A Lifetime of Service

A Conversation with Elder C. Max Caldwell

R. Devan Jensen

R. Devan Jensen (devan_jensen@byu.edu) is executive editor at the Religious Studies Center.

Elder C. Max Caldwell, former member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy from 1992 to 1997 and associate professor of Church history and doctrine, passed away on June 19, 2012.

This interview was held on February 22, 2012.

Elder Caldwell, you’ve served as a BYU professor, an author, a mission president, a regional representative, a General Authority, and a temple sealer. What do you think has been your greatest contribution?

In my estimation, the Lord has blessed me far more than I ever either expected or felt that I deserved. The greatest contribution of my service opportunities has been my personal spiritual growth and increase of faith and opportunity to feel closer to the Lord and enjoy an outpouring of the Spirit of the Lord in every case. If there is one thing that I’ve learned, it’s that the Lord runs his Church. If we let him and don’t get in the way, we can get his work done just fine. We need to make sure we’re in harmony with what he wants done, through his Holy Spirit—that influences both what we do and who we become.

Specifically, the greatest contribution is what the opportunity to serve has done for me. It doesn’t matter where you serve. It doesn’t matter what calling. I learned a long time ago that every calling, every position, every assignment in the Church is bigger than anybody who ever occupies it. We never are above it, we are never completely satisfied, and we shouldn’t be. What we’re doing and what we have done are challenges that remain yet to be solved and worked with. Those are insights that come to me over the years. In terms of contributions, I just hope that no one’s been damaged too much by what I’ve done or where I’ve been!

The opportunity to see people grow, to see individuals strengthened—that’s been the payday along the way, and those experiences happen almost daily as you meet people and have teaching opportunities. Having the privilege to see people grow as they apply the gospel and learn it and then put it into practice in their lives—those are things that are gratifying and joyful. I call it “spiritual fun” to see the development that the gospel has in the lives of people. Sometimes you see it right away, sometimes it takes a long time, and sometimes you never see it, but somehow maybe later you’ll hear about it—it doesn’t matter to me personally; I only hope that wherever I’ve been involved it has been a positive experience along the way.

What are some of your memories of teaching Church history and doctrine at BYU?

I probably learned more than any student, and it was a privilege to teach here. I always felt the strength of most of our students here on campus. Obviously there are exceptions to that, whether in the Church or any other organizations. Some may be struggling with one thing or another, but be that as it may, there are moments in the teaching experience when you know full well that you’re not the teacher. I learned early on that the Lord said in D&C 50:14 that we do the preaching, but the Spirit does the teaching. I’ve tried never to forget that. I’ve always felt like the environment in which the instruction took place needed to be compatible with the presence of the Spirit. If it is, then the Holy Spirit can do his work. If what I say is true, then the Spirit can bear testimony and touch the heart of the individual listeners. That’s what he needs to have—my being spiritually in tune to teach correct principles. There are memories where in the middle of the discussion thoughts came to me that I didn’t plan or strategize for that day’s lesson. Sometimes the complete direction shifted after the class got started and I thought, This was not what I planned, but I’ll go with it. So those kinds of memories made teaching here not only work but also a privilege and an opportunity. It was a spiritual atmosphere, and receiving that kind of guidance was not always apparent. I didn’t always know it was happening. As a teacher, you only pray and hope that it happens and that whatever the Lord would like to happen does.

Over the years, it’s been a privilege to have students come up to me, subsequent to being here on campus, and say, “You probably don’t remember me” or “Do you remember me?” That’s a tough question, because out of thousands of students, the likelihood isn’t very high that I’m going to remember them by name. But remembering them as part of a group or an experience or part of an environment—I remember that very well. They will say “I still remember this” or “I continue to use what we talked about when we had this discussion.” So there are lots of memories that get rekindled. They’re not just buried in the past somewhere, but they often come up in subsequent contacts with students or even in a supportive role as staff members and other people who are part of the total university experience. I don’t think that it can happen without the input and contribution of all those who are here at the university for whatever reason or whatever role. I just felt like a part of the organization.

