Profiles of the Prophets: Gordon B. Hinckley

By Lloyd D. Newell

Lloyd Newell, “Profiles of the Prophet: Gordon B. Hinckley,” Religious Educator 7, no. 1 (2006): 121–130.

Profiles of the Prophets: Gordon B. Hinckley

Lloyd Newell

Lloyd Newell was an assistant professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University when this was written.

Gordon B. Hinckley as a boy. Unless otherwise noted, all photos courtesy of the Office of the President.

Gordon B. Hinckley came into the world on June 23, 1910. [Photo 41] He was a “spindly, frail boy susceptible to earaches and other illnesses,” and his health was a constant worry to his mother.[1] Upon their doctor’s recommendation, the Hinckleys purchased several acres of farmland in Salt Lake City’s East Millcreek area, where they lived during the summer and where Gordon could breathe fresh air free from the smoke of the city. The summer home was a place of work and outdoor adventure. It was a place to tend animals, plant trees, and explore. Complementing his enthusiasm for the outdoors, Gordon found his family’s home library a place where he could follow the habits of his parents in reading and pondering good books. [Photo 40]

These two places of Gordon B. Hinckley’s childhood and young adulthood exemplify twin characteristics that are so much a part of him today. He loves the outdoors and has always spent time planting trees and flowers; he enjoys home repairs and projects and doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty. But he is also a man of letters and language, a person who is well acquainted with good literature. Gordon’s first two decades overflowed with the happy, ordinary experiences of a joyful boyhood. This happiness was shaken by family heartache in 1930 when his beloved mother, Ada, died of cancer at age fifty. Even in death, his mother’s influence on her son was profound and lasting. Whenever he faced challenges, he often thought of his courageous, faithful mother who was a constant influence for good in his life.

Gordon was an excellent student at Hamilton School, Roosevelt Junior High School, LDS High School, and the University of Utah, where he graduated in 1932 with a major in English and a minor in ancient languages. In 1932, at age twenty-two, Gordon wanted to attend Columbia University in New York City to study journalism, but the Lord had other plans for him—he was called to preach the gospel in the European Mission, with headquarters in London.

His first weeks of missionary work were discouraging and difficult. Suffering with hay fever and homesickness, he wrote home to his father that he felt he was wasting his time and his father’s money and that perhaps he should just return home. His father responded, “Dear Gordon, I have your recent letter. I have only one suggestion: forget yourself and go to work.” Elder Hinckley had a change of heart, and later said of that experience, “That July day in 1933 was my day of decision. A new light came into my life and a new joy into my heart. Everything good that has happened to me since then I can trace back to the decision I made that day in Preston.”[2] [Photo76]

When Elder Hinckley returned from the mission field, his mission president had arranged for him to report to the First Presidency on the missionary work in the European Mission. A few days later, President David O. McKay, who had been impressed with this newly returned missionary, offered him the position of executive secretary of the Church’s Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee. [Photo 6] In this position, he wrote and produced hundreds of radio scripts, filmstrips, missionary pamphlets, public relations materials, and books for use in the mission field. Later he was asked by President McKay to find a way to present the temple ceremonies in various languages. This led to the production of a film version of the temple ceremonies in fourteen languages. This film version was first used in the Swiss Temple following its dedication in September 1955.

After a brief courtship, Gordon married his childhood sweetheart, Marjorie Pay on April 29, 1937 in the Salt Lake Temple. They are the parents of five children: three daughters and two sons, and more than three score grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They are a close-knit extended family, unfailingly supportive of one another. One of their daughters, Kathleen, said of her parents: “What you see is what you get. There is nothing behind closed doors that is any different than their public persona. It’s really a gift. They just know who they are, and they are comfortable with who they are.”[3]

In 1936, Gordon B. Hinckley was called as Sunday School superintendent of the Liberty Stake. His success in that calling led to his service on the on the Sunday School General Board of the Church from 1937 to 1946. As part of this assignment, he wrote a manual for Book of Mormon study that was used in Sunday Schools for two decades. In 1946, he was called as second counselor in the East Millcreek Stake presidency and after that, he was called to stake president—becoming the third generation of Hinckleys to serve as a stake president. As a stake leader, he was known for his efficiency, diligence, wisdom, and wonderful sense of humor.

On April 6, 1958, President David O. McKay called him to serve as an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve. Two and a half years later, at the October 1961 general conference, he was sustained as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (just three months after the passing of his beloved father). During his service as a member of the Twelve, Elder Hinckley was respected at Church headquarters and among the Saints for his devoted service and leadership, writing and speaking abilities, and good nature and kindly disposition. In two decades of service in the Twelve, he traveled tens of thousands of miles as a special witness of the Lord in all the world. He supervised missions in Asia and in South America, and filled innumerable headquarters assignments and committee responsibilities.

