book review: Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball

I recently finished this history of the presidency of Spencer W. Kimball, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1973-1985.  Here is what I wrote for Amazon:

part essential reading, part travelogue + an amazing CD-ROM

A few years ago, I read Edward and Andrew Kimball’s original biography of their father (Spencer W. Kimball, twelfth president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). I failed to examine the publication date before starting the book and so was deflated to find that it ended in 1977, the year before the landmark event of Kimball’s presidency, the revelation lifting the priesthood ban for black members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Ed has filled the vacancy with this second biography, covering the years of his father’s presidency (1973-1985). The result is mixed but ultimately invaluable. The five chapters (20-24) discussing the priesthood revelation as well as the run-up and aftermath of the revelation are essential reading in LDS history and very well done. (They brought my aunt literally to tears of joy.) These chapters make this book an essential complement to David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, which gives a wonderfully insightful look on the dynamics of the priesthood ban in the 1950s. A later chapter (38) deals with Spencer Kimball’s disability in his final years, and Ed’s frank treatment gives an important insight into how the Church works in this context. Throughout the book, Ed gives us lots of details about changes in church policy which I found interesting as a younger member of the Church. Finally, the first appendix (“Personal Encounters with Spencer Kimball”) is essentially a tribute, using the experiences of many people with President Kimball to demonstrate the President’s many virtues. Ed doesn’t shy from his father’s flaws in the course of the book (although he is admittedly a sympathetic biographer), but I found this final, loving section particularly inspiring, reading how President Kimball’s love for all people and his hard work permeated his life.

Sometimes the book devolves into travelogue and gets tiresome, as in the chapters on the area conferences (32-34). Those chapters still have interesting stories and useful history, but they drag. The flaw I found most frustrating throughout is that the book has no footnotes giving sources. Especially in the chapters on the priesthood revelation, Ed quotes regularly and for the careful reader, not having a footnote immediately available can be annoying.

The book comes with a CD-ROM that contains all the footnotes and much, much more. It includes the “writer’s cut” of the biography (rather than the compromise between writer and publisher. Julie Smith, in her review of the book, has compared the two cuts and found that the additional material in the writer’s cut generally consists of (1) “fat that any good editor would have cut,” (2) “material that recounted differences of opinion between members of the Quorum of the Twelve and/or the First Presidency,” (3) material that is more “liberal” (e.g., expression of President Kimball’s sympathy for Sonia Johnson, an LDS supporter of the ERA who was excommunicated, (4) additional demonstrations of human weaknesses, and (5) “text on topics that might be embarrassing to the Church (failed policies, bad public relations, …Kimball’s suggestion that the priesthood ban may have been an error, etc.)” [1]. Although I wish that more of the material had made it into the published book, I am glad that we have all of this material available on the CD-ROM.

The CD-ROM also contains five other books (Camilla: A Biography of Camilla Eyring Kimball, Ed and Andrew Kimball’s previous biography in both Spanish and English, and two other books on Spencer Kimball (this and this), and The Writings of Camilla Eyring Kimball). It also includes brief audio clips (most shorter than a minute) to demonstrate President Kimball’s voice before and after his throat surgery and a host of articles about President Kimball in BYU Studies, Dialogue, and Sunstone (among others). I look forward to enjoying the CD-ROM for a long time.

[1] Julie M. Smith, “Book review: Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball,” Times and Seasons (blog), 12 October 2005.

Copyright © 2007 Deseret Book

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