I remember from years gone by how impressed I was when Joseph Fielding Smith came down to dedicate this temple on the hill and in that prayer mentioned BYU and those who work here and study here and so on. That’s on the Lord’s mind when he has his own house dedicated, and I think learning is always on his mind. So we’re so privileged, all of us, to be a contributing part, hopefully in some positive way, here; it’s a unique place. Having traveled a bit across the earth and seeing other universities, other establishments, other organizations, I haven’t seen anything quite like BYU. So I have often felt what a blessing and privilege it was to be here—it was such a pleasure. I looked forward to coming here every day and was not in a hurry to leave each day either. That’s the kind of employment opportunity that I think is rare, a privilege of doing what we do here, all of us and the objectives we hope to reach. There are a lot of memories, lots of things that happened, and a lot of students who contributed to the environment and the classroom learning experience. It was certainly not me that did all the instructing and teaching—that was the Spirit as well as the students’ input and the opportunity to share with them some discussion time.

You’ve written several books and study guides. What have you learned in the process, and how have these books helped people?

Sacred Truths of the Doctrine and Covenants was specifically designed to be supplementary for students here on campus. My colleague Leaun Otten and I were both very immersed in Doctrine and Covenants classes for many years, and that meant that we had a primary focus on that subject but felt that there needed to be material placed in the hands of the students that they could learn from, study, and use in addition to the classroom experience. So those two volumes were written specifically for that purpose, and we hope that they were helpful and useful. It was a special privilege to put things together. We just barely got the manuscript finished when I was called to be a mission president, so I wasn’t even here when the second volume was published. He had to send me a copy in the mission field. So it was good for us to have that instrument to supplement our classroom experience. That way our students could be prepared or be ready to ask questions or see in-depth some of the things we might not get around to talking about yet that would be important for them to learn.

Subsequently, we were asked to write Sacred Truths of the Book of Mormon. Well, again, those two volumes were written for the benefit of the Church members who would be studying the Book of Mormon, as we are this year. So the purpose of those is for that kind of use in the reading public. Another book I wrote was Power from on High. As I taught passages from the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord was talking more than once about providing power from on high, especially if people would do this or that, we would have the power from on high. Over the years there are lots of ways he fulfilled that promise in providing power from his point of view, from his environment, with his resources, to the people who are here who can be recipients of those blessings. But of course those are conditional blessings, as are all of the other fulfillment prophecies and/or covenants. That’s why I put together some of these many different facets of ways the Lord has blessed us, his children, with power from on high and maybe some of them would be thought of, maybe some of them wouldn’t, by all of us as we heard that phrase. So the purpose of that was simply to share some insights I had learned that I felt could maybe be of value to someone down the road.

It’s been a good road to travel, and even after retirement there’s been more to do and not enough time to do it, but I have experienced the continuing joy of doing it, continuing to have opportunities to see the Lord do his things in the temple. Daily in the temple you see small little miracles and things that he obviously had a hand in or it would not have happened. We just keep getting reminded of that understanding.

And then I’ve been privileged to participate in some unexpected activities, such as being invited to go with groups who were on either cruises or tours where I was asked to speak at certain historical sites or on certain subjects that would benefit the LDS contingent with whom we were traveling. We’ve gone as far away as the Holy Land and the Mediterranean countries surrounding it, as close as the Caribbean and even within the continental United States. So that’s been an opportunity to prepare and to teach and to talk, and I find many people in the Church who are anxious to learn and want an opportunity to be involved with studies, discussions, little privileges of question and answer series, whatever it may be. So those kinds of opportunities have continued to come along. It’s been a busy time. I look at some who have voiced their feelings of not enjoying their retirement because they don’t have anything to do, and I don’t understand that—it’s foreign to me!

At the moment I’m making an effort to write my own life’s history and haven’t made a dent. I’ve got a long ways to go. I feel strongly about what I felt to answer when President Hinckley called me into his office one time while I was serving as a General Authority and asked me if I’d be willing to go to Europe and serve in an Area Presidency over there. It would have been an easy answer just to say “Of course” or “Yes,” and that’s how felt, but I said, “President, I love you, and I love the Lord, and I would do anything that either one of you asked me to do, and of course I’ll be happy to go wherever you direct.” I hope that attitude will always typify my feelings and my reactions to requests for service or participation in whatever way. I would hope that I would never depart from that kind of response or commitment in my day-to-day living.