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Remembering clear words of Elder Maxwell

Elder Neal A. Maxwell speaks during general conference on Saturday, Oct 5, 2002.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell speaks during general conference on Saturday, Oct 5, 2002.
Deseret News archives

July 21 is a day to remember.

It's the day that terrorists blew up the London subway, the day Apollo 11 left the moon and the day John T. Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution in the schools.

But for me, the day will forever be one of personal loss. It was on July 21 that Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve passed away. And Elder Maxwell was a mentor — not only to me, but to enough members of the church to fill a small country.

The nice thing is, Elder Maxwell was a writer. So, in a way, he lives on, mentoring us with his books.

Books written by LDS prophets almost always remain in print.

And at times an apostle will produce a pivotal work that stays alive for generations. "A Marvelous Work and a Wonder" by LeGrand Richards and "Jesus the Christ" by James E. Talmage come to mind.

But for a member of the Twelve to produce a work that stays in print after he dies simply because of its style and insight is a special accomplishment.

Elder Maxwell wrote a dozen such books.

Over the years, I've had people ask me my favorite Maxwell volume. I don't have one. I see his books as individual petals on a cherry blossom. You need them all to get the full effect and see the complete picture.

But what impresses me is how he seemed to take on and overcome a fresh challenge with each new book.

Having been trained as a scholar, he had to battle academic jargon early in his career. His wife, Colleen, says she remembers him proposing to her by saying, "This relationship has come to fruition."

And sometimes, early on, he got a bit caught up in cleverness.

"Deliver us from Satan, that insatiable insomniac" he reportedly uttered in a prayer.

But like most battles in his life, Elder Maxwell won his civil war with words.

His later books, especially, are filled with heartfelt, simple sentences that breathe on the page. He learned to be conversational, intimate, clear.

In a letter he sent me some 15 years ago, he wrote: "I was boosted by the mention in your column of something I tried to say but should have said more effectively … you have always been supportive of my feeble efforts to communicate."

It wasn't false modesty.

Elder Maxwell fought constantly against muddled writing and thinking.

It was a battle he won.

In fact, some feel the only battle he ever lost was his battle with leukemia. But even that was close to a draw.

He didn't see his illness as a war. He saw it — like everything else in life — as a test. It was part of his "customized challenge."

And he passed the test.

But more than that, he left thousands of pages of "notes" behind for us to study, notes he hoped would help us pass our tests as well.

Jerry Johnston is a former Deseret News staff writer. "New Harmony" appears weekly in Mormon Times. Email: jerjohn@desnews.com