Book Review: Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball

October 12, 2005 | 37 comments
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If you liked the recent President McKay biography, you are going to love the new biography of President Kimball.

President Kimball’s son Edward wrote a biography of his father in 1977, which turned out to be really bad timing since the most significant event of Kimball’s administration–and, arguably, of all of twentieth-century Church history–happened the very next year. That biography was (and still is) lauded as an unusually honest portrait of a Church President. (And you should read it before you read the new one.) I’m not sure why it took almost thirty years for the followup biography, but I can assure you that it was worth the wait.

Like the McKay book, this one fills some of the gaps in Church history. I’m too young to remember the ERA battle, the Hoffman affair, the Howard Hughes will, and the Church’s opposition to the MX missile. The author frequently uses before-and-after quotations from the General Handbook of Instruction in order to show how policies changed during his father’s administration. And, just as the McKay book did, there are lots of wonderful factoids here: Did you know that early converts in Africa were disproportionately male? That part of the responsibility of the committee that revised the hymn book in the 1970s was to use more gender-neutral language? That for a period ‘instructional solemn assemblies’ were held to train local priesthood leaders?

Edward Kimball writes that it was his father’s wish for his biography be “warts and all.” And it is. No flinching, no sanitizing. Here is a prophet who occasionally skips Church and becomes depressed over his physical limitations. We see a man who is overzealous in calling his inactive son to repentance and who later wished that he had been gentler in The Miracle of Forgiveness. We see the General Young Women’s President, Elaine Cannon, changing President Kimball’s mind about a major policy issue. We see the diminutive Kimball spending the night in the posh home of a stake president where he has to jump into the bed because it is so high off of the ground. And when he does, it breaks.

But we also see a Prophet of God:

On one occasion, while a Church security staff member was driving President Kimball home, Spencer leaned back to rest. After a bit, he suddenly sat bolt upright, took off his glasses, and looked intently at the driver. “Is this your first family?” he asked. Taken aback, the driver answered, “No, sir, I was married before. I tried all I could, but it did not work out.” President Kimball said, “I’m sorry if I have said something to cause you pain.” He lay back again briefly, then sat up again, looked intently, and asked, “How is your son?” The driver, who had only daughters by his second marriage, explained that he had not been allowed to see the son by his first marriage since the child was an infant, nearly twenty years earlier. They arrived at the Kimball home, and Spencer, embracing him, said, “You have good things to look forward to.” Puzzled, the driver asked [secretary] Arthur Haycock why the President would be reading his personnel file. Arthur assured him that the President had not seen the file. “How then,” the driver asked, “did he know about my family situation?” Arthur smiled, “That’s why he’s President of the Church.”

I don’t have a problem with ‘warts and all’ history, except that some authors forget about the ‘and all.’ Edward Kimball didn’t. This is a stellar, spiritual, honest, and amazing portrait of a prophet. But that’s not all.

Each book comes with a CD which includes the full text of this biography, several other biographies of President and Sister Kimball, many scholarly articles, photographs, and audio clips. (It would have been nice if they had included the text of some of President Kimball’s more noteworthy talks but, alas, they didn’t.) The audio clips include some from before and others from after his throat surgery and his own description of the revelation on the priesthood–from a talk given in South Africa only a few months after the revelation was received. The CD also includes what is called the ‘working draft’ of this biography. A publisher’s preface in the book hints at why it may have been included:

The publisher and the biographer do not agree on the interpretations or weight of importance given to a number of events, or the choices of characterization of some of the people.

I read the working draft, which is color-coded to indicate what material is and isn’t in the final draft. (But I should note that I found at least a half-dozen errors in the color-coding system.) I would describe the omitted material as follows:

–About half of the omissions are fat that any good editor would have cut–interesting stuff, perhaps, that just wasn’t relevant to a biography of President Kimball and would have made a long book too long.
–Many omissions involve material that recounted differences of opinion between members of the Quorum of the Twelve and/or the First Presidency. The final book often includes the conflict without naming those who disagreed with President Kimball.
–Many omissions serve to make the final book less liberal than the working draft. Not only are some of Edward Kimball’s more liberal views removed, but some of President Kimball’s are as well. For example, the final book offers no sympathy to Sonia Johnson (a vocal supporter of the ERA who was excommunicated), but the working draft does by including her refutation of some of the charges against her. The draft portrays President Kimball as more sympathetic toward Johnson than the final book does. There are only two instances where the working draft is more conservative than the final book: President Kimball’s personal opinions about oral sex and birth control were omitted.
–Text on topics that might be embarrassing to the Church (failed policies, bad public relations, anti-Mormon efforts, “unannounced missions,” changes in temple work, compensation of GAs, discussion of pre-Adamites, Kimball’s suggestion that the priesthood ban may have been an error, etc.) were omitted from the final draft. Whether these omissions are due to discomfort over the subject or the assessment that they weren’t particularly relevant to a biography of the Church President is difficult to determine.
–Other omissions create a less-flawed portrait of the President; let’s just say that after reading the draft, one wonders if some of J. Golden Kimball’s proclivities were genetic.

