President Kimball and his inactive son

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.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

41 thoughts on “President Kimball and his inactive son

  1. I just don’t think “call to repentance” harangues are effective. Their primary effect is to drive away rather than bring you closer.

    I tend to agree, depending on the situation. If the child is a responsible adult without major problems, it seems like a less effective way to preach the gospel. If, one the other hand, they are struggling with drugs or other things, it seems like a frank talk about the life-altering consequences of the behavior would be more effective, or necessary, even.

  2. Hm, interesting post.

    I find it interesting that call to reprentence “harangues” didn’t seem to work with the wayward people in the scriptures either! (Generally speaking–there are some exceptions of course–like Enoch in the book of Moses.)

    So if they are so ineffective, why do the prophets consistently seem to use them (in the scriptures, especially)? Interesting.

  3. My experiences has been that calls to repentance only emboldens the individual, thus creating a even greater divide. It is crucial to not become estranged from the person. That can be difficult, but I have found it possible and ultimately, rewarding.

    Craig W.

  4. Spencer L. was on the faculty at the U of Chicago Law School when I was there. He didn’t teach any of the “mainstream” courses–his specialty was insurance law, so I didn’t have any direct contact with him.

    There was a story told about him by an LDS friend from Wisconsin (where he had been before coming to Chicago):

    Did you hear that Spencer L. started praying again?


    Yeah, he’s praying that his father outlives Bro. Benson.

    One of my LDS classmates was in a group that Kimball “advised.” (I think that consisted of one cocktail party during the first year.) He said that Kimball was congenial, but hadn’t any interest in the Church.

    Whatever difficulty Edward had in resolving issues about his brother’s privacy, by the time the book was published, those weren’t direct. Spencer L. died in November 2003, almost two years before the book was published.

  5. Mark B, thanks for all that info. Great comment. It’s possible the news of Spence’s death is in the book, but I seem to have missed it.

  6. It seems significant that the letters to the son began in 1944, the year following Kimball’s call as an apostle. It may be that Kimball felt it would be hypocritical to preach the gospel of repentance to the world but not to his own son.

    Following Kimball’s death, there was an item in the Church News by a photographer who was part of the entourage for many official visits by President Kimball to government leaders. He wrote of a few experiences when he wasn’t ushered out of the room following the photos and got to hear what Kimball was saying to rulers of nations one-on-one. Spencer Kimball was preaching the gospel to them.

  7. If, one the other hand, they are struggling with drugs or other things, it seems like a frank talk about the life-altering consequences of the behavior would be more effective, or necessary, even.

    “Interventions” with substance abusers (at least the effective ones) are quite different from what I think of as calls to repentance. The latter invoke abstract notions of right and wrong and otherworldly consequences such as burning in hell or being seperated from one’s family. Successful interventions, on the other hand, focus on immediate consequences to the target individual and those close to him or her.

  8. Hm. So both Lehi and Pres. Kimball got it wrong? Seems like there is a dynamic interaction going on here, and you are only considering one direction. Would Spencer L., Laman or Lemuel have made different choices based on a different approach? I guess I find it objectionable to judge behavior based on outcome like this; esp. when it is counter-factual.

  9. I agree with your take, Geoff.

    I have an amusing story involving Spencers W. and L. This past summer I visited with my old friend Mike Hicks of BYU’s music dept. He took me and my wife out to his garage to show us something that would never be seen in quite that form again. It was President Kimball’s personal music collection, which Ed had given to him. Most of the stuff was worthless, apart from its connection to SWK, and was destined for DI. But some of it was important (records autographed by the Lamanite Generation, etc.), and he was sorting through it.

    There was a box of classical 78s that had belonged to Spencer L. When Spence went to NY, he couldn’t take the records with him, and they were too expensive to ship, so he left them behind. One of these was of a symphony that was a particular favorite of SWK (I forget which one).

    Now, to appreciate this, you have to remember that SWK was a very frugal man, who threw nickels around like they were manhole covers.

    So on the inside cover of this collection was the name “Spencer L. Kimball,” only SWK had overwritten a “W” over the “L.”

