A Couple of Thoughts on President Hinckley

January 28, 2008 | 40 comments
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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.

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40 Responses to A Couple of Thoughts on President Hinckley

  1. polly on January 28, 2008 at 12:01 am

    Rest in peace.

  2. donna on January 28, 2008 at 9:48 am

    Pres. Hinckley’s guide to a long and healthy life would probably include moderation, optimism, humor and good hard work. I will miss this great man, who has so profoundly affected my life.

  3. rk on January 28, 2008 at 10:34 am

    “. . . 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.”

    Small correction, the only one of two temples. . .” The other one being the temple in Copenhagen Denmark constructed from an old historic chapel.

  4. Russell Arben Fox on January 28, 2008 at 10:53 am

    …moderation, optimism, humor and good hard work.

    I suspect that just about nails it, Donna; thanks.

    And thanks to you, rk, for that note; I was completely unaware of that little detail about the Copenhagen Temple. Obviously, President Hinckley’s combination of fiscal prudence and historical appreciation has a legacy far beyond just the Utah/pioneer world he knew so well.

  5. Graham Wing on January 28, 2008 at 11:01 am

    That’s funny you mention that President Hinckley would never be President. I’ve had the same thoughts about President Monson. Just as you were wrong about President Hinckley, it is probably that I will be wrong about President Monson.

    The advice/counsel that President Hinckley shared with us helped us in our daily lives. It was very practical. I always felt like he was one of us (just a more committed one). I’ll miss him greatly.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on January 28, 2008 at 11:08 am

    The advice/counsel that President Hinckley shared with us helped us in our daily lives. It was very practical. I always felt like he was one of us (just a more committed one). I’ll miss him greatly.

    Yes, Graham, absolutely. He was, in some ways, our FDR president; his Sunday afternoon conference addresses were his fireside chats with the saints, telling us what’s up with the world and what’s on the horizon and how good it’s all going to turn out to be in the end. A hard-working man who saw himself and the rest of the saints as basically a bunch of good, similarly (or at least potentially) hard-working folk, waiting on instructions from Christ, ready to make a difference in a world, as he saw us as having been called to do.

  7. kris on January 28, 2008 at 11:13 am

    Thanks Russell, I didn\’t hear the news until I got up this morning. I appreciate your tribute on this bittersweet day.

  8. Ray on January 28, 2008 at 11:25 am

    Reach a little higher. Do a little more. Be a little better.

    What more, really, is there to say?

  9. Adam Greenwood on January 28, 2008 at 11:32 am

    His ‘do just a little bit better’ approach has done wonders for my hometeaching over the years.

  10. Brad Kramer on January 28, 2008 at 11:58 am

    I actually think (though I do not wish for this to turn into a threadjack) that he was hands-down the third most important, influential president of the modern Church, behind JS and BY. I posted at BCC recently on the personal impact he had on me, my faith, my commitment to the Church, and my view of the world: http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2007/12/be-not-afraid/

  11. Norbert on January 28, 2008 at 12:45 pm

    I read in the NYTimes obit that he also was the brains behind the temple film, which I found interesting. How much has that shaped the faith of many, many people?

  12. Bethie on January 28, 2008 at 12:53 pm

    President Gordon B. Hinckley was the only living Prophet I’ve ever
    known. His sense of fun, wit, love, humor, joy and compassion were a magnet that drew many to the Church. He was Christ-like.

    I love the tribute I heard on the news here in Salt Lake City when they interviewed a visitor at Temple Square….

    “What a wonderful life. What a wonderful man. His message….’forgive yourself and get to work!’”

  13. Kevinf on January 28, 2008 at 12:57 pm

    Brad, I would agree with you. Due to the early part of Pres. Hinckley’s church service in updating missionary materials shortly after his own mission, President Hinckley has done more to shape the public view of the church for some 70 years than any other church member.

    He will be missed sorely, and I especially will miss his gentle, self deprecating humor. I hope we loved him as much as he loved us.

