The duties of leading the LDS Church weren't new to Gordon B. Hinckley when he officially became church president on April 2, 1995.
He had been filling in for his ailing predecessors for more than a decade, since he joined the First Presidency in 1981.
President Hinckley was first sustained as an Assistant to the Twelve in 1958, to the Quorum of the Twelve in October 1961 and served there until July 1981, when President Spencer W. Kimball called him as a counselor in the First Presidency.
Due to the failing health of the then-members of the First Presidency Presidents Kimball, N. Eldon Tanner and Marion G. Romney President Hinckley became the steady voice of the First Presidency. He later served as first counselor to Presidents Ezra Taft Benson and Howard W. Hunter. He carried a heavy administrative load, particularly during the illnesses of his leaders, but he never got ahead of the president.
"When I accepted President Kimball's call to join them, I did not know exactly how I would function or fit in, and perhaps they did not at the time," President Hinckley said in an Ensign interview. "But the circumstances called for additional help, and I was more than willing to give it. I did not know whether it would be for a few days or a few months."
When he became second counselor after President Tanner's death in November 1982, President Hinckley recalled that "that was a very heavy and overwhelming responsibility."
"It was an almost terrifying load at times. Of course, I consulted with our brethren of the Twelve."
By that time, the day-to-day responsibility of the office of the First Presidency had largely fallen upon him.
"I recall that on one particular occasion getting on my knees before the Lord and asking for help in the midst of that very difficult situation. And there came into my mind those reassuring words, 'Be still and know that I am God' (D&C 101:16). I knew again that this was his work, that he would not let it fail, that all I had to do was work at it and do our very best, and that the work would move forward ... ."
He was the senior general authority at general conferences during the declining years of Presidents Kimball and Benson but always made it a point to reassure church members of the prophet's presence. His closing remarks at the April 1993 general conference were typical:
"It has been customary for the president of the church to leave a message for us to ponder at the close of each conference," remarked President Hinckley, then first counselor to President Benson. "We regret that President Benson has been unable to speak to us, to attend any of the sessions. However, he has seen and heard all of the sessions and would have me convey his love and a prophet's blessing.
"President Benson, we know that you can see us. All of us participating in this conference, many, many thousands in the aggregate, express our love for you and invoke the blessings of the Lord upon you. We sustain you as our prophet. We embrace you as our leader. We thank you for the mighty work you have done in leading this people in truth and righteousness. May God bless you, our beloved friend, our prophet and our president."
In the April 1994 conference, less than two months before President Benson's death, President Hinckley spoke of the order of authority in church government.
"Members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve each have all the priesthood keys available to men on Earth, but the president of the church holds the authority to exercise all of the keys at any given time," President Hinckley said.
"He may delegate, and in the present instance, has delegated to his counselors and to those of the Twelve the exercise of various of those keys," he said.
President Hinckley acknowledged that President Benson was suffering from the effects of age and illness and was not able to fulfill important duties of his office. But he cited D&C 102: 10, 11, which provides that the counselors in the First Presidency may act in the absence of the president.
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When President Benson called his two counselors Nov. 10, 1985, he "signed ... powers of agency giving each of his counselors the authority to direct the business of the church," President Hinckley said.
"Under these specific and plenary delegations of authority, the counselors in the First Presidency carry on with the regular work of the office. But any major questions of policy, procedures, programs or doctrine are considered deliberately and prayerfully by the First Presidency and Twelve together."