In 1981, LDS prophet Kimball resigned in the ‘Mormon manner’

(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.

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27 Responses to In 1981, LDS prophet Kimball resigned in the ‘Mormon manner’

  1. Mark Sparkman says:

    Wow. That is a sad tale. I don’t know about miracles, but a man able to make that decision deserves respect.

  2. Asa says:

    President Hinckley did a wonderful job of balancing the overseeing of a fast growing Church and making desicions that had to be made in that regard, while not over stepping his authority. There were numerous times desicions were not made by Pres. Hinkley because he felt they were desicions that should be made only by the Prophet. And if the Prophet was unable to function well enough to make such a desicion, it was put on hold. Some felt this was hurting the Church’s dynamics, but others see this as the only method of running the Church as it is designed by the Lord with the Priesthood keys that are given to the Prophet.
    I’m sure they were long and lonely and difficult days for Pres. Hincley, but he did a masterful job in his calling which many would say is an indication that Pres. Kimball was indeed inspired in calling Gordon Hinckley into the First Presidency.

  3. ScottH says:

    I watched my previously dynamic father decline over several years due to heart disease before he finally passed. Edward Kimball’s descriptions of his father’s age related decline are very familiar. While this process is quite common to the human experience, it is still harsh to watch a loved one pass through it.

    My father relinquished his duties as an LDS stake patriarch when he noticed his faculties slipping, long before his condition became serious. In time confusion beset his once deeply philosophical and educated mind.

    I will forever cherish the conversation I had with Dad the last time he was coherent a few days before he passed. For some reason I felt like I needed to skip work that morning to be at Dad’s bedside. At the end of our discussion we embraced and Dad told me that he loved me, before closing his eyes in exhaustion. He never opened his eyes again.

  4. E B says:

    I recognize this isn’t the topic of conversation directly, but I’m taking issue with your comment that previous “conservatism” prevented changes in the LDS Church. I don’t think you mean political conservatism, though I’m not certain since you credit President Kimball’s “progressive” decision. Let’s revisit history. Before LBJ, the Republicans introduced many civil rights bills that were never once voted for by Democrats. Blacks weren’t hired by Democrat-run businesses for the most part – that would be Republican ones. The South used to be deep blue, but blacks at the time became Republican because they wanted civil rights, and that domination continues to this day but not in the African American community. That changed some few years after LBJ told his associates that if he played welfare right, the Democrats would have the African American vote for the next 200 years. Democrats and their media accomplices have since rewritten history to make themselves look as if they supported civil rights all along. And look where we are today…

    If you doubt me because of your “education” by liberal institutions such as public schools which are driven by a liberal agenda, then please consider broadening your sources. Ann Coulter has a detailed book about it called “Mugged.” Clarence Thomas’ autobiography “My Grandfather’s Son” is also eye-opening. There are others besides. Happy hunting.

    • Lamplighter says:

      This isn’t the topic of conversation even indirectly.

    • jUSTacOUNTRYbOY says:

      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.


  5. Doug Gibson says:

    E.B., I wasn’t referring to the personal politics of the LDS leaders. The conservatism I mention was one that was resistant to many changes that its adherents felt deviated from the origins of the LDS Church. “Progressive” as applied to President Kimball, refers mainly to some of his policies. Besides overseeing the end of the ban on blacks, he was “progressive” in his efforts to increase the church’s efforts with Native Americans and its work in Latin America. BTW, I have read Thomas’ memoir. It’s an outstanding book.

  6. Terry says:

    Pres. Kimball was the most progressive, radical prophet we have ever had… and it was wonderful and needed. Sorry that the term “Progressive” upsets some but that is what he was. In early 1980 I was sitting in sacrament meeting as part of a new consolidated meeting schedule, in comfortable two-piece garments and was being served the sacrament by a black deacon, and I thought… “What’s next? Whatever it is I can’t wait for it to happen.” Some readers will not remember any of this because… you were not born yet.

  7. Tom says:


    Any credibility your comment may, or may not, of had went right out the window when you referred to Coulter and Thomas as your authorities on the subject. Both are right wing bigots of the first order, neither have a shred of integrity, both are insults to decent people everywhere.