  14. Ray on January 28, 2008 at 1:03 pm

    The thought that struck me today while reading the list of changes he oversaw in his time as President – and then those for which he largely was responsible prior to serving as President – is how amazing it is that we, the average Church member, had no idea all the things he had accomplished – all the things for which he was responsible. Truly, that is a sign of a brilliantly humble man.

  15. Russell Arben Fox on January 28, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    Due to the early part of Pres. Hinckley’s church service in updating missionary materials shortly after his own mission, President Hinckley has done more to shape the public view of the church for some 70 years than any other church member.

    Not just missionary materials, but missionary goals and approaches, making it more global and felxible and culturally open. It was Hinckley, along with Marion D. Hanks (another one of those Mormon figures who seem to have been everywhere and done everything during the second half of the 20th century), who pioneered the public service requirements that missionaries have today, and who helped to rehaul much of the church’s humanitarian service program, bringing it and missionary work together in some sometimes surprising ways.

    I actually think (though I do not wish for this to turn into a threadjack) that he was hands-down the third most important, influential president of the modern Church, behind JS and BY.

    I suppose such rankings are beside the point, and impossible to do anyway. Still, I find it hard to put born-in-the-19th-century presidents such as McKay and Kimball in the same basket with Hinckley, though ultimately it was only a few decades which separated them. Before McKay and Kimball and such, you had folks like Heber J. Grant leading the church, folks who had known, as children or as missionaries, the first generation of Mormons who came to Utah, who met or knew firsthand Brigham Young or Wilford Woodfruff of Jospeh F. Smith, and that colored how they lead and where they expected the church to go. Whereas mid-20th-century Mormon leaders were shaped by the second or third generation of Mormon pioneers, the Tanners and Moyles and Wrights and McConkies who transformed Utah and helped Mormons make sense of a post-Deseret, post-polygamy world. Those were the men who died off as Hinckley came up the ranks, in the 50s and 60s and 70s, the “wise old gray heads” whom he paid loving, tearful tribute to just a few conferences ago. Hinckley has being doing God’s work for a long time, and it’s hard to imagine what the church would look like without him, but then Hinckley was in his heart an optimist: he was always taking us forward, starting from where others before him had brought us, never looking back.

  16. Kim Siever on January 28, 2008 at 1:30 pm

    For the record, President Hinckley rededicated the Cardston temple in 1991, so we “Alberta temple” members can “owe our trip to this man”.

  17. Keith on January 28, 2008 at 1:37 pm

    One of the things I’ll remember him for is his efforts to move Latter-day Saints to greater tolerance and appreciation for those of other religions. I could bring out a score is statements from throughout his time as president urging us (without compromising out doctrine) to have respect for, learn from the strengths of, and work with those of other faiths. I recall him saying how he feared we were greatly misunderstood, but that much of it was of our own making. I also think we may look back to his time as a shift in emphasis in missionary work from a ‘we right, you’re wrong’ approach to one of ‘keep all the good that you have, come and see if we can add more.’

    While holding fast to the faith above all, President Hinckley did not want us to be parochial. He certainly showed how this can be done.

  18. Mark N. on January 28, 2008 at 2:33 pm

    When the Sacramento temple was dedicated, there was a multi-stake youth temple pageant at the Arco Arena with thousands of kids participating as onstage performers, dancers and choir members. An area conference meeting was held just prior to the performance and all the kids were invited to sit on the floor in the center of the arena (all of us old fogey adults were relegated to the actual seats on the outside of the arena, so ostensibly the kids had the best seats in the house so far as seeing the visiting General Authorities went).

    When President Hinckley first entered the arena and everyone stood up, he acknowledged everyone by waving his cane over his head, and the kids cheered him as if he was a rock star. How often do you see a 97-year-old dude that can summon that kind of response from a bunch of teenagers?

  19. Aaron on January 28, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    I was lucky enough to have had a personal encounter with him as well as serve with his grandson on my mission. I have some experiences on my website:

    http://www.graceforgrace.com

  20. Craig V. on January 28, 2008 at 5:32 pm

    I hope you will accept the condolences of a Presbyterian. I have noticed a change in tone of the LDS church over the past several years. Though that may just be the result of less ignorance on my part, I rather think that it represents real change in terms of openness, honesty and self reflection. It’s a change that I both admire and applaud.

