mission president when President Hinckley visited his mission:
“Never once in my three years did he criticize me, despite all my weaknesses. … And that spurred me on. … Every time he came off the plane he would grab my hand like he was pumping water out of a well with great enthusiasm. ‘Well, President Komatsu, how are you getting along? … You’re doing great work.’ He encouraged me like that … and when he left I felt I should give 105 percent, not just 100 percent.”4
People felt encouragement from President Hinckley not just because of his inspiring words but because of the way he lived. President Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve recounted:
“While [President and Sister Hinckley were] going from a chapel to an airport in Central America, their vehicle was involved in an accident. Sister Nelson and I were traveling behind them and saw it occur. A truck [that was] loaded on top with unsecured metal rods approached them at an intersection. To avoid a collision, its driver suddenly stopped the truck, launching those iron rods like javelins to pierce the Hinckleys’ car. Windows were smashed; fenders and doors were dented. The accident could have been very serious. While shattered glass was being removed from their clothing and skin, President Hinckley said: ‘Thank the Lord for His blessing; now let’s continue on in another car.’”5
This statement, spoken spontaneously in a moment of crisis, is representative of President Hinckley’s life and ministry as a disciple of Jesus Christ. He was, as Elder Holland observed, “always filled with faith in God and in the future.”6
When Gordon Bitner Hinckley was born on June 23, 1910, he was his mother’s first child, but eight older siblings welcomed him into the family. Gordon’s father, Bryant Stringham Hinckley, had married Ada Bitner after the death of his first wife, Christine. Ada and Bryant had four more children after Gordon, and they raised their large family with love—and without distinctions such as half brothers and half sisters. From his earliest days, Gordon learned to treasure his family.
Gordon’s last name and middle name were reminders of his noble heritage. His Hinckley ancestors included early pilgrims in the land that would become the United States of America. Some had been banished to that land in the 1600s because of their Christian beliefs. Others had been passengers in 1620 on the Mayflower, one of the first ships to transport emigrants from Europe to North America. More than two centuries later, Gordon’s paternal grandfather, Ira Nathaniel Hinckley, was one of the early Latter-day Saint pioneers. In 1843, as a recently orphaned 14-year-old, Ira joined the Church in Nauvoo, Illinois, after hearing Joseph and Hyrum Smith preach. Gordon’s great-grandmother Anna Barr Musser Bitner Starr was also a pioneer. Her son Breneman Barr Bitner, Gordon’s maternal grandfather, later recalled their journey to the Salt Lake Valley in 1849: “I [age 11] drove two yoke of oxen and a heavily laden wagon through heat and cold across the deserts and rivers and mountains to this valley.”7
Bryant Hinckley often reminded his children and grandchildren of their rich heritage. Speaking of the Mayflower pilgrims’ perilous journey and the long, bitter winter they faced when they reached their destination, he once said: “When the Mayflower was ready to return in the spring, only 49 [of the 102] people had survived. No one went back [to England]. This spirit is born in you fellows—the spirit of never turning back.”8 As Gordon stayed true to this principle, he received opportunities to learn and serve and testify that he never could have imagined.
As a young child, Gordon Hinckley was not the energetic, robust individual people came to know in his later years. He was “a spindly, frail boy,” susceptible to illnesses.9 When two-year-old Gordon “contracted a severe case of whooping cough, … a doctor told Ada the only remedy was clear, country air. Bryant responded by purchasing a five-acre farm … and building a small summer home.”10 The farm, located in an area of the Salt Lake Valley called East Mill Creek, was a blessing for the entire family, providing the children with a place to roam and play and to learn valuable lessons as they worked together.
Ada and Bryant Hinckley were optimistic, diligent parents who created opportunities for their children to grow and succeed. They held family home evenings as soon as the program was introduced in 1915. They shared bedtime stories, often from the scriptures. They set aside a room in their home as a library where the children could read good books. They inspired discipline in their children by encouraging them and expecting the best of them.
As Gordon grew up, his faith increased, nurtured by the constant influence of his parents’ faith. Then one day he had an experience that helped form the foundation of his testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith:
“When I was a boy, twelve years of age, my father took me to a meeting of the priesthood of the stake in which we lived. I sat on the back row while he, as president of the stake, sat on the stand. At the opening of that meeting, the first of its kind I had ever attended, three or four hundred men stood. They were men from varied backgrounds and many vocations, but each had in his heart the same conviction, out of which together they sang these great words:
Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah!
Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer.
Blessed to open the last dispensation,
Kings shall extol him, and nations revere.
“Something happened within me as I heard those men of faith sing. There came into my boyish heart a knowledge, placed there by the Holy Spirit, that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet of the Almighty.”11
In his early childhood, Gordon did not enjoy school, preferring the outdoors to the walls and desks of a classroom. As he matured, however, he learned to appreciate books, schools, and the library at home as much as the fields where he had run barefoot as a young boy. He graduated from high school in 1928 and began studies at the University of Utah that same year.
His four years at the university presented almost overwhelming challenges. In 1929 the United States stock market crashed, and the Great Depression rolled across the country and the world. Unemployment was about 35 percent in Salt Lake City, but Gordon was fortunate to have a job as a maintenance worker to pay for his tuition and school supplies. Bryant, who worked as a manager at the Church’s Deseret Gym, cut his own salary so other employees could keep their jobs.12
Eclipsing these financial pressures was the discovery that Gordon’s mother had cancer. She died in 1930 at the age of 50, when Gordon was 20. The wounds that came with his mother’s death “were deep and painful,” Gordon said.13 This personal trial, combined with the influence of worldly philosophies and the cynicism of the times, led him to ask difficult questions. “It was a time of terrible discouragement,” Gordon recalled, “and it was felt strongly on campus. I felt some of it myself. I began to question some things, including perhaps in a slight measure the faith of my parents. That is not unusual for university students, but the atmosphere was particularly acute at that time.”14
Gordon’s emerging questions, while troubling, did not shake his faith. “There was for me an underlying foundation of love that came from great parents and a good family, a wonderful bishop, devoted and faithful teachers, and the scriptures to read and ponder,” he recalled. Speaking of the challenges of those times for him and others his age, he said: “Although in our youth we had trouble understanding many things, there was in our hearts something of a love for God and his great work that carried us above any doubts and fears. We loved the Lord and we loved good and honorable friends. From such love we drew great strength.”15
Gordon graduated from the University of Utah in June 1932 with a major in English and a minor in ancient languages. A year later he found himself at a crossroads. He was looking forward to continuing his education so he could become a journalist. Even in the midst of the Depression, he had scraped together a modest savings account to support his education. He was also thinking about marriage. He and Marjorie Pay, a young woman who lived across the street, were becoming increasingly fond of one another.
