If you have joined the Church in the past few years, you probably have learned about Gordon B. Hinckley and his teachings while he was President of the Church, but you may know very little about the 14 years he served as a counselor to 3 different Church presidents.
In 1981 President Hinckley had been serving as an apostle for almost 20 years. President Spencer W. Kimball felt inspired to add a 4th member to the First Presidency, and extended the call to a stunned Elder Hinckley.
The First Presidency at that time consisted of President Kimball, with N. Eldon Tanner and Marion G. Romney serving as counselors. Among the last apostles born before 1900, all were advancing in age. Gone were the days of their earlier administration when they traveled the world, speaking at area conferences, organizing new stakes, and lengthening their stride. All 3 noble servants of the Lord were experiencing declining health at the same time.
President Kimball had struggled with heart problems and throat cancer beginning in his early 50s. Now well into his 80s, President Kimball underwent several operations for a subdural hemotoma in late 1979. His eyesight, hearing, and back all protested the demands to keep going as well. Both of his counselors had failing eyesight and a myriad of other age related health issues that slowed this First Presidency down significantly.
President N. Eldon Tanner’s vast experience serving in the First Presidency was unparalleled. He was the only apostle to have served as a first or second counselor to 4 different Church Presidents. President Tanner had been an apostle only about a year when called to the First Presidency, and there he had steadfastly served for 19 years. During his time in the First Presidency, the Church had more than doubled in size from around 2 million members to 5 million+. By 1981, after years of service, his health in general was in decline, and he struggled with poor eyesight and Parkinson’s disease.
President Marion G. Romney had led a full life of service to the Lord. His apostolic call had come in 1941, and he had served in the First Presidency since 1972. By 1981 when President Hinckley joined the First Presidency, President Romney’s vision had declined to the point where he was nearly blind, although he adapted so well that few people knew. He could still manage to read if the print was very large, but that coping mechanism would finally fail him during the 1982 October conference. Part way through his talk on gratitude, President Romney could no longer see well enough to read even large print. He honestly acknowledged to the congregation that he couldn’t finish his talk, but would have it printed in its entirety. It was the last time President Romney would speak publicly. His memory and physical health also began to fail, leaving him unable to serve as he had for the 30+ years since his call to the Twelve.
Increasingly, President Hinckley took on more of the responsibilities of leading the Church. In late 1982, President N. Eldon Tanner passed away, and the First Presidency once again consisted of the traditional 3 members. By the April 1983 general conference, President Hinckley was bearing the full weight of leadership of the Church. He presided over conference alone; President Kimball and President Romney were both too ill to attend any of the sessions. Their empty chairs beside President Hinckley at conference were a reminder of how completely the weight of the First Presidency was resting on him alone. Another reminder of President Kimball’s failing health was a vacancy left in the Quorum of the Twelve. Elder LeGrand Richards had passed away in January of 1983, and Church members fully expected to sustain a new apostle in April, but because President Kimball was so sick, none had been called.
Ezra Taft Benson, who would later succeed President Kimball, was the acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve, and he supported President Hinckley and helped pick up the slack in every way he could. Elder Thomas S. Monson said of this time, “President Hinckley found himself in a most challenging situation, because President Kimball was still the prophet. Even though a man may be impaired physically, he might not be impaired mentally or spiritually. President Hinckley had the unenviable task of not going too far too fast, but of going far enough. He always had the rounded ability and common sense to do what a counselor should do—that of never intruding on what belonged solely to the President.”
In 1985, after President Kimball’s passing, President Ezra Taft Benson asked President Hinckley to serve as his first counselor. Elder Thomas S. Monson joined the First Presidency as second counselor. President Marion G. Romney, in declining health, returned to the Quorum of the Twelve as president, but Howard W. Hunter became the acting President of the Twelve. President Hinckley welcomed the transition, saying after several meetings with the new First Presidency, “It is wonderful to have others to share the burden of decision.”
Several years later, President Hinckley found himself, once again, shouldering the burden for an ailing Church President as President Benson’s health began to decline. In the fall of 1988, President Hinckley gladly filled in when President Benson didn’t feel up to a speaking engagement at BYU. In the April 1989 general conference, the carefully prepared conference classic, Beware of Pride by President Benson was read by President Hinckley. President Benson was present, but seemed unable to stand and deliver his prepared talk. President Benson’s days of standing and speaking in conference had ended, and his last 2 conference talks would be read by President Monson in 1989.
