Birth and Childhood
Spencer Woolley Kimball was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, on March 28, 1895, to Andrew and Olive Wooley Kimball, where he was the sixth of eleven children. When Spencer was three, his father was called to preside over the St. Joseph Stake in Thatcher, Arizona. There he would fulfill this assignment for the next twenty-six years.
Spencer came from a long line of devout servants of the Lord. His paternal grandfather, Heber C. Kimball, was an apostle and friend to the Prophet Joseph Smith and a counselor to President Brigham Young. His maternal grandfather, Edwin Woolley, was a Salt Lake leader, business manager for President Brigham Young, and bishop of the Thirteenth Ward in Salt Lake City for over forty years.
Raised in the Mormon Church, Spencer was taught to love and serve the Lord and his fellow man. Throughout his life, he would suffer from accidents, illnesses, and surgeries, which would only prove to help him to serve others. His daughter Olive said this about her father: “Dad has had a great deal of sorrow and sickness and many difficulties to overcome. These have only served to make him a stronger person, and have given him much empathy for others.” One sorrowful occasion was recounted later by Spencer: “There came a rushing back through my memory an older picture of anguish, terror, fear, [and] hopelessness. There we were, eight of my mother’s eleven [children] in our parent’s bedroom. Our mother was dead, our father away, our older brother Gordon sat in the chair holding our littlest sister while she died, with all of us youngsters around the chair, frightened, and praying and weeping. The doctor was miles away. His horse and buggy could not possibly have brought him there soon enough, and what could he do if he arrived? It seemed to be a combination of diphtheria and membranous croup, and little Rachel was literally choking to death. In terror we watched the little body fight valiantly for air and life, then suddenly relax completely. The hard fought battle was over. She had lost.”1
As a child, Spencer was always close to the Savior through reading the scriptures, keeping the Word of Wisdom, and attending all of his Church meetings. He prided himself on having perfect attendance in Sunday School and Primary. Whenever Spencer milked the cows, you would hear him singing a hymn, and on the floor next to him would be the words to a hymn he would be memorizing. He had a goal to memorize all the Church hymns. When Spencer was a ten-year-old boy, his father foretold, “I have dedicated [Spencer] to be one of the mouthpieces of the Lord – the Lord willing. You will see him some day as a great leader. I have dedicated him to the service of God, and he will become a mighty man in the Church.”2
Education and Missionary Work
In 1914, Spencer graduated from the Gila Academy in Thatcher, Arizona, where he was the star forward on the basketball team, received high honors academically, and was president of his class. Spencer loved playing the piano and singing, so much that he was in constant demand for his talents. He was also a member of a popular quartet called the Conquistadors.
Shortly after graduating, Spencer received a letter from President Joseph F. Smith, then President of the Mormon Church. The President called him to serve in the Swiss-German Mission, to which he would depart in October. Spencer was ecstatic to serve, since he had studied German at the Academy. His plans were to change however, with the situation developing in Europe. Spencer’s mission assignment was suspended. He would now serve in the Central States Mission, whose headquarters were in Independence, Missouri. He was disappointed, since this had been his father’s, his stepmother’s, and his brother Gordon’s mission location. After reconciling himself to the change, Spencer boarded the train with excitement and a desire to serve the Lord.
This was to be a mission filled with much sorrow and discouragement. During his mission, he received word that his sister Ruth had died. Along with this sorrow, the people in his mission were not receptive to the message which he had to relate. He did not give up, though. He pursued his missionary work with much prayer and determination to plant the seeds of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the hearts of the people. He gave out pamphlets, had street meetings, and went door to door.
In January 1917, Spencer returned home from his mission. Spencer attended Arizona State University and then briefly served in the military, just before the Armistice of 1918 was signed.
Before his mission, he had been introduced to a young lady named Camilla Eyring. As he was giving his mission report, he saw her in the audience and hoped to become reacquainted with her. Four days later, Spencer and Camilla met at a bus stop, where Spencer reintroduced himself to Camilla. He asked if he could call on her again. She said yes, and their courting continued. Spencer and Camilla were married in November 1917.
Church Service and Physical Ailments
At the age of twenty-three, Spencer was called to serve as the stake clerk in the St. Joseph Stake in Arizona. Six years later he would be called to serve as a counselor in the stake presidency. When the stake was divided in 1938, he was called to be the new stake president of the Mount Graham Stake.