During this time, he helped organize and obtain land for temples and chapels; he divided missions and stakes, trained mission presidents and local leaders, and dedicated countries for the preaching of the gospel.

The next two decades would bring new callings and additional responsibilities. In July of 1981, he was called by an ailing President Spencer W. Kimball to serve as an additional counselor in the First Presidency. In December 1982, upon the passing of Nathan Eldon Tanner, Gordon B. Hinckley was called as second counselor in the First Presidency. [Photo 12] With the death of President Kimball in November 1985, Gordon was called as a first counselor to new Church President Ezra Taft Benson. Nine years later, upon President Benson’s death in 1994, he was again called to serve as the first counselor to a new president, Howard W. Hunter. Each of these three presidents experienced age-related illnesses, and during that time President Hinckley carried much of the day-to-day responsibility for the administration of the Church. He said, “That was a very heavy and overwhelming responsibility.”

On March 12, 1995, President Gordon B. Hinckley was sustained, ordained, and set apart by the Quorum of the Twelve as the fifteenth President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. During a news conference the next day, a reporter asked him about his focus and the theme of his administration. Without missing a beat, he answered, “Carry on. Our theme will be to carry on the great work which has been furthered by our predecessors.”[4] This would foreshadow a hallmark of his presidency as media outlets, large and small, around the world, have interviewed him. He is comfortable with journalists, not afraid to be interviewed, and welcomes the opportunity to present the Church and its beliefs to the world.

With his theme of carrying on this great latter-day work, he has expanded and accelerated the growth and mission of the Church in unique and important ways. Some of the milestones and hallmarks of his presidency include temple building, construction of the Conference Center, The Family: A Proclamation to the World, the Perpetual Education Fund, the establishment of additional Quorums of the Seventy, world travel, interaction with the media, interfaith outreach and tolerance, and Church growth. [Photo 90]

At the conclusion of the April 1998 general conference, President Hinckley announced a “tremendous undertaking,” a program to begin immediately to construct smaller temples across the earth that would bring the blessings and ordinances of the Lord’s house to more people. His prophetic leadership has increased the number of temples worldwide from 51 in 1998 to well over 120 today.

 

Except for a brief two-year interlude during World War II (when he worked for the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad), Gordon B. Hinckley has spent more than seventy years either as an employee or General Authority of the Church. No one in the history of the Church has worked for more years in more assignments at Church headquarters than he has. Both professionally and in his Church service, Gordon is known for his intelligence and diligence, his responsiveness and creativity, his complete commitment to the gospel and the work of the Lord.

One of the hallmarks of President Hinckley’s presidency is his desire to reach out in love to others not of the Latter-day Saint faith and to extend a hand of friendship. Over the years, he has repeatedly denounced arrogance and self-righteousness among Church members, saying, “We must never forget that we live in a world of great diversity. The people of the earth are all our Father’s children and are of many and varied religious persuasions. We must cultivate tolerance and appreciation and respect one another. We have differences of doctrine. This need not bring about animosity or any kind of holier-than-thou attitude.”[5] As the Lord’s prophet to all the world, his motivation is his love for all humankind and his desire that they may be partakers of peace in this life and eternal life in the world to come. In this spirit he said, “We recognize the good that every other church in the world does. We have no quarrel with other churches. We do not argue, we do not debate, or anything of the kind. We simply say to people not of our faith, ‘You bring with you all the truth that you have, and let us see if we can add to it.’ That is the mission and message of this Church.”[6]

Known for his positive outlook on life, President Hinckley encourages all to look on the bright side. Perhaps that explains another reason for his vibrant longevity—he has always looked for the good and the uplifting as he has counseled, “Cultivate an attitude of happiness. Cultivate a spirit of optimism. Walk with faith, rejoicing in the beauties of nature, in the goodness of those you love, in the testimony which you carry in your heart concerning things divine.”[7] I am asking that we stop seeking out the storms and enjoy more fully the sunlight. I am suggesting that as we go through life we ‘accentuate the positive.’ I am asking that we look a little deeper for the good, that we still voices of insult and sarcasm, that we more generously compliment virtue and effort.”[8] We must walk with hope and faith. We must speak affirmatively and cultivate an attitude of confidence. We all have the capacity to do so. Our strength will give strength to others, and the cumulative, rippling effect will be tremendous.”[9] “I would just like to say that whatever happens in the world, and I think no one of us can foretell what might happen at this time, that God will be with us. He will watch over us. He will protect us. He will see that we are provided for. And we shall endure under His watchful care if we will be true and faithful and obedient and hearken to His word.”[10]

