The First Presidency Before They Were Called: Henry B. Eyring

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Young Henry B Eyring
Young Henry B Eyring, courtesy of "I Will Lead You Along"

Henry B. Eyring is the First Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. But to his family and friends, he is known as Hal and enjoys woodcarving, painting with water colors, and baking bread (Ensign article “President Henry B. Eyring: Called of God”). In this biography of Henry B. Eyring, learn how his life experiences helped him grow into the teacher, leader, and stalwart example of faith he is today.

Infographic of Henry B. Eyring's life

Lessons in the Gospel

Holding Church in the Eyring Home

Hal grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, where his father, the senior Henry, was a chemist at the university. There were very few church members in the area, and Hal’s branch was so small that they held church in a hotel room. During World War II, gas restrictions prevented many of the members from traveling the distance to the hotel.

So instead, church was held in the Eyring home. The dining table was used as both the podium and the sacrament table. Hal’s mother, Mildred, was the pianist and the chorister (tapping her foot to conduct). Hal and his two older brothers were the only Aaronic Priesthood holders and youth in the branch (Ensign article “Elder Henry B. Eyring: Molded by ‘Defining Influences’ “).

Even though the circumstances for church service were not ideal, Henry B. Eyring later said that he “learned then that the Church is not a building; the Church isn’t even a lot of people,” he knew that the Church “is His church; it didn’t matter that our little branch met in our dining room” (I Will Lead You Along).

Family portrait of Henry B. Eyring, his siblings and parents
Young Hal Eyring with his parents and siblings.

Learning to Love Sacrament Meeting

When he was a young, Hal recalls a sacrament meeting he just could not enjoy. Hal thought that the talk was terrible, but when he looked over to his father, Hal saw he was smiling. His father smiled and smiled throughout the talk. When they walked home afterwards, Hal asked his Dad what he thought of the meeting. Brother Eyring said that he thought it had been wonderful.

Hal wasn’t sure what to say to that, but then his father laughed and said:

Since I was a young man, I have taught myself to do something in a church meeting. When the speaker begins, I listen carefully and ask myself what it is he is trying to say. Then once I think I know what he is trying to accomplish, I give myself a sermon on that subject. Hal, since then I have never been to a bad meeting

Through his father’s teaching, Hal learned how to appreciate sacrament meeting and the messages taught at it (BYU Fireside talk “Listen Together”).

Seeing Others’ Divine Potential

While teaching at Stanford, Hal had the opportunity to serve as a bishop. One evening, he received a call from the police station and was told that they had a young man there who said he was a member of Hal’s congregation.

The young man was a recent convert to the Church. He had been drinking and crashed his car through the glass window of a bank. One of the bank’s security guards pulled out his gun, and the disoriented young man cried out, “don’t shoot! I’m a Mormon.”

Hal was angry, furious that the young man had treated his baptismal covenants so lightly. When he picked up the young man from the police station, he outlined a sermon in his mind. Hal planned on rebuking him, and maybe even threaten to remove his membership.

Then Hal heard a voice say, “I’m going to let you see him as I see him.” For a moment, Hal saw the young man in a different light. He saw him as strong and clean, as a son of God. Since this experience, Hal has tried to look at others’ divine potential, seeing them as God would (I Will Lead You Along).

Lessons in Education

“Find Something That You Love”

Hal’s father was a renowned chemist worldwide. He loved science and encouraged his sons to study physics. Though Hal did not share his father’s passion for the subject, he pursued a physics degree at the University of Utah.

Hal often asked for his father’s assistance on math problems. When they were discussing a problem one day, his father paused and said that the problem was similar to one they had covered the week before and asked, “haven’t you been working on it?”

When Hal said he hadn’t, his father responded saying, “you don’t understand. When you walk down the street, when you’re in the shower, when you don’t have to be thinking about anything else, isn’t this what you think about?”

Hal told him it he didn’t, and there was a moments silence. Then his father said, “Hal, I think you’d better get out of physics. You ought to find something that you love so much that when you don’t have to think about anything, that’s what you think about.”

Hal did complete his degree in physics, but he pursued advanced degrees in business at Harvard. Though his father wanted Hal to be a scientist, he loved him enough to advise him to seek out something he would enjoy (“Henry B. Eyring”).

Henry B. Eyring's father, Henry
Henry B Eyring’s father, Henry. Courtesy of LDS.org

Harvard and Church Service

Hal remembers his first day taking graduate courses at Harvard. The professor told his students to look at the person to their right, then to their left, and informed them one of the three of them would not be there in the end. The program was vigorous and students often rushed to finish and turn in their papers by nine o’ clock on Saturday evenings. Then after a short break, they spent all of Sunday studying, continuing late into the night.

