The Story of The Miracle of Forgiveness

Edward L. Kimball (Son and Biographer of President Kimball)

In 1969, just before October Conference, Spencer W. Kimball's book The Miracle of Forgiveness was published. The author meant it as a call to repentance and a guide on the road back from sin.

For years he had said he intended to write no book, that there were books enough by others who had more talent. And for fifteen years he stuck by that resolve, despite the urgings of many who wanted him to write. Numerous addresses at general conference and at BYU had been reprinted, sometimes in thousands of copies, but they had been written as speeches and not as books.

The experience which impelled him finally to write a book was the day-by-day counseling of people in trouble, the week-by-week interviewing of members being considered for responsible Church positions, the interviewing of missionaries as he toured the missions.

He often carried home more weight than he could shoulder and tossed sleepless with what he had heard. It seemed that no sin or human weakness existed which had not affected some or many of those he consoled or challenged. A man faithful in the Church had before his baptism killed a friend in a drunken stupor. Elder Kimball visited an arsonist in one prison, a rapist in another. Alcoholics who had beaten their wives and abandoned their families wanted help. Others struggled with adultery and fornication and incest and homosexual acts and heavy petting and masturbation, a range of sins from those most grievous to those requiring simply a change of direction.

People varied greatly in their reactions. One boy came all the way from Idaho to confess, and the apostle learned that what troubled him was masturbation he had indulged in a year prior to his baptism. On the other hand, an older man expressed surprise that he might be excommunicated for having committed nearly every sin in the book many times over.

A couple from Phoenix came about their seventeen-year-old son, who had gotten a sixteen-year-old girl pregnant. The stake president had insisted that the boy should marry the girl, but his parents had pressured him to reject this because he did not love her and his schooling would be interrupted. Elder Kimball pointed out that for the girl there were these same factors as well as her having the child. If she were willing, the boy should marry her. The father seemed to understand; the mother went out bitter and weeping and castigating Elder Kimball, having come for different advice.

The repentant came for help, the unrepentant for justification. Elder Kimball telephoned a young bishop one day and explained that a couple with him in his office were complaining that because they had slept together just once before their wedding their bishop had refused them a temple recommend. They wanted to be sealed in the temple before the child they had conceived was born, so that it would be "born under the covenant." They were incensed at the bishop and appealed to Elder Kimball to set him straight.

Over the phone the bishop confirmed the facts, uncertain what would follow. Elder Kimball then went on, speaking to the bishop in the hearing of the couple, to say he thought that excommunication proceedings should be commenced against the two because they were in a state of rebellion, being angered at their bishop instead of contrite at their sin. The startled couple were shaken by what they heard and quickly began to reconsider their position.

Elder Kimball repeatedly noted in his journal the load of counseling he bore:

A brother came in to see me in the morning and spent about two hours with me. His wife had filed for divorce... because of continued conflict arising out of his immorality .... [At 8:30 P.M.] the distressed man of the morning returned, and his wife also, and spent the evening until 1:30 in the morning. I was trying to help him to find his way to repentance so that eventually he might possibly receive his family back.

The entire day was spent with unpleasant interviews: A missionary who was in dishonor; a woman whose husband had deserted her and was in sin; another woman who with her five children had left her husband because of his confessed iniquities; and many other problems. I went home late in the evening greatly distressed and almost ill because of the many problems. I had dinner at noon with ______ who seemed so appreciative of a little moral support, he is going through serious times.

I think I have not for years had so many cases of immorality come to me as in the past few days-broken homes because of infidelity of husbands and wives. I have struggled for hours and hours for the past few days trying to get people to see their situation and to repent. I have come to realize how powerful and subtle is that evil one who makes them think that "black is white" and helps them to rationalize away all their errors and call them virtues when they are base vices.

Moral problems were revealed in other places besides his office. Ordaining and setting apart a long series of men called to positions in a stake, Elder Kimball assumed that all had been interviewed. But when he came to a bishop's counselor he set his hands upon his head and then quickly asked, "Did I interview you for this position?" When the man said no, the apostle interrupted the procedures and took the bishopric members aside for interview. The bishop, whom he had already ordained, was worthy and delightful. The counselor who had given him pause proved to have been guilty of repeated and gross adultery.

Missionaries in the missionary home, prepared to leave for their assignments, sometimes came to Elder Kimball to confess things they had not had the courage to tell their bishop or stake president. Sometimes they had already changed their lives and needed primarily to make confession and clear their conscience; sometimes they still had to make adjustment. In any event their having lied to those who interviewed them constituted a black mark. Elder Kimball often volunteered to fast with those who needed to humble themselves.

