In 1984, President Dallin H. Oaks was serving as a Utah Supreme Court justice and pondering and praying about decisions that could act as steppingstones to the U.S. Supreme Court. Despite his diligent seeking for answers, he could not get a spiritual confirmation about becoming a federal judge.
Then on Friday evening, April 6, 1984, while President Oaks was in Arizona on judicial business, President Gordon B. Hinckley called his hotel room to tell him he was called to be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. President Oaks was shocked.
Although he may not have seemed the likeliest choice to become an Apostle, President Oaks’ life has been anything but conventional, noted his biographer Richard E. Turley Jr.
President Oaks was only 7 when his father died, leaving his mother, Stella, to raise three young children on her own. Because of the Korean War, he was unable to serve a full-time mission and instead attended Brigham Young University and married his sweetheart, June Dixon. In the midst of a promising law career, he was asked to serve as the president of Brigham Young University. He and his wife, June, raised six children and after her passing, he courted and married Kristen McMain while he was an Apostle.
Throughout his life, he learned to seek and act on spiritual impressions that enabled him to respond to President Hinckley, despite his shock and feelings of inadequacy, “My life is in the hands of the Lord, and my career is in the hands of His servants” (“In the Hands of the Lord: The Life of Dallin H. Oaks,” p. 174, Richard E. Turley Jr.).
Below are excerpts from his new biography “In the Hands of the Lord: The Life of Dallin H. Oaks,” that show a sneak peak into his life of service.
His father’s death
In October of 1939, Lloyd [Dallin’s father] became ill and spent sixteen days in the hospital. … At first, doctors concluded that Lloyd had cancer. Soon, however, his brother Weston came to Twin Falls to take him to Salt Lake City. … Three days later, Lloyd phoned her from Salt Lake. He had a new diagnosis — tuberculosis — but told Stella “he was feeling fine and cheerful.” …
Dallin, his mother, and other family members had high hopes the Lord would heal Lloyd and bring him home again. They relied on fasting, priesthood blessings, and an unwavering faith. “You shall be healed, Lloyd. I KNOW IT,” Stella assured her husband. “You are very precious to the Lord, and He needs you at your post in Zion again. We all need you, darling, and I firmly believe that God is pleased to perform miracles for us when our lives are dedicated to His service. … Lloyd, my heart is simply singing for joy, for I know you are going to be healed soon to be a living testimony to those all over who know of your great illness. We have seen Our Father’s power so often that we can never doubt that you can receive His blessing.”
But it was not to be. Early on the morning of June 10, 1940, with Stella and sister Nettie at his side in the sanatorium, Lloyd Edress Oaks — faithful husband, father, Church member, and doctor — finally succumbed to the disease he had probably contracted while caring for a patient. Lloyd was thirty-seven years old at the time of his death, leaving Stella, age thirty-four, with three small children: Dallin, seven; Merrill, four; and Evelyn, just fifteen months old. …
Dallin was staying at the farm home of Stella’s parents when he first got news of his father’s death. It crushed him.
“Grandma Harris and I were alone when she told me that my father was dead,” Dallin wrote. “I ran into the bedroom at their old farm home and knelt down and began to pray that it wasn’t true. When I had been there just a few moments, Grandpa came in weeping. He knelt down beside me and put his arms around me and promised that he would be a father to me. …
“Although I cried many tears over the death of my father, then and later,” Dallin reflected, “I never recall blaming the Lord or feeling bitter that he had been taken. I attribute this to the faith and assurance given me by my mother and grandparents, whose attitudes reinforced the sweetness of my memories and turned the potential energy of resentment into joyful anticipation of being reunited with him one day.”
Decades after that expression, Dallin talked publicly about the lesson he learned from his father’s death: “Faith, no matter how strong it is, cannot produce a result contrary to the will of him whose power it is. The exercise of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is always subject to the order of heaven, to the goodness and will and wisdom and timing of the Lord” (“In the Hands of the Lord,” pp. 9-11).
Faith to serve
In early 1961, Dallin was invited to lunch by a man he admired greatly, Chicago Stake President John K. Edmunds, himself a practicing lawyer. Over lunch, President Edmunds called Dallin to serve a stake mission and to be a counselor in the stake mission presidency. … In extending the call, Dallin wrote, President Edmunds told him the calling “would require forty hours of proselyting per month, plus gospel study and other time — equivalent to at least three to four evenings per week.”
Since Dallin’s heavy load at the [law] firm already kept him at work three or four evenings a week, the calling required a great exercise of faith. “I couldn’t see how I could accept this calling and still keep up with my law practice,” Dallin agonized. “Yet I could not say no to a calling that I knew to be from the Lord, especially when that calling came through a servant of the Lord who had wielded such a powerful influence in teaching me righteous principles. Gathering all my faith, I accepted the call.” …
He worked hard and humbly, refusing to be discouraged. His stake mission brought with it a wealth of gospel knowledge as he studied the scriptures and learned from the stake mission president, a man of faith. But perhaps the greatest learning came from Dallin’s own exercise of faith. Logically speaking, it did not seem possible for him to fulfill his Church calling and perform well at the law firm. But he came to recognize “the unusual — even miraculous — blessings that come to those who serve the Lord.”