In President Hinckley’s biography, Sheri L. Dew writes of this time: “At first it was a little unnerving for President Hinckley to watch the prophet’s health fail, for once again he found himself serving as counselor to an aging Church President whose physical strength and mental acuity were gradually slipping and unlikely to improve. There was at least one major difference this time, however, for he was joined in the First Presidency by an able, vital second counselor who shared the workload and with whom he could confer over difficult matters that demanded resolution. He was enormously grateful for President Monson, and as the burden of leading the Church fell increasingly to the two of them, he often remarked, ‘We have been here before.'”
In May of 1994, when President Benson passed away, President Hinckley was retained as first counselor by the new President of the Church, Howard W. Hunter. President Hunter had his own health challenges, but was strong enough to speak briefly to the Church. It had been almost 4 years since members heard President Benson speak, and they rejoiced to hear the new President of the Church.
President Hunter pressed forward during the remainder of 1994; he called Jeffrey R. Holland to the Quorum of the Twelve; he traveled to Nauvoo on the 150th anniversary of the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith; he presided over and spoke at the October general conference; he traveled to Mexico in December to preside over the historic creation of the Church’s 2,000th stake. As President Hunter entered 1995, his fragile health began to rapidly deteriorate. When he presided over the first 6 dedicatory sessions of the Bountiful Temple, he became so exhausted that he was hospitalized 2 days before the final dedication. It was then discovered that an earlier cancer had returned and spread to his bones. When President Hinckley visited him in the hospital, President Hunter reported that he wasn’t in pain. President Hinckley was comforted that President Hunter wasn’t suffering greatly at the time, and knew it was in the hands of the Lord.
Recorded in President Hinckley’s biography is his state of mind at the time. Dew writes, “naturally, President Hinckley knew he was next in seniority after President Hunter, but he tried desperately to avoid thinking about becoming President of the Church. Nothing good, he believed, would come of such activity. ‘What I did say to myself,’ he later admitted, ‘was, “The Lord is at the head of this Church, and you don’t need to worry about it. Just do what you are supposed to do. You are an old man, and anything can happen. The Lord can move you out of the way in an instant.” That is as far as my thinking went.'”
On March 3rd, 1995, President Hunter passed away. President Hinckley mourned the passing of another beloved colleague, prophet, and friend. For the twenty years President Hinckley had served in the Quorum of the Twelve, he had sat next to President Hunter. President Hinckley later expressed his feelings of this time, saying, “how I loved him! How I mourned his passing! I was possessed with a terrible feeling of inadequacy. Though I had served in the First Presidency for fourteen years, and knew something about the ofﬁce of the President of the Church, I had no idea how overwhelming it would feel.”
President Hinckley had served faithfully as a counselor in the first presidency of the Church for 14 years, for at least 10 of which he had more responsibility than authority as he strove to support and fill-in when appropriate for 3 Presidents of the Church in failing health. New converts who recently watched President Russell M. Nelson and the new First Presidency give a press conference may not realize that such events weren’t always the norm. When President Hinckley gave a similar presser at the beginning of his Presidency, a reporter observed, “It was a startling tableau—a healthy president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints standing before a ﬂock of surprised reporters and asking if they had any questions. Few in the ornate lobby of the Joseph Smith Memorial Building knew it had been fully 21 years since any man who served as the faith’s ‘prophet, seer, and revelator’ had held a news conference. But they realized what they were seeing was rare and that a statement was being made. . . . His robust performance had a galvanizing effect on church employees. There were smiles everywhere, and the switchboard lit up with calls of support from rank-and-ﬁle members.”
President Hinckley would go on to serve for almost 13 years as the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. President Russell M. Nelson reflected once on President Hinckley’s many years of being a faithful counselor to an ill President: “I cannot imagine how challenging it was for President Hinckley during times past to know that if the work was going to move forward, he essentially had to move it in that direction. But at the same time he had to be careful to defer to the prophet. During all of those years, he never gave any indication that he was impatient or burdened. His first allegiance was always to the President of the Church. I suppose, though, that none of us will ever know how much of his time and energy were devoted to being deferential to the President and to carrying out assignments in a way that he knew conformed to the President’s wishes. I feel a great sense of relief for him now, that he can move things forward without waiting for anyone else.”
All direct quotes are from President Gordon B. Hinckley’s biography, Go Forward with Faith, by Sheri L. Dew, available at Deseret Book. The other apostles featured in this article all have biographies published by Deseret Book that are available online, with the exception of President N. Eldon Tanner’s. It doesn’t appear to be for sale online, although it was published by Deseret Book. We found our copy at Deseret Industries.