    I thought that was absolutely hilarious! My son took a picture of it.

  10. Russ, I think there is a big difference between general calls to repentance, which often are effective, and specific, repeated, unwanted, opposed calls to repentance, which are less effective. I have seen and heard of stake presidents and bishops, for example, who have asked a ward or stake to change in XXX behavior, and it has been extremely effective and warranted. I have seen with my own eyes behavior changed because a prophet has pointed out that certain acts are not advisable. I have also observed in my personal life that members haranguing their family members to return to the Church are ineffective.

    Having said all that, please, please, please do not misunderstand the point of my post. I am in no position to make a judgment on the activities of a wonderful and very wise prophet. I am just using the story as an illustration of something I have learned and hopefully with apply to my own life.

    Lyle, I am also open to the fact that there are additional details on this situation that are not presented in the biography.

  11. I don’t see anything untoward in President Kimball’s calls to repentence. It’s already been pointed out that he used the “language of affection”.

    We speaking of “loving” wayward children or siblings or parents back in full Church activity. But even this love must be balanced with a direct call/challenge/request (call it what you will). It can take the forms of “please come back”, “you must come back”, or “you’ll go to hell if you don’t come back”, but the challenge to return must be presented.

    This is probably an overly simplistic analogy, but how many people join the Church ONLY because the missionaries loved them and didn’t challenge them to be baptized?

  12. This makes me think of what a ‘call to repentance’ would be for my kids (and the reference to Lehi above). Often times, we (or at least I) think of the evagelical preacher on the stage when we hear ‘call to repentance’.

    I think of two things …

    1) Lehi talking to his sons “With All the Feeling of a Tender Parent”.

    2) The end of D&C 121 (not the ‘reproving’ part, but the ‘no power or influence …’ part)

    I know it’s difficult for me to ‘call to repentance’ in the right spirit/tone. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in accusing and keeping score. I would be really interested in how President Kimball went about it. Writing his son regularly alone demonstrates a considerable amount of care/love/concern for him. Of course some people could easily ascribe such a high church position and ‘not wanting to look bad’ to the reason for doing something like that. I haven’t read this book and really know nothing of specifics in regards to Pres. Kimball and his son, so I speak in general terms there.

    I personally can appreciate the ‘push-away’ factor as well as the person that can come to you and tell you to straighten up because they know you’re capable of better and care enough for you to say it clearly. There’s a member of our previous bishopric that did that with me. It still took a lot of patience on his part and the part of others, but I knew he did it out of concern for me.

    Of course, then there’s that whole free agency issue …


  13. I don’t condemn Pres. Kimball, but with hindsight I think it’s difficult to say that what he did was helpful. I mean, if the son was close to cutting off contact with his father because his father wouldn’t accept his beliefs, that seems a high price to pay. I suppose you could say that what Pres. Kimball did allowed him to fulfill his duty, and maybe even that it was somehow important to “cry repentence” to his son so that his son would stand condemned at the last day, but that’s not an idea that has a lot of appeal to me.

  14. I had a very wise seminary teacher who told me that many parents are afraid that just loving their wayward children is really condoning the wayward behavior.

    My mom suffers from a particular type of relief society guilt that really drives her children away from her rather effectively. She firmly believes that her children wouldn’t be sinning, or even making any decision she feels is bad if she had just taught us better. If one of us even tried to confide in her that we had done something wrong her eyes would fill with tears and she would immediately begin to tell us all the things she thinks she forgot to tell us when we were seven that would have prevented the horrible sins we’ve commited. It really is dreadful because not only does she make it clear that she thinks that we will suffer horribly for our sins, but that she will suffer for them too. So you feel guilty about what you did, and even more guilty that your mom thinks it’s her fault. All told, you’d rather just not tell her about it, and if it’s something that can’t be hidden you’d rather just leave the family altogether. It also makes you feel like a little kid, because it feels like she doesn’t think you are capable of being responsible for the grown up mistakes you made. I think that rather a lot of wayward children are really asserting their independence and will come back on their own terms if their parents let them know that they will be loved regardless.

