Timeless LDS: President Kimball’s Voice

President Kimball's Voice

This post is a shortened and mostly paraphrased version of the account in chapters 14 & 16 of the biography written by Edward L. Kimball & Andrew E. Kimball: Spencer W. Kimball: Twelfth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

President Spencer W. Kimball was the 12th President (1973-1985) of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He was called as an apostle in 1943.

President Kimball’s distinctive voice was just a part of him that I always respected and loved. It was soft and a little raspy, damaged by treatment for throat cancer. I was too young to remember him ever having a different voice, and he never seemed apologetic or self-conscious about it when he spoke at general conference. There was a time, however, when he was profoundly discouraged by the cancer and his damaged voice. There were times in late 1950s when he believed he would never be able to give another talk in his life.

President Kimball during a special presentation from the Whitmer Farmhouse for the April 1980 General Conference.

By 1950, Elder Kimball had been struggling for several years with heart trouble. Having suffered several heart attacks, his health held him back from the level of service he fervently desired to give. He had been alone when he suffered his first heart attack, and told no one of it except for J. Golden Kimball. Word eventually worked its way back to the Twelve. It then took the determination of both his doctors and the Brethren to persuade him slow down. Then came a persistent hoarseness that couldn’t be explained. When Elder Kimball finally visited the doctor, he was told that a small spot on his vocal cord might be cancer. The biopsy of that spot affected his voice for some time, but he was told he was cancer free.

After a blessing, the rawness and pain in his throat subsided for a time, but eventually returned. In 1957, Elder Kimball underwent a 2nd biopsy on his vocal cord. His doctors instructed him to be completely silent for 30 days. After that, he began to only whisper, hoping to allow his throat the rest it needed to heal. He stopped setting missionaries apart out of concern that his whispering would be a distraction from that special occasion for them. He wrote during this time: I seem so useless. I find myself withdrawing, becoming almost anti-social, quite opposite to my normal nature.”

His throat didn’t heal, and lab results of the biopsy were frustratingly delayed and then inconclusive. After a period of uncertainty, prayer, and consultation with doctors and with President McKay, it was determined that the best course of treatment for Elder Kimball was to remove one vocal cord entirely and a portion of the other. His larynx would be spared. Elder Kimball had been whispering for months, taking it easy on his voice. With the operation ahead, and knowing he might never speak with a real voice again, he used his voice as much as he could.

I talked, talked, talked like the cracked and parched soil drinks in .the long awaited rain…. I talked across the tableI raised my voiceI spoke above the noise of the hubbub of diners in the roomI talked above the noise of passing trucks. I talked. I must enjoy it while I could. Monday it would be gonegone forever! Only till death, of course. Maybe I can preach again after the resurrection! (p. 307)

The day of the operation came. As Elder Kimball drifted into unconsciousness under the anesthesia, he told the surgeon, “There are thousands of people praying for you this morning that you will be blessed in your decisions.” After the surgery, Elder Kimball’s recovery was rough. He was in constant pain, and couldn’t sleep. Just as he started to feel a little better, the incision became infected, requiring painful debridement treatment and more sleepless nights. He still managed to keep a sense of humor, writing to his children: “Insomnia is my trouble. Why, I couldn’t even doze in Sacrament meeting yesterday.”

When Elder Kimball finally had the doctor’s OK to try and speak, he was delighted to find there was a little something of his voice left. Still, as his throat healed, his voice just seemed to grow weaker. He felt very down and useless. When he finally was able to take on a Church assignment, he didn’t hesitate. Presiding over a Stake division, he gave no hint that he had developed boils that were causing him intense pain across his stomach. Elder Kimball was too afraid that he would be ordered to rest again if people knew, so hid his physical discomfort. He was so happy to be back at work again.

A couple of months later, Elder Kimball went to Houston with Elder Harold B. Lee to divide a stake. Elder Kimball was having a rough time while there. He was suffering from boils again, a cold, digestive problems, and intense back pain. After 2 days of constant pain, he admitted his struggles to Elder Lee, who gave him a blessing. Elder Kimball was finally able to get some sleep. The next day, his pain was gone, and he proceeded to the planned meetings with Elder Lee. The account of that struggle, from Elder Kimball’s biography:

At the Houston conference Elder Lee, the senior of the two apostles, announced Elder Kimball as the next speaker. He stood, opened his mouth, but only an ugly grating noise came out. He swallowed and gulped and tried again, with the same sickening feeling. The thought came: “Better quit-you can’t do it-you can’t impose on the people like this.” But he tried again, this time found his voice, and delivered his short sermon. Then he turned to Elder Lee, shrugged helplessly and sat down. Elder Lee put his hand on him and said, “Thank you, Brother Kimball.”

The next day there was another meeting in Houston. Elder Lee, in charge, announced Elder Kimball as the next speaker. He stood and “made the most terrible sound you can imagine” until finally he found his voice and gave his sermon. Then he sat down, buried his head in his hands and mourned. “I was crying gallons of tears inside. I don’t think they showed. But I really thought I was through, that I’d never preach again, that I wouldn’t even try.”

Three days later, driving by car to Texarkana, he passed Elder Lee a note: “I hope you won’t embarrass me again.” Elder Lee jovially responded, “Oh, I’m sure we’ll call on you again. I think it’s important for the people to hear your witness.” Elder Kimball answered nothing. He knew he would do anything Elder Lee, his senior, asked. But inside he rebelled at the thought.

The conference at Texarkana was held in a long, narrow Methodist chapel. True to his word, Elder Lee called on his companion apostle to speak. It seemed impossible. The public address system was out. The chapel was huge. Outside the window was the highway, with trucks climbing a hill, grinding and shifting gears. Elder Kimball stood and began, “Brothers and Sisters…. “He prayed silently, he strained, the words came. For ten minutes he bore his testimony. Every person in the chapel heard him. He sat down and Elder Lee put his arm around him and said, “That’s right, Spencer.”

Spencer wrote home to Camilla: “I realize I cannot quit for anything, though the temptation is terrific when I stumble and stammer and halt” (pp. 311-312).

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Timeless LDS President Kimball’s Voice

Read about when President Kimball was first called as an apostle: ‘Daddy, Salt Lake City is Calling’—When 5 Future Church Presidents Were Called as Apostles