(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, click here). The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI surprised a lot of people, and for good reason — it had been almost 600 years since the last pope resigned. In the Mormon faith, prophets don’t resign; they remain as LDS “prophet, seer and revelator” until death. Obviously, popes and prophets who end their tenure with death due to old age relinquish their authority long before they die. The last several years of LDS President Spencer W. Kimball’s life was one of constant pain, frequent disorientation, sleeplessness, near blindness and near deafness. However, Kimball in effect “resigned” most of his responsibilities as LDS Church leader long before he died. He just did it in a far more subtle manner than the pope.
President Kimball’s biographer, his son, Edward L. Kimball, in “Lengthen Your Stride,” the account of Kimball’s tenure as LDS president, recounts in frank detail the disintegration of his father’s body and faculties. In 1979, at age 84, Kimball was relatively healthy for a man who had survived health scares, including throat cancer. However, late that year, he began to have subdural hematomas that required draining. The brain operations disoriented the prophet. As Edward Kimball relates, after the second operation, “Spencer’s personality after this surgery underwent a temporary change. 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. …”
It’s hard to watch an old, weary body attempt to maintain a lifestyle that was normal for so long. Although Kimball had a better 1980, there were side effects to the brain operations. He occasionally could not verbally articulate words that his brain was telling him to say.
The year 1981 began the long winter of Kimball’s life. Edward Kimball writes, “In retrospect, the summer of 1981 was pivotal. Spencer’s condition declined rapidly despite his heroic efforts to get well. … He experienced increasing pain, discouragement, and disorientation and prayed for the Lord to take him.” During that summer, Edward Kimball relates that the prophet “was interviewed for a documentary on the Dallas Temple, but the producer decided not to use the footage because ‘the film of the interview made him look very feeble and absentminded.’”
During that summer, in what Edward Kimball relates, the “fog” lifted from Kimball’s mind long enough for him to call 71-year-old apostle Gordon B. Hinckley to be the third counselor to the LDS presidency. Having a third counselor was a rare but practical decision. Kimball and his two counselors in the LDS First Presidency, N. Eldon Tanner and Marion G. Romney, were all too feeble to adequately run the church. For Hinckley, it was the beginning of a quarter century where he largely handled matters for three aging LDS Church presidents before he became president himself in the mid 1990s.
Although recounted in miracle-like terms by Edward Kimball’s sources, who writes that after Kimball finalized Hinckley’s calling, “Spencer (according to Arthur Haycock, his secretary) ‘seemed to revert at once to his former condition and general ill health,’” and ‘the fog descended again.’” Also, according to Kimball’s book, Haycock wrote to Hinckley, “In my forty-six years of close association with the last six presidents of the Church, I can say unequivocably that, to me personally, this is the greatest testimony of direct revelation I have ever witnessed. …”
In retrospect, 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, craft a plan that removed an aging leader from power. Benedict was more frank. In the LDS Church, a prophet simply can’t resign. Tradition can’t conceive of such an act. It was a wise act by Kimball, a very practical man who despite holding strong to much of the old-fashioned conservatism that gripped the LDS hierarchy in the mid 20th century, was a progressive enough leader to oversee the church’s correction of its disastrous bigotry against black members of the faith.
Soon after Hinckley was installed into the church leadership, Kimball and his wife, Camilla, moved away from their home and into a top floor of the Hotel Utah. Despite the prophet’s wish that he would die, he would live five more years. In April 1982, he last spoke in LDS conference. (watch) As Edward Kimball writes, “As the winter of their lives closed in, neither Spencer nor Camilla left the apartment often, Spencer walked about the apartment and in the hotel hallways but remained weak. His vision remained cloudy and his hearing poor. Sometimes he could speak fluently, but other times when he tried to say one word, another word that made no sense would come out — a side effect of the brain surgery. The frustration was so cruel that he often simply lapsed into silence.”
Kimball was stubborn about making every effort to attend weekly temple meetings with church leaders and General Conference. As late as 1985, the year he died, he was seen on the stand of General Conference. As early as 1982, Edward Kimball writes that the church PR department had prepared obituary information for media once the prophet died. Kimball’s last years might be an excellent primer on how we die of old age and the pains that precede death. As Edward Kimball writes, “Spencer’s sight was further deteriorating. He now could see only outlines and thought of himself as blind. … His hearing, too, was failing fast. He could not rest, seldom sleeping soundly for more than an hour, even at night. He felt like a prisoner in a comfortable cell. …”
Kimball attended several sessions of the October 1985 conference but contracted pneumonia just before November. By Nov. 4, it was determined he was bleeding internally. By previous agreement, treatment was only that he be made comfortable. He was finally being “released.” With his body shutting down, he refused nourishment or water, biting on a straw. According to Edward Kimball, on his deathbed, his father saw a woman no one else could see. “My life is at an end now. She’s so happy, oh so very happy,” Kimball said, telling a nurse, Barbara Herrin, that the woman he “saw” was his mother, who had died when Spencer was 11.
A day later, at 10:08 p.m., Nov. 5, a Tuesday, Spencer W. Kimball died, more than four years after he had effectively, and wisely, resigned his responsibilities as LDS leader by frankly delegating them to a much younger church leader.