    Perhaps Spencer L. felt that ‘coming back’ would have been caving to his father’s wishes. SWK may have been a prophet, but it doesn’t mean that he understood all of his children perfectly, and family dynamics require much more precision than preaching to the masses.

  15. As I understand things, faith precedes repentance. To one who does not believe in the foundational truth claims of the CJCLDS (whether raised in the church or in the darkest jungle), it seems to me that calling for repentance is getting things out of order. If the person who is receiving the call for repentance does not have faith, then such a call will necessarily fall on deaf ears. Thus, it seems the best course of action to take with someon like Spence would have been the course taken by his mother (I am going only by what is in this post and admit that I am ignorant of the situation other than what is related here) which is to try to build the person’s faith first. Once a person has gained a modicum of faith, then a call to repentance might be effective. But calling an unbeliever to repentance is an exercise in futility, isn’t it?

    Incidentally, terms like “wayward” and “gone astray” do not seem to fit a person who does not believe in the foundational truth claims of the church. Wayward folks, it seems to me, are those who believe but willfully disobey. Just my $.02.

  16. Russ wrote So if they [call to reprentence “harangues”] are so ineffective, why do the prophets consistently seem to use them (in the scriptures, especially)?

    I have often wondered this. It might be that they are necessary despite the fact that people’s pride prevents them from being extremely effective because of the simply fact that those following Christ should not condone sin in the least. This duty perhaps compels prophets to warn everyone about the consequences of the choices they make.

    The bold, stark God of the Old Testament still exists. Through the mission of Jesus we understand better about his mercy. But his judgment also hangs over us all perpetually, absent our repentence in response to the prophets’ “call to reprentence harangues.”

  17. One of the most painful things for Pres. Kimball, I would imagine, would have been the memories of a day when all seemed to be well, when Spencer L. joined the rest of the family in worship and in faith.

    How, given the strength of the father’s faith, his sure knowledge, his joy in his membership in God’s kingdom–how, after all that, could his son just walk away?

    And, that walking away occurred after the sort of experiences that one would think would bind a person to the church–in particular the ordinances of the temple.

    I can imagine Pres. Kimball being torn between wanting to embrace his son and love him back into the church and turning away from him, wondering how he had failed as father, and not wanting to feel again the pain he felt at his son’s choices.

  18. So? President Kimball might have slipped up. Last time I checked the Church did not believe in prophetic infallibility.

  19. I wonder if SWK would have handled this differently had he not been called as an apostle.

    One principle I would like to mention is the reproving betimes with sharpness when moved upon by the holy ghost and then afterward showing forth an increase in love. I think if one of my children went astray I would probably make sure they know where I stood, confront them only if moved upon by the spirit, and then go out of my way to show my love for them. I would imagine SWK did the same.

    After a while, what more are you going to say (in terms of the gospel/repentance/etc.) that hasn’t already been said?

  20. Russ wrote –So if they [call to reprentence “harangues”] are so ineffective, why do the prophets consistently seem to use them (in the scriptures, especially)?

    Alma is an example of when this approached worked. Abinidi’s call to repentance was what it took to get Alma back on track. But it took a much different kind of experience to bring his son (Alma the Younger) around. Maybe the role is different for a Prophet as opposed to parents, siblings, and/or friends.

    My observation has been that calls of repentance to loved ones only create hard feelings, which in turn separate us from our loved ones. I have seen a sibling completely withdraw from the family because of this judgemental approach. Consequently, we are no longer in a position to have a positive influence on him. More importantly, we no longer share the strong bond and love we once enjoyed. Does that please God? I tend to think not.

    I can only imagine the SWK was caught between his role as a Prophet and that of a father. A very unenviable postion, indeed.

  21. Cari, (#22), I personally don’t think Pres. Kimball “slipped up.” I don’t feel comfortable saying that about a prophet (although it is of course possible that imperfect human beings such as prophets do slip up). That was not the point of this post. The point really was that I would slip up if I were to call my possibly (and hopefully not) future inactive children to repentance, and I should learn from this example not to do it.

