Disciple remembered for insight, poetic metaphors

Elder Neal A. Maxwell, 78, dies at home of leukemia

His "delay en route" now concluded, the apostle has arrived at his destination.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve died Wednesday night, July 21, having battled leukemia since 1996.

Elder Maxwell, 78, died at home at 11:45 p.m., surrounded by his family. He and his wife, Colleen Hinckley Maxwell, are parents of four children.

He died on the 23rd anniversary of his call to the Quorum of the Twelve; he was ordained on July 23, 1981, at the age of 55.

Speaking in general conference of October 1997, about a year after the diagnosis, Elder Maxwell said: "I have been mercifully granted what might be called a 'delay en route.' Whether short or long, it is a wonderful blessing from the Lord! I have thereby learned, however, that there is another side to the 'Why me?' question, since some are not granted any 'delay en route' at all. Whichever side of that question, what is needed is mortal submission, even when there is no immediate divine explanation. Thus, we are to press forward, whatever the length of the near horizon, while rejoicing in what waits us on the far horizon."

The "delay en route" imagery was an allusion to military parlance from his U.S. Army days in 1945, when, before shipping out to his infantry assignment in the Pacific, he received a seven-day "delay en route," spending it at home in Salt Lake City.

It was ironic that Elder Maxwell would experience the adversity of cancer, as much of his speaking and writing dealt with what he once called the "wintry doctrines," those which are true but from which "we avert our gaze because we don't wish to contemplate them." (Quoted in Bruce C. Hafen, A Disciple's Life, the Biography of Neal A. Maxwell, p. 20.) Indeed, two of Elder Maxwell's books, written prior to his illness, All These Things Shall Give Thee Experience and If Thou Endure It Well, dealt with the purpose of adversity and suffering in mortality.

Elder Maxwell was noted for sermons dense with insight and thought expressed in metaphor and poetic phrasing. His last general conference address, at the priesthood session in April of this year, was unusually informal and retrospective. "In my Primary days," he said, "we sang 'Give, Said the Little Stream' — certainly sweet and motivating, but not exactly theologically drenched. Today's children, as you know, sing the more spiritually focused 'I'm Trying to Be Like Jesus.' "

Indeed, wrote his biographer, Elder Bruce C. Hafen of the First Quorum of the Seventy, "For Neal, the question was not just about a richer life but always about discipleship, trying to be like Jesus. As his treatment (for leukemia) began, he wanted to learn more empathy and 'to learn still more of Jesus by taking upon me a very small version of His yoke.' "

Born and raised in suburban Salt Lake City, of faithful Latter-day Saint parents who valued education and read often to him, young Neal Maxwell attained young adulthood at the height of World War II and served as an infantry solider on the Japanese island of Okinawa. "The training of my youth took over without fanfare — something only partially appreciated by me then — including abstaining from coffee in those same circumstances when water was scarce and highly chlorinated," he reflected in the April general conference talk.

Matured and seasoned by his military experience, he served a mission in eastern Canada beginning in 1947, where he served as a district president and, under assignment from his mission president, wrote a plan for teaching the gospel to investigators.

Course work at the University of Utah, where he received a master's degree in political science, nurtured a penchant for government and leadership. His early career took him to Washington, D.C., where he served on the staff of U.S. Sen. Wallace F. Bennett of Utah.

In 1956, he was hired by the University of Utah, initially as director of public relations. That led to his hosting the "Tell Me" program on the university's educational channel, KUED, and a subsequent stint as part-time regional editor for National Education Television, predecessor to the Public Broadcasting System. Later, he served as dean of students and executive vice president. In 1998, the University of Utah established the Neal A. Maxwell Presidential Endowed Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service.

General Church leadership for Elder Maxwell began in 1964 with a call to the general board of the Young Men's Mutual Improvement Association. Later service on the Church Leadership Committee under the fledgling priesthood correlation movement of the Church was followed by his appointment in 1970 as Church commissioner of education. "His response to these issues (of conflict between secular learning and spiritual absolutes) would make a fresh and lasting contribution to the Church, and to educated members of the Church, that would be among his most substantial legacies," wrote Elder Hafen in his biography of Elder Maxwell (p. 334). "Only his apostolic ministry, with its example of Christian discipleship, is more significant."

His call as an Assistant to the Twelve came on April 4, 1974, the day of President Spencer W. Kimball's landmark talk on missionary work. Thus, as a General Authority, he helped shoulder the responsibility of expanding the gospel throughout the world as the Lord opened the doors of nations, especially when the call to the apostleship came to him in 1981. His attitude toward that calling is perhaps exemplified in his general conference address in October of that year, the one he said mattered to him most (see Hafen, p. 445):

"Can we, even in the depths of disease, tell Him anything at all about suffering? In ways we cannot comprehend, our sicknesses and infirmities were borne by Him even before these were borne by us. . . .

"Indeed, we cannot teach Him anything! But we can listen to Him. We can love Him, we can honor Him, we can worship Him. We can keep His commandments, and we can feast upon His scriptures! . . .

"Humbly, therefore, I promise to go whithersoever I am sent, . . . acknowledging in the tremblings of my soul that I cannot fully be His Special Witness unless my life is fully special."

Elder Maxwell's funeral will be Tuesday, July 27, at noon in the Tabernacle on Temple Square.

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