Then, just before his 23rd birthday, Gordon met with his bishop, John C. Duncan, who asked whether he had thought about serving a mission. This was “a shocking suggestion” to Gordon,16 since few young men were being called on missions during the Depression. Families simply did not have the resources to support them.
Gordon told Bishop Duncan that he would serve, but he worried about how his family would manage financially. His concerns increased when he learned that the bank that held his savings account had failed. “Nevertheless,” he said, “I remember my father saying, ‘We will do all we can to see that your needs are met,’ and he and my brother committed to see me through my mission. It was at that time that we discovered a little savings account my mother had left—change saved from her grocery purchases and other shopping. With that little bit of help added, it appeared I could go on my mission.” He considered his mother’s coins to be sacred. “I guarded them with my honor,” he said.17 He was called to serve in the European Mission.
Sensing that his son was still feeling troubled, Bryant Hinckley prepared a simple reminder of the true source of strength. “When I left for a mission” Gordon later said, “my good father handed me a card on which were written five words … : ‘Be not afraid, only believe’ (Mark 5:36).”18 Those words would inspire Elder Gordon B. Hinckley to serve a faithful, honorable mission, especially when they were combined with six more words from his father’s pen several weeks later.
The additional six words came at a time of severe discouragement, which had begun on June 29, 1933, Elder Hinckley’s first day in Preston, England. When he arrived at his apartment, his companion told him they would be speaking at the town square that evening. “You’ve got the wrong man to go with you,” Elder Hinckley responded, only to find himself singing and speaking from a stand a few hours later, facing a crowd of unengaged spectators.19
Elder Hinckley discovered that many people were unwilling to listen to the message of the restored gospel. The poverty created by the worldwide financial depression seemed to penetrate the souls of the people who jostled him on the streetcars, and he found little to draw him to them. In addition, he felt wretched physically. He remembered, “In England the grass pollinates and turns to seed in late June and early July, which is exactly when I arrived.”20 This triggered his allergies, which made everything seem worse. He missed his family. He missed Marjorie. He missed the familiarity of his country. The work was frustrating. He and his fellow missionaries had very few opportunities to teach investigators, although they taught and spoke in the small branches every Sunday.
Feeling that he was wasting his time and his family’s money, Elder Hinckley wrote a letter to his father explaining his unhappy situation. Bryant Hinckley replied with advice that his son would follow throughout his life. “Dear Gordon,” he wrote, “I have your recent letter. I have only one suggestion.” And then those six words that added weight to the five he had written earlier: “Forget yourself and go to work.”21 This counsel echoed a scripture passage Elder Hinckley had read with his companion earlier that day: “Whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s, the same shall save it” (Mark 8:35).
With his father’s letter in his hand, the young Elder Hinckley got on his knees and made a pledge that he would give himself to the Lord. The effect was almost immediate. “The whole world changed,” he said. “The fog lifted. The sun began to shine in my life. I had a new interest. I saw the beauty of this land. I saw the greatness of the people. I began to feel at home in this wonderful land.”22
Elder Gordon B. Hinckley as a full-time missionary, preaching in London’s Hyde Park
Remembering those days, Gordon explained that he also received help from his mother. He felt her comforting presence, especially during the dark and discouraging times. “I tried then, as I have tried since, to so conduct my life and perform my duty as to bring honor to her name,” he said. “The thought of living beneath my mother’s expectations has been painful, and has afforded a discipline that otherwise might have been lacking.”23
He became a missionary with purpose and zeal. Records from the first eight months of his mission show that although he did not baptize anyone, he distributed 8,785 pamphlets, spent more than 440 hours with members, attended 191 meetings, had 220 gospel conversations, and confirmed one person.24
In March 1934, Elder Hinckley was transferred from Preston to London to work as an assistant to Elder Joseph F. Merrill of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who presided over the British and European Missions.25 He spent the rest of his mission there, working in the office by day and teaching the gospel in the evenings. Convert baptisms were few, but in the heart of Bryant and Ada Hinckley’s son, the spark of conversion became an enduring flame.
When Gordon returned from his mission, he said, “I never want to travel again. I have traveled as far as I ever want to travel.”26 He and two missionary companions had toured Europe and the United States on their way home, a common practice in those days, and he was tired. When his family went on vacation soon after his return, he stayed behind. Despite his exhaustion, he enjoyed some satisfaction as he reflected on his travels: he felt that he had seen the fulfillment of part of his patriarchal blessing. Many years later he said:
“I received a patriarchal blessing when I was a boy. In that blessing it said that I would lift my voice in testimony of the truth in the nations of the earth. I had labored in London for a long time and given my testimony many times there. We [went to Amsterdam], and I had opportunity in a meeting to say a few words and offer my testimony. We then went to Berlin, where I had a similar opportunity. We then went to Paris, where I had a similar opportunity. We then went to the United States, to Washington, D.C., and on a Sunday there I had a similar opportunity. When I arrived home, I was tired. … I said, ‘… I have completed [that] phase of my blessing. I have lifted my voice in the great capitals of the world. …’ And I really felt that way.”27
Before Gordon could consider his mission complete, he had to fulfill one more assignment. Elder Joseph F. Merrill had asked him to make an appointment with the First Presidency of the Church to report on needs in the British and European Missions. On the morning of August 20, 1935, less than a month after returning home, Gordon was ushered into the council room in the Church Administration Building. Shaking hands with each member of the First Presidency—Presidents Heber J. Grant, J. Reuben Clark Jr., and David O. McKay—he was suddenly overwhelmed with the task he had been given. President Grant said, “Brother Hinckley, we’ll give you fifteen minutes to tell us what Elder Merrill wants us to hear.”28
For the next 15 minutes, the recently returned missionary presented Elder Merrill’s concern—that the missionaries needed better printed materials to help them in their work. In response, President Grant and his counselors asked question after question, and the meeting stretched an hour longer than had been planned.