But Hal could not spend Sundays studying for his classes. He was a counselor in the Boston district presidency and spent his Sundays visiting the branches in the area. He says:

I found joy in going to those places, loving the Lord, and trusting that somehow He would keep His promise. He always did. In the few minutes I could give to preparation on Monday morning before classes, ideas and understanding came to more than match what others gained from a Sunday of study.

Hal put the gospel above all else. Because of his hard work and faithfulness, Hal was blessed in his education and received a Masters and Doctorate degree in business from Harvard (Ensign article “Education for Real Life” ; “Henry B. Eyring”).

Succeeding as a Seminary Teacher

While teaching business at Stanford, Hal also taught the gospel at early-morning seminary. For a time, he struggled with two young men who appeared uninterested and often slept during class.

Hal prayed and prayed until he finally realized something. He had been praying for success in teaching the boys, but had not been praying for the boys:

I learned all I could about them. I prayed for them individually and by name. I prayed for their parents, whom I came to know. As I look back now, I realize that the Spirit answered my prayers by increasing my love for those two boys and my desire to reach them.

But more than that, my concern for them ignited a personal concern for their classmates. I began to teach them and pray for them as individuals. The Spirit came into the classroom.

Because of the lessons he learned in prayer and love towards others, Hal succeeded spiritually in teaching his seminary classes (I Will Lead You Along).

Henry B Eyring teaching class
Henry B. Eyring teaching class, courtesy of LDS.org

Never Putting Himself Above Others

“Everyone Seemed to Matter to You”

The Eyring family moved from New Jersey to Utah when Hal was 13 years old. He attended Salt Lake City’s East High School and played basketball there. Hal did not realize that he was an example of kindness and faith in high school until 35 years later when he received this letter:

You won’t remember me, but that doesn’t matter. I remember you.

This letter is a long overdue thank you. In high school, I was a non-entity. You were a popular athlete. Yet you always said hello to me in the halls. I realize that you said hello to everybody, but to this person, it made a difference.

You were not bounded by conceit or a flattering group. Everyone seemed to matter to you. I have tried to raise my family to reflect these same ideals.

Thank you for the smiles when I really needed them. Thank you for remaining true and faithful to the principles of the gospel.

Throughout his life, Hal never tried to put himself above others, and they could tell (I Will Lead You Along).

Henry B Eyring playing basketball
Henry B. Eyring playing basketball, courtesy of LDS.org

Working as a Janitor

While attending the University of Utah, Hal earned money there by working as a part-time janitor. He was assigned the Mines and Minerals Industry Building, and he worked hard to keep it clean for several weeks.

Then a female secretary approached him and complained about how filthy the women’s restroom was. It had never occurred to Hal to clean the women’s restroom. When he checked with his supervisor about cleaning it, the supervisor responded saying, “of course. I didn’t expect to have to tell you that.”

Despite his mistake, Hal always did he best in cleaning. Once, when he had some extra time, Hal cleaned the filthy laboratory windows, which were covered in oily soot. He was surprised by the abundant praises he received for his work. Hal’s supervisor told him that he never would have asked Hal to clean the windows because he hadn’t realized they had clear glass.

Even though his job was just a simple cleaning one to pay the bills, Hal always put his best effort into it. He did more than what was asked for and expected (I Will Lead You Along).

Not Your Typical Mission

Mission Decision

When Hal was a young man, he learned that sometimes the paths that appear correct and good aren’t necessarily the paths for us to take. During the Korean War, missionaries were limited so only one missionary per ward could be sent out once a year. Hal was 21 years old and had an ROTC commitment to join the military after school when Bishop Dyer asked to speak with him.

Bishop Dyer told Hal that he had just been called to be the mission president for Independence, Missouri, and he wanted Hal to serve his mission there. Hal was surprised by the offer and unsure what he should do. He asked Bishop Dyer, “is it the Lord asking or just you?” Bishop Dyer answered honestly, saying it was just him.

Hal went home to think about the missionary opportunity and discuss it with his parents. His mother told him that it was his decision, but she felt impressed that he should keep his ROTC commitment. Hal met with Bishop Dyer again and told him to give another young man in the ward the opportunity.

After Hal left the meeting, he ran into his uncle, Spencer W. Kimball, who asked what the meeting had been about. After Hal explained, Kimball asked him if he had prayed about the decision. Hal said, “no, but my mother’s a spiritual person, and I respect her feelings.” All Kimball said was, “I see.”

Hal realized that since this was his decision, he should pray about it as well. He did so and received the same answer as his mother had. Hal not only learned that what seems like a good choice may not be a correct choice for all of us, but that we must always be prayerful and listen to the spirit to guide us along the right path (I Will Lead You Along).