About testimony, President Hinckley said, “I have a testimony—real, burning, and vital—of the truth of this work. I know that God our Eternal Father lives and that Jesus is the Christ, my Savior, and my Redeemer. It is He who stands at the head of this Church. All I desire is that I go forward with this work as He would have it go forward.”[11] “This witness, this testimony, can be the most precious of all the gifts of God. It is a heavenly bestowal when there is the right effort. It is the opportunity, it is the responsibility of every man and woman in this Church to obtain within himself or herself a conviction of the truth of this great latter-day work and of those who stand at its head, even the living God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”[12]

In the spring of 2004, President Hinckley faced one of the greatest challenges of his life when his wife, Marjorie Pay Hinckley, passed away. [Photo 55] During their life together, Marjorie and Gordon shared an optimistic view toward the world, a love of books, a willingness to work, and a commitment to the Church.[13] Though the physical affects of age were visible in her later years, the love they shared was equally apparent. Marjorie and Gordon walked the highway of life side by side for almost sixty-seven years. She traveled the world with him, meeting members of the Church and supporting her husband in his heavy responsibilities. President Hinckley described Marjorie’s legacy as wife and mother in this fitting tribute: “To her I give all the credit for the virtues of our family, including our children and our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren. She holds a very bright spot in their hearts. . . . My love for her extends over a very long period of time and I expect it will go on forever.”[14]

True to the theme of his administration, President Hinckley carried on, determined to serve to the best of his ability as long as the Lord required. In July 2005, Gordon celebrated his ninety-fifth year with a grand evening in the tabernacle. During this celebration, his friend Mike Wallace, the CBS news commentator, paid a tribute to the President as did other community and entertainment leaders. At an age when most are long retired, President Gordon B. Hinckley continues to serve as the Lord’s servant, determined to carry on in his service as leader of the Church.

Life and Times

1910, June 23 Born to Bryant Stringham Hinckley and Ada Bitner Hinckley

1919 Baptized by his father

1932 Graduated from University of Utah

1933–1935 Served as missionary in the European Mission, headquartered in London, England

1935 Became executive secretary of Church Radio, Publicity, and Mission Literature Committee

1937 Married Marjorie Pay in the Salt Lake Temple

1939–1946 Served on Sunday School General Board

1951 Called by President Stephen L. Richards to serve as executive secretary of the General Missionary Committee

1953 Asked by President David O. McKay to help with preparation of temple instruction to be presented in different languages in Swiss Temple

1956 Called as president of East Millcreek Stake by Elders Harold B. Lee and George Q. Morris

1958 Called as Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve

1961 Sustained as member of the Quorum of the Twelve

1981 Called by President Kimball to serve as counselor in the First Presidency

1995 Set apart as the fifteenth President of the Church

1995 Reads “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” from the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve at general Relief Society meeting

2000 Published Standing for Something: Ten Virtues That Will Heal Our Hearts and Homes

2000 Dedicated the new Conference Center in Salt Lake City

2001 Announced the creation of the Perpetual Education Fund

2002 Dedicated the reconstructed Nauvoo Temple

2002 Published Way to Be! Nine Ways to Be Happy and Make Something of Your Life

2004 Marjorie Pay Hinckley passes away in Salt Lake City

2005 President Hinckley celebrates his ninety-fifth birthday

Notes



[1] Sheri Dew, Go Forward with Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 24.

[2]Gordon B. Hinckley, in Dew, Go Forward with Faith, 64.

[3] [Author, pls. insert article title] Church News, May 6, 1995, 11.

[4] Jay M. Todd, “President Gordon B. Hinckley: Fifteenth President of the Church,” Ensign, April 1995, 6.

[5] “The Solemn Assembly Sustaining of Church Officers,” Ensign, May 1999, 5.

[6] Gordon B. Hinckley, Stand a Little Taller (Salt Lake City: Eagle Gate, 2001), 91.

[7] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Words of the Prophet: The Spirit of Optimism,” New Era, July 2001, 4.

[8] Stand a Little Taller, 64.

[9] Gordon B. Hinckley, Standing for Something: Ten Neglected Virtues That Will Heal Our Hearts and Homes (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000), 121.

[10][Author, pls. insert article title] Church News, February 22, 2003, 3.

[11][Author, pls. insert article title] Church News, April 5, 2003, 2.

[12] [Author, pls. insert article title] Church News, April 5, 2003, 2.

[13] Peggy Fletcher Stack, “Partner in Faith,” Salt Lake Tribune, April 7, 2004.

[14] “Marjorie Pay Hinckley Dies at 92,” KSL News Broadcast, April 6, 2004.