But, overall, the omissions do not profoundly change the book, with one exception: the draft suggests that President Kimball had already reached a conclusion (based on inspiration) about extending the priesthood to all men before the famous revelation, which functioned more to ensure that recalcitrant members of the Quorum of the Twelve would fully support the change.

What didn’t I like? Not much. Many of the photographs don’t have captions and that’s annoying. While I can appreciate the desire to put most footnotes on the CD to save space in the book, it is somewhat disconcerting not to have a citation at hand. The footnotes that are included are often interesting factoids, if not completely germane to the topic at hand. But these are minor quibbles.

I am surprised that Deseret Book published this; it covers a lot of ground that one doesn’t normally find in a Deseret Book. This includes doctrinal matters (Adam-God theory, blood atonement) as well as historical incidents (the prophet asking an apostle to change a talk before publishing it, a First Presidency statement meant to clarify that a statement made by the prophet was a personal opinion). I’m going to be optimistic and hope that this book is the first of a long line of candid and compelling works from Deseret. I believe the Saints will be the better for it; my overarching impression of President Kimball after reading this book is that he was an incredibly humble, human, and powerful prophet. As his wife described him, this book represents him: “It is too much to say that he is perfect, but he comes wondrously close.”

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37 Responses to Book Review: Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball

  1. danithew on October 12, 2005 at 8:36 pm

    Julie, thanks again for the book review. I look forward to these.

  2. Guy W. Murray on October 12, 2005 at 8:44 pm

    Ditto Julie in A . . . .btw . . . when can we expect your review of Rough Stone Rolling?

  3. Julie in Austin on October 12, 2005 at 9:15 pm

    Guy W. Murray,

    Well, it is a little more than a review, so it will be a little while yet.

  4. Marc Bohn on October 12, 2005 at 9:50 pm

    Great review… between this book, DOM/Modern Mormonism and Rough Stone Rolling I’m going to be mighty distracted from law school this semester.

  5. Wilfried on October 12, 2005 at 10:14 pm

    Thanks, Julie. I’m really looking forward to read “the Sequel”. I had the pleasure, years ago, to work on and publish the Dutch translation of the first biography. Edward Kimball was generous in providing us with stacks of original pictures of their family albums, from which we could freely select to add to our translation. I was immensely impressed by his openness and willingness to not hold back.

    The two “versions” of the new biography is indeed an interesting phenomenon. I wholeheartedly share your conclusion: “I’m going to be optimistic and hope that this book is the first of a long line of candid and compelling works from Deseret.”

  6. tyler johnsons on October 12, 2005 at 11:55 pm

    Good review. You know, it’s funny: speaking candidly about troubling church matters strengthens my testimony much more than glossing over them; consequently, part I of the President Kimball biography was as refreshing and “faith-promoting” as just about anything I have read. Like you, however, I was profoundly disappointed to find the book ended right before the good part. I’m exctive to read on.

  7. Aaron Brown on October 13, 2005 at 1:54 am

    “I am surprised that Deseret Book published this; it covers a lot of ground that one doesn’t normally find in a Deseret Book.”

    Yes, the whole time I was reading your review, I was asking myself who the publisher was. This sounds more like Signature or Illinois material than Deseret Book fare. What a pleasant surprise that Deseret Book would put this out. My only concern is that some of us who like to make snarky comments about D.B. may now have to reevaluate our perceptions and commentary in the future. Thanks for potentially ruining my prejudices, Julie. :)

    “I’m going to be optimistic and hope that this book is the first of a long line of candid and compelling works from Deseret. I believe the Saints will be the better for it”

    I really, really hope this is true. I’ve long believed it is truly sad that largely sanitized or sugar-coated works are what counts as “faith-promoting” in the minds of so many Saints. There’s nothing inevitable about that conclusion, in my opinion, and the more good histories and biographies that are produced, the easier it will be to bury that silly assumption for good.

    Aaron B

  8. Sue on October 13, 2005 at 10:32 am

    I’m also really looking forward to your post on Rough Stone Rolling…

  9. Kevin Barney on October 13, 2005 at 10:38 am

    Thanks for the very helpful review, Julie. I loved the first bio, and with your review of this second volume I will definitely be getting it.

