After the longest period of stable membership since its founding in early 1835, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has lost two of its members to death within the space of ten days.
My wife and I first heard that Elder Neal A. Maxwell had been appointed to the Twelve (and Elder Gordon B. Hinckley called into the First Presidency) when we ran into a pair of missionaries near the train station in Lucerne, Switzerland, in July 1981. Coincidentally, it was during another visit to Switzerland (my old mission field), that we learned of his death, which occurred on the anniversary of his call as an apostle. The flag on the temple grounds in Zollikofen was at half staff, and two temple missionaries provided the saddening explanation.
In the twenty-three years that intervened between his call and his passing, my wife and I both came to know and love Elder Maxwell, first from a distance and then more personally. He was an interested and informed friend of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) and a committed, even indispensable, supporter of the Islamic translation projects with which I’ve been involved at Brigham Young University. Much more importantly, of course, he was an eloquent special witness of the Lord Jesus Christ, and one of the kindest, most thoughtful men we have ever known.
A friend tells me of meeting him once, and telling him that he was a favorite of hers. “Oh,” he replied, “but you deserve so much better.” His response was entirely in character, but it was also utterly untrue. Consistently concerned about the welfare of others rather than his own (most strikingly so on one memorable occasion just a day or two after his release from a lengthy stay in the hospital, following some of his first leukemia treatments), he seemed entirely unimpressed with his own high status. He would call and identify himself as “Neal,” sometimes merely to compliment on an article that he had read, or a videotaped talk that he had seen. He cannot have realized how deeply honored I was by such gestures. And, over the course of his own surprisingly long struggle with the disease that finally took him, he opened up a whole new ministry to fellow sufferers from cancer. How completely predictable that was.
Elder Maxwell was deservedly well known for the care with which he attempted to communicate his thoughts. One little known example: A number of years ago, he was assigned to the Christmas lighting ceremony at the grounds of the Washington D.C. Temple. Knowing that the person who would actually flip the switch was the ambassador of a leading Arab country, he asked me if there might be an appropriate Arabic phrase that he could use during his remarks. I suggested a passage from the Qur’an: Allahu nur al-samawat wa al-‘ard (“God is the light of the heavens and the earth”). We worked on getting the pronunciation right, and he incorporated it into a discussion of how the lights on the temple grounds reflected the far greater light and splendor of divinity. (Long afterward, he still remembered the phrase, with perfect accent.) The episode eloquently illustrates Elder Maxwell’s liberality, in the best sense of that word, and the liberality of the Savior’s restored gospel. I’m told that Muslim diplomats in the audience and on the stand were deeply impressed that one of the highest leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints respected them enough to cite their holy book, in Arabic.
They were able to be impressed by Elder Maxwell on other occasions, as well. In February 2000, for instance, following his after-dinner remarks to nearly fifty ambassadors at the United Nations in connection with BYU’s Islamic Translation Series, one of the ambassadors approached me and whispered, “There is something very special about that man.” Indeed there was, and is.
My contacts with Elder David B. Haight were much fewer and far less sustained. (Like many other members of the Church, I loved his self-deprecating humor.) But one encounter stands out. Years ago, a couple of colleagues and I were driving Emanuel Tov of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the international editor of the Dead Sea Scrolls, up to Salt Lake City for a press conference at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. We had, we thought, allowed plenty of time for the journey, but a freeway accident created a serious traffic jam and we were late. So, a bit desperate, we pulled up to the curb, dropped Professor Tov off with instructions on how to reach the meeting room, and then began unloading some of the books, visual aids, and handouts that he planned to use. As I was pulling boxes out of the van, I heard a voice behind me ask, “Can I help?” I turned and saw Elder Haight, then already roughly ninety. He explained that he was waiting for a ride, but that he had a few free minutes. “Load me up!” he said. Obviously, I was not about to let a nonagenarian apostle carry my boxes for me, so, despite his repeated offers, I thanked him and carried them myself.
I thought of that experience years later, when I heard that members of the Twelve had been assigned to live and preside in the Philippines and in Chile. I’m told that, while the council was discussing whom to send, Elder Haight, by then even older than when he had offered to carry my boxes for me and, practically speaking, almost blind, kept reminding his fellow apostles not to forget about him. If they needed him, he was willing to go.
Of such is the Kingdom of God