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Kimball's legacy

Published March 4, 2006 12:00 am

A biography by the LDS leader's son grants a rare peek behind the scenes at church leaders and the revelation about blacks
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

On June 9, 1978, news of LDS President Spencer W. Kimball's revelation ending the church's long-standing ban on blacks being ordained to its priesthood stunned Mormons worldwide.

Immediately following the midmorning announcement from LDS Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, the Mormon faithful launched an enormous phone tree - sister calling sister, children calling parents, friends calling friends. Within an hour, word had spread to nearly every country where the church had members. People expressed joy, shock, disbelief, amazement at the unexpected announcement.

But the truth is Spencer Kimball, leader of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had been praying for guidance on the issue for the 4 1/2 years since becoming the church's "prophet, seer and revelator." The Mormon prophet talked to everyone he could think of, studied the ban's origins, even kept a notebook full of correspondence and clippings about it, although he rarely discussed it in public speeches until external pressure had waned.

By March 1978, Kimball felt he had received a divine nod, but he felt he still had to convince his colleagues in the Quorum of Twelve Apostles so the decision could be unanimous.

Now a new book by his son, Edward Kimball, gives Mormons a look behind the bureaucratic curtain that normally obscures such give-and-take among LDS leaders. The book, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball, draws on the president's 33 journals, thousands of letters and scores of interviews with leaders and lay members who knew him.

The book is "a gem of Latter-day Saint biography," Richard Cracroft writes in Brigham Young University Magazine. "The portrait of Spencer W. Kimball that emerges in this superb biography neither omits his weaknesses and problems nor exaggerates his strengths, which is just as President Kimball wanted it."

The Mormon leader was at once compassionate and stern, bold yet humble, confident in his office, yet insecure about his own skills.

Not long after being named president, an apostle found Kimball in his office weeping. When asked what the matter was, Kimball replied: "I am such a little man for such a big responsibility."

Edward Kimball's book has "no flinching, no sanitizing," writes Julie A. Smith on the Mormon blog, http:// http://www.timesandseasons.org.

"Here is a prophet who occasionally skips church and becomes depressed over his physical limitations. We see a man who is overzealous in calling his inactive son to repentance and who later wished that he had been gentler in The Miracle of Forgiveness," writes Smith, of Austin, Texas. "We see the diminutive Kimball spending the night in the posh home of a stake president where he has to jump into the bed because it is so high off of the ground. And when he does, it breaks."

But, she writes, "We also see a Prophet of God."

Talking to God: For Mormons readers, the heart of this book will be the section that outlines events leading up to the 1978 revelation. For many, it will be their first look at the process, including a reported collective mystical experience among the apostles meeting in the temple.

"Revelations will probably never come unless they are desired. I think few people receive revelations while lounging on a couch," Spencer Kimball wrote to Edward Kimball several years before the 1978 experience. "I believe most revelations would come when a man is on his tiptoes, reaching as high as he can for something which he knows he needs, and then there bursts upon him the answer to his problems."

The chapters "will become the definitive description of the revelation for the history of the [LDS] Church," Cracroft writes. "They provide a careful composite of accounts by and interviews with some of the General Authorities who were present."

The apostles were told not to describe details, but to let the final statement stand for itself. Kimball asked Apostle Bruce R. McConkie to document the event and McConkie's report was published in a book about priesthood, but most resisted the urge to talk about it. Only four LDS leaders who were there are still alive - current president Gordon B. Hinckley, his counselor in the governing First Presidency Thomas S. Monson, and Apostles Boyd K. Packer and L. Tom Perry - and unless they've written something in diaries that will be made public after their deaths, this is it.

In writing this book, Edward Kimball got a further glimpse into the mind, decisions and relationships his father had developed over his lifetime. Admiration for his father increased, but he didn't always agree with the elder Kimball.

Edward Kimball wishes his father had accepted his brother Spencer's distance from the church, rather than trying to pressure him to come back.

And his father's book on repentance, The Miracle of Forgiveness, could have been more empathetic. Literally thousands of interviews with homosexuals in Salt Lake City, Ogden and Provo prompted Miracle. It described homosexuality as "an ugly sin, a perversion, an abomination," Edward Kimball writes. "He believed homosexual orientation could be shifted by effort and faith and that, even in a case where the inclination did not change, conduct could and should be controlled."

Spencer Kimball should have emphasized the positive, rather than so much negative, Edward Kimball believes, because that was his father's nature.

The Mormon prophet was always a warm man with the family, but after he ascended to the presidency, people swarmed around, touching and hugging him. In response, Kimball began to kiss people on the cheek and hand - women and men. He came to see it as an appropriate gesture from someone who was supposed to be representing Jesus Christ, Edward Kimball says. "He started feeling like everyone's grandfather."

How to tell the story: With his nephew, Andrew, Edward Kimball wrote an earlier biography of his dad but the narrative ended in 1977. The two realized they would have to amend that book at the time of Spencer Kimball's death, but they had no idea his tenure would become one of the most active eras in 20th century Mormonism.

In addition to the revelation about blacks, there was the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment, dramatic escalation in missionary work, the beginning of satellite transmission from church headquarters, growing concern about homosexuality, abortion and pornography; the document forgeries of Mark Hofmann, the reportedly phony Howard Hughes will and the church's opposition to the MX missile being built in Utah.

So instead of just making additions to the first biography, Edward Kimball has spent the past decade producing a whole new volume. But even that was too long. So LDS publisher Deseret Book took an unusual step - putting all the material that wouldn't fit on a CD inside the book's back cover. It features several other biographies of Spencer Kimball and his wife, Camilla, including the 1977 volume, many scholarly articles, photographs and audio clips. It also has the full text of the book as well as the earlier, longer draft with 3,600 footnotes from both versions. Most of the differences between the two versions were simple space savers, but some reflected differing opinions.

"The publisher and biographer did not agree on the interpretations or weight of importance given to a number of events, or the choices of characterization of some of the people," the publisher wrote in its preface. "The resulting book reflects a compromise between the two points of view."

Edward Kimball offers a couple of examples.

When senior apostle Ezra Taft Benson endorsed the American Party in 1974, Spencer Kimball told him to stop making divisive political statements. But Benson continued to express his right-wing views.

"That's what they wanted to throw out," Edward Kimball says. "I was glad to add more to explain his motivation, but I wasn't going to take it out."

After LDS Apostle McConkie gave a speech at BYU titled "The 7 Deadly Heresies," Spencer Kimball told him to make clear in the published version that this wasn't church doctrine, just McConkie speaking for himself. Deseret Book didn't want that in the biography, either.

Another story involves Packer reporting that he had gone to an LDS building dedication and saw people laying sod on the Sabbath, to which Kimball retorted: "Maybe next time you shouldn't go so early."

The publisher approved the anecdote but wanted Packer not to be identified.

"The policy seems to be not to publish descriptions where [Mormon leaders] are at odds with one another or discreditable, as they perceived it. They also don't like to name names," Edward Kimball says. "I made clear that somewhere we have to draw the line and they acquiesced."

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