The Story of a Disciple’s Life: Preparing the Biography of Elder Neal A. Maxwell
by Elder Bruce C. Hafen
(Taken from an address given at the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for LDS History, BYU, March 16, 2002.)
Why do we read biographies? Because, Elder Hafen says, we come to see that the cosmic quest to overcome evil and find God is everyone’s very personal quest.
I have been asked to share with you some thoughts from my recent experience with Elder Neal A. Maxwell. The story behind my work on Elder Maxwell’s biography actually began in 1976, when he invited me to take a leave from BYU and work for two years under his daily direction in a new Correlation Department at Church headquarters. In later years, when I was an administrator and a teacher at Ricks College then at BYU, I saw him often in Church Educational System meetings, where he was a key figure on the Church Board of Education.
In 1996 I was called to the Seventy and assigned to an Area Presidency in Australia, where I would remain until returning to Utah in August of 2000. Like so many other Church members, my wife Marie and I were stunned by the news of Elder Maxwell’s leukemia in late 1996, and we worried and prayed about his health. During October conference 1999, he invited me to come by his office. As we talked, he was quite uncertain about his condition. He was receiving an experimental treatment, but “one of these days,” he said, he fully expected the leukemia to return. That was the main reason why he had finally yielded to prodding from others that he allow the writing of his biography. I thought a book on his life story would be wonderful –until he asked if I would write it.
As honored as I felt, I honestly thought my doing this was not a good idea. I believed that he, his family, and the Church deserved thorough research and writing, and the work needed to be done at once to maximize the possibility of being published during his lifetime. He shared those hopes. But given the frightening uncertainty of his health; given that acceptable biographies can take years to document and write; given that he hadn’t kept a personal journal, which would necessitate additional months of original research; and especially given that I was half a world away on a full time Church assignment–I thought we needed to find someone else who could give this project immediate and full-time attention.
Nonetheless, after more visits with Elder Maxwell and with others, within a few days I had agreed to begin the project and to move as quickly as possible. In the weeks that followed, I still worried about having committed myself to something as unreachable as this task seemed. As I would awaken to hear the colorful birds that rule those fresh Australian mornings, I would sometimes wonder if-indeed, I would hope that–I had agreed to write Elder Maxwell’s biography only in a dream. Then the reality would hit me again. At times I would remember Nephi’s words about the Lord preparing a way for people who have a work to do.
As time went on, and as I found able people who were eager to help, my anxiety gradually subsided. I learned about peaceful intensity. Marie and I increasingly sensed that we had been given a rare privilege and that whatever came of this experience would bless us. As we worked we also prayed often that the Lord would lengthen Elder Maxwell’s life. After such prayers, I would sometimes recall a scriptural phrase I’d first heard him quote from the book of Daniel: “But if not . . .” (Daniel 3:17-18)-meaning, we must do everything we can to make this work, and then if it doesn’t, as Abinadi said, “it matters not.” (Mosiah 13:9)
Looking back now, I feel that I-and all of us in the Church-have witnessed first-hand a genuine miracle. Elder Maxwell’s oncologist, a Church member named Clyde Ford, told me when I interviewed him that Elder Maxwell had beaten the statistical odds when his leukemia went into its first remission, which lasted fifteen months. When the illness returned in 1998, the odds were much worse. Dr. Ford knew that even if the standard medical treatment achieved a second remission, it would inevitably be shorter than the first remission. So he prayerfully studied the research journals until he discovered some reported success with leukemia patients in Sweden, whose doctors were using a new treatment pattern. The sample size wasn’t large enough to justify predictable results, but the Maxwells and Dr. Ford decided to try it.
That was roughly four years ago, and Elder Maxwell is still taking this same treatment as he goes about his normal duties each day. The preservation of his life was not, and couldn’t have been, anticipated by medical science. Along with its far more substantial blessings, this miracle made it possible to have a biography that draws on lengthy interviews with him and reflects his having reviewed the entire text. Like you, I pray that the miracle will continue.
My work on this project has caused me to ask myself–why do we read, let alone write, biographies? Since ancient days, we have been taught the gospel by stories. The accounts of the war in heaven, the Garden of Eden, and Cain and Abel are the first stories showing what happens when people try to live God’s teachings–or don’t live them. The New Testament is itself a story–about Jesus, who He was, what He taught, and what He did. Christ’s life is the story of giving the atonement. The story of Adam and Eve is the story of receiving the atonement. As we experience mortality the way our first parents did, struggling with the oppositions between good and evil, we can look at Eve or at Adam and say–that is the story of my life. Then when we tell our own stories to others, we realize that the cosmic quest to overcome evil and find God is our very personal quest.