A Missionary in the Military

After graduating from the U, Hal joined the Air Force and was sent to Sandia Base near Albuquerque, New Mexico. He would stay there for six weeks of training, after which he would be transferred elsewhere. Before he left, his new bishop promised Hal that his military experience would be his mission.

Two weeks into training, Hal received the call to be a district missionary for the Western States Mission. Hal said he would accept the calling, but explained that he would only be at the Sandia Base for four more weeks. President Clement Hilton said, “I don’t know about that, but we are to call you to serve.”

At the end of Hal’s six weeks of training, his senior officer asked to speak with him. Hal expected the transfer, but instead he was offered a position in Albuquerque. The officer said that one of the staff officers had unexpectedly passed away, and Hal had been recommended for the position because of his background in physics.

Hal stayed in Albuquerque for two years, completing both his military requirement and his missionary experience. So many of the choices Hal made previously led up to this point. If he had not refused the missionary opportunity to Independence, he would not have served in Arizona where he was needed. If he had not decided to complete his physics degree, he might not have been offered the staff officer position and stayed to complete his mission. The Lord had a hand in his life, and He guided Hal along each decision, leading him to the right direction (“Henry B. Eyring” ;  I Will Lead You Along).

Missionary Miracle

While on his military mission, Hal and his companion, Jim Geddes, were asked to give a blessing to a young girl. She had been hit by a car which had thrown her into a curb. The impact crushed the girl’s skull, and the doctors told her parents is was unlikely that she would live.

Before entering the intensive care unit, her parents asked the elders if they could pray first. In his prayer, the father said that the doctors were wrong and through the power of the priesthood, Elder Eyring and Elder Geddes would heal his daughter.

The Elders and the parents entered the room. In his blessing, Hal felt impressed to say that girl would live. The elders received much contempt and skepticism from the doctors for saying those words.

However, despite the doctors’ prediction, several days passed and the girl improved. But the doctors told her parents that she would never walk again. In response, they called the missionaries in once more. During this blessing, Hal felt impressed to say that the girl would walk again, and she did (I Will Lead You Along).

Courtship and Marriage

First Seeing Kathleen

While attending Harvard, Henry was called as a counselor in the Boston district presidency. Once, he was assigned the task of presiding over a sunrise service for the young adults in the area.

At the service, Hal saw a beautiful young woman who he would later discover was Kathleen Johnson. He remembered David O. McKay’s teaching that, “if you meet a girl in whose presence you feel a desire . . . to do your best . . . such a young woman is worthy of your love,” and says that he felt just like that the first time he saw Kathleen (Ensign article “Elder Henry B. Eyring: Molded by ‘Defining Influences’ “).

The second time Hal saw Kathleen was the next day in Sacrament meeting. He recognized her from the sunrise service, leaned over to President Cox, and said, “that’s the girl I would give anything to marry” (I Will Lead You Along).

How Kathleen Even Got To Boston

Kathleen Johnson never intended to go to Boston that summer. In fact, how she got there was purely an accident (unless you believe in God, then you know He had a hand in it).

She had been attending the University of California at Berkeley when one of her sorority sisters described a plan to take summer school at Harvard. Kathleen said that it sounded like fun, and didn’t think anything of it until several weeks later when the girl told her that she had registered for the program and bought Kathleen’s plane ticket.

Kathleen told the girl that she had never had any intention of going, but the girl persisted because she wanted Kathleen as her roommate. So Kathleen went reluctantly to Boston, unaware that her summer there would change her life forever (I Will Lead You Along).

First Date With Kathleen

Since Hal was a counselor in the district presidency, he easily got Kathleen’s number from the ward clerk and called her for a date. But Kathleen didn’t know who Hal was, so she said that if she saw him next Sunday at church, then they would talk. Hal asked President Cox to excuse him from visiting another branch he had been planning on attending that day.

For their first date, Hal and Kathleen played tennis. Hal thought he would do pretty well since he had been practicing with a former collegiate tennis player. He was at the top of his game. Little did he know, Kathleen had been tennis captain in high school. She beat Hal at tennis that day, or as he said, “she cleaned me out” (I Will Lead You Along).

Henry and Kathleen Eyring
Henry B. Eyring and Kathleen Johnson

Courtship

Hal and Kathleen dated throughout the summer. When she returned to California, they kept in touch through letters, phone calls, her occasional trips back to Boston, and his trip to California for an interview with Stanford. However, on her last trip to Boston, they discussed their cross-country dating, feeling it was inappropriate and could not continue as it had.

Hal had been praying about marrying Kathleen for a long time, but had received no answer. The evening before she returned home, he prayed fervently. He heard a voice say, “if you never saw her again, you’d have known more of love than most people do in a lifetime.”