After just two weeks of missionary service, he testified to his mother, “I am deriving great happiness from this work, and I know the Lord is blessing me to accomplish my legal work with greater efficiency so that I can give my full devotion to His service.” By the end of March, he reported to loved ones: “My missionary work continues at [a] fearful pace. … My whole day is upside down already, and my primary devotion is … to my missionary work, with law being secondary. Yet I’m getting my work done.”
“Though I was devoting less time to law firm work,” Dallin later reflected, “my advancement in the firm and my success in my work seemed to accelerate rather than decline. On several occasions, I received late-afternoon assignments for night work when I had an evening missionary appointment. After fervent prayer, I went to the firm library and was prompted in where to look to complete my research assignment and with words to write the memo in record time. In two years, I did not have to break one missionary appointment” (“In the Hands of the Lord,” pp. 77-80).
‘The Lord marked him out’
A t 8:30 a.m. on March 10, 1971 — after an all-night drive — Dallin and June arrived in Williamsburg, Virginia. Dallin’s conference did not begin until the afternoon, and so they checked into their motel and decided to drive to the Yorktown battlefield thirty miles away to sightsee. As they drove out of the parking lot, Dallin realized he had left a map of the battlefield in the room and turned around to retrieve it. As he entered the room, the phone rang, and the caller proved to be Neal A. Maxwell, Commissioner of Church Education. He was calling on behalf of the search committee for a new BYU president, and he arranged for Dallin to meet the group in the office of Elder Marion G. Romney of the Quorum of the Twelve on March 19.
The call confirmed Dallin’s premonitions, which he reduced to paper a few months later. “From time to time in the years following my graduation from law school,” he wrote, “I remarked to June that I felt the Lord was preparing me for some special service. Often these thoughts and remarks accompanied some accomplishment or event, such as my Supreme Court clerkship, my appointment as acting dean of the law school, or my experience on the disciplinary committee, where it seemed that I was granted responsibilities and realized accomplishments far beyond my natural ability. I often expressed the thought to her that where the Lord was giving me so much, He would surely expect a return, and I hoped I would have the wisdom to recognize the opportunity when the call came, and the courage to accept it.”
Dallin traveled to Utah as requested and met with Elder Romney’s search committee and with Presidents Harold B. Lee and N. Eldon Tanner of the First Presidency. The interviews seemed to go well. Then on Saturday, March 27, back in Chicago, he was at his law school office when June called to say President Lee was trying to reach him. Dallin returned the call, and President Lee got right to his point. “We would like you to be the president of BYU,” he told Dallin. “What do you think of that?”
“I was stunned, speechless, overcome with emotion,” Dallin recorded. “When I managed to speak, I blurted out an inappropriate question, something like: ‘Are you sure you know what you are doing?’ …
Dallin told the First Presidency and search committee “there was no job in the world I could not do with the Lord’s help, and now that I had been assured by them that I was chosen under the inspiration of the Lord, I knew I could measure up.” Even with that, Dallin continued to seek his own spiritual confirmation, and in an unusual and sacred experience, he soon heard a divine voice declare, “I have chosen you.”
As it turned out, Dallin had not been on the search committee’s first list of twenty-five potential candidates. “No one on the selection committee knew him,” Neal Maxwell recalled. “But the Lord marked him out” (“In the Hands of the Lord,” pp. 120-123).
[A few months into his second year as president of BYU], a reporter interviewed President Oaks and his family to see how they balanced all the demands on their time. “Dinner is probably the most important family experience we have,” the president explained, “because whatever else I’m doing, I try very hard to be home for dinner.”
June said, “Being BYU’s president hasn’t made much difference in Dallin’s workday. He has always worked very hard and been very busy. He comes home and works at night after dinner. I’m used to his pace — he wouldn’t be where he is now if he hadn’t worked like he does.”
June also spoke of Dallin’s role as a parent. “He is very concerned about being a good father,” she said. “Sometimes the children will call him and will say, ‘I have to talk to you.’ He’ll say, all right, we’ll talk as soon as I finish this or that. And he’ll make sure they have the time they need, too.”
“About their father, the children spoke freely,” the reporter wrote. Cheri described her father’s sense of humor, the fun the family had together, and the way they joked around and teased each other. “Whenever I have a problem,” she said, “I can always go to my father, and he’ll always drop what he’s doing and help me.” TruAnn agreed. “He’s so fun, especially when he tells us stories,” notably James Whitcomb Riley’s “The Bear Story,” which he always read with “just the right accent.” Dallin D. added that his father had “stories for any subject that might arise at the dinner table, and they’re all humorous.”