On his way home from the meeting, Gordon could not have guessed how those 75 minutes would affect his life. Two days later he received a call from President McKay, who offered him a job as executive secretary of the newly formed Church Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee. This committee, made up of six members of the Quorum of the Twelve, would work to address the needs that Gordon had outlined in his meeting with the First Presidency.29
Gordon B. Hinckley as an employee of the Church Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee
Once again, Gordon put off his plans for graduate school and a career as a journalist. He went to work developing scripts for radio programs and filmstrips, writing pamphlets for missionaries, developing professional relationships with media pioneers, and researching and writing about Church history. He contributed to messages designed to build the faith of Church members and connect with people outside the Church. A friend once sent him a letter complimenting him on a radio script and asking how he had developed such a gift for writing and speaking. Gordon replied:
“If I have any talent for speaking or writing, I am extremely grateful to my Father in Heaven. I think very little of it is native ability; rather, any power that I might have has come through opportunities that have been opened to me.”30
Gordon’s work with the committee honed his skills as a writer. It also offered a valuable opportunity to learn from apostles and prophets. As Gordon saw the six members of the Twelve weigh decisions and teach one another, he better understood the holy calling of these diverse men and the revelatory process that occurred when they counseled together.
Elder Stephen L Richards, who later served as First Counselor in the First Presidency, was the chairman of the committee. Gordon described him as “thoughtful, deliberate, careful, and wise. He never rushed into action but looked cautiously before he proceeded. I learned that you best proceed carefully in this work, because whatever decision you make has far-reaching ramifications and affects the lives of many people.”31
The other five committee members were Elders Melvin J. Ballard, John A. Widtsoe, Charles A. Callis, Alonzo A. Hinckley (Gordon’s uncle), and Albert E. Bowen. Concerning them, Gordon said:
“I got along wonderfully well with those great men, who were very kind to me. But I learned that they were human. They had weaknesses and problems, but that didn’t bother me. In fact, it enhanced my estimation of them because I saw rising above their mortality an element of the divine, or at the very least an element of consecration to a tremendous cause that came first in their lives. I saw the inspiration that was at work in their lives. I had no doubt concerning their prophetic callings or of the fact that the Lord spoke and acted through them. I saw their human side, their foibles—and they all had a few. But I also saw the great overriding strength of their faith and love for the Lord, and their absolute loyalty to the work and to the trust that was placed in them.”32
Of course, Gordon did not think only about work. His courtship with Marjorie Pay continued when he returned from England. His departure had been as difficult for Marjorie as it had been for him. “As anxious as I was for him to serve a mission,” Marjorie said later, “I will never forget the feeling of emptiness and loneliness I felt when that train pulled out of the station.”33
In the fall of 1929, four years before Gordon left for England, Marjorie had registered for classes at the University of Utah, only to find that her father had lost his job due to the Great Depression. She immediately dropped her classes and found a job as a secretary to help support her parents and her five younger siblings—an effort that continued after Gordon returned from his mission in 1935. She never again had the opportunity to obtain a formal education, but she was determined to continue learning, so she educated herself by reading.
Marjorie’s cheerful disposition, work ethic, and deep commitment to the gospel endeared her to Gordon, and she was impressed with his goodness and faith. “As we got closer to marriage,” she said, “I felt completely confident that Gordon loved me. But I also knew somehow that I would never come first with him. I knew I was going to be second in his life and that the Lord was going to be first. And that was okay.” She continued: “It seemed to me that if you understood the gospel and the purpose of our being here, you would want a husband who put the Lord first. I felt secure knowing he was that kind of man.”34
Gordon and Marjorie were married in the Salt Lake Temple on April 29, 1937, and moved to the Hinckleys’ summer home in East Mill Creek. They installed a furnace, made other improvements necessary for year-round living, took care of the orchards and gardens, and began building their own home on a neighboring piece of property. And so the rural area Gordon had loved during the summers of his childhood became the place where he and Marjorie would make their home and rear their children—Kathleen, Richard, Virginia, Clark, and Jane.
Gordon and Marjorie established a home of love, mutual respect, hard work, and gospel living. Daily family prayer provided a window for the children to see their parents’ faith and love. As the family prayed together, the children also sensed the nearness of their Father in Heaven.
The Hinckley home was a place of few rules but great expectations. Marjorie spoke about things that were not worth a battle. Describing a parenting approach that she shared with her husband, she said: “I learned that I needed to trust my children, so I tried to never say no if I could possibly say yes. When we were raising a family, it was a matter of getting through every day and having a little fun along the way. As I could see that I wasn’t going to be able to make all of my children’s decisions anyway, I tried not to worry about every little thing.”35 As a result of their parents’ trust, the children felt respected and gained experience and confidence. And when the answer was no, the children understood that it was not an arbitrary restriction.
The Hinckley home was also full of laughter. Marjorie once said: “The only way to get through life is to laugh your way through it. You either have to laugh or cry. I prefer to laugh. Crying gives me a headache.”36 With parents who could laugh at themselves and find humor in everyday life, the children saw their home as a delightful refuge.
Church service was always a part of life for Gordon and Marjorie. Gordon served as the stake Sunday School superintendent and then was called to the Sunday School general board, where he served for nine years. He later served as a counselor in a stake presidency and as stake president, while Marjorie served in Primary, Young Women, and Relief Society. Their children witnessed Church service as a joyful privilege—a model they would each follow in their adult years.
For the first six years of Marjorie and Gordon’s marriage, Gordon continued to work with the Church Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee. He was dedicated in his work, and projects and deadlines frequently took him to the edge of his abilities and experience—and beyond. In a letter to a friend, he wrote:
“Much to do. The work of this committee with a long name is growing larger and more complicated and more interesting. …
“… Radio, films, and literature of various kinds … serve to keep me praying, humble, busy, and at work for long hours. … All of which has served to make me a little more dependent upon glasses, … a little more round-shouldered, a little more settled, and a little more full of wonder as to what this all leads to.”37
In the early 1940s, World War II brought a change in employment for Gordon. Full-time missionary work came to a virtual standstill because of the war, so his job of providing missionary materials became less pressing. Feeling a responsibility to help with the war effort, he applied to officer candidate school in the United States Navy. However, his history of allergies disqualified him. “I was depressed over the rejection,” he admitted later. “The war was on, and everybody was doing something to help. I felt that I should participate in some way.”38 This desire led him to apply for a job as an assistant superintendent for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. Because trains were critical in moving troops and supplies for the war, Gordon felt that this job would help him serve his country. The company hired him in 1943, and he worked at their depot in Salt Lake City until he and his family were transferred to Denver, Colorado, in 1944.