Our own testimonies are simply true stories that can capture in vivid detail how the Lord blesses us, protects us, changes us, and helps us to overcome. Nothing brings the Spirit into a conversation or a classroom more than hearing people bear honest testimony, just by telling the story of their personal experience. The Church membership is itself the aggregation of thousands of personal stories, or testimonies, from people all over the world. Every one of those stories is unique, richly textured, full of meaning, and full of lessons about life. Each story is daily developing its own fresh narrative, against the many oppositions of mortality.
The scriptures, too, are primarily a collection of stories, given to us because God directed prophets to recount their experiences to His people. In His desire to give us guidance about life, God could have given us a large rulebook or a series of grand philosophical essays. But he didn’t. He gave us stories-stories about people like ourselves. Again and again the Book of Mormon writers tell us about some person’s experience and then say, “And thus we see . . .”
What do we see from these stories? We can see, for example, that “by small means the Lord can bring about great things.” (1 Nephi 16:29), and that if people keep God’s commandments, “he doth nourish them, and strengthen them, and provide means” for them to keep going. (1 Nephi 17:3) These stories teach us that “the devil will not support his children at the last day . . . ,” (Alma 30:60) that “the children of men [are quick to] forget the Lord . . . [A]nd we also see the great wickedness one very wicked man can cause . . . ” (Alma 46:8-9).
J.R.R. Tolkien’s understanding of the power of stories played an important part in the conversion of his friend C.S. Lewis to Christianity. Tolkien helped Lewis see that the story of Christ’s life conveys a fuller meaning to our minds than abstract statements of doctrine and reason can convey. He explained that the abstract “ideas” of Christianity “are too large and too all-embracing for the finite mind to absorb them. That is why the divine providence revealed himself in a story.” This insight helped Lewis realize why he had felt that certain classical stories were “profound and suggestive of meaning beyond [his] grasp even tho’ [he] could not say in cold prose ‘what it meant.'”
Elder Maxwell’s biography is the story of one man’s discoveries from applying the story of Jesus to his own life. His story does offer more understanding than at least my “cold prose” could offer in an essay about Christian discipleship and “what it means.”
His life story is valuable at two levels-one as a chapter in the history of the Church and the other to illustrate the process of trying to become a follower of Christ. One of my hopes in telling this story, then, was not only to record the life of a Church leader but also to offer his experience as one model to any individual for whom discipleship is a personal quest. The LDS Bible dictionary defines “disciple” as “a pupil or learner; a name used to denote (1) [capital D:] the twelve, also called apostles, [and] (2)[lower case d:] all followers of Jesus Christ.” I have wanted to speak to both meanings, as suggested by the biography’s opening sentence: “All Apostles are Disciples of Jesus, but not all of Jesus’ disciples are Apostles.”
Last fall Jeff Keith, a BYU geology professor, spoke at a campus devotional. At one point he quoted John 21:25, the last verse in the Gospel of John: “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.” Then Brother Keith said why he believes Christ’s biography is so large that the world itself cannot contain it–because, “The most complete biographies of each of our lives are contained in His biography.” In other words, because of the Atonement, his life story includes the life story of every one of his disciples, both with a capital D and with a small d. For the same reason, our life stories can each include His life story. No wonder that in some personal histories and biographies, we find real evidence of the Savior’s influence and tangibly feel His love.
Church history work at Church headquarters is concerned primarily with the history of the institutional Church, which includes the experiences of its leaders. However, the “personal history” accounts of all disciples’ lives-quite apart from any role they may have played in Church institutional affairs-are also a crucial element in the history of the Lord’s people. We Church members typically view these “personal histories” as a part of family history more than of Church history. Perhaps an examination of that assumption will help us see new value in the recent merger of the departments of Family History and Church History at Church headquarters. Both parts of the new department, each in its own way, are engaged in “telling the story” of the Lord’s dealings with both his Church and with his followers.
Regarding the research and writing process, I am now grateful I was forced to conduct the research as I did, because other people did much better work than I ever could have done had I been in Utah trying to do this myself. The day after I agreed to proceed, I had a heaven-sent conversation with my friend Elder Marlin K. Jensen, who had once worked as an adviser to the Church Historical Department. After hearing my worries about doing the needed research from Australia, Elder Jensen suggested I contact Gordon Irving, one of the Church’s primary oral historians.
I called Gordon on the phone but didn’t actually meet him until we had worked together via e-mail for six months. As it turned out, Gordon became my principal collaborator. Using an agenda of research questions that we developed together in our frequent e-mails, he conducted eighteen interviews with Elder Maxwell, which when transcribed filled 560 pages. In addition to interviews I later did, Gordon also recorded, had transcribed, then edited interviews about Elder Maxwell with each member of the First Presidency, a number of other General Authorities, and several other people. Gordon would e-mail the edited transcripts to me for my research base. His well-schooled and faithful touch made this a much better book.
