In 1953, the Korean War was in full swing. At the time, Church was very limited in who they could send on missions, in fact, in 1951–1952, the Church could not call any draft-eligible men of missionary age. It was only with special permission from the U.S. government could send one man from each ward to serve a mission, and President Henry (Hal) B. Eyring's bishop, Alvin R. Dyer, had asked him if he would be willing to be that missionary.
But, as a 21-year-old member past the missionary age and with the threat of being drafted after his mission, President Eyring had much to consider before he agreed to be called as a full-time missionary. In the end, he decided to decline his bishops offer. However, powerful missionary experiences were soon to follow.
Hal’s full-time military service began immediately after he finished his bachelor’s degree. He graduated from the University of Utah in 1955 with an air force commission and an assignment to train as a special weapons officer at Sandia Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the U.S. military was developing nuclear weapons. The plan was for Hal to spend six weeks training in Albuquerque and then deploy elsewhere. Most likely, it would be to one of the remote, sparsely inhabited places in the world where the United States housed its nuclear weapons.
On his second Sunday in New Mexico, Hal was asked to meet with President Clement Hilton of the Church’s Albuquerque District. President Hilton called him to serve as a district missionary. Hal had mixed feelings about the call. It fulfilled a promise made in a blessing given before he left home. In that blessing his new bishop, Weldon Moore, had said that Hal’s military service would be his mission. Yet his military orders were clear. “I’m happy to serve,” he told President Hilton, “but I’ll be leaving in four weeks.”
“I don’t know about that,” replied President Hilton, “but we are to call you to serve.”
Suppressing his doubts, Hal accepted the call and went to work, spending the recommended ten hours each week meeting and teaching investigators.
Toward the end of his six weeks of military training, Hal was summoned by a senior military officer. Rather than being transferred, he learned, he would be staying in Albuquerque. A staff officer had unexpectedly passed away, and Hal’s physics education and performance during training had led to his being recommended to fill the open staff position. He would not only stay in Albuquerque but also work with a team of senior officers including colonels and generals from the air force, army, navy, and marines.
The most immediate benefit of this unexpected assignment was the continuation of his missionary labors. The Church in Albuquerque was small, but its district missionaries were well organized. They worked under the direction of President A. Lewis Elggren of the Western States Mission, which was headquartered in Denver. Hal ultimately received responsibility from President Elggren for a group of ten missionaries in the Albuquerque area.
Joyful Missionary Service
Hal’s companions included young servicemen such as himself as well as older male members of the district. The weeknights and weekends that they spent teaching the gospel produced sweet fruit. Thanks in large part to U.S. military and scientific operations, Albuquerque was growing. Many of the newcomers were open to change, increasing their receptivity to the gospel message. Missionary referrals were common, and Hal participated in many conversions. He would later describe one of those experiences:
Years ago I took a young man, 20 years of age, into the waters of baptism. My companion and I had taught him the gospel. He was the first in his family to hear the message of the restored gospel. He asked to be baptized. The testimony of the Spirit made him want to follow the example of the Savior, who was baptized by John the Baptist even though He was without sin.
As I brought that young man up out of the waters of baptism, he surprised me by throwing his arms around my neck and whispering in my ear, tears streaming down his face, “I’m clean, I’m clean.” That same young man, after we laid our hands on his head with the authority of the Melchizedek Priesthood and conferred on him the Holy Ghost, said to me, “When you spoke those words, I felt something like fire go down from the top of my head through my body, all the way to my feet.”
HAL AS A DISTRICT MISSIONARY
The companion with whom Hal served the longest, more than one year, was Jim Geddes. A hardworking farm boy from tiny Banida, Idaho, Jim piloted reconnaissance aircraft. He and his wife, Sylvia, were the parents of an infant daughter. The Geddeses often had Hal to dinner and made him feel like a member of the family. He felt great admiration for both Jim and Sylvia. He viewed their marriage as a model for the one he hoped to have.
Hal and Jim shared a common zeal for their labors. Each felt blessed by the unexpected mission-service opportunity, and each was thrilled to have a companion ready to work hard. As they drove to and from appointments, which consumed most evenings and weekends, they counseled together and sought divine guidance regarding what they should teach. The resulting inspiration bonded them to one another and to those they taught.
Among their most memorable labors was a request to administer to a critically injured young girl. The phone call came during a weekday, while both Hal and Jim were at work on the military base. The girl and her parents were at the base hospital, allowing the two missionary companions to get there in a matter of minutes.
At the hospital, the parents described their daughter’s situation. She had been hit by a speeding car while crossing the road. The force of the impact had thrown her into a curb, crushing her skull. The doctors had told them that she was very unlikely to live.
The parents asked Elder Eyring and Elder Geddes to administer to their daughter. But before the pair entered the hospital’s intensive care unit, the father asked them to pray with him and his wife. In the prayer, he expressed confidence that the doctors were wrong, that through the power of the priesthood his daughter would be healed. Elder Eyring and Elder Geddes, he made it clear, would invoke a miracle.
Entering the girl’s room, the elders found her lying in an oxygen tent, surrounded by doctors and nurses. Bandages covered her head and face. The attending medical professionals had apparently been told that the elders were coming. They gave way, but not without conveying their contempt for the two young intruders, who lacked the traditional trappings of clergy. The lead doctor growled, “I don’t know what you plan to do, but you’d better do it quickly.”
Elder Geddes deferred to Elder Eyring to act as voice in the blessing. To his surprise, Hal felt impressed to promise the critically injured girl that she would live. When he spoke those words, the medical team murmured their disapproval. But after several tense days, it appeared that the promise would be fulfilled. The doctors conceded that the girl would in fact not die. Still, they stood firm in a prognosis of paralysis. “Your daughter,” they told her parents, “will never walk.”
Again the distraught but confident couple called on the missionaries. And again Hal’s blessing contradicted the medical prognosis. The girl continued to improve, slowly but surely. Before Hal’s military and missionary service ended, she was walking, attending Church meetings in a beautiful yellow dress bought to celebrate the miracle of her recovery.
Lead image from I Will Lead You Along: The Life of Henry B. Eyring
President Henry B. Eyring's professional, academic, and personal experiences have all combined to make him uniquely qualified for his responsibilities as a member of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. His life story vividly demonstrates the power of the Lord and the example set by one who strives to follow His commands.