One of the most heartbreaking episodes of the new biography on Spencer W. Kimball, “Lengthen Your Stride,” is the story of his relationship with his son Spence. This story on pp. 61-63 of the book describes Spence as straying from the Church during his adult lifetime. President Kimball writes him repeatedly and calls him to repentance. Lessons can be learned from this story, it seems to me.
I quote from the book:
Over the years Spencer’s repeated, anguished efforts to call his son to repentance only widened the gap between them. The son believed he should not be expected to profess faith and live his life in a way inconsistent with his convictions. The father kept hoping that perhaps one more appeal would make the difference. Even if it did not, he felt it his responsibility as a parent to make the effort.
The biography’s author, Edward Kimball, is the prophet’s son and brother of Spence. He has an especially difficult task balancing his father’s actions and needs with his brother’s privacy.
The prophet consistently seemed to believe he could bring his son back to the Church. He wrote many letters to his son from 1944 until at least 1979. Soon after he became president, he sent Spence “a letter of seven typewritten, single-spaced pages. Though it used language of affection, it was a strong call to repentance. Spence considered the letter insulting, treating him as a wayward child rather than a thoughtful and responsible adult. Although Spence never doubted his father’s good intentions, this insistent letter brought Spence to the verge of rejecting his father completely.”
(It should be noted that Spence held a chair in law at the University of Chicago).
Spence wrote a letter severing all ties with his father but never mailed it because of his mother, Camilla, who was “distressed by her son’s disbelief, but she did not alienate him.”
The book points out: “No grief or physical suffering was more excruciating to Spencer (the prophet) than his sorrow over this disagreement.”
Although the author does not say it explicitly, there is a contrast with Camilla’s correspondence and interaction with her son. Camilla wrote a letter to each of her children every Sunday. The implication seems to be that while the prophet’s relationship involved calls to repentance, Camilla’s relationship emphasized familial love.
I have a personal story to tell here that is relevant. I was not baptized until I was 36. Before I became a member of the Church, I was extremely suspicious and hostile to the motives and actions of my family members who were members. I was certain they were a weird bunch of religious fanatics out to convert me for all the wrong reasons. But the interesting thing is that nobody ever sent me a “call to repentance” type of letter. Yes, there were several long talks about religion, and some of those talks were annoying. But my family emphasized love, rather than calls to repentance.
I just don’t think “call to repentance” harangues are effective. Their primary effect is to drive away rather than bring you closer.
I am not by a long shot saying the prophet acted badly — he acted as many fathers would have, and it is also possible that there are seeds that were planted by his actions that will bear fruit later. Still, I have learned from my own experience that if one of my children goes astray, the best thing to do is offer pure love and pray and fast for them, put their names in the temple and let them find their own way back. I hope I will be filled with humility and charity, rather than overbearing righteousness. My letters and e-mails will hopefully just tell them how much I love them and am proud of them, not call them to repent. It would be tragic to allow differences over the Church to drive me away from my children.