Apostle James W. Gillen

James W. Gillen

James W. Gillen
Quorum of Twelve Apostles

James W. Gillen was a man of extraordinary talents, but in the exercise of his talents he was, like all really great men, simple and unassuming. Perhaps one of his most marked characteristics was an apparent desire to let the other fellow have the credit for the work done. He constantly kept himself in the background. What work he did for the church and for the cause he loved he did because of his love for the right, and a desire to see right triumph, and not because he desired honor and glory for himself. He was self-repressive to a marked degree. Perhaps he sensed the thought that is expressed by Paul, in 1 Corinthians 4: 6, where he says: "And these things, brethren, I have in a figure transferred to myself and to Apollos for your sakes; that ye might learn in us not to think of men above that which is written, that no one of you be pulled up for one against another."

It is said that when he went into a place to settle difficulty or to adjust affairs that were out of order in the church, he would so direct the local workers of that locality, that they would gradually be brought into line, or would gradually adjust matters themselves. He was willing that they should get the credit for the work done, and only those who could see under the surface could recognize that Brother Gillen was really the influence that had been at work. He would then quietly pass on to the next task assigned him, content to know that the work was done, no matter who was given the praise.

He did not desire that men's faith should be in him. He only desired that men should have faith in the One who of all men was worthy of the confidence of humanity; the One in whom no fault could be found; the One who, though tempted in like manner as we, was yet without sin. He did not desire that any man should accept him as a model. He knew the frailty of human nature. He knew that human idols might fall, and falling would drag others down with them. It is possible that a realization of his own weaknesses accentuated his desire for self-repression. If his light was to go out, he did not want other lights to grow dim because of it. Would to God that those who have fallen by the wayside could have sensed this great principle. It is human to desire praise from our fellow men; this is a rock upon which many of the servants of God have wrecked their vessels, but we cannot say that of James W. Gillen. At no time can it be said of him that he thought more highly of himself than he ought to think. The Man of Galilee was his only model, and to him he pointed as the Savior of the world; in Him and Him only did he ask humanity to have faith.

While humility was one of his characteristics, yet, it is said by those most intimately associated with him, that he was fearless in denouncing wrong, and ever ready to take a stand on principle or doctrine or policy, and nothing could swerve him from the right as he saw it so far as the promulgation of the truth was concerned, or the building up of the church was involved. Slow, perhaps, to form an opinion or to take a stand, when once an opinion was formed or a stand taken upon any question that involved the good of the work he loved, like Martin Luther, there he stood and "he could do no other" until he was shown that he was wrong; but when once shown, he could change gracefully and thus show that it was only the good of the work that he had at heart.

One who was long associated with him in the work of the church . . . said also: "He did his work thoroughly and well, and few men were equal to him in depth of thought, and profundity of insight into matters spiritual." The combination of thoroughness with profundity of insight made him a power for good in the pulpit, and few men equaled and none surpassed him as a preacher and pulpit orator. Hence it is common to find the expression, when referring to him in letters written by others from the fields where he labored, "He is an able man," etc.

One cannot form a complete evaluation of a man until it is discovered, if possible, how the Lord evaluates him, for the Lord judges not as man judges, but his is a righteous judgment, and we find that no sooner does James W. Gillen become a member of the church than the Lord begins to place responsibility upon him. He was baptized December 3, 1861. The following June he was called and ordained to the office of elder, and one year later, or nearly, the important office of seventy was conferred upon him, and after apparently faithful service in this office, he was called and set apart to the office of president of the seventy in April, 1885, and two years thereafter was chosen by direct revelation to the office of apostle, the highest office save one that the church could confer upon him. Believing as we do that God calls men today to represent him, we cannot but view these various manifestations of God's approval of the man only as a certificate of character and ability. . . . Certain it is . . . that no one can go over the work of James W. Gillen and not come to the conclusion that he did a great and permanent good for the advancement of the cause of truth on earth, and that hundreds will arise and call him blessed when the secrets of all hearts shall be laid bare. It would be useless to deny that he had faults; no one is free from them, and there never has been but one man who was so nicely balanced in his nature that a flaw could not be picked somewhere. Some of us may have our characters strongly entrenched along certain lines and at the same time display weaknesses that are pitiable in other ways. In the evaluation of this man's character, however, one cannot overlook the fact that God trusted him with some of the greatest responsibilities that were ever placed in the hands of man, and this indicates that he was held in high esteem by God, as well as by his brethren (Journal of History 14:45–48).

