Spencer W. Kimball

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Mormon Prophet Spencer W Kimball
Spencer W. Kimball, president and prophet, 1973–1985

Spencer W. Kimball (1895–1985) was the twelfth president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often known as the Mormon Church. President Kimball is remembered for his contributions in organizing the structure of the Church and for the revelation he received permitting all worthy men to be ordained to the Priesthood. Despite his advanced age when he became president (age 78), most of his tenure (1973–1985) was characterized by his dynamic energy, his openness, and his genuine love for all humanity.

Early Life

Born Spencer Woolley Kimball on March 28, 1895, in Salt Lake City, Utah, Spencer was the son of Andrew Kimball (whose father was Apostle Heber C. Kimball) and Olive Woolley. His father was a traveling salesman who worked throughout the American West. When Spencer was three years old, the family moved to Thatcher, Arizona, a small community in southeastern Arizona, so that his father could serve as a stake president in the area.

Young Spencer had a challenging life. He suffered from typhoid fever, smallpox, and temporary paralysis, but was miraculously cured. Once, he nearly drowned. He had four siblings die, and his mother died when he was only eleven years old. He also was required to work hard on the family farm, when he was physically able. Nevertheless, he persevered and graduated from high school. His father described him an "exceptional boy," who "always tries to mind me, whatever I ask him to do" (Quoted in L. R. Flake, "Prophets and Apostles of the Last Dispensation," p. 114).

In 1914, Spencer W. Kimball was called on a mission to the Central United States, where he was called to preside over 25 missionaries, most of whom were older, and some of whom were married. When he came home, he was nearly drafted to fight in World War I, but bureaucratic problems delayed this until eventually, he was not called up. In the meantime, he married Camilla Eyring, a local school teacher, on November 16, 1917. They had four children. Spencer worked in banking and insurance and was self-employed for most of his life, because he liked the flexibility it gave him to take care of Church responsibilities and spend time with his family. Throughout the 1920s he worked for a number of different banks. In 1927, he started an insurance and real estate agency in Arizona. He continued to be self-employed throughout the depression, despite the hardships of the time, and he remained very active in civic affairs.

Church Ministry

Spencer W. Kimball served in various positions within the Church of Jesus Christ throughout his life. He was a clerk and later a stake president in both Arizona and Texas, during which time he helped with recovery after a major hurricane. In 1943, he was called to be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Kimball felt inadequate, but with his wife's encouragement, he put his faith in God, sold his business, and moved the family to Salt Lake City. In October of 1943, he was sustained and ordained as an apostle.

While an apostle, Spencer W. Kimball had the responsibility to work with the Native American people. He was upset by the poverty and hardship of the people, and began working to help them overcome economic hardship. He set up the Indian Student Placement Program. In this program students seeking higher education were helped economically by Latter-day Saints who allowed them to live with them while going to school. This system stayed in place until conditions improved enough that it was no longer needed.

Spencer W. Kimball was also a great religious scholar and wrote the book The Miracle of Forgiveness, which is used often within the Church and gives many people hope through a better understanding of the atonement and repentance. He also wrote Faith Precedes the Miracle. He also became a powerful speaker and defender of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and while he loved peace and harmony, he would not back down on his principles. He also suffered numerous serious medical ailments later in life, including throat cancer and heart problems. Once he lost his voice, but later regained it. Toward the end of his life, cancer cost him his vocal chords. A transplant gave him the power to speak again, but only with a thin, raspy voice. His biographer recorded a humorous statement by President Kimball, wherein he said that he 'fell among cutthroats'. He would maintain that sense of humor throughout his life.

Heart Surgery

In 1971, Spencer W. Kimball, then-president of the Quorum of the Twelve, shared with then-heart surgeon Russell M. Nelson that he was experiencing chest pain. After performing a selective coronary arteriogram on October 9, 1971, Dr. Nelson found President Kimball was suffering from severe aortic valve disease and then met with President Kimball, explaining that because of the nature of the disease, surgery was a very risky option but would correct President Kimball's heart. President Kimball asked Dr. Nelson to explain the benefits and risks of the cardiac surgery needed. The following is excerpted from Russell M. Nelson: Father, Surgeon, Apostle:

Dr. Nelson replied, "We have no experience doing both operations on patients in this age group. Therefore, I cannot give you any risk data based on experience. All I can say is, it would entail extremely high risk."
Then a weary President Kimball said, "I'm an old man and ready to die. It is well for a younger man to come to the Quorum and do the work I can no longer do."
Elder Nelson described the dramatic reaction of President Lee: "At that point President Harold B. Lee, speaking for the First Presidency, rose to his feet, pounded his fist to the desk, and said, 'Spencer, you have been called! You are not to die! You are to do everything that you need to do in order to care for yourself and continue to live.'"
President Kimball responded, "Then I will have the operation performed."
"Sister Kimball wept," Dr. Nelson remembered. "When he spoke those words, my heart sank, for the weight of this decision seemed suddenly to pass to me. But this was a remarkable event. This momentous decision, which shaped the history of the Church, was not based on medical recommendation. It was based strictly on the desire of President Kimball, as an Apostle of the Lord, to be obedient to the inspired direction of the First Presidency of the Church." . . .
Russell received a blessing from the First Presidency on the eve of the operation, under the hands of President Harold B. Lee and President N. Eldon Tanner. "They blessed me that the operation would be performed without error, that all would go well, and that I need not fear for my own inadequacies, for I had been raised up by the Lord to perform this operation."
The operation began the next morning, and as the first incision was made, the resident physician exclaimed, "He doesn't bleed!"
Dr. Nelson observed, "From that very first maneuver until the last one, everything went as planned. There was not one broken stitch, not one instrument had fallen from the table, not one technical flaw had occurred in a series of thousands of intricate manipulations. I suppose my feelings at that time may have been like those of a concert pianist rendering a concerto without ever hitting a wrong note, or a baseball player who had pitched a perfect game—no hits, no runs, no errors, and no walks. For a long and difficult operation had been performed exactly in accordance with the blessing invoked by the power of the priesthood." . . .
Russell recounted, "Even more overpowering than the feeling that came as we shocked President Kimball's heart and it resumed its beating immediately with vigor, was the manifestation of the Spirit which told me that I had just operated upon the man who would become president of the Church!
"I knew that President Kimball was a prophet. I knew that he was an Apostle, but now it was revealed to me that he would preside over the Church! This feeling was so strong that I could hardly contain myself as we performed the routine maneuvers to conclude the operation. Later on in the week as he convalesced, I shared these impressions with him and he and I wept." Russell added, "I know that he did not take this feeling as seriously as I did because he knew that President Harold B. Lee, who stood before him in the Quorum, was younger and more healthy than he."[1]