    • Nephi says:

      Tom: Nay, nay. They are both respected in many ways. Coulter’s books offer thorough research and documentation. Thus, YOUR comment is the bigoted one.

  8. D. Michael Martindale says:

    Well, now that the respect-fest for Kimball has been taken care of, let me throw some cold water of reality onto the topic.

    This whole siutation was silly and pointless. There’s no doctrinal reason I’m aware of why any leader of the church, from bishop all the way up to president, shouldn’t just resign when their health, especially mental health, is faltering. “Tradition” is a stupid reason.

    It’s rather amazing that the Lord can’t make sure his own church isn’t run by a mentally incapacitated individual. Any general authority below the rank of apostle is “retired” (using the high-faluting term “emeritus status”). Why is wisdom shown there, but not with the top two quorums?

    What is the motive for keeping presidents and apostles in office even when they become incompetent? Kimball is hardly the only president to go through this. McKay, Hunter–and especially Ezra Taft Benson was practically ordained president in an incompetent state.

    According to D. Michael Quinn, there was serious talk about skipping over Joseph Fielding Smith as president because he was already sufficiently incompetent to give pause. It was only because of “tradition”–i.e., appearances–that he was chosen, and only after he agreed to be a figurehead alone, allowing Lee to actually run the church.

    Which touches on the motive: appearances. This church is so obsessed with making its top leaders look larger than life, that they can’t even admit publicly that their presidents suffer from the same human ravages as anyone else in advanced age. Benson was a particularly egregious example, where the other leaders literally lied through their teeth about his incompetence, to the point where it was a factor in driving his grandson Steve Benson to wash his hands of the whole thing.

    In fact, Steve Benson reports that his own kids would hear the claims of church leaders that Ezra Taft was doing okay and still in charge of the church, and ask him, “Why are they saying that about grandpa?” because THEY knew what state the man was in.

    Men get old. Their health, physical and mental, deteriorates. Everyone knows that. Why do the leaders feel like they have to hide it? Is the authority of the church so feeble in the minds of its members that there’s a reason to believe many would apostatize if they learned their leaders actually are human like the rest of us? This is just stupid!

    This urge to make demigods of church leaders has an impact well beyond that of not retiring incompetent leaders. It affects how the church functions altogether, placing appearances above substance.

    Primarily in the arena of never being able to admit one of them just made a mistake. For example, in spite of the pleas of many faithful Blacks members to make a stronger statement against the racist policy of the past, church leaders refuse say a word except, “The revelation speaks for itself.” All Hinckley would say was, “We don’t know what that was all about.”

    Which was an outright lie. Of course he knew what that was all about. He was there! He was part of it for decades! His response was nothing more than a cop-out to save face for the leaders of the church.

    Or the Mountain Meadows Massacre fiasco. The church can never quite bring itself to just say “We screwed up!” thereby letting things like this that should have healed long ago drag out and fester. Mormons think the issue is settled with Hinckley’s “apology” and monument, but for those who are still disturbed by the whole affair, the apology was not an apology, but damage control with a carefully worded statement that didn’t quite accept responsibility for the event and didn’t quite apologize.

    The issue with gays will not be resolved for a long time precisely because the leaders have painted themselves into a corner. They’ve made their stand quite clear, and there’s no going back now! If they admit it was the wrong policy, like they won’t with Blacks and the priesthood, they might let the cat out of the bag that they really can make mistakes!

    I see nothing to respect about Kimball’s decision to unofficially step down. It was the right move, but it was a desperate act, resisted until the last moment, brought on by the church’s unwillingness to acknowledge that presidents are human. It’s no more worthy of high praise than the Johnny-come-lately concessions the church is making about gays for damage control after getting beaten up by their sinister tactics with Prop 8.

    What would be so terrible to let presidents and apostles resign when they can no longer function and live out the rest of their lives peacefully–without the public smoke and mirrors of pretending “All is well in Zion”? It’s not like they’re fooling anyone except the gullible who want to be fooled.

