Heber C. Kimball was born in 1801 in Vermont. In 1830 he became a Baptist, but soon after, he learned that some missionaries from a new faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, were visiting the home of Phineas P. Young, brother of Brigham Young. He was curious about the Mormons, as the Church’s members were sometimes called, and asked to meet them. Wanting to know still more, he accompanied Phineas and Brigham and their wives as they returned to Pennsylvania. There he attended church meetings for six days and talked with local Mormons. In April, a church member visited him at his shop and Heber expressed a desire to join the Church. He was baptized in a small stream near his home. Two weeks later, his wife also chose to be baptized.
Heber immediately began missionary work and baptisms with Brigham Young and Joseph Young. Early in April, he had the opportunity to meet Joseph Smith, the president and first prophet of the Church, for the first time. He also became a member of Zion’s Camp, initially organized to try to peacefully stop mob attacks on Mormons in Missouri. Many future leaders came from this volunteer group. Later, when the Camp reorganized, he became a bodyguard to Joseph Smith, whose life was in constant danger.
In 1835, Heber became an apostle, following the New Testament model of Christian church leadership. He served a mission in the eastern states and was also able to attend the dedication of the Kirtland Temple in Ohio. He was particularly proud of his wife’s accomplishments in the building of the temple:
Our women were engaged in spinning and knitting in order to clothe those who were laboring at the building, and the Lord only knows the scenes of poverty, tribulation, and distress which we passed through in order to accomplish this thing. My wife toiled all summer in lending her aid towards its accomplishment. She had a hundred pounds of wool, which, with the assistance of a girl, she spun in order to furnish clothing for those engaged in the building of the Temple, and although she had the privilege of keeping half the quantity of wool for herself, as a recompense for her labor, she did not reserve even so much as would make her a pair of stockings; but gave it for those who were laboring at the house of the Lord. She spun and wove and got the cloth dressed, and cut and made up into garments, and gave them to those men who labored on the Temple; almost all the sisters in Kirtland labored in knitting, sewing, spinning, etc. for the purpose of forwarding the work of the Lord (Instruments in the Hands of God, James E. Faust, General Conference, October 2005).
1837 was a very difficult time in Mormon history. Many people left the church this time, including leaders. However, not once did Heber C. Kimball waver, even during this time period. Despite frequent threats to his life, persecution, and mob violence, he stayed faithful to the Church and to God. While others complained, he went cheerfully off to England as a missionary, where he taught and baptized about 1500 people.
After returning from his mission, he moved with his family to Far West, where the Mormons were currently living in their constant search for freedom of religion. However, a mob invaded that community as well. Heber C. Kimball offered himself as a hostage to protect others. In December of that year, he and a few other leaders petitioned the state of Missouri to protect the Mormons and their constitutional rights. (Instead, Missouri would eventually put out an extermination order against all Mormons.)
A committee had been organized to plan for the safe movement of the Mormons to a new place. In April of the year following the petition, Heber C. Kimball warned the committee to finish up and get out of the area, because their lives were in danger. At about that same time, members of a mob tried to kill him on the street. He took his family and moved to Quincy, Ilinois. He then moved to Nauvoo, Illinois, where the Mormons again tried to found a city.
While Heber was in Washington, DC, trying to seek help from the federal government for the unceasing attacks on Mormons, Joseph Smith was murdered. This set off another round of apostasy as some people rebelled against God’s plan for Church succession, which made the head of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles the new prophet. Heber C. Kimball stayed firm and followed Brigham Young’s leadership.
The Mormons were forced to abandon their city and their homes to flee west, in the historic journey to Utah. Heber C. Kimball was made one of the two captains of the groups that left first—Brigham Young being the second. He was with the first group to reach the Great Salt Lake Valley and one of the first three speakers at the first church service. He offered a revelation that introduced an essential term into Mormon terminology, that of borrowed light:
To meet the difficulties that are coming, it will be necessary for you to have a knowledge of the truth of this work for yourselves. The difficulties will be of such a character that the man or woman who does not possess this personal knowledge or witness will fall. If you have not got the testimony, live right and call upon the Lord and cease not till you obtain it. If you do not you will not stand. …
The time will come when no man nor woman will be able to endure on borrowed light. Each will have to be guided by the light within himself. …
If you don’t have it you will not stand; therefore seek for the testimony of Jesus and cleave to it, that when the trying time comes you may not stumble and fall. (Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1967, p. 450.)
He became a member of the First Presidency (consisting of the president of the Church and two counselors), making him the second-highest ranking church member. He had the opportunity to help lay the cornerstone of the Salt Lake Temple and to offer the dedicatory prayer.
In 1856, the Mormons were facing potential starvation. Heber and his family chose to eat less so they could share what they had stored with those who were in need. He once wrote that he cared only for things of eternity. He died in 1868. His grandson, Spencer W. Kimball, later became the president of the Church.
This article is adapted from:
Every Person in the Doctrine and Covenants by Lynn F. Price, Cedar Fort, 2007
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.