On Saturday evening, Dec. 2, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve told Salt Lake Big Cottonwood Stake President Ellis Ivory that his stake "might receive the biggest Christmas gift ever."
The next morning, President Ivory realized what Elder Ballard was talking about: President Gordon B. Hinckley made a surprise visit to the stake conference.
"It was a real gift to us," President Ivory said. "The members couldn't believe that he was there. Many were so emotional that they couldn't sing. It was by far the most tearful conference that has ever been in the history of our stake."
President Hinckley extended his Christmas greetings and told the congregation that he had been "thinking of the fact that whenever you lead someone into the Church, you confer upon him or her blessings that can be had in no other way in all of this world."
He spoke of having met many years ago a man on a plane trip from London to New York. The man, not a member of the Church, told him that one of his three sons wanted to study forestry. President Hinckley recommended Utah State University, which had a reputation of being a good school for that kind of study. The man's eldest son attended the school in Logan where he met and fell in love with a Latter-day Saint young woman. He joined the Church, they were married in the temple, have remained faithful through the years and are now in Thailand as senior missionaries.
The man's two younger sons also eventually joined the Church.
"Out of that one conversation on that airplane, flying from London to New York, have come about 10 missionaries who have gone to many areas of the world and brought into the Church a large number of people. That is the power of the work. There is nothing you can do that would bless the life of anybody that is more important than leading to membership in this Church."
He spoke of Elder Charles A. Callis, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve from 1933-1947. Before he was called to the Twelve, Elder Callis presided over the Southern States Mission for 25 years.
President Hinckley said that Elder Callis told him about a missionary who, at the end of his mission, reported that he was a failure as a missionary, saying that he had baptized only one person, a 12-year-old boy, "a poor little kid who lived in the back hollows of Tennessee."
Elder Callis said that he kept track of that young convert. Over the years, he served as secretary of the little branch Sunday School, then became a member of the branch presidency, then branch president and district president. He moved off the tenant farm where his people had lived for generations, got his own farm, which he sold and moved to Idaho where he purchased another farm. Elder Callis said that the man had sons and grandsons who all went on missions. As a result of that one baptism, "of that little 12-year-old boy, more than 1,100 people have come into this Church," Elder Callis said.
"Now that," President Hinckley said, "is the power of the gospel, and it works. It behooves you and me to share it wherever we can, because nothing will reel in greater happiness or bring more permanent and wonderful blessings, than leading someone into this Church. And you never know whether you could do it unless you try."
President Hinckley concluded his address by speaking of the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, "the most important facet of all the facets of the gospel."
Elder Ballard talked about the great blessing it is to be "schooled by the president of the Church and prophet of the Lord."
He explained that in his ministry he has had the unusual privilege of being with President and Sister Hinckley on many different occasions in many different parts of the world. "It is a privilege to learn the great lessons of motivating and lifting and inspiring, which he teaches," Elder Ballard said. "President Hinckley's insight and down-to-earth teaching and training of Church leaders, both men and women, and the missionaries of the Church, has been a remarkable blessing."
Others who addressed the conference were Elder Dale C. Renlund, Area Seventy; and Salt Lake Temple President M. Richard Walker and Kathleen H. Walker, matron of the Salt Lake Temple. Gerry Avant