    As for the Pope, what’s the big deal? He made the wise choice instead of going for appearances. It’s worth about thirty seconds of pause to contemplate the historical oddity that no other pope has done this for 600 years, then to move on to other matters of greater relevance in life.

    • ZEN WORDSMITH says:

      The grey haired fox that [Elder Kimball] espoused to his
      devotee’s could be consummated in one brash, yet meek
      opinion: “Winning through Intimidation”.
      …”Yea without sin, “caste” the first stone”…
      For further review:
      “The Miracle of Forgiveness”
      {tm} Deseret Book/Bookcraft

    • Llewellleo says:

      Dear Sir. So far the prophets have not failed us, even with their infirmities the glorious work of the Lord has moved forward. We all have to face great challenges and age is just another one and so the Lord in His wisdom chooses men who endure to the end and do as the Lord commands even when life comes close to being unbearable. The Lord knows on whom he can depend. I myself have suffered great infirmities as I know others have but when the Lords inspiration rested upon me I felt that not a particle in my body was out of place and a vitality was within me which is comparable to youth. I know of one moment when President Kimball, himself being in hospital, blessed a lady who was dying and the Lord gave her comfort in her last moments through this great man, himself being in discomfort. Even with his infirmities he did not cease to walk the straight and narrow and in the sight of God he has proven himself worthy, this I believe strongly. We know our leaders are not perfect, are bound to make errors or suffer illness which might affect their judgement at times but when it comes to the Lords work He blesses His servants so that they may fullfill their responsibilies which in part is to prepare others, exactly what President Kimball did with President Hinkley. Delegation is very much how the church functions and with inspiration men do what is needed to move the work forward.

      The Lord in his wisdom has witheld the priesthood from others as well at times including the Tribes of Israel. It is nothing new. In part I believe it has to do with preparing people, in all communties and I saw this principle at work in my own country where there was much bitter racial hate between people.When the time was right the Lord allowed this change and I can see His wisdom. All things happen at the right moment an at the appointed time. It was the same with the temple. Neither Saul nor David were allowed to build the temple and in the end the task was given to Solomon.

      On the Mountain Meadows Massacre, is it right for those who had no involvement in a tragedy which occured so long ago to apologise for the misdeed of those long dead. Should I apologise for every mideed done by others who might share the same views as I do on certain matters. The church never condoned this, the top leadership, and its recorded for all to see ,did not send out an instruction for the men involved to murder, it being very much against the churches beliefs except if men are defending themselves. I would say that the very men who commited the murders should apologise but they are long dead and I do not believe those who are innocent in this matter need apologise when they themselves have done no wrong.

      The Churches position remains unchanged. Homosexual relationships are still considered a sin and this will remain so for eternity and love is still the message, as it always has been. Did Abraham not pray for those in Soddom? Mormons do the same, we do not hate gay people, rather we believe in extending love and helping lift others from their sorrows.

      I extend my peacefull greeting to you Sir and my God bless you.

  9. Pingback: 19 February 2013 | MormonVoices

  10. Doug Gibson says:

    This is an interesting “Mormon Stories 138″ interview with Kimball’s biographer, his son, Edward. There is a number 137 interview with Kimball, too.

  11. jUSTacOUNTRYbOY says:


  12. Texan says:

    D&C 102:9 The president of the church, who is also the president of the council, is appointed by revelation, and acknowledged in his administration by the voice of the church.

    10 And it is according to the dignity of his office that he should preside over the council of the church; and it is his privilege to be assisted by two other presidents, appointed after the same manner that he himself was appointed.

    11 And in case of the absence of one or both of those who are appointed to assist him, he has power to preside over the council without an assistant; and in case he himself is absent, the other presidents have power to preside in his stead, both or either of them.

    Based on these scriptures it’s clear to me that the Lord has already set forth what is to occur should a President of the Church be incapacitated by age or illness.

    As for the miracle of President Kimball’s “fog” lifting so that he could call Gordon B. Hinckley as a third counselor in the presidency, I do not doubt it, having seen such a miracle in my own family. My grandfather was severely stricken with Alzheimer’s. He could not communicate and he had no command over his body–unable to grasp another’s hand or scratch his own skin. He was given a priesthood blessing and his faculties returned with clarity and he was able to speak to each family member, call them by name, and hold my grandmother’s hand. The “fog” was lifted for an entire night, after which it again descended until his death not long afterward. After witnessing that for myself, I have no doubt that God is still in control of His Church and still able to lead us through a prophet directly (rather than through a counselor), even if that prophet is incapacitated.

