How Elder Neal A. Maxwell became ‘poetry personified at the pulpit’

Elder Neal A. Maxwell speaks during General Conference, Saturday, Oct 5, 2002. (Submission date: 10/05/2002) Credit: Deseret News archive

When I wrote about Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1986, I noted that he was “poetry personified at the pulpit.”

I hit on that phrase because I knew that when he stood to speak in general conference or other gatherings, people in congregations or audiences brought out pens and paper to record a few prize morsels from a forthcoming verbal feast.

I visited the home of Elder Maxwell and his wife, Sister Colleen H. Maxwell, in preparation for writing my article about him. We sat in an spare room that served as his home office. An old-fashioned roll-top desk was a main feature of the room. Some literary classics and volumes of Church history and doctrine occupied shelves along the wall opposite his desk.

I learned Elder Maxwell’s way with words was often a long route from a single thought to polished speech. He told me that some of his speeches and conference addresses went through 15 to 20 drafts before he delivered them.

On the day I visited him, a pad of lined notebook paper and a pencil lay on his desk, ready for his next iteration of a message he would deliver. He told me that he wrote in airports and on airplanes en route to and from assignments and at home on weekends and during evenings.

“I have to work at my addresses, and I care about the congregation to whom I’m going to speak,” he said. “Maybe some of this rewriting is vanity, but part of it is my regard for people. If they’re going to take time to listen to me, I really owe it to them to be prepared.

“We owe a great debt to the Lord’s prophets who have preserved and propounded ‘the word’ that we now revere as scripture. Little wonder that I find such nourishment from those who really wrote and spoke well. The gospel truths are so transcending, even stunning, in their significance they deserved to be clothed in the best language and expression each of us can produce.”

I learned how Elder Maxwell became immersed in the world of words. He described how he, as a boy, sprawled on the family’s living room carpet reading whatever book, magazine or newspaper he could find. During his junior and high school days, he began writing as a balm for the hurts and disappointments of adolescence. “I was short, had acne and raised pigs,” he said. He wanted to play on an all-state basketball team in high school but was cut from the squad well before varsity days. “At that time, the world of words opened to me. I began poking around at trying to write,” he said.

“We owe a great debt to the Lord’s prophets who have preserved and propounded ‘the word’ that we now revere as scripture.”

His fluency in the world of words served him well in his careers and Church callings. He was the University of Utah’s executive vice president from 1964 until he was appointed as the commissioner of the Church Educational System in 1970. He was called as an Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1974, at age 47, and to the Presidency of the Seventy in 1976. He was ordained to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on July 23, 1981. During his professional careers and Church callings, he gave hundreds of speeches and addresses. By the time of his death on July 22, 2004, at age 78, he had written about 35 books and numerous magazine articles and scholastic papers.

As a young man recently out of high school, he joined the U.S. Army and, as an infantryman, fought on Okinawa in the Pacific after serving in the Philippines.

“In combat I was frightened and anxious, but felt I would make it through the fighting,” he told me. He said he carried a carbon copy of his patriarchal blessing. “I was sustained by it and by personal prayer in combat. I knew there was a larger plan of salvation for mankind, and I sensed the Lord had some things for me to do. I didn’t know what.”

After the fighting on Okinawa, he wrote articles that were sent to hometown newspapers of the men serving in his unit. He also wrote citations for those who were decorated and letters of condolence to families of men killed in combat.

He used money saved from his Army paychecks to finance his mission in Canada. “In those days, missionaries had no study plan,” he said. “Well, I wrote one, and very audaciously called it ‘The Sword of Truth.’ Imperfect as it was, it at least was an organized approach to teaching the gospel. So, once again, I was moving toward the world of words.”

Elder Maxwell told me of a time when he lost his fluency with words. “Several experiences caused some anticipation of my call as an Assistant to the Twelve,” he said. “But seven years later, I had no indicatiown of the call about to be issued to the Council of the Twelve. I was in the hospital, recovering from surgery. I was just out of the recovery room. Colleen and I thought President (Spencer W.) Kimball’s visit was just part of his usual attentiveness to those who are ill.”

The visit was more than that. “President Kimball told me I was called to the Council of the Twelve. I was still partly sedated from my surgery, and very stunned. I was grateful I could use the anesthetic as an excuse for my reaction.”

That was one time when this master of words had no words — or mighty few of them — to express his feelings.

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