Question: Who was Heber C. Kimball and what role did he have in the early days of the Church? What did Brigham Young say about Heber?
Answer: Heber Chase Kimball was born 14 June 1801 in Sheldon, Franklin County, Vermont, son of Solomon F. and Anna Spaulding Kimball. In 1811 the family moved to western New York, where young Heber became a potter. He grew to be a physically impressive man, six feet tall and weighing more than two hundred pounds. He married Vilate Murray in 1822. He, his friend Brigham Young, and their wives joined the Church in 1832, after a two-year period of inquiry. In 1833 they moved to Church headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio.
Heber marched in Zion's Camp in 1834, was ordained one of the original members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1835, and experienced the spiritual manifestations that attended the dedication of the Kirtland Temple in 1836. Heber served the struggling Church well when steadfastness was among the most needed qualities. This is reflected in Joseph Smith's saying, "Of the Twelve Apostles chosen in Kirtland,…there have been but two [who have not] lifted their heel against me—-namely Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball" (History of the Church 5:412).
In 1837 Elder Kimball received an assignment from the Prophet Joseph Smith to lead a group of missionaries to England. As the ship arrived in Liverpool, Kimball leapt ashore, thus becoming the first Latter-day Saint in Europe. Through their efforts, groups of hundreds of English converts, commencing in 1840, began sailing to the United States to be with the main body of the Church. After a year Elder Kimball returned to the United States and then to Missouri.
While Joseph Smith sat imprisoned in the Liberty Jail, Heber and Brigham Young organized the removal of approximately 12,000 LDS refugees to Illinois. Heber went to Liberty almost every week to visit the brethren. When the Prophet Joseph Smith rejoined the Saints in Illinois and established Nauvoo, Elder Kimball prepared to return to England.
On the appointed day, he and Brigham Young took their leave from their sick wives and children, and they were ill themselves. Heber recorded in his journal: “‘It was with difficulty we got into the wagon, and started down the hill about ten rods; it appeared to me as though my very inmost parts would melt within me at leaving my family in such a condition, as it were almost in the arms of death. I felt as though I could not endure it. I asked the teamster to stop, and said to Brother Brigham, ‘This is pretty tough, isn’t it; let’s rise up and give them a cheer.’ We arose, and swinging our hats three times over our heads, shouted: ‘Hurrah, hurrah for Israel.’ Vilate, hearing the noise, arose from her bed and came to the door. She had a smile on her face. Vilate and Mary Ann Young cried out to us: ‘Goodbye, God bless you!’ We returned the compliment, and then told the driver to go ahead. After this I felt a spirit of joy and gratitude, having had the satisfaction of seeing my wife standing upon her feet, instead of leaving her in bed, knowing well that I should not see them again for two or three years’” (Orson F. Whitney, Life of Heber C. Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1967, pp. 265–66).
When he returned, Heber participated in the building of the Nauvoo Temple. Joseph Smith taught him privately that God required him to enter into plural marriage. His anguish at keeping this secret from Vilate ended when she told him that the Lord had shown her that plural marriage was right, and that she accepted his participation in it. Kimball married a total of forty-three women (in many cases a caretaking rather than an intimate relationship), and by seventeen of them he had sixty-five children. Vilate accepted the other wives as sisters. (Elder J. Golden Kimball was one of his sons. Heber C. Kimball's grandson, Spencer W. Kimball, became President of the Church.)
After Joseph Smith's assassination in 1844, Church leadership was carried forth by the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles under its president, Brigham Young. Elder Kimball stood next in leadership. The Saints soon had to abandon their homes in Nauvoo and flee to the Great Basin.
The brutal trek across Iowa, temporary settlement in Winter Quarters, and the pioneer journey of 1847 to the Great Salt Lake Valley occurred under Brigham Young's supervision, with Heber as his assistant. In December 1847, at Kanesville (Council Bluffs, Iowa), the First Presidency was organized, with Brigham Young as president and Heber C. Kimball and Willard Richards as his counselors.
In the summer of 1848 President Kimball led one of three large companies of Saints to the Salt Lake Valley, where he established his families and worked at farming, ranching, milling, and freighting. His journals constitute important sources of Church history.
President Kimball was a notably outspoken preacher and often urged self-sufficiency. He prophesied accurately many times and prophesied to hungry pioneers in early 1849 that "in less than one year there will be plenty of clothes and everything that we shall want sold at less than St. Louis prices." That summer, people traveling to the California gold fields dumped their excess supplies and equipment on the market in Salt Lake City and the prophecy was fulfilled. Brigham Young said of him, “Heber is my prophet.”
Heber Chase Kimball was First Counselor in the First Presidency of the Church from December 5, 1847, until his death. He died June 22, 1868, from the effects of a carriage accident, ending thirty-six years of dependable service to the Church. He is buried in the Kimball-Whitney Cemetery in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Sources: Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1992, Edward L. Kimball; Who’s Who in the Doctrine & Covenants, Susan Easton Black; Ensign, April 1987 “United in Building the Kingdom of God” L. Tom Perry, Assistant to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.