My other indispensable e-mail companion was Elder Maxwell’s son, Cory, who combed, inventoried, copied, and shipped as a weekly care package across the Pacific portions of large annual scrapbooks that Elder Maxwell’s secretaries have compiled since the late 1960s.
As helpful as these materials were, I soon realized why a biography cannot be better than its primary source material. The parts of this story that draw on such contemporaneous documents as letters, journals, and Elder Maxwell’s personal writings are richer than other parts of the story. He was always such a “clean desk man” that he has not kept a great deal of correspondence and other personal papers. His written personal history is very brief, dealing with only a portion of his ministry. It was written mostly as an annual summary of key events in the 1970s and early 80s, without much commentary. I asked him if he had written letters to his family during his service in World War II and on his mission. He said, “Oh there might be a few things around, but there is nothing profound in those old letters.” When I finally received copies of those letters and began reading them, that was a turning point in my feeling for the entire process. Suddenly I could sense for myself why Churchill’s biographer, Martin Gilbert, called such letters “history’s gold.” The issue here is the depth of real evidence. Memories recalled years after an event are helpful, but they are not the same as uninterpreted, contemporaneous evidence that allows readers to draw their own conclusions.
Here is one small example. Neal Maxwell’s experience as an 18-year old infantryman on Okinawa was a defining moment for his entire life. He was in a mortar crew during a ferocious battle. One night in May of 1945, the shrieking noise of artillery fire caught Neal’s attention with a frightening realization. He noticed that three shells in a row had exploded in a sequence that sent a dreadful message–the enemy had completely triangulated his position, and the next series of shots would hit home.
Suddenly a shell exploded no more than five feet away from him. Terribly shaken, Neal jumped from his muddy foxhole and moved down a little knoll seeking protection, and then, uncertain what to do, he crawled back to the foxhole. There he knelt, trembling, and spoke the deepest prayer he had ever uttered, pleading for protection and dedicating the rest of his life to the Lord’s service. In his pocket he was also carrying a smudged copy of his patriarchal blessing, which gave him a special promise of protection. No more shells exploded near him after that moment. He came to know God that night in a way that changed him and directed his life’s course. When the leukemia came, he would often compare that experience with Okinawa, both in its terror and in its deep spiritual impact on him.
I knew this was a significant event, but I knew almost nothing about Okinawa. So I began reading some historical sources about World War II. In addition to learning why the Japanese defense of Okinawa was so fierce, I came across some detailed accounts of the miserable battlefield conditions there. During the time of Neal’s key battle, the place was a mess. The intensity of the fighting combined with the deplorable conditions made some people who survived this trauma unable to talk about it for decades. Heavy rains turned the battlefield into such a mud puddle that even tanks disappeared into the ooze. Disease and dysentery plagued the soldiers. They were so exhausted that what little sleep they got was often while standing up in the mud. Supply trucks couldn’t provide consistent food and ammunition. So the troops were always hungry–and especially they were thirsty. One account recorded that the soliders lived with “almost constant thirst,” and even when they had water, it was too foul and oily to drink. According to this account, the only thing that saved them from the unrelenting thirst was coffee–which, having been boiled, was at least edible.
Not long after reading these military histories, I came across this brief paragraph in the letters Neal hastily scrawled to his family during the battle for Okinawa:
Had a dream the other night. You folks were holding Carol [his sister] up to a window and I was saying Boo to her, and she laughed just as she does. Boy, if that didn’t make me blue . . . It’s rough here . . . It will be wonderful to bathe again. Still not smoking, drinking tea or coffee. Nothing great, but the coffee is tempting some times.
When I showed Elder Maxwell this letter, I asked him, “Do you remember why the coffee tempted you?” He couldn’t remember. I asked if he remembered how thirsty they were and how hard it was to get water. He did remember that he had to collect rain water in his helmet to provide water for the sacrament he blessed for himself each Sunday. But he didn’t remember the thirst, and he didn’t remember the connection between the thirst and his comment in the family letter about the coffee.
Well, he never would drink the coffee. The combination of knowing the messy battlefield context and seeing his innocent reference to being tempted but not giving in was for me a moving discovery about the way that battle shaped his character. I believe his determination to avoid the coffee was a very practical, youthful expression of the commitment he made there to serve the Lord. I only dared hint about this in writing the Okinawa chapter, because I wanted to let the reader draw his or her own conclusion. I offer more about my conclusion here because of what this experience showed me about the place of specific details and contemporaneous sources in “telling the story.”
See Part II: coming tomorrow
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