Supervisors at the railroad were impressed with Gordon’s work, and when the war ended in 1945, they offered him a permanent position with a seemingly bright professional future. At the same time, Elder Stephen L Richards called and asked Gordon to return to full-time Church employment. Although the railroad could offer a significantly higher salary than the Church, Gordon followed his heart and returned to Salt Lake City.39
Gordon B. Hinckley, 1951
Gordon’s employment at Church headquarters soon expanded from his earlier responsibilities. In 1951 he was appointed executive secretary of the General Missionary Committee of the Church and was charged with overseeing the day-to-day operations of the newly formed Missionary Department. This department oversaw everything that had to do with spreading the gospel, including the production, translation, and distribution of materials used by missionaries; training for missionaries and mission presidents; and public relations media used to build bridges and dispel myths about the Church.40
In the autumn of 1953, President David O. McKay called Gordon to his office and asked him to consider a question that was not directly related to duties in the Missionary Department. “Brother Hinckley,” he began, “as you know, we are building a temple in Switzerland, and it will be different from our other temples in that it must serve members who speak many languages. I want you to find a way to present the temple instruction in the various languages of Europe while using a minimum number of temple workers.”41
President McKay provided a place where Gordon could seek inspiration and escape the demands of his workload in the Missionary Department. On weekday evenings, Saturdays, and some Sundays, Gordon worked in a small room on the fifth floor of the Salt Lake Temple. On many Sunday mornings, President McKay joined him to share ideas, look closely at the presentation of the endowment, and pray for direction.
After pondering, praying, and seeking revelation, Gordon recommended that the presentation of the endowment be put on film, with the words of that sacred instruction dubbed in several languages. President McKay and others approved his recommendation and assigned him to produce the film. Gordon worked with a team of talented and faithful professionals who completed the project in September 1955. He then personally carried the films to the Bern Switzerland Temple and oversaw the technical preparations for the initial endowment sessions.42
Gordon was touched to see his work bring joy to the Saints in Europe: “As I saw those people gathered from ten nations to participate in the temple ordinances; as I saw elderly people from behind the Iron Curtain who had lost their families in the wars that had washed over them, and witnessed the expressions of joy and tears of gladness which came from their hearts as a result of the opportunities that had been given them; as I saw young husbands and wives with their families—their bright and beautiful children—and saw those families united in an eternal relationship, I knew with a certainty even beyond what I had known before that [President McKay] was inspired and directed of the Lord to bring these priceless blessings into the lives of those men and women of faith gathered from the nations of Europe.”43
Twenty years had passed since Gordon had returned from his mission, and he had not fulfilled his dream to receive an advanced degree and become a journalist. Instead, he had learned to use new technology to spread the word of God, developed positive relationships with people of other faiths, studied and written works of Church history, and helped prepare the way for thousands of Latter-day Saints to receive the blessings of the temple. These experiences would serve as a foundation for the service he would give for the rest of his life.
On Saturday, April 5, 1958, Gordon and Marjorie’s son Richard answered a phone call. The caller did not introduce himself, but Richard recognized the voice of President David O. McKay and hurried to inform his father. After speaking briefly with President McKay, Gordon quickly showered, changed his clothes, and drove to the office of the President of the Church. Because he had received assignments from President McKay before, he expected to be asked to help with something in preparation for the next day’s general conference session. He was shocked to find that President McKay had something else in mind. After a friendly greeting, President McKay asked Gordon to serve as an Assistant to the Twelve. Brethren who served in this position, which was discontinued in 1976, were General Authorities of the Church. Gordon was serving as president of the East Mill Creek Stake when President McKay issued this calling.
The next day, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley received a sustaining vote in general conference. Although he admitted in his first conference talk that he was “overwhelmed with a sense of inadequacy,” he embraced his new responsibility with characteristic faith and vigor.44
One major duty that came to Elder Hinckley as an Assistant to the Twelve was to oversee the work of the Church in all of Asia. He knew little about the people there and spoke none of their languages, but he quickly came to love them, and they came to love him. Kenji Tanaka, a Japanese Latter-day Saint, told of Elder Hinckley’s first meeting in Japan: “Elder Hinckley’s excitement could be seen in his sparkling eyes. His first word to us was Subarashii! [‘Wonderful!’] The atmosphere of that meeting changed from stiff and formal to friendliness and closeness to him, and a warm feeling prevailed.”45
This was the feeling he shared everywhere he went in Asia. He helped the people see that with faith in the Lord, they could accomplish great things and help the Church grow in their homelands. He also stayed close to the full-time missionaries, knowing that their diligence would have a direct impact on the people they served.
Another life-changing phone call came on another Saturday—September 30, 1961. This time it was Marjorie who heard the familiar voice of President McKay on the phone. Again Gordon B. Hinckley hurried to the office of the President of the Church. Again he was surprised and overcome when he learned the reason for the visit. When he arrived, President McKay told him, “I have felt to nominate you to fill the vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, and we would like to sustain you today in conference.”46 Again Elder Hinckley moved forward with faith and enthusiasm despite feelings of inadequacy.
As an Apostle, Elder Hinckley received additional responsibilities. He occasionally met with government leaders and other dignitaries. He was frequently asked to speak publicly for the Church to address criticisms and cultural unrest in the United States. He was at the forefront of efforts to strengthen the Church’s broadcasting capabilities and to use technology to spread the gospel throughout the world. Even with these expanding roles, he never lost sight of his responsibility to strengthen the faith of individuals and families. Whether he was speaking to one person or ten thousand people, his was a personal touch, one that became the hallmark of his ministry: to bring people, one by one, to Christ.
Elder Hinckley continued to supervise the work in Asia for the next seven years, and he rejoiced to see the growth of his friends there. He observed, “It is an inspiring experience … to witness the manner in which the Lord is weaving the tapestry of his grand design in those … parts of the earth.”47
As assignments changed among the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Hinckley received opportunities to serve in other parts of the world. Everywhere he went, he showed concern for the individual. In 1970, when he was supervising the work of the Church in South America, he traveled to Chile after presiding over a stake conference in Peru. Two days after arriving in Chile, he learned that a devastating earthquake had hit Peru and that four missionaries were missing. He immediately made plans to return to Peru even though it would delay his return home. “I cannot in good conscience go home while there are missionaries missing,” he said.48
He arrived in Lima, Peru, the following morning. When the missing missionaries found a ham radio operator, they were able to call Lima, and Elder Hinckley spoke with them. The missionaries were in a small room filled with other survivors, and their conversations were broadcast over a speaker. “As Elder Hinckley’s voice came over the speaker in that room crammed with people clamoring to get on the radio, an immediate hush fell across the room. Though he was speaking in English, and these people all spoke Spanish, they began to talk among each other in whispers and ask, ‘Who is that man?’ There was a sense, even amidst chaos, that that voice belonged to no ordinary man.”49
During his first two years of supervising the Church in South America, Elder Hinckley toured every mission; created new missions in Colombia and Ecuador; helped create new stakes in Lima, Peru, and São Paulo, Brazil; and helped resolve visa obstructions for missionaries called to serve in Argentina. He was in the midst of doing more when, in May 1971, he was assigned to supervise eight missions in Europe.50
Elder Hinckley often felt the fatigue of his unyielding schedule. He was always happy to return home and spend time with Marjorie and the children. However, Marjorie could tell that when he was away from the work too long, he became restless. His calling as an Apostle—one of the “special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world” (D&C 107:23)—was never far from his mind.