  21. Bryan Stout on January 28, 2008 at 5:33 pm

    When my mother-in-law called us last night to tell us the news, it surprised me how sad I felt. He has come to be even dearer to me than I realized.

    I see Presidents McKay, Kimball, and Hinckley as being similar in many ways, in the impact they had on the church:

    - They each had long tenures as president, which together with the strong church growth meant that by the time they died, a large percentage of the members knew only the one president of the church.

    - They each raised the amount of temple construction worldwide to an important new level.

    - They each were moderate in approach, and were deeply loved and respected.

    - They each traveled abroad, and in many ways reached out to both members and non-members worldwide.

    One of my favorite memories of President Hinckley happened while he was an apostle. He was attending a conference, and an earlier speaker was the local mission president who said he asked his missionaries to never give a talk that could be given by a minister of another religion. That statement concerned me: our similarities with other groups are just as important as our differences, and shouldn’t be ignored; and I felt we shouldn’t have our agenda set in reaction to others. When Elder Hinckley later spoke, he referred to the mission president’s advice and said, “I like that. Does that mean that we shouldn’t preach about faith, hope and charity? No, but we can supplement what we teach with modern revelation.”

    I love the way he was able to respond to the mission president’s advice in a way that was simultaneously corrective and supportive. That was typical of his insight and his approach to others, and is a model I try to follow.

  22. Glen Cook on January 28, 2008 at 6:03 pm

    As a somewhat more visible LDS Freemason, I was surprised to receive condolences from other Masons who are not LDS:

    \”It doesn’t take a Utah native or a Mormon to see that he was a great man who did great things for followers and non-followers alike.\”

    \”Indeed, he was President of your church but he had a huge impact on all of us in this state. He was charismatic, fair, and a man who cared for all, not just his church people. I think we will all miss him in our own way.\”

    \”I always thought he was pretty cool. Smart, witty and kind.\”

  23. Meg Stout on January 28, 2008 at 8:08 pm

    I was momentarily sad about President Hinckley’s passing, but almost immediately I was glad for him and his family. For the past several years I’ve sensed his crogglement that he was still here. He made a goal of seeing 100 temples on the earth before he died, and he lived to see another 24 put in place.

    I had a sense this past December during the Christmas broadcast that this would be the last time I would see him, a subtle and hardly surprising foreboding.

    I was thinking of saying, “God rest his soul,” but given the LDS worldview, I think rest is the last thing Gordon will get on the other side. So may he joy in reunion with his beloved Marjorie, and may they together work for good in a way that age and physical limitations have prevented for many years.

  24. Marc on January 28, 2008 at 8:23 pm

    Russell’s post was just quoted in a Trib article.

  25. jimbob on January 28, 2008 at 9:20 pm

    “ ‘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.”

    I suppose that that honor will continue to be J. Reuben Clark’s, who had a very similar tenure in the First Presidency, but who was never called to lead.

  26. Bradley Ross on January 28, 2008 at 10:16 pm

    Gordon B. Hinckley Guide to Long and Healthy Living

    In reference to his own longevity, I liked this quip from President Hinckley when he was on with Larry King.

    KING: When you get to be your age, you attend a lot of funerals.

    HINCKLEY: Yes.

    KING: Don’t you?

    HINCKLEY: All of my friends who jog.

  27. Russell Arben Fox on January 28, 2008 at 11:04 pm

    I suppose that that honor will continue to be J. Reuben Clark’s, who had a very similar tenure in the First Presidency, but who was never called to lead.

    Yes, that’s a good point. Preisident Clark is actually a really good example of such humilty, since he–if I recall correctly–went from 2nd counselor, to first counselor, and then back to second counselor, under three different church presidents.

  28. Ray on January 28, 2008 at 11:28 pm

    When my mother was one of Pres. McKay’s secretaries, Pres. Clark was her favorite apostle. She always said she had never known a more humble man.