President of the Church

When President Harold B. Lee passed away in 1973, many thought that Spencer W. Kimball's time as president would be short. However, this did not happen. He served a term of twelve years. Under his presidency, the Church of Jesus Christ doubled in membership to nearly six million, the priesthood was granted to all worthy members, and the Three-fold mission of the Church was established, which succinctly states the Church's aim to bring all to Jesus Christ by perfecting the Saints (i.e., members of the Church), proclaiming the gospel, and performing temple work.

Despite age and poor health, President Kimball was very active and visited Latter-day Saint congregations all over the world. He was known for his two mottos: "Do It!" and "Lengethen your Stride," calling on all Latter-day Saints to step up to the challenge to take the gospel to the whole world. In 1973, only 9,000 Mormon missionaries were sent out each year, but by his death in 1985, 20,000 missionaries were sent out per year with nearly 45,000 preaching at any given time.

President Kimball also organized the First Quorum of the Seventy, something that had not been done since Joseph Smith was president. He established areas and area presidencies to help govern the Church, set up the three-hour Sunday block meeting schedule, and approved the increase of operating temples from fifteen to thirty-one, the largest increase in the number of temples to that time. The growth of the Church in South America was especially pronounced, and in the late 1970s, President Kimball grew concerned about this growth and the historical ban of African blacks from the Priesthood. Many members in South America were of mixed race. While praying fervently about a solution, he received a revelation that the time had finally come for all worthy male members to be able to be ordained to the priesthood. That revelation was accepted and was added to the Doctrine and Covenants as Official Declaration 2. The Church immediately moved into Africa where tens of thousands have embraced the restored gospel.

Death and Legacy

On November 5, 1985, after serving faithfully and wisely as president, Spencer W. Kimball passed away in Salt Lake City. He is remembered not only for the great revelations and teachings he gave, but also for his many talents and humor. He sang, played the piano well, and loved sports and good jokes. He loved being with people, and while he often felt inadequate, partly because he never went beyond high school, he made up for this through hard work and wide reading. He loved people and wanted everyone to have the opportunities that education and the gospel afforded. He is remembered for his infectious smile, his hard work, and his love.

Videos about Spencer W. Kimball

Extensive Journals

President Spencer W. Kimball was one of the great advocates and examples of keeping a personal journal. His journals will be a valuable addition to Church history records, said Elder Kyle S. McKay, a General Authority Seventy who serves as the Church historian and recorder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Books by and about President Kimball

  • Faith Precedes the Miracle
  • The Miracle of Forgiveness
  • Tragedy or Destiny
  • Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W Kimball by Edward L. Kimball
  • Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball by Edward L. Kimball

Quotes from President Spencer W. Kimball

  • "Working toward perfection is not a one time decision but a process to be pursued throughout one's lifetime."
"Hold Fast to the Iron Rod," Ensign, Nov. 1978.
  • "We have a commitment to serve our Lord. We have an assurance that the cause is just and worthy. But, above all, we have a knowledge that God lives and is in His Heavens and that His Son Jesus Christ has laid out a plan for us which will bring us and our loved ones eternal life if we are faithful. That life will be a busy, purposeful life with accomplishments and joys and development."
"The Cause Is Just and Worthy," Ensign, 1974.
  • "A true Latter-day Saint family is a haven against the storms and struggles of life."
"The Fruit of Our Welfare Services Labors," Ensign, Nov. 1978.
  • "I bear witness to the world today that more than a century and a half ago the iron ceiling was shattered; the heavens were once again opened, and since that time revelations have been continuous.

"That new day dawned when [a] soul with passionate yearning prayed for divine guidance. A spot of hidden solitude was found, knees were bent, a heart was humbled, pleadings were voiced, and a light brighter than the noonday sun illuminated the world—the curtain never to be closed again.

Conference Report, Apr. 1977, p. 114.

See also Quotes from the Prophets

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Joseph Smith | Brigham Young | John Taylor | Wilford Woodruff | Lorenzo Snow | Joseph F. Smith | Heber J. Grant | George Albert Smith | David O. McKay | Joseph Fielding Smith | Harold B. Lee | Spencer W. Kimball | Ezra Taft Benson | Howard W. Hunter | Gordon B. Hinckley | Thomas S. Monson | Russell M. Nelson