On July 15, 1981, after serving in the Quorum of the Twelve for almost 20 years, Elder Hinckley received another surprising calling. President Spencer W. Kimball, then President of the Church, asked him to serve as a counselor in the First Presidency, in addition to Presidents N. Eldon Tanner and Marion G. Romney. This was an unusual but not unprecedented departure from the pattern of having two counselors. President Kimball and his counselors were not well physically and needed extra support in the Presidency.51
At his first general conference in this new capacity, President Hinckley remarked: “My only desire is to serve with loyalty wherever I am called. … This sacred calling has made me aware of my weaknesses. If I have offended at any time, I apologize and hope you will forgive me. Whether this assignment be lengthy or brief, I pledge my best effort, given with love and faith.”52
His best effort was needed as the health of Presidents Kimball, Tanner, and Romney declined. Most of the day-to-day work of the First Presidency fell to President Hinckley. He also shouldered much of the responsibility for larger efforts, such as the dedication of the Jordan River Utah Temple. In addition, he faced some public criticism of the Church and its leaders, both past and present. In the April 1982 general conference he counseled:
“We live in a society that feeds on criticism. … I urge you to see the big picture and cease worrying about the little blemishes. … These are only incidental to the magnitude of [Church leaders’] service and to the greatness of their contributions.”53
President Tanner passed away on November 27, 1982, and the health of Presidents Kimball and Romney declined to the point that in the April 1983 general conference, President Hinckley, who by then had been called as Second Counselor in the First Presidency, sat next to empty chairs on the stand. In a deeply personal way, he felt what he had once called “the loneliness of leadership.”54
President Gordon B. Hinckley in general conference at a time when he was the only member of the First Presidency who was healthy enough to attend
President Hinckley proceeded with care and prayer, not wanting to step ahead of the prophet. He called on the senior members of the Twelve—particularly Elder Ezra Taft Benson, the quorum president—for assistance in running the daily business of the Church. President Hinckley worked hand in hand with the Quorum of the Twelve, always guided by counsel from President Kimball. Nonetheless, he felt a great burden.
Although President Hinckley’s responsibilities in the First Presidency kept him in Salt Lake City much of the time, he occasionally traveled to minister to members and missionaries in other parts of the world. In 1984 he returned to the Philippines. Eighteen years earlier he had dedicated the first chapel there; now he would dedicate the first temple. In the dedicatory prayer, he said:
“This nation of the Philippines is a nation of many islands whose people love freedom and truth, whose hearts are sensitive to the testimony of thy servants, and who are responsive to the message of the eternal gospel. We thank thee for their faith. We thank thee for their spirit of sacrifice. We thank thee for the miracle of the progress of thy work in this land.”55
The continuing progress of the Church was evident in June 1984 when, on behalf of the First Presidency, President Hinckley announced the calling of Area Presidencies—members of the Seventy who would live around the world and supervise the work of the Church in assigned geographic areas. Working under the direction of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve, these brethren would provide much of the leadership and training needed in their areas. “We can’t make every decision in Salt Lake City,” he said. “We have to do something about decentralizing authority.”56 About a year later, speaking to Church leaders from around the world, President Hinckley said: “I am confident that it is an inspired and great step forward that we have taken in these last few months. I am confident that the frequent presence of these good men in your midst gives you great reassurance. These Brethren are in effect tying the whole body of the Church together.”57
After leading the Church through 12 years of remarkable growth, President Spencer W. Kimball died on November 5, 1985. The senior Apostle, President Ezra Taft Benson, was set apart as President of the Church. He asked Gordon B. Hinckley to serve as First Counselor in the First Presidency and Thomas S. Monson to serve as Second Counselor. With three healthy members of the First Presidency, President Hinckley felt his burdens ease and had more opportunities to visit the Saints around the world.
President Ezra Taft Benson (center) with his counselors, President Gordon B. Hinckley (left) and President Thomas S. Monson (right), in general conference
Within a few years, President Benson’s health began to fail, and the day-to-day responsibilities of running the Church fell again to President Hinckley. This time, however, he was not alone in the First Presidency. With vitality and energy, Presidents Hinckley and Monson kept the Church on a steady course, always respecting President Benson’s calling as prophet, seer, and revelator. They developed a strong, enduring friendship and partnership.
President Benson died on May 30, 1994, and President Howard W. Hunter became President of the Church. Once again, Presidents Hinckley and Monson served as counselors. In June, President and Sister Hinckley accompanied President Hunter and his wife Inis and Elder M. Russell Ballard and his wife, Barbara, to Nauvoo, Illinois, to observe the 150-year commemoration of the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. This would be the only trip President Hunter and President Hinckley would take together. President Hunter had struggled with health problems for years, and his health declined rapidly after this trip. On February 27, 1995, he asked President Hinckley for a priesthood blessing. In the blessing, President Hinckley pleaded for President Hunter’s life but also said that he was in the Lord’s hands.58 A few days later, on March 3, 1995, President Hunter passed away.