    As to why would God allow such a thing to happen, well, clearly He intended that it would. Why else would he have provided direction given in the scriptures I quoted above? I could speculate all day long about the “whys” but the reality is this: Why does God “allow” anything to happen? He could remove each prophet the moment they become ill. He could heal them and allow them to live until Christ returns–I mean, why not? Why does God allow any of us to have the experiences we have–many of them miserable and difficult? The answer is so that we will grow and learn to walk by faith. We experience–either as an individual or as a Church body–what we need to experience in order to grow and increase in faith.

  13. Kathy says:

    My hat’s off to the “Texan.” Well said!

  14. Ron Johnston says:

    Great column as usaual Doug ….. so good Merdian Magazine wrote one JUST like yours !(:

  15. E.J.W. says:

    Thank you for saying so, Tom. I was about to say something similar. It is terrifying that anyone considers Ann Colter an expert on any subject. If you think she is, check her sources, then check the sources of those who disagree with her as well. As E.B. said, “Happy Hunting!” ;)

  16. Jane says:

    I agree with the clear statement of Texan. Above.
    So often people forget that God IS in charge. He already has is all worked out. President Hinckley was able to be Called, and look what he went on to do…
    The other thing in this is, that I have not seen mentioned is what was happening for President Kimball? Not to, but for?
    In the last stages of life for my father he was often not with us. Sure he was here physically, awake even…but where was he? In his mind, in his spirit? I wondered what he might be learning, what preparation he might be receiving that required him to be almost gone from us.

    If President Kimball was praying for death, then why did he not die right then? You’d think his prayers would be answered. But no he lingered on…Certainly part of the delay was for us, for the things we need to learn from the process: patience, faith etc.
    Might the seeming delay be in-fact a time of preparation? We, apparently only use some 10% of our brain, I have always wondered what’s going on on the rest, spiritually. I also wonder what is going on spiritually in the elderly and frail, when they are seeming to live beyond a ‘best before’ date. When they seem to see what we cannot…etc. The bottom line in this is the question, do your trust God or not? IS this His church or not? Are you His child or not? There is only one answer that and therefore only response.

    • Decider says:

      “So often people forget that God IS in charge.” -Jane

      Throughout all of history, recorded and not, has there EVER been a time when God wasn’t “in charge”?

      Is it possible to imagine Someone/thing else being “in charge”?

      I have often heard this expression used by religious people, but I’ve never understood what is meant.

      I’ve talked to people who didn’t believe in God, but NEVER have I heard ANYONE who believed in God claim that God WASN”T in charge — even for a nanosecond.

      Stuff happens — Wars in Heaven, Crucifixions, Persecutions, Holocausts, vicious ethnic, racial, and religious pogroms that eliminate human life by the tens of millions — but evidently some are still comforted with the truism that “God IS still in charge.
      Whatever can it mean???

  17. Ellen says:

    Maybe President Kimball continued to live because of people like me. President Kimball was the only prophet I had known as I converted in 1974–it was a terrific shock to me when he died.
    But then I had my first experience of seeing the mantle fall upon President Benson. He had been at a regional conference which I attended a few months before President Kimball’s death–and, indeed, he was a feeble old man. But I saw his first General Conference address as President. Not only did he speak articulately, and with not a trace of feebleness, but in that address and others, he hit the nail squarely on the head, calling on us Saints to stop neglecting The Book of Mormon; detailing the curse of pride (I, for one, had never considered the “lower looking upward” type of pride; and pointing out that 3rd Nephi is like our times. I think back often to the lessons he taught me, and I am so grateful that he became another of “my prophets”.
    I saw the same type of situation with President Hunter.
    A third consideration is the wonderful preparation that President Hinckley received in serving as he did before he assumed the mantle. When he did so he was so very familiar and comforting, as has been President Monson.

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