This wasn’t a very clear answer, so he prayed again and again. Finally, he received the answer of “Go!” The next morning, he prayed one more time to make sure he had heard correctly. He had.

Hal picked up Kathleen to drive her to the airport. He pulled over to the side of the road and said, “I’ve been told to ask you to marry me.” She responded with tears. To this day, Hal jokes that he never got a verbal confirmation from her (I Will Lead You Along).

Henry and Kathleen Eyring wedding
Henry and Kathleen Eyring wedding, courtesy of LDS Living

Listening to the Holy Ghost

“Are You Sure You Are Doing The Right Thing With Your Life?”

Hal and Kathy married in the Logan temple. Hal’s uncle, Spencer W. Kimball, performed the ceremony. He also gave Hal this advice: “live in such a way that when the call comes, you can walk away easily.”

Several months later, Kathy’s parents purchased a large estate and invited Hal and Kathy to live with them. While touring the property, Hal felt impressed by how familiar it seemed. At one corner of the main house, he realized why. He recognized the spot, and told Kathy that he had seen it when his uncle had given him the cryptic advice (I Will Lead You Along).

They did not realize what the advice meant until several years had passed. Life was going smoothly for Henry B. Eyring. He was married to a wonderful woman, raising a family, and working on his tenure at Stanford. It seemed like things were going perfectly, until Kathy woke him up one night and asked, “are you sure you are doing the right thing with your life? Couldn’t you be doing studies for Neal Maxwell?”

He was surprised by the unexpected questions, and so was she. Their life was wonderful at the time, but she had felt inspired to ask the questions. She asked Hal to pray about it. He did so and got no response, “and I felt terrific about it because I didn’t want to go anywhere.”

However, the next day Hal received a prompting that was rebuking saying, “you don’t know what way is up in your career. If you ever get another job offer, you bring it to me.” Hal repented and continued to pray, though he still wasn’t sure what he was praying about.

Less than a week later, Neal A. Maxwell (who had recently been called as the Church Educational System Commissioner) called Hal and asked to meet with him. Maxwell offered Hal the position of President of Ricks College (now BYU-Idaho). Hal told Maxwell that he would have to pray about the offer, and he did.

After Hal returned to California, he received his answer through the still, small voice saying, “it’s my school.” He accepted the position and moved from one of the nation’s premier universities to a two-year college in a rural town in Rexburg, Idaho (“Henry B. Eyring” ; Ensign article “President Henry B. Eyring: Called of God”).

Henry B Eyring as Ricks College president
Henry B. Eyring as President of Ricks College, courtesy of LDS.org

Stay At Ricks College “A Little Longer”

Hal had been the President of Ricks College for several years when he was offered a position in a prestigious school in southern California. He told his uncle, Spencer W. Kimball about the job offer. All Kimball said was, “it sounds like a great opportunity. If we ever needed you, we would know where you were.”

Hal decided to fast and pray about the decision with Kathy. He received the prompting to stay at Ricks “a little longer,” and turned down the job offer. Kimball asked Hal if he felt he had made a sacrifice. When Hal said, “no,” Kimball resoundingly responded, “that’s right!” (“Henry B. Eyring”)

Hal did not realize the importance of his decision until a month later when the Teton Dam broke, flooding the area and destroying thousands of homes:

God knew that dam would burst and that hundreds of people would need help . . . He knew all the reasons that my service might still be valuable at the college and in Rexburg. So I was there to ask Heavenly Father frequently in prayer that He would have me do those things that would help the people whose property and lives had been damaged.

Hal worked hard to help the people of Rexburg, knowing that God had a plan for him (General Conference talk “Where Is the Pavilion?”).

After He Was Called an Apostle

After working as the President of Ricks College, Henry B. Eyring would serve as the Church Educational System Commissioner, a counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, and as a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy. He and Kathleen would raise six children.

On April 1, 1995, Henry B. Eyring was called as an apostle. On October 6, 2007, he was called as Second Counselor of the First Presidency. And on February 3, 2008, he was called as First Counselor of the First Presidency (“President Henry B. Eyring”).

Current photo of Henry B. Eyring
Current photo of Henry B. Eyring

Throughout his life, Henry B. Eyring has held great faith in the promptings of the Holy Ghost. In his General Conference talk, “Serve with the Spirit,” he said:

let us do whatever is required to qualify for the Holy Ghost as our companion, and then let us go forward fearlessly so that we will be given the powers to do whatever the Lord calls us to do. That growth in power to serve may come slowly, it may come in small steps that are difficult for you to see, but it will come.

Henry B. Eyring’s open heart and his belief in the spirit’s words helped him take the actions that would influence his life forever, leading him to become a teacher and a leader in the Church.

To learn more about Henry B. Eyring, check out his Facebook Page and the links below.