President Hunter’s death, while not surprising, weighed heavily on the Hinckleys. As the senior Apostle, President Hinckley was next in line to become President of the Church. Sister Hinckley recalled the moment they received the news of President Hunter’s death: “President Hunter had gone, and we were left to carry on. I felt so sad, so alone. Gordon did, too. He was numb. And he felt very, very lonely. There was no one left who could understand what he was going through.”59
After President Hunter’s funeral, President Hinckley found comfort in the temple. Alone in the meeting room of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve in the Salt Lake Temple, he pored over the scriptures and meditated on what he read. He reflected on the life, ministry, and Atonement of Jesus Christ. Then he studied the portraits on the wall, depicting all the Presidents of the Church from Joseph Smith to Howard W. Hunter. He recorded this experience in his journal:
“I walked around in front of these portraits and looked into the eyes of the men there represented. I felt almost as if I could speak with them. I felt almost as if they were speaking to me and giving me reassurance. … I sat down in the chair which I have occupied as first counselor to the President. I spent a good deal of time looking at those portraits. Every one seemed almost to come alive. Their eyes seemed to be upon me. I felt that they were encouraging me and pledging their support. They seemed to say to me that they had spoken in my behalf in a council held in the heavens, that I had no need to fear, that I would be blessed and sustained in my ministry.
“I got on my knees and pleaded with the Lord. I spoke with Him at length in prayer. … I am confident that by the power of the Spirit, I heard the word of the Lord, not vocally, but as a warmth that was felt within my heart concerning the questions I had raised in prayer.”60
After this experience he again recorded his thoughts: “I feel better, and I have a much firmer assurance in my heart that the Lord is working His will with reference to His cause and kingdom, that I will be sustained as President of the Church and prophet, seer, and revelator, and so serve for such time as the Lord wills. With the confirmation of the Spirit in my heart, I am now ready to go forward to do the very best work I know how to do. It is difficult for me to believe that the Lord is placing me in this most high and sacred responsibility. … I hope that the Lord has trained me to do what He expects of me. I will give Him total loyalty, and I will certainly seek His direction.”61
President Gordon B. Hinckley was set apart as President of the Church on March 12, 1995, and the next day he spoke at a press conference and answered reporters’ questions. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland reported that “near the end of a warm, often witty, always winning exchange on a wide-ranging number of questions posed in this news conference, President Hinckley was asked by a reporter, ‘What will be your focus? What will be the theme of your administration?’
“Instinctively he answered, ‘Carry on. Yes. Our theme will be to carry on the great work which has been furthered by our predecessors.’”62
President Hinckley was true to that pledge. With respect for the prophets who had gone before him, he carried on with the work they had done. And with faith in God the Father and Jesus Christ, he followed revelation to perform that work in new ways.
President Gordon B. Hinckley at the pulpit in general conference
Toward the beginning of President Hinckley’s ministry, Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve observed: “President Hinckley is helping to lead the Church out of obscurity. The Church can’t move forward as it needs to if we are hidden under a bushel. Someone has to step out, and President Hinckley is willing to do so. He is a man of history and modernity at the same time, and he has marvelous gifts of expression that enable him to present our message in a way that appeals to people everywhere.”63
President Hinckley’s extensive background in media and broadcasting helped prepare him for this effort. As President of the Church, he frequently granted interviews to journalists around the world, answering their questions about Church doctrine and policy and bearing his testimony of the Savior and the restored gospel. Each time, understanding increased and friendships were developed.
Of particular note was a 1996 interview with veteran reporter Mike Wallace of the television program 60 Minutes. Mr. Wallace was known for being a relentless interviewer, and President Hinckley admitted some initial reservations before the show’s airing on national television in the United States. “If it turns out to be favorable, I will be grateful,” he said. “Otherwise, I pledge I’ll never get my foot in that kind of trap again.”64
The interview was favorable, showing many positive aspects of the Church. Another result was that Mike Wallace and President Hinckley became friends.
In 2002, Salt Lake City hosted the Winter Olympics, putting the Church in the spotlight internationally. President Hinckley and his counselors were consulted about part of the planning. “We made a deliberate decision that we would not use this as a time or place to proselytize,” he said, “but we were confident that out of this significant event would come a wonderful thing for the Church.”65 He was right. Tens of thousands of people visited the Salt Lake Valley and were greeted by gracious hosts—Latter-day Saints and others working together to create a successful Olympic games. These visitors walked around Temple Square, listened to the Tabernacle Choir, and visited the Family History Library. Billions of people saw the Salt Lake Temple on television and saw the Church presented favorably by reporters. It was, as President Hinckley said, “a wonderful thing for the Church.”
In addition to using long-established means of communication, President Hinckley embraced innovations. For example, he saw the Internet as a means of bringing the Church closer to its members and sharing the restored gospel with those of other faiths. During his administration, the Church launched LDS.org, FamilySearch.org, and Mormon.org.
On June 23, 2004, the day President Hinckley turned 94, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award given in the United States. In response he said: “I [am] deeply honored to receive this prestigious award from the President of the United States. I am profoundly grateful. In a larger sense, it recognizes and honors the Church which has given me so many opportunities and whose interests I have tried to serve.”66 He saw this award as symbolic of the growing positive reputation of the Church and evidence that it was indeed being brought out of obscurity.
President Hinckley disliked the rigors of travel, but his desire to serve among the Latter-day Saints was more powerful than his desire to stay home. He said that he wanted to “get out among our people to extend appreciation and encouragement, and to bear testimony of the divinity of the Lord’s work.”67 Early in his administration he commented, “I am determined that while I have strength I will get out among the people at home and abroad. … I intend to keep moving with energy for as long as I can. I wish to mingle with the people I love.”68
During his service as President of the Church, he traveled extensively inside the United States and made more than 90 visits to countries outside the United States. In all, he traveled more than a million miles (1.6 million kilometers) as President of the Church, meeting with Saints in all parts of the world.69
President Hinckley loved to “get out among the people at home and abroad.”
In some areas, people had to make an even greater effort to see him than he made to see them. For example, in 1996 he and Sister Hinckley visited the Philippines, where Church membership had grown to more than 375,000. President and Sister Hinckley were scheduled to speak one evening at a meeting in Manila’s Araneta Coliseum. By mid-afternoon of that day, the coliseum “was filled beyond capacity. Lines had begun to form at 7:00 a.m. for a meeting that wasn’t scheduled to begin for twelve hours. The official count later indicated that some 35,000 members had crowded into the coliseum’s 25,000 seats as well as the aisles and concourses. Many Saints had traveled twenty hours by boat and bus to reach Manila. For some, the cost of the journey equaled several months’ salary. …
“When word reached President Hinckley that the coliseum was full and that the building manager wondered if there was any way they could begin the meeting early, he immediately said, ‘Let’s go.’ He and Sister Hinckley entered the vast arena. … As if on cue, the congregation spontaneously rose to their feet, applauded, and then began singing an emotional rendition of ‘We Thank Thee, O God, for a Prophet.’”70
Knowing that he and his brethren could not go everywhere they wanted to go, President Hinckley championed the use of technology to instruct leaders around the world. Using satellite technology, he presided over worldwide leadership training broadcasts, the first one held in January 2003.