[As a] brief life sketch [he] was born at Coleraine, Ireland, March 18, 1836, and while yet quite young came to America. In his boyhood he worked in a nail factory in Canada, after which he engaged in teaching school, and while engaged in this occupation in western Iowa he became acquainted with the gospel, and . . . was baptized at Little Sioux, Iowa, by Silas W. Condit.

He was ordained an elder on June 9, 1862, in Pottawattamie County, Iowa, at a conference held there, and was appointed a mission at this time with Charles Derry in Mills and Fremont counties, Iowa, and Nebraska. At the semiannual conference of this year he acted as one of the clerks, and was appointed on a mission to Illinois and Wisconsin with Davis H. Bays and Barton F. Parker. April 8, 1863, he was ordained a seventy at the annual conference held at Amboy, Illinois, by William W. Blair, John Shippy, and Jason W. Briggs.

He acted as one of the clerks of General Conferences held April, 1863, 1864, 1865, 1866.

April, 1864, he was appointed a mission in Illinois, Michigan and Canada with John Shippy, and Henry W. Pomeroy. April, 1865, he was appointed a mission with William W. Blair in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Maryland and the New England States (Journal of History 8:333). In 1865 he organized the Fall River Branch, Massachusetts, and acted with William W. Blair on a committee to settle difficulties in the Saint Louis Branch, Missouri (ibid., p.336). April, 1866, he was appointed a mission to Utah, where he remained that year, and the next year, part of the time being one of the presidency of that mission (ibid., p. 333).

The following incident will show something of the temper that prevailed among the brethren [at the conference of 1866]. A call was made for the volunteers to work in various fields, and one brother, rising to his feet, stated that personally he was willing to take a mission anywhere, at any time, but "unfortunately" he was married, had a wife, and thus was prevented from entering the field, though he was sorry he could not offer himself.

As he sat down, another brother—an active, energetic man—arose and said: "Brother President! I thank God that I have neither wife nor child nor property which would prevent me undertaking a mission in the Lord's work. I am ready!"

This last man was Brother James W. Gillen, well known in our church circles, afterwards chosen a member of the Quorum of Twelve and serving the church faithfully and effectively for a number of years (The Memoirs of President Joseph Smith III:114–115).

In 1866 while in Utah he writes a letter to President Joseph Smith about the work in that mission, and of the work and conditions in Salt Lake City he says:

Next day we went to the city, as there had been an appointment made there for the next Sunday evening in Independence Mall. (Brother Forscutt paid five dollars for it that evening.) Alexander and William occupied the time to the general satisfaction of the Gentile portion of the congregation. Alexander preached again, by invitation, on Wednesday evening at Fox's Gardens, which had been previously seated for the display of fireworks. There was a good attendance. Your cousin, Joseph F. Smith, was present, and at the close of the meeting he requested the privilege of speaking, which was granted. He spoke in defense of polygamy, and also Brigham's position. He also delivered a prophecy in the name of the Lord, that you and David would come and indorse the proceedings here. He also spoke of the great friendship of the Twelve for your father's family. After he sat down Brother Alexander followed him and gave him one of the worst castigations that I ever saw anyone receive. . . .

I have been laboring in Provo, preaching in private houses; have baptized seven there, and organized a branch. There are many more believing, but they are afraid to come out and obey it. The fact is . . . the people are in the worst kind of bondage, they are terror-stricken, and are afraid of their masters. Whenever a person comes out and obeys the gospel, then their enemies use every effort they are capable of to keep them out of employment, and to ruin them in every possible manner. If they have debts owing to them they can not collect them. There is another great barrier, nearly all have been through their endowment, and this a cause of terror.