Shaped to the calling
Before the ordination [as an Apostle on May 3, 1984], following a pattern set in 1835 when Oliver Cowdery spoke to the initial twelve Apostles in the latter days, President Hinckley gave Dallin a charge, to which he responded. Even earlier, Dallin had asked himself the question, “Throughout the remainder of your life, will you be a judge and lawyer who has been called to be an Apostle, or will you be an Apostle who used to be a lawyer and a judge?”
“There is a very large difference between those two,” he realized. He was familiar with the law and matters most administrators face: committees, public affairs, personnel, and human relations generally. “I was sure that we all have a tendency to focus our efforts on those things that are familiar and easy — where we feel at home,” he wrote. “We are repelled by those things that are unfamiliar and difficult.
“The most important parts of my calling” — in fact “the only parts that are really unique in the service of the Lord,” he recognized — “were those parts that I knew nothing about — those parts where I would have to start all over at the beginning. I knew that if I concentrated my time on the things that came naturally and the things that I felt qualified to do, I would never be an Apostle. I would always be a former lawyer and judge. I made up my mind that was not for me. I decided that I would focus my efforts on what I had been called to do, not on what I was qualified to do. I determined that instead of trying to shape my calling to my credentials, I would try to shape myself to my calling” (“In the Hands of the Lord,” pp. 183-184).
Experience in the global church
On Sunday, July 11, 2004, Elder and Sister Oaks had the capstone experience of their two years in the Philippines at an area conference originating from the Fairview stake center in Quezon City and telecast to buildings throughout the area. Many came to the stake center three hours early. “Their powerful spirits,” Elder Oaks wrote, “inspired everyone.” The speakers focused on the subjects the Area Presidency had emphasized over the prior two years. “I was the concluding speaker,” Elder Oaks wrote, “and gave an overview of our goals and the progress we have made in the Philippines.
“The Spirit was extremely strong,” he noted. “Kristen commented that this was the most powerful meeting she had attended in the Philippines, and I felt the same. She said that this was an occasion where spiritual food was being served and the audience was partaking to the fullest. It filled our hearts.” About earlier meetings and this one, Sister Oaks wrote, “I remember multiple times large crowds of Filipinos surrounded President Oaks as we left. They came to his chest and encircled him as if in one big group hug.” …
His two-year Philippines experience provided important perspective he would need in an increasingly global church. It was a precious time for bonding, as Dallin and Kristen taught and labored together. Years after his experience in the Philippines, Elder Oaks would say he learned more in those two years than in any other two-year period of his ministry (“In the Hands of the Lord,” pp. 275, 277).
Call to the First Presidency
[After being set apart as the President of the Church], President Nelson explained, “It then became my responsibility to discern whom the Lord had prepared to be my counselors.” That choice proved emotionally wrenching. “How could I choose only two of the twelve other Apostles, each of whom I love so dearly?” he worried. He, of course, sought divine direction in his choice. …
As President Nelson interviewed each [Apostle] individually, the rest sat reverently. “There was no chatting, no passing the time with any kind of interaction,” Elder D. Todd Christofferson recalled. “Everyone was there with his own thoughts and prayers.” Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf had served in the First Presidency with President Monson, and when he met with President Nelson, he recommended two other men to be counselors in the First Presidency. “Elder Oaks was one of my recommendations,” he later explained.
“Through the course of those interviews,” President Nelson recounted, “it became very clear to me, as I prayed about it, that Dallin should be First Counselor because, upon my demise, he’s the next President of the Church. That’s the kindest thing I could do to the Church and for him … to give that exposure.”
President Nelson’s thinking was driven in part by what President Spencer W. Kimball had told him. “I remember when President Kimball was called to be the President of the Church,” President Nelson related. “I was his surgeon. He confided in me a lot. He said, ‘Brother Nelson, I don’t know anything about the work of the presidency of the Church.’ He’d only been in the Quorum of the Twelve. Quorum of the Twelve do their work well and know their work well, but it does not include any apprenticeship for the items that are only done by the First Presidency. So, I thought, for the good of the Church, Dallin should be in the First Presidency.”
Still, after interviewing all the Twelve, President Nelson made his choice a matter of deep and reflective prayer before announcing it. “He was alone for a long time after the last person” was interviewed, Elder Eyring remembered.
Finally, after a long period of interviewing, pondering, and praying, President Nelson returned to the other twelve Apostles and announced to the group that his two counselors would be Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring. As the Apostle second in seniority to President Nelson, President Oaks would also serve as President of the Quorum of the Twelve, with M. Russell Ballard serving as Acting President. President Nelson called for a sustaining vote on these matters, and all thirteen Apostles’ right hands went up. “That’s the first Dallin knew” of his call to the First Presidency, President Nelson noted. “I had not asked him” ahead of the vote.
The way President Nelson wrestled with choosing his counselors and then announced the Lord’s will revealed to him on the subject “was just sweet beyond imagination,” President Eyring recalled. “Just sweet. … It was a lovely moment” (“In the Hands of the Lord,” pp. 345-346).