President Hinckley stated: “None of us … knows enough. The learning process is an endless process. We must read, we must observe, we must assimilate, and we must ponder that to which we expose our minds.”71 He also said: “Effective teaching is the very essence of leadership in the Church. Eternal life will come only as men and women are taught with such effectiveness that they change and discipline their lives. They cannot be coerced into righteousness or into heaven. They must be led, and that means teaching.”72
President Hinckley desired to provide more spiritual nourishment for Latter-day Saints throughout the world. In 1995 he enthusiastically approved a plan to publish a new series of books that would provide Church members with a gospel library. The Church soon began publishing this series, called Teachings of Presidents of the Church, of which this book is a part.
Secular learning was also important to President Hinckley. He was concerned about members of the Church in poverty-stricken areas of the world who could not afford higher education or vocational training. Without such education and training, most of them would remain in poverty. In the priesthood session of the April 2001 general conference, President Hinckley said:
“In an effort to remedy this situation, we propose a plan—a plan which we believe is inspired by the Lord. The Church is establishing a fund largely from the contributions of faithful Latter-day Saints who have and will contribute for this purpose. We are deeply grateful to them. … We shall call it the Perpetual Education Fund.”73
President Hinckley explained that those benefiting from the program would be given loans, taken from funds donated by Church members, for school or vocational training. After completing their education or training, they would be expected to repay their loans so the funds could be used to help others. President Hinckley also explained that the Perpetual Education Fund would be “based on similar principles to those underlying the Perpetual Emigrat[ing] Fund,” which the Church had established in the 1800s to help needy Saints emigrate to Zion.74
Within six months, Latter-day Saints had donated millions of dollars to the Perpetual Education Fund.75 A year after introducing the plan, President Hinckley announced: “This endeavor is now on a solid foundation. … Young men and women in the underprivileged areas of the world, young men and women who for the most part are returned missionaries, will be enabled to get good educations that will lift them out of the slough of poverty in which their forebears for generations have struggled.”76 This program continues to bless Latter-day Saints, both receivers and givers.
In the general Relief Society meeting held on September 23, 1995, President Hinckley said:
“With so much of sophistry that is passed off as truth, with so much of deception concerning standards and values, with so much of allurement and enticement to take on the slow stain of the world, we have felt to warn and forewarn. In furtherance of this, we of the First Presidency and the Council of the Twelve Apostles now issue a proclamation to the Church and to the world as a declaration and reaffirmation of standards, doctrines, and practices relative to the family which the prophets, seers, and revelators of this church have repeatedly stated throughout its history.”77
With this introduction, President Hinckley read, for the first time in public, “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”
“We counsel parents and children to give highest priority to family prayer, family home evening, gospel study and instruction, and wholesome family activities.”
The sanctity of marriage and family was a constant theme in President Hinckley’s teachings. He condemned abuse of any kind and encouraged parents and children to be patient with one another, to love one another, to teach one another, and to serve one another. In a letter dated February 11, 1999, he and his counselors in the First Presidency said:
“We call upon parents to devote their best efforts to the teaching and rearing of their children in gospel principles which will keep them close to the Church. The home is the basis of a righteous life, and no other instrumentality can take its place or fulfill its essential functions in carrying forward this God-given responsibility.
“We counsel parents and children to give highest priority to family prayer, family home evening, gospel study and instruction, and wholesome family activities. However worthy and appropriate other demands or activities may be, they must not be permitted to displace the divinely appointed duties that only parents and families can adequately perform.”78
President Hinckley loved to see large numbers of people join the Church, but he was concerned about the individuals represented by those numbers. Early in his administration he said:
“With the ever-increasing number of converts, we must make an increasingly substantial effort to assist them as they find their way. Every one of them needs three things: a friend, a responsibility, and nurturing with ‘the good word of God’ (Moro. 6:4). It is our duty and opportunity to provide these things.”79
Strengthening new converts was a constant theme for President Hinckley. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland shared the following account of him emphasizing this theme: “With a twinkle in his eye and a hand smacking the table in front of him, he said to the Twelve recently, ‘Brethren, when my life is finished and the final services are concluding, I am going to rise up as I go by, look each of you in the eye, and say, “How are we doing on retention?”’”80
President Hinckley applies mortar at the coverstone ceremony prior to dedicating the Nauvoo Illinois Temple in 2002.
In 1910, the year Gordon B. Hinckley was born, there were 4 operating temples in the world, and they were all in Utah. By 1961, when he was ordained an Apostle, the number had increased to 12. This progress was significant, but Elder Hinckley often expressed concern that many people around the world had limited access to temple blessings. In 1973, while serving as chairman of the Church’s Temple Committee, he wrote in his journal: “The Church could build [many smaller] temples for the cost of the Washington Temple [then under construction]. It would take the temples to the people instead of having the people travel great distances to get to them.”81
When he was sustained as President of the Church in 1995, the number of operating temples had increased to 47, but his desire for more temples was still strong. He said, “It has been my consuming desire to have a temple wherever needed so that our people, wherever they might be, could, without too great a sacrifice, come to the House of the Lord for their own ordinances and for the opportunity of doing vicarious work for the dead.”82
In the October 1997 general conference, President Hinckley made a historic announcement: the Church would begin to build smaller temples around the world.83 He later said, “The concept of small temples came, I believe, as a direct revelation.”84 In 1998 he announced that 30 new smaller temples, along with other temples already planned or under construction, would make “a total of 47 new temples in addition to the 51 now in operation.” To the delight of all who were listening, President Hinckley then added, “I think we had better add 2 more to make it an even 100 by the end of this century, being 2,000 years ‘since the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the flesh’ (D&C 20:1).” Then he promised, “There will be more yet to come.”85
On October 1, 2000, President Hinckley dedicated the Boston Massachusetts Temple, the 100th temple in operation. Before the end of the year 2000, he dedicated two more temples. When he died in 2008, the Church had 124 temples in operation, with 13 more announced. President Hinckley had been involved in the planning and construction of most of them, and he had personally dedicated 85 of them and had rededicated 13 (8 of the rededications were of temples he had previously dedicated).