    It struck me today that we all mourned for Pres. Hinckley when he lost his best friend and confidante, Pres. Faust – but we haven’t talked much of Pres. Monson. He was part of the longest running presidency in the history of the Church, and now, assuming he becomes the President, he will organize a presidency with almost no experience in that role – after losing BOTH of his closest associates in just a few months. Our prayers really should go out to him.

  29. Russell Arben Fox on January 28, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    We haven’t talked much of Pres. Monson. He was part of the longest running presidency in the history of the Church, and now, assuming he becomes the President, he will organize a presidency with almost no experience in that role – after losing BOTH of his closest associates in just a few months.

    Excellent observation, Ray. In fact, I was just now finishing up an e-mail to a non-member friend of mine, who wanted to know the details of succession in the church, and about the likelihood of Elder Monson becoming the president of the church. And it struck me, as it did you: aside from the few months that Elder Eyring has got under his belt now as a member of the First Presidency, the Quorum of the Twelve apostles is completely bereft of men with this kind of “executive” experience. One of the downsides of having a team of men like Hinckley and Monson working together for so long: they have been together in the First Presidency, really dominating that council, in one capacity of another, since Elder Marion G. Romney died, and Monson came in as a replacement counselor for President Benson. When was that–1988 or 89, I think? That’s two decades of them working together in the church’s highest council as part of three different administrations. Monson could probably be forgiven for feeling as though he was now, comparatively speaking, being forced to start from scratch.

  30. California Star on January 29, 2008 at 1:46 am

    Only just two weeks ago we saw GBH speak via a special satelite telecast to the 70 stakes of Southern California gathered in a special stake conference. He seemed alive and healthy then but slowing down a little. It is hard to imagine that he would give out so soon thereafter.

    And then only last week Pres Monson was at our stake building to speak to the San Diego Temple district workers fireside. Wow – probably his last public performance before getting the mantle of leadership.

  31. John Taber on January 29, 2008 at 10:32 am

    Close – 1985. President Benson called Presidents Hinckley and Monson as his counselors when he became President of the Church. President Romney became President of the Twelve at that time, with President Hunter as Acting President until President Romney died in 1989.

  32. Russell Arben Fox on January 29, 2008 at 11:01 am

    Thanks for that correction, John. (I’m learning–or at least re-learning and/or remembering–at lot about the last generation or two of church history in this thread.) For some reason I thought Elder Romney stayed on as as first counselor in the First Presidency after President Kimball died; Elder Tanner was dead by then, and so all that was left by then of the brief three-counselor First Presidency under Kimball during his last years was Romney and Hinckley. I’d forgotten that Romney–who was completely incapacitated by that point–was formally returned to the Quorum of the Twelve.

    Well, anyway, so Hinckley and Monson–more than two decades of continuous service together in the church’s highest council. A pretty impressive record–and pretty intimidating one for soon-to-be President Monson to contemplate stepping beyond.

  33. John Taber on January 29, 2008 at 11:34 am

    And I’m reminded of not hearing of Pres. Romney’s death until a high councilor announced it sacrament meeting almost two weeks later. Some things have changed since then.

  34. cj douglass on January 29, 2008 at 11:56 am

    Russell, I think you’re spot on.

    In the April 2001 Conference, Pres. Hinckley relayed a favorable story about the church after the successful Salt Lake Olympics…

    she concluded her story by writing: “It is simply the mix of a serious and upright religion, of families who foster and insist upon providing the highest levels of culture right along with the highest modern technology, and of generally sensible organizing and governing. In short, it is a modern mix of the old America” (“Salt Lake City and State of Utah Reveal Themselves to the World,” Salt Lake Tribune, 15 Feb. 2002, A15).

    I remember at the time feeling that he was so proud of this article because it is what he embodied and what he saw (and hoped for) in all of us. In a sense, he was “a modern mix of the old America” – industrious, thrifty, humble, optimistic, inventive, hopeful and enduring. What a life to look to!

  35. Jonovitch on January 29, 2008 at 3:30 pm

    Ray and Russell (28 and 29), I have the feeling that Pres. Monson will do just fine with a from-scratch presidency. After all, this isn’t the first time he has stepped into roles of overwhelming responsibility with very little experience: he was the bishop of a large ward at age 22 (think of it, twenty-two!!), a mission president at age 32 (my chest caves at the thought of that responsibility), and an apostle (as in, one of the Twelve) at age 36.

