Can Mormon prophets resign? Writer says one already did — sort of

THE SALT LAKE TRIBUNE

Published: February 20, 2013 04:39PM
Updated: February 20, 2013 04:40PM
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LDS Church President Spencer W. Kimball, in a historic announcement in June 1978, lifted the ban on black males entering the LDS priesthood.

With the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, some Mormons began to speculate whether an LDS Church president could do the same.

Doug Gibson, writing in Ogden’s Standard-Examiner, argues that one already did so — in 1981.

That’s when LDS President Spencer W. Kimball, then age 86, “resigned” from his position, Gibson writes, calling a spry 71-year-old Gordon B. Hinckley as a “third counselor” in the governing First Presidency and relinquishing most of his responsibilities to the younger man.

What Kimball did was similar to the pope’s action, Gibson writes, just “more subtle.”

Presidents of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are considered “prophets, seers and revelators” and serve for life. When Kimball ascended to the presidency in 1973, he had already suffered serious health setbacks, including throat cancer, but was relatively vigorous. However, in 1979, the Mormon leader began to have subdural hematomas that required draining, and the process left him disoriented.

“Spencer’s personality after this surgery underwent a temporary change,” Gibson writes, quoting from a biography by Edward Kimball, the president’s son. “Everyone became an enemy. He said hurtful things to (his wife) Camilla. He castigated the doctor for letting him go on a trip to Australia when no preparations had been made (they were in the U.S.). Camilla retreated to cry alone. … ”

In the summer of 1981, Kimball’s mental “fog” lifted briefly, during which time he tapped Hinckley to help carry the leaders’ load. (Kimball’s two counselors, N. Eldon Tanner and Marion G. Romney, also were too old and infirm to run the ever-expanding church.)

After Hinckley was in place, Kimball “seemed to revert at once to his former condition and general ill health,” Edward Kimball wrote, and “the fog descended again.”

The once-charismatic president spent his final years largely sequestered in an apartment at what was then the Hotel Utah, suffering “constant pain, frequent disorientation, sleeplessness, near blindness and near deafness,” Gibson writes, while Hinckley attended to the LDS Church’s affairs.

Kimball died in November 1985 at age 90. Hinckley eventually would rise to the top of the LDS leadership ranks himself, serving as the faith’s president from March 1995 until his death in January 2008 at age 97.

“Whether or not one believes that God reveals his will to LDS prophets, or any other person, what Kimball did almost 33 years ago was the Mormon equivalent of what Pope Benedict XVI did on Feb. 11,” Gibson writes, “craft a plan that removed an aging leader from power.”

Peggy Fletcher Stack