In a letter written by Elder Thomas Job on December 7, 1866, I find this reference made of Brother Gillen worthy of preserving:

I met Brother Gillen at Provo, where he had stayed since Malad conference, September 23. We went together to Box Elder conference, November 25, where we first read the call for missionaries to be sent from here to Montana. Brother Gillen was the first that responded to the call. He left there with the brethren from Idaho where he intends to spend the most part of the winter. Brother Gillen's moral conduct here has been worthy of his high calling as a minister of the gospel of Christ, and he will have the good will of all the Saints here (Journal of History 8:336–337).

He was married August 12, 1867, at Malad, Idaho, to Miss Nancy Ann Moore, to which union there were born seven children, James Arthur, who now occupies a place in the Quorum of Twelve, with two other sons, and four daughters (ibid., p. 338).

April, 1868, he was released from the Utah Mission, to return by way of California, and requested to labor there as long as he chose under the president of the mission. In 1869 he was in California, laboring part of the time with Elder Harvey Green. He remained in the Pacific Slope Mission during 1869, 1870. April, 1871, he was appointed to Oregon and Washington with Joseph C. Clapp, which was a part of the Pacific Slope Mission. April, 1873, he was continued in the Pacific Slope Mission with Utah added, and sustained in this field of labor till June 30, 1876, when he returned to Iowa, and was at Davis City, preaching for a time. During the next year, he was appointed to labor as circumstances would permit, but April, 1879, he was appointed to Australian Mission in charge, where he arrived safely after a twenty-seven days' voyage, starting August 4 from Oakland, California. Here he remained during 1880, 1881, and till the spring of 1882, when he returned, being present at the semiannual conference held that year in September, at Lamoni, Iowa (ibid., pp. 333–335).

While in the Australian Mission he was promised assistance, as he had reported the mission in bad condition and in need of more help, but the conference of 1881 did not send him any relief, and the April conference of this year granted him the privilege of returning if he wished from that field of labor, because of unfulfilled promises of the conference to send assistance. After being informed of the action of the conference he wrote June 15 as follows:

When I am released, I shall expect an honorable release, and that upon the grounds of having fulfilled the mission assigned me, and not because of the nonfulfillment of a promise made to me; neither do I consider my release a sufficient offset, in fact it is making matters worse, for instead of sending more laborers as promised, it is virtually saying to the one that is there, You can come home whenever you please, and leave the mission to take care of itself.

At the semiannual conference of the same year he was continued in the same mission till the following spring, "at which time he is at liberty to return home, having fulfilled his mission as agreed." He returned sometime before the semiannual conference of 1882 held at Lamoni, Iowa, and was present during the sessions. He was at the annual conference of 1885, when he was ordained a president of the Seventy as previously noted, but we do not notice that he was in the field till sometime in 1886 (ibid., pp. 337–338).

December 5, 1882, he began a debate with Elder J. D. Pegg, a Seventh-Day Adventist minister, and in December, 1884, he held a debate at Stewartsville, Missouri, with Elder Clark Braden of the Christian Church.

When at conferences he was appointed on some of the most important committees, and took an active part in all that was considered. In his missionary work he was active, and showed great zeal for the work (ibid., p. 338).

While we do not note any record that he was appointed a general mission during 1883, 1884, or 1885, yet he was active as a local minister. April, 1885, he was called and ordained one of the Presidents of Seventy at Independence, Missouri. April, 1886, he was appointed a mission to Missouri and Iowa. He was present at the April conference of 1887, and in answer to fasting and prayer he with others were by revelation called to the office of an apostle, and so ordained April 13, and appointed a mission to the Saint Louis District. The next annual conference appointed him in charge of Southern Illinois, Southern Indiana, Eastern Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee, and he continued in charge the following year. The next year there was added to the previous mission all the Southern States and Indian Territory. April, 1892, he was appointed to the European Mission with Comer T. Griffiths, where he remained about a year. For a time after his return he was not active, but his labors were principally in what is known as the Colorado Mission, where he continued till in the autumn of 1899, when he resigned from the apostleship. The following was received and acted upon favorably by the Twelve at the April conference of 1900:

The First Presidency and Quorum of Twelve, Dear Brethren: After carefully and prayerfully considering the matter, I have come to the conclusion that it will be for the best interest of the church and myself to withdraw from the Quorum of Twelve; so I hereby tender my resignation, and ask to be released. My reasons for this course can be briefly stated: For some time past my physical powers have been giving way and at times my mental powers seem to have been affected to a degree, that I fear a complete collapse at any time. I need absolute rest, and dare not attempt to engage in the work of the coming conference. There are others that are better adapted to that position than I am, and I feel that I may be standing in the way of abler and better men. I love the work and desire to see it prosper, and for this reason I desire to see the best men that the church can afford, stand in that Quorum. I therefore ask to be released therefrom, believing that the church and the work can be better served by some other man.

