On May 31, a modest birthday party in the Church Administration Building made history in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In that setting, President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency of the Church, observed his 90th birthday.
At the same time the Church observed a First Presidency, already the most elderly in its history, continue to serve with each of its three members 90 years of age or older, with President Russell M. Nelson, age 98, and President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor, age 90, welcoming President Eyring as he joined them in their 10th decades of life.
The continued health and vitality of this threesome prompted praise and congratulatory messages from members of the Church all over the world as well as from friends not of our faith who have had association with the First Presidency during their term of service.
In spite of their age, the breathtaking activity and dazzling impact this First Presidency is having on the Church is already the stuff from which legends are made. The membership of the Church from Seattle to Santiago and Jacksonville to Johannesburg are rejoicing with everything from new or renovated temple buildings to an enhanced and elevated temple experience.
In addition, this First Presidency has overseen the revamping of Church curriculum, expanded the Church’s outreach to those not of our faith, and pioneered an emphasis on and developed the resources for a home-centered, Church-supported religious orientation for its members. And the list goes on and on.
Nevertheless, when the significance of the First Presidency’s responsibilities is considered and the demand on their health in fulfilling them is weighed, occasionally a questioning comment can be heard here or there about the vitality needed for such service. “Wouldn’t it be better to have younger men carrying that load?” we can hear in the conversation of some. “Wouldn’t younger men be more responsive to the times?” a few others may say.
On April 7, 1996, a broad television audience in the United States had the chance to consider just such questions when iconic television journalist Mike Wallace bluntly put this issue to then-President Gordon B. Hinckley. On a segment of the popular investigative television program “60 Minutes,” Mr. Wallace said, “There are those who say: ‘This is a gerontocracy. This is a Church run by old men.’“
President Hinckley, then 86 years old, replied with the rapid response of a spunky 30-year-old. “Isn’t it wonderful to have a man of maturity at the head, a man of judgment who isn’t blown about by every wind of doctrine,” he said, leaving both interrogator and responder in laughter when the only thing left to say after that was that at least the leader should not be “dotty.”
While we all have concern for the impact their many, relentless and far-flung duties have on their health, and knowing that youthfulness usually brings energy and vitality to any task it undertakes, nevertheless, this First Presidency of three men in their 90s brings certain qualities to their callings that to some degree are as irreplaceable as they are unprecedented. I am one of a mere handful who has the privilege of observing these men at work all day every day in a variety of responsibilities. Let me suggest just a few things I have learned about the leadership of elderly men, especially these elderly men:
First is the point President Hinckley made. Age has brought Presidents Russell Nelson, Dallin Oaks and Henry Eyring maturity and judgment, strength to resist being “blown about by every wind of doctrine.” Like the roots of a tree, their combined years in Church leadership — a whopping 106 years as apostles alone, to say nothing of their years of service prior to that — has given them a degree of stability that can withstand even the stiffest of social, political or economic winds that might blow.
Secondly, there is a degree of wisdom that comes with age not acquired quickly or superficially. It is regularly said, usually with a smile, that there is an impulsiveness and determination in young men that prompts them to take immediate action on an issue, even if the action is wrong. Older men need to take action, too, but usually wait until they know it to be the best action under the circumstances. Even then, the wise response will be measured, metered and deliberate.
A favorite poem from John Ciardi puts it smilingly:
The old crow is getting slow,
The young crow is not.
Of what the young crow does not know,
The old crow knows a lot.
At knowing things, the old crow
Is still the young crow’s master.
What does the slow old crow not know?
— How to go faster.
The young crow flies above, below,
And rings around the slow old crow.
What does the fast young crow not know?
— Where to go.
Thirdly, much of the strength, judgment and wisdom we admire in older people came to them only one way — from experience, experience that was often acquired by facing difficult issues and making painful decisions in younger years. In that spirit, someone said that the life of an elderly person represented an “experiential library,” and losing one of those older men or women was like standing helplessly by as that library burned to the ground.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, in matters of the spirit and in those considerations that take us into the patterns of the past, we see that God has deliberately developed a hierarchy — a system of seniority, if you will — that allows for a call to come to a man at a relatively young age. However, that man will be a great deal older by the time he has moved through the apostolic chairs that eventually makes him the senior apostle.
My senior brethren have often said that many of the lessons they have learned in their ministries could not have come except as a function of their time in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, watching, listening and learning in their junior years. Tested and seasoned Job said, “With the ancient is wisdom; and in length of days understanding ... [a] multitude of years should teach wisdom ... and the inspiration of the Almighty giveth them understanding” (Job 12:12; 32:7-8).
Perhaps that is the crowning lesson we can take from Rehoboam, son of Solomon, when he sought not only to continue but in fact to intensify the burdens his father had placed on the children of Israel he was to lead.
“And king Rehoboam consulted with the old men, ... and said, How do ye advise that I may answer this people? And they spake unto him, saying, If thou wilt be a servant under this people this day, and wilt serve them, ... and speak good words to them, then they will be thy servants forever,
“But he forsook the counsel of the old men, ... and consulted with the young men that were grown up with him, and which stood before him .... And the king answered the people roughly, and forsook the old men’s counsel that they gave him; And spake to them after the counsel of the young men, ... Wherefore the king hearkened not unto the people ... So when all Israel saw that the king hearkened not unto them ... there was none that followed the house of David, but the tribe of Judah only” (1 Kings 12:6-8, 13, 15-16, 20).
The witness I bear of Presidents Russell M. Nelson, Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring, whom I love with all my heart, is that they will never treat the membership of this Church “roughly” but will rather “speak good words to them, [and] be their servants forever.”
— Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has served in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles since 1994.