  22. What is the background on Spencer L. Did he serve a mission and then at some later date decide that he was leaving the church? IF he did at one point have a testimony maybe his father was right to call him to repentance. I think that there is a great deal that we do not know about this story.

    I do agree though that often a call to repentance does not work for the already stated reasons.

  23. Samuel the Lamanite’s calls turned some of the Nephites to baptism. Amulek helped Zeezrom feel the spirit and be baptized. Nephi preaching on the tower angered some people but made others re-consider. Alma 5 apparently brought many Nephites in Zarahemla to repentance. It is true that not everybody repents, but it is not clear that some other method would have actually worked for the hardened. All in all I think the scriptural record emphasizes nicely the power of the Word.

    None of that, of course, means that haranguing my wayward son would be effective, just that it a tool that prophets have used, apparently with some good effect, in the scriptures.

  24. I don’t know if Spencer L served a mission. I have it on relatively good authority (comments from his wife’s visiting teachers) that he and his wife were married in the temple.

    Of course, getting a temple recommend in the early 1940’s may have been a substantially different matter than it is today.

  25. Spencer L served a mission in the 1940s. Sometime soon thereafter, he began to drift away from the Church and by the 1960s was completely inactive, according to “Lengthen Your Stride.” At least some of his children (Spencer W’s grandchildren) were also inactive and did not marry in the temple.

  26. No worries Geoff. I understand–didn’t mean to change the meaning of your post. As I said, it is all interesting and I think there are a number of things we can learn. I also agree with you about the two different types of calls to repentence and that the general ones can be effective. Sometimes in the scriptures the general ones didn’t work though. In fact, no civilization in history (save the City of Enoch) has ever escaped near-total apostasy.

  27. In fact, no civilization in history (save the City of Enoch) has ever escaped near-total apostasy.

    What about Ninevah?

  28. Not a bad question posed here, and one that has no one correct answer. Hindsight doesn’t even really help here, because every circumstance is different. As a father, and more particularly a father holding the priesthood, it is my responsibility to warn my children. Now, there are various methods and techniques. I have one child who would probably love to return to the church, but whose husband still has a bad taste in his mouth over the way her mother and I handled their original indiscretion. I merely encourage her to continue with her prayers and scripture reading, both of which restarted in the last few years. My son, on the other hand, probably needs an Alma-like intervention to get his attention. He’s the one who wants nothing to do with the church right now, and will actively resist any such calls to repentance. So I don’t.

    Having said all that, that doesn’t mean that, if directed to do so by the Spirit, I won’t ever “harangue” him. That’s just unrealistic. It certainly may come to that. Also, should the opportunity ever present itself, I will always take advantage of a teaching moment; reminding him of the blessings that can come from obedience. He may or may not appreciate those reminders, but I have failed indeed as a parent if I don’t at least try.

    As he gets further into adulthood, my own influences become less direct. I can then only pray that my examples are eloquent enough to show him what he’s missing. But the key, for me, will always be whatever the Spirit may prompt for whatever the situation may be.

  29. Andermom (#16)–My mother came from that school of guilt and emotional manipulation too. Yikes!

  30. I think this could probably be a separate discussion thread. My husband and I are personally affected by this matter, and we discuss the inactivity of his siblings (three brothers) often. With my own family, I have a brother and sister who were both inactive and returned to activity to be endowed and later married in the temple. In my husband’s family, his three brothers are all inactive. I’ve noticed that his parents while they profess to love their children and try to include them in church and family activities also mention that they think they have “bad” children behind their sons’ backs. Outwardly, they profess to love their children (and I have no doubt that they do), but inwardly, they literally feel their children are bad. I know there has to be a reconciling of the inner and outer attitudes in order to truly help these wonderful young men if they are to return to activity. In my observations, I really feel that, number one, parents should love their children whole-heartedly, and it’s tragic when children receive that message even if it’s subconscious that their parents don’t accept. We are starting to have family get-togethers more often at our house because my husband’s brothers state openly that they uncomfortable and not accepted in their parent’s home. I mean even if our children are straying at the moment, shouldn’t they at least feel they have a right to come home and be welcome there? In my own family, my mother was more demanding of us that we attend church if we were at home and that we always, always participate in Family Home Evening. My father was a little less so, but we still had to attend FHE no matter what. I seem to remember a promise given by President McKay(???) that if parents hold regular Family Home Evening, their children will return to the church even if they are inactive for a time. Now my husband’s family didn’t have regular Family Home Evening. I don’t want to place a magical mystique around FHE, but my husband and I have committed ourselves to trying this commandment and holding FHE, although we have no children of our own yet.