The Conference Center, which President Hinckley dedicated in the October 2000 general conference
In the October 1995 general conference, President Hinckley hinted at an idea that had been on his mind. Speaking from the Tabernacle on Temple Square, he said: “This great Tabernacle seems to grow smaller each year. We now meet with far larger groups gathered under a single roof in some regional conferences.”86 In the April 1996 general conference, President Hinckley said more about his idea:
“I regret that many who wish to meet with us in the Tabernacle this morning are unable to get in. There are very many out on the grounds. This unique and remarkable hall, built by our pioneer forebears and dedicated to the worship of the Lord, comfortably seats about 6,000. Some of you seated on those hard benches for two hours may question the word comfortably.
“My heart reaches out to those who wish to get in and could not be accommodated. About a year ago I suggested to the Brethren that perhaps the time has come when we should study the feasibility of constructing another dedicated house of worship on a much larger scale that would accommodate three or four times the number who can be seated in this building.”87
On July 24, 1997, the 150th anniversary of the pioneers’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley, ground was broken for the new building—to be called the Conference Center—on the block immediately north of Temple Square. Less than three years later, in April 2000, the first sessions of general conference were held there, even though the building was not quite complete. President Hinckley dedicated the Conference Center at the October 2000 general conference. Before offering the dedicatory prayer, he stood at the pulpit, which had been made from a black walnut tree he had grown in his own yard, and said:
“Today we shall dedicate it as a house in which to worship God the Eternal Father and His Only Begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. We hope and we pray that there will continue to go forth to the world from this pulpit declarations of testimony and doctrine, of faith in the Living God, and of gratitude for the great atoning sacrifice of our Redeemer.”88
On January 1, 2000, President Hinckley, his counselors in the First Presidency, and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles published a proclamation titled “The Living Christ: The Testimony of the Apostles.” Of the Savior, they declared, “None other has had so profound an influence upon all who have lived and will yet live upon the earth.”89
And none other had so profound an influence on the life of President Gordon B. Hinckley. For more than 46 years he served as a special witness of the name of Jesus Christ. A few months after he and his brethren published “The Living Christ,” President Hinckley stood before the Latter-day Saints and said: “Of all the things for which I feel grateful this morning, one stands out preeminently. That is a living testimony of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Almighty God, the Prince of Peace, the Holy One.”90
At the end of the April 2004 general conference, President Hinckley said: “I reluctantly desire a personal indulgence for a moment. Some of you have noticed the absence of Sister Hinckley. For the first time in 46 years, since I became a General Authority, she has not attended general conference. … We were on our way home [from Africa in January] when she collapsed with weariness. She’s had a difficult time ever since. … I guess the clock is winding down, and we do not know how to rewind it.
“It is a somber time for me. We’ve been married for 67 years this month. She is the mother of our five gifted and able children, the grandmother of 25 grandchildren and a growing number of great-grandchildren. We’ve walked together side by side through all of these years, coequals and companions through storm and sunshine. She has spoken far and wide in testimony of this work, imparting love, encouragement, and faith wherever she’s gone.”91
Two days later, on April 6, Marjorie Pay Hinckley passed away. Millions of people, who loved her for her caring heart, quick wit, and steady faith, mourned with President Hinckley. He was grateful for letters of support and love that poured in from around the world. These expressions, he said, “shed an aura of comfort in our time of grief.”92 Many people made contributions in Sister Hinckley’s name to the Perpetual Education Fund.
As difficult as Marjorie’s loss was to him, President Hinckley continued on with the work of the Church, even though his own health declined slightly. He began carrying a cane. Sometimes he used it to support himself, but more often he used it to wave to Church members. President Thomas S. Monson recalled a conversation with President Hinckley’s doctor, who was worried about the way President Hinckley used—and did not use—his cane. The doctor said: “The last thing we want is for him to fall and break a hip or worse. Instead, he waves it around and then doesn’t use it when he walks. Tell him the cane has been prescribed by his doctor, and he needs to use it as it was meant to be used.” President Monson replied, “Doctor, I am President Hinckley’s counselor. You are his doctor. You tell him!”93
In early 2006, at the age of 95, President Hinckley was diagnosed with cancer. At the October general conference that year, he said: “The Lord has permitted me to live; I do not know for how long. But whatever the time, I shall continue to give my best to the task at hand. … I feel well; my health is reasonably good. But when it is time for a successor, the transition will be smooth and according to the will of Him whose Church this is.”94
A year later, in October 2007, President Hinckley closed his final general conference by saying: “We look forward to seeing you again next April. I’m 97, but I hope I’m going to make it. May the blessings of heaven attend you in the meantime is our humble and sincere prayer in the name of our Redeemer, even the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.”95
President and Sister Hinckley’s daughter Virginia described the four years after Sister Hinckley’s death as “the capstone years” of President Hinckley’s life. She then reflected on a prayer he offered on January 20, 2008, one week before his death, when dedicating a renovated chapel in Salt Lake City:
“In that prayer, in a very unusual way, he petitioned the Lord for himself as prophet. He spoke with gratitude that ‘from the days of Joseph Smith to the present Thou hast chosen and appointed a prophet to this people. We thank Thee and plead with Thee that Thou wilt comfort and sustain him and bless him according to his needs and Thy great purposes.’”96
On Thursday, January 24, 2008, President Hinckley felt, for the first time, unable to participate with his brethren in their weekly temple meeting. The following Sunday, January 27, President Monson gave him a priesthood blessing, assisted by Presidents Henry B. Eyring and Boyd K. Packer. Later that day, President Gordon B. Hinckley quietly passed away at home, surrounded by his five children and their spouses.
A few days later, thousands paid their respects as they passed by President Hinckley’s casket in a public viewing in the Conference Center’s Hall of the Prophets. Leaders of other churches and leaders in government and business also sent condolences, expressing gratitude for President Hinckley’s influence and teachings.
Funeral services were held in the Conference Center and broadcast to Church buildings around the world. The Tabernacle Choir sang a new hymn as part of the meeting, titled “What Is This Thing That Men Call Death?” The words of the hymn were written by President Hinckley—his final testimony of Jesus Christ to his friends who had looked to him as a prophet:
What is this thing that men call death,
This quiet passing in the night?
’Tis not the end, but genesis
Of better worlds and greater light.
O God, touch Thou my aching heart,
And calm my troubled, haunting fears.
Let hope and faith, transcendent, pure,
Give strength and peace beyond my tears.
There is no death, but only change
With recompense for victory won;
The gift of Him who loved all men,
The Son of God, the Holy One.97