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Elder Maxwell’s Journey of Discipleship: An Interview with Bruce C. Hafen

He felt that disciples went through an incremental process. It wasn’t just a decision to accept Christ, but also a willingness to follow Him.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s name is synonymous with discipleship (similar to Latter-day Saints like Truman G. Madsen and Henry B. Eyring). But the term meant different things to him at different times. Initially, it was a designation for members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But over time, it evolved to include a wholehearted devotion to the Savior—especially during times of adversity. In this interview, biographer Bruce C. Hafen explains why Elder Maxwell is so closely associated with discipleship.


Learn more by reading A Disciple’s Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell, by Bruce C. Hafen.


Did you intend to focus the Neal A. Maxwell biography on discipleship?

No, I didn’t start off to have this be about discipleship. When he asked if I would write his biography, he had leukemia and didn’t know how long he was going to live. At that time, I really thought that the theme would probably be something about his role as a mentor for the whole church.

It meant different things at different times.

That may be a bit of an overstatement. I should say that I at least expected to see a theme of mentorship for university students and educated members of the Church. He was often be a mentor to them because his insight about how to deal with conflicts between intellectual and spiritual matters was really remarkable.

That’s kind of the role he played for me before I ever worked for him. So, I thought that would be the same when I got into the process of writing his biography. Then I changed my mind. It became clear that the theme of his life—what became clear because of the life he led—was discipleship.


How did Neal A. Maxwell’s discipleship evolve?

It meant different things at different times in his life. I was able to trace how that meaning changed over the course of his life and identify what was happening in his personal development. Because it was very much the result of what he was purposefully doing.


What did discipleship initially mean to him?

Bruce C. Hafen tells the story of writing the biography of Elder Neal A. Maxwell in the “Men and Women of Faith” series presented by the Church History Library.

What was the next evolution in his discipleship?

As time went on, I think the meaning of discipleship gradually developed. It didn’t refer simply to someone who was a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but rather a member who was trying to disengage from the secular world enough to be a real follower of Christ. These were people who were consciously choosing and following the Savior. They were thinking about discipleship and praying about it—it’s really what they wanted to do. It was a kind of governing force in their lives.

That’s the kind of change he made in his own life when he became the Commissioner of Education about the time that President Dallin H. Oaks became the president of BYU. He moved beyond talking about how there were spiritual roots in both secularism and education, and started focusing on following Christ.

His approach to discipleship took one more turn.

That is very much like the theme President Nelson has taught about the covenant path. Walking that path is a lot like the path of discipleship—it’s just a different term.

And for Elder Maxwell, it also meant continuing to grow and develop. That’s part of the reason why you see him begin to write and think and talk about discipleship when he was called to be a general authority.


Why did he think it wasn’t enough merely to disengage from the world?

Elder Maxwell saw disengaging from the unclean things of the secular world as an introductory course in the curriculum of discipleship. He felt that disciples went through an incremental process. It wasn’t just a decision to accept Christ, but also a willingness to follow Him. And to do so against the grain of opposition.


Why did he focus on bearing testimony of Christ as an apostle?

Neal A. Maxwell’s focus shifted to bearing testimony after he was ordained an apostle. And he added another layer to his interpretation of a disciple. As a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, he began to see another type of Disciple—a witness of Christ with a capital “D.”

If you look up the word disciple in the Bible Dictionary, a lowercase “d” means anybody who believes in Christ—while a Disciple that begins with a capital “D” is somebody who has been called to be a witness for Him.

This nuance became the governing motive and purpose of everything that he did.


Did his understanding of discipleship ever change again?

Oh, yes. Elder Maxwell’s approach to discipleship took one more turn. This time, his focus was on the role of adversity. He began to get acquainted with people who had adversity in their lives. The theme fascinated him because he wanted to help people who were having struggles. And he found that it helped true followers of Christ to know that they could look to Him for strength.

You see that theme begin to show up in some of his writings about that time. It hadn’t been in his books earlier, but now a disciple became somebody who saw adversity as an opportunity to grow closer to the Savior.

He found his mentorship in the scriptures.