    Plenty has been written about Pres. Hinckley’s great and impressive expansion of the church (there was a lot to write about!). Pres. Hinckley is one of the great prophets to have ever lived. He truly has accomplished more than many of his predecessors combined.

    It stands to reason that Pres. Monson will build on his good friend’s foundation, and launch the church into places we have not yet dreamed of. Pres. Monson, with a fresh First Presidency, years of top-leadership experience, and presumably many years of life left in him, could lead the church not through a similar expansion, but an explosion of growth and development.

    That said, my money is on Elder Eyring reprieving the role of counselor in the First Presidency. Then again, Pres. Monson could go a completely different route, just to give T&S another juicy topic to blog about. :)

    Jon

  36. m&m on January 29, 2008 at 3:31 pm

    Russell, you have been included as one of the many all around the globe who have responded to his death.

    Go to the sltrib dot com site and add a forward slash with this behind it: ci_8105755 (sometimes your filter hasn’t liked links, so I am trying it this way).

  37. Kathy C. on January 30, 2008 at 9:33 am

    Back to your original premise- I too had similar thoughts but for a different reason. When I looked at the line up – this was during Bensons time- it looked to me like you had several older men and then you had Monson- I figured he would be the next one because he was younger and would be more vigorous.
    Boy did Pres. Hinckley prove me wrong- and I think he\’s been way more then a careful administrator. Look at the Proclamation on the Family- who knew 9 or 10 years later we\’d be fighting to define marriage? I think the incredible increase in temples- besides being a blessing for far flung stakes of the church will prove to be like seeds planted in areas where the church will grow exponentially.
    Not only did he come up with the temple film, but being in the audio-visual department of the church- he was instrumental in General Conference being televised and satelite broadcasted all over the world. His infuence can be felt in almost every department of the church and every area of the world.

  38. Russell Arben Fox on January 30, 2008 at 10:57 am

    Back to your original premise – I too had similar thoughts but for a different reason. When I looked at the line up – this was during Bensons time- it looked to me like you had several older men and then you had Monson – I figured he would be the next one because he was younger and would be more vigorous. Boy did Pres. Hinckley prove me wrong.

    Absolutely, Kathy. Those of us lifetime members in–what, say, our mid-to-late 30s through our mid-to-late 40s?–a certain age bracket for the most part didn’t start thinking seriously about the church leadership until sometime during out teenage years in the 1980s, during which we had a feeble and dying President Kimball, followed by President Benson, who after a few good years descended rapidly into the same state. Next to all them was Elder Hinckley, active but already well into his 70s, Elder Hunter, old and crippled by disease, Elder Packer, healthy but usually scowling and seemingly prematurely aged…and then Elder Monson: a towering, hearty, laughing, energetic presence, a leading general authority who wasn’t even at retirement age yet. He could have gotten himself a second career working at Wal-Mart.

    There was a book written by Harold Bloom in the late 1980s, titles The American Religion, which spent a while talking about Joseph Smith and the Mormons; the thing I remember best about the book were the estimates he ran on upcoming church leaders, and his hypothesis that the “powerful Thomas S. Monson” would likely reign over the church for decades, changing it as no other church leader ever before could have imagined. Of course, that could still happen…but Hinckley’s longevity has certainly taken a bite out of Bloom’s prediction.

  39. Kristine on January 30, 2008 at 12:08 pm

    Kathy, I generally agree with your points, but have to quibble with this: “Look at the Proclamation on the Family- who knew 9 or 10 years later we\’d be fighting to define marriage?”

    In fact, everyone knew it–the Proclamation was composed while the Church was participating in the first lawsuit over the right of gays to marry in Hawaii, so there’s nothing particularly prophetic about its anticipation of that issue.

    Sorry, pet peeve. /end threadjack/

  40. queuno on February 4, 2008 at 2:06 am

    so there’s nothing particularly prophetic about its anticipation of that issue

    Maybe not anticipation, but definitely the response…