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Spencer W. Kimball, 90, Dies; Led Mormon Church

November 06, 1985|JOHN DART | Times Religion Writer

SALT LAKE CITY — Spencer W. Kimball, the Mormon Church leader who broke precedent to give black members full spiritual privileges in the worldwide religious body, died here Tuesday night at the age of 90.

Few leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints expected the ex-banker and businessman to enjoy a long term as president when, in the closing days of 1973, Kimball was named by virtue of his seniority to succeed the late Harold B. Lee.

Kimball had been in poor health since undergoing surgery in September, 1981. It was his third operation in two years to drain blood and fluid from between his skull and brain.

He was mostly confined to his rooms in the Hotel Utah, next to the church headquarters. But Kimball still attended most semi-annual church conferences and sometimes appeared at weekly meetings in the Mormon Temple of the church's governing First Presidency and Council of the Twelve Apostles.

During the last 2 1/2 years, day-to-day church affairs were administered by Gordon Hinckley.

Kimball survived open-heart surgery in 1972 at age 77 and underwent surgery for throat cancer in 1957, leaving him with only part of his vocal chords and a weak voice.

Because of what was presumed to be his frail health, Kimball at first was viewed as a quiet, caretaker president. Nevertheless he was active in leading the church through a rapid period of international expansion from 3.3 million to nearly 5.8 million members.

In June, 1978, he changed church policy to permit black males to enter the Mormon priesthood, a privilege previously accorded to all other faithful young men in good standing. Historians regarded the change the most significant since 1890 when the church indefinitely suspended its practice of polygamy.

The racial policy was changed the only way Mormons said was possible--by revelation from God to the church's president. Kimball's announcement that such was the case had the practical effect of cooling racist charges against the church and encouraging greater missionary work among dark-skinned populations.

Kimball said at the time that he thought he would spend the rest of his life opposing priesthood for blacks until the revelation which "came to me so clearly there was no question about it."

Modest and reserved by nature (he told a 1978 interviewer "there were many, many greater than I . . . who could have done a better job"), he still changed the path of the church for decades to come.

In addition to lowering racial barriers, he ruled in 1978 that women be allowed to offer selected prayers previously reserved for male members. But he conversely took a strong stand against the equal rights amendment and abortion.

Some Worry Expressed

As Kimball entered hospitals for blood clot surgery in 1979 and 1981, some Mormons worried aloud about what social-political directions the church might take upon the elevation of the man next in line for the presidency, ultraconservative Ezra Taft Benson, 86.

With Kimball's death, that concern was renewed. The church this century has always chosen as its leader the president of the Council of Twelve Apostles, the position Benson holds.

Benson, former secretary of agriculture in the Eisenhower Administration, is a fervent anti-communist and has long been friendly with right-wing political organizations and their causes.

But Benson, or any successor, would be no more conservative than Kimball on sexual morality and opposition to abortion and pornography. Abortion is a "crime next to murder" except under extreme cases where the mother's life is in danger, he told a church general conference in 1979.

Kimball repeatedly upheld the church view of women as mothers and homemakers while objecting to the ERA as damaging to that concept.

'Basic Institution'

The ERA "would strike at the family, humankind's basic institution," wrote Kimball in 1976 in the first of three statements by the church's First Presidency (Kimball and his aides).

Kimball surprised many observers, however, by taking a strong public stance in May, 1981, against the then-proposed deployment of the controversial MX missile system in Utah and Nevada. The message, critical of the multibillion dollar system no matter where it might be placed, emphasized "the pressing moral concern of possible nuclear conflict" raised by mammoth arms buildups.

During Kimball's tenure as president, he announced plans to construct 20 new temples in the United States and around the world--more than doubling the number available for members' weddings and special religious rites.

Spencer Woolley Kimball was born in Salt Lake City, March 25, 1895, one of 11 children born to Andrew and Olive Kimball. One of his grandfathers was Heber C. Kimball, a counselor to Mormon pioneer Brigham Young.

His father was sent by the church to the Gila Valley in Arizona three years after Spencer's birth. He later was educated in Arizona and helped implement the Indian Student Placement Program, a sometimes controversial program that placed Indian children in Mormon homes.

Owned Insurance Firm

Kimball owned and managed Kimball-Greenhalgh Insurance and Realty Co. while owning a small farm which raised cotton and alfalfa.

He was called to the denomination's Council of Twelve on July 8, 1943, and was ordained an apostle of the church the following October.

Kimball reflected after five years into his presidency: "I still wonder what the Lord was thinking, making a little country boy like me (president) . . . unless he knew that I didn't have enough sense and would just keep on working."

In addition to his wife, Camilla, survivors include their three sons and daughter.

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