Though he had no patience with sin, he had almost infinite patience with sinners. At one time a new, tougher standard for interviewing missionaries had been proposed for consideration by the First Presidency and the Twelve. Elder Kimball noted, "I made a very desperate effort to try to keep some latitude in our interviews and not let the door be shut too tightly upon repentant young men and women."

A few times he went into flophouses and bars and gambling casinos in order to help those who wanted him, uneasy though he was at the possibility that people seeing him there might misunderstand.

A woman came up to him in the temple and grasped his hand. She asked, "Elder Kimball, do you remember me?" He was abashed. He could not make any connection. Embarrassed, he admitted, "I'm sorry, I do not remember." Instead of disappointment, relief lighted her face. "You worked and prayed with my husband and me until three o'clock in the morning. If after these nineteen years of repentance you do not remember me or my sins, perhaps the Lord will also remember them no more." She pressed his hand again and said, "Thank you. Goodbye."

A man from the Midwest came to visit, having just been sealed in the temple to his wife and their sons. Spencer recalled the early days of the man's membership in the Church. His wife had been so bitter, as had both sets of parents, that he had asked several times whether he would be permissible to divorce his wife and move away to escape the intolerable situation. Elder Kimball's advice was for him to remain and do all in his power to be conciliatory and to convert his wife by being the perfect father. Eventually she had been converted and had become active in the Church, her husband had been named branch president, and now they had come to the Salt Lake Temple to seal their bond.

Although heterosexual sex offenses provided a constant stream of distressing interviews over the years, a changing pattern emerged from homosexuality. In the early years of Elder Kimball's ministry these problems rarely surfaced, if they existed. But in the 1960s a growing number of cases came to his attention, partly because he, along with Mark E. Petersen, had received special assignment in 1959 to counsel homosexuals.

Despite the frequent claim by homosexuals that they had no control over their sexual orientation, Spencer believed that this problem, like all others, would yield to consistent prayerful exercise of self-restraint. He pointed out that homosexuals rarely were excommunicated for their past acts but usually only for their unwillingness to make the effort to change.

Young men with this problem who had been attending BYU had to meet with Elder Kimball for clearance before they could reregister. Some he admitted on probation; others he excluded.

On one occasion Elder Kimball spent four hours with two homosexual boys who left determined to stop their homosexual practices. He interviewed three repentant boys; the one who was not a Church member seemed ready for baptism. One boy to whom he refused readmission to BYU reacted angrily and his father threatened to sue the university for defamation. Several years later the boy wrote Elder Kimball a letter of gratitude from the mission field, expressing appreciation for the apostle's firmness coupled with love.

At 10:30 came a young man deep in sin who had resisted my helping him. He had ignored two of my letters. I finally called him and he was very curt and almost insulting. He said he had nothing to talk to me about. I told him positively that he had a great deal we had to talk about and that he had better be coming, and so this morning, I had the interview.

He began in a long explanation, stating that I was not qualified to handle his case or to understand it or to help him, and that it was his problem and that he did not wish to be pressed or hurried or pressured. I told him as long as he was a returned missionary and held the priesthood and was a member of the Church that we did have jurisdiction and that we did not intend to let him continue on with his sin; unless he was willing to cooperate, he would need to be immediately excommunicated from the Church. He finally began to yield and was willing to cooperate to some degree.

Elder Kimball met with four Church members in the Northwest, three of them returned missionaries and two of them college teachers. He put his best efforts into the interviews. After two hours "they claim they see no sin in the matter, but that it is merely a new way of life. ... I was weary. I had worked so hard and put so much of myself into it trying to persuade them in the very few moments they gave me." But three months later he noted with delight that two of the men showed "tremendous progress."

A boy he had helped, and who expressed determination to straighten out his life, sent to Elder Kimball each month a crystal tumbler as a message that he had remained clean. For a number of months the tumblers came, but they finally stopped.

In Los Angeles Spencer met with an engineer who had been excommunicated for homosexual conduct. "I was happy when he was willing to come to see me. When I phoned him, it was dubious, but when he came, I made a soft approach, told him that he was excommunicated and therefore I had no jurisdiction but I had come to be helpful to him-that we loved him, the Lord loved him; we knew that basically he was a good man; and his eyes dimmed with tears and he said, 'This is the first time anyone from the Church has ever been kind to me in connection with this.'" He was not happy out of the Church. He bore his testimony. After an hour Elder Kimball had real hopes for his recovery.