May God continue to superintend and direct the work of the Quorum not only in the coming session, but in all their work, until the Master comes, is the earnest desire and prayer of your brother,

November 13,1899
(ibid., pp. 335–336).

Since the time he wrote his resignation to the present time his whereabouts are not known. The Twelve in passing upon his resignation took the following action:

Whereas, a degree of mystery surrounds the disappearance of Brother James W. Gillen, and his present whereabouts are not known, making it impracticable to obtain from him any information regarding his resignation other than what is conveyed in the document containing it, and

Whereas, conditions confronting us seem to justify and wisdom to direct immediate action, therefore,

Resolved, That while regretting the necessity for such action, we accept his resignation as a member of the Quorum of Twelve.

The Church Historian [Heman C. Smith] who was associated with brother Gillen for several years in missionary and quorum work, says of him, "Elder Gillen was a man of more than ordinary capabilities, and when actively engaged in ministerial work was considered an able preacher" (ibid., p. 338).

In a letter dated March 8, 1921, from the British Isles Mission, Apostle James A. Gillen wrote to Elder H. O. Smith about his remembrances of his father, Apostle James W. Gillen. In particular about his father's disappearance, he stated:

He resigned from the Quorum of Twelve November 13th, 1899, and his disappearance [was] a few days later. As I was the last one who saw him, it might be well to say something about this. I was . . . this year for the first time in close touch with my father, because of the interest I had shown in Church work, our close correspondence extending over the entire period. I had some apprehensions as to his health, for his letters indicated a breaking physically and perhaps otherwise. During his last year under Conference Appointment, his field being Colorado, he gave me to understand that his missionary work was about over. Finally, he came to Kansas City and through the kindness of Brother and Sister Pickering, he was permitted to stay at their house, where I was also residing. Sister Pickering observed his physical condition and insisted on his staying there to recuperate, which he did for about two weeks. While in Kansas City he came to me stating that he was seriously thinking of resigning from official duties, particularly from the Quorum of Twelve. I asked for his reasons, and he gave me to understand that he had served the Church for nearly forty years, and had responded to many arduous calls in a missionary way; had in no instance failed to respond to duty; had not sought an easy berth at any time; and therefore felt that it would be but just for him to be relieved from the arduous work incident to membership in the Quorum, adding "Arthur, I simply cannot go through the siege of another Conference," giving me furthermore to understand that younger and better men were coming up, and that he should therefore stand down rather than be in their way and so hinder the progress of the work. He then told me some things which pertain to myself only, . . . and bore testimony to the truth of the Latter Day Work.

After a long talk, I agreed that it might be best for him to resign, whereupon he wrote out his resignation and permitted me to read it. I think it was the following Sunday morning that he preached at the First Kansas City Branch and in the evening at the Second, on both of which occasions he bore a strong testimony to the divinity of the Work.

He also presented the thought that inasmuch as his travels would now be over he had a desire to go home via St. Louis, as he had laboured so successfully in that place in the past. To this I readily assented, and preparations were made to that end, it being agreed that I should join him at a family reunion in Lamoni about two weeks later. He wrote to Brother N. N. Cooke of St. Louis, stating that "the Lord willing" he would be in St. Louis the following Sunday, and if agreeable to the officers he would speak for them.

Preparations were made to go as indicated, but for reasons known only to our Heavenly Father, he never reached there, nor was he privileged to meet with the family as anticipated. Thus ceased the eventful career of one who was absolutely insensible to fear in any form. One who was the life of the home, and I might add that never did I hear him speak an unkind word to his companion, my mother. His last words were, "I will see you in a few days, as you will be home soon."