News: In Memoriam — Elder Neal A. Maxwell

By now many of you may have already heard of the death of Elder Neal A. Maxwell, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and one of the Church’s great sermonists. I’d like to add my own tribute to those already posted by Times & Seasons, A Soft Answer and By Common Consent.

Elder Maxwell holds a special place in the world of Mormon letters. His finely-crafted, poetic sermons, replete with apt, often biting metaphors, pointed turns of phrases, and memorable (sometimes too heavy) uses of alliteration, constitute one of the major achievements in the category of Mormon devotional literature.

Or as a tribute on the Church’s Web site puts it:

“Elder Maxwell’s ability to so perfectly articulate his experience with cancer did not come as a surprise to those who are familiar with what he called his ‘love affair with the world of words.’ His writings on gospel themes were nearly all laced with verbal imagery, metaphors, and alliteration. These poetic devices and his sense of the well-turned phrase often made his language closer to poetry than to prose.”

In 1999 the Association of Mormon Letters awarded Elder Maxwell an award in the category of Devotional Literature for his collection One More Strain of Praise, one of only four awards in that category in the history of the AML. And in 1983, the AML presented him with a special commendation for sustained excellence in sermon writing, a commendation that’s only been awarded once since that time (to Chieko Okezaki in 1993).

In his Times & Seasons post, Kaimi mentioned Elder Maxwell’s trenchant, hilarious comparison of governmental programs that seek to address societal ills to “straightening deck chairs on the Titanic“. It’s one of my favorites as well.

A couple more great Maxwell moments:

“Mostly, brothers and sisters, we become the victims of our own wrong desires. Moreover, we live in an age when many simply refuse to feel responsible for themselves. Thus, a crystal-clear understanding of the doctrines pertaining to desire is so vital because of the spreading effluent oozing out of so many unjustified excuses by so many. This is like a sludge which is sweeping society along toward ‘the gulf of misery and endless wo’ (Hel. 5:12)” (Elder Neal A. Maxwell. “According to the Desire of [Our] Hearts.” Ensign: November, 1996.)

“Surging selfishness, for example, has shrunken some people into ciphers; they seek to erase their emptiness by sensations. But in the arithmetic of appetite, anything multiplied by zero still totals zero! Each spasm of selfishness narrows one’s universe that much more by reducing his awareness of or concern with others. In spite of its outward, worldly swagger, such indulgent individualism is actually provincial, like goldfish in a bowl congratulating themselves on their self-sufficiency, never mind the food pellets or changes of water.” (Elder Neal A. Maxwell. “Repent of [Our] Selfishness.” Ensign: May, 1999.)

Godspeed, Elder Maxwell. Although we will miss the sound your voice, you leave behind a body of work that rings out — a clear, piercing, sonorous tone in an increasingly cacophonous world.

UPDATE: Bob Crockett points out that the Titanic quote should be attributed to Rogers Morton who used imagery when asked about Gerald Ford’s 1975 presidential campaign. That may be true, but my guess is that it’s one of those phrases that either before Morton or because of him, entered the lexicon — and to be fair Elder Maxwell does put it in quotation marks in his sermon. What I find amusing is that it would appear that Stephen R. Covey has picked the phrase up as have many others — although some prefer the verb arranging.

8 thoughts on “News: In Memoriam — Elder Neal A. Maxwell”

  1. Similar phrases can be found in the NY Times in the early 1970s. A letter from musician Joseph Eger published in the Times on May 15, 1972 said: “Administrators [of the Lincoln Center’s performing arts program for young people] are running around straightening out deck chairs while the Titanic goes down.”

    A January 6, 1974, NY Times article covering the latest convention for members of the American Economic Association reported: “The [economic] profession’s concern about its past failings ran deep in the corridors where economists huddled to say hello to old friends. An oft-heard quotation (no one seemed sure of the source) had it that economists spent their time ‘mostly optimizing the arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic.'”

    In any event, the phrase has been around.

    Justin Butterfield

  2. You’re welcome. I read your blog regularly, and I really enjoy your insights.


  3. It seems like all my favorite Maxwell quips are themselves quotes. Over at T&S I found out “nattering nabobs of negativism” was actually from Nixon’s vice President.

  4. Spiro Agnew’s speechwriters, Pat Buchanan and William Safire, got a bit out of hand around 1970. Agnew called four leading Democrats “professional pessimists” who “have formed their own 4-H club–the hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” He also said, “If critics repeat often enough that a society is sick, then some easily frightened members of that healthy society are going to get a little green around the gills. Then others, observing these, will wonder whether they’re sick too. Men in positions of power who keep bewailing our outcast state could cause the condition they profess to see.” Safire gives Buchanan credit for “pusillanimous pussyfooters,” while he takes credit for “nattering nabobs.” Then there was “vicars of vacillation” and “troglodytic leftists.”

    Safire says Agnew decided to poke fun at the media who were picking up his penchant for alliteration. Agnew asked his speechwriters to concoct the biggest ones they could think of to use in a speech. They came up with “nattering nabobs of negativism” and the 4-H phrase. A reporter called Agnew “a functional alliterate.”

    Agnew may have been Elder Maxwell’s inspiration.

    Justin Butterfield

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