Even though the total number of such cases was small in comparison to the thousands of devout and faithful people Spencer dealt with, it worried him. In 1968 he personally reported on the situation to President McKay, who agreed to an enlarged committee.

"We have lost some who did not cooperate and were belligerent and went to the large cities to hide," wrote Spencer, "but I feel there are many happy people today because of the work that Brother Petersen and I have done through the years."

While his special assignment from the Quorum channeled into his office many people with sexual sins, he continued to face the whole field of human weaknesses in his interviews. There was intolerance or vindictiveness. He dealt with white parents who railed against their daughter's engagement to a Mexican boy and refused to be present when the apostle married the young couple in the temple anyway. He worked with a husband embittered because the man who had committed adultery with his wife had been only disfellowshipped, ignoring the fact that the wife, whom he had forgiven, was not excommunicated either.

Over the years certain interviews seemed cumulatively a storm of "ignorance, superstition, skepticism, apostasy, immorality." He spent two hours with a man angrily insistent that the Church should allow prospective missionaries to be examined by chiropractors instead of doctors. He talked in seeming circles with a nonmember boy intent on distributing anti-Mormon literature among college students. He had a long interview with a returned missionary whose fragile faith had shattered over the withholding of priesthood from blacks; Elder Kimball felt "disturbed greatly for his future" and depressed, "feeling that I had done him little good." With a bishop who was asking to be released because he could not reconcile science and his understanding of the gospel Elder Kimball struggled and pleaded for hours; at the end he "had a feeling that perhaps we had helped to bolster his courage." One of the apostle's cousins delivered to him "revelations" which she had received for him, which indicated that upon fasting and praying for three days his voice would be restored and by great manifestations he would bring millions into the Church through her move-merit, called the Mission of Holiness. He spent much time trying to persuade her that the revelations she received were not from God.

All these experiences with people in great need of repentance and forgiveness led ultimately to a book. He had started with jotting down scriptures for people to study, then he developed some lists for recurring problems. By 1959 he had finally decided that there was need in the Church for "an extensive treatise on repentance." He spent untold hours over the next ten years, primarily during the time in the summer and at Christmas when the General Authorities had no regular assignments and were expected to rest. He never stinted his regular work to write; writing was an extra.

He soon found he had too much material, enough for two volumes. He liked to vacation where he could spread out his papers over several tables. After seven years he had all the chapters roughed out, out the manuscript was still unwieldy.

Finally, by the fall of 1967, the book had been set in type and Elder Kimball had galley proofs to read. But in conference with Marvin Wallin of Bookcraft, the publisher, and Bookcraft's editor George Bickerstaff it was decided that the book would have to be reduced in size. The author insisted that the price be low enough for the people to afford it for whom it had been written, and the editor felt that the book would be more readable if compressed somewhat. With the advice of he editor, Elder Kimball struggled for another two years to convey the original message in fewer words.

Elder Kimball passed the manuscript to Harold B. Lee, who pleased and embarrassed him by praising it in a meeting of the Twelve. Elder Lee said that on the basis of the half he had read "it was factual and heavily documented and adequate and covered the field beautifully." Delbert L. Stapley, who had read the manuscript, echoed those sentiments.

Finally, in 1969, the book came from the press. Spencer gave copies to all the Church leaders, to relatives and friends by the hundreds, and to troubled people he counseled-something like twelve hundred copies. He had no expectation of selling a great number. But to his amazement the book quickly sold out the first printing. Less than a year after publication twenty-eight thousand copies had nearly been exhausted and the publisher arranged for a fifth printing. The book became a best-seller. By 1977 more than 250,000 copies had been distributed.

In the thousands of letters from readers a few were negative; one couple who had found a copy in their apartment when they moved in denounced as sick the "sin-fixated, anti-sex author." But the response was overwhelmingly positive. As a result of the book the stream of people coming to see Elder Kimball about their moral transgressions grew greater still. A woman, repentant for forty-five years of a single adulterous act, came now and cleared her conscience by confessing. A sixty-five-year-old man had been carrying his sins, heavy on his conscience, for twenty-three years. He had read the book three times when be came in to ask Elder Kimball to guide him on the way to repentance. A man who had been excommunicated seven years earlier pointed to the book and said: "That's what brought me in. You called me a culprit and a sinner and transgressor and that brought me to my senses and I began to really repent and prepare myself for the restoration of my blessings. That book did it!"

For years a mail delivery rarely came without bringing letters of appreciation for the inspiration of The Miracle of Forgiveness. (Spencer W. Kimball: Twelfth President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, p.378-385)