The final meaning of the term for him was someone on whom the Lord has deliberately inflicted trials. It’s a word from Mosiah 3:19:

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.

Mosiah 3:19, emphasis added

Elder Maxwell likened it to the relationship between a tutor and apprentice. He came to see discipleship as being an apprentice to the Master who was trying to shape his character by imposing certain experiences—including those that are sometimes very difficult.

He thought that it would help him—and others—to know that God could impose some very hard experiences on a disciple to shape the very thing that they needed.


Did Neal A. Maxwell have any discipleship mentors?

Not really. He had people he looked up to and learned from in a broad sense like Harold B. Lee and Spencer W. Kimball. But he found his mentorship in the scriptures. That may sound like an odd place for a mentor. But, for example, I think the Apostle Paul was an important mentor for him.


What counsel did he receive from Harold B. Lee?

When Neal A. Maxwell became an apostle, Harold B. Lee shared an experience he had in the early days of his own apostleship. Elder Lee told him about a spiritual experience in which he learned that it was his duty to love everyone, and referenced 2 Nephi 31:20:

Wherefore, ye must press forward with a steadfastness in Christ, having a perfect brightness of hope, and a love of God and of all men. Wherefore, if ye shall press forward, feasting upon the word of Christ, and endure to the end, behold, thus saith the Father: Ye shall have eternal life.

2 Nephi 31:20

Elder Maxwell found this message overwhelming. He had to look to love a much broader circle now. He had a duty to all mankind. I think that broadened his vision to an enormous extent. And he felt that call in his travels and visits.

As I write in the biography, he “now entered the realm of all-consuming Discipleship.”


What was his relationship like with Truman and Ann Madsen?

They were very close. In fact, Elder Maxwell called them when he was receiving chemotherapy in the hospital and able to make very few calls. Sadly, they weren’t home, but they kept the message he left on their answering machine. They played it for me when I was writing the biography, and I thought it was a reflection of their friendship.

Neal A. Maxwell had great admiration for the writings and teachings of Truman G. Madsen. He thought that Truman was a wonderful example of the kind of discipleship that he wanted for himself and others.


Was writing Neal A. Maxwell’s biography a blessing or a burden?

That’s a great question. I wrote the biography not knowing how long Elder Maxwell would survive. I was also serving a church assignment in Australia. It was really hard work—even something as a burden. But as I look back now? The burden part of it is all gone.

It really was a privilege to know Neal A. Maxwell so closely, to gain entrance by invitation into his life, to come to know a disciple who took discipleship so seriously. He really, really meant it and really, really tried to live it. That example helped me a great deal. It was a mentoring experience.

In fact, every once in a while I find myself instinctively wanting to behave in certain ways—higher and holier ways. And I’ll ask myself, “Why do I reflexively want to do it like that?”

It’s because I watched Elder Maxwell do it.


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About the interview participant

Bruce C. Hafen is a general authority emeritus who served in the First Quorum of the Seventy from 1996–2010. He holds a J.D. from the University of Utah, and is the author of several books, including A Disciple’s Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell, The Broken Heart: Applying to Atonement to Life’s Experiences, and Faith is Not Blind.


Further reading

Neal A. Maxwell discipleship resources

  • A Disciple’s Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell (Deseret Book)
  • The Pathway of Discipleship by Elder Neal A. Maxwell (BYU Speeches)
  • The Promise of Discipleship by Elder Neal A. Maxwell (Deseret Book)
  • The Story of A Disciple’s Life: Preparing the Biography of Elder Neal A. Maxwell (BYU Studies)
  • Men & Women of Faith February 2014: Bruce C. Hafen (Church History)

By Kurt Manwaring

Writer. History nerd. Latter-day Saint.

3 replies on “Elder Maxwell’s Journey of Discipleship: An Interview with Bruce C. Hafen”

Wonderful article. My experiences with Elder Maxwell were incredible. This article shows his magnificent transformation. Thank you!

“When Neal A. Maxwell became an apostle, Harold B. Lee shared an experience he had in the early days of his own apostleship.” Harold B. Lee died in 1973. Neal A. Maxwell became an apostle in 1981.

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