Spencer W. Kimball, Resolute Disciple, Prophet of God
by Francis M. Gibbons (September 1995)
Almost every working day of the 12 years during which Spencer W. Kimball was president of the Church, Francis M. Gibbons saw and worked with him closely. From this unique perspective, he has written this fresh and insightful biography of a quiet but profoundly beloved and faithful man.
"Shortly after the October general conference, President Kimball was distressed when he was served with a subpoena to give a deposition in a case brought by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People against the Boy Scouts of America and Troop 58, organized in one of the wards of the Liberty Stake in Salt Lake City. There were two black Scouts in the troop. One of them complained to the black ombudsman for Utah because he was deprived of the chance to become the senior patrol leader of his troop because of the Church procedure that the senior patrol leader had to be the deacons quorum president. It was contended that this violated the young man's civil rights. This procedure had been put into effect as part of the effort to bring about more complete coordination and correlation between the priesthood and the activity programs for young men. While the Church was not a party to the suit, the Church's practice was a key issue in the litigation. It was for this reason the subpoena was issued to President Kimball. And because it was a subpoena duces tecum, he was directed to bring to the deposition every document relating to the Church's policy withholding the priesthood from blacks. Because he had had little to do with litigation during his life and was uncertain about what faced him, President Kimball was distraught. He could not sleep. He could talk of little else in the meetings with his counselors. Long sessions were held with the First Presidency, the Twelve, and the Presiding Bishopric where the implications of the suit and the subpoena were considered at length. The Brethren were reluctant to change the procedure because it served an important need to coordinate the priesthood and activity programs. Yet they also were reluctant to sever connections with the Boy Scouts of America, ending a relationship that had lasted amicably and profitably for both parties for more than sixty years. After prayerful deliberation it was decided to change the Scouting procedure in Church-sponsored troops so as not to require that the senior patrol leader also be the deacons’ quorum president. This removed the basis for the suit and it was soon dismissed, much to the relief of President Kimball. He had found that the subpoena so dominated his thoughts he was unable to focus on anything else for long. And there was much to do.
Though these were important steps needed to strengthen the fast-growing Church, they were overshadowed by the action taken by President Kimball on June 9, 1978, when he made the priesthood available to all worthy male members of the Church. Such an action had been discussed for decades. Until President Kimball acted, however, the discussions always ended as they had in the early 1960s during President David O. McKay's tenure. At that time, as already noted, numerous letters were received from Nigeria and Ghana in West Africa, pleading for the Church to send missionaries. The Brethren refrained from granting these requests. Instead, they sent literature and equipment and urged the people to be patient and prayerful. President McKay noted in his diary that the issue facing the Church was not unlike the issue that faced the first apostles over whether the gospel should be taken to the Gentiles. The earlier issue was resolved when Peter baptized the gentile household of Cornelius after receiving the extraordinary vision recorded in the tenth chapter of Acts. President McKay said the issue regarding the priesthood would be resolved only in the same way—namely, by a revelation from heaven. It remained for President Spencer W. Kimball to fulfill that prediction many years later.
While he and his brethren had talked about the priesthood restriction often and had speculated as to when the Lord would lift it, President Kimball did not begin to focus on it intensely until more than a year before the revelation was announced. Several factors seem to have prompted him to do so: he had genuine concern for those affected by the restriction, a concern intensified by his experiences in South America; he was concerned about the conflict between the restrictions on priesthood and his admonition that members join in prayer that the doors of all nations be opened to the preaching of the gospel; and he was concerned about administrative complications leaders would face in Brazil, when the temple was completed in São Paulo, in determining qualifications for temple recommends, given the uncertainties about ethnic origins in that country. These and other grave issues drove President Kimball to his knees, seeking a spiritual solution to a problem of tangled complexity.
A string of related events provides insight into the lengthy process by which President Kimball received the revelation he sought. His concern for those deprived of priesthood blessings due to racial origin was typified by his concern for Helvécio Martins, a black member of the Church in Rio de Janeiro. Brother Martins, who would later be called to the Second Quorum of the Seventy, joined the Church several years before the revelation on priesthood. In 1977, while serving as the public communications director for the Church in Brazil, he attended the cornerstone lying of the São Paulo Temple. President Kimball motioned to Helvécio, who was in the audience, to take a seat beside him on the stand. Through an interpreter, he told Brother Martins that if he remained faithful, no blessing of the Church would be withheld from him. Later that year, one of the General Authorities assigned to a stake conference in Rio de Janeiro contacted Helvécio and said President Kimball wanted to be sure Helvécio understood the implications of what President Kimball had said at the cornerstone laying ceremony. Helvécio said he understood. (Conversation of author with Elder Martins.)