    I found it interesting that Edward used before and after quotes from the General Handbook to illustrate changes in policy. He is of course an expert in the General Handbook and its permutations over the years (see for instance his Journal of Mormon History article on changing temple recommend standards over the years), so he was uniquely positioned to be able to do this.

    I’ll tell you a fun story about SWK. Two months ago my wife and I were visiting with our old friends Mike and Pam Hicks in Orem. Mike is a professor of music at BYU and author of Mormonism and Music out of the UoIllinois Press. Mike asks us to come out to his garage to see something that would never be seen in quite that form ever again.

    So we go out there, and in the middle of the garage are a half-dozen or so large boxes filled with record albums (many of them 78s). This was SWK’s personal record collection, which Edward had given Mike to go through and dispose of. Most of the stuff had no inherent value apart from its association with SWK and was destined for donation to DI. But it was interesting to see the kind of stuff he had. There was a box of MTC records, and another box of “Lamanite” music. (According to Edward, when at the office SWK usually liked to listen to Hawaian music.)

    Two things that I found particularly interesting. First, there were some Beatles records, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan! The explanation for this is apparently that SWK was a very thrifty man, the type who tossed around nickels as if they were manhole covers. His sons probably bought those records, and over time they got absorbed into SWK’s own collection. Edward assured Mike that his dad didn’t sit around listening to the Beatles. I wanted to take the Dylan album and hang it on the wall as President Kimball’s personal copy of a Bob Dylan album, but my wife wouldn’t let me.

    Second, SWK’s tightness with a dollar explains this next curiousity in the collection. There were several boxes of classical 78s. These had once belonged to SWK’s oldest son, Spencer LeVan. When SLK moved to New York, he couldn’t take these albums with him, and it would have been too expensive to ship them, so he left them behind. One of these albums contained one of SWK’s favorite symphonies (I forget now which one it was; sorry). Mike showed us the inside front cover of the album, where SWK had written a W over the L of his son’s name! I busted a gut over that, and my son took a picture of it.

    SWK was the prophet of my youth, and his very humanity makes his prophetic calling stand out all the more.

    Thanks again for the great review, Julie.

  10. Tanya Spackman on October 13, 2005 at 11:05 am

    I love your book reviews. Thank you for writing them. And as I am always looking for more books to read, I’ve just ordered both of the SWK biographies :-)

  11. A Nonny Mouse on October 13, 2005 at 11:34 am

    Great review! I pretty much wanna go get this book right now.

    Julie, you said:
    “But, overall, the omissions do not profoundly change the book, with one exception: the draft suggests that President Kimball had already reached a conclusion (based on inspiration) about extending the priesthood to all men before the famous revelation, which functioned more to ensure that recalcitrant members of the Quorum of the Twelve would fully support the change.”

    After reading Arrington’s description of the events surrounding the revelation, I thought that it was pretty clear that this is what happened, so I wonder if: 1. I was “smoking crack” and reading too much into what Arrington wrote; 2. The Edward Kimball account is based on the Arrington account; or 3. this is one of those “in the mouth of two or three” things…

  12. Julie in Austin on October 13, 2005 at 11:38 am

    Mr. or Mrs. Mouse–

    To which Arrington work are you referring? I’d like to read it. I don’t recall offhand what source EK was using for this incident, but I’ll check later and get back to you. While I’m not an expert on the revelation, this *was* the first time that I had heard this interpretation of events and it is definitely *not* the Sunday School version of events.

  13. Kevin Barney on October 13, 2005 at 12:01 pm

    Julie, A Nonny Mouse is alluding to Adventures of a Church Historian.

  14. jimbob on October 13, 2005 at 12:16 pm

    I’ve heard all of this second and third hand, so do with it what you will. I was under the impression that the CD was issued so that Deseret Book could continue to maintain that it is staying true to its new goals of only having faith promoting stuff (i.e., not everything true is useful), but that the author still would feel like he was telling the history he wanted. That is, DB wanted this book badly enough to include the CD, but stopped short of putting the actual text in the book, as that would produce an Arrington or Quinn type of history, which DB no longer is apparently willing to carry. Can anyone confirm or deny?

  15. Julie in Austin on October 13, 2005 at 1:27 pm

    Sigh. I just read Adventures of a Church Historian a few months ago, and I don’t remember that. Must work on recall . . .

    jimbob–I have no ability to confirm or deny what you write, except to note that the book as published would definitely *not* meet the goal of being strictly faith promoting, if you are the kind of person who thinks that fallibility is not faith promoting. So that causes me to question your theory, since the book as published very much is an Arrington (if not quite a Quinn) type history.