  31. Jill, Thanks so much for your observations. I’ve often seen the dynamic where children are separated into “good” and “bad” based on church activity–in one family where the mother herself was inactive, which I think led her to redoubled anxiety that her children not be “bad.” Labeling children as “bad” just complicates their return indefinitely by constructing it as caving into their parents’ wishes. Not to mention the other damage it does. I agree as well that children know how their parents perceive them. I would think it’s almost preferable to be told you’ve been relegated to being a bad child to your face as opposed to hearing about it through other channels behind your back.

  32. Re #26 and #29: Spencer L., according to Camilla’s biography (written by Edward, and Camilla’s sister Caroline Eyring Miner) left on his mission when he was seventeen (in 1936), having had two years of college. According to, his first marriage was in the temple. Apparently his second wife is still alive.

    Edward also writes about President Kimball working with his brother Del for years and years and finally ordaining him an elder just before Del dies. But he doesn’t go into much detail on that.

    This is something I’ve grappled with since I moved back to Delaware almost four years ago. The majority of the people I grew up with in the Church that are also here aren’t all that active. Getting their phone numbers isn’t a problem, I’m stake membership clerk. But I haven’t gotten up the courage to call even one of them, even just to see how they’re doing.

  33. Very thoughtful and insightful article. I did, however, find the very last sentence to be ironic in that differences over the church, even if treated so as not to undermine familial relationships during time on earth, could still potentially sever them in the after-life, depending upon the degree and nature of the differences I suppose. If it were not so, our emphasis on temple sealings would be misdirected.

  34. I feel the most important thing for us to think about is, as LDS active members and children of God, it is not our place to judge or the judgement can become ours. Many of the comments I just read say they are not judging, but then express just the opposite in their statement. As a worthy “PROPHET”, I am confident he had enough experience where he could tell the difference between his own opinion and his Father in Heavens…Like when Moses could tell the difference between Satan’s “power” and His God. I know SW was a human like the rest of us, but we learn from Joseph Smith that when he erred by way of weakness or immaturity; he could not exercise his priesthood (even in disagreements with his sweetheart Emma)until he repented. Are all of you saying SW was leading the church as a carnal man, void of the priesthood because of his letter(s)to his son?

  35. kt, you have managed to completely misunderstand this post and its comments. Nobody is saying Pres. Kimball led the church as a carnal man. What I am saying is the lesson that I personally can learn from this experience. Please re-read the original post. Thanks.

  36. Geoff,I did read the original post and many others that followed…I said what I did and hold strong to my original comment because, I feel it is quite accurate. For example you said (and I quote)” The point really was that I would slip up if I were to call my possibly (and hopefully not) future inactive children to repentance, and I should learn from this example not to do it.” Who’s to say SWK wasn’t suppose to do it? Or that it was wrong in this particular case? Were you in SWK’s bedroom while he was on his knees pleading for advice from Heavenly Father about his wayward son? Maybe that’s why God didn’t send you SLK and sent him to SWK (a prophet). God won’t give us more then we can handle…just saying:) Which leads me back to my original post …”its not our place to judge or the judgement can become ours”.

  37. Being on both sides, a believer and now a nonbeliever, it is apparent that Spence was a man when he made a decision to leave the church. Most TBMs do not understand that many that leave the church do so with a very strong conviction that it is not true. From a bit of other reading I have done, it is quite apparent that Mom understood her son’s convictions and that he was just being honest. A parent should be proud of this honesty and not continue to test the child’s integrity.

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