Meanwhile, President Kimball had begun to discuss the priesthood question with his brethren and to pray for spiritual direction. This included fervent and frequent prayers alone in the Salt Lake Temple. On March 23, 1978, President Kimball advised his counselors that he had had a wakeful night struggling with the question of priesthood restrictions and felt they should be lifted. No action was taken at the time. On April 20, 1978, the prophet advised the Twelve of his prayerful efforts to receive divine guidance on the issue and asked them to join him and his counselors in their prayers to that end. There followed personal interviews between President Kimball and members of the Twelve to discuss the matter. President Kimball continued to spend many hours alone in the temple, imploring the Lord for guidance.
On May 4, 1978, following a council meeting, Elder LeGrand Richards asked President Kimball for the privilege of saying a few words. He told the Brethren that during the meeting, he had seen a personage seated in a chair on the organ. He said he thought it was President Wilford Woodruff. "He was dressed in a white suit and was seated in an armchair," reported Elder Richards. "I thought at the time that the reason I was privileged to see him was probably that I was the only one there who had ever seen President Woodruff while he was upon the earth. I had heard him dedicate the Salt Lake Temple and I had heard him give his last sermon in the Salt Lake Tabernacle before he died." (Lucile C. Tate, LeGrand Richards: Beloved Apostle, p. 292.) The significance and timing of this appearance are apparent. Here, appearing through the veil in the upper room of the temple, was the prophet who, almost a hundred years before, had wrestled with a critical problem, plural marriage, which was resolved by revelation, the same way the problem President Kimball faced would be resolved.
The week following this incident, President Kimball again spent several hours alone in the Salt Lake Temple, asking the Lord for guidance. On Tuesday, May 30, 1978, President Kimball read to his counselors a tentative statement he had written in longhand removing all priesthood restrictions from blacks except those restrictions as to worthiness that rest upon all alike. He said that he had a "good, warm feeling" about it. There was a lengthy review of the statements of past leaders about the restrictions on blacks. It was decided that this aspect of the matter should be researched in detail. Elder G. Homer Durham, who was serving as the Church historian, was asked to do this. Also, the luncheon in the temple for the following Thursday was canceled. Instead of eating lunch, the Brethren were asked to fast and pray that the Lord would make his mind and will clear in this matter.
On Thursday, June 1, 1978, following the meeting of all General Authorities, the First Presidency and the Twelve (Elders Mark E. Petersen and Delbert L. Stapley were absent) counseled for two hours about the restrictions on the priesthood. Each member of the council expressed himself freely on the subject. In the discussion, the feeling was unanimous that the time had come to lift the restrictions. And following the prayer at the end of the meeting, which was offered by President Kimball, several present mentioned the powerful, confirming spirit they felt.
On Wednesday, June 7, 1978, President Kimball advised his counselors that through inspiration he had decided to lift the restrictions on priesthood. At that time, letters were read from three members of the Twelve, which President Kimball had requested, containing suggested wording for the public announcement of the decision. Using these three letters as a base, a fourth statement was prepared and then reviewed, edited, and approved by the First Presidency. This document was taken to the council meeting with the Twelve on Thursday, June 8, 1978. At this meeting, President Kimball advised the Twelve that he had received the inspiration to make the priesthood available to all worthy male members of the Church, whereupon the document was read and, with minor editorial changes, was approved. Later in the day Elder Mark E. Petersen approved by telephone from South America, and Elder Delbert L. Stapley approved when President Kimball visited him in the hospital. The statement, of course, was merely a memorandum of the revelation President Kimball had received by the spiritual means already described.
The next day, Friday, June 9, 1978, all the General Authorities who were in the city and available assembled at 7:00 a.m. President Kimball announced the decision to lift priesthood restrictions, had the statement read, and invited the comments of the Brethren. All sustained the decision and approved the statement. The members of the Seventy who were out of the city on assignment were advised of the decision by telephone. Following the meeting, the statement was released to the press.
The reaction to the announcement was prompt and, with a few exceptions, was overwhelmingly positive. Within minutes after the news hit the street, the telephones in the First Presidency's office began to ring, and they rang incessantly for hours. There were hundreds of calls, calls from England, from Hawaii, from Florida, from Maine, and from countless points in between, calls (but for two isolated exceptions) that expressed feelings of exuberant joy.
The announcement of this revelation irrevocably altered the future of the Church. Its impact was felt almost immediately in the missions of the Church. During the first full year after the revelation, convert baptisms were up almost 20 percent. Two years later, that rate of growth had almost doubled. The growth was most pronounced in South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. In Brazil, for instance, of the 1989 membership of more than 300,000, approximately 85 percent had joined the Church after the revelation.