  16. Wilfried on October 13, 2005 at 2:12 pm

    I think fallibility is faith promoting. It shows there is still hope for you and me.

  17. A Nonny Mouse on October 13, 2005 at 2:56 pm

    Wilfried, #16: Amen. This reminds me of a story from Bocaccio’s Decameron where a Catholic man tries to convert his Jewish friend umpteen times unsuccesfully. The Jewish man goes to Rome and sees all the debauchery there, comes back and demands to be baptized instantly. When his friend inquires as to what the reason is for the sudden change, the Jewish man says something like, “If your church has survived even though all those awful people have been trying to ruin it so hard for so long, it must be true!” Although it’s certainly no proof for the validity or truthfulness of the church, knowing that somebody as in tune as President Kimball still has his failings gives me comfort that perhaps the Lord will help me in my meager assignments, despite my monumental shortcomings.

    Julie in Austin – I was referring to Adventures of a Church Historian, although, once again, it’s been a few years and I don’t have a good memory either… Perhaps I just inferred from the context of the chapter on the revelation, but it seemed like Arrington was saying that Spencer W. Kimball felt driven to change the policy long before the actual revelation, and that Arrington felt like one reason a revelation was necessary was to make sure the quorum of the 12 would support Spencer W. Kimball in making the change… I seem to remember some discussion of him talking with members of the quorum individually and seeing where they stood on the policy… Of course, once again, maybe I was inferring that, or mixing it up with somebody else…

    The key thing I remember taking from that chapter in the Arrington book, though, was that there was indeed a revelation from the Lord on the subject, and the policy didn’t change until that point, even though Spencer W. Kimball had wanted it to. I left the reading of that chapter feeling very, very good about the fact that the Church really is guided by revelation. It was a very faith promoting experience for me, which is why it’s so interesting to me that the actual revelation is talked about so little in “canonical” sources.

  18. Julie in Austin on October 13, 2005 at 3:16 pm

    A Nonny Mouse-

    Thanks for your comments. I agree completely with you and Wilfried about really faith promoting history. I think the reason we don’t talk about the revelation much is because we don’t want to talk about the ban! I may post on this soon . . .

    I took another look at the draft . . . first thing to notice is that the chapter is titled “Decision and Confirmation” as if those might be two separate things. The chapter heads off with describing it as a “prayerfully formulated tentative answer” followed by “a spiritual confirmation.”

    While EK does make some reference to Arrington, he states at the beginning of the chapter that a major source for it was an interview he did with his father in 1978. The 2-3 sentences that most directly support the idea that the revelation was to ensure unanimity–not to change Pres. Kimball’s mind–do not have footnotes. It also confirms the idea that he spoke individually with members of the 12. So I think the most reasonable reading is that this information is from his interview, not from Arrington.

    To add, I think the fact that some of the Q12 might not have been personally predisposed to the idea supports the notion that the Church is, in fact, led by revelation.

  19. A Nonny Mouse on October 13, 2005 at 3:54 pm

    Julie, #18:
    “I think the reason we don’t talk about the revelation much is because we don’t want to talk about the ban! I may post on this soon . . .”

    True, true… I wonder if the reason why I feel confused about the lack of discussion of the actual revelation is because I grew up in a church where the ban was a non-issue. Since it was never a sticking point in my interaction with other people about the church, it’s never been a taboo subject in my mind…

  20. Vin D. on October 13, 2005 at 5:13 pm

    “That biography was (and still is) lauded as an unusually honest portrait of a Church President. (And you should read it before you read the new one.)”

    Julie, could you elaborate on why it makes sense to read the first bio before reading this new one? Is the former not subsumed into the latter? I don’t plan on reading Bushman’s earlier book on J. Smith before reading “Rough Stone Rolling,” for example. How is this situation different? Thanks.

  21. Marc Bohn on October 13, 2005 at 5:36 pm

    Vin,

    I believe this new biography just focuses on the presidency of Spencer W. Kimball while the previous biography focuses more on the rest of his life.

  22. Julie in Austin on October 13, 2005 at 5:41 pm

    Vin D.–

    Marc is correct, but I’d even state it a little more strongly: there is no overlap at all between the books, hence the first is still very much worth reading.

  23. A Nonny Mouse on October 13, 2005 at 6:43 pm

    Julie, I’ve never read the first one, I guess because I assumed (unwisely) it was just another one of those paeans about the GAs that BookCraft or whoever publishes a lot… Which is not that to say that those are bad, just that they end up low on the list of things to read…

    Does this new one pick up where the old one left off? Where does the old one leave off? Do you really have to read the first one before the second one?

