For some years, when I was a teenager and then a young man, I was convinced President Hinckley would die as a counselor in the First Presidency; that he would never become president of the church.
This smart, funny, worldly-wise and media-smart, yet also pious and kind and and ferociously dedicated servant of God (read his biography sometime, and be struck, as I was, at the totality of his commitment to the church, supplementing but ultimately superior to every other commitment he made in his life, including to his wife Marjorie and his children), found himself for all intents and purposes running the church during President Kimball’s declining years, in the early 1980s, as other counselors similarly succumbed to old age and mental weakness. The same thing happened again during the final years of President Benson’s administration in the 1990s, and then to some extent it happened a third time with President Hunter (who was ill for the entire nine months he served as president). “He’s going to be taken,” I would arrogantly say. “His whole life will be one long lesson to the church in humilty, in the dignity of serving and supporting, but never leading. I’m sure of it.”
Needless to say, I was wrong.
He served nearly thirteen years as our sustained prophet, seer, and revelator–not the longest time ever served by a church president; but then again, he was active for all of it. No long, slow decline into illness and incapacity for him, as had become not uncommon over the course of the 20th century; he was still speaking publicly to the whole church as recently as last Christmas. And yet amazingly, he was by that time the oldest man to ever serve as President of the Church (one wonders if there is a Gordon B. Hinckley Guide to Long and Healthy Living in there somewhere, waiting to be written).
Different people’s definition of the term will vary, but I suspect I am not alone in thinking he was never particularly prophetic in his style or rhetoric, even in a thoroughly Americanized, 20th-century sense; a Spencer Kimball he was not. What he was was a careful administrator, a smart businessman with the Lord’s time and money, a self-effacing yet effective commander and mover of people–and I’m not just talking about the church hierarchy and bureaucracy, here, but all of us. He knew the power of wit. Remember those first few conferences in the mid-1990s, and the way he’d come to the podium on Sunday afternoons, cough a bit, toss out a joke and get everybody chuckling, and then drop his latest bomb: the complete reorganization of the structure and purpose of seventies quorums, both on the general and the stake level. The goal of 100 operating temples by the year 2000. The Perpetual Education Fund. BYU-Idaho (bye bye, Rick’s College). Oh, and my favorite: the reconquest of Nauvoo.
He was are most widely traveled prophet, both as an apostle and as president of the church. And yet was at the same time deeply learned in and deeply moved by Mormon and Utah history, and sought to preserve it whenever possible. Not that many other church leaders, past and present, weren’t passionate about the church’s legacy, but President Hinckley made sure his passion involved the material and participatory side as well. The complete refashioning and upgrading of the Sacred Grove historical site in New York. The return to the Joseph Smith birthplace memorial in 2005 to honor the Prophet’s 200th birthday. And the one that will always be close to my family’s heart: saving the old Vernal Tabernacle from eminent destruction, and having it made instead into a temple, the only temple of the church constructed within and out of an existing historical landmark.
Summing it up? If you live anywhere besides Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Hawaii, Alberta, Washinton DC, Great Britain, and perhaps a half-dozen other places around the world, and you’ve been to the temple anytime in the past year, you owe your trip to this man. If you’re a returned native missionary from Mexico or the Phillipines or Brazil, and you’re getting a degree at a technical college, your church scholarship is owed to this man. He was, I will wager, despite my own imperfect grasp of church history, and my far from worthy judgment of our times and characters, the fourth or fifth most important church president of this dispensation, behind Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Wilford Woodruff, and possibly Spencer W. Kimball or David O. McKay. If Smith started us out, and Young gave us our definitive place and shape in this world, and Woodruff saved us from the worst the 19th century could throw at us, and McKay and/or Kimball settled us into the 20th century at last, then it is Hinckley and his legacy that has helped ready us for the 21st century, and perhaps even beyond. A great man, and by all accounts, very nearly a saintly one as well.
Requiescat in pace, President Hinckley. I can’t imagine that in my remaining years on this earth as a member of this church, I’ll see another leader like you.