In 1943, after serving for over a quarter of a century in stake leadership, Spencer was called to become a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. His calling as an Apostle warranted his pondering deeply what the Lord would have him do. He did not accept this call with bluster, but with deep humility. Addressing the October 1943 General Conference, he humbly stated: “…Perhaps [the brethren] were more inspired to give me the time that I needed of a long period of purification, for in those long days and weeks I did a great deal of thinking and praying, and fasting and praying. There were conflicting thoughts that surged through my mind – seeming voices saying: ‘You can’t do the work. You are not worthy. You have not the ability’ – and always finally came the triumphant thought: ‘You must do the work assigned – you must make yourself able, worthy and qualified’…The breaking of the day has found me on my knees praying to the Lord to help me and strengthen me and make me equal to this great responsibility that has come to me.”3
Elder Kimball’s patriarchal blessing, given to him years earlier, stated, “‘You will preach the gospel to many people, but more especially to the Lamanites, for the Lord will bless you with the gift of language and power to portray before that people, the gospel in great plainness. You will see them organized and be prepared to stand as the bulwark ’round this people'”…4 Years earlier, his father had presided over the mission in the Indian Territory, which gave Elder Kimball the love he developed for the Lamanite people. In 1946, he was assigned to chair the Church Indian Committee. With this program, he was able to establish the Mormon Church among the Lamanites by making available to them the Bible and other scriptures, helping them prepare to enter the Lord’s temples, and helping them learn about the promises made to them and their forebears.
After his call to the Apostleship, Elder Kimball suffered a series of heart attacks. In 1957, after several years of problems with his voice, he was diagnosed with cancer of the throat and vocal cords. This was to be the toughest trial of his life. He pleaded with the Lord on how “…he could live without his voice, for his voice was to preach and to speak was his ministry.” “After the surgery, his voice was all but gone, but a new one took its place. A quiet, persuasive, mellow voice, an acquired voice, an appealing voice, a voice that [was] loved by the Latter-day Saints.”5 After many years, his heart condition resurfaced and he was required to have open-heart surgery to save his life.
Prophet, Seer, and Revelator
In 1973, two years after Spencer’s open-heart surgery, President Harold B. Lee passed away, and Elder Kimball was sustained as the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator of the Mormon Church. He would remain Prophet for the next twelve years.
While Spencer W. Kimball was president of the Mormon Church, twenty-one Temples were dedicated, along with the Church Office Building in Salt Lake in 1975. In 1979 and 1981 new editions of the scriptures—the Bible, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price—were printed with cross-referencing to each other. A new edition to the Mormon hymnbook with additional hymns was printed. He wrote The Miracle of Forgiveness, which teaches the principle of repentance and which has offered counsel and inspired words for many to live by. Two revelations were added to the Pearl of Great Price, which are now Doctrine and Covenants 137-138, and in 1978 the First Presidency announced the revelation that every faithful man in the Church may receive the holy priesthood, regardless of race or color.
Throughout his life he preached the need for the Mormon missionaries to be better prepared to serve missions. President Kimball declared that “every worthy and able young man should prepare to serve a mission. When I ask for more missionaries, I am not asking for more testimony barren or unworthy missionaries. I am asking that we start earlier and train our missionaries…that the young people will understand that it is a great privilege to go on a mission and that they must be physically well, mentally well, spiritually well, and that the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance…The question is frequently asked: Should every young man fill a mission? And the answer has been given by the Lord. It is yes. Every young man should fill a mission. He did not limit it. The answer is yes…”6
President Kimball passed away on November 5, 1985. Under his leadership the members of the Church accepted the challenge to ‘lengthen their stride’ by increasing their labors in missionary work, temple building, and all facets of the gospel. His declaration to the members of “Do It” encouraged them to do their best and to utilize their time in building up the kingdom of God.
Obstacles, sorrows, and disappointments throughout President Kimball’s life prepared him for leadership in the Lord’s Church. His love for the people, his love of the gospel of Jesus Christ, his integrity and attention to his responsibilities radiated to each individual he met. Each knew of his love for the Savior and the testimony he had of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
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1 “How a Daughter Sees Her Father, the Prophet”, Apr 1976, p.3-4
2 “Early Prophecies Made about Mission of Elder Kimball”, Nov 1961, p.16
3 “Conference Report”, Oct 1943, p.15-16
4 “Conference Report”, Apr 1947, p.144-45
5 “Ensign”, March 1974, p.4
6 “Ensign”, Oct 1974, p.7-8