  24. Julie in Austin on October 13, 2005 at 7:40 pm

    You don’t _have_ to read the first one; this one makes perfect sense without it. But I do think the story of his youth, education, and business years is interesting and is not, in this case, mere hagiography. Besides, it’s 99 cents at amazon–what do you have to lose? ;)

    The old one leaves off early in his presidency, the new one picks up in about the same place.

  25. Stephen M (Ethesis) on October 13, 2005 at 7:47 pm

    Neat, thanks for this review. I’m still reading the McKay biography and really enjoying it, hoping to keep my hands on it so my brother doesn’t swipe it ;)

  26. Geoff J on October 14, 2005 at 2:58 am

    Dang Julie — You’re really good at book reviews. Nice work once again.

  27. John H on October 14, 2005 at 12:23 pm

    “That is, DB wanted this book badly enough to include the CD, but stopped short of putting the actual text in the book, as that would produce an Arrington or Quinn type of history, which DB no longer is apparently willing to carry. Can anyone confirm or deny? ”

    On the one hand, I think DB is unfairly criticized for what it is and isn’t willing to carry. They always stocked Arrington’s book when I was there, Will Bagley’s book, and I special-ordered in Quinn’s books and had them on the shelf and no one said a word. There may have been some changes in the last few years, but I’ve always seen these same books when I’ve gone in and browsed.

    OTOH, as I’ve spoken with people at DB and with those familiar with the publication of this book, I’m truly troubled at DBs approach to editing. It’s stunning to me that they would eliminate material from a book by the author’s son and someone who’s done intense research for many years on the subject’s life, just because they don’t think it’s “faith-promoting” enough.

    I’ve always argued that if we say faith is the evidence of things not seen which are true, then untruths cannot, by definition, be faith-promoting. Only truth can promote faith, and leaving out the truth will ultimately cause more harm than good. Some might argue that leaving out truth isn’t the same as lying or promoting untruth, but I’d disagree. Julie’s example of Sonia Johnson is key. By leaving things out, DB created a story that isn’t really accurate – at least according to Ed Kimball.

  28. Suzanne A. on October 15, 2005 at 12:39 am

    Does the book include his experiences as a missionary? I understand his missionary journal was found after he passed away.

  29. Julie in Austin on October 15, 2005 at 1:18 pm

    Suzanne–

    Nope, just his presidency.

  30. Suzanne A. on October 15, 2005 at 8:55 pm

    Thanks. Maybe there will be a third book…

    (I thought the first biography was good. That’s it–I wouldn’t make a very good book reviewer.)

  31. Allison on October 17, 2005 at 11:02 am

    Julie, thanks for the review. I liked the first biography — I read it when I was a teenager, along with Camilla Kimball’s autobiography, and enjoyed both. I’ll be buying this one.

  32. A Nonny Mouse on October 17, 2005 at 1:44 pm

    Julie, #24: “Besides, it’s 99 cents at amazon–what do you have to lose? ;)”

    Just for the record, I borrowed from my in-laws for free last night. The first one is all over the place… You can probably get it for less than $0.99 at your local DI… Yet another reason it’s kind of low on the totem poll: It’ll always be readily available… :)

    I haven’t started it yet, but I leafed through it and found several charming stories. Thanks for the tip!

  33. Bradley Ross on October 20, 2005 at 11:35 pm

    I know it has been linked elsewhere, but it is worth another link in case you haven’t found it yet: John Dehlin’s interview of Greg Prince about blacks and the priesthood. I found it wonderfully enlightening. I love to hear John having “ah-hah” moments right alongside me.

  34. Bradley Ross on October 20, 2005 at 11:37 pm

    How about a real link to the interview this time?

  35. Marc Bohn on March 4, 2006 at 7:28 pm

    Go Julie!!!

    …”Edward Kimball’s book has “no flinching, no sanitizing,” writes Julie A. Smith on the Mormon blog, http:// http://www.timesandseasons.org.
    “Here is a prophet who occasionally skips church and becomes depressed over his physical limitations. We see a man who is overzealous in calling his inactive son to repentance and who later wished that he had been gentler in The Miracle of Forgiveness,” writes Smith, of Austin, Texas. “We see the diminutive Kimball spending the night in the posh home of a stake president where he has to jump into the bed because it is so high off of the ground. And when he does, it breaks.”
    But, she writes, “We also see a Prophet of God….

  36. Marc Bohn on March 4, 2006 at 7:30 pm

    (Not sure that people are going to notice my “Go Julie” hyperlink above: SL Trib – Kimball’s Legacy)

  37. Julie M. Smith on March 4, 2006 at 